A major focus of American politics in recent years has been the increasing levels of wealth inequality we’ve witnessed over the past several decades. Many believe a new era of automation could make the chasm between America’s super-rich and the Average Joe even worse.
Stimulus checks are a welcome Band-Aid, but long-term solutions to tackle income inequality and economic disparity like Universal Basic Income and a new federal minimum wage are still hard political sells. To understand what consequences letting this situation continue could hold for the United States, it may be worth taking lessons from human history — specifically, the ancient Mayans. Wealth inequality among the ancient Mayan people illustrates the very real, very negative consequences that these problems hold for society as a whole.
What’s new — In a study published this week in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers took a hard look at wealth inequality in the Classic Maya civilization. For nearly 700 years, the Classic Mayan civilization was the reigning human society of the Yucatan Peninsula region, beginning around 250 A.D. and ending in 900 A.D.
From their analysis, the researchers discovered a strange and worrying correlation: The places with the highest levels of wealth inequality also tended to have the most autocratic government. The converse was also true: The less autocratic the government, the more equal the wealth distribution. Among the different ancient peoples, the Mayan societies were the most autocratic, the results suggest.
How they did it — To understand the social dynamics at play in this once powerful civilization, researchers conducted in-depth archaeological analyses of various different Mayan sites in what is now modern-day Belize. Specifically, they compared the size, location, and architecture of the houses in different settlements to gauge wealth. The elite’s houses, for example, might contain intricate carvings and sculptures, or they might be demonstrably larger than the homes of people further down the social ladder.
Amy Thompson is one of the authors of the new study and a postdoctoral researcher at Chicago's Field Museum. She tells Inverse that house size is often used as a way to determine wealth in ancient societies, and how it was shared among citizens.
“The reason house size is a really great indicator of wealth inequality is it creates a large enough and robust enough dataset to really get a holistic idea of what was going on in these ancient cities,” she says.
“You can see similar kinds of patterns in the contemporary world.”
They also considered how people of high social hierarchy were buried and commemorated. If a person was buried in a very extravagant way, then they were likely venerated as a king. At this time, different areas of the Yucatan, Oaxaca, Central Mexico, and the surrounding region were ruled by different societies which followed very different governing styles.
According to Thompson, governments funded primarily by external revenue, like trade, tended to be more autocratic than governments funded through internal production, or collective production.
Why it matters — Gary Feinman, the Field Museum's MacArthur curator of anthropology and one of the authors of the study, tells Inverse that you can see how the same phenomenon seen in ancient Mesoamerican civilizations plays out in contemporary American society today.
“The basic notion is that when government is funded by ways that do not include taxes from the local population that tends to lead to more despotic or autocratic kinds of government,” Feinman says.
“I think that you can see similar kinds of patterns in the contemporary world, whether you want to look at nations or states that are heavily dependent on something like oil revenues, those cases tend to be very despotic, like Saudi Arabia or Russia.”
The Mayan civilization holds a lesson for modern-day societies: According to the researchers, societies that become highly unequal and move toward autocracy are also more likely to fail.
Keith Prufer, a professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico and one of the authors of the study, tells Inverse that one can see this trend play out repeatedly through human history.
“Highly autocratic states have always, over time, failed. That’s something we see with the Maya, too,” Prufer says.
“We don’t really get into it in this paper, but it did fall apart. Probably one of the driving forces behind it falling apart is a great level of wealth inequality,” he says.
“People were able to basically vote with their feet and walk away from it.”
Feinman agrees. One can argue that the United States has become less democratic as wealth inequality has increased over the past several decades, he says. Economic shifts during the last few decades have made the country less dependent on internal labor and production, and more dependent on things like international trade and finance, he says.
At the same time, the government has not instituted policies that would “dampen down” inequality in the U.S., Feinman says.
What’s next — Collective labor may become less central to the American economy over the coming decades, too, as robots get ever better at performing the routine tasks which make up many of today’s jobs. Some, like former presidential hopfeul Andrew Yang, fear this will leave large sections of the population without work, which in turn leads not only to more inequality, but also greater autocracy. That’s why he and others support initiatives to redistribute wealth, like Universal Basic Income.
“I think what it will take is policies that deconcentrate wealth, whether that’s through different kinds of distribution programs, regulation, new taxation strategies, etc.,” Feinman says.
“And other things to ensure the voice of the larger population is reflected in governance,” he adds.
The more unequal a society is, the more power concentrates at the top. Whether the U.S. needs a UBI program, a higher minimum wage, more taxes on the wealthy to fund social programs, or another policy, the Classic Mayans may serve as an ominous warning for the future.
Abstract: Inequality is present to varying degrees in all human societies, pre-modern and contemporary. For archaeological contexts, variation in house size reflects differences in labor investments and serves as a robust means to assess wealth across populations small and large. The Gini coefficient, which measures the degree of concentration in the distribution of units within a population, has been employed as a standardized metric to evaluate the extent of inequality. Here, we employ Gini coefficients to assess wealth inequality at four nested socio-spatial scales–the micro-region, the polity, the district, and the neighborhood–at two medium size, peripheral Classic Maya polities located in southern Belize. We then compare our findings to Gini coefficients for other Classic Maya polities in the Maya heartland and to contemporaneous polities across Mesoamerica. We see the patterning of wealth inequality across the polities as a consequence of variable access to networks of exchange. Different forms of governance played a role in the degree of wealth inequality in Mesoamerica. More autocratic Classic Maya polities, where principals exercised degrees of control over exclusionary exchange networks, maintained high degrees of wealth inequality compared to most other Mesoamerican states, which generally are characterized by more collective forms of governance. We examine how household wealth inequality was reproduced at peripheral Classic Maya polities, and illustrate that economic inequity trickled down to local socio-spatial units in this prehispanic context.