The case against “oriental despotism”

Evidence and musings from JG Manning, on ancient Egypt:

The highly centralized, despotic understanding of the Egyptian political economy, and observations from other Asian states, beginning with Herodotus and Aristotle down to French political theory, Marx and Weber, led directly to the development of the theory of Oriental Despotism by Karl Wittfogel, a general theory that linked water resources to social structure and governance

…Despite this very ancient image of a state cursed by its resources–passive, never-changing, sterile and long used to despotic rulers–and the strong connection between physical geography, climate and governance,
there was no causal link between the control of irrigation and authoritarian rule

The Wittfogel model… is like Elvis–it refuses to die.

One paper in a very fascinating-looking economic history conference.

h/t Suresh Naidu.

One thought on “The case against “oriental despotism”

  1. I teach Oriental Despotism in my “10,000 years of Southeast Asian political history in 75 minutes” lecture. I read Wittfogel as being a lot more sensitive to this critique than the author suggests that he is. As applied to the Khmer kingdom, for example, the point is not that harnessing the Mekong to produce huge amounts of wet rice created despotic rule. Rather, it’s that no despot could consolidate rule durable enough to produce the monuments that remain today without being able to mobilize labor. Doing that required more than just force, it required authority, derived not just from laws but also from a social system that equated the despot with a god. Hence the fusion of bureaucratic and spiritual hierarchies in the “quasi-hierocratic” social structure of hydraulic societies.

    I bet the sense that Wittfogel–were he around to read–could read this essay and agree with nearly all of it.