Income inequalities within the Aztec Empire eased the way of the conquistadores

October 15, 2023

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Income inequalities within the Aztec Empire eased the way of the conquistadores

Spanish conquerors did not bring inequality to the Aztec lands they invaded, they merely built on the socio-economic structure that was already in place, adapting it as it suited their plans. The research was published in Nature Human Behaviour.

Income distribution in present-day Mexico is, as in other Latin American countries, rather unequal. The authors started out from this well-known fact and began to investigate whether the situation was any different before Spanish rule replaced the so-called Aztec Empire. The empire began as an alliance of three city-states which over time came to rule over a number of provinces which were required to pay tributes, including in blood. Its agriculture was fairly advanced in terms of yield, but extremely labor-intensive as the wheel was unknown and no animals were employed.

The primary social distinctions in the Aztec Empire were between the nobility, the commoners and the slaves. The elite dominated the commoners by holding exclusive control over resources. The taxes established for each province were variable, depending on how the province had become part of the Aztec Empire. Those provinces that had militarily resisted the Aztec Empire were subjected to higher imperial tax rates once conquered.

The main hurdle in assessing income levels for pre-Hispanic Mexico lies of course in the scarcity of relevant data: Aztec archives were extensively destroyed by Spanish troops and little usable information survives. The authors therefore estimated per capita income in the Aztec Empire by examining the variation in population density using archaeological data. They estimate that average per capita income on the eve of Spanish conquest was approximately US$690, which was significantly lower than contemporary Spain. This average conceals important differences between the cities and the rural areas.

The researchers estimated that before the conquest the richest 1% earned 41.8% of the total income; this figure grows to 50.8% if the richest 5% is considered. As the income share of the poorest 50% was just 23.3%, this makes for a very skewed income distribution, even worse than today. The imperial ruling class, the provincial ruling class and the non-ruling nobles amounted to less than 2% of the total population but concentrated 46.6% of the total income.

This is extremely important because it helps explain how a little Spanish army of just a few hundred men could quickly overrun the Aztec Empire. The highly centralized tax collection was so resented by vast regions of the Empire that their populations, whose living standards were only slightly above subsistence, actually took arms on the Spaniards’ side.

What the researchers say: “The rapacious institutions characterizing the Aztec Empire paved the ground for subsequent colonial exploitation,” the lead author said. “As we argue, the relatively high levels of income inequality that came to characterize Latin America could not be considered to have been the sole consequence of the initial conditions imposed by the Spaniards. Nor could they simply come from the predatory attitudes and institutions of the colonial elite. Instead, colonization further exacerbated the highly extractive conditions that had come into being before the conquest and ensured their continuation for centuries thereafter.”

So, what? The Gini Equivalent (GE) – the famous measurement of income and wealth inequality—would have predicted the end of the Aztec Empire had it existed at the time.

The GE gages inequality on a range from 0.00 (hunter-gatherer pure equality with no private ownership) to 1.00 (where all of a nation or tribe’s wealth is concentrated in a very few hands, e.g. one extended family). According to economists and historians who study these things once a society reaches 0.8 on the scale its internal contradictions make it liable to collapse. From the present research it would seem that the level of inequality in pre-Colombian Mexico was around 0.8 on the GE scale.

When Marx wrote “Das Kapital” and he and Engles penned the “Communist Manifesto” (1848) the GE of Europe was about 0.5 which explains the turmoil of the time and the revolts and revolutions but ultimately no collapse.

There is no overall agreement about the GE equivalent of countries today. According to some researchers the GE of the US, China, and a number of other countries including Russia are near or at the 0.8 mark predicting eventual break-up, conquest or dissolution of their societies. Australia is somewhere around 0.4 to 0.5 and Europe between 0.5 and 0.6 indicating increasing turmoil.

The main point here is that inequality is not in our design specs, and like any system, the further we are pushed beyond our design specs the more stressed we become. Our DNA was crafted in hunter-gatherer times and perfect equality and as inequality increases, the stress level on individuals and societies increases until we reach the breaking point. The rising tide of mental illness and the turmoil in the US and elsewhere proves the case.

The fall of the Aztec Empire is predictive of what is liable to happen happen in modern countries with similar levels of inequality. It may not be through conquest, but it could be civil war, dissolution or societal collapse.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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