A quipu – the Inka method for keeping accounts and records. Wikimedia Commons
A Civilisation Without Money
Money and markets are as ubiquitous to us as water is to a fish. As a fish can’t imagine a world without water, we can’t imagine one without money. Surprisingly, a moneyless civilisation encompassing tens of millions of well-nourished people did exist. Stretching from Colombia to Argentina and Chile, the Inka empire covered much of South America. It might still be there today had it not been felled by disease.
The Importance of Bureaucracy to the Inka
The Inka not only survived without money and markets; they prospered. Not only were the Inka people well-nourished and sheltered; they produced a significant surplus. That surplus made it possible to support a large bureaucracy and a privileged class.
We tend to think of the bureaucracies of “primative” cultures such as the Inka in terms of religion and ceremony. However, in the Inka empire they were largely engineers and planners. It was these engineers and planners who made possible the feeding and sheltering of an empire in some of the world’s most difficult terrain.
Because of their location in the rugged Andes, the Inka focused on travelling up and down. After that, they thought of North and South and finally East and West. Verticality was important because it was possible for the Inka to traverse agricultural zones from the ocean through tropical, temperate and sub-arctic conditions in a very short distance. The Inka, combined the compressed zones with engineering and agricultural techniques provided the bounty that fed a nation and fed it well. It also provided the surplus they needed to support a gold and silver industry, provide for the independent invention of writing, books and calendars.
So how did they manage all of this without money or markets?
Perhaps their biggest secret was that taxation was in the form of labor. Through this method terraces for farming, raised-bed fields, roads running thousands of miles and cities of stone were built. Fish and tropical foods were brought to the mountains. Maize and beans were transported to the lowlands. Gold, tin and copper were mined. Beautiful artificts were created and robust tools manufactured.
Today’s Problem Isn’t Bureaucracy – It’s Self-Serving Bureaucrats
Lenin despaired of communism’s ability to centrally control Russia’s economy and so introduced his New Economic Policy. By doing so he thought that he could allow capitalism to proceed to its natural self-destruction after which communism would result. I wonder what he would have thought if he was aware that nearly a thousand years before the Incas had pretty much worked out the elements of central planning needed for a civilisation.In the event, Lenin died and Stalin impatiently implemented his five year plans. Ambition, impatience, self-serving and incompetence led to failure after failure. In the end, the idea of extreme central planning fell into disrepute. We should not forget that the Inka proved that in the right circumstances, it can work.