By Rachel Denber
Twenty years ago, in July 1991, I was poised to start a job researching human rights violations in the Soviet Union. A month later, the failed coup to unseat Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev precipitated rapid political changes that would ultimately lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Watching these events, my family told me I would no longer have a job when the position was to start in September. Like many of us, they assumed that the end of communism would usher in a new era of democracy, rule of law, and human rights protection in the Soviet Union’s successor states. I started my new job as planned and it took five minutes to see that such assumptions were wrong.
Now is a good time to take stock of some lessons learned from 20 years of efforts to bring better human rights protections to former Soviet Union countries. Where were our assumptions faulty? What could be done better, or differently, to promote human rights during tectonic societal shifts? It is an exercise worthy in its own right, and one that has relevance beyond the region, particularly given the ongoing historic upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa.
The differences between 1991 and its aftermath and the 2011 Arab uprisings are vast, and the task of comparing these two historic moments is tantalizing but alas beyond the scope of this essay. Still, I hope that these reflections 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union will be relevant and useful to observers, policymakers, and human rights communities focused on the former Soviet Union and beyond.
1. There is Nothing Inevitable about Transitions to Democracy
The first lesson is about heady assumptions. Watching decades of authoritarianism come to an end in Egypt and Tunisia was thrilling; who does not hope that it will usher in a new era of democracy and rule of law? But Soviet Union watchers have seen how the collapse of a repressive, authoritarian regime—while it brings months of euphoria and sets complex political transformations in motion—in no way guarantees the arrival of governments committed to human rights protection. As the dust settles, the historical forces that have shaped the society for decades come again to the fore and, absent deep institutional change, can be accompanied by reemergence of authoritarian rule.
To be sure, the end of communism ushered in freedoms unthinkable during the Soviet era. While circumstances varied widely across the former Soviet Union in the early years after the break-up, people could worship more freely, travel abroad, own property, and express their ethnic identity in ways they could not under communism. There was a vigorous debate about Soviet history and Stalinism, even as the monstrous crimes of the Stalin era remained unpunished.
But in many parts of the region, governments’ human rights records have been poor. Year after year, chapters on most former Soviet Union countries in this volume have born grim testament to that. The reasons for this vary, but in several Central Asian countries the leaders and political classes in 1991 had no interest whatsoever in relinquishing power. Rather than commit to a post-Communist transition, many leaders used police, the military, intelligence services, and the criminal justice system to consolidate their personal rule. They worked to neuter alternative political forces demanding more profound change. As a result, the institutional reforms necessary for accountable government, pluralism, and effective rights protection never happened.
A focus on political elites also helps, albeit only partially, to explain why reforms were much more far-reaching in Eastern Europe than in former Soviet Union states. For the most part,Soviet-era political elites in those states, as well as in the Baltic states were swept aside. This left more space for new political actors who were more serious about building strong institutions, instituting checks and balances, and implementing legislative reforms prioritizing due process and human rights protection. But there were certainly other critical factors at work, such as a legacy of pre-World War II democratic government in many cases and a real prospect of EU membership for most.
The Soviet successor states run the gamut in levels and styles of repression. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are surely among the most repressive governments, not only in the region but the world. Their brands of authoritarianism fossilized very early after the 1991 collapse. Turkmenistan is a one-party state that allows no independent civic activism, arbitrarily limits citizens’ ability to travel abroad, and blocks virtually all independent human rights monitoring. There is no press freedom, and the authorities imprison stringers for foreign news outlets. In Uzbekistan the government barely tolerates a handful of independent human rights activists, routinely sentencing them to long prison terms on trumped up charges, and the media is heavily censored. Police torture is endemic. The government has also imprisoned, on charges of religious “fundamentalism,” thousands of devout Muslims who practice their faith outside state controls or belong to unregistered religious organizations.
