oriental despotism


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oriental despotism

Karl Wittfogel's (1955) now largely discredited term for ‘Asiatic society’ (see ASIATIC MODE OF PRODUCTION AND ASIATIC SOCIETY) and types of social system which he felt were related to this. ‘Asiatic society’ was a form of society which, following Adam SMITH, MARX and J. S. MILL and much 19th-century European thought, Wittfogel saw as characterized by ‘despotic’ state power. This resulted from a necessity for public works to provide irrigation and flood control, hence his alternative term -HYDRAULIC SOCIETY. Oriental despotism was contrasted with Western European forms of constitutional, ultimately liberal constitutional, government. The absence of ‘private property’ (and CIVIL SOCIETY) was seen as a further decisive factor in accounting for this difference. While there remains much support for the contention that Western European development (including constitutional state forms) constitutes a distinctive route (e.g. see WEBER, ANDERSON), the idea that this can be explained simply, or even primarily, in terms of an ‘hydraulic’ social basis has not been accepted. See also ORIENTALISM.