October 14, 2005

"Hydraulic" Civilizations

In the previous post on Columbus, there was substantial discussion in the comments about the "hydraulic" theory of the origin of the pre-industrial bureaucratic centralized state, (i.e., that large-scale irrigation works and the need to organize and administer same drove the rise of said bureaucracies) a theory that originated with Karl Wittfogel. For those who want to find out a bit more about this theory and its pros and cons, there's a useful summary and discussion at economist David Cosandy's website. Also check out his home page for a discussion of the wider topic of why the West (if indeed "West" is the right category) led the industrial revolution.

Posted by Jim Bennett at October 14, 2005 01:04 AM

Cosandey's site is very interesting. To summarize brutally, he is a geographic determinist. While European Geography is foundational, it is only a necessary but not sufficient cause for its later development. Despite this disagreement, his short summaries of many writers on the topic of "why the West?" are well done.

He has a book in French on why the European retirement system is causing the demographic decline in Europe. I would like to see that published in English, to get a fuller understanding of his ideas than you can get from the excerpts on the site.

Posted by: Lex at October 14, 2005 09:47 AM

Just on reading the summary, Cosandey's shoreline based hypothesis seems pretty weak. Japan and Korea don't seem to be counted in the China / East Asia area, which would surely increase the region's rating. He seems to be sticking with countries as they are now, not during historical periods.

I would also disagree that large river systems, which all of the civilizations he discusses have, would not be just as valid, if not better for trade. Perhaps, as Lex says, we need an english translation of his book to help us better understand his theory.

However, his points on the benefits of stable, competing states as a cause of western success seems spot on, and I think his thinking in that area corresponds nicely with the ASC's discussion on competition between England and continental rivals, particularly on issues of colonial expansion and naval dominance.

I'm unsure of the "hydraulic" theory. I haven't read Wittfogel, and I sure don't have knowledge of comparitive irrigation practices, but it seems just as likely that the massive irrigation could only be contemplated after a bureaurocratic state was already firmly established...

Posted by: Captain Mojo at October 14, 2005 04:18 PM

The point about the stable, competiing states of western Europe versus the monocropping of solutions in premodern China is also one thhat McNeill makes, and is consistent with the more detailed discussion of Chinese history by W.J.F. Jenner.

We know that complexity of trade relations seems to be pretty universally consistent with civilizational development. What the causal relationships are is less universally agreed upon!

I would agree that Cosandy's coastline argument is another species of geographical determinism, and I don't think anybody here is a determinist, despite various accusations. However, coastline considerationss are a factor and Cosandy is to be compliemnted for bringing it to people's attention. I do know that Sowell discussed coastline and harbor geography in relation to Africa's development relative to Europe's, and this was prior to Cosany's work.

Regarding Japan and China, I think there was no premodern period where Japan and China could be considered a single economic unit, so I don't think it is reasonable to count the Japanese coastline as part of China's allotment. There was only ever minimal long-distance trade mediated through Okinawa.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at October 14, 2005 04:41 PM