Russia itself is no role model. Under Russia’s “soft authoritarianism,” perfected under eight years of Vladimir Putin’s rule, independent civil society is tolerated but whistleblowers have been killed and threatened, and very little is left of the media freedoms that had blossomed during the glasnost era. There is no genuine political competition or public accountability. Putin’s announcement in the 20th anniversary year that he would again run for president, conceivably putting him in power for a total of 24 years, prompted parallels to Brezhnev’s 18-year reign.
Many of the region’s political elites preside over eye-popping corruption, and have used political power to enrich themselves and their vast patronage networks. It is no surprise that they use authoritarian mechanisms of control—media censorship, repression of critics, phony elections—to cling to power. Political ouster means not only loss of power but loss of wealth and possibly worse. In countries like Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan hydrocarbon wealth exponentially increases the stakes.
In much of the region, entrenched, post-Soviet authoritarian leaders allowed for some openings, but held onto power, resulting in political and social stagnation. In Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan this stagnation was broken by a second round of political changes a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, this time driven by popular uprisings full of hope for meaningful change. In scenes not dissimilar from those we saw in the Arab world in 2011, people in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan took to the streets demanding fair elections, an end to corruption, and public accountability. But the experience of the so-called colored revolutions of 2003 to 2005 is a sobering reminder that popular uprisings do not automatically or necessarily lead to good human rights outcomes.
Kyrgyzstan’s “Tulip Revolution” in 2005 succeeded in ousting then-President Askar Akaev, but hopes for reform under his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, were quickly dashed. Bakiev proved far more interested in enriching his family and patronage networks, and within a year his government started harassing human rights activists and independent journalists. His record deteriorated precipitously from then through his violent ouster in April 2010.
In Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution” thousands of Ukrainian citizens peacefully protested the government’s manipulation of the presidential election in favor of Viktor Yanukovich. The pro-reform, pro-Western candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, defeated Yanukovich in repeat elections. But Yushchenko’s government found itself mired in serial political crises and corruption and unable to deliver on social and economic reform. It was also poorly equipped to deal with Ukraine’s myriad human rights problems, including torture and ill-treatment in detention, violations of the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, and violations that fuel the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Yushchenko left office after losing badly at the polls in 2010.
Georgia’s 2003 “Rose Revolution” brought Mikheil Saakashvili to the presidency with aspirations of judicial, police, and economic reform. Reforms brought some positive results, but the government’s use of excessive force against demonstrators in 2007 suggested the fragility of its commitment to human rights and the rule of law. Today Georgia’s human rights record is mixed. Saakashvili is bound by the constitution to leave office in 2013, but because he has dominated the political system there are real doubts about what will come next. Nine years later, the Rose Revolution paved the way for a leader who professed a commitment to rights, but it is not clear whether it succeeded in creating a competitive political system that can protect rights.
2. Guard against Misplaced Blame
In the aftermath of political upheaval, many people become disillusioned as they cope with economic, political, and social instability. Many come to blame “democracy” for their suffering. Supporters of human rights and democracy need to fight this misplaced blame. There are surely rocky times ahead in the post-uprising Middle East, so this lesson has relevance there, too.
The end of the Soviet era brought about real and colossal privations for millions who lost their life savings, jobs, and sense of identity. In Russia, for example, corruption was seemingly boundless: privatization programs under Yeltsin favored a handful of Kremlin cronies who bought up the most valuable state assets at bargain-basement prices in exchange for crucial political backing. Unsurprisingly, many blamed their struggles not on the deeply-rooted flaws of the ancien regime or the corruption of power, but on “democracy” and human rights movements, seeing them as the handmaiden of chaos. Putin exploited this anger and a growing sense of public nostalgia for the Soviet era to his advantage. His team willfully conflated chaos and democracy to justify reforms in 2004, making it more difficult for opposition parties to gain seats in the Duma, and instituting the appointment, rather than election, of regional governors. After the “colored revolutions” the Kremlin accused NGOs of being fronts for foreign governments that sought to interfere with Russia's internal affairs, and started a campaign of bureaucratic harassment against them. The overall result was the weakening, beyond recognition, of the checks and balances that are inherent in an accountable political system.
