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'Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainity and agitation distinquish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones ... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.' Marx

water + power « Previous | |Next »
September 16, 2010

Kirsten Henderson in 'Review Essay: Water and Culture in Australia: Some Alternative Perspectives' in Thesis Eleven August 2010 refers to Donald Worster’s 1985 text Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West which traces the development of irrigated agriculture in the Far West.

Henderson says that Worster's text is a study that owes much to Wittfogel’s analysis of the nexus between water and power. It avoids many of Wittfogel’s missteps by taking his idea about the link between control of water and control of social power and modifying it so it becomes an argument about a two-way or dialectical relationship between nature and culture rather than a claim for an environmentally deterministic association where water (or lack of it) directs social formation. She adds:

Worster draws on the work of Wittfogel’s one-time colleagues at the Institute of Social Research, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, and their critique of instrumental reason in modern societies, especially in relation to the approach to nature therein.In their book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1973), Horkheimer and Adorno argue that the Enlightenment, via the evolution of science and the application of instrumental reason, introduced a new understanding of the natural world and its role within human affairs. No longer was nature a sensuous, biological world indistinguishable from the human life that was unquestionably dependent upon it. With the advent of modernity and the application of instrumental reason, nature became an object to be manipulated and mastered for human purposes. Through instrumental reason nature is degraded to ‘mere material, mere stuff to be dominated without any other purpose than that of this very domination’

Henderson says that Worster’s Rivers of Empire therefore becomes a critique of the capitalist domination of nature rather than an attempt at an all-encompassing explanation of the role of nature in the process of social change.
Worster emphasizes that it is the decisions made in response to environmental conditions that are important for societal outcomes and that those decisions are influenced by many factors, most notably material interests that incorporate a certain conceptualization of the role of nature in society. Thus Worster develops a notion of power within hydraulic societies that is much more nuanced than that of Wittfogel. The notion of despotic power is replaced with the idea of the hydraulic and technical domination of nature in order to extract profit – profit that is made via the capitalistic exploitation of people and profit which is not then re-distributed to the workers who produced it.

In Rivers of Empire, Worster further revises Wittfogel’s thesis by applying his ideas to modern societies.

He describes three modes of water control: the local subsistence mode, the agrarian state mode and the capitalist state mode, each of which have their own techniques and apparatus for water control with corresponding social relationships and arrangements of power. Each different mode represents a different historic way of conceptualizing water within the society. Consequently power and politics is configured differently within each mode, depending on the degree of control exerted over water. Worster’s contention is that as more human control is applied to the water the power base within society shifts, becoming ever more centralized as societies progress though the successive modes.
Worster applies these insights to the history of the development of irrigation in the western United States. Contrary to popular perceptions of the development of the American West as being a time and place of empowerment for families and ordinary people, Worster argues it was a process of empire-building dominated by business interests and the corporate state working in tandem to acquire the control and monopolization of water throughout the region.

The same could be said for Australia. Australian water history do reflect the patterns he identifies. Even more pertinent: consider the very recent proposal by the Commonwealth government to assume control of the rivers of the Murray Darling Basin (a state government responsibility under the terms of the Australian Constitution).

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 4:01 PM |