March 1, 2022


Power, States, and Wars

An interview with Michael Mann on the study of history and the reemergence of great power politics

Over the course of several decades, sociologist Michael Mann has studied great powers and the social orders they create. Combining a theoretical and empirical focus, his work is nearly unparalleled in its ambition of scope and meticulous attention to detail. His four-volume magnum opus, Sources of Social Power, takes a sweeping look at power dynamics underpinning human societies from the Neolithic Era through the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Elaborating on the work of Max Weber, Mann distinguishes power into four types—ideological, economic, military, and political (IEMP)—which interact with one another but preserve an essential autonomy and operate through different means. With the IEMP model, Mann disaggregates concepts like states, nations, and societies to understand the interlocking networks of power operating within and between them.

Mann’s other work applies this theoretical framework to some of the most challenging features of human societies. His 2003 book, Incoherent Empire, considered the balance of resources available to the US at the turn of the century, accurately predicting many of the country’s recent international tribulations. The following year, Fascists presented a sociological analysis of fascist movements in Italy, Germany, Austria, Romania, Hungary, and Spain, explaining the ideology’s rise following the First World War. And in 2005, The Dark Side of Democracy examined the circumstances surrounding ethnic cleansing in Armenia, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. His forthcoming book, On Wars, analyzes the history of wars in the Roman Republic, China, Japan, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and the United States.

Michael Mann is Honorary Professor and Director of Research at the University of Cambridge and Distinguished Research Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. We spoke with Mann in January about the study of history, the autonomy of states, and the budding reemergence of great power politics.

An interview with Michael Mann

MAYA ADERETH: Tell us a bit about your intellectual trajectory.

Michael mann: I got into sociology almost by accident. I did an undergraduate degree in history at Oxford, and then trained as a social worker. That training included a course in sociology, which I fell in love with. I managed to get a PhD position at Oxford and started doing very concrete empirical research; I did my dissertation on a factory relocation from Birmingham to Banbury. After that I went to Cambridge and continued to do empirical work, I studied the experiences of a large sample of workers in the labor market of Peterborough. When I got my first teaching position at Essex University, I had to teach courses on subjects I knew nothing about, like sociological theory. I remember that in the interview they asked me if I could teach a course on the Enlightenment. I said of course, wondering vaguely what the Enlightenment was.

This set me off on a theoretical path, even as I continued to do empirical work.  I wrote an article, which I never published, comparing Marx and Weber’s theories of social stratification. My involvement in the campaign for Nuclear Disarmament persuaded me to add a fourth form of power, military power. That’s something that remained distinctive to my model—that there are four sources of social power, not three as identified by Weber or Althusserian Marxism’s three levels of social formation.

So I thought I would explore this idea through some empirical examples. With what little I knew about ancient societies, I wrote an article called “States Ancient and Modern,” from which my distinction between despotic and infrastructural power is probably the most cited idea of all my work. That developed into an idea for a short book examining a couple of historical case studies and comparing them to contemporary forms of social power. As I worked on the chapter centered on Rome, the project just grew and grew. The earlier case studies developed into the first volume of the Sources of Social Power, and my theory kind of evolved with the cases I confronted empirically. The other volumes followed, with only slight changes to the model, and I finished the last one in 2013.

MA: You mentioned your political activism early on. Can you talk about the relationship between your strong normative beliefs and your commitment to empirical research?

MM: Like everything else, I’m the product of historical processes. Growing up in Lancashire, I always had the belief that we produced goods and the South reaped the profits. You can’t escape the predispositions you have. But the best form of social science is about arguments—different perspectives confronting each other and battling it out, empirically or otherwise. Obviously, when I write a book about wars, I make it clear that I’m perfectly opposed to them, that they demonstrate the irrationality of human beings. But then emerges the question, why are we having these wars when they don’t serve the interests of regular people? In this way I think interesting empirical questions can emerge from one’s values.

MA: Recently I think we’ve seen a shift away from historical methods in the social sciences. What can history continue to offer to socially minded disciplines?

MM: Comparative and historical sociology has always been a minority section of the discipline, and the character of the majority has changed greatly. But sociological theory is very much tempted by abstractions. And though there haven’t been that many comparative historical sociologists, they have been very influential. When I entered the discipline, it was quite popular in elite universities in the United States—if you went to Wabash State you might not find any comparative historical sociologists, but if you were in Ivy League or UC campuses you would. In recent years, there’s been a greater interest in micro sociology. To my mind, theres too much of it.

neil warner: What are some of the advantages and challenges of your interdisciplinary approach—standing in between history and sociology, but also in between ethnographic and quantitative methods?