A related lesson here is that Western policymakers who care about human rights need to support institutions rather than individual leaders. The enthusiastic support the West at times showed Yeltsin during the chaotic 1990s, or Saakashvili during the early days after the Rose Revolution, backfired in the long run. As popular opinion about the democratic credentials of each soured, so too did popular backing for more far-reaching democratic and human rights reforms.
3. Institutionalize Strong Minority Rights Protections
Both during and after the shattering of the Soviet Union, many parts of the region succumbed to armed conflicts whose roots, for the most part, lay deep in the Soviet past, including regime attempts to manipulate ethnic tensions to its advantage through favoritism and calculated border designations, as well as Soviet policies suppressing national, ethnic, and religious identity.
New governments—in some cases buoyed by national reawakening—clashed with minority or marginalized populations, who felt strongly that the new leadership should recognize the rights and opportunities that the previous regime had long denied them. Toward the end of the Soviet era and after, both the Kremlin and several Soviet successor states responded to new nationalist demands and movements with force. In some cases, such as Abkhazia and the first Chechnya war, governments stumbled into armed conflict. But the consequences in both scenarios were disastrous.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to analyze the causes of secessionist wars in Nagorno Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Chechnya, and Transdnestria, and of devastating communal violence in places like Osh and Ingushetia. (Tajikistan’s civil war took place along regional, not ethnic fault lines, but is also worth noting.) However, in each case the civilian population bore terrible suffering from serious violations of humanitarian law, and, in some cases, long-term displacement. Twenty years later, some of the conflicts have morphed, some are frozen, and well over a million people remain displaced. The lasting harm of these intractable conflicts should serve as an important warning to governments and civil societies alike in the Middle East about the need to respect minority rights and build tolerance among minority and majority populations.
New governments need to acknowledge and address past minority grievances, ensure language and confessional rights, give minorities a place in law enforcement and security agencies, act swiftly to protect minorities from violence, and initiate public discussions that emphasize tangible common interests that transcend interethnic and interconfessional differences. They also need to act quickly to disarm both separatist and pro-state militias, pursue accountability for war crimes, and undertake security sector reform.
4. International Institutions Matter
Another lesson is the importance of motivating states in transition to join international institutions and processes that champion human rights. The former Soviet Union is perhaps unique in this regard given the critical role in former Soviet states of the prospect of membership in the European Union and Council of Europe. But the lesson is a more general one: the international system now includes a panoply of institutions dedicated to human rights protection and reform of judiciaries, security services, and other government bodies critical to advancing human rights. These institutions should not take at face value regional states’ ratification of human rights treaties. It is essential that they become actively involved in supporting democratic and human rights reform in countries “in transition.”
As prospective EU member states, many Eastern European countries were motivated to carry out thorough reforms of their political and judicial systems. EU membership was not in the cards for former Soviet countries, apart from the Baltic states. But some—including Russia, Ukraine, and the South Caucasus states—were offered membership in the Council of Europe. They were expected to undertake significant institutional reforms as part of the accession and membership process. For example abolishing the death penalty, overhauling the prosecutor’s office to strengthen the courts, and transferring prisons from internal affairs to justice ministries. The impact of these reforms should not be overstated. For example, the prosecutor’s office in almost all of the post-Soviet Council of Europe member states is still disproportionately powerful, and courts still lack independence. But the reforms were historic and important.
Most important, membership has given their citizens access to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), providing them an avenue of justice when their own deeply flawed justice systems fail them.
At the same time, each of these countries was invited to join prematurely, before government practices had come close enough to meeting Council of Europe standards. At the time accession proponents argued that it was better to bring the states in sooner rather than later, even if they did not meet standards. More would be accomplished, they argued, by continuing to engage on reform once these states were Council of Europe members. Ten years later, however, many of the same human rights violations that plagued these states prior to accession have worsened, and the organization’s monitoring procedure has struggled to secure compliance. Azerbaijan, for example, was admitted in 2000, days after a blatantly manipulated parliamentary vote. Elections since then have been largely empty exercises and sparked political violence in 2003 and 2005.
