Science Fiction Metaphors

Lars Walker links to a piece on Inca society, which mysteriously managed to create a vast empire without inventing a few things we take to be pretty important: money and markets. They did have corporations, sort of:
The secret of the Inca's great wealth may have been their unusual tax system. Instead of paying taxes in money, every Incan was required to provide labor to the state. In exchange for this labor, they were given the necessities of life.

Of course, not everybody had to pay labor tax. Nobles and their courts were exempt, as were other prominent members of Incan society. In another quirk of the Incan economy, nobles who died could still own property and their families or estate managers could continue to amass wealth for the dead nobles. Indeed, the temple at Pachacamac was basically a well-managed estate that "belonged" to a dead Incan noble. It's as if the Inca managed to invent the idea of corporations-as-people despite having almost no market economy whatsoever.
Mr. Walker points out that the fascination shown by the authors is a mark of fairly remarkable ignorance. The nature of the society is not hard to understand at all, as it turns out. He links to James Lileks, who draws the same conclusion.

What I find amusing is the contrast in the comments threads at the original piece versus the comments at Lileks' place. They both devolve into science fiction metaphors based on the assumption of the readership about what they're seeing.

From the original:
Dunny0 03 Jan 2012 3:39 PM
So, they were the Federation then.

allium @Dunny0
Coronado was misinformed - the Seven Cities of Gold-Pressed Latinum were to the south, not the north.

a cat named scruffy - former dj @Dunny0
The Federation with human sacrifice of children.
I suspect Picard would disapprove.
So it's sort of like Star Trek, then. A kind of ideal society, to which we might aspire! Minus the human sacrifice, of course.

Lileks' readers seem to grasp the situation better:
I saw the Inca story as well. Money is a means of exchange and store of value. IT"S PEOPLE! YOU"VE GOT TO TELL THEM! INCA MONEY IS PEOPLE!


Texan99 said...

"Inca Money is People!" I love it. Who needs money when you have slaves? The whole purpose of money is to keep track of stored-up obligations so they can be redeemed later, thus freeing us up to expand our repertoire beyond immediate exchanges. Pretty soon we get the idea that it would be handy to involve third parties, so A trades something to B and B uses it to do a deal with C. Now you can start to span distances and time disparities. But none of that is necessary if all the thugs work for you and you can commandeer labor whenever you need it.

Markets, like money, are a relatively recent invention. They aren't that much use until you allow most people enough freedom to control the return they get for whatever it is they do that's useful to others. Until, there's nothing to symbolize with the money, and no need for a context in which to trade it. All you really need is a few scratches on clay tablets to keep track of who's paid his cut to Pharaoh so far this month.

MikeD said...

The article from io9 got something else wrong:
"The secret of the Inca's great wealth may have been their unusual tax system. Instead of paying taxes in money, every Incan was required to provide labor to the state. In exchange for this labor, they were given the necessities of life."

It's not a tax if all your labor goes to the state. It's ownership (as you said in Lars' comment, Grim). To call it otherwise is completely missing the point. If the common Inca was only required to labor for the government only part time (say during the growing season or what have you), you could make a case that it's a tax. After all, money is just a labor value substitute. To give the government money is just giving them the value of labor you've already performed.

But since the Incas worked full time for the nobles (and there were no markets to trade for goods made "on their own time", then it clearly is slavery.

Now the funny thing is, you'll find people who will claim that it is just communism ("and see! it WORKED!"). I would agree. It was communism. Since communism is just slavery writ large. All the same problems, all the same sins, communism IS slavery. Your labor belongs to the State, YOU belong to the State. Sure, it feeds, clothes and houses you, but that's no more than slave-owners have done throughout history.

MikeD said...

Forgot to mention, Star Trek's Federation was a utopian communistic society. It has the benefit of being fictional (which is why it's not a dystopia), and based upon the fact that machines could provide every human need. But it ignores the realities that it's own story never notices. Property being the most troublesome.

Sure, replicators could make you a diamond necklace at will. Everyone has all the material goods they could ever want... except land. Oh sure, there were other planets out there that people could travel to, but the fact is, land ownership is something that cannot be replicated. And in point, Jean Luc Picard's family owns a winery in France. How, exactly, do they "own it"? Clearly it's been in the family for generations (as we're told), but when there is no currency, and no items of tradeable value (until we hear about "gold pressed latinum" in DS9), how does one "own" property? Or more exactly, how could one acquire land? This implies a landed class of citizens and those who do not own land. Which puts the lie to the "it's a classless society founded upon equality". It can't be. Not and have land owners. They possess something which no one else can have. That just means that land (and gold pressed latinum) are the only things of value in that universe.

Texan99 said...

I have to wonder, too, at the characterization of the Incas' great wealth. Compared to what? To the many examples of contemporary New World societies built on free markets and civil rights? The author seriously thinks that the secret to generating a wealthy society is to demand labor instead of money taxes from its members? That may get you some wealthy leaders, but I doubt the ordinary Incas had swimming pools and good dental coverage.

MikeD said...

Well... technically NOBODY back then had good dental coverage. A tooth abscess could kill you, and a even the rich and powerful probably suffered through lifelong pain from toothaches (unless they had them pulled).

E Hines said...

But since the Incas worked full time for the nobles (and there were no markets to trade for goods made "on their own time", then it clearly is slavery.

But, as Chekov pointed out, "It's a very gilded cage."

MikeD said...

I've been to the Soviet Union (it was 1990, so it still was the USSR at the time), and I'm here to tell you, it wasn't gilded worth a tinkers damn. I know it sounds like stereotypes or propaganda, but it was a VERY grey country. There were almost no colorful displays, or signs, save for the occasional red flag. The few cars were grey or black, the clothing was drab (it was one of the ways tourists really stood out). And as for the amenities... pshh! I've been in some pretty poor towns here in the States. I've been to Mexico, Canada and the UK. NOTHING I saw was comparable to the bland, uninspiring and downright Spartan accommodations, goods, and services. We went to the closest analog to a shopping mall they had in Moscow. Selection was awful, quality was poor, service was non-existant, and even then, it was not your normal "average working citizen" shopping there, it was the nomenclatura. It was like the worst Kmart you've ever seen but 100x worse.