hydraulic societyWITTFOGEL's (1955) term for Asiatic society. He suggested that centralized and despotic state power could be explained as the outcome of the dependence of these Asiatic societies on extensive state-directed public works to provide and maintain irrigation and flood-control systems. However, Wittfogel's contention has not survived detailed empirical examination. Not only do many ‘despotic’regimes possess no obvious hydraulic basis, many regimes with such a basis are not despotic (e.g. see Leach, 1959, Eberhard, 1965; compare Harris, 1978). At the very least, Wittfogel's explanation is vastly overextended.
Wittfogel's more general claim to have entirely undermined MARX's assumptions about the implications of materialism are similarly overstated. His argument that his work also demonstrated:
- that the TOTALITARIANISM of Russian as well as Chinese COMMUNISM could be explained as building on the despotic and hydraulic legacy; and
- the dependence of any future freedom on a resistance to all encroachments of state power are similarly challengable. Compare GEOGRAPHICAL DETERMINISM, CULTURAL MATERIALISM. See also ORIENTAL DESPOTISM, ASIATIC MODE OF PRODUCTION AND ASIATIC SOCIETY, ORIENTALISM.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000