Although Russia was admitted to the Council of Europe in the midst of its first horrific war in Chechnya, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) had the political courage to suspend Russia’s voting rights for six months because of grave violations of humanitarian law during the second Chechnya conflict. However, PACE restored the voting rights without getting any guarantees that perpetrators of massacres, torture, and forced disappearances would be held accountable. And 10 years later, they still have not.
The Council of Europe’s addition of former Soviet states with poor human rights records gave millions access to justice through the ECtHR, but it has also stretched the court’s resources. This would not be an insurmountable problem, if it were not for states’ failure to implement the ECtHR’s judgments. This failure threatens the court’s integrity and floods the court with similar cases. A glaring example is Russia’s stubborn failure to implement roughly 170 judgments in which the European Court found Russia responsible for enforced disappearances, torture, executions, and other serious human rights abuses in Chechnya.
5. Establish Concrete Human Rights Benchmarks and Give Them Teeth
Experience in the former Soviet Union region, particularly in Central Asia, highlights the importance of setting out human rights benchmarks as a condition for international engagement and unrelentingly pursuing their implementation.
One of the most disappointing developments in this regard was the EU’s failure to hold firm in demanding human rights improvements in Uzbekistan as a condition for dropping sanctions imposed on the government following the May 2005 killings by government forces of hundreds of civilian protesters, most of them unarmed, in the city of Andijan. The sanctions were mild and targeted, a symbolic arms embargo and a visa ban on a handful of government officials. But almost as soon as the sanctions were adopted several EU states set about openly undermining them, sending mixed messages that could not have been lost on the Uzbek government.
The EU had made the release of imprisoned human rights activists a condition for lifting the sanctions but when it ended the sanctions regime in 2009, 12 remained in prison. In a move that could only have encouraged Uzbek government intransigence, the EU justified the lifting of the sanctions by referring to “positive steps” taken by the Uzbek government, such as agreeing to hold harmless but meaningless human rights dialogues with the EU. After two years the dialogues have had absolutely no bearing on the human rights situation in Uzbekistan.
The lesson here is not that sanctions can never work, but that they can work only if states are united in demanding rigorous implementation. Regional officials are no fools. They know when their interlocutors are serious about their rhetoric and when they are not, or when rhetoric will have real consequences and when it will not.
A related lesson is that assigning an abusive government exceptional status in light of its strategic importance sabotages efforts to get it to improve its human rights record. Western policymakers EU policymakers like to point to Kazakhstan as a regional leader in a rough neighborhood. Led by Germany and France, the EU warmly supported Kazakhstan's bid to chair OSCE in 2010 and host an OSCE summit, though Kazakhstan's brand of soft authoritarianism made it an inappropriate choice for an organization with a mandate to promote democracy and human rights.
The gamble that the chairmanship would prod reform turned out to be misguided. It’s been a year since the summit and chairmanship year have ended, and Kazakhstan's record has deteriorated. For example, they adopted a new repressive law on religion in October, returned the prison system to Ministry of Internal Affairs jurisdiction, and imprisoned one of the country’s top human rights activists.
International actors should also learn from the post-Soviet experience that viewing human rights and security interests as tradeoffs is exactly the false choice repressive leaders want them to make, and that bargaining with dictators over human rights concerns will not lead to a good outcome, almost by definition.
Too often, Western actors resist seeing the leverage they have in relationships with abusive governments. For example, eager to secure alternative routes to Afghanistan to avoid less stable Pakistan, the US has developed the so-called Northern Distribution Network (NDN)—a transit corridor that runs through Russia and Central Asia—which supplies non-lethal cargo to Afghanistan. To sweeten its relationship with Uzbekistan, a pivotal state in the network, the US is waiving restrictions on assistance, including military aid, to the Uzbek government that were established in 2004 over human rights concerns.
What policymakers seem to minimize are the financial and other benefits the NDN brings Uzbekistan, which should be used to stymie bullying by Uzbek officials over rights issues. Instead, by dropping all restrictions on aid—including military aid—without insisting on improvements, the US is creating a huge windfall for an extremely repressive government, and may ultimately create long-term instability in Uzbekistan and Central Asia. It also sends the detrimental message to ordinary Uzbeks that the US is indifferent to their plight.
