No kings
March 17, 2018 1:58 AM   Subscribe

It wasn't just Greece: Archaeologists find early democratic societies in the Americas is one of a pair of articles by Lizzie Wade about recent archeological studies of ancient Mesoamerican societies which have uncovered evidence that some were not autocratic but collective and democratic. It takes Tlaxcallan and Teotihuacan as its central examples, but looks further afield, even to societies outside the Americas. The second article, Kings of Cooperation, focuses on one example, the Olmec city of Tres Zapotes, which had seven centuries of collective rule in between times of kingship.
posted by Kattullus (19 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh, this is fascinating. Thank you!
posted by brundlefly at 2:16 AM on March 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


After this trial ended, the candidate would enter the temple on the edge of the plaza and stay for up to 2 years, while priests drilled him in Tlaxcallan's moral and legal code. He would be starved, beaten with spiked whips when he fell asleep, and required to cut himself in bloodletting rituals.

This might be readopted today, perhaps if a candidate fails an exam on civics, legal process, and relevant political issues.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:34 AM on March 17, 2018 [9 favorites]


Fascinating indeed! It's a long read, so let me excerpt this significant passage:
Both cities support Blanton and Fargher's belief that the best predictor of collective rule is a strong internal revenue source—that is, taxes. Revenue sources are admittedly difficult to detect from artifacts and buildings. But after surveying 30 premodern societies documented ethnographically and historically, the researchers found that states with internal revenue sources were characterized by a high level of public goods and services, a strong governmental bureaucracy, and citizens empowered to judge the ruler's actions. "When taxpayers are paying for the state, then the people in charge know they have to do the right thing," Blanton says.

Collective states may have another tendency that can be spotted archaeologically: They attract people from beyond their borders, who bring artifacts that can be linked to other cultures. "When you have a collective formation that's funded by internal resources, it's in the interest of those in government to bring in more people," says Gary Feinman, an archaeologist at The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, and a co-author on Blanton's 1996 paper. Economic equality and markets may also attract immigrants to collective societies. "People move where they think there's better opportunity—where they can make a living, where their kids are going to do better than they did. That's always a motivation," Feinman says.
posted by languagehat at 8:21 AM on March 17, 2018 [14 favorites]


Thank you for posting this! I remember reading this when it came out last year. There has been a tendency in the Western world to think of democracies as stable end-states of political progress, but that type of thinking appears to be changing, and changing especially rapidly after the 2016 election, so this piece seemed especially timely and relevant.

Here's a quote I remember from reading it last year:
Collective governments do tend to rise and fall in cycles, Blanton says. In Oaxaca, the political pendulum swung between collectivity and autocracy every 200 to 300 years, judging from shifts in the layouts of dominant sites and histories recorded by colonial chroniclers. "Democracy isn't a one-shot deal that happened one time. It comes and goes, and it's very difficult to sustain," he says.
posted by compartment at 8:55 AM on March 17, 2018 [13 favorites]


It reminds me of a game I play in museums that I call "Pretend It's Greek." I'm curious if this works on non-Greeks. I'm part Greek and definitely grew up believing (like the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding) that everything good, beautiful and refined had its roots in Athens. Here's how it works.

1. Look at a piece of Pre-Columbian art like this or this
2. See Pre-Columbian art
3. Tell yourself the item is actually from Ancient Greece
4. Watch it magically morph into Culture

It's weird peek into the inner workings of my mind. I wouldn't consciously think words like "primitive" or "savage" looking at any kind of art -- but when I think it's Greek, I stop seeing the weapons and grimacing faces, and start seeing the decorative spirals and intricate carvings.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:31 AM on March 17, 2018 [14 favorites]


5. Observe the actual origin again and solidify the overlap of Culture and Pre-Columbian
posted by clew at 12:29 PM on March 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


A particular form of human political and economic organization went viral, decimating its hosts and risking the whole ecosystem, one of its symptoms is whispering " it's better than before, it had to be like this, it has always been like this, it will always be like this." If we survive and the fever abates, we will realize the wisdom of those we harmed and our penance will be to immunize the societies that survive us from the madness that possesses us.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 4:24 PM on March 17, 2018 [6 favorites]


Collective states may have another tendency that can be spotted archaeologically: They attract people from beyond their borders, who bring artifacts that can be linked to other cultures.
That also fits with my own half-baked theory (surely not original to me): Most republics are dominated by a business/trading class rather than a military class. The Roman Republic and the Icelandic Commonwealth are the obvious exceptions, but Athens, Carthage, Venice, the Dutch Republic, and most modern democracies all fit. It's rare for a military society to retain collective decision-making for any length of time.

