ORIENTAL DESPOTISM, by Karl August Wittfogel. Yale University Press, 1957
In calling his book “a comparative study of total power,” the author is doing himself justice, for the book indeed is an immense file case of characteristics which at various times have been common to many societies of oriental type. The book, however, pretends to be more—it tries to prove a theory which would explain the similarities. All these despotic governments, Wittfogel suggests, based their power on an identical service which they rendered their subjects: they organized and supervised the waterworks which assured farming; if they did not actually do it, their predecessors had, or they had learned the techniques of despotism from neighboring governments which once had been connected with the control of water supply.
To prove this contention, it will be necessary to define the control of water supply as broadly as possible. It will not suffice to evoke the huge irrigation canals or flood dikes of ancient empires which still evoke our admiration; to make the argument really comprehensive, reference must be made to the provision of drinking water, to shipping and even ocean communications. Since 90 per cent of the ancient empires were 90 per cent of the time ruled by despots and at some time at least also were dependent upon water supply, it really is not difficult to establish a statistical correlation between water and despotism. In such a case, the difficulty is not in the alleged rule, but in the contradictory exception.
How, for instance, do we explain Japanese despotism which plainly had nothing to do with water supply? We proceed in two stages; first we describe many features of a despotic government which often are found in societies which depend on water control; to recall the sum total of these features, then, we use the terms “despotic,” “oriental” and “hydraulic” interchangeably. Thereupon we find most of these features in the Japanese society and triumphantly hold them up as proof that this really is an “oriental” society. To make this appear as something rather close to our “hydraulic” type of society, we use various devices, such as emphasizing Japan’s cultural and political ties with the eminently “hydraulic” China, naming among the measures which a Japanese reform government took, first a decree relating to dikes, and we end with the assertion that “in a submarginal way (Japan) was related to the institutional patterns of the hydraulic world.” No one can gainsay that.