Wonder, Wealth, and Sacrifice

When Hernán Cortés first set foot in the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan on the 8th of November, 1519, he must have truly believed he had entered a city of the gods. What must he have thought of the majestic expanse of urbanity that eclipsed the largest European cities? A city as populous as Paris, London, Florence, and Milan combined, with gleaming skyscrapers of stone, must have appeared as alien to that Spanish invader as a city floating in the sky would to modern humans. As he walked down wide boulevards lined with gold and tumbaga, he must have doubted just for a moment that European sense of superiority that drove his mission of conversion and conquest. Surely he wondered, as he gazed up at the Templo Mayor, what history had brought these people to this point? How could this culture have so effectively terraformed the land around them so that it might provide for their every need, when back home even the construction of a simple canal was a monumental undertaking? This must have seemed to Cortés, even if just for the briefest of moments, as the most advanced civilisation in the world.

But of course, this magic spell could not have lasted. Gunpowder, horses, and biological warfare in the form of smallpox made swift work of bringing this beautiful culture to its end, and the Spanish inherited its wealth in less than two years.

But peeling back the majesty and wonder of the Aztecs for just a moment, we see a far more brutal society. I am, of course, talking of human sacrifice. For the Aztec, and the Maya before them, human sacrifice was a practice built in to every day life. It was not just meaningless murder, either. Aztec culture believed that the existence of the universe was dependent upon the continued and sustained sacrifice of the gods, who provided the conditions for life to continue. Human sacrifice was a reflection of this practice, and a way in which humanity itself could thank the gods, by relieving a little of the burden upon them. It was, in essence, considered as an absolute necessity for life to carry on, and for society to function. Without it, civilisation would collapse, and the great cities, and skyscrapers, and temples would fall into the earth and the Aztec would be no more.

Of course, this was seen as a horrifically barbaric cultural practice by the Spanish, who moved quickly to outlaw the practice. The Aztec were taught that their religion was wrong, and that Catholicism was correct, and that God loved them, and that suicide was a sin, and the practice was ended.

Human sacrifice was not limited to the Aztec and the Maya; countless civilisations have practiced it throughout history, either secretly or overtly. The Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Celts, Chinese, Japanese, Mongols, Israelites, Vikings, Nazca, Inca, Indians, and almost anywhere you care to look have at some point throughout history indulged in the practice, usually as a quasi-religious metaphor in order to ensure the continuation of society by pleasing and thanking the gods, or to attempt to improve the health of a person or people. Giving the life of another human being is the ultimate sacrifice, and usually it was done only as an absolute necessity, when no other loss would suffice.

These cultures have now ended, and their rituals lost to the depths of time. This surely demonstrates the futility of wasting life for the purpose of continuing a societal system.

Which brings me to the present day.

We live in strange times. Capitalism is supposed to be a system of opportunity, in which the poor are able, through struggle and strife, to work their way into wealth. Yet we reached a stage of capitalism in which those who are born poor are likely to remain that way throughout their lives, and those who are wealthy are likely to see their resources grow indefinitely. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and they are held as shining examples of what can be achieved. This of course conveniently leaves out the enormous quantities of luck required, and the infinitely small probability of doing so. Furthermore, we regularly turn a blind-eye to the harm that our economic system is doing the world around us; in a form of collective suicide we are causing the conditions for a slow species extinction.

Regularly, we are told by those who have made their fortunes through the capitalist system of how fortunate we are to be ‘free’; that we live in relative comfort, and that we have never had life so easy. We are reminded of how many died for the failed experiments in socialism, communism, and other ‘isms’ throughout history, and that capitalism would never tolerate such barbarism.

Yet if this is true, in a world where all but a handful of nations are paid-up members of the global capitalist club, why are more than eight hundred million human beings undernourished? Why, when we have individuals sitting on piles of wealth that they could not possibly spend in a thousand lifetimes and whose capital continues to grow, do people starve to death, or lack basic medical care? Why are thousands of tons of food disposed of in landfill, when children go hungry at night?

Of course, everybody believes they are exempt from this system; nobody wishes to believe they are part of such a cruel machine. But the truth is that we are all caught up in the intrinsic self-preservation of this way of life. Every time we buy a new car, or television, or novelty clock, we are perpetuating a system in which resources are taken away from those most in need, and funneled slowly but inexorably wealthwards to those dragons sat upon on their mounds of gold. But, you may be thinking, what on earth this has to do with human sacrifice?

At no time in the modern world has the fragility of the capitalist system been more apparent than during the current Covid-19 crisis. After only the briefest of moments in which the world stopped working, economies around the world were on their knees, with systems on the verge of collapse. Of course, nations initially shut down their workforces in order to preserve life, but when it became apparent that the capitalist economy could not sustain extended closure, talk immediately turned to how best to restart the fires of industry.

Whilst the probability of a person dying of Covid-19 is low, it is significant enough that the world was closed-down for weeks if not months. Yet now, when capitalism is on its knees, human beings are being told to go back out into the world, and risk their life in order to preserve the system.

Is a system which requires humans to die in order for it to survive worth preserving? Covid-19 has not fundamentally changed anything, it simply created an extreme in which the limits were tested. In doing so, it highlighted what was already there to see, had we all looked; humans have being dying for capitalism since its inception, from lack of food, shelter, warmth, and medical care. It is a system whereby many do win, but in order for that to happen, many must lose. And in this case, losing often means dying. When one truly stops to consider it, there is a morbid hilarity in the knowledge that the combined resources of the wealthiest three individuals on earth could end poverty and hunger, yet instead they choose to compete over who can build the coolest space ship.

Human beings are being sacrificed upon the high alter of capitalism, which makes us no less barbaric than those past civilisations whom we so much enjoy patronising for their simplistic beliefs.