Michael Mann’s Wiles Lectures: Modernity and Globalization, May 2000

Posted: December 13, 2009 in 2000, globalization and democratisation, reviews

first published at http://www.sussex.ac.uk/Users/hafa3/mann.htm

Martin Shaw

Imposing Labels on Ages:

Modernity and Globalization

Michael Mann’s Wiles Lectures, Queen’s University, Belfast, 23-26 May 2000

The historical sociologist, Michael Mann, delivering this flagship series of historical lectures for 2000, chose as his theme the way that we delineate and label historical periods. It is a feature of these generously endowed lectures that they are delivered over four days to an audience that includes invited guests from around the British Isles and beyond. Thus I was able to be present at the first three of the lectures (sadly I missed the final session) and to participate in after-dinner discussions with a distinguished group of historians and sociologists.Here I present a summary and critique.


Mann acknowledged at the outset that historical reality is more complex than labels can suggest. As a sociologist of complexity and critic of systematic theories, he readily confessed an ambivalence towards them. Unevenness and contradiction mean, he argued, that the universality of ‘modernity’ and ‘global society’ are fundamentally restricted. He identified three kinds of diffusion of labels – spatial, temporal and social-structural – and expressed a wariness of geographic ambitions for them as well as of the need of sociologists to ‘invent new labels early’ (‘the sociology of the last 5 minutes’).

Mann insisted that any account should acknowledge the specificity of the four principal forms of power that inform his 3-volume study, The Sources of Social Power: ideological, economic, political and military. He criticised the ready adoption of ‘strong’ social-structural labels, suggesting that one form of power was causing others to move. Presenting a detailed overhead, he outlined the variable periodizations that had been proposed of the different dimensions of social power.The problem, he suggested, was to what extent they did actually move together.

Turning specifically to ‘modernity’, Mann argued that this was characterized by a combination of features: secular-rational science, capitalist industrialism and bureaucratic-representative nation-states with monopolies of force (within a geopolitical system of states). But there was also a modern Zeitgeist: the unity of space-time and the march of reason and progress. The universal, indeed globalizing, project of the latter appeared naively optimistic; indeed Weber proposed a more realistic concept of reason with his distinction of value-oriented and instrumental rationalities and his concept of ‘rationalization’. ‘Thus modernity never embodied what the philosophers hoped or postmodernity decried.’

Modernity, Mann concluded, made some overall temporal sense, but it needed to be divided temporally (into ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ periods), spatially (its European, imperialist and nation-state dimensions all ‘undercut’ its universality) and social-structurally (in which it was undercut by class, nation and ethnicity). All these limitations to modernity’s universal character also applied, he argued, to globalization, and in this sense globalization had not replaced modernity; indeed, he would be arguing that there was no ‘global society’.

In the discussion, Perry Anderson’s contention that modernity was ‘an empty designate’ set the tone for what seemed, to this participant, a mistaken denial by some contributors that this concept was a meaningful way to periodize. Granted, as some did, that ‘modernity’ might be more descriptive than explanatory in its significance, it seemed that Mann had made a plausible case that there was a constellation of historic movements, along different dimensions of power, that came together in what we call the ‘modern’.

Anderson’s case was that ‘modern’ applied to no more than the latest, newest development, so that its meaning was always changing. This seemed to miss two points. First, if there are (as even Marxists agree) complex sets of historical transformations that are somehow interlinked, then a concept like ‘modernity’ that expresses that linkage is needed. Second, if this is agreed, then one aspect of the linkage is precisely the incessant change (that Marx attributed to capitalism) that constantly reproduces new ‘moderns’, then the idea of modernity as a general condition of such change is quite a powerful critical concept.


