Scott McLemee
Delving Into Democracy's Shadows
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The Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 September 2004

Scholarly books often resemble the pyramids erected for minor officials in ancient Egypt. Impressive in their way -- and built to last -- they are, nonetheless, difficult to tell apart. By contrast, The Sources of Social Power, by Michael Mann, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles and a visiting research professor at Queens University Belfast, is "audacious in scope, ambitious in objective, and provocative in challenge," as the American Sociological Association put it in presenting Mr. Mann its 1988 award for distinguished scholarly publication.

The work begins with the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia, charting the emergence of four distinct forms of power (ideological, military, economic, and political) that Mr. Mann finds operating throughout recorded history. The second volume, appearing in 1993, extended the analysis up to the outbreak of the First World War. A review in The Journal of Economic History began, simply, "Colossal!" Scholars often mention Max Weber's Economy and Society (1914), another work routinely called monumental, when discussing Mr. Mann's work.

But the edifice remains, as yet, unfinished -- because the 20th century turned out to be a nightmare. "As soon as I completed volume two," Mr. Mann says, "I began to write volume three, which continues the story from 1914 up to the present day. I spent a year in Spain, working at an institute with a wonderful library on fascism," he recalls. "So I began to write a chapter on fascism. That turned into a book in its own right."

He refers to Fascists, published by Cambridge in July, a comparative analysis of how fascist movements developed in half a dozen European countries between the World Wars. His research also drove Mr. Mann "to write about the Holocaust, about what the worst fascists did when in power" -- which led him, in turn, to study the more recent killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, and the Balkans. His contribution to the field of study now known as "comparative genocide" is forthcoming from Cambridge in November as The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing.

At a time when pundits wax at length on the idea that economic globalization has undermined the old ideal of national sovereignty, Mr. Mann offers a very different view of the world. The ideal of the nation-state crystallized over the course of centuries, he says, and has taken root everywhere. It will not soon vanish. Mr. Mann interprets fascism as "merely the most extreme form" of "nation-statism."

His thesis in The Dark Side of Democracy is, if anything, more troubling: the extension of democracy throughout the world carries the seeds (if by no means the certainty) of mass murder.

Order, but No Law

Mr. Mann's sweeping vision of historical sociology does not boil down to formulas about the rise and fall of civilizations. (Any resemblance between his books and Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West or Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History is strictly at the level of ambition and heft.)

"No laws are possible in sociology," he wrote in the first volume of his magnum opus, "… for the number of cases is far smaller than the number of variables effecting the outcome." But Mr. Mann imposes some analytic order on what he calls "the patterned confusion" of human history by distinguishing four general categories of power operating at any given time -- the ideological, economic, military, and political forms.

Economic power derives from, as Mr. Mann puts it, "the human need to extract, transform, distribute, and consume the resources of nature for sustenance." It is distinct from political power ("the control of the state") and ideological power (basically, the myths and rituals that give human beings access to a sense of ultimate meaning). Each form of power is channeled through its own network of institutions. "In particular historical phases or periods," says Mr. Mann, "one source of social power may well be primary. "But over all, I don't think that general relations of primacy can be asserted. In that sense, I'm Weberian, rather than Marxian."

Mr. Mann goes one step beyond Max Weber, however -- questioning the German theorist's classic definition of the state as the institution possessing "a monopoly on legitimate violence." For Mr. Mann distinguishes military power ("the social organization of physical violence") as a distinct force, with its own institutions and norms. "In principle, all well organized militaries could seize state power," he notes, "but only a few actually do."

The ordinary citizen may be justifiably relieved to hear that. Sociologists would do well to ponder it as an intriguing paradox. Mr. Mann complains, however, that they have tended to neglect the military and warfare as important factors in social structure. Until the rise of industrialism, he notes, economic exchange usually occurred over short geographical distances. "Large areas and diverse peoples" became integrated largely through the force of arms. Other scholars commenting on Mr. Mann's work have pointed to his emphasis on military power as one of his most important contributions.

The Grid and the Cage

A four-dimensional model of power sounds abstract, even rather bloodless. In practice, though, Mr. Mann is unrelentingly empirical. He wields "the IEMP grid" (as some have dubbed his four-pronged approach) to integrate a wide range of specialist work by other scholars -- to which he adds his own crunchings of econometric data, for centuries for which it was available. Each of the forms of power he studies corresponds to networks of institutions that interlink with, struggle against, and shape one another. The result is a set of grand narratives of history that Randall Collins, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, has called "our contemporary standard of knowledge" on several topics.

The energy really starts to flow through the IEMP grid when Mr. Mann analyzes the rise of the nation-state. It was not simply a matter of local markets integrating, over time, into national economies -- which then (under catchy slogans like "no taxation without representation!") reshaped the state to defend the interests of business. All of that did happen. But at the same time, new forms of military organization required the integration of large numbers of conscripts. People whose sense of identity once came from belonging to a particular village came to understand themselves as citizens of the same nation.

