Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Notes on C. Wright Mills “The Power Elite”

As with all the readings thus far, despite how long ago this piece was written, it not only speaks to origins of how things got to be how they are, it speaks to how things are right now.

What is meant by the “Power Elite”

Mills defines the Power Elite in contrast to the rest, on (3) he writes, that Americans recognize the elite as “They are all that we are not.” It comes down to being able to make decisions “that mightily affect, the everyday worlds of men and women.” (3) They make positions of major consequences affecting the rest of us. Recall Dewey’s words on necessity of State to mediate consequences. It’s not an equal exchange. On 5, Mills discusses the dropping of the bomb on Japan in the name of the USA, “although they were at no time consulted about the matter. They feel that they live in a time of big decisions; they know that they are not making any.”

A key idea in all this is the Power Elite’s connection to institutions – it’s not enough to have wealth or celebrity, but it’s necessary to be linked into the means to do something with it. On 9 he writes: “By the powerful we mean, of course, those who are able to realize their will, even if others resist it. No one, accordingly, can be truly powerful unless he has access to the command of major institutions, for it is over these institutional means of power that the truly powerful are, in the first instance, powerful.” And continues to say, “Not all power, it is true, is anchored in and exercised by means of such institutions, but only within and through them can power be more or less continuous and important.” It’s not simply about wealth, access to power matters most.

The final aspect of Mills’s definition of the Power Elite is on (18): “By the power elite, we refer to those political, economic, and military circles which as an intricate set of overlapping cliques share decisions having at least national consequences. In so far as national events are decided, the power elite are those who decide them.” We’re coming to know who they are – warlords, chief executives, and top politicians – and how we are to understand them and their unification (19) via: Psychology, structure and mechanics of institutional hierarchies, and explicit co-ordination.

On (22) he lays out where we are at, at a time when only small circles decide what happens. “Yet the fact is that although we are all of us within history we do not possess equal powers to make history. To pretend that we do is sociological nonsense and political irresponsibility. … We do not all have equal access to the means of power that now exist, nor equal influence over their use.” While we may live in a society where we have a democratic right to vote, Mills’s premise is that we don’t pull the levers, press the button, on the major decisions – those are made for us by those in the Power Elite. (Also, like his reasoning for using term “power elite” rather than “ruling class” (on 277) – class being an economic term, rule a political one.)

Who They Are

This “Big Three”, triple-gods that “run the show” are from big corporations, key politicians, and military leaders. (4) These are “the leading men in each of the three domains of power – the warlords, the corporation chieftains, the political directorate – [who] tend to come together, to form the power elite of America.” (9) Throughout, I’m reminded by Military man turned President, Eisenhower’s warning against the military-industrial complex (well pointed out in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine.” We see this in Blackwater, Haliburton, and more today. On 6 he points out how “Other institutions seem off to the side of modern history, and, on occasion, duly subordinated to these.” Religion, education, and the family institutions are put in service of the big three, their messages used to reinforce the dominating message, rather than leading the ideas.

These three have become ever more tightly intertwined, more centralized, and fewer are making decisions affecting the lives of many. (7) In establishing themselves as the decision makers, the Power Elite also create a mythology that their ascendancy is natural. On 13 Mills writes of this notion that “they are elite because of the kind of individuals they are. The rest of the population is mass, which, according to this conception, sluggishly relaxes into uncomfortable mediocrity.” Henry Ford said of his workers, “they want to be led.” But Mills points out his is wrong, (14) “People with advantages are loath to believe that they just happen to be the people with advantages.” This brings to mind Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” that illustrates quite brilliantly the not so extraordinary circumstances that lead to success. The “self-made man” in truth had a lot going for him from generations past. Fran Liebowitz wrote an article about race once, where she compared white to being the children of celebrities. Celebrity offspring would say they still had to work hard, they only had help getting in the door. Well that’s where it all is – the hard part is access, that’s what she claimed white’s had, they looked like people they’d had.

Having dismissed this notion that the Power Elite are ordained “better”, Mills continues, “Even when we give up – as we must – the idea that the elite man or woman is born with an elite character, we need not dismiss the idea that their experiences and trainings develop in them characteristics of a specific type.” And we can think of ourselves here at Columbia, the training ground for important people. No matter our diversity, there’s something in common that’s made it possible for us to be here, and there is some commonality in psychology that unites us. This is pronounced in the Power Elite as he writes (15), “So conceived, the elite is a set of higher circles whose members are selected, trained and certified and permitted intimate access to those who command the impersonal institutional hierarchies of modern society.”

