Michael Mann The Sources of Social Power Volume 3

Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power Volume 3: Global Empires and Revolution, 1890-1945 (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Some reflections:

It’s dense, it’s highly informative, and it’s more readable than volume 2 (because there’s more narrative this time, but not as page-turning as volume 1.) A little spice is added to the prose when from time to time he pauses to consider counterfactual scenarios.

Mann’s project has two main parts. (a) One is to figure out patterns of history, which he sees as episodes in the development of power. He focuses on the “leading edge” of power. (b) The other is to theorize “ultimate primacy,” or what fundamentally drives history.

In this period, the key episodes, or leading edges, he discusses are the British empire, the rise of America and its empire to 1930, China and Japan, World War I, the Russian revolution, the Depression, the New Deal in America, the development of welfare states, fascism, Soviet communism, Japan and its empire, the Chinese revolution, and World War II.

Are these the main power shifts, or leading edges, of the period? I am not going to quibble, except for one: in the very last paragraph of the book Mann mentions the rise and fall of European dominance. Surely that deserves a chapter? (Perhaps it will be forthcoming in the next volume.) Oddly, this volume did not have a chapter or section on shifts in the relative power of the Great Powers in this period.

A theme throughout is what Mann regards as Europe’s unusually high level of militarism. At one point for instance he contrasts this with China’s “peaceful hegemony.” But he does not supply any actual comparative data to back-up this claim. Moreover, in this era we start to see (for the first time in history) the rise of organized aversion to militarism, war, and violence in the liberal countries.

His overall argument: “to understand the development of modern societies we must broadly equal attention to the causal power and interrelations of all four sources of social power” (457). I think this remains, as it was when volume 1 appeared in the 1980s, a good corrective to one-sided materialisms and idealisms, particularly Marxism.

Roughly equal attention to military, economic, ideological, and political affairs – that may be necessary, but is it sufficient?

One critical thing Mann’s model of power leaves out are motives or goals. Power is a means. Goals or desires too are important. Mann discusses goals empirically, since he could not make much sense of what people do without trying to fathom their aims. But reflection of goals does not form part of his theory. Mann’s is a theory of means, not of ends.

Why are some places so innovative in all the sources of power? Is there some other factor or factors other than the four power sources – maybe psychological or geographical – that really has “ultimate primacy”?

Mann has little to say about science and technology. I think that “to understand the development of modern societies” we must also give a fair amount of attention to that.

Overall, though, it is admirable how he manages to weave together the threads of war, politics, ideas, and economy.



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4 responses to “Michael Mann The Sources of Social Power Volume 3

  1. Very much looking forward to getting the chance to read Vol. 3.

    ‘reflection of goals does not form part of his theory. Mann’s is a theory of means, not of ends.’

    I think that’s pretty accurate. Ultimately, Mann seems to believe that individual human beings are pretty similar and are motivated by the same sort of things. Because of this uniformity, motives don’t do much work in his explanations. The exception is during periods when transcendent ideologies become powerful. But he normally has an organizational explanation for why particular ideologies such as fascism and communism arose in the particular circumstances they did. What matters is the way relations between persons are configured and how those relations all add up, not what’s going on in individual motives. Like Tilly, he’s an ‘organizational materialist’.

  2. MrEverpresent

    His concepts are ideal typical. For example his model of murderous ethnic cleansing in the dark side of democracy. He contrasts this model with episodes in history.

  3. Pingback: Michael Mann, *The Sources of Social Power Vol. 4* | Breviosity

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