As each form of social power in his theoretical grid developed, says Mr. Mann, it generated its own vested interests. The revenues raised through taxation could be used not only to finance the military but to build roads, schools, and other public services -- giving the state "infrastructural power" in addition to its military control over territory. That growing infrastructure then reinforced economic growth. Meanwhile, the sense of national identity itself became a kind of ideological power, embodied in education, media, and the political organizations that sought to control the state.

As a result, all of these interests increasingly intersect to create what he calls the "cage" of the nation-state. It is a term with important overtones in classic social theory, calling to mind Weber's sense that modern life unfolds within an "iron cage of bureacracy."

By the early 20th century, nation-statism was an almost unquestioned fact of life in Europe and the United States. And the emergence of numerous successful anti-colonial movements showed that it had been exported throughout the world as well.

Street Fighting Men

In Fascists, Mr. Mann contends that the rise of right-wing authoritarian movements between the world wars can best be understood as, in effect, nation-statism forging not a cage but a concentration camp. His analysis puts him at odds with the Marxist interpretation of fascism, which treats it as a violent effort to preserve capitalism from the challenge of left-wing mobilizations following World War I. Mr. Mann also rejects efforts to treat fascism as a totalitarian "political religion" emerging in reaction against modernization and democracy.

All of Europe underwent severe economic crisis in the period between the wars, he notes. But fascists made no serious bid for power in countries where the state had both well-established institutions of representative democracy and a solid basis of infrastructural power. In England, for example, the black-shirted members of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists were exotic and attention-grabbing, but ineffectual at much besides outbursts of street hooliganism.

Mr. Mann focuses on the countries where fascism did become a mass movement that either took control or strongly influenced the state: Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and Spain. In each case, he contends, state power was divided between an established and narrowly based group (for example, landowners) and a new, relatively inexperienced set of parliamentary institutions. Mr. Mann calls this formation a "semi-authoritarian, semi-liberal state." Fascist movements were similarly hybrid. While the cult of national glory and calls for organic community might sound conservative, Mr. Mann observes that fascist movements also recruited on the basis of frustration with the slow pace of political elites in creating the infrastructure to provide basic services to the population.

Proto-fascist ideas began circulating among small groups of intellectuals throughout Europe in the late 19th century, but the movement took off in the 1920s, pulling in young men who had gone through the experience of "total war." Fascist movements always created paramilitary organizations, Mr. Mann says. But most of them also placed great emphasis on electioneering -- and proved very good at it. The fascists were enemies of democracy in the abstract, but devoted to mobilizing mass participation in ways that were often anathema to old-fashioned "conservative authoritarians."

Mr. Mann also says that "the degree of capitalist support for fascist movements … varied considerably between the different countries." What was consistent, however, was that the core fascist constituencies had strong vested interests in the growth and dynamism of the nation-state. "Soldiers and veterans above all, but also civil servants, teachers, and public-sector manual workers were all disproportionately fascist in almost all the countries of mass fascism," he writes. Students, too, were always heavily represented.

Hungary vs. Romania

Mr. Mann contends that, important as economic factors were, they are insufficient to understanding the movement. Consider the contrast between Hungary and Romania. "Hungary had probably the worst middle-class job prospects, Romania the best," writes Mr. Mann, "yet both produced fascism among those most affected, students and public-sector workers." He also notes that in both countries fascists "recruited more from proletarian than bourgeois backgrounds."

In Mr. Mann's analysis, fascism appealed not only to people seeking to preserve the status quo, or retreat to an early form of social order, but also to those who wanted modernization to continue under the firm hand of the nation-state.

The defeat of fascism on the battlefield in 1945 also meant its demise as a political force in Europe, says Mr. Mann. Authoritarian and xenophobic parties have sometimes won parliamentary representation. But no movement has had the combination of paramilitary and electoral support typical of fascism in the 1920s and '30s. "Institutionalized liberal democracy," as he puts it, "is proof against fascism." While currents embodying aggressive strands of nation-statism may yet emerge in Eastern Europe or the Russian federation, the requirement of democracy for entry into the European Union "has remained influential."

But that does not mean that Mr. Mann is quite ready to join Francis Fukuyama in celebrating liberal democracy as the end of history. In his forthcoming book, The Dark Side of Democracy, Mr. Mann contends that nation-statism and ethnic cleansing are intertwined in ways that make the spread of democracy problematic.

Ethnic violence existed before the rise of the nation-state. Still, Mr. Mann says it tended to be limited and instrumental. Killing was a means by which one group subjugated another, whether to enslave it (thereby integrating it into the conqueror's economic system) or to convert it (thus extending a religion's ideological power grid).

