Karl Marx had a phrase for the kind of tyranny that has existed in parts of the developing world in our era: "oriental despotism." In an article in an 1853 edition of The New York Tribune, Marx said that beyond the West, where civilization was in a political sense underdeveloped and there was a need to organize vast waterworks over a vast territory encompassing many isolated communities, an oppressive centralizing power perforce came into existence.
Marx never elaborated on his theory, and so it remained an alluring phrase until Karl Wittfogel, a former German communist who immigrated to the United States to escape the Nazis, took Marx's concept and shaped it into a book he published in 1957, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. Wittfogel believed that outside of Europe and North America there existed a form of absolutism and despotism so unique he invented a term for it: "hydraulic society." This was a bureaucratic tyranny that raised massive armies and produced architectural immensities. The aesthetic effect was "a minimum of ideas and a maximum of material." Of course, the pyramids come to mind, along with the Egyptian pharaohs who attempted to control the waters of the Nile through an absolutist regime.
If you think of oriental despotism and hydraulic society as less a verifiable theory than a description of a type of regime given to large-scale application of terror and massive public works projects — oppressing sedentary societies that are, in any case, difficult to change — you have a phenomenon that in a number of variations we are familiar with.
Egypt has been governed by absolutist means for almost all of its history, which since 1952 has taken the form of a modernizing military tyranny. The Aswan High Dam, completed in 1970 under this tyranny, was one of the world's great hydraulic projects. This military tyranny was briefly interrupted in early 2011 when the reigning pharaoh-of-sorts, Hosni Mubarak, was toppled, ostensibly by demonstrators in Tahrir Square, but really by his own military officers who feared that military rule was drifting into Mubarak family rule. The result was an unruly Islamic democracy that so mismanaged the country that the military returned to power with the same pharaonic characteristics. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has even proposed a dramatic widening of the Suez Canal. Egypt thus remains a hydraulic society.
China has, too, been a hydraulic society for much of its history. The Chinese Communist Party is just another Chinese dynasty, though Mao Zedong's form of oppression was likely far more comprehensive than anything in the country's past. The Great Leap Forward and other mad agricultural schemes certainly fall within the range of what Wittfogel imagined. More recently, the Chinese regime has been completing the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River, one of the world's most gargantuan hydraulic feats that has dramatically changed the landscape and environment for millions of people. Because there is just something about large-scale tyrannies that requires equally large-scale building projects, Marx and Wittfogel were clearly on to something, even if their theory was more impressionistic than scientific.
Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a hydraulic society in a land where regulating the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates has been a concern going back to antiquity. Of course, in our era, much of that regulation has occurred upstream in democratic Turkey, where a major dam network has been constructed. Nevertheless, Saddam's regime was characterized by a combination of suffocating control and oppression, minute organization and the building of terrifyingly large monuments to his rule throughout the country, especially in Baghdad. When the Americans toppled Saddam's governing apparatus in 2003, rather than a civil society, the vacuum of power revealed an anarchy of disparate groups and sects frighteningly unable to govern. Remember that Marx's and Wittfogel's whole notion of oriental despotism and hydraulic societies was essentially built on the belief that such places as Mesopotamia may have had no other choice if they were to avert chaos.
The tyranny of the al Assads in Syria — both Hafez and his son Bashar — since 1970 is in the spirit of oriental despotism. They built a modernizing, utterly brutal, all-encompassing and repressive system of governance that the Assyrian tyrants of old would have envied. Libya under Moammar Gadhafi was somewhat less in the Marx and Wittfogel mold, owing to the eccentricities of the regime, however totalizing and brutal it was.
But this theory has its flaws. For example, one might assume that India and Mexico, age-old clusters of agricultural civilization with immense populations and few formal traditions of democracy before modern times, would be ripe candidates for oriental despotism. But they have not been — evidence that the word "oriental" in oriental despotism might be a Western conceit, if not an outright prejudice. Mexico was governed under the unofficial tyranny of the Institutional Revolutionary Party for decades, but in more recent decades has slowly evolved into a true democracy, however imperfect, that has shown an ability to make real structural reforms. Mexico is thus an example that there is no inevitability to oriental or Third World despotism. Then there is India. Partly due to the constitutional and civil administrative legacy of the British, India has been without question a stable democracy for two-thirds of a century now. And long before the British, the Indian subcontinent had a number of empires and dynasties that governed in a decentralized fashion, putting Marx and Wittfogel's theory in serious jeopardy.
Oriental despotism, I would submit, is a politically incorrect phrase that captures one aspect of our world, but an aspect that may be receding. In a world of postmodern electronic communications, dictators simply cannot rule in the totalizing manner of ancient and modern tyrants. Gadhafi was toppled in the Arab Spring, al Assad was fundamentally weakened, and even if the Americans had not invaded Iraq, Saddam, too, might well have fallen victim to the political upheavals that have characterized the Arab world since early 2011. True, al-Sisi reigns as the new pharaoh in Egypt, but because of upheavals there in recent years, he knows that the Egyptian people now have the power to remove him if he falters. His situation is thus basically different than that of previous pharaohs. Then there is China, where the regime is under pressure as never before to deliver benefits to its population. Little of this was what Marx and Wittfogel had in mind.
In sum, oriental despotism is an intellectually stimulating concept, even as it is less and less relevant. For a century now, individual states have been replacing despotic empires. And though the process has been unruly, with significant bouts of chaos as the upshot, I don't see the process being reversed.