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by John Vincent

This is an almost nostalgic think piece by Stratfor’s Robert Kaplan that first resurrects an analytic hypothesis called “oriental despotism” of absolute power involving “hydraulic societies”, first suggested by Karl Marx and elaborated as recently as 1957. Kaplan describes its features, indicates why it had appeal despite the fact it has never stood up to thorough analysis and then concludes that, anyway, it has outlived its limited usefulness. Kaplan doesn’t really explain what the point was of this telling us about this concept, which is his final mystery.

Yet it resonates with me nonetheless.

I recall way back in the mid-1960s as a member of a group of junior FSOs being prepared for our various first postings (me to Canberra). We were enlightened by a number short courses at the Foreign Service Institute, including area courses. One lecturer on SE Asia began his presentation by outlining what he said were the traditional features of, you guessed it, oriental despotism. My takeaway from it was that it involved overwhelmingly peasant societies ruled absolutely by a traditional elite headed by a despot. All politics were palace politics and when the despot died, the new despot would establish his rule after a brief deadly struggle, killing off the chief lieutenants and many family members of his predecessor
The lecturer’s message was to consider this background when evaluating the seemingly modern (circa late 20th c.) facades of the regimes in that part of the world. Given Gen. Suharto’s step-by-step ouster of Pres. Sukarno in Indonesia circa 1965-67 involving the murders of an estimated 500,000 persons in a military purge of alleged Chinese Communist supporters, especially in Java and Bali, it seemed then like the lecturer may have had a point. This, of course, was a massive HR violation which we and the Aussies conveniently overlooked since we saw Pres. Sukarno as our ChiCom-allied enemy with covetous designs on both Malaysia/Singapore and Australia’s then Mandate Territory of Papua-New Guinea.

As for the once-asserted hydraulic aspect of this notion, today I think of Ethiopia’s de facto autocratic regime with its Grand Renaissance Dam being built in addition to Egypt’s Aswan High Dam and Pres. el-Sissi’s newly proposed major upgrade to the Suez Canal.

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