October 2, 2004


Delving Into Democracy's Shadows: The sociologist Michael Mann took a detour from his epic study of power in human history. It led him straight to the horrors at the center of modern life. (SCOTT MCLEMEE, 9/17/04, The Chronicle Review)

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. [...]

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." [...]

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.

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."

What Mr. Mann ignores, for obvious reasons of political correctness, is not only do few democracies embrace such ethnic totalitarianism but even few fascist states did. Indeed, fascist states like Spain and Italy were reasonably protective of ethnic/religious minorities, for the most part. What made the Nazis unique, even among fascist, was not anything flowing from democracy but their Darwinism and their determination to apply it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 2, 2004 8:35 PM

The 'democratic' practices of pretty much every LDC in Asia and Africa have devolved into tribalism.

Posted by: Bart at October 3, 2004 6:47 AM

"He sees violence used to drive an ethnic group out of a state, or to destroy it, as a relatively new thing in history"

I wonder why there are hardly any Jews in Spain.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 3, 2004 8:01 AM


But he is right about the scale. The expulsions of Jews from European countries (and Moors and Protestants), pogroms, the Acadian deportation, the clearing of the Highlands, etc. simply pale in scope beside nationalist ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, tribal expulsions in Africa, The Indian-Pakistan flights at independence and Stalin's and Mao's social engineering, all in the last century.

Jeff, human affairs are ugly and always have been. But you can't duck facing the music on modern horrors by arguing something similar but far less extensive happened a long time ago for very different reasons. You and Harry always seem to demand a simplistic perfection of the past while seeing the modern world as complex and...umm...nuanced.

Posted by: Peter B at October 3, 2004 8:41 AM

I suggest that identifying German National Socialism with Social Darwinism is both innaccurate and unhistorical.

Naziism is a take-off from the racial, i.e. biological, Darwinism of deGobineau and Chamberlain. The disjuncture from social Darwinism lies in the racist confounding of race and culture. The German racist theorists are not talking about competition among institutions and ideas wherein humanity tests ways of thinking and acting, but gross biological competition, such as occurs among plants competing for a "place in the sun."

While it is certainly true that the trial of ideas and institutions is usually on the battlefield, it remains a trial of ideas and institutions. Are not weapons technology and military virtue aspects of culture?

Historically, It is well known that the Germans expressly rejected social darwinism in favor of the identification of race with culture.

Posted by: Lou Gots at October 3, 2004 1:43 PM

I agree that human affairs are ugly and always have been.

It's not so obvious that they are uglier today than in the past.

Orrin's search for a kinder, gentler fascism seems pretty close to the Western Europeans' search for a kinder, gentler communism.

The notion that Italy was reasonably protective of its minorities is simply bizarre.

It's true that Italians were very touchy about German interference with persons of Italian citizenship -- a tradition that goes back at least to the 13the century -- but to say that Italians were reasonably protective of their minorities in their empire is insane.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 3, 2004 2:31 PM


Fascism has generally worked rather well, fending off communism and evolving into democracy. Germany wasn't fascist--it was Darwinist.

Posted by: oj at October 3, 2004 2:35 PM


Do you really think those things "pale in scope" because of some latent sympathy? Or, until the Industrial Revolution, did the reach of theological murderers simply exceed their grasp?

The Holocaust occurred on very fertile ground--Christians had been preparing it for 20 centuries.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 3, 2004 10:28 PM


Christians prepared the ground for 2000 years and it didn't happen. Darwinists for a few decades and it did.

Posted by: oj at October 3, 2004 11:39 PM

Umm...didn't you forget that little Industrial Revolution thing?

Lots faster than burning at the stake.

It is all about reach and grasp--Darwin has nothing to do with Christian inspired theological savagery.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 4, 2004 8:44 PM

It had never even been tried. The Germans weren't just quicker or more efficient, but more motivated because they believed in biology.

Posted by: oj at October 4, 2004 10:58 PM

On the contrary, it had been tried many times and succeeded more than Hitler and Himmler ever managed.

Industrial processes of killing could be efficient, although even the casualties on the first day of the Somme -- about as drastic as industrial killing got before big bombing raids, did not quite match the tolls occasionally racked up in the pre-Industrial age.

It's also true that when it came to extermination, nobody ever killed as many as fast as the Japanese did in 3 weeks at Nanking, with such old-fashioned methods as swords and clubs.

Christian extermination campaigns were several times 100% complete, whereas even with their best efforts, the Germans didn't manage to murder more than about one in 3 Jews.

The big totals of the 20th century were due, as much as anything else, to big populations to work on.

The number of Chinese killed by Maoism is approximately (by worst estimates) equal to perhaps 8% of the whole population. The number of Chinese killed by Christians in the mid-19th century was equal, absolutely, to some of the middle estimates of the Maoist totals and was, proportionately, at least six times greater than what Mao achieved.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 6, 2004 1:55 AM

The Khmer Rouge got 25% and they weren't exactly techological whizzes. The problem has never been technology, just the will and the reason to kill. Darwinism provided them.

Posted by: oj at October 6, 2004 9:03 AM

Darwinism hardly accounts for Christian extermination campaigns, as against Jews, Albigenses, Canary Islanders, Mexicans, imaginary witches etc.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 6, 2004 3:46 PM


Killing people for bad ideas isn't genocide. Killing savages was, but it was necessary.

Posted by: oj at October 6, 2004 3:54 PM