MM: In recent years, historians have become much more receptive to sociological and anthropological ideas. There’s also been a substantial increase in scale and scope; there’s a fair amount of what’s called “global history.” That’s definitely a sign of health. Political Science has gone in the other direction, towards a quantitative, rational choice framework. They have far fewer area specialists; it’s quite difficult to find a specialist who knows a lot about South Asia compared to someone who’s comfortable with abstract models. A great dataset of wars since 1816 led to a series of quantitative studies, but the dataset was skewed towards the West and the analysis didn’t extend to earlier history. So overall, there’s an argument to be made that this shift is distorting our views.

NW: One thing that’s unique to your work is this balance between causal grand narrative and the emphasis on the fundamentally contingent and directionless nature of history. How have you positioned yourself in debates on historical understandings of time?

MM: My view, which is only half formulated, is that there is a sort of dualism we have to be sensitive to. Dialectic, in the Marxian sense, is—in its own complex way—a bit too deterministic. My dual way of thinking about it is that the four sources of social power each has its own logic of development. There are tendencies there, but they interact with each other in contingent ways, and alternative outcomes are always possible. Of course, in the case of economic power especially, there are significant qualitative shifts. But if we look at capitalist development, there are certain logics involved, like capitalism’s creative destruction, monopolization, and so on. You can find similar tendencies with the development of particular ideologies. But the outcomes involve contingencies.

NW: The Sources of Social Power was decades in the making—your writing of it spanned the fall of the Soviet Union and a series of financial crises. How did these world events shape your writing process, and the reception of your books over time?

MM: I never developed a strong theory, equivalent to “capitalism will be replaced by socialism.” The work essentially presents an orienting model, so it has flexibility. My treatment of ideology was I think fairly weak at first, and it’s one that I am still developing. In volume four, I didn’t feel able to make strong predictions about what was going to happen next, and I certainly don’t think I can do so now. I find that a lot of sociological generalizations—like “globalization”—are rather one dimensional, so I’m not particularly attracted to them. I’m always willing to be surprised by the course of history. In this pandemic, for example, I’ve been surprised by the cross-national lack of faith in science. People seem to think that the experience and sentiments of those around them matter more than those of any authorities—magic is more important in our societies than we realized. I’ve been coming to that view in writing about war—that humans are erratically rational, or they’re rational within a framework which itself might not make much sense, and which is full of emotion and ideology as well as instrumental rationality.

MA: You’ve argued that we should “do away with the concept of society,” that society should be thought of as a “patterned mess.” What does the concept of society mask? And, more generally, how do we reconcile the need to categorize in order to understand with the knowledge that all formal categories are fundamentally incomplete?

MM: Of course, that statement was provocative. We can’t really avoid the use of the word society, or communities, or nations—it doesn’t make much of a difference. In the contemporary world, the nation state remains important, and it does have boundaries which affect us. We as citizens or residents are subject to the laws of that state. One thing that continues to be striking in terms of political power is that state elites remain pretty free to make decisions on foreign policy but not nearly so much on domestic issues. Of course, there are globalizing tendencies, but today there is far more coherence within the nation state than there has been in most historical societies, where political elites governed with little constraint from the population. In the nineteenth century, large parts of the population were unaware that they were even living in France: Eugene Weber argued that nineteenth-century frenchmen thought they were from “around here” or from “Provence” but not France. The concept of France was pretty meaningless to them.

MA: One of the aspects that distinguishes your work is precisely your emphasis on states as autonomous agents, rather than a perhaps more widespread historical focus on classes. What do you see as the relationship between the two?

MM: There has always in some sense been a ruling class. But with the development of states, we also have the emergence of popular classes. I’m quite Marxian in the sense that I subscribe to the view that the extraction of surplus from direct producers is the way that ruling classes can live, build cathedrals, and castles, make war, and so on. Of course, there are cases of peasant revolts led by provincial gentry who are discontented. And peasant revolts tend to have a rather erratic nature, they tend to be defeated because they have ultimate faith in the monarchy—there are some evil counsellors, but theres no questioning of the system as a whole. The emergence of the radical bourgeoisie in the early modern period, and then the emergence of the working class and organized peasantry produced substantial modification in class structures and states. Of course, they didn’t have the power to ultimately produce a new egalitarian society, though there are variations in how equal the outcomes were. But they turned out to have less power than was assumed. And now that some of the conditions which generated large factories and labor unions are declining, theres no immediate prospect for achieving that sort of egalitarian world.

MA: Building on that, you’ve argued against viewing globalization as a single process, and you’ve also argued that it hasn’t diminished the power of states. Why have states been so resilient, and how has their function changed over time?