In his second lecture Mann elaborated his argument that modernity’s temporal diffusion in Europe leads to a distinction between an ‘age of modern elites’ (C14/C17, varying between locations, until around 1750) and an ‘age of popular modernity’ (from around 1750 until sometime in the C20). Early modernization was carried out from above, by landlords, merchants, political and military elites, and by intellectuals few of whom believed that the masses, women or non-Europeans possessed the capacity for ‘reason’. Later modernization was more about the downward, mobilizing diffusion, first to the middle classes and then the workers, of nation and citizenship. Working class experience, certainly, was of rationalized coerction, and so workers developed ‘counter-views’ of modernity.

Mann argued that because these were long periods, it was difficult to compare the various claims for ‘post-‘ periods, since in almost no case did these go back before 1945; while some, like the ‘internet age’ were indeed ‘the sociology of the last 5 minutes’.

Spatially, modernity was Eurocentric; only from the C19 did non-Europeans start to use ‘modern’ ideas. Outside Europe, the two phases were collapsed into a single modernization process, carried out by elites, but through mass mobilization, involving state-centred capitalist industrialization, citizen armies and some forms of mass citizenship.

Analyzing the worldwide growth of European power, Mann also identified two phases. From the C15 to the C18, empires were limited to seaboards, and were not global. They transformed the Americas through the ‘ecological imperialism’ of human predators, bringing with them colonizing animals, plants and diseases,’ the greatest transformation of nature since the first agricultural revolution’. Part of this was the ‘ethnocide’, the uninentional wiping out of peoples.

From the C18 to the C20, empires were extended and consolidated inland, and a new world map of domination was created. The global power of Europe had 3 dimensions:

  • Europe as a ‘single civilization’ – Christian, ‘white’ and ‘civilized’ – was projected onto non-Europeans; the world (except North Asia) was incorporated into European networks of transnational capitalism and ideology
  • globalization was ‘segmented’ by different imperial ‘slices’ – power technologies were wielded by individual states, in both formal and informal empires (for the latter, cf. Germany in the Orient, America in the South)
  • state power penetrated society within European states, which became what Giddens has called ‘bordered power containers’.

Moreover, Europe didn’t conquer the whole world – other imperial civilizations, in Japan, China and (under the relatively thin layer of British power) India, borrowed, adapted, strengthened and survived; Islam survived and the Middle East was only lightly colonized.

Socially, no single system was diffused. Social contradictions have been understood as systemic (Marx) – internal to a particular set of power relations, so that conflicts arising from one form of social power transforms others – or rationalized – so that we are imprisoned by particular power relations (Weber’s ‘iron cage’). Mann proposed a new concept of ‘interactive’ contradictions, between the different power structures of modernity. As an example, he gave the capital/labour conflict, resolved not in a revolutionary direction but through pressure for state regulation reinforcing the power of nation-states.

Finally, Mann explored further contradictions of this kind. In extending their civilization, Europeans regarded ‘natives’ of other regions as ‘benighted’, literally living in the dark. Giving mapmaking as an example, Mann pointed out that the Americas were regarded as terra nulla, in which there was no civilization, and territory was rationalized accordingly on the basis of geometric grids. Indigenous peoples – although idealized by the philosophes – were removed by the practitioners of European power. Baptized in the Spanish missions, they were then seen as in need of punishment and imprisonment.

Where colonies were based on settler families, and wanted land (not labour or wives), the move towards representative government produced deportation and death for indigenous peoples. Settler leaders were in the genocidal party – ‘we the people’ did not include Indians. The more representative government, the more extermination, Mann argued.

This last part of the lecture produced the most vigorous discussion, anticipating the third lecture (see below). However I also made the following connections:

  • the point about the ‘segmentation’ of imperial ‘globalization’ is critical: empires were not merely ‘slices’ but separate systems of power, whose rivalries supplied the main dynamic of world war and political change in the C20:
  • in this sense, there was a fundamental shift in the mid-C20 when the separate Western imperial systems collapsed and were replaced by a more or less integrated Western system of power under American leadership
  • what makes contemporary world change ‘global’, while the earlier worldwide extension of European power was not, is first of all precisely this new singularity
  • Mann’s point about the survival of non-Western empires is also important; these empires are in a certain sense ‘unreconstructed’, not having undergone the democratization, internationalization and modernization of state power in the sense of the West since 1945
  • the other side of contemporary globality is exactly the rise of movements for democratic change and ‘global’ human rights in the non-Western world, from the former Soviet bloc to South Africa to South Korea and Indonesia, since 1989, and the key issue is the extent of the spread of this movement especially in remaining major authoritarian states like China.


