The cover of this fourth and (perhaps) final volume of Michael Mann’s vastly ambitious ‘history of power in human societies’ is a photograph of the earth taken from space.footnote1 It is an obvious way of rendering pictorially the thematic of globalization, but oddly the image happens to feature the continent of Africa, about which there is next to nothing in the actual text. This absence is however not odd in Mann’s own terms. His historical sociology pursues not power in general but its ‘leading edge’ (he puts the term in quotation marks); and Africa is neither that edge nor a theatre where the leading edge, so to speak, stages its principal act. That part is played by the United States, the only world empire in history, and as such one of the globalizing forms, along with capitalism and the nation-state, into which power can be seen retrospectively to have crystallized during the period in question. ‘As it turned out’—the retrospective aspect—is essential to the proceedings. Mann has a consuming interest in how things work and when they work well at the level of collective power. Results are paramount. The world in 1945 began with two rival empires but at the end of the day only one remains and it works, or at least it did. Mann’s history is a history of what and who came out on top. It is therefore also history read resolutely backwards.
This, then, is why Africa is largely invisible. This is also why the history of the Soviet alternative is almost exclusively the history of its failure, more particularly its terminal crisis. A page and a half and we are already into the Brezhnev period. The post-Stalin era dominated by Khrushchev gets a single paragraph, though this was the moment when the Soviet Union constituted the greatest worry for the United States as a model for modernization and growth. Once Mann gets through some ill-advised ‘Russian’ jokes, he actually provides an excellent account of the Soviet implosion, rightly emphasizing that the ussr was destroyed unintentionally from the top down and not because of external pressures from the Reagan Administration: the system, however stagnant, was not ‘objectively’ in any acute crisis when the admirable but misguided Gorbachev initiated the drift to disaster. Good riddance, says Mann: ‘No one should shed a tear for the fall of the Soviet Union.’ It was undemocratic and in any case not a dynamic alternative. He then proceeds to lay out in statistical detail just how catastrophic the fall was for the vast majority of the ex-Soviet population. By then, however, the time has come for Mann to move on to what he takes to be the much more interesting and exciting Chinese alternative.
The formal compass of this volume, 1945 to the present, corresponds almost exactly to Michael Mann’s own lifetime. Unavoidably, his political opinions come into play. It is one thing to write with some detachment in Volume i about the genocidal cruelties of the Assyrians in ancient Mesopotamia (which worked quite well, it seems, at least for a while), and quite another to address twentieth-century equivalents. Mann is not shy about issuing judgments, and he rarely hedges his bets. Historiographical controversy is not a concern for him except when he has occasion to say that both sides of an argument are equally exaggerated. He reads what is ready to hand (in English), recasts it into his own story and situates that story in his larger picture, until he can do what he really likes, which is to pronounce on a given approach or policy. It is a package deal, pitched from the ultimate vantage point of what Mann thinks is sensible; and what he thinks is sensible is social-democratic compromise with a tempered, rationalized capitalism, in the setting of a proper nation-state. This is the orientation that marked the postwar West in ‘the golden age’—a term and periodization he takes from Eric Hobsbawm—which came to a regrettable end in the 1970s. Mann the erstwhile socialist, then, has become a confirmed ‘lib–lab’ advocate, an outlook which informs the present volume from start to finish. After such an astonishing multi-volume enterprise, with hefty interim books thrown in for good measure, he has certainly earned the right to opinions. He can and should be read in the same polemical spirit.
Readers of Mann will be familiar with his set-up. I think of it as the mmm: the Michael Mann Machine. It starts with an anthropological premise and proceeds to a sociological model: human beings restlessly desire things and at a certain stage, finding themselves in a surplus-producing ‘cage’ of alluvial, riverine agriculture, begin the upward social movement in history we know as civilization. To get things done, one needs power. There are chiefly four transhistorical kinds of power (grasped as sources/resources): ideological, economic, military and political—iemp for short. They are different, yet in principle of equal status. The formula might just as well be, say, mepi, which would correspond to his temporal sequence; but it never is. Mann singles them out because they are of ‘relatively hard and durable reality’. Ideology, humans making sense of their world, is distinctive in being a reaction, especially in crises, to the other three. Economic power is the most cumulative and, in a way, autonomous, while military power as organized, concentrated violence is the most contingent, decisions and battles being subject to unpredictable vagaries. The political, finally, is essentially territorialized rule-making, in effect the state (Mann is defiantly conventional on this). The foursome can variously be combined—‘entwined’—in historically dynamic ways into crystallizations of specific social formations, the leading edge in this period being entwined capitalism, empire and the nation-state as embodied in the United States. Seen in its entirety, however, history as civilizational leaps has typically been a dialectical process of material advances followed by marcher lord conquest and a greater geographical stage (empire), followed in turn by more advance and so on.
The model (power as functional sources/resources), the categories and their very separation are open to challenge, but we can pass over that. What is clear is that Mann has most trouble with ideology. Its delimitation is fuzzy. He excludes, for example, hip-hop and Hollywood, focusing instead on religious and political ideologies. This seems arbitrary. Even within the domain of what used to be called ‘relatively coherent discourses’, he is apprehensive about ideology: it tends to generate utopian, transcendent movements, imposing impossible and destructive schemes. Humans too often choose badly and end up in folly. The initial polarity here is between ideology along Durkheimian lines as a power-enhancing means of solidarity and cohesion in social formations, and ideology as Weberian value-rationality, where there can be no adjudication between ultimate values. Ideology can thus be a very good thing in Mann’s account, as in the central argument of Volume 1, where ‘normative pacification’ (courtesy of Christianity) was a boon to medieval Europe, by contrast with the ensuing value-rational gambit of the Reformers (whom Mann characteristically thought could and should have been fobbed off by Rome with some doctrinal concessions). In this volume, as in his version of the 20th century overall, ideology has generally become a dangerous phenomenon, leading to the antithesis of reasonable compromise: utopian excess. A central polarity of judgment in Mann, then, is the rational/sensible versus the irrational/foolish. There never seems to be a reason to be unreasonable.