Hydraulic empire

Hydraulic empire

A hydraulic empire, also known as a hydraulic despotism or "water monopoly empire", is a social or government structure which maintains power and control through exclusive control over access to water. It arises through the need for flood control and irrigation, which requires central coordination and a specialized bureaucracy [cite book
last = Wittfogel
first = Karl
authorlink = Karl August Wittfogel
coauthors =
title = Oriental despotism; a comparative study of total power
publisher =
date = 1957
location =
pages =
url =
doi = JC414 .W5
id =
isbn = 9780394747019
] .


A developed "hydraulic civilization" maintains control over its population by means of controlling the supply of water. The term was coined by the German American historian Karl August Wittfogel (18961988), in "Oriental Despotism" (1957). Wittfogel asserted that such "hydraulic civilizations" — although they were neither all located in the Orient nor characteristic of all Oriental societies — were essentially different from those of the Western world.

Most of the first civilizations in history, such as Ancient Egypt, Sri Lanka, Mesopotamia, China and pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru, are believed to have been hydraulic empires. The Indus Valley civilization is often considered a hydraulic empire despite a lack of evidence of irrigation (as this evidence may have been lost in time due to flood damage). Most hydraulic empires existed in desert regions, but imperial China also had some such characteristics, due to the exacting needs of rice cultivation.


According to Wittfogel's analysis, central control over the vital resource of water gave rise to social classes and social and economic specialization, while it also gave the government power of life and death over its population. Thus, a particularly extreme despotism is typical of hydraulic empires -- historically, many of the empires Wittfogel classes as "hydraulic" revered their rulers as gods.

The typical hydraulic empire government, in Wittfogel's thesis, is extremely centralized, with no trace of an independent aristocracy -- in contrast to the decentralized feudalism of medieval Europe. Though tribal societies had structures that were usually personal in nature, exercised by a patriarch over a tribal group related by various degrees of kinship, hydraulic hierarchies gave rise to the established permanent institution of impersonal government. Popular revolution in such a state was impossible: a dynasty might die out or be overthrown by force, but the new regime would differ very little from the old one. Hydraulic empires were only ever destroyed by foreign conquerors.

Wittfogel's ideas, when applied to China, have been harshly criticized by scholars such as Joseph Needham who argued essentially that Wittfogel was operating from ignorance of basic Chinese history. Needham argued that the Chinese government was not despotic, was not dominated by a priesthood, and that Wittfogel's perspective does not address the necessity and presence of bureaucracy in modern Western civilization.

Examples in Science Fiction

Variations on hydraulic empires, in which some other critical material is controlled by a central ruling body, are a common theme in science fiction.

Perhaps the most familiar example is Frank Herbert's "Dune" series. The spice mélange produced by sandworms is essential for prolonging human lifespan, faster-than-light travel, and a form of precognition ability. A saying used within the books is "He who controls the spice, controls the universe!"

Larry Niven has a variation of a hydraulic empire in most of his fictional universes:

*Two empires are present in the Heorot universe—which includes "The Legacy of Heorot", "Beowulf's Children", and "Destiny's Road" — most notably that laid out in "Destiny's Road". The biosphere of an extrasolar colony planet known as "Destiny" lacks the physiologically significant mineral potassium; an inadequate dietary supply results in diminished mental ability which can become permanent if prolonged or it occurs early during a child's development. The planet's hidden masters control this world through their monopoly of the potassium-rich, pepper-like food additive called "speckles".

*In the "Known Space" series, the ARM are considered a monopolizing empire by some of Earth's citizens. Although it began as an international peacekeeping force regulating weapons of mass destruction, their powers grew as this necessitated regulation of all technology. They did not discard the questionable technology they confiscated, but instead kept it for their own use. The ARM quickly became the most technologically advanced faction of the human race-and its "de facto" ruling class. Governments throughout Known Space also maintain power through control of organ banks, stocked solely by unwilling donations, mostly from convicted criminals for increasingly minor offenses.

*Several stories feature a society dominated by "The State". The State is a world government which maintains control by rationing electricity (A World Out of Time) and technology (The Integral Trees and sequel The Smoke Ring) after a third world war.

The 2007 Flash Gordon TV series depicts Mongo under the rule of Ming as a hydraulic empire. All water on Mongo is toxic "grey water", which induces mutations in all those who drink it, except for a single source of clean "source water" controlled by Ming, the distribution of which is used as leverage over the other cantons.

In the film "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome", Bartertown is nominally led by "Aunty Entity", who leads the town's militia, but the dwarf "Master", who runs the underground methane refinery, begins to realize that he wields the true power since all of Bartertown's technology depends on him, and begins to impose "embargoes", challenging Auntie's leadership [cite video
people = Miller, George …
title = [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0089530/ Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome]
medium = film
publisher = Warner Brothers…
location = Australia/USA
year2 = 1985
] .

In the film version of "Tank Girl", the remaining supply of fresh water on a dystopian Earth is controlled by an organization known simply as "Water and Power" [cite video
people = Talalay, Rachel …
title = [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114614/ Tank Girl]
medium = film
publisher = Trilogy Entertainment
location = USA
year2 = 1995
] .

In the milieu of the British comic book "Judge Dredd", the Moon colonists are governed by "The Oxygen Board", a ruthless public utility that shuts off the air supply to delinquent account holders. Similarly, a ruthless administrator uses his control of the Mars colony's air supply to put down challenges to his rule in the film "Total Recall" [cite video
people = Verhoeven, Paul …
title = [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100802/ Total Recall]
medium = film
publisher = Tri-Star Pictures
location = USA
year2 = 1990
] .


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