13 September 2016

Oriental Despotism -- the review

I read through this massive (550 pages) book in a hurry because much of its discussion is overly-erudite and many of its examples redundant.

BUT, I recommend that you read the book -- or at least keep its lessons in mind -- due to its relevance to discussions over water management, projects and politics.

Karl August Wittfogel's book was published in 1957, and it reflects upon -- and warns against -- the weaknesses of the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist brand of communism that was practiced at the time.

The key thesis of the book is that "oriental despots" use access to land and water as a means of controlling peasants who have no rights except those given to them. This system -- which can be contrasted with a liberal system in which private rights reside with individuals yeoman farmers -- gives the despot immense powers that can be used to benefit or undermine progress and prosperity.

Wittfogel wrote this book as a lapsed Marxist who objected to Lenin's reinterpretation of Marx. This dispute comes from Lenin's attempt to leapfrog capitalism on the way to socialist paradise -- a move that Marx had never suggested, as he wanted capitalism (including private ownership of land and water) to flourish before it withered away in a workers' revolt against capital that put the means of production in communal hands and resulted in a classless society. Lenin was in a hurry to turn Russian peasants into post-industrial communists, so he decided to skip the whole property rights step (as well as the development of a market economy) and put the land and water under the direct control of Soviet bureaucrats, who would "plan accordingly" for the benefit of the community.

Wittfogel's claim (we'll get to Oriental in a moment) was that these "hydraulic bureaucrats" were essentially a ruling class that controlled land and water for their own benefit, just as oriental despots did.

Now, how did oriental despots behave?
  1. Get big or go home. They controlled whole water basins, to direct water to their designs.
  2. It's all about you. The State, as the possession of the despot, was stronger than "civil society," which made it easy to do what he wanted and die in peace (Stalin died in 1953).
  3. Fuck them. Total power is not benevolent. Thus, local losses are irrelevant to the despot's gains from managing HIS land and water rights.
I'm sure you know how badly the bureaucrats of the USSR treated their fellow citizens and screwed up the future, but that dead experiment has sprung back to life in the guise of Putin's Petro-despotism, which may or may not outlast low oil prices (he doesn't even have enough talent to turn land and water into money). But we can also see these aspects in other dictators, despots and fascist-wanna-bes. They want to control natural resources to serve their own plans -- not the goals of citizens, let alone alternative models of political and economic development.

Examples? How about China's S-N canals? Maybe Malaysia's borneo boondoggle or Aswan High Dam. In the US, you have the classic Cadillac Desert case of the US Bureau of Reclamation competing with the Army Corps of Engineers to see who could throw more money at projects designed to dominate regions by destroying ecosystems to construct irrigation monstrosities. I fear to imagine what would happen if Trump-the-developer turned into Trump-the-land-despot.

Bottom Line: Concentration of power is dangerous because, first, the owner of that power may serve themselves over others. Second, because they may choose the wrong way to even serve themselves. Third (and differently) because land and water management should be left in the hands of those subject to management decisions. Oriental despots were good at controlling citizens but miserable at improving their lot. The US system was excellent at giving citizens freedom but has weakened in the past 100 years as power over land and water has flowed to the centre. I give this book FOUR stars for providing these insights (in a form that's slightly long for today's readers).

Addendum: The Economist has a book review discussing Oriental Despotism this week.


  1. Oriental Despotism is definitely a classic, David!

    I see current parallels in very dirigiste countries- where the only decision is the ministry's decision and local people have almost no say.

    Honestly, I see this mindset in a whole lot of IWRM people... The idea of participation in IWRM is often just window dressing....ask them about something and the answer is just "well, the minister will decide..")

    Even in some weak African countries where there is still one dominant political party, even under pressure from outside donors and private interests, the use of bureaucratic means to control can still have a stultifying effect on local voices.

  2. Wittfogel's thesis was borrowed from Max Weber

    1. @wayne -- Looks like he cited Weber, but NOT that "his thesis was borrowed from Weber" but I'm happy to hear more on this...

  3. A classic in political philosophy (and water economy).

    The book’s author is perhaps as interesting as his theory of the Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP). A converted Marxist playwright, Wittfogel became the Joe McCarthy of hydraulic political theory, accusing his colleagues of being Communists when he disagreed with them. I think the book succeeds in its analysis of Asiatic despots, especially in South Asian hydraulic civilizations. The link to the Bolsheviks, (who were city boys, as the saying goes,) obsessed with industrialization and catching up with the West, is more tenuous.

    Zetland here raises an interesting question: what was the role of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers in American democracy and empire, as viewed through the lens of Wittfogel’s AMP? On one hand, large scale water projects in the US undoubtedly represent super-centralized monopolization of resources. On the the other, water projects were the grease that kept Congress’s gears turning smoothly, at least up until the Carter administration.

    How will water and water management, large- and small-scale, impact the functioning of American democracy moving forward?


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