Things to be worried about: hydraulic despotism

October 1, 2020

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If you control the water, you control the people. A precept governing much of history. But today, the water takes many forms—energy, electricity, social media. There are many vectors for control, but we don't need to hand them over.


If you control the water, you control the people. This was the basic thesis of Karl Wittfogel. His theory of hydraulic civilisations proposes that certain empires came into power through a kind of environmental determinism.

Water, in any society, is crucial to its health. This was perhaps more obvious in a community less distanced from its agricultural backbone than we are. Without water, there is no irrigation of crops. A rich flow of irrigation water would lead to an increased local human population–where better to start a farm? Eventually, the demand for the water would reach a level of sensitivity which was ripe for despotism. More people means more infrastructure. More infrastructure means less mobility for the populace as they become reliant on the local goods and services to support their size. At some point, the loss of the water wouldn't simply mean that the populace had to leave, but that the populace would die because they were unable to leave. Control of the water at this point would mean a total control of the people.

It is an interesting history lesson to investigate the kinds of ancient and modern states thought to have arisen from this circumstance, with no better starting place than the Wikipedia entry. Or perhaps, for the enthusiastic, Wittfogel's book with emphasis on the first four chapters. Within these pages we learn how the hydraulic despot has absolute control, with no recourse to the checks and balances we're used to in modern societies under the influence of our modern democratic ideals.

the hydraulic state prevents the nongovernmental forces of society from crystallizing into independent bodies strong enough to counterbalance and control the political machine.

Wittfogel,Oriental Despotism Ch. 3

But this hydraulic feature of societal dependence isn't something that lives in the past. Since the agricultural revolution, our dependence on certain resources has only grown. Indeed, since the industrialisation of modern society, it has grown exponentially.

Instead of thinking about only our water, consider hydraulic despotism as applying to any kind of substance or condition that is necessary for life. Of these, we have many. Not just water, but the product of arable land. Or hydrocarbon fuels like petrol and coal. Indeed, any major source of energy, from electricity to gas. Our sources of medicine and medical aid. All of these things are controlled by small and centralised forces. All of these things are subject to hydraulic despotism.

The kind of infrastructure that supports the vast majority of modern human life lies in the hands of a tiny number of people—not simply our governments, but with increasing frequency private corporations and industry groups.

The reason for this is manifold, but two causes stand out. The first, of course, is the pressures of industrial society. The same pressures that erode our communities also promote hydraulic despotism: "[t]he shift from an agricultural lifestyle meant the centralisation of communities in urban areas and social pressures that reduced the size of families. Education and familial care could be delegated from the members of the extended family to institutions. Food could be bought, rather than produced". Modern society, if not by design then by nature, encourages us to hand our responsibilities off.

The second is more personal. It's because this delegation of responsibility is convenient. We are active participants in relinquishing control, because as technology develops, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand. There is no place where this is more evident than in the changing shape of our social networks and communications.

For many people in a modern society, the need to be mobile is paramount. We don't simply move to where the work is, as Sociologists complained of in the early 20th Century. We also increasingly need to move to where the education happens that permits us to work in the first place.

As such, our social networks often span cities, states, countries, and continents. Not simply our networking contacts but our friends and family too. To stay connected we rely on a handful of tools, owned by an even smaller group of companies. Our emails by Microsoft and Google. Our messages by Facebook, ByteDance, and Google again. Our very links to those who are important to us are subject to the very same conditions that sparked Wittfogel's thesis. And this seems like, not just a problem, but a preventable problem.

Man is no ant... The urge to act independently is an essential attribute... What happens to man's desire for autonomy under the conditions of total power?... hydraulic despotism... blocks the development... and... discourages man's desire for independent... action... hydraulic government is government by intimidation

Wittfogel,Oriental Despotism Ch. 5

To live in modern society is to relinquish control of our water. But there seems no need for us to lean into that fact, and hand over everything else as well. The defining feature of humans seems to be our capacity for nurture. To share ideas, and bring them into the world. Let's not lose that.

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