The Market Didn’t Always Exist

The Inca Empire lasted a couple of a hundred years and according to Terence D’Altroy of Columbia University, in a 2007 PBS interview, ‘In terms of square miles, we’re probably talking something like 300,000 square miles’ with a population as high as 12 million. They built elaborate cities and created terraced farms on the mountainsides, all connected by a road network equivalent to about three times the diameter of the Earth and far superior to what the Conquistadors were accustomed to back in Europe.  And all this was achieved without money or internal markets.

In ‘The Incas: New Perspectives’, Gordon Francis McEwan writes: ‘Each citizen of the empire was issued the necessities of life out of the state storehouses, including food, tools, raw materials, and clothing, and needed to purchase nothing. With no shops or markets, there was no need for a standard currency or money, and there was nowhere to spend money or purchase or trade for necessities.’

The Incas had a centrally-planned economy which lasted a lot longer than the Soviet Union’s command economy. Every Incan was required to provide labour-tribute to the state and in exchange for this labour levy, they were given the necessities of life. However the Inca Empire was not a classless society and not everybody had to perform this compulsory work. Nobles and their courts were exempt, as were other prominent members of Incan society.

The Inca Empire was optimised to prevent starvation rather than to foster commerce and the ayllu was the center of economic productivity. Each ayllu specialised in the production of certain products depending on its location. For some of them this would be agriculture as they would be closer to fertile lands. Agricultural ayllus produced crops that would be optimised for the type of soil. Their output would be given to the state which in turn would redistribute it to other locations where the product was not available. Surplus would be kept in collcas, storage houses along the roads and near population centres. Other ayllus would specialise in producing pottery, clothing and virtually anything necessary for everyday living which would be distributed by the state to other ayllus.

The use of the land was a right that individuals had as members of the ayllu. The curaca, as the representative of the ayllu, redistributed the land to each member according to the size of their families. The dimensions of the land varied according to its agricultural quality and it was measured in tupus, a local measurement unit. A married couple would get one and a half tupus, for each male child the couple received one tupu and for each female half a tupu. When the son or daughter started their own family each additional tupu was taken away and given to the new family. Each family worked their land but they did not own it, the Inca estate was the rightful owner. The land was used to provide subsistence food for the family.

There were three ways in which collective labour was organised:

The first one was the ayni to help a member of the community who was in need. Helping build a house or help a sick member of the community were examples of ayni.

The second was the minka or team work for the benefit of the whole community. Examples of minka were building agricultural terraces and cleaning the irrigation canals.

The third one was the mita or the tax paid to the Inca. Mita workers served as soldiers, farmers, messengers, road builders, or whatever needed to be done. It was a rotational and temporary service that each member of the ayllu was required to meet. They built temples and palaces, canals for irrigation, agricultural terraces, roads, bridges and tunnels. This system was a balanced system of give and take. In exchange the government would provide food, clothing and medication. This system allowed the empire to have all the necessary produce available for redistribution according to necessity.

Yet whenever members of the Socialist Party suggest that we wish to create a co-operative moneyless society without private property nor a wages system, we are smugly lectured that it is not a viable objective, that it is unrealisable and we are being utopian in our aspirations. Socialist writers have shown that we are products of our environment, particularly of the economic system in which we live. People living under feudalism thought it natural and fixed, just as people living under capitalism believe it too is natural and eternal. If people’s ideas and their societies changed in the past they certainly can change again in the future. That is why socialists are given to optimism when we read of non-market economic systems such as the Inca having once existed even though the one we envisage would be classless, non-coercive and democratic.


Leave a Reply