Michael Mann is a respected sociologist, renowned for his painstaking scholarship. Then why, asks Laurie Taylor, was he so quick to predict certain disaster for the US invasion of Iraq?
Asking British sociologists to describe one of their number in favourable terms is not unlike inviting a convention of vegans to nominate their favourite hamburger. It somehow goes against their nature. (I've frequently been told over the years that Anthony Giddens, surely one of the most significant and influential social theorists of our time, is only an interpreter of other people's work. "He's not original, not really original.") Michael Mann proves to be something of an exception to the rule. He seems to be relatively honoured in his own country, to be appropriately acknowledged, on the basis of his grand trans-historical series, The Sources of Social Power , as a genuinely original thinker. Cynics wouldn't have to look far to find a reason. Mann is "over there". Not only did he make it to America and the University of California at Los Angeles, but he's been very welcome there for the past 18 years.
What finer proof could there be of academic prowess? Legions of British sociologists may have landed nice soft tenured jobs in Canada, Australia and other former colonial outposts, but few have ever contrived to stay in the US for much longer than an extended sabbatical. There are plenty of rumours, though, about Mann's nostalgia for the old country. He has, apparently, successfully applied for several jobs in the UK, then promptly turned them down. "It's either vanity or insecurity," said one baffled victim of Mann's indeterminacy. "As soon as he knows he's still wanted here in the UK, he hotfoots it back to the US."
I certainly don't detect any insecurity when I finally catch up with Mann in a restaurant in London's Soho. He has a natural suntan and is rather dapperly dressed in a well-cut light beige suit. There's a spring in his step that suggests he's fully signed up to the great American workout ethic and, although his voice still has homely hints of his native Manchester, it also has the confident ring of someone who's used to being listened to with some respect.
The overall message is pretty unambiguous. It says: "British Boy Made Good." All of which makes me even more eager to explore the apparent paradox created by his latest book Incoherent Empire . Until now, Mann has been regarded by many as a perfect example of that rapidly disappearing British breed, the committed scholar. His analysis of the workings of power since the beginning of human history has required years and years of careful study of original sources, and his final writing on the subject has been praised for its freedom from ideological preconceptions and prejudices. Why, then, has he now suspended his work on the third volume of The Sources of Social Power (Globalisations) so he can write a book that seems so explicitly political?
Since the invasion of Iraq we have all become familiar - overfamiliar - with fierce denunciations of present US imperialism and dire warnings about the future. But few of these can match the devastating certainty and imaginative horror of the prediction made by Mann: "The American empire will turn out to be a military giant, a back-seat economic driver, a political schizophrenic and an ideological phantom... a disturbed, misshapen monster stumbling clumsily across the world."
Mann may have been writing about power for several decades, but this is the first time he has publicly condemned the way it is being used by the people he scathingly labels "chicken-hawks" - American warmongers who have never "actually seen military action or its terrible consequences". I wonder what has driven him in this direction. Is it part of a new activism? Did he speak out publicly at UCLA about the invasion of Iraq?
"Well, I did get the academic senate toI". He pauses as though realising he's putting himself too firmly in the spotlight. "I was one of the people... erm... We did get the academic senate at UCLA to pass a resolution deploring the war."
That brought you some publicity? "Yes. It did actually. Yes, I went on Fox television where the neo-conservatives had a go at me."
How was that? "It was fun." Fun? "Yes. They made the mistake of saying, 'You are one of those liberals who is against intervening anywhere. In Bosnia or in Kosovo.' And I said: 'No, I was absolutely in favour of intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. I wanted ground troops there as well. I also wanted to intervene in Rwanda. You have to judge when to intervene and when not to intervene.'"
So, did he write Incoherent Empire as a response to the US invasion of Iraq? "I started writing it at the beginning of October 2002, when the US was already putting pressure on a United Nations alliance to carry out the invasion. I saw what was going to happen. And I also saw that it was going to be a complete disaster." You rushed into print? Hardly your usual style.
"Yes, this is the complete opposite of what I usually do. I usually take seven or eight years to write a book, but this one took six months from beginning to end. Of course, I had a certain amount of knowledge to work with, but otherwise I relied on the web. As long as you're going back only over the past four years and as long as you know how to choose the good sites from the bad, you can get anything you want about politics and economics."
