Democracy, the idea of governing of, for and by the people, is a long-exhausted principle, particularly in places like the United States and New Zealand. However, Michael Mann suggests that democracy may also have a dark side. Mann suggests that majorities can and do oppress minorities often in the name of majoritarian democracy. In the worst-case scenarios, this has led to murderous ethnic cleansing and genocide. Maria Armoudian spoke with Mann about democracy’s dark side.

Michael Mann is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at UCLA. He is an expert in power and democracy and is the author of The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing.

Maria Armoudian: You open your book with historical figures who had allegedly embodied enlightened reason along the lines of Thomas Jefferson for example, and yet Jefferson and others justified exterminating entire peoples.

Michael Mann: Yes, that is right. In fact, we find that with the settler colonies we find the most direct relationship between democracy and ethnic cleansing because the greater the level of democracy among the settlers the more murderous they were towards the native populations. So North America and Australia are really the most exterminatory regimes as far as native peoples are concerned. They whipped out about 97 percent of the Native Americans in the US and about 95 percent in Australia. And where imperial governments were stronger and more authoritarian as in the Spanish Empire for example, the death rate was less. So we do find that people like Thomas Jefferson, or the first governors of California all urging people to get rid of the Native Americans, and even with almost all of the Native Americans gone, President Theodore Roosevelt declared that extermination was as ultimately beneficial as it was inevitable. So there is quite a history of settlers who have pretty well-functioning forms of democracy for themselves being more murderous towards people that they define as aliens.

MA: The other thing I found quite interesting is you say this phenomenon of ethnic cleansing and genocide it is not really primitive or alien, it is a modern problem.

MM: I think that the desire to get rid of a whole people is modern. Certainly, we find many atrocities throughout history, but when we look at things like the atrocities committed by the Babylonians against the Jews documented in the Old Testament, we see them marching in, coming across the first Jewish city demanding surrender and if they don’t surrender they will all be killed – so say the Babylonians. They don’t surrender, the Babylonians storm the city, they kill all the inhabitants. But that is supposed to be a military tactic, that is supposed to get the other cities to surrender and of course, the other cities do. And this kind of practice was normal in earlier history but the notion of wiping out a whole people is, I think, modern. And the basic reason for that is in previous periods class distinctions were so great that rulers very rarely considered themselves to be part of the same people as the ordinary peasant and so they didn’t have a very ethnic conception of themselves, and elites in different societies thought of themselves as being closer to each other than they thought of being closer to the masses.

MA: I would think that another reason for this would have to do with something else that you wrote about which is, often times the ethnic cleansings occur when the minority which may be oppressed does not submit to the majority, but in the past, it seemed like people were more submissive.

MM: Yes, it didn’t matter very much to them whether they were being oppressed by the Jewish upper classes or the Babylonians. Today there is far more of a common identity between the people and the leaders and so you have ethnic bonding occurring across class. In a way class conflict, class divisions are a protection against ethnic cleansing.

MA: And which one is worse?

MM: Well in terms of mass murder, I think there is no question that ethnic cleansing is generally the worse, though, of course, you do have these very particular things going on in Soviet Russia and in China where landlords and kulaks were slaughtered in very large numbers as enemy classes, but that is very rare.

MA: And in Cambodia?

MM: And in Cambodia too, you are quite right.

MA: One other statistic that I thought was striking, and I don’t know exactly how this really fits in with your whole thesis, is civilian deaths in wars and conflicts that, say in World War One, less than ten percent of the deaths were civilian, World War Two comes around it was about half, and now then the wars in the 90s it was like eighty percent civilian deaths.

MM: Yes, that is right.

MA: How does this relate to the whole democratic argument?

MM: Well, part of it relates obviously to new weapons of war and especially to aerial bombing. The case that we the democracy in winning World War Two for example did engage in indiscriminate bombing. And I am not thinking primarily of Hiroshima which you can debate about that and how it was supposed to end the war earlier and it probably did, but I am thinking more of the firebombing of Tokyo or Dresden in which the American and British air forces were deliberately targeting civilians in order to destroy the will of the Japanese and German people. Of course, it didn’t really work, but there is no question as far as the British were concerned there was a strong element of revenge for German bombing of British cities. So democracy, it depends what you count as atrocities. Democracies if you bring in wars have been just as atrocious as anyone else.

MA: Now if we go into your theoretical arguments here, one of things that you distinguish which I thought was quite interesting was these two versions of “We the people.” You have this liberal version that honours the individual, and one that you call ‘organic’ or ‘whole people’ that seems to be more about the entire community. Could you describe these concepts and give us some examples?

