State Formation

Recently I have been reading Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The Origins of Political

Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution’ (Origins – henceforth). This is a fantastic though heavy read for anyone interested in state formation, reproduction and indeed state destruction.

This book is divided into five sections, each containing several chapters. I am slowly working my way through section one (Before The State: Chapters 1-5) of Origins, in fact, I currently reading the final chapter of this section.

While reading this final chapter titled ‘The Coming of Leviathan’, I came across a subsection titled ‘The State as a Hydraulic Engineering Project’ (p.83). In this subsection, Fukuyama outlines a theory of state formation posited by 20th-century historian Karl Wittfogel. Wittfogel claimed that the state, or Leviathan to Fukuyama, may have arisen in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Mexico out of the necessity to centrally plan irrigation projects.

Although this seems to be a far-fetched theory, it should not be simply discarded, as Fukuyama has done in Origins. Fukuyama uses the logical tool, the reductio ad absurdum, in pointing out the floors of the hydraulic hypothesis:

“For Wittfogel’s hypothesis to be true, we would have to imagine a group of tribesmen getting together one day and saying to each other, “We could become a lot richer if we turned over our cherished freedom to a dictator, who would be responsible for managing a huge hydraulic-engineering project, the likes of which the world has never seen before”” (p.83).

Fukuyama goes on to indicate that such a passing over of authority would have to be agreed upon by a centralised group of tribesmen, speaking on behalf of all the future citizens of the ‘soon to be state’. This does seem absurd. However, Fukuyama does not actually address the plausibility of Wittfogel’s hypothesis.

Following the so-called agricultural revolution, it is not difficult to imagine that a constant year-round supply of water, may have been hard to come across. I do not find it implausible to think that a centralised body of tribal people or even local farmers, developed a way to manipulate their environment so as to access a scarce resource such as water, and in so doing, monopolise access to that resource and consequently harness a degree of social and political power.

Fukuyama does not consider the possibility of environmental necessity or environmental manipulation as a harbinger of pristine, or original, state formation. Although Wittfogel’s hypothesis is somewhat farfetched, it leads to a broader consideration that ought to be considered, namely, that environmental factors played a role in the development of a centralised bureaucratic state.


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