How They Came To Be

Mills expressly states that his thesis is not that an omnipotent elite has always shaped historical events. However, they are the history makers. (20) He then discusses the origins of the Power Elite, and on 12, contrasts this with Europe, which had a nobility class. Without such a thing in the US, ours emerged from the middle class and the wealth created by the industrial revolution. Lots of people got rich on the labor of others. In Chapter 12, Mills lays out 5 different epochs in American history in terms of shifts of power from the time of the revolution to the present day. In the First, Revolution through John Adams admin, we were a small country, with many-sided men who crossed easily from one institution to another. He writes the “Social and economic, political and military unified in a simple and direct way.” In the Second, “the economic and political and military orders fitted loosely into the great scatter of the American social structure.” This was very loose, a plurality of leaders. By Epoch 3, “the supremacy of corporate economic power began” as result of the 14th Amendment corporations became individual entities. At this point the military remained subordinate to political (as it had been so far) and “thus off to the side of the main driving forces of US history” Rather, the “economy was the dynamic” With the New Deal, Epoch 4 started, the economic elite, after being brought down and humbled to some degree, decided to get into the business of government. Whereas up to the 30s, “political order was still an instrument of small propertied farmers and businessmen” – (274)

WWII signaled the start of the 5th and current epoch, “the long time tendency of business and government to become more intricately and deeply involved with each other has reached a new point of explicitness.” (274) The economic, political and military leaders came together to make the war possible, and continued to become more tightly intertwined afterwards. (275) And this is a scary thought, “Not politicians, but corporate executives, sit with the military and plan the organization of the war effort.” (276) Again, this speaks to Eisenhower’s warning, and his own position at the head of the table.


With the Big Three truly in place after WWII, we ask if it’s a conspiracy. Mills argues it’s not, on 292, “The conception of the power elite, accordingly, does not rest upon the assumption that American history since the origins of WWII must be understood as a secret plot, or as a great and coordinated conspiracy of the members of this elite. The conception rests upon quite impersonal grounds.” He makes use of a wonderful statement by Richard Hofstadter along these lines on 293, “There is a great difference between locating conspiracies in history and saying that history is, in effect, a conspiracy…” On 27 Mills writes, “to accept either view – of all history as conspiracy or of all history as drift – is to relax the effort to understand the facts of power and the ways of the powerful.”

The idea that all these people know each other, work together, and have interchanging roles within each others’ circles is illustrated beautifully by Mark Lombardi and his Global Networks. These are network drawings showing how people are connected. Learn a little bit about it here:

Even if it’s not a conspiracy, the Power Elite are tightly interwoven. Mills writes (288), “They assume positions in one another’s domains.” There’s a back and forth between people in each organization, one minute their lobbyists, then in government, then running a company. Dick Cheney is a prime example, but just one of many. Obama’s picks for treasury were running the organizations they now oversee. Mills writes (10) that the top positions are “increasingly interchangeable.” But it’s less conspiracy than the idea that “The power elite, as we conceive it, also rests upon the similarity of its personnel, and their personal and official relations with one another, upon their social and psychological affinities.” (278) He suggests (281) “Even if their recruitment and formal training were more heterogeneous than they are, these men would still be of quite homogeneous social type.” They come though the same social circles, ‘personalities’ tend to become similar.” They know each other, intermingle. There’s a feeling that these others are “one of us” (283) even if it’s not premeditated. Mills states the interwoven nature of the power elite clearly (294) “there is nothing hidden about it, although its activities are not publicized. As an elite, it is not organized, although its members often know one another… there is nothing conspiratorial about it, although its decisions are often publicly unknown and its mode of operation manipulative rather than explicit.”

When CE Wilson was nominated for secretary of Defense by Eisenhower, the head of GM say something along the lines of “what’s good for GM is good for the US and vice versa.” (285) There’s an attitude as expressed earlier, that (294) control of society needs to be “in the hands of experts. It is just that everyone knows somebody has got to run the show, and that somebody usually does. Others do not really care anyway, and besides, they do not know how. So the gap between the two types gets wider.” This again refers to Ford’s words. We just happen to be better equipped to do this and the little people just want to live their lives without the bother...

Mills sets out key contrasts throughout. On 17, he talks about the deliberate deception that leaders follow the will of the people and are powerless to it. It’s a contrast between “Omnipotence and impotence.” The truth is leaders make decisions. On 26 he writes, “But-if events come out well, talk as though you had decided.” “If events come out badly, say that you didn’t have the real choice, and are, of course, not accountable: they, the others, had the choice and they are responsible.” This is insidious – claim to be servants, responding only to the will of the people, yet all the while making the decisions that affect all of them.

This raises real questions of how to transform this power dynamic, to wrest control from the big three and think about the Great Community Dewey wrote of. How to get there? It starts with understanding, with seeing how decisions were made (or not made) that led us to this point and perhaps in that understanding, we can begin to act different decisions. This is powerful reading, enjoying it, and emboldened by it. – N

PS: I like this (21) “During most of human history, historical change has not been visible to the people who were involved in it, or even to those enacting it.”

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