6. Support a Strong Civil Society
A resoundingly positive lesson of the last 20 years has been the importance of support for civil society in countries in, and beyond, transition. These are the organizations and media outlets that, in the absence of checks and balances in post-Soviet authoritarian regimes, are doing the most to hold their governments accountable, often providing services to help the public access their often opaque governments and exposing government corruption and wrongdoing.
In many countries these communities are now so deeply rooted and vibrant that it is easy to forget that they are in fact quite new. At the same time, no one should take their vitality for granted. The past 10 years have witnessed how one government after another in the region adopted laws restricting NGOs and used an arsenal of bureaucratic tools to harass and overburden them, and, in some countries, imprison them. The creation of civil societies throughout the region was one of the signal achievements of the glasnost era, and policymakers need to support these communities now more than ever.
The differences between the fall of the Soviet Union and today’s Arab Spring upheaval are significant. But 20 years of post-Soviet experience should lead policy makers to embrace the opportunity for change in the Middle East, guided not by heady optimism, but by an enduring commitment to universal principles, far-reaching institutional reforms, and strong support for the people who continue to fight for both.
The world was supposed to have ended in 2012, as foretold by a Mayan prophecy that, in the end, only prophesied that the Mayans would need to buy a new calendar. As the prediction went, our solar system would align with the black hole at the center of the galaxy. The magnetic poles would sweep and switch and falter, leaving the atmosphere to be stripped away by a devastating solar wind; the enigmatic shadow planet Nibiru would collide into ours and turn solid ground into a spray of magma drifting through space.
It didn’t happen. But the prophecies will come back, before long. Isn’t every generation convinced it’ll be the last? People seem to enjoy imagining that they’ll live to see the curtains close on history, but it’s more than just enjoyment; a sense of finality seems to be built into our experience of the whole strange, senseless show that surrounds us. Either you die in the world, another speck to be mourned and then forgotten, or the world dies around you. Unknown planets or rising sea levels, whatever helps you imagine an ending.
Before the Mayan apocalypse, it was the year 2000 that was supposed to kill us all. Aside from the Y2K computer bug that failed to destroy all our soaring dial-up technology, mass-media preachers like Ed Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Left Behind authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins confidently expected the final judgement of God to arrive in time for the new year’s celebrations. In turn they were drawing on a legacy of bimillennial fascination that includes medieval Catholic theologians, Marian apparitions, invented Nostradamuses, the Kabbalistic calculations of Isaac Newton, and cultists scattered across the centuries.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have separately predicted that the world would end in 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, 1994, and 1997. Various preachers in Britain and America spent most of the 19th century convincing their small bands of followers that the world was shortly to cease existence, extrapolating their figures from the dimensions of Noah’s Ark or the tent of the Tabernacle, watching the skies for comets, waiting for the ocean to boil, reading the newspapers to see when the Antichrist would reveal himself. And it never happened, not even once.
Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent and the god of wind and learning. Werner Forman / Universal Images Group / Getty Images
But aren’t the oceans boiling? As the air fills with carbon dioxide, the seas are turning to acid mire, a soup of plastic particles and dead coral, where the fish are all dying and only the tentacled things survive. Revelation, chapter eight: “A great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood; and the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died.” Doesn’t Donald Trump, a leering Antichrist in bronzer and self-regard, glower from the front page of every paper? And as warships surround a North Korea bristling with missiles, could the sky not soon be full of dazzling, falling stars, and then empty forever? Isn’t the end of the world really, actually, genuinely nigh? Aren’t we watching it happen, broadcast from our TV screens, right now?
