Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

What Mayan Civilization Can Teach Us about Secession and Decentralization | Mises Wire

Posted by M. C. on January 12, 2022

Although the Mayan civilization was ultimately absorbed by Spanish and Latin American states, it took centuries to close the frontier, and a big reason for this was the Mayas’ geopolitical arrangement of myriad independent polities subject to secession by disgruntled elites and desertion by unhappy commoners.

Daniella Bassi

The US and other countries of the Western world are divided by ever more stark ideological differences, to put it mildly. Because most people live in societies where the power to make some of the most important choices and to use offensive force to effect them is concentrated in the state, these increasing differences of opinion are raising the stakes of losing or lacking political power. Accordingly, all kinds of people have begun to take an interest in political secession and decentralization as a solution to the intensifying power struggles.

But one of the critiques of the secession-decentralization strategy is that it allegedly results in scattered populations vulnerable to military conquest and that the model is cumbersome when it comes to trade, travel, and communication. The idea is that a single strong state is the most secure and the most practical option. The example of pre-Hispanic and early modern Mayan civilization provides a powerful retort to this argument, as we will see. Ethnically and linguistically similar but divided into scores of smaller states connected by long-distance trade networks, Mayas were able to escape homegrown tyranny for millennia and resisted foreign Spanish conquest for hundreds of years.

Pre-Hispanic Mayan Civilization: A Multitude of Regional States and City-States

Centered on the Yucatan Peninsula, pre-Hispanic Mayan civilization flourished in what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, not far south of the Aztec Empire.1 Unlike its neighbor, the Mayan civilization was never a centralized empire. Instead, the land was a patchwork of small states jostling one another for power, many of whom were connected by various military alliances and long-distance trade networks. In the twenty-five hundred years from the rise of Mayan civilization to the Spanish conquest, political scientists Claudio Cioffi-Revilla and Todd Landman have identified seventy-two major Mayan chiefdoms (akin to city-states) and regional states (ruling over tiers of municipalities), noting the existence, in addition, of hundreds of smaller polities, though these were mostly “minor by comparison” and were not included in their study.2

The Classic-Era Maya World: Many Strong States and Centralized Domestic Politics

The most centralized period in Mayan history was the Classic period (roughly 250–950 AD). As anthropologist Antonia E. Foias explains, “At the heart of Classic Maya polities was the divine ruler, or k’uhul ajaw, who lived in the royal court in the epicenter of an independent political capital, from which he conducted the affairs of the state.”3 The k’uhul ajaw’s rule was complemented by two to four strata of political officials and the royal household. The political elite enriched itself through the goods that they expropriated from commoners and subordinate states (if any) as tribute, as well as through their subjects’ labor, which they used in massive public works projects.4 Power was concentrated in the k’uhul ajaw, however, who was deified and whose reign and its events were commemorated in large stone monuments called stelae.5

The Classic era was marked by the emergence of states, a growing number of polities born through fissure, and the rise of several massive cities with a strong regional influence.6 As Hispanicist Lynn V. Foster explains,

The 100 years beginning around 672 witnessed the flowering of many great cities…. Competition among these Maya cities fueled more wars and demand for tribute; wealth generated building booms and increased production of luxury goods. The result was a period fraught with political tension and warfare but also one in which artistic production culminated in the greatest works of Maya civilization.7

But although secession produced more states, they were tainted by the conceit of political privilege internally and externally. From roughly the 600s to the 900s, as Foias explains,

[t]he elite class grew in numbers and prerogatives as hieroglyphic texts and monuments that had previously been exclusively associated with Early Classic royals became more widespread…. More and smaller sites declared themselves independent seats of royal power with their own emblem glyphs…. The extensive noble class and the increasing number of royals must have felt intense competition as areas of possible expansion diminished over time and as warfare continued and intensified.8

For reasons that are heavily disputed and multifaceted—but that very likely have something to do with these states’ expansionist ambitions and the war and rising economic exploitation they entailed—Mayan civilization suffered a political “collapse” at the end of the Classic era that saw the dissolution of many of the existing states between roughly 800 and 1100.9 The collapse was “marked by abandonment, migrations, death, and other terminal modes of political extinction—not by consolidation or integration into fewer, larger, or more complex polities,” as Cioffi-Revilla and Landman, who see the Mayan civilization’s lack of political integration as a failure and the root of its demise, take pains to emphasize.10 Contrary to the term’s connotations, the so-called collapse also saw the rise of many new smaller polities and ushered in a period of increased political decentralization.11

The Postclassic Maya World: More Petty States, More Trade, More Freedom

The Postclassic era (950–1542) saw the rise of new powers, but this time there were fewer large regional states and more city-state chiefdoms, and Cioffi-Revilla and Landman recorded fewer “significant” polities overall.12 Foias describes the Postclassic geopolitical landscape as ranging from

the small Yucatec cah [“the basic Maya municipal community consisting of both the residential site and the territorial lands controlled by the town”] ruled by a batab [local ruler] to regional polities ruled by a halach uinic [regional overlord] to the militarized and expanding states of the K’ich’ean kingdoms of highland Guatemala and finally to the hegemony of the Itza in the Central Peten lowlands.13

The stelae to rulers went away, there were less expensive monumental projects, more trade, and the source of political power broadened to encompass the elite court of the halach uinic in the larger states and local councils.14 During this period states do not seem to have interfered much in people’s production of goods, which continued to be geared toward local markets and regional trade networks, beyond, of course, parasitically siphoning off part of it.15 As a result, there was plenty of entrepreneurial activity, social mobility, and a “widely integrated mercantile economy.”16 Mayanists Marilyn A. Masson and Carlos Peraza Lope observe that “[t]he distribution of many classes of material in households of all sizes implies that opportunities for economic affluence may have been fluid for some non-elites.”17 Elites “maintained their distinctions … through investment in domestic and ritual architecture and through the control of important calendrical ceremonies celebrated at Maya communities.”18

Unfortunately, though they were an improvement over the more expansionist states of the Classic era, the Postclassic-era Mayan states also had the issue of competing for power, and the period was plagued by war, as implied by the prominence of war motifs in artwork and the incidence of defensive walls.19 Cioffi-Revilla and Landman accordingly trace a second political collapse beginning in the 1490s, just after the circa-1450 fall of the large regional power of Mayapán (present-day Yucatán State, Mexico), and predating the Spanish conquest and in fact continuing through it.20 Of course, sovereign Mayan civilization ultimately failed to rebound from this collapse and was subsumed under the Spanish and Latin American states.

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Contact Daniella Bassi

Daniella Bassi is assistant editor at the Mises Institute and copyedits the Mises Wire, the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, and the Journal of Libertarian Studies. She holds master’s degrees in early American history from the University of Vermont and the College of William and Mary and an undergraduate degree from Amherst College.

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