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Struggle at Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan was Central Mexico’s capital long before the Mexica, and then Spaniards, colonized the Anahuac; before the Distrito Federal, the Ángel de la Independencia, or Bellas Artes; o’, much longer before.

Most people have heard of Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Sun, a testament to its global cultural reach and its enduring presence, another grotesque ode to collective strength. Teotihuacan’s infamy, a byproduct of ethnocentrism, savagely reduces Teotihuacan to a place for human sacrifices and decapitations during rituals and dedications. The self-righteousness of this discourse revolves around the notion that somehow we are civilized and do not practice such barbarities. Of course, this requires us disregarding every American President bombing at least one new country during their tenure.

If not discussed in these terms, then Teotihuacan acquires mystic and spiritual connotations. On any given visit you will see people dressed in white at the top of the pyramid with their arms out wide to accept the “positive energy”; also demonstrative of finding healing in authoritarian architecture, the dark side of ethno-centric beliefs about past civilizations’ shamanistic capabilities.

Rather, Teotihuacan should be understood in a much more expansive manner for what it tells us archaeologically about pre-Hispanic social organization, and therefore about humanity. It represents an attempt at a society with class and ethnic differentiation based on power asymmetry. This is key to understand. Teotihuacan, from archaeological evidence, is an empirical case of societal stagnation and collapse due to the tensions produced by class and ethnic conflict. Not because people are incapable of getting along or some other reactionary canard, but rather because power asymmetry is impossible to maintain over the long run. We can call this civilizational time. Over the course of a civilization, it either rectifies whatever power asymmetries it possesses or eventually collapses from the contradictions and inefficiencies those power asymmetries produce.

As explained by Linda R. Manzanilla, archaeologist at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, published “Cooperation and tensions in multiethnic corporate societies using Teotihuacan, Central Mexico, as a case study”, Teotihuacan was a multi-ethnic city which reached a population of 100,000, and a principal migration hub in pre-Hispanic Mexico from around the first century of the Common Era (CE) to 550 CE. By 320 CE Teotihuacan had a periphery made up of segregated ethnic neighborhoods, such as “Tlailotlacan or the Oaxaca barrio in the southwest, the Merchants’ Barrio populated by people from the Gulf Coast in the east, and a small group from Michoacán in the west” (1; all numbers in parentheses are page numbers of article cited in the hyperlink). The core of the city was made up of “Teotihuacan’s intermediate elites” who fostered conspicuous consumption leading to a concentration of “specialized craftsmen from different regions” (1).

The corporate forces of society, as Manzanilla describes in the case of Teotihuacan, are “based on consensus building and an economic reliance on basic production”, while a congruent and detrimental set of “exclusionary arrangements were based on personal networks and more ostentatious expressions of inequalities and wealth” (5). The tension between the excluded periphery and the core “posed a threat to the corporate organization of the Teotihuacan state”, while also being the “most dynamic process…an independent source of social and economic power for the city” (2).

These points taken together demonstrate both a class struggle and an ethnic struggle occurring in Teotihuacan. When the tensions produced by these struggles became too great to bear (i.e. basic needs no longer met and consensus no longer achieved), they led to a moment of revolt, as in 550 CE when the “major ritual and administrative buildings along the Street of the Dead were set on fire” (5). The failure of this revolt “against the ruling elite” led to the dominance and solidifying of the exclusionary organizational model (5).

Therefore, we have a homogenous ethnic elite and intermediate elite exploiting an ethnically heterogeneous lower class. That ethnically heterogeneous lower class revolts, their revolt fails, and a much more punitive social organization becomes dominant, one that privileges homogenous ethnic relations to support a totalizing hierarchy. This system did not have an internal dynamic and became stagnant, slowly becoming just another ruins studied by archaeologists in the present. Teotihuacan then should be seen as an object lesson about the dangers of hierarchy and exploitation for civilization survival.

The conditions for class struggle are in the production of surplus. Once there is surplus, there can be exploitation. When processes of rationalization for distribution of resources based on the mandates of elites become instituted, as happened beginning in Meso-America with the Olmec civilization from 1500 BCE to 400 BCE, the result is an exploitative division of labor, along with the concentration of control over the surplus. In Teotihuacan, this division of labor and solidification of the class structure was quite advanced and a principal arena of struggle. Without any fundamental way to resolve these class tensions the society eventually collapsed under the weight of its contradictions.

Further, this case clearly demonstrates that ethnic differentiation has a long history, one that goes beyond European colonialism and the modern-day racist social structure, which are not the first iterations of the politics of the Other. In a multi-ethnic corporate society, ethnicity is a fundamental arena of struggle, because it is based on a power asymmetries between ethnic groups and hierarchizing them, a historical process of institutionalizing oppression and exclusion. Maintenance of this order revolves around a constant series of physical violence, passive-aggressive coercion, and cooptation. Just as with class tensions, at some point this situation is resolved (i.e. equality achieved) or there is a revolt which fundamentally alters the social system.

Teotihuacan shows how ethnicity and class are intertwined, a congruence between the reproduction of the logic dictating who is and who is not a laborer and who is and who is not a Teotihuacano. As such, pluriethnic class struggle is the anti-thesis to the ethnically homogenous authoritarian class forces in a society. Plurality is dangerous, because it is based on empathy and solidarity, the recognition of universal humanity and the just cause of resolving concrete inequalities. To cite an oft quoted line of Noam Chomsky’s, “In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than just ideals to be valued – they may be essential to survival.”

In fact, it has always been so.

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Andrew Smolski is a writer and sociologist.

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