Michael Mann’s historical functionalism

Parsons displayed little historical sensitivity, preferring to construct vast synthetic schemes that were similar to Russian dolls: open one box and you will find it replicated inside, all the way from the state to the psyche.3 They were all boxes in Parsons’ schema and any historical or substantive material could be squeezed into them. Not so for one of Parsons’ English admirers, Michael Mann, who had made a name for himself as a student of conflict theory. Mann used an essentially Parsonian schema to construct his magnum opus The sources of social power, of which two volumes are available at the time of writing, and a third is planned.

While Mann (1986) is another grand theorist, as we have identified he is one for whom the grandness of theory is best measured by its historical sweep. The ambition is enormous: when the third volume is completed it will offer a history of power from the beginning to the present day of human history. We cannot review all of what Mann has to contribute; thus we shall focus on the analytics rather than the sub- stantive histories. As most of what Mann writes concerns very detailed exegesis of the historical accounts, a kind of meta-sociology of meta-history, we have decided, strategically, to try and pull out the central elements of his theory without recourse to the considerable detail. Of course, this does a grave injustice to the forcefulness of his endeavors, for which we apologize in advance – but we do this in the context of an audience for whom his historical erudition and reach are, on the whole, of some- what less importance than one might wish. While the theory of organizations has a great deal to learn from the detailed accounts of history that Mann provides, this is not the place in which to reinforce them. Thus, we seek to provide a somewhat stripped-down and historically bereft account of the underlying analytics.

Mann argues that power, historically, is managed through interlacing networks that mobilize around four types of resources, entwining with each other in the process, creating significant unintended consequences that make history. These correspond to the Parsonian four functional prerequisites model. In Mann (1986) they are defined as economic, ideological, political and military resources. The four types of resources typically correspond to two types of power. A distinction is made between authoritative and diffused power. Authoritative power is found most typ- ically in military and political organizations. It is characterized by ‘willed com- mands’ and ‘conscious obedience by subordinates’ (Mann 1993: 6). Ideological and economic power organizations are typically characterized by diffused power. Here power works less by direct command and more by ‘relatively spontaneous, uncon- scious, and decentred’ means (1993: 6). Market exchanges in capitalism are pro- vided as an example where there is ‘considerable constraint’ but the constraints are not experienced in the form of ‘imperative commands’ (Weber 1978) but are often seemingly natural. They have become what Bauman (1976) terms ‘second nature’, acculturated to such an extent that the sway they exercise is experienced as so insti- tutionally embedded and pervasive that it is inescapable; it has become one of Durkheim’s (2002) ‘social facts’.

Authoritative power is spatially bounded. In military organization, for instance, authoritative power is intensive, tightly controlled, highly concentrated, coercive and mobilizable only in very specific places. While military power may readily call forth obedience from those who are enrolled within its ranks, as Allen remarks, when ‘stretched over large expanses of territory or enacted at great distance, how- ever, coercion is limited in what it is able to achieve’ (2003: 49). At the time of writ- ing the US and Coalition troops are still occupying Iraq, and each day the news brings a new tally of suicide bombers destroying lives in occupied zones. The spatial bounds of military power in this situation are indeed tightly constrained. Even the ‘Green Zone’, the heart of Baghdad, has been subject to attack. Ranged against the authoritative resources of the military are the far more diffuse ideolog- ical powers of the Islamists and Ba’athists and of Sunni and Shiite Muslims (them- selves opposed). Their resources are far less, in terms of hardware, than those of the military, but their ideological resources are clearly far more extensive in spatial reach and scope, as well as being capable of causing extensive damage. The basis of ideological power is persuasion, moral commitment to abstract ideals and shared ideas, and a willingness to participate in common rituals and social practices.