In his third lecture, Michael Mann first concluded his discussion of ethnic cleansing, arguing that there was a secular trend towards monoethnic states in Europe, in which local elites seek support from below, defining their struggle as national. From the late C19/early C20 Balkan wars onwards, this has tended to involve murderous ethnic cleansing – in the Balkans 2.5 million Muslims died and a similar number fled. After the First World War, the monoethnic trend continued, but not so murderously; however mass murder has continued after the Second World War, in India and Palestine, and in more recent times.

Mann criticized Zygmunt Bauman’s study, Modernity and the Holocaust. Bauman saw a ‘rationalized contradiction’, in which modern technology and bureaucracy determine the forms of mass murder. However Mann argued that this was only a ‘contingent truth’: since Germany was an advanced industrial state, it naturally used modern means; we need to ask why it was that the Nazi regime sought the extermination of the Jews. Like the Young Turk regime in the Ottoman empire, attacking Armenians in the pursuit of their nationalizing and modernizing ideology, the Nazis defined ‘the people’ in a way that excluded a large minority group. Genocide, Mann argued, happens when the aspiration for representative government and citizenship is confronted with a multi-ethnic world – certain groups are excluded from the people and from citizenship.

This section of the lecture was the subject of vigorous debate later. Opening the discussion, I argued that while there was indeed an element of the ‘interactive contradiction’ between representative government and exclusion, leading to mass murder, I thought this was too limited an account. As Ian Kershaw, professor of history at Sheffield and an authority on Nazism, had pointed out, ‘genocide’ was defined narrowly in the convention of 1948, including only the destruction of racial, national and religious groups, not groups of other kinds. Mann appeared to be falling into the trap of separating ethnic from other kinds of mass murder, whereas in many episodes there was an accumulation of different kinds of targets of killing.

As Christopher Browning had pointed out in The Path to Genocide, if Nazism had been overthrown in 1938 it would be remembered for its mass murder of the mentally handicapped; if it had been defeated in 1940 it would be recalled for the massacre of Polish elites. I argued that we were too fixated by mass slaughter of the Jews, and especially the extermination camps. However much these were the most horrendous, maximal cases of genocide, the Nazis killed Jews initially as part of a wide-ranging slaughter. Looking at this case from the point of view of the victims, it was not always clear if they were being killed because they were Jews, Russians or Communists. These different elements were intermingled in Nazism’s mass murder. (I have argued this case and its implications more fully in my text On slaughter.)

The second major problem of Mann’s analysis, I argued following this, was his abstraction of genocide from the context of war. The contradiction of genocide centred not so much how ‘the people’ were defined but on the definition of certain groups as ‘the enemy’ – not merely political enemies but people who were to be destroyed in the manner of war. The Young Turks had borrowed their ideology of war from the Prussian military tradition of ‘total war’, and had turned this on the Armenians. Genocide was usually war on a civilian population, in the context of other kinds of war. This was true in Cambodia and Rwanda.

The discussion ranged strongly over these issues. John Brewer, professor of sociology at Belfast, argued that we should distinguish between real and perceived enemies in grasping the rationality of genocide. Later Kershaw argued that the Nazi perception of the Jews as an enemy was exceptional in its irrationality. These distinctions are difficult to sustain, however, theoretically or comparatively, and raise the issues of the nature of ‘reason’ dealt with Mann earlier. There is a sense in which any targeting of social groups as ‘enemies’ of states is deeply irrational. And yet within the ideologies of certain regimes, particular social groups come to be seen as hostile. And of course, once identified as such, they cannot but return the hostility. It would have been irrational for any European Jew not to become an enemy of Nazism and to resist its power wherever there was scope.