For its critics, this sense of a looming end is an expression of the same spirit that made all those bloated celebrity prophets predict the Second Coming around the year 2000. Panicked jeremiads about climate change are just another form of religious nonsense — so, for some, is Marxism, with its deterministic charts of universal history. The philosopher Tom Whyman, for instance, wrote earlier this year that “we’ve successfully secularized the End Times.” It’s all a kind of wishful thinking, he argues; everyone wants to think that the end of the world is imminent, because it means that all the messy contingencies of life will finally become settled, and this desire is given form and propulsion by a still-dominant Judeo-Christian-Islamic conception of linear time. Once we expected to hear trumpets and angels; now it’s just the wandering honk of a puffed-up president announcing to the world that he’s pushing the button. But it’s the same thing.
Whyman considers the end of everything to be a kind of universal blankness, an abstract negation, a “Great Nothing” that blankets all existence without distinction. I disagree. When people imagine that the world is about to end, it’s their particular world that’s doomed, and the nature of that end will always in some way reflect what’s being destroyed. People who live in the desert would not live in fear of a global flood. And the End Times aren’t a unique product of Christianity; some kind of eschatology is present nearly everywhere. Nearly. The pre-Islamic Turkic peoples of Central Asia, for instance, don’t seem to have had any myths about the destruction of the world, and why would they? They lived on an open steppe far from the ocean, where everything is flat and endless. Why would it ever end? Societies that believe in the Apocalypse tend to be those in which the seeds of the apocalypse that’s really happening are already planted. Cultures that have big cities, forms of writing, a discourse of history, and centralized power. Cultures like the old eastern Mediterranean that gave us the Biblical prophets and the Book of Revelation. Or cultures like the Aztecs.
Chalchiuhtlicue symbolized the purity and preciousness of spring, river, and lake water that was used to irrigate the fields. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Aztec apocalypse is nothing like the Christian one. It comes out of an unimaginably different history and society to the world of Greece and Rome. But it’s a lot like ours. The collision with Nibiru or devastating magnetic pole shift might have a distinctly monotheistic tang, but it’s possible that the Aztecs might see in our worries over anthropogenic climate change, economic collapse, and senseless nuclear war something strangely familiar. Instead of considering apocalypses through their literary and conceptual lineages, we could think about them instead in terms of what kind of society gave birth to them. How much do modern Westerners really have in common with prophets of the Old and New Testaments like Ezekiel or John of Patmos? Might we be more like Itzcoatl or Huitzilihuitl, even if we’re less likely to know who they are?Our capitalist modernity isn’t a Mediterranean modernity, but a Mesoamerican one. The Aztecs, those strange and heartless people with their stepped pyramids and their vast urban civilization that never came out of the Stone Age or invented the wheel, are our contemporaries.
Original Aztec sources are patchy — most of their beautiful codices were destroyed during the Spanish conquests in the early 16th century — and tend to contradict each other, but what makes the Aztec apocalypse so different to that of any other mythology, and so similar to the one we face now, is that they believed it had already happened.
This world is not the first. There were four that came before it and were destroyed in turn, all in the usual fashion — usual, that is, for end-of-the-world stories. Each was made by and contested over by the two gods, Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl, as a series of staging-grounds for their constant battles, two cosmic children bickering over a toy. In the first, Tezcatlipoca turned himself into the sun, and a jealous Quetzalcoatl knocked him out of the sky with his club; in revenge, Tezcatlipoca set jaguars loose to wipe out all its people. Together the gods built a new race of humans, but they stopped worshipping their creators, so Tezcatlipoca turned them all into monkeys, and Quetzalcoatl, who had loved them for all their sins, destroyed them in a fit of spite with a hurricane. Tezcatlipoca connived the gods Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlicue into destroying the next two with fire and with floods. The fifth one, ours, will be destroyed by earthquakes. But in every other respect it’s entirely different from the ones that came before.
Urn depicting Tlaloc, the rain god. DEA / G. Dagli Orti / Getty Images
After the creation and destruction of four worlds, the universe had exhausted itself. We live in the shadow of those real words; their echo, their chalk outline. In each of the four previous worlds, humanity was newly created by the gods. Present-day humans were not: we are the living dead. After the destruction of the fourth world, it lay in darkness for fifty years, until Quetzalcoatl journeyed into Mictlan, the Aztec hell, and reanimated the bones of the dead. In the four previous worlds, the sun was a living god. In ours, it’s a dead one. To build a new sun for this worn-out earth required a blood sacrifice: The gods gathered in the eternal darkness and built a fire, and their weakest deity, Nanahuatzin, a crippled god covered in sores, leapt into the center of the flames, and the sun was born.
