Hydraulic society

There is a danger, when telling the economic history of the Earth in half a column (half of this one), that one may omit some significant detail. Fortunately, I have readers eager to correct me.

When I write that the human family — nuclear or extended, but ever reproductive — was the basic economic or productive unit, from the last Ice Age until quite recently, I did not mean that everything was strictly a family business. There have been (even to this day) family alliances — for instance, the “chains” I mentioned, trading one unit to the next right across Eurasia.

Technology (with a capital “T”) cannot be blamed for everything, or more of it would have been present in the Garden of Eden. But it can be blamed for a lot. Here I am not thinking of the machine humanly created, much as it may be intrusively ugly, but of the “mindset” that views nature as machine.

Descartes and Bacon may come in for a ritual kicking here, but the attitude long precedes them. It built the Pyramids, as we say, and many thousand miles of irrigation ditches and navigation channels through ancient Mesopotamia, India, and China. Verily, the latter Grand Canal, equivalent to a wide river with feeder tributaries right across Europe, was no paltry scheme, and for comparison, knocked the construction of the Great Wall of China into a cocked hat.

There and elsewhere, I allude to what Karl Wittfogel called “Hydraulic Societies” in his entertaining book on Oriental Despotism (1957).

Centuries these megaprojects required, though each may have begun with one bright light of a bureaucrat, and his big idea. Not family businesses at all, though one might be cute and refer to Pharaoh’s family business. This conceit will fail farther East, however, where systems of government that have lasted a millennium or three (as in China) were fairly consistently non-hereditary, indeed positively meritocratic and “elitist.”

I am not against irrigation or navigation, incidentally; though my enthusiasm may wane on such monuments to Power as oversized tombs and presidential libraries. Monarchs and magnificent Lords should make themselves useful, and infrastructure projects seem, at the first blush of plausibility, a harmless outlet for their energies. Let Roosevelt build dams, Hitler his autobahns. I will not even raise environmental concerns.

Rather, the question of corvée labour. It exists in many forms, short or long of duration, seldom with decent pay, or entirely voluntary. The great robber barons, both public and private, might compel it by sheer brutal force, or by exploiting hardship. What we call today “economic migrants” are an old story. The world is cruel and full of tyrants.

Moreover, we may look at the deeper history of Western “capitalism,” as my Chief Spinning and Weaving Correspondent has invited me to do:

“I think that you have overlooked the development of commercial undertakings in the Middle Ages, and these were real and regulated by government (meaning the king). Millers ground flour and were famous for thievery, as were weavers. But bakers baked and sold bread to the populace and were required to give fair weight, hence the ‘baker’s dozen’. Trades were widespread and established, and it was not nearly so much ‘every man for himself’, as every village or demesne for itself. This produced a great deal of stability, until the plague, &c. Even wars seemed not to interfere, except for killing and pillaging and the usual; but the mind of the people was still on the survival of their village, after all the horrors had wandered by. …

“In the new world, children in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were required to produce a certain amount of spun fibre under the contracts governing the colony, which were of a decidedly business nature. As I recall, it was reckoned that five or six children could (meaning must) produce enough spun fibre to clothe thirty adults. (I assume this was per year.) This indicates that the thread was turned over to weavers, who were of course under contract to send back certain amounts of cloth to England, along with certain numbers of felled trees, &c. …

“So while the paterfamilias governed the household, the governors of the colony called the tunes he danced to. Children, male and female alike, were apprenticed during their adolescent years, and were under the command of adults in whatever household housed them. It was paternal, but it was not really the family as we define it.”

This is all true, or close enough. Yet even so, the essential generative function of the family (as some of us still define it) underlay everything, and was the school of loyalty. Bust that up, and you have what we (increasingly) see around us.