Michael Mann Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Incoherent Empire: Conversation with Michael Mann, Professor of Sociology, UCLA, February 27, 2004, by Harry Kreisler

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In your major works, you're trying to understand the social basis of the elements of power. Is that a way to put it?

Yes, that's right. If people want to exercise power there are four essential ways of doing it: one is to control the means of economic production: economic power; one is to control the ideology, the belief system; the third is to control military power; and the fourth is to control the state, political institutions. So I'm looking at the ways in which groups have used these forms of power in different combinations, in different times and places. And that's something that comes to its most congruent fruition in this book, Incoherent Empire.

Let me show your new book. I know that this book was in a way a distraction from your ongoing project of doing the third volume [of The Sources of Social Power. What drew you to focus on empire? Was it the emerging political context, both in Britain and the United States after 9/11?

Yes, but mediated by the fact that I do hold dual citizenship -- I'm both a U.K. citizen and a U.S. citizen. I've lived in the U.S. for seventeen years now, and I became extremely alarmed and enraged about what my two governments were doing, in the belief that this would be disastrous for the world and for themselves, for our two countries. This is the first book that I have written which comes out of the scholarly world and enters into contemporary politics, and it did come from this [belief]. But also I had the belief that I could contribute to this debate, based on terms of my more general scholarly work, and not only my Sources of Social Power, but also my more recent work on fascism and ethnic cleansing.

I'd come to appreciate for the first time the importance of pragmatism among politicians, and in some ways, the notion of politicians doing dirty backstairs deals and compromises. Instead of seeing this as a betrayal of ideals, we should regard this as quite a healthy and useful thing for politicians to do, because in my experience of fascist and ethnic cleansing, people who were motivated very strongly by values and [who] believed that you could use any means to achieve these values brought disaster to the world. I thought that the Bush administration was overcommitted to certain general values without considering the consequences of action.

Now, before we talk about your Empire book, help us understand how history can inform policy and public debate, because that's the area you're moving into with this book. Not to say that you have policy recommendations, but your project suggests that history can help inform a discussion of this response to 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

History doesn't repeat itself, that's perfectly true, so you can't draw absolute lessons from history. But you can see that if we have now an imperial venture -- and we'll talk about that later -- there have been imperial ventures in the past, and we can see what they were based on, what brought success and what brought failure, and at what cost. I do argue very strongly in the book that we draw from the lessons of nineteenth-century empires and that certain of the mistakes that we have made are ones that wouldn't have been made if we had a reasonable knowledge of what previous empires did, and what worked and what didn't work then.

Your book came out at an opportune time, not just because of events, but at a time when the chattering classes and the public began to embrace the notion that the U.S. is an empire. This discussion was different from what had come before. It was almost as if empire came out of the closet. So before we talk about empire and what history tells us, help us understand what were the factors that led to this situation where the neoconservatives raised the banner of empire and said, "Let's do it." Many of your compatriots from Great Britain who are now writing on the U.S. debate wholeheartedly endorsed that.

It came in three stages of escalation, the first is obviously after 1945, when the other empires apart from the Soviet empire collapsed, and the U.S. essentially was the dominant power over two-thirds of the world. But it exercised an indirect or informal empire, if you want to call it that, so that by and large, it was not invading foreign countries, or at least it did so only as a last resort and with important local allies at its side. By and large, it supported client states around the world against the enemies of those client states who were often supported by the Soviet Union and China. So, firstly, there was an enormous growth of American power in that period.

The second escalation is the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which leaves the U.S. unchallenged. Throughout the 1990s we have this enormous disproportion, especially in military power, between the U.S. and anyone else, which results now in the U.S. having 40 percent of the entire world's military expenditure.

So the notion that, "We have this power, so maybe we should use it; why not? Can't we do good for the world by using this power?" This began to grow in the 1990s, and so we can't put it all onto the Bush administration. Under President Clinton there was a more active foreign policy, but it was restrained. It was restrained above all by the fact that Americans are not interested in empire. Americans are not terribly interested in the world outside, and certainly not in committing our young men and our tax dollars into massive projects.

The third stage came in two quick successions: One, the Bush administration's foreign policy and defense policy team, apart from Colin Powell, were rather neoconservative, and so were interested in a more aggressive role. But then they were given that role by 9/11, which was a tremendous attack on the United States, and which mobilized people in support of a more aggressive foreign policy than they would otherwise have been. Without 9/11 there would have only been a very gradual increase, and people wouldn't have started talking so openly about empire. "People are attacking us, and we should go after them." So we had Bush's notion of the "axis of evil," which was only an escalation of the "rogue state" notion of the 1990s. And we had the invasions of Afghanistan, which had some justification. I would have preferred if it had been done a little bit differently, in order to get to more support especially from Muslim countries. But nonetheless, it would have been hard for any administration not to do something like that. And then we had the attack on Iraq, which is something else.

Let's talk about the comparison of the Bush leadership group with the Clinton leadership group. In your terms, the Clintons had two agendas -- the main one being globalization, and the other, later in the administration, being humanitarian intervention. The Kosovo war was consistent with a notion of indirect rule of a hegemonic power, whereas with Bush, with this break that you just described, you get a wholehearted notion of embracing empire, of going in and controlling places.

Yes, that is a big shift. And you're quite right, the two elements of the 1990s [included] globalization and the notion of free trade (and not necessarily for us, but certainly others ought to adhere to free trade -- we carry on subsidizing our farmers and other people), but opening up the markets: this is an informal imperialism, on the one hand. On the other hand, the growth of humanitarian interventionism. But that was a little bit cautious and notable for its failures, as well as our failures to act. We didn't act in Rwanda in 1994, but we did act in Kosovo.

The great successful humanitarian intervention is one that we never talk about, which was the invasion of Cambodia by the Vietnamese Communist Army in 1979, which ended the Cambodian genocide. That was a spectacular success. But, of course, they did it in a very clever way. They had Cambodian clients, they were asked to come in by Khmer Rouge factions who were distressed by what was going on, and they invaded and stopped the genocide. The notion [in the 1990s] that we could intervene for humanitarian reasons was growing, but that was multilateral, of course. We weren't going to do it on our own.

Drawing on your work as a historian and comparative sociologist, what forms have empire taken in the past? What are the ways that you do empire when we move from "empire lite" I'll call it, to muscular empire under President Bush?

What you do is start invading and colonizing other territories. Characteristically empires begin by making trades deals, imposing pressure on the traders and establishing port colonies, and then gradually increasing the pressure on the groups who live in the interior. Then you say, "Okay, we're going to control this, we're going to produce more security here, and more security of access for us. We're going to go in and fight." And you take in an army and you engage the army of the local ruler, and you defeat it.

But at that exact moment, you essentially sit down and wait. What happens then is that the local sub-rulers of this ruler all have a decision to make: Do they carry on supporting their ruler, who has just been humiliated in this way, and who looks as if he might be a loser, or do you come and support the British, or the French, or the Romans, or the Mongols, whoever it is in previous periods? What happens is that enough of them come for you to have very substantial native allies, local allies. You use them to help pacify the colony, and you delegate local powers to them. That's the first stage of indirect. Then you gradually increase the pressure on them and the power, and you gradually absorb them into your administration -- you absorb their solders into your armed forces, their administrators into your administration, and they become part of the empire. These are the characteristic stages.

If we think about this continent, when Cortez arrived in Mexico, he didn't even have to engage the Aztecs, because the Tlaxcalans were in revolt against the Aztecs. They came to him and said, "Support us and we'll support you," and they jointly defeated the Aztecs. Then the Spanish increased their control over them.

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