Hydraulic Empire


One of the most pressing issues in any study of political science is documenting the different types of political systems and standardizing them into easily identifiable designations: in contemporary times, we have constitutional monarchies, the Presidential system favored in the Western hemisphere, the Westminster parliamentary system favored in most of the rest of the world, and so forth. Going back further into history, however, the less clear cut the designations become. In the first half of the twentieth century, the German theorist Karl Wittfogel (1896-1988) undertook a study of early Chinese political history, eventually becoming one of the more prominent Sinologists in Germany and later the United Kingdom and the United States. Wittfogel had joined the German Communist Party in 1920, and much of his early research was influenced by this ideological outlook. One theory he developed very early on into his research was a socio-political extension of what Karl Marx called the Asiatic mode of production, namely agriculture fed by extensive irrigation. Wittfogel held that in early Eastern antiquity, the entities who controlled the irrigation became the de facto and later de jure rulers of the states (or more accurately for the age, realms) that possessed this irrigation-based economy. He termed these proto-states (and specifically early China) hydraulic civilizations. The stratified bureaucracies that developed from them were called hydraulic empires.

Oriental Despotism

In the 1930s, Germany became a pretty unfun place for Communists, so after a brief stay in a concentration camp, Wittfogel fled to London in 1934 and later the USA in 1939. Wittfogel eventually got a job at the University of Washington and it was during his tenure there that he became highly disillusioned with Communism. He felt that Josef Stalin and later Mao Zedong were instrumental in reestablishing what he referred to as "oriental despotism" in modern times. In 1957, Wittfogel wrote a book that was actually called Oriental Despotism, claiming that the titular style of government was a natural and common outgrowth of hydraulic empires.

Neither his terminology nor his definition of oriental despotism were original; the distinction between West and East was as old as recorded history. The history of the Western world in many instances was decided as a result of oriental despotism (or accusations thereof): Octavian, the grand-nephew and adopted son of Gaius Julius Caesar, led an effective propaganda campaign in Rome toward the end of the first century BC against Marcus Antonius by accusing him of becoming an Eastern tyrant due to his conviviality with and the malicious influence of Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt; centuries earlier, Alexander the Great had faced stern opposition over his adoption of the familiar Persian practice of proskynesis (it being mandatory to prostrate one's self before a social superior, i.e., Alexander). What was unique, however, was the correlation that Wittfogel made between oriental despotism (as a discernible, standardized phenomenon) and hydraulic empires.

Characteristics of Oriental Despotism

  • Proskynesis.
  • Control over a resource essential to either life or the economy or both.
  • Highly centralized bureaucracy.
  • Impersonal governance by a distant ruler.
  • Identification of the ruler with a deity (or at the very least, the divine).
  • Absolute power of life and death over citizens.
  • Absolute right of the ruler and his agents to compulsorily force citizens into labor (which is technically not the same thing as slavery in the classical understanding of the term, which was an altogether separate social phenomenon, but the distinction is largely academic to contemporary observers).
  • Lack of an independent aristocracy.
  • Huge monuments and architecture on an almost cyclopean scale.
  • The despotate as a system would remain in place despite a change of regime unless it was dislodged by an outside power.


Being a Sinologist, Wittfogel initially developed the theory of hydraulic empire in reference to China. However, he also applied it to ancient civilizations like Egypt, Persia, Babylon, Sumeria, and Assyria. The point was not that all Eastern Empires were hydraulic empires or that they practiced oriental despotism, but rather that their systems of governance were inherently different from Western (i.e. Greco-Roman and medieval European) states. For obvious reasons, this hypothesis was (and remains) quite controversial. Let's evaluate some of these examples and match them against the criteria listed:

  • Egypt: The pharaonic system was as old as the Egyptian state and Pharaohs were viewed as representatives of the gods if not gods themselves (via posthumous apotheosis) and the people were forced to recognize them in an appropriate manner. The Egyptian state eventually developed a centralized bureaucracy, though it did not start out with one. The Pharaoh held absolute authority over his people, granting them life or death as he pleased and frequently forcing them into labor (all those pretty monuments didn't build themselves). Egypt did not start out with an independent aristocracy, but the priestly caste could be seen as fulfillung this rule. Most obviously, of course, all life in Egypt was based on the flow of the Nile River and the state did control the irrigation thereof. Egypt would therefore almost perfectly represent a hydraulic empire. It's debatable as to when the pharaonic system actually collapsed, but it only did so at the instigation of an outside power, whether it was Persia, Greece, or Rome (depending on your historical point of view).
  • Persia: From a Greco-Roman point of view, Persia was the most reviled culture of antiquity, so much of what we "know" about it is colored by those perceptions. Cyrus the Great was the founder of Persia as an imperial superpower, though it had been a regional kingdom for quite a while by the time he came along. Proskynesis does not seem to have been an initial feature of Cyrus' Achaemenid Empire, though it certainly was by the time of Darius in the late sixth/early fifth century BC. The heart of the Persian Empire was in the desert, so water had to be brought there through a series of underground aqueducts, the construction and maintenance of which were the purview of the state. In the less climatically hostile parts of the Empire, however, it was not necessary for the state to provide water to its citizens. Persia is a famous example of a hyper-bureaucratic state and the Emperor's regional satraps ruled the provinces in his stead. The Persian monarch came to be viewed as a deity and all his citizens were under his absolute authority (though Cyrus had been a tolerant ruler and his proclamation upon the conquest of Babylon is often held up as an early example of a human rights declaration). Persia did not suffer any lack of aristocratic families as they comprised the bureaucracy of the court in the Persian capital (alternately Persepolis or Ctesiphon, depending upon what era we're talking about). The Persian system didn't really die out until the 7th century AD when it was conquered by the Islamic Caliphate, which was a foreign power. Persia is perhaps a weak example of a hydraulic empire, because water would have been readily available to those satrapies on the water (i.e. Asia Minor, the Levant, etc.) but Persia proper was a hydraulic state in the sense that the government was responsible for bringing the water to the people in the capital and its satellite towns. Persia also had great monuments of excessive size, but these are the exception rather than the rule.
  • China: Wittfogel's characterization of China as a hydraulic empire is the most contested because it's his most prominent. The consolidation of China as a single state in antiquity came well after the establishment of mass irrigation projects that were frequently unrelated to the state's administration. Qin Shi Huang was the first Emperor of a unified China and while certainly a despot, there doesn't seem to be any clear connection between his authoritarian style of government and the distribution of water for agriculture. Chinese Emperors were not viewed as gods, though they were said to either have or lack the Mandate of Heaven, meaning that depending on the conditions, they had the tacit approval of the gods. If there were frequent disasters during a given Emperor's reign, he was supposed to have lost his mandate and could be justly overthrown. China is of course very well known for being a very early bureaucratic state, extending back to the pre-unification period. Chinese Emperors did have absolute power over their subjects, though in practice, they did not frequently go around having people killed and forcing people to work for them (Qin Shi Huang was famous for this, however). China was like Persia in the sense that the high-ranking members of the Imperial bureaucracy and their families were effectively aristocracies. The Jin Dynasty, for example, reunited China after the Three Kingdoms Period, and they were originally high ranking bureaucrats (Sima Yi probably being the most famous). Another example of an aristocracy in China was the semi-feudalistic notion of regional warlords being subordinate to the Emperor but exercising control over their home areas. So while they weren't "aristocrats" in the narrow, absolute sense of the word, they had all the accoutrements of them. China's architecture is really quite conservative outside of obvious structures like the Great Wall of China or certain Imperial residences. Finally, there's the issue of who brought down the Chinese Imperial system: well, obviously, it was the Chinese. China had actually had several peasant rebellions throughout history, the most famous of which in antiquity was the Yellow Turban Rebellion, which was designed to bring down the Emperor and replace the Imperial system with something more equitable. It failed in the short term, but the Han Dynasty collapsed a few years later and China fractured into the aforementioned Three Kingdoms. The case for China as a hydraulic empire is thus comparatively weak when compared to that of Egypt or Sumeria.

The real question is what is the connection between hydraulicism and oriental despotism? The rationale is this: I control and provide that which gives you life, therefore I am to be exalted above all others and I may do with you as I wish. However, tyrants and despots throughout time, whether Eastern or Western, have always adopted the subordinate clause of that statement, regardless of what they have to offer in exchange. Let's look at a couple of Western examples:

  • Rome: One of the hallmarks of the Roman Empire was its state-sponsored aqueducts, which provided water to its citizens in various parts of the Empire. Rome developed an extensive bureaucracy as its territory expanded. The Emperor was up until the Christian era, the chief priest of the pagan state religion, making him the most identifiable representative of the gods on Earth. The Emperor could kill anyone he wanted and could enslave anyone he wanted. Rome's engineering and architectural projects are famous, especially monuments such as the Colosseum. In the later Western Empire, Diocletian instituted proskynesis and made the Emperor even more remote from his subjects. The Roman aristocracy was weak and without a real say in the government. Finally, the Roman government was ultimately brought down by Germanic invaders and no attempts were made to return Rome to its Republican form of government after it switched over to its Imperial system in the late first century BC. By all of these criteria, the Roman Empire could be considered a hydraulic empire.
  • Florida: I live in the state of Florida. In Florida, it is common for city governments to control water distribution and we must pay them for this service. Florida has a large, overblown bureaucracy. Most of Florida's population is located quite a way away from Tallahassee, the seat of government, making access to the Emperor Charlie Crist (or Jeb Bush or Lawton Chiles or whoever) difficult for many. The Emperor of Florida cannot condemn me to death, but if I am for some reason sentenced to die, he can either grant me a reprieve or let me be executed, giving him some control over my life. Florida has no aristocracy to speak of and any change of regime in the state is noticeably similar in almost all respects to the one that preceded it. On the positive side, the Emperor of Florida is not viewed as a deity and I am not required to prostrate myself before him if I meet him (though there is a host of protocol I am expected to follow if I ever were to meet him). I'm also not liable to be forced into his service if he decides that would be appropriate. However, there are huge public works going on that seem to continue incessantly with the scope of each project overshadowing that of the one before it. By many of these criteria, Florida could be considered a weak hydraulic empire.


Facetiousness aside, you get my point. One can make a case for almost any state being a hydraulic empire. In fiction, Frank Herbert's Dune is probably the best and most famous example of a hydraulic empire, though instead of water being the much-coveted resource, it's the melange spice/drug. More recently, in the reimagined Flash Gordon series currently airing on the Sci-Fi Channel, Ming is the ruler over a hydraulic empire, controlling Mongo's clean water supply. (As an aside, I do not recommend watching this show at all.)

There's a certain prima facie appeal of Wittfogel's theory, and indeed, in the cases of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia (and possibly pre-Columbian Empires in the Americas such as the Maya or the Inca), it's pretty valid. However, the question as to what separates East from West politically can't be always be formulaized and distilled to a basic, theoretical level because of the considerable overlap in traditions as a result of trade, wars of conquest, and other forms of cultural exchange. That Wittfogel originally developed his hypothesis from a Marxist standpoint as a form of dialectical historical explanation reveals his bias (political and social power emanating from control of the means of production), which is ironic since by the time he actually wrote Oriental Despotism, he had abandoned Marxism. Whether you agree with his formulation or not, however, the hydraulic empire is definitely something to think about in considering the origins of political orders whether Oriental or Occidental.