MM: Yes, well there are two concepts of ‘the people’. There are two Greek origins, demos from which we get the word democracy and ethnos from which we get ethnicity. Now these are both words for the people, rule by the people. And the problem comes when the two get confused. If you think of “We the people” in the US, we the people actually meant white males, it was also within a political regime dominated by property owners, and so it didn’t actually mean everybody. Whereas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it became much more likely that people when talking about “We the people” would mean absolutely everybody and this became bound up with a form of nationalism whereby everyone who was part of the same ethnic group was considered to have the same culture, the same soul. And since there was a unitary group, a single ethnic group, the state had to represent that and minorities could not be full members of the state and so were discriminated against. As you said earlier, it is when the minorities resist that you get real trouble. The normal lot of minorities is to accept discrimination, maybe they should if it leads to ethnic civil wars and ethnic cleansing.

MA: I was looking through your examples that you argued were evidence of this and I would like to focus on Rwanda because I was thinking about the ethnic minority which was the Tutsi people that were essentially annihilated in the genocide. They were not really resisting the Hutu power that took the government after the president was assassinated, so can you explain that particular genocide in terms of resistance and laying claims to the same land? Obviously, the Hutu power wanted the land but it seemed like there was something else to it? And also, you talk about how sometimes these genocides and ethnic cleansings are really a plan C, that they don’t intend to be genocidal. And I was looking for evidence of this in Rwanda and couldn’t quite find it. Could you explain?

MM: Yes. The Tutsis were only fifteen percent of the population but they were considered by the Belgians as the natural ruling group, the people with more power, more abilities and so they ruled through the Tutsis and this strengthened the sense of ethnic identity. But in the last years of Belgian rule there were pressures from in Belgium and also from within Rwanda to do more for the Hutus, and after independence the Hutus came to power. And then Tutsis felt disgruntled and many of them left the country. Now it isn’t actually true what you said that there was no resistance because there were two things that sparked off the genocide. One was the shooting down of the plane of the president, the Hutu president, presumably by Tutsis…

MA: There are some questions about that though?

MM: We will never know for sure, but the balance of probability was that it was indeed Tutsis. The second thing that was going on was that there was a Tutsi invasion by the people who had fled into neighbouring Uganda and they had been helped by the Ugandan government…

MA: The Rwandan Patriotic Front. But these were not the residents of Rwanda these were people who had been displaced before who wanted to come back and wanted their land back.

MM: Yes, they wanted to win a war and become the new government and indeed they did. But it is true that a majority of the Tutsis in Rwanda were not resisting. But the Hutus came to believe that these Tutsis were helping the Tutsi invaders. There was a fierce battle going on within the Hutu community and as a result of the invasion and the shooting down of the president’s plane the Hutu extremists managed to come to seize power and as soon as they seized power they launched the genocide. Let me say that in these twentieth-century cases like Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Armenia: these are not democracies doing it but it is a problem of the democratisation process. All of these groups who eventually perpetrated the genocide or ethnic cleansing in these cases were originally seeking a more democratic form of government and it was when they began to confuse those two senses of democracy of rule by the people with a particular ethnic group that it led towards these terrible atrocities. So I am not saying in those cases that they were democracies, they obviously weren’t, but it was the democratising process that led to this.

MA: Something in the US that kind of shows an oppressive quality of democracy, of majorities oppressing the minority, but it is not ethnic cleansing it is just a violation of rights. Proposition 8 is an example that I frequently link to this, or maybe Proposition 187 or some of these other propositions. It really seems to be direct democracy that often is the violating of the minorities?

MM: Yes, well of course, what referenda can do is whip up scares against minorities, against minorities who seem deviant and you do get that in the propositions. I mean the kinds of terrible atrocities that I am talking about are in a different league. I think there is a bright side to what is going on, there is a somewhat steady progress of rights in the US but the backlash is unlikely to prevail in the medium term I would think because it is clear that society is going in a more human rights direction.

MA: Now is that because of the kind of democracy that is established in the US?

MM: I think it is more general than that. I think that there are social processes going on across the western world as a whole and so you have the same kind of thing happening in Europe too now. It is not…because there are not referenda in that way, it doesn’t have the same drama involved as is the case in California but there is an advance of these kinds of rights. I am not a specialist in this area but it is obvious that there is a kind of sexual revolution going on and has been going on for some time and it partly came out of other human rights and civil rights movements. And that will probably continue.

This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guest and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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