The Sun Never Sets on Oppression and Dominance, or Why You’re More Aztec Than You Think

Aztec calendar, photo by Kim Alaniz (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Aztec priests ripped out people’s hearts daily as a sacrifice to the sun, and for Sam Kriss, the contemporary West might be a lot more like them that we think. In The Outline, he explores the Aztecs’ cosmology and their concept of the apocalypse en route to deciding that we’re actually their social and political heirs.

The Aztecs built an extraordinarily sophisticated state. Their capital, Tenochtitlan, whose ruins still poke haphazardly through Mexico City, might have been the largest city outside China when Europeans first made contact; it was bigger than Paris and Naples combined, and five times bigger than London. Stretching across the Mexican highlands, their empire had, in 150 years, conquered or achieved political dominance over very nearly their entire known world, bounded by impassable mountains to the west and stifling jungle to the east. Without any major enemies left to fight, they found new ways of securing captives for sacrifice: the “flower wars” were a permanent, ritual war against neighboring city-states, in which the armies would meet at an agreed place and fight to capture as many enemy soldiers as possible.

The Roman Empire could never defeat their eternal enemy in Persia, and the dynastic Egyptians were periodically overwhelmed by Semitic tribes to the north, but until the day the Spanish arrived the Aztec monarchs were presumptive kings of absolutely everything under the sun. The only really comparable situation is the one we live under now — the unlimited empire of liberal capitalism, a scurrying hive of private interests held together under an American military power without horizon. We have our own flower wars. The United States and Russia are fighting each other in Syria — never directly, but through their proxies, so that only Syrians suffer, just as they did in Afghanistan, and Latin America, and Vietnam, and Korea. Wars, like Reagan’s attack on Granada or Trump’s on a Syrian airbase, are fought for public consumption. There is a pathology of the end of the world: dominance, ritualization, reification, and massacre.

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