But it was a weak sun, and it wouldn’t move. All the other gods, one after another, immolated themselves in the fire to bring the dawn, but it’s still not enough. The sun needs more sacrifices; it needs ours. This is why the Aztec priests slaughtered people by the hundreds, cutting out their hearts and throwing their corpses down the temple steps. This blood and murder was the only thing that kept the sun rising each morning; if they stopped even for a day, it would go black and wither to nothing in the sky, and without its light the earth would harden and crack and fall apart. And some day, this will happen: it’s earthquakes that will destroy us all, and when it crumbles there will be nothing left.
The fourth world was the last; we’re living in something else. A half-world, a mockery, a reality sustained only through death and suffering. The first four worlds were created by the gods and destroyed according to their wills or because of their squabbles, just like the four Yugas of Hinduism, or the creation of the Abrahamic God, whose Judgement Day will come whenever He sees fit. Our world is being kept alive only through human activity; it’s a world into which we have been abandoned. The Aztecs were stone-age existentialists, trembling before their misbegotten freedom. This is a theology for the anthropocene — our present era, in which biological and geological processes are subordinated to human activity, in which the earth that preceded us for four billion years is finally, devastatingly in our hands, to choke with toxic emissions or sear with nuclear bombs. But modern society isn’t treading new ground here: the Aztecs came first, five hundred years ago. And their response was to kill.
Most everyone knows about the Aztec sun-sacrifices, the mass daily executions carried out by the priests, but ritual human slaughter was everywhere in their society. Sometimes children were drowned, sometimes women were killed as they danced, sometimes people were burned alive, or shot with arrows, or flayed, or eaten. Hundreds of thousands of people died every year. At the same time, these were the same people whose emperors were all poets, whose young people went out dancing every night, and whose cities were vast gardens filled with flowers, butterflies, and hummingbirds. This might be the reason Aztec human sacrifice is still so horrifying — we’re much more likely to forgive mass killings if we can say for certain why they happened. The Romans killed thousands in their circuses, and in the 21st century we still watch death — real or feigned — for entertainment; it’s extreme but not so different. When the Spanish came to Mexico, they were horrified by the skulls piled up by the temples — but then they killed everyone, and we understand wars of profit and extermination too. But like any mirror, the Aztecs seem to show us everything backwards.
The Aztecs were stone-age existentialists, trembling before their misbegotten freedom.
Still, you can feel traces today. In the neoliberal economic doctrine that’s still dominant across most of the world, something strangely similar is happening. All the welfare institutions that ameliorate capitalism’s tendencies to extreme wealth and extreme poverty have to be destroyed, for the good of the economy. People die from this — in Britain, up to 30,000 people may have died in one year as a result of cuts to health and social care, and that’s in a prosperous Western country. In the United States, a faltering band-aid mechanism like Obamacare has to be wrenched off, with the excuse that it’s being replaced with market pricings, which are natural and proper and, in their own way, fair. But it’s all for nothing. The economics behind neoliberalism are nonsense, but the prophets — these days, drab old thinkers like Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman — have warned us that unless they’re followed, we’ll open up the road to serfdom. Ask a liberal economist why millions have to suffer, forced to live in drudgery under late capitalism’s dimming sun, and something horrifying will happen. A weak, indulgent, condescending smile will leak across their face, and they’ll say: that’s just how the market works. An echo of the Aztec priest, dagger held high, kindly telling his victim that his heart has to be pulled out from his chest, because that’s just how the sun works.
