The case for Lean is strong. It is clear about its intention. It declutters tasks from irrelevant preoccupations and commitments. It sustains a regular flow. It invites original and exact responses. It learns from feedback. It works. It has been proven. It is specifically suited to the modular communities of the future, when the market state will be too weakened to sustain the supply of goods, incomes and order on which we depend. Resilient local communities will, by accident or design, find themselves drawn into a political and economic order which, in essence, is lean.

And yet, Lean is not the only social and economic order with potential for a time when the market is no longer with us, and there is a case for looking at another one with a formidable record not only in terms of size, but also longevity. We are about to pay a brief visit to a form of society with resilience. Although recently, and maybe temporarily, in retreat, it endured for thousands of years—far longer than any other system of statehood in history. It is the political economy which started to form at various intensities and at various dates ranging up to 6,000 years ago in (among other states) China, northern India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Peru and Mexico.

They had a problem: water. Some of them received an annual monsoon, with a vast amount of rainfall over a few weeks, which often filled the rivers and caused flooding, while the rest of the year was dry and often very hot. Even if it rained, much of it evaporated before it could do anything useful, and evaporation kicked in hard as soon as forests were cleared for cultivation. Others had little reliable rainfall, and depended on the flow of giant rivers, such as the Yellow River—which receives meltwater from the Himalayas—or the Nile—which carries water from tropical Africa.U6

Or, to look at it another way, their problem was people. They could get by in a landscape with long periods of low rainfall—and water being naturally conserved by forest—if the population was low, and the demands made on the land were minimal. A society that left it to nature to supply its meat, fruit and vegetables saved itself a lot of trouble, and its people needed to work for only some two hours a day. But as populations rose, the only way of expanding the supply of food to keep pace was by irrigation and related infrastructures—intensifying their agriculture to build an ecology capable of supporting a lot of people.U7

That—to open it up a bit—meant:

Infrastructures: They needed to build and maintain irrigation systems to supply the water which became both more necessary and less available as they advanced into agriculture and felled the forests. And along with the work went the demands of harvest, storage, transport and distribution, and the various stratagems needed to make the best of less fertile soils, all supported by institutions of administration and government.

Productivity advance: In conditions of abundant unpaid labour and no competition, the technical advances would have been of the scale-enabling kind (water management, domestications, eventually pulleys), rather than the labour-saving kind. The chief means of productivity advance was a massive increase in working hours (Intensification Paradox).

There followed a relentless growth sequence typical of intensification: more land and more labour is needed per capita (per person). At the same time, the population itself grows. When exponential growth becomes established, you quickly reach large numbers, but once these societies had reached the limit of what their land and water could support, they remained at that level for century after century, hovering above and below the threshold of subsistence.U8

To support this population, water had to be diverted on—eventually—a stupendous scale, to supply irrigation systems stretching over, for example, the low-lying, arid plains of China. But, being low-lying, these regions were also exposed to floods, so it became equally essential to establish means of flood control. And floods, when they happened, could be apocalyptic, not least because (as is characteristic of such a ‘preventive resilience’ approach) the containment measures, when they failed, multiplied the problem. In 132 BC, the Yellow River burst over its banks and the dikes that had been built to prevent such an occurrence, sending a branch of the river across the plain and inundating whole regions; 150 years later, the whole river changed its course, finding a new path to the sea. Presented with repair operations like these, nothing could happen until the emperor himself got involved, with a supporting cast of thousands. And with such workforces at their command, it was only natural to knock off a few more dainty projects, such as the Grand Canal (a thousand miles long) and the Great Wall (five thousand five hundred miles). And the Pyramids.U9

It would be possible to discuss whether such super-giant systems of irrigation, flood control and water-transport could be organised on the bottom-up, lean basis advocated in Lean Logic (in, for instance, the entry on the Commons). However, from what we know about the commons, about the scale of the hydraulic operations needed in these ancient empires, about the lack of earth-moving equipment other than men with spades, and about the death rates, it seems unlikely. Many of the criteria for a functioning commons—such as the need for local autonomy, for a shared sense that it is worth the attempt, for the task to be on a manageable scale, and for a good match between the amount of work that would have to be put in and the benefits that could be expected by the people who did it—are conspicuously absent in the case of the giant hydraulic schemes. Paybacks postponed for generations and probable death in ant-like armies of workers; these are likely not opportunities for which we should expect a rush of public-spirited commoners to sign up.U10

In any case, bottom-up programmes on that scale didn’t happen. All the large irrigation systems were top-down projects involving extreme autocracy. These were regimes based on intimidation, reinforced by punishment. The Hindu Law book of Manu sets out rules for the conduct of the ideal king. It commends . . .