Would he describe Incoherent Empire as a work of sociology or a polemic? "I wouldn't call it a polemic. The American invasion of Iraq is a disaster, a complete disaster. I don't, though, say that from a moral point of view.
What I say is that American imperialism is incoherent. Recently, there was a funeral for an American soldier, and his grieving mother said: 'My son has died not for his country but because of his country's incoherent policies.' I thought that was an extraordinary thing for a grieving mother to say. My book isn't about America being barbaric or uncivilised. It's about it being incoherent. Her exact word. It's a word that says it can't work. It is self-defeating."
It's at about this point in our conversation that I begin to realise that Mann's attack on US policy is primarily theoretical. He certainly has ethical concerns about those who suffer as a result of this policy, but what really exercises him is the manner in which the present Iraqi intervention grossly fails to meet the preconditions that, according to his historical work, are essential to the successful implementation of imperialism.
So what are these preconditions? Well, in his major work, Mann insists there are four main social ways in which human beings can exercise power: economic, ideological, military and political. Different historical periods are characterised by different combinations of these forms. This is not as abstract as it might sound. In Mann's account, power is always very firmly lodged in concrete networks of people: economic power is about economic organisations; military power is lodged in armed forces that kill people; and ideological power lies with those who have the capacity to mobilise other people's emotions. So what has this to do with contemporary America? What is it about this analysis that allows one to declare with such certainty that the US intervention in Iraq is disastrous?
"What I say is that this particular US policy is dominated by one form of power, by military power. The US has unrivalled offensive firepower. In this one respect, it has more power over the rest of the world than any empire has ever enjoyed. It can certainly roll over an army such as Saddam Hussein's or the Taliban's in no time at all. It could do the same to North Korea, if it took the risk with nuclear weapons. But it can't exercise general power.
"In my work, I argue that if you are to exercise real power, you have to have a combination of the four elements I outline: economic, ideological, political, as well as military. In the case of Iraq, there might be enough economic power to do it if the Americans are ready to spend their wealth on this kind of enterprise. But the problem comes when we turn to political and ideological power."
Several commentators argued before the Iraq war that the real trouble would come after the conflict when the Americans tried to consolidate their gains and pacify the country. But no one spoke with quite the academic authority that Mann enjoys. He is still aghast at the US failure to realise that it was impossible to enter a country without having arranged in advance to have at least some of its inhabitants already on your side.
He said: "Look, you can conquer a country with 100,000 troops, but in order to pacify it you have to spread those troops around the country, and that needs two and half times as many. Previous empires used native troops. The Indian imperial army was 250,000 strong. But only 50,000 to 70,000 of those were British soldiers. The rest were Indian. Since the US had no local allies, it had to do the lot on its own. Alongside this absence of local political power is the lack of ideological power enjoyed by the US. The modern world is no longer amenable to any form of imperialism. It is no longer like Africa where people could be persuaded to embrace Christianity because they thought it was the source of power. In a world of nation-states, any form of imperialism is resisted, and the internet provides ways in which ideological resistance can be amplified. This is something previous empires didn't have to deal with. American power, which was in the past often considered legitimate abroad, can now be imposed only with the barrel of a gun. Incoherence among its military, economic, political and ideological powers forces it to retreat to its strongest resource, offensive military devastation."
I can sense a tension in Mann. After years of committed scholarship, it is as though he's now sampling some of the excitement that comes from sticking his head above the parapet, from organising motions in Senate to promoting the Democrats for the next election. (The last paragraph of Incoherent Empire declares: "Luckily, the United States is a democracy, with the political solution close at hand in November 2004. Throw the new militarists out of office. Otherwise the world will reduce Americans'
powers still further.") Did he worry that he might lose some of his academic credibility and get shoved into the "anti-American" camp, along with Chomsky, Michael Moore and John Pilger? "Of course I worry about that. But I try as hard as I can to stick to the realist terrain and provide the reasons from my research for why the present US foreign policy is going to have disastrous consequences."
As I thank him for his time, I realise I haven't asked him anything about his personal life. Had he deliberately steered me away from the biographical? "Probably. I am quite reticent. An academic recently asked me to contribute to a book in which a number of social scientists described their formative influences. I said I didn't have the time. He emailed straight back and said: 'No, that's not the reason. You are just one of those reticent Brits who won't talk about themselves.' He may have been right."
Incoherent Empire by Michael Mann is published by Verso, £15.00.