The Nazi targeting of the Jews – as Kershaw pointed out, 0.7 per cent of the German population in the 1930s – was deeply irrational, but it latched on to undeniable ‘facts’, e.g. the disproportionate representation of Jews among privileged groups like capitalists and professionals within German society, and among both capitalist and Communist international elites. In this sense, it was no more (or less) irrational than, say, the Khmer Rouge targeting of ethnic-Vietnamese peasants as surrogates for the Vietnamese state. I maintained that the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews was more of an extreme, maximal case than an ‘oddity’ in the register of genocide.

The discussion of genocide rather overshadowed that of globality, which Mann opened in the second half of this lecture (concluded in his final lecture that I missed). He distinguished between two versions of global analysis. The first, ‘global limits’, he broadly endorsed. In this conception, the world has been recognized as the outer limit of human society, and this has had increasing consequences for the way in which people live, and they have adapted to it. Thus communication (of ideas if not people and goods) has become global, although this is not as revolutionary as it might seem because not all people can participate in it, and it cannot overcome gross dissimilarities of life conditions. The forces of economic production have become global, as have capitalist relations of production. Military power, especially, has reached the outer limit where it can destroy the whole planet and its human population. This reminds us, of course, that global power might destroy itself: human beings ‘might muff the chance of a global age’, by engaging in the kind of war that would lead to ‘devolution to primitive societies’.

The second version, global society, found Mann more sceptical. According to this version, he argued, power relations stretch across the globe, there is substantial uniformity and cohesion, and ‘internal’ social structures of nation-states are constrained. Ironically, he pointed out, globalizers rarely see globalization as a radical break with the past: it is the continuation, not the antithesis, of modernity. The Eiffel Tour, he demonstrated with well chosen quotes from early C20 writers, was already seen as an icon of global simultaneity and the annihilation of space/time differences. ‘No one disputes’, he contended. that in the sphere of economic relations, there is continuity.

The one major exception to the continuity argument concerned the idea of the ‘weakening’ of the nation-state.Mann pointed out that the nation-state had played a minor role in classic conceptions of modernity: virtually absent from Comte and Marx, it had been emphasized by Weber at the end of the C19, but had had to be reintroduced to modern sociology after once again being excluded by the liberal-Marxist dominance of the period after the Second World War. No sooner, however, had the state been ‘brought back in’, than it was contended that it was ‘hollowed out’. Mann questioned this, particularly through figures supplied by Christopher Chase-Dunn in the American Sociological Review (2000), showing that the increase in international trade was a product of the increase in the number of nations, not of trade; and that in no industrial country is the percentage of exports in national production currently at its maximum level. The current world economy is open, but not much more than that of 1913.

At this point Mann had to leave his argument. His point about the essential continuity of economic globalization from the early C20 to today is clearly correct. If there is real content to globality, as I have argued it lies elsewhere, in internationalized Western-global state organization and in global-democratic politics. Measuring nation-state autonomy by international trade misses the point, however. Trade should not be mistaken for the essential criteria of statehood, above all military-political power. The fact of still importantly national economies only emphasizes the continuing (but now secondary) national component, of militarily integrated and internationalized Western state power.

As I left Belfast, it remained to be seen how far Mann would accommodate this transformation (rather than weakening) of state power in his conception of the global. Although he has been one of the principal sociologists emphasizing the centrality of military power, in his presentation here of both globality and genocide, it seemed to me that some of the significance of this insight was being lost.


Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust, Cambridge: Polity, 1990.

Christopher Browning, The Path to Genocide, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, Volumes I and II, Cambridge University Press, 1986 and 1993. Volume III is still forthcoming.


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