But neoliberalism really does work, it just doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. It might not be any good for the population at large, but it has facilitated a massive upward redistribution of wealth; the poor are scrubbed clean of everything, and the rich drink it up. Class power creates both the excess of cruelty and the mythic ideology to justify it. Marxist writers like Eric Wolf have tried to find something similar operating among the Aztecs: Human sacrifice cemented the rule of the aristocratic elites — they were believed to literally gain their powers through eating the sacrificial victims — while keeping the underclasses in line and the conquered peoples in terror. But all contemporaneous societies were class-based and repressive; it doesn’t begin to explain the prescient nihilism of their theology. Something else might.
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.
Tezcatlipoca, the supreme god, and the enemy of Quetzalcoatl. Werner Forman / Universal Images Group / Getty Images
The Aztecs were not capitalists, but their economy has some spooky correspondences with ours. While they had a centralized state, there was also an emerging free market in sacrifices, and a significant degree of social mobility: every Aztec subject was trained for war, and you could rise through society by bringing in captives for slaughter. The Oxford historian Alan Knight describes it as “a gigantic ‘potlatch state,’ a state predicated on the collection, redistribution and conspicuous consumption of a vast quantity of diverse goods. Sacrifice represented a hypertrophied form of potlatch, with humans playing the part elsewhere reserved for pigs.” The potlatch is a custom practiced by indigenous peoples further up in the Pacific Northwest, in which indigenous Americans ceremonially exchange and then spectacularly destroyed vast quantities of goods — blankets, canoes, skins, but most of all food — in a show of wealth and plenitude. In the sophisticated class society of the Aztecs, the grand triumphant waste was in human lives.
We are, after all, assembled from the bones of four dead universes. We were dead to begin with. Perched on the end of history, the Aztecs beheld a dead reality in which life becomes lifeless, to be circulated and exchanged. Four-and-a-half centuries later, Marx saw the same processes in capitalism. He describes it in Wage Labor and Capital: “The putting of labour-power into action — i.e., work — is the active expression of the labourer's own life. And this life activity he sells to another person [...] He does not count the labour itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life.” (Emphasis mine.) Workers are cut off from their own labour and from themselves by a production process in which they are not ends but means, part of a giant machinery that exists to satisfy the demands not of human life but of “dead labor,” capital. From his 1844 Manuscripts: “It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect.” His labour-power becomes a commodity; something to be bought and sold in quantifiable amounts, something inert. The worker under capitalism, like the captive walking up the temple steps, is consecrated to death.
We are, after all, assembled from the bones of four dead universes.
The Aztec world ended. When the Spanish came they found an empire of 25 million people; by the time they left only one million remained. Its people were killed with swords, guns, fire, famine, disease, and work. The beautiful garden-city of Tenochtitlan was torn down, a European fort built in its place. Sacrifices were no longer offered to the sun, and somehow it still kept rising every day. You can laugh at their credulity — they really thought the sun would stop rising, and look, everything’s still here! But the end of the Aztec world was dispersed throughout time, until it became isomorphic with the world itself.
Their disaster was not waiting for us in the future, a monumental bookend to history, like the Judgement Day of the people who destroyed them — they lived within it, in the ruins of a real world that died with the gods. This is the cosmology of the great German philosopher Walter Benjamin: to apprehend reality we should make “no reflections on the future of bourgeois society;” rather than a series of events leading towards an uncertain end, his Angel of History stands to face the past and sees only “one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.”
We exist in that rubble. The Aztec Empire conquered its world, strip-mined its future, and turned human populations into fungible objects. Contemporary society too has nowhere else to go: capital has saturated the earth, and outer space is a void. Our world, with the monstrous totality of its stability and order, is relentlessly producing its own destruction. In fantasies of black holes and the wrath of God; in the actuality of an atmosphere flooded with carbon dioxide and a biosphere denuded of all life. We missed the apocalypse while we were waiting for it to take place. Baudrillard writes: “Everything has already become nuclear, faraway, vaporized. The explosion has already occurred.” Capitalism built a corpse-world. Its sun keeps rising every morning, whatever we do, but it’s growing hotter in the sky; poisoning the seas, frizzling farmlands to desert, carrying out Tezcatlipoca’s last act of revenge.
Sam Kriss is a writer.