He sees violence used to drive an ethnic group out of a state, or to destroy it, as a relatively new thing in history -- and one closely associated with the emergence of democratic forms of political organization.

He points to the contrast between European colonies under authoritarian rule and those in which the settlers could control local institutions. In Spanish and Portuguese colonies, the use of violence by authoritarian governments tended to be limited. "Stable authoritarian regimes," says Mr. Mann, "tend to govern by divide and rule, balancing the demands of powerful groups, including ethnic ones." But the transition to democracy tends to unleash ethnic cleansing. "When settlers in North American and Australian states and colonies acquired de facto and de jure self-government," he says, "murder also increased."

Mr. Mann makes a similar point about Rwanda. Between 1973 and 1994, the dictatorship of President Habyarima, a Hutu, was certainly oppressive to the Tutsi minority. But it also "somewhat restrained ethnic violence." In the early 1990s -- amidst an influx of Tutsi from Uganda -- the Rwandan government moved toward a multiparty, constitutional democracy. This shift accelerated the transformation of ethnic tensions into attempted extermination. In April 1994, Hutus were slaughtering Tutsis in an organized campaign of genocide at a rate of almost 300 per hour.

Power to the People

The problem, says Mr. Mann, comes from a fateful ambiguity at the heart of democracy -- "rule by the people," as the Greek source of the term has it. But within a nation-state, "the people" tends not to mean simply "the ordinary citizens," but those sharing a distinct culture -- an "ethnos." In a nation-state that is authoritarian but stable, ethnic violence may be routine, but it tends not to involve struggle for control of political power.

With democratization, however, the stakes increase. Ethnic nationalism proves strongest, and most deadly, when one group feels economically exploited or threatened by another. (In Rwanda, for example, Tutsis tended to be more prosperous than the Hutus.) Mr. Mann lists a series of steps through which the tensions may reach a brink -- at which point, in the name of democracy, ordinary people seek to purify the nation-state of any ethnic "contamination."

In calling genocidal violence "the dark side of democracy," Mr. Mann says he is not denouncing the institutions of the democratic nation-state itself. The demos need not be confused with, or limited to, one ethnos. The diversity of citizens is something, he writes, "which liberalism recognizes as central to democracy."

But according to David D. Laitin, a professor of political science at Stanford University, Mr. Mann "uses his erudition and keenness of subtle argument to cloud social reality rather than to clarify it." In a paper to appear in An Anatomy of Power: The Social Theory of Michael Mann, forthcoming next year from Cambridge University Press, Mr. Laitin contends that "the culprit" in genocide "is not democracy, but a form of politics that uses words similar to [those employed by] democrats, but in a different semantic sense."

Mr. Laitin also suggests that the argument of The Dark Side of Democracy itself rests on a kind of basic confusion. "Mann implies that because democracy and genocide are both modern, they implicate one another," he writes. "Logically, Mann is incorrectly linking two phenomena that are temporally but not causally linked. This type of reasoning would make democracy culpable for world war, AIDS, and rap music."

Striking Back at the Empire

Mr. Mann is now back to work on The Sources of Social Power. His long march through fascism and ethnic cleansing has transformed his sense of how to approach the 20th century. "I realized, through that, that I could not write volume three in the same detailed, empirical way that I'd written the first two. There's too much material, too much scholarship. Fascism was only one of a half-dozen topics for the 20th century, and I'd ended up writing a whole book about it."

Instead, he says, the third volume will offer "a mixture of historical narrative and conceptual analysis. There's a section on empire. There's one on the development of capitalism, and on the difference that wars and ideologies have made to it. The theme of globalization has always been there, and it comes to fruition in a section on the post-World War II period." In fact, the third volume will be called Globalizations. (Mann is considering a fourth volume in the series, which he describes as a theoretical summation of the project.)

The plural in that title is in keeping with the IEMP framework -- for Mr. Mann is very skeptical of ideas about a monolithic "world system" of capitalist development. "The expansion of the economy," he says, "has been paralleled by the expansion of the nation-state system, of wars, and of ideologies. These are not the same thing. They don't link together to form a global system." The different forms of globalization "sometimes produce major contradiction," he says. "More often, they produce disjunctions, because they're completely different, rather than contradictory."

In the months leading up to the Iraq war, Mr. Mann took another detour from the third volume -- long enough to write Incoherent Empire (Verso, 2003), a scathing criticism of the idea that the United States can impose a Pax Americana upon the world. Quoting the White House's oft-repeated estimate that 100,000 international terrorists were trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Mr. Mann points out that most radical Islamists concentrate on struggles to dominate their own countries, rather than on exporting terrorism.

"The age of empires is over," says Mr. Mann. "We're in the age of nation-states, for better or worse."