The tricky part, if you're a republic or democracy, is not being overrun by another society which is dominated by a military class.
posted by clawsoon at 4:53 PM on March 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


"When dragons belch and hippos flee
My thoughts, Ankh-Morpork, are of thee
Let others boast of martial dash
For we have boldly fought with cash
We own all your helmets, we own all your shoes
We own all your generals - touch us and you'll lose."

posted by clew at 5:28 PM on March 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


Here's a quote I remember from reading it last year:

Collective governments do tend to rise and fall in cycles, Blanton says. In Oaxaca, the political pendulum swung between collectivity and autocracy every 200 to 300 years, judging from shifts in the layouts of dominant sites and histories recorded by colonial chroniclers. "Democracy isn't a one-shot deal that happened one time. It comes and goes, and it's very difficult to sustain," he says.


This was true of ancient Greece (including Athens, which went through multiple periods of ogilarchy, tyranny, and monarchy as well as democracy) and the Italian city-state republics as well. Governmental systems throughout history tend to be much less stable than we think of them as being today.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:32 PM on March 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


Definitely fascinating, but also speaks to my fear that democratic society is not an end state but a passing fad that may be running its course.
posted by rodlymight at 8:53 PM on March 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


clawsoon: The Roman Republic and the Icelandic Commonwealth are the obvious exceptions

Tlaxcallan seems to be another exception. And leaving aside the Icelandic Commonwealth (relationship to democracy status: it’s complicated) medieval kingdom of Hungary was in some crucial respects the most democratic state in Europe so that’s a big exception.
posted by Kattullus at 1:51 AM on March 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


I just realized that I failed to make the distinction between a republican government and a constitutional monarchy. Sorry about that.
posted by Kattullus at 2:08 AM on March 18, 2018


I just finished "Lost City of the Monkey God" for a workplace book club (which, despite the awful title, is a sobering, compelling read) and so these articles are timely for me.

I'm glad this work is still being funded and done; it's something of a homage to the great preColumbian civilizations of the Americas and definitely a corrective to imperialist notions of innate European superiority.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 10:42 AM on March 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


Interesting that the initial Spanish reports of republican organization seem to have been mostly dismissed until now. Also interesting that the welcoming republican Tlaxcaltecas - looking for allies wherever they could find them - significantly eased the Spanish victory. That's a pretty common pattern, I think: You ask an empire for a bit of help, and next thing you know you're part of the empire.
posted by clawsoon at 11:12 AM on March 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


AdamCSnider: Governmental systems throughout history tend to be much less stable than we think of them as being today.

A question that I've been interested in for a while, but haven't yet found a great discussion of, is how and why societies tip toward being authoritarian or relatively free and open. There do seem to be ratchet effects that lock one or the other in place, at least for a while, but what are those ratchets?
posted by clawsoon at 11:20 AM on March 18, 2018


Collective governments do tend to rise and fall in cycles, Blanton says. In Oaxaca, the political pendulum swung between collectivity and autocracy every 200 to 300 years, judging from shifts in the layouts of dominant sites and histories recorded by colonial chroniclers.

Some of the most interesting stuff I've learned over the past few years (and then posted to Metafilter) was how weak monarchies were in the early medieval period in Europe. Kings fell so low that they had to pawn off their crowns and peasants had more free time than they would for centuries afterwards. To raise any taxes, kings had to consult parliaments, and parliaments often said no. It wasn't republican government (except where it was), but the pendulum swung in that direction. Kings had to cajole and convince (and sometimes beg and plead) with their people.

Then it swung back, hard, to autocratic monarchs and the divine right of kings. ...right up until it swung back to republicanism in the French and American revolutions. The Whig view of history has blinded us to the swinging. So interesting to see the same back-and-forth movement in a culture that was completely separated from Eurasia. One of the explanations offered for political swings in Eurasia has been the movement of steppe peoples back and forth, pushed toward Europe by a strong Chinese empire and then toward China by rising European powers, back and forth over the millennia. But in Mesoamerica we see the same swings in political culture with no steppe peoples necessary to explain it. We might have to think differently about Eurasian history as a result.
posted by clawsoon at 5:36 AM on March 19, 2018 [4 favorites]


There's current research observing polities in Africa that found a pretty good connection between resources that can be grabbed and resold by small warlords who then become bigger warlords and sometimes settle into an authoritarian state, and resources that, uh, couldn't.
posted by clew at 8:46 PM on March 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


"After this trial ended, the candidate would enter the temple on the edge of the plaza and stay for up to 2 years, while priests drilled him in Tlaxcallan's moral and legal code. He would be starved, beaten with spiked whips when he fell asleep, and required to cut himself in bloodletting rituals.

This might be readopted today, perhaps if a candidate fails an exam on civics, legal process, and relevant political issues."

I would love to see something like this around today. Right now it doesn't seem like you need any knowledge of the law or functions of the government to get in. You just need a lot of money and clout with other people with money, maybe some leverage against others already in power. I can't remember ever seeing a candidate for political office being vetted on their acumen with government.

Maybe what I really want to see at this stage is for politicians to suffer so that only people who really give a shit about doing good would ever bother? No... money and power might still be worth suffering through some bloodletting.
posted by GoblinHoney at 2:37 PM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


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