History and Historiography

What Mayan Civilization Can Teach Us about Secession and Decentralization

By Daniella Bassi, LewRockwell.Com

The US and other countries of the Western world are divided by ever more stark ideological differences, to put it mildly. Because most people live in societies where the power to make some of the most important choices and to use offensive force to effect them is concentrated in the state, these increasing differences of opinion are raising the stakes of losing or lacking political power. Accordingly, all kinds of people have begun to take an interest in political secession and decentralization as a solution to the intensifying power struggles.

But one of the critiques of the secession-decentralization strategy is that it allegedly results in scattered populations vulnerable to military conquest and that the model is cumbersome when it comes to trade, travel, and communication. The idea is that a single strong state is the most secure and the most practical option. The example of pre-Hispanic and early modern Mayan civilization provides a powerful retort to this argument, as we will see. Ethnically and linguistically similar but divided into scores of smaller states connected by long-distance trade networks, Mayas were able to escape homegrown tyranny for millennia and resisted foreign Spanish conquest for hundreds of years.

Pre-Hispanic Mayan Civilization: A Multitude of Regional States and City-States

Centered on the Yucatan Peninsula, pre-Hispanic Mayan civilization flourished in what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, not far south of the Aztec Empire.1 Unlike its neighbor, the Mayan civilization was never a centralized empire. Instead, the land was a patchwork of small states jostling one another for power, many of whom were connected by various military alliances and long-distance trade networks. In the twenty-five hundred years from the rise of Mayan civilization to the Spanish conquest, political scientists Claudio Cioffi-Revilla and Todd Landman have identified seventy-two major Mayan chiefdoms (akin to city-states) and regional states (ruling over tiers of municipalities), noting the existence, in addition, of hundreds of smaller polities, though these were mostly “minor by comparison” and were not included in their study.2

The Classic-Era Maya World: Many Strong States and Centralized Domestic Politics

The most centralized period in Mayan history was the Classic period (roughly 250–950 AD). As anthropologist Antonia E. Foias explains, “At the heart of Classic Maya polities was the divine ruler, or k’uhul ajaw, who lived in the royal court in the epicenter of an independent political capital, from which he conducted the affairs of the state.”3 The k’uhul ajaw’s rule was complemented by two to four strata of political officials and the royal household. The political elite enriched itself through the goods that they expropriated from commoners and subordinate states (if any) as tribute, as well as through their subjects’ labor, which they used in massive public works projects.4 Power was concentrated in the k’uhul ajaw, however, who was deified and whose reign and its events were commemorated in large stone monuments called stelae.5

The Classic era was marked by the emergence of states, a growing number of polities born through fissure, and the rise of several massive cities with a strong regional influence.6 As Hispanicist Lynn V. Foster explains,

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