MM: The resilience of states is due to a combination of factors. One of them is the human desire for order rather than disorder, that’s something that states can do, and is one of their main attractions. States can also redistribute; they provide welfare throughout the life cycle for things like public health and education. So states are not likely to wither away. Virtually all the data we have are collected on a national basis, of course the EU is a bit of an exception but it appears to be in a phase of non-development. People conceive of themselves now as having a national identity, though there are rival claims about what that identity entails.

I think climate change has the potential to change this sort of reasoning. The only way human beings can survive is through a much greater degree of cooperation between states. But states remain the primary actor; we saw it with the pandemic, which was of course global. But the response was communicated through national interest, even when it harmed much of the world—like not supplying enough vaccines. Solving climate change would involve considerably more coordination between states. Whether they’re capable of that is unclear, but if they were to do so it would be possible to imagine a world in which the autonomy of individual states is much weaker.

MA: Many people view the so-called neoliberal shift of the 1980s and 1990s as an example of markets dominating and in some cases superseding the state. What are your thoughts on that?

MM: States have been the agents facilitating neoliberal economic policies, they were the ones to deregulate financial markets. So I dont think it makes sense to think of neoliberalization as purely the product of an external force; political forces in many countries decided that the way to more economic growth is through spending cuts and liberalization. Did they do it because of external global pressures? I don’t think so, I think they did it because of the perceived self interest of powerful people within each state. I have a good friend, Leslie Sklair, who argues for the existence of a global capitalist class. And there is some truth to that, when we think of things like Davos, but ultimately I think the interests remain state based.

MA: Your 2003 book Incoherent Empire forwards an assessment of the instability of the American empire. Much has changed since then, and I think some of the contradictions you highlighted are now far more visible. Where does the American empire go from here?

MM: America hasn’t won a war of any significance since 1945: Korea was a failure, Vietnam a failure. They could invade Panama and Grenada, yes, and they could destroy Saddam, but they couldn’t impose a client government. In that book I say that the Age of Empires is gone because you can no longer find the native clients to help you rule (or, if you do, it’s an ethnically or religiously divided society in the midst of civil war). The American Empire has not been a direct empire attempting to rule directly as the British or the French did. And obviously the US still wields a considerable amount of global power. But the it cannot stomach large numbers of Americans dead, and various forces around the world know this, and know they can outlast the US in that regard. So it’s not just that the US hasn’t won wars, but that it’s unlikely that it will be able to.

In Ukraine, US and NATO power has been limited. What the Chinese are trying to do at the moment is recreate the boundaries of imperial China, whether it’s Tibet, Taiwan, the South China Sea, even a bit on the border with India. These are all viewed as legitimately Chinese. And the Russians want to make the same claims to rule where there are Russian speakers. This kind of impulse towards revising border is a tremendous force for creating wars historically. So the US has to accept the rising power of China even as it continues to stand for an increasingly imperfect democracy. We’re back in a way to a so-called Cold War, and again with nuclear weapons.

MA: Can you tell us about your new book?

MM: It’s called On Wars, which is a conscious adaptation of Clausewitz’s On War. Where he looked at one particular period of war in Europe, I’m looking at wars throughout human history. There is no known population of wars, because of the volume of unknown ones. But I go from anthropological and archeological findings to the Roman Republic, to Ancient China, the Chinese Empire, Japan, Europe, the US, and colonial wars. These are not individual conflicts, but sequences of wars. I’ve compiled what data I can from the sources, which become quantitative in the modern period.

In the book I try to understand the causes of wars, and how rational they are according to particular ends. In part, the book serves as a critique of theories rooted in notions of rationality. I believe I show that the vast majority of wars are not rational in either means or ends: calculations of the costs or benefits of wars are rarely made, and when they are, it’s within the context of historical constraints. As for ends, states are often destroyed by war. What we have are the records of a few survivors who portray war as glorious. But if you consider that Europe had about 500 political entities, and Japan had more than seventy states, and the same is true of China and the Mediterranean, then at least half of realism, defensive realism, has very little validity. The vast majority of states that have existed have disappeared, largely due to war. There is no genetic programming that leads humans to make war, but a human nature which entwines reason, emotion, and ideology is likely to make war.

Academic study of war in the social sciences is as old as historiography itself, and political economists have considered the economic logic of war and peace for centuries. Yet social…

Read the full article

Lorraine Daston has published widely in the history of science, including on probability and statistics, scientific objectivity and observation, game theory, monsters, and much else. Director at the Max Planck…

Read the full article

Amit Bhaduri was internationally selected professor at Pavia University and visiting Professor at the Council for Social Development, Delhi University. His six books and more than sixty journal articles have…

Read the full article