A Smoother Pebble


Wittfogel Reconsidered

The Qinghai-Tibet railway has opened, finally linking Tibet with the rest of China. It is a technological marvel. The track, at its greatest elevation, runs higher than base camp on Mount Everest so the air in the carriages must be hyperoxygenated. An even greater challenge was the building of the route over the extremely unstable permafrost. Deep shafts were sunk to support the track and to stop the ice melting, liquid nitrogen is continually circulated in specially laid pipes.

The whole thing cost a spectacular 3.2 billion US$ and won’t be economically viable, so why was it built?

Tibet undoubtedly needs development, considering the grinding poverty and squalor the Tibetans live in. The rich Westeners who praise the simple primitive existence obviously never knew relatives who had lived as peasants. Tibet was no paradise even before the Communists invaded. How many those who romanticise Tibet's past know that in 1951, 700,000 out of 1.25 million Tibetans were serfs? The Dalai Lamas were typical Oriental god-kings, with all that implies.

But the welfare of Tibetans railway is not why the railway was built. According to exile groups the railway has cost more than has been spent on Tibetan health and education in fifty years.

The usual explanation given in the foreign press is that the government hopes that via the raillink more Han Chinese migrants will settle in the region, and troops could be transported to Lhasa by it in the event of a Tibetan uprising. These are only partial explanations. There are already nearly 2 million Han in Tibet, and any rebellion would be doomed in advance.

Probably part of the reason is national pride. The current dictatorship, now that they have junked Marxism, try to solidify their rule by playing on the Chinese people’s traditional chauvinism and memories of the humiliations that the Europeans inflicted on China in the 19th century. For millennia, China was the only civilisation the Chinese knew of, and thus they assumed that it was the only one; the Emperor was said to rule ‘All under Heaven’ (tian1 xia4). There was nothing of interest outside China, just a few insignificant barbarian realms, all of whom paid allegiance to the Son of Heaven and whom the Chinese treated with contempt. The written characters for many racial minorities incorporated the sign for ‘animal’, and in 1793 the first British diplomatic mission to China almost failed when Lord Macartney refused to prostrate himself to the Emperor, symbolically recognising England as a vassal state.

Then, in the 1800s, the barbarous Europeans came and defeated Chinese armies, torched imperial palaces, imposed humiliating treaties and grabbed Chinese territories. The humiliation was profound, and the Chinese have still not mentally recovered. Even now, when an athlete wins an international gymnastics competition, when China launches its first astronaut into space, when Beijing hosts the Olympic Games, each achievement is viewed as a sign that China is wiping away the ‘century of humiliation’. To the Chinese leadership, an engineering triumph like the Tibetan rail link is just another step towards China taking its place as a great nation.

The gargantuan Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River is an even greater white elephant than the railway. Almost a million people were displaced during its construction and many sites of great cultural and archaeological significance submerged. The project’s economic and practical wisdom seems very doubtful. In an unprecedented move, a third of the Chinese rubber-stamp parliament opposed its construction; however it was pushed through by then vice-premier Li Peng, a hydro-electric engineer. He is considered an ideological hardliner and is believed to have been instrumental in ordering the tanks into Tiananmen Square in ’89. There is a strong case that several small dams would have done just as well as the vast one that is being constructed, but that wouldn’t have been as impressive.

Karl Wittfogel in his brilliant study Oriental Despotism proposed the idea of ‘hydraulic despotism’. Briefly, his theory was that geographical conditions in ancient Egypt, China, Central America and India necessitated the construction of huge irrigation works to make the land fertile. The building (by slaves), maintenance and administration of the dams required a large and powerful bureaucracy, which was why these societies became ‘bureaucratic despotisms’.

Wittfogel was right that a land that requires massive engineering works to render it arable will acquire a totalitarian bureaucratic state to manage them. But the reverse is true as well. A despotism that controls all aspects of its population’s lives will find ‘geoengineering’ (engineering projects that reshape the geography of entire regions) no less attractive than social engineering. A statist, bureaucratic mind that views people as raw material to be used like coal or steel for a larger end, rather than self-owning individuals with their own telos, and believes that society must be planned, rationally constructed and above all controlled, won’t be restrained by any fear of hubris when trying to work on an even bigger scale.

In Cambodia in 1975 the Khmer Rouge launched the most ambitious programme of social engineering of the 20th century. The old society was to be destroyed, and an entirely new, ‘pure’ society created in its place. It was not 1975 anymore, but Year Zero. The urban population was sent into the countryside, the educated classes were exterminated, libraries and temples destroyed, money abolished, and the borders sealed. By 1979, when the regime fell, one in four Cambodians had died. The leaders’ vision was for a combination of Marxism with a revival of the ancient Khmer empire, whose god-kings used slave labour to build a vast irrigation system and the giant temple complex of Angkor Wat. The Khmer Rouge’s programme was taken from a doctoral thesis that Khieu Samphan, the president of the presidium, had written in 1959. Rice would be the main crop across all of Cambodia, now watered by a massive network of dams, reservoirs and canals. The millions of former city dwellers were to provide the manpower to build all this, before they were killed. However much of Cambodia was unsuitable for the cultivation of rice and mass starvation resulted.

Saddam Hussein, having crushed the revolts launched against his regime after the 1991 Gulf War, punished the rebellious Marsh Arabs by diverting the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and turning their land into a desert, like an Assyrian king salting the land of a defeated enemy.

The idea of global engineering found a favourable environment in the former USSR. Stalin’s colleagues (for example Khrushchev) considered engineering the ideal profession for their children. (Not politics, too dangerous.) There was great enthusiasm for enormous hydroelectric projects and industrialisation campaigns, to whose catastrophic environmental consequences the nomenklatura were indifferent. For instance, for decades the Aral and Caspian Seas have been drying up due to excessive amounts of water from the inflowing rivers being dammed and used for agriculture, creating one of the largest ecological catastrophes in history. But the environmental problems left behind after the collapse of communism seem trivial compared with the risks of some other projects seriously considered.

In the 1970s the USSR’s Ministry of Electricity gave its approval to the construction of a dam 78 metres high and 60km long which would have produced an artificial sea the size of the U.K. As well as generating hydro-electric power, the aim was to alter the entire climate of Western Siberia, via an intricate set of climatological dominoes, and render the region arable. If this project hadn’t died in bureaucratic inertia, they might have moved on to some of the even more fantastic schemes mooted. It was genuinely hoped to dam the entire Bering Straits, which separate Alaska and Russia, in order to melt the polar icecaps and make Northern Canada, Russia and even the Sahara Desert fertile. Other methods of warming the Artic and greening were also proposed.

What these disparate examples suggest (to me) is that totalitarian regimes will be prone, not just to hideous pseudo-classical monuments and loyalty parades, but to vaultingly ambitious and ecologically disastrous plans to remould the face of the planet with colossal engineering plans.


Postscript: One last thought: perhaps certain scientific fields, because of their subject matter, general working assumptions, research methods or other factors may be more likely to make their practitioners view humans as resources rather than individuals, machines rather than souls and give them a corresponding bent towards totalitarian politics. On the other hand, perhaps some scientific disciplines appeal to those who find such worldviews attractive in the first place. Or, as George Orwell noted in the late 1940s of a gaggle of British Stalinist scientists: ‘Why are they all biochemists?’

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