Classes, Elites, Mills & 21st Century UK

By | January 7, 2016

The Power Elite

Since the publication of C Wright Mills (1956) seminal The Power Elite times have changed: the elite-versus-mass industrial society of the USA in the 1950s differs in many ways from post-industrial Britain in the second decade of the 21st century. There have been several mentions of Mills’ text during the present era of what I here call ‘financial capitalism’; that is, the years since the mid-1970s. There has also been an occasional journalistic attempt to re-invigorate and apply his concepts to contemporary times (Williams, 2006). Sociologists, however, have been more ready to cite Mills than to engage with his theory of interlocking business, political and military elites, either theoretically or empirically. This was not always the case: there were several full-bloodied excursions into his domain of contention in the 1950s and ‘60s (Domhoff & Ballard, 1968). In this exceptionally and ludicrously long blog I start what I argue is an apt, indeed overdue, process of re-engagement with Mills’ classic.

The power elite Mills discerned in 1950s America comprised the corporate chieftains, the political directorate and the warlords. His choice of terminology was pointed:

‘the simple Marxian view makes the big economic man the ‘real’ holder of power; the simple liberal view makes the big political man the chief of the power system; and there are some who would view the warlords as virtual dictators. Each of these is an oversimplified view. It is to avoid them that we use the term ‘power elite’ rather than, for example, ‘ruling class’’ (1956: 277).

Mills stressed the structural coincidence of elite figures’ interests, as well as the overlap in their origins, education and careers that fostered a psychological affinity. Perhaps incongruously given his skepticism about the language of class, he refers to a strong class consciousness:

‘Nowhere in America is there as great a ‘class consciousness’ as among the elite: nowhere is it organized as effectively as among the power elite.’ He continues: ‘for by class consciousness, as a psychological fact, one means that the individual member of a ‘class’ accepts only those accepted by his circle as among those who are significant to his own image of self’ (1956: 283).

In other words, members of Mills’ power elite shared a common habitus; that is, ‘a subjective but non-individual system of internalized structures, common schemes of interpretation, conception and action’ (Bourdieu, 1980: 60). Following on from this, there is a family of three concepts in Mills’ analysis that are especially pertinent to this paper.

The first of these acknowledges the interlocking memberships of the three domains of the power elite. It is not just that they had similar family backgrounds, schooling and Ivy League exposure, but also that there was a high rate of inter-marriage and transfer. The power elite comprised a complex, dynamic web or network of interrelations.

The second concept is tacit co-ordination. Mills writes:

‘I have tried but cannot resist highlighting this concept of ‘tacit co-ordination’, a sure sociological substitute for ‘conspiracy’. It suits the activities of members of our current oligarchy’ (1956: 69).

His point is that members of the power elite rarely need to conspire given their habitus. Fight like cats and dogs though they did with their domain rivals, they retained a sharp sense of collective, inter-domain interests.

The third component of this triad is that of small decisions:

‘the power of the elite does not necessarily mean that history is not also shaped by a series of small decisions, none of which are thought out. It does not mean that a hundred small arrangements and compromises and adaptations may not be built into the ongoing policy and the living event. The idea of the power elite implies nothing about the process of decision-making as such: it is an attempt to delimit the social areas within which that process, whatever its character, goes on. It is a conception of who is involved in the process’ (1956: 21).

For all that Foucault came to neglect who exercised power and why, there is more than a hint of his subtle explication of how power is diffused and exercised in this statement.

Two further arguments advanced by Mills are relevant here. The first hinges on another of Mills’ innovative concepts, that of a higher immorality. Once again quotation best serves our purpose:

‘within the corporate worlds of business, war-making and politics, the private conscience is attenuated – and the higher immorality is institutionalized. It is not merely a question of a corrupt administration in corporation, army or state; it is a feature of the corporate rich, as a capitalist stratum, deeply entwined with the politics of a military state’ (1956: 343).


‘the higher immorality, the general weakening of older values and the organization of irresponsibility have not involved any public crises; on the contrary, they have been matters of a creeping indifference and a silevt hollowing out’ (1956: 345).


‘a society that is in its higher circles and on its middle levels widely believed to be a network of smart rackets does not produce men of conscience with an inner moral sense; a society that is merely expedient does not produce men of conscience. A society that narrows the meaning of ‘success’ to the big money and in its terms condemns failure as the chief vice, raising money to the plane of absolute value, will produce the sharp operator sand the shady deal. Blessed are the cynical, for only they have what it takes to succeed’ (1956: 347).  

The final remark on Mills anticipates Piketty (2014). Noting change over the decades leading up to the 1950s, Mills records a growing propensity for members of America’s power elite to inherit rather than ‘earn’ their wealth:

‘in earlier generations the main chance, usually with other people’s money, was the key; in later generations the accumulation of corporate advantages, based on grandfather’s and father’s position, replaces the main chance’ (1956: 115-6).

By the 1950s only 9% of the very rich came ‘from the bottom’; 68% came ‘from the upper classes’. Possession, typically via inheritance, was already key.

As so often in sociology, continuity and discontinuity battle it out. In some ways Mills’ analysis is specific to time and place, in others it has retained its bite. Capitalism survives but in new format and guise. In this section a number of parameters of financial capitalism are postulated, and these ‘set up’ the ensuing analysis. These will be articulated via seven ‘theses’ for which support has been adduced elsewhere (e.g. Scambler, 2012a; 2012b, 2014).

(a) Financialisation

That capitalism has entered a new phase over the last generation is not contentious. Scarcely less so is the proposition that it has undergone a form of ‘financialisation’. We have witnessed a transition to what has variously been deemed high, late, reflexive, liquid, post- or second modernity; post-modernity; post-industrial or consumer society; and so on. In fact sociologists have queued up to encapsulate the present in an apt word or phrase. The concept of financialisation, in line with the macro-theories of Giddens (1990) on ‘space-time distantiation’ and Castells on ‘netorked society’, here denotes the increased speed and salience of flows of capital within and between nation-states. Billions of dollars can be shifted in milli-seconds, affording select protagonists – namely, those placing the larger bets in today’s (another ‘apt phrase’) ‘casino capitalism’ – exercise an enhanced causal responsibility for others’ incomes, living conditions and wellbeing.

(b) Glocalisation

The word ‘glocalisation’ catches financial capitalism’s novel tendency to nurture global and local change. Inter- and intra-continental and national boundaries both count for less, hence the burgeoning literature on globalization, and for more, leading to devolution and an emphasis on localisation. Many a political elite must look outwards and inwards. This has important implications, as we shall see, for Mills’ space- and time-bound elucidation of the power elite: his concepts of interlocking membership, tacit co-ordination and higher immorality require re-anchoring. As far as contemporary concepts of globalization go, it is the ubiquity of neo-liberal economics that is most striking. Neo-liberalism, I shall contend, constitutes an ideology at the end of/beyond ideology.

(c) Post-ideological relativity

Financial capitalism is characterized by the surpassing of at least one core aspect of modernity whatever terminology is deployed to describe it. As Lyotard (1972) long ago claimed, a few singular, western, Enlightenment-oriented grand narratives (for or against capitalism) have been displaced by a plethora of rival pick-and-mix petit narratives. This has left the neo-liberalist status quo lacking in competition. Moreover, each and every petit narrative is now viewed as an ideology, allegedly leaving consumers free to choose their worlds and identities. Expressed in ‘classical’ sociological terms, the concept of ‘ideology’ has been usurped. It no longer refers to a worldview dictated by vested interests, but to any worldview. Contemporary culture has been ‘postmodernised’ or ‘relativised’; it is therefore, as Habermas (1989) argued, a neo-conservativist culture compatible with, if not simply willed or ‘determined’ by, the offspring of Mills’ power elite.

(d) Class-command dynamic

Pakulski and Waters, among numerous others, announced the ‘death of class’ prematurely. The thesis on the ‘post-ideological relativity’ effectively admits that subjectively class in financial capitalism is a less significant component of identity-formation than hitherto. Objectively it is a different story. Class relations, I maintain, now count for more not less. Money, Habermas (1984, 1987) argues, is the steering medium of the economy, power that of the state. The American historian Landes (1998) succinctly averred that monied men (sic) have always bought men of power. Financial capitalism bears testimony to a novel class-command dynamic whereby ownership of capital buys power – in Britain and in the developed worlds – on a scale beyond anything seen since the (twilight, land-owning, aristocratic) early decades of the twentieth century (Piketty, 2014). This thesis is key for any revision of Mills’ theory. Objectively, class relations have assumed a far greater significance even as, subjectively, their sway has diminished. To succeed materially it has become more than advisable, and in fact a predictor of outcome, to inherit an advantage.

(e) New inequality

The statistics of growing inequalities of wealth and income in Britain are almost as staggering as those in the USA. Under financial capitalism wealth in general and income in particular have been taken from (1) the already impoverished ‘have-nots’ and (2) the ‘squeezed middle’, and donated to (3) the top 0.1% and (4) the other 99.9% of the top 10% and their allies from the non-squeezed or upper reaches of the middle class (Clark & Heath, 2014). Five British families, Oxfam (2014) has recently publicized, now have as much wealth as the poorest 20% of the population. As far as income is concerned, the CEOs of Britain’s FTSEE 100 are now earning 143 times more than their staff. The likes of the wealth and income distributions marketed by the Sunday Times (Beresford, 2014), Piketty (2014) shows, seriously under-estimate the concentration of wealth.

(f) Prepotency of capital-ownership

The backlash against Piketty is in part explicable in terms of his exposure of the dearth of empirical support for neo-liberalism’s ideological thrust. His cautious and convincing case embarrasses those who privilege the privatization of public services and, as world-system therorist Wallerstein epitomised the capitalist ‘project’, the ‘commodification of everything’. Piketty’s prime equation picks up on and predicts the ascendancy of the return on capital versus wages in the present and for the foreseeable future: this is capitalism acting in accordance with rather than against its logic he argues. Inequality, as Adam Smith acknowledged in his ‘Wealth of Nations’, is capitalism’s natural outcome and principal hazard. As far as financial capitalism is concerned, the boosted privileging of capital over wages underpins a new reinvigorated heritability of opportunity and outcome.

(g) ‘High immorality’

Mills ‘ notion of high immorality still resonates. I have argued elsewhere that those comprising the extreme or hard core of Clement and Miles’ ‘capitalist-executive’ class, not the Occupy Movement’s 1% but the top 0.1%, are – Habermas again – totally instrumental or strategic (see Scott, Scambler 2013 on ‘focused autonomous reflexives’). As one financier was quoted as saying, ‘what don’t people understand? We don’t do morality, we make money’. It is a feature of financial capitalism that ‘making money’ more readily trumps any communicative impetus to consensual, reciprocal community building. The system colonization of the lifeworld, and those petit narratives that underpIn and foster it are gathering momentum.

From Power Elite to Governing Oligarchy

Britain, I maintain, is currently ruling by a tiny class-driven political or command elite, 0.1% of its population or thereabouts, inviting a reference to a governing oligarchy. As yet this is a plausible but not corroborated contention. Before the argument is deepened, however, it will be helpful to reflect further on the concept of elite.

The term ‘elite’ typically refers to the incumbents of top positions in both the public and private sectors. The focus is on their individual characteristics. ‘Vertical integration’ refers to how representative they are of the total population; ‘horizontal integration’ refers to their degree of connectivity and interaction (Dronkers & Schiff, 2007). Although this individualistic approach is paramount, more structural approaches are also to be found. Scott (2008: 32), for example, defines elites as ‘those groups that hold or exercise domination within a society or within a particular area of social life’. He identifies four ideal types of elite. Coercive elites and inducing elites are rooted in allocative control over resources: they derive their power from the constraints that flow from the distribution of resources involved in ‘force’ and ‘manipulation’ respectively. The coercive elites are Pareto’s ‘lions’, the inducing elites his ‘foxes’. Commanding elites and expert elites owe their power to the discursive formation of legitimating and signifying principals and subalterns. Aping Pareto, Scott refers to these as ‘bears’ and ‘owls’ respectively.

