A concept popularized by the German sociologist Karl Wittfogel, an early member of the Institute of Social Research at Frankfurt (See critical theory) who fled the Third Reich in 1933, and spent much of the rest of his academic career in the United States (see his Oriental Despotism, 1957). Wittfogel, an expert on Chinese civilization, was a controversial figure who seems, during the course of a colourful career, to have traversed the political spectrum from Stalinism to McCarthyism. His fame rests largely on the dispute engendered by his concept of oriental despotism and his analysis of the so-called ‘hydraulic society’.
In his early work, Wittfogel described China as having experienced feudalism, on the grounds that the Chou state was based on the collection by ruling clans of tithes, in the form of communal labour by peasants working on public fields. Subsequently, a transition from labour-rent to rent-in-kind and money-rent implies that the feudal relation between the peasant communities and local lords gave way to ‘oriental despotism’, in which the primary mode of extracting surplus value from direct producers became money-rent paid to the centralized state. Although Wittfogel is by no means clear about the sequence of events (in his later work Chou China is reclassified as an instance of oriental despotism), he argues that the transition between the two modes of production was prompted mainly by the expansion and intensification of agriculture by means of large-scale irrigation, control of which necessitated co-ordination by a centralized state. This is the so-called ‘hydraulic hypothesis’, which states that irrigation is a major cause of the emergence of centralized political authority, and is thus a significant force in the development of early civilizations. Oriental Despotism considers this thesis in relation, not only to China, but also wider Marxist arguments about the Asiatic mode of production.
Wittfogel's work has been criticized as empirically unsound, inconsistent, ecologically determinist, and implicitly functionalist. However, his characterization of the agrarian state bureaucracy of early hydraulic societies prompted an enormous literature on state formation and class relationships in South-east Asia, and he has also been described as a sophisticated multilinear evolutionist.