Wittfogel's hydraulic hypothese summarized (adapted from on-line Encyclopedia Britannica's articles). Typed |
Civilizations whose agriculture was dependent upon large-scale waterworks for irrigation and flood control were called "hydraulic civilizations" by the German-American historian Karl A. Wittfogel in his book Oriental Despotism (1957).
Wittfogel believed that such "hydraulic civilizations" although neither all in the Orient nor characteristic of all Oriental societies were quite different from those of the West. He believed that wherever irrigation required substantial and centralized control, government representatives monopolized political power and dominated the economy, resulting in an absolutist managerial state. In addition, there was a close identification of these officials with the dominant religion and an atrophy of other centres of power. The forced labour for irrigation projects was directed by the bureaucratic network. Among these hydraulic civilizations, Wittfogel listed ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China and pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru.
The extreme importance of the role of irrigation in social development has been disputed by other writers. Not all of the features that Wittfogel linked are necessarily found together, and they also may appear without large-scale irrigation. The static nature of his model has also been criticized. The U.S. anthropologist Robert McCormick Adams suggested that archaeological evidence fails to support Wittfogel's contention that irrigation is the primary cause of the formation of coercive political institutions but conceded that, as part of a larger system of subsistence techniques, political structure, and economic relationships, it may help consolidate political control.
Work organization of the ancient world
The first general theory advanced to explain the development of ancient civilizations with systematic organization of work on a large scale, the emergence of social classes, and widespread specialization was elaborated in the United States by the historian and political scientist Karl Wittfogel in his seminal book Oriental Despotism (1957). Wittfogel believed that the development of irrigation works in such areas as Mesopotamia and Egypt led to the use of mass labour, to an organizational hierarchy for coordinating and directing its activities, and to government control for ensuring proper distribution of the water. Though tribal societies had had some form of government, this was usually personal in nature, exercised by a patriarch over a tribal group related by various degrees of kinship. Now, for the first time, an impersonal government as a distinct and permanent institution was established.
Irrigation increased the food supply, allowing larger numbers of people to agglomerate into towns and cities. Because farmers were vulnerable to attack, armies were needed, with the implication of an officer class. Town specialization of labour brought the emergence of potters, weavers, metalworkers, scribes, lawyers, and physicians, while the new surpluses also created the basis for commerce. The more complex economy required records, so writing, of which the first examples come from the bookkeeping records of the storehouses in ancient Mesopotamia, was born.
Wittfogel's theory has been modified by scholars who point to the emergence of urban civilizations in some areas without the presence of large-scale irrigation works. In their view, several factors, including geographic features, natural-resource distribution, climate, kinds of crops and animals raised, and relations with neighbouring peoples, entered into the response to the environment. These scholars might be said to apply a "systems" approach to the interpretation of the origins of organized societies.