Punishment, the protector of all creatures, (an incarnation of) the law, formed of Brahman’s glory . . .

Punishment is (in reality) the king (and) the male. Punishment alone governs all created beings, punishment alone protects them, punishment watches over them while they sleep; the wise declare punishment to be identical with the law. If the king did not, without tiring, inflict punishment on those worthy to be punished, the stronger would roast the weaker, like fish on a spit. The whole world is kept in order by punishment, for a guiltless man is hard to find. Even the gods give the enjoyments due from them only if they are tormented by the fear of punishment. Where punishment with a black hue and red eyes stalks about, destroying sinners, there the subjects are not disturbed, provided that he who inflicts it discerns well.U11

It is not a bad king, or a bad system, that we have here, but a set of rules for how things should be. The Arthashāstra, the Indian treatise on statecraft, recommends eighteen kinds of torture with the added recommendation that for particularly serious cases, they should all be administered on the same day. The central place of punishment was acknowledged by Confucianism, and the Chinese Law Code describes the instruments to be used to extract evidence. The Egyptian peasant who failed to deliver his quota of grain was beaten, bound, and thrown into the dike.U12

The Great Cylinders of the Emperor Gudea of Mesopotamia (who reigned c.2150–2125 BC) describe how he restored the temple of Enninu, after its neglect had afflicted the land with a drought. So extreme was the crisis and the action needed in response that normal life had to be put on hold—in fact it was turned upside down, a vision of the impossible (like the lion lying down with the lamb in Isaiah) . . .

He freed the prisoners. He remitted the taxes. A maid was in equality with her mistress. Her mistress did not strike her at all in the face. A servant walked in equality beside his lord. If a servant did wrong, his lord took no further thought thereof. The rod and the thorny switch he caused to be laid on one side, and the cudgel to be put away. [Even] the language of the whip was prohibited.U13

The language of the whip. Not the ultimate sanction, then, but normal communication.

And, along with punishment, of course, comes obedience. Among the Greek virtues, there is no mention of obedience; in medieval Europe, the knight was committed to loyalty to his lord, but not to total submission. But in the big civilisations of the East, obedience was central. In Mesopotamia, the “good life” was the obedient life; in Confucius’ good society, the good subject was the obedient subject. And as for the masses—the “small people”—Confucius’ code of honour did not apply at all: their role was, like grass, to bend low in the wind, directed by the threat of corporal punishment and by the principle of mutualism, which punished the whole family for the disobedience of just one of its members.U14

And your obedience had to be confirmed at all times. If you approached a superior, you had to kowtow (touch the ground with the forehead, and maybe kiss it too); a meeting with a representative of the Pharaoh involved lying prone on your belly. And it got lonely, because if you were in trouble, no one would dare to come to your assistance. The Chinese historian, Sima Qian, who differed with his Emperor’s opinion on the abilities of a defeated general, was sentenced to be castrated in a darkened room. He wrote, “My friends did not come to my assistance. Those who were near and intimate with me did not say a single word in my favour.”U15 Into the room.