Staying with the Iraq example, we may observe that the early planning of the campaign against Saddam Hussein envisaged the destruction of a totalitarian regime by superior military power, which, once the regime was toppled, would be replaced by extended diffuse power. This is what has happened – but the diffuse power of a market economy has yet to find much purchase in the mayhem caused by ideological power. Of course, what typically happens when a state is destroyed is anarchy rather than a spontaneous emergence of a market economy. In the void created, diverse powers will struggle for control, using the types of power and resources that they have at hand. The power of the ‘insurgency’, whether exercised in the name of the Ba’ath Party, Sunni nationalism, or a radical and fundamental- ist Islamism, is clearly great. It is able to summon people to commit suicide in the hope of destroying a few more enemies – and thus the resolve, will and institutions of the occupying powers – with daily regularity. The reach of these extensive pow- ers is far greater than that of the military occupation; it extends to the diasporic communities of radicalized Muslims in the cities of Western Europe, such as Leeds, Hamburg, and Paris.

In Iraq we appear to have a situation of struggle between different forms of orga-nization specialized in distinct modes of power. The military are unable to deploy diffused powers, while the insurgency has few authoritative powers and, as the Iraq Assembly comes into being, may well have even fewer – if the body is capable of building legitimacy. Nonetheless, through organizational outflanking by the use of non-conventional warfare, for which the Coalition forces are ill-prepared, such as motor vehicles turned into media for suicide bombing, the insurgents are seeking to create systemic change by denying the occupying troops and their collaborators any legitimacy by systematically attacking them. Lacking access to organized authoritative resources, they have recourse to ideologically charged resources.

We may represent Mann’s contribution in the simplified diagram of power, shown in Figure 7.4. Where organizations that have access to all four types of resources are thus able to exercise both authoritative and diffused power then highly effective institutions of power have been created, best represented in the organization of the modern constitutional democratic state with extensive powers of revenue raising through taxation and possessed of a professional military and other coercive orga- nizations. The positive ‘power to’ achieve things, however, seems to have a primary relationship with the negative ‘power over’ to command and prohibit, to create order out of disorder. There are good organizational reasons why this should be so. The positive power to achieve things depends first on having established a stable structure of dominancy, in Weber’s (1978) words. Power over people and things has to first be stabilized. Once ‘power over’ has been established then a collective power to achieve things collaboratively can be countenanced – at least by those who dominate the structures of dominancy. It is important to remember this: authority may be one of the power resources of dominant elites but the elites remain dominant, in positions of dominancy and structures of dominancy, even where they are regarded as authoritative. Authority does not neuter the capacity to exercise power; it merely clothes it in legitimate self-righteousness.

Figure 7.4 Mann’s diagram of power

There are cases of ‘power to’ which can exist independently of structures of dom-inancy, and Hannah Arendt (1970) is the theorist who has done most to advance thinking about these. For her, power corresponds to the human ability to act in concert. It is embedded in groups who enable each other to act in certain ways to achieve certain goals, much as the classic definition of the organization from its origins in Follett, Barnard and Mayo would suggest. The stretch and reach of such groups can be extensive in these days of virtual communities of practice. With min- imal resources, and using the Internet, the public space can be extended globally – a good example being the social movement banned in China but known the whole world over as Falun Gong. Collective acts of mobilization through virtual space are capable of generating moral and political energies.4 Networks of virtual power are capable of creating global issues out of local and highly place-specific conflicts, such as the judicial execution of the Nigerian Ogoni poet and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, and his nine co-defendants, on the orders of the then Nigerian dictator General Abacha.5

In summary, although there are similarities between Parsons, Luhmann and Mann, in that they sought to develop the positive aspects of power from essentially functionalist social theory, there are also significant differences, as highlighted in Table 7.1. Parsons is very much the inspiration for this group of theorists. Luhmann takes his basic ideas and produces an entire system of thought out of it. Mann uses Parsons to construct his model – but interestingly, while he addresses power, he does not do so using the model of power that Parsons developed. Instead he uses the basic categories of the AGIL model and conceives of them as institu- tional resources. Of the three theorists, Mann is the most substantively significant; Parsons the most original; and Luhmann the most complex.

Table 7.1   Comparing functionalists

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *