Hear C Wright Mills on the ‘Power Elite’!

By | October 2, 2013

This is for me a blog with a difference. Ever since my undergraduate days, 1968-71, I have been attracted to the writing of C Wright Mills. It is of course a common form of magnetism. For a variety of reasons I have re-read his The Power Elite, a report and analysis of America’s ‘governors’ in the 1950s. I have been struck not only by his analysis but also by his insightful phrasings, many of which bite as deeply now, and in the UK, as they did then in the USA. So this posting comprises a series of quotations that I have found compelling. Since they possess an enduring eloquence I have foregone any temptation to contextualize them. In any case, anybody clicking on will need no help. Unhelpfully perhaps, the page references are to my old edition (Oxford University Press, 1956).

For C Wright Mills, the power elite in the USA of the 1950s comprises dominant figures in corporations, politics and the military.

As each of these domains has coincided with the others, as decisions tend to become total in their consequences, the leading men in each of the three domains of power – the warlords, the corporation chieftains, the political directorate – tend to come together, to form the power elite of America (p.9).

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 going 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 (p.21).

… in the inner circles of the upper classes, the most impersonal problems of the largest and most important institutions are fused with the sentiments and worries of small, closed, intimate groups. This is one very important meaning of the upper-class family and of the upper-class school: ‘background’ is one way in which, on the basis of intimate association, the activities of an upper class may be tacitly co-ordinated (p.69).

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?

A nation becomes a great power only on one condition: that its military establishment and resources are such that it could really threaten decisive warfare (p.85).

The word ‘millionaire’ … was coined only in 1843, when, upon the death of Peter Lorillard (snuff, banking, real estate), the newspapers needed a term to denote great affluence (p.101).

Wealth not only tends to perpetuate itself, but … tends to monopolize new opportunities for getting ‘great wealth’. Seven out of ten of the very rich among us today were born into distinctly upper-class homes, two out of ten on the level of middle-class comfort, and only one in lower-class milieu (p.105).

The preponderance of Ivy League colleges is, of course, a direct result of the higher class origins of the very rich: as the proportion of the very rich from the upper classes increases, so do the proportions who attend Ivy League schools. Of those who were college educated, 37% of the 1900 generation, 47% of 1925 and 60% of 1950 very rich attended such schools (p.107).  

No man, to my knowledge, has ever entered the ranks of the great American fortunes merely by saving a surplus from his salary or wage. In one way or another, he has to come into command of a strategic position which allows him the chance to appropriate big money, and usually he has to have available a considerable sum of money in order to be able to parlay it into really big wealth  … Once he has made the big jump, once he has negotiated the main chance, the man who is rising gets involved in the accumulation of advantages, which is merely another way of saying that to him that hath shall be given (pp.100-1).

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. Over the last three generations, the trend is quite unmistakable: today, only 9% of the very rich came from the bottom; only 23% are of middle-class origin; 68% came from the upper classes (pp.115-6).

If we attempt to draw blueprints of the external careers of the executives, we find several more or less distinct types: 1. Entrepreneurs, by definition, start or organize a business with their own or others’ funds, and as the business grows so does their stature as executives (6% of the top corporate executives in America in 1950) …  2. Some executives have been placed in companies owned by their fathers or other relatives and have subsequently inherited their positions (11%) … 3. Another 13% did not begin in business at all, but as professional men, primarily lawyers … 4. These three types of careers – entrepreneurial, family and professional – have been followed by about one-third of the top 1950 executives. The external career line of the remaining 68% is a series of moves, over a long period of time, within and between the various levels and circles of the corporate business world (pp.131-2).

According to Mills, we have witnessed: the managerial reorganization of the propertied classes into the more or less unified stratum of the corporate rich (p.147).

There is maintained in America, and there is being created and maintained every year, a stratum of the corporate rich, many of whose members possess far more money than they can personally spend with any convenience. For many of them, the prices of things are simply irrelevant. They never have to look at the right hand column of a menu; they never have to take orders from anybody, they never have to do really disagreeable things except as a self-imposed task; they never have to face alternatives hedged in by considerations of cost. They never ‘have’ to do anything. They are, according to all appearances, free. But are they really free? The answer is Yes, within the terms of their society, they are really free. But does not the possession of money somehow limit them? The answer is No, it does not. But are not those just the hurried answers, are there not more considered, deeper-going answers. What kind of deeper-going answers? And what does freedom mean? Whatever else it may mean, freedom means that you have the power to do what you want to do, when you want to do it, and how you want to do it. And in American society the power to do what you want, when you want, how you want, requires money. Money provides the power and power provides the freedom (pp.162-3).

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’ (p.277).

Of the power elite: all the structural coincidence of their interests as well as the intricate, psychological facts of their origins and their education, their careers and their associations make possible the psychological affinities that prevail among them, affinities that make it possible to say of one another: He is, of course, one of us. And all this points to the basic, psychological meaning of class consciousness. Nowhere is America is there as great a ‘class consciousness’ as among the elite; nowhere is it organized as effectively as among the power elite. 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 (p.283).

The rise of the elite … was not and could not have been caused by a plot; and the tenability of the conception does not rest upon the existence of any secret or any publicly known organization. But, once the conjunction of structural trend and of the personal will to utilize it gave rise to the power elite, then plans and programmes did occur to its members and indeed it is not possible to interpret many events and official policies … without reference to the power elite. ‘There is a great difference’, Richard Hofstadter has remarked, ‘between locating conspiracies ‘in’ history and saying that history ‘is’, in effect, a conspiracy …’ (p.293).

As an elite, it is not organized, although its members often know one another, seem quite naturally to work together, and share many organizations in common. There is nothing conspiratorial about it, although its decisions are often publicly unknown and its mode of operation manipulative rather then explicit (p.294).

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 