Despite all this, the hydraulic civilisations were, and have remained, remarkably free of criticism. There were periodic revolutions in a sequence of sacrifice-and-succession as dynasties became corrupt and decadent, the dikes silted up and the retaining walls decayed, but these kaikaku moments were not challenges to the system itself. On the contrary, they renewed and strengthened it; they were integral to its resilience. As the historian Karl Wittfogel explains, criticism was directed, not at the system, but at individual officials:

Apart from mystics who teach total withdrawal from the world, these critics aim ultimately at regenerating a system of total power, whose fundamental desirability they do not doubt.U16

And the reason was that those societies actually needed their giant construction projects, which in turn needed virtuoso administration:

To say that the masters of hydraulic society are great builders is only another way of saying they are great organisers.U17

Was there an alternative? Well, yes, if you had the weather for it. You needed regular rainfall. Rainfall farming, being locally self-sufficient in water, has no role for a central authority to provide it. The authorities can provide other things, such as currency, a legal framework and defence of the borders, but they are not indispensable in the way the governments of hydraulic civilisations are. If a state with rain-fed agriculture fails to carry out its duties, life will go on. If a hydraulic regime fails, then in due course there will be water shortages and/or catastrophic floods. Life will not go on. The people who endure that will want an effective government back, on almost any terms. Unlean works.

Areas with a rain-fed agriculture are the exception rather than the rule. If it had not been for them, with their freedoms to develop the market and their incentives to apply technology, there is no reason to suppose that the hydraulic states would have moved on from the autocratic but highly effective and resilient economic structure they had been developing and sustaining for the last six thousand years. European freedoms, from this point of view, are the exception. As the anthropologist Marvin Harris writes,

In anthropological perspective, the emergence of bourgeois parliamentary democracies in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe was a rare reversal of that descent from freedom to slavery which had been the main characteristic of the evolution of the state for 6,000 years. . . . No one who detests the practice of kowtowing and grovelling, who values the pursuit of scientific knowledge of culture and society, who values the right to study, discuss, debate and criticise, or who believes that society is greater than the state, can afford to mistake the rise of European and American democracies as the normal product of a march toward freedom.U18

As for the Marxian view of history as the history of class struggle, Wittfogel comments,

Class struggle . . . is the luxury of multi-centred and open societies.U19

This leaves us with some reflections, unresolved.

First of all, it is a reminder of how critical and vulnerable water supplies are around the world. In Western Europe our ability to produce food is as good as the west wind—along with the higher latitudes—which can, generally, be relied on not to leave our crops unwatered for more than some two months at a time. The fragment of the song of a homesick troubadour appreciates this:U20

Westron winde, when will thou blow,
The smalle raine downe can raine?
Christ if my love were in my armes,
And I in my bed againe.

Secondly, the lean, local, community-building, self-reliant response suggested for the multiple problems ahead seems to be a natural process of going back to our roots. It is where we came from. But the big hydraulic states of most of the world did not come from there. Well, originally they did, six thousand years ago, but even then it would have been at the level of the small settlements of the Iron Age, or the earlier Bronze Age or even, in some places, the Stone Age. Farming without irrigation in those areas had to be on a very modest scale. They do not have rain-fed villages like Wymondham, Stanton and Laxton as models and inspiration.

Thirdly, the government of a hydraulic regime would have no trouble in keeping economic output within the limits of zero-growth. There was no pressure to keep surplus labour employed—they could simply be directed into a mega-project with a low survival rate. Or the containing walls of some dikes protecting a floodplain could be breached. Or there was the well-established do-nothing option of allowing the surplus population to starve. Once it had been established, China’s population and output fluctuated through a sequence of shocks and recoveries, but remained on average at about the same level for millennia. That’s a steady state economy.U21

And, of course (fourthly), this story reminds us to be conscious of some insecurity with regard to our freedoms. The hydraulic civilisations’ model of despotic government travels with conquest and politics. Wittfogel suggests that the Mongol invasion brought it from China to Russia in the thirteenth century, and that it was faithfully followed by another seven centuries of Russian rulers, including Lenin and Stalin.U22 Its origins are all about water, but once it is established, a political mindset develops a momentum, whatever the weather. The coming climacteric, with its energy-famine, could supply green authoritarianism with a regrettable opportunity to become reinforced in those parts of the world where armies of workers will again be needed to keep water flowing, and to then extend to those parts which still have hope of building a future on freedom and self-reliance.

We may wonder if we know what we are doing. Our brave and truculent insistence on local lean autonomy is, in some serious senses, taking on by far the biggest and most autocratic form of resilience that the world has ever known.


Related entries:

Fortitude, Water.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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