To elaborate, coercive elites control access to the use of violence and can compel others into conformity, even to act against their wishes, desires and interests. Inducing elites exercise control via their financial and industrial capital, imposing conformity by influencing others’ ‘rational, self-interested calculations of personal or group advantage’ (Scott, 2008: 33). Commanding elites comprise those who legitimately occupy top administrative positions in institutional hierarchies of management and control. Expert elites are those whose specialized, formal or arcane knowledge is contained in professional structures, affording them a generalized ‘persuasive power’. Scott emphasizes that these are ideal types rarely found in pure form.

So for Scott elites denote membership of the most powerful positions in structures of domination. Elite members may or may not cohere into solidaristic groups. Elites, Scott argues, must be distinguished from classes (and statuses) regardless of the degree of overlap in real situations. He writes:

‘’economic elite’ and ‘capitalist class’ … may be used interchangeably to describe various privileged, advantaged, or powerful economic groups. This tendency must be resisted if the analytical power of the elite concept is to be retained, as this is the only basis on which the dynamics of power can be clearly understood’ (Scott, 2008: 34).

Scott’s perspective on elites and classes is distinctively Weberian – via Weber’s student Michels’ interpretations of Pareto and Mosca.

Commenting on the recent Great British Class Survey, Savage (2015) has become increasingly attached to the notion of a ‘wealth elite’. He discerns a growing polarization in financial capitalism between this elite and what, following Standing, he calls the ‘precariat’. I accept the sociological utility of both terms. But neither constitutes a ‘class’ in my book; and there’s the rub.

Although Scott (1991) has himself written on the ‘ruling class’, accounts of class-based rule are more often rooted in Marx than Weber. Marxist analysts now tend to be circumspect, sometimes studiously so. Erik Ohlin Wright is among the exceptions. I reached the conclusion 20-30 years ago that it is premature to abandon classical Marxian notions of class and class struggle. While it would be disingenuous to claim that Marx hit the 21st century nail right on the head, it is to me apparent that his analyses and the close-knit family of theories that emerged from them have continuing resonance. The distinction between capital ownership and wage labour still strikes me as pivotal, albeit in new and unanticipated structural and cultural contexts.

I also lament the ‘absence’ from putative class schema of those whose ownership of capital buys more power from the state in post-1970s financial capitalism than could possibly have been foreseen during postwar welfare capitalism. The less than 1% that comprised John Scott’s ‘ruling class’ have always been able to hide in ‘socio-economic classifications’ like RG, NS-SEC and the confused and confusing Great British Class Survey.

An obstinate commitment to Marxist thinking – to my mind, any credible macro-analysis of the contemporary scene has to be ‘in the spirit of Marx’ – has led me to posit an alternative classification of class (apologies for inter-blog repetition at this point). My effort takes off from the theories of Carchedi and the attempts to apply them of Clement and Miles.

CATEGORY (A): Capitalist executive (significant, largely transnational and ‘detached’ owners of capital) (1%)


CAPITAL MONOPOLISTS (hard core of heavy capital-owners who are ‘players’)


CAPITAL AUXILIARIES (soft auxiliary core of heavy capital-owners who are non-players)


CAPITAL ‘SLEEPERS’ (insider higher management, light capital-owners who support players)

CATEGORY (B): New middle class (managers in the service of capital) (24%)


INSIDER HIGHER MANAGERS (‘Co-opted’ higher/middle managers who support players)


OUTSIDER HIGHER MANAGERS (higher managers, independent of players)


MIDDLE MANAGERS (middle managers, independent of players) (P)


CAPITAL ASPIRERS (‘aspirational’, petit-bourgeoisie, independent of players) (P

CATEGORY (C): Old middle class (established professionals) (15%)


INSIDER PROFESSIONALS (‘co-opted’, high-status professionals who support players) (P)


OUTSIDER PROFESSIONALS (high-status professionals, independent of players) (P)


SEMI-PROFESSIONALS (semi-professionals, independent of players (P)

CATEGORY (D): Working class (waged workers) (45%)


INSIDER WORKERS (‘co-opted’, supervisory, waged workers, support players) (P)


OUTSIDER WHITE-COLLAR WORKERS (non-manual waged workers, independent of players) (P)


OUTSIDER BLUE-COLLAR WORKERS (waged manual workers, independent of players) (P)


OUTSIDER SEMI/UNSKILLED WORKERS (waged semi- and unskilled manual workers, independent of players) (P)

CATEGORY (E): Working class (outside paid work) (15%)

DISPLACED WORKERS (never worked and long-term unemployed) (P)

Within the capital executive there exists a hard core of heavily ‘globalised’ capital owners personally committed to the accumulation of capital (or material) assets. I define these as ‘detached’   This fraction of the 1% constitutes the class driver for order/change, exercising its will through the offices of those in the political elite, whose members have mostly been recruited or are allied to the capital executive. The governing oligarchy’s personnel are – and this is the key sociological point – surfers of a revised class structuring of British society in financial capitalism (which is, as intersectionalists remind us, also structured by gender, ethnicity and so on).

I have made a distinction between supporters and non-supporters of players. This is important because the less than 1% critically ‘rely on’ the co-option of others in the capital executive, new and old middle classes and even the working class. This is not a matter of electoral or infrastructural support but of a compact of interest. These are people – from managers and accountants to lawyers and physicians to supervisors and union officials – whose cooperation with the governing oligarchy has been directly or indirectly hired or bought: they profit from the liaison.

The term ‘precariat’ appears (now as (p)) in parentheses. I do not accept that Standing’s precariat is a class in- let alone or for- itself. But I certainly accept that there is a structural and cultural precariousness associated with financial capitalism. I here regard this as a cross-class matter placing an emboldened question mark after the security and well being of most members of the new, old and working classes (90+% of the population as a whole). My employment of ‘precariat’ acknowledges this insecurity without making the ‘error’ of discovering a new class.

It may appear injudicious to insert class percentages. My ‘guesswork’ is largely consonant with research findings but it lacks independent support.

Sociologists should in my view be focusing far more attention on: (i) the 0.1% who comprise a cabal of globally heavy-hitting owners of capital who buy sufficient national state power to secure governance sufficient to further of their agendas and interests; (ii) the 2% who comprise a governing oligarchy; and (iii) the 7-8% of ‘supporters’ and ‘co-optees’ (represented in each of the class categories (A) to (D)) who are critical for the viability of this governing oligarchy.

This is not to commend a focus on Savage’s wealth elite, though that would be of interest. What I am arguing for here is an acknowledgement that it is the increasingly concentrated ownership and control of (largely inherited) capital that is the prime mover in financial capitalism. This is a class issue: a cabal within the capitalist executive buys sufficient power for its needs in the continuing absence of a crisis of government legitimation. This class/command dynamic is for me the principal macro-level ‘generative mechanism’ for financial capitalism. It delivers a governing oligarchy that, pace Mills, also controls, and is currently via-anti-terrorist legislation extending its control over, core social institutions of oppression and repression (from the mainstream media to MI5 and MI6 through to the armed forces and the police).

So, returning to Mills, here are a few urgent and under-researched questions for my neo-Marxist sociology of the present: (a) how are we to chart the emergence and describe the standout features of the habitus of those who comprise the governing oligarchy? (b) what of ‘interlocking memberships’ of the class-centred cabal of prime capital owners and the state’s power elite – how do Mills’ statistics for 1950s America stand up for Britain in 2016? (c) how determinate and porous are the boundaries between ‘tacit co-ordination’ and conspiracy for the governing oligarchy? and (d) by what means is the ‘higher morality’ of the governing oligarchy institutionalized, and how might it be publicly and effectively contested?


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