Dark Side of Democracy

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* Book: Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge 2005



Dylan Riley:

"The murderous ‘ethnic cleansing’ of civilian populations remains one of the unexplained scandals of world history, although such events seem to have occurred almost as frequently as social revolutions. Over the past 150 years alone, mass killings of indigenous groups by colonial or settler states, of Armenians by Turkish forces and their allies, of Jews by the Nazis, of Tutsis by Hutus, have far exceeded any rational military or economic calculation. But historical and comparative sociology has had relatively little to say about these deeds. Debate about the causes of ethnic cleansing is instead dominated by ahistorical and individualistic models. Michael Mann’s impressive The Dark Side of Democracy makes a giant step toward specifying the concrete social structures and circumstances that produce such results. Its scale is vast—over 500 pages of dense theorization and historical narrative, encompassing a temporal arc that stretches from ancient Assyria to the Rwandan genocide—while its unforgettable analyses of perpetrators and their actions display an almost ethno-methodological sensibility to the micro-foundations of social life, a new dimension for this master of the grand narrative. It is a major achievement.

The Dark Side of Democracy’s mass of historical evidence is marshalled to test a strikingly bold central thesis: that ethnic cleansing is the dark side of democracy, in the sense that the latter is premised on the creation of an ethnic community that ‘trumps’ or ‘displaces’ class divisions."



Dylan Riley:

"In sum: ethnic conflict becomes murderous when key social forces, in multi-ethnic and geopolitically unstable environments, conceive of democracy as the rule of an ‘indivisible, united, integral’ people. In contrast, where the people is conceived of as ‘diverse and stratified’, and class differences are politically institutionalized, the potential for mass ethnic killings is blocked by countervailing, non-democratic features of these societies. It is for this reason that neither pre-capitalist agrarian societies nor established liberal democracies tend to engage in ethnic cleansing. The former, according to Mann, tend to have cosmopolitan upper classes and locally oriented producing classes. In such societies ethnicity, a sense of cross-class solidarity, and ipso facto ethnic cleansing, are rare. Established democracies, meanwhile, are unlikely to commit ethnic cleansing not because they are democratic, but because ‘the politics of class, region and gender’ dominate and implicitly moderate the tendency of democracy to undermine such differences. Northwestern Europe, then, has been relatively immune, because here, democratic rights were gradually extended down the social structure; the fact that these polities did ‘not try to eliminate exploitation’ meant that the national community remained divided along class lines. Indeed, for Mann, the ‘institutionalization of class conflict has been the main political accomplishment of the modern West.’ Outside of the northwestern core states—particularly in Eastern Europe—democracy meant the rule of the whole people, and was associated with an attempt to ‘repress’ class conflict, rather than institutionalize or entrench it; in these cases, Mann contends, ethnic groups could emerge as social actors undivided by class.

The theoretical crux of Mann’s argument thus seems to be that class conflict, especially when institutionalized, tends to undermine ethnic conflict. The association between democracy and ethnic cleansing stems from the threat that the former poses to class stratification. The probability of ethnic cleansing for Mann thus follows a parabola as democratization increases: first rising, then declining. Ethnic cleansing is typical of democratizing states emerging from old regimes, where the class structure of agrarian bureaucracies has collapsed, but fully developed industrial class conflict has not yet emerged. In these conditions, an organic conception of the people can arise, unconstrained by class antagonism—and in some cases, permit ethnicity to ‘trump’ class. For Mann, then, class and ethnicity are not just independent, but to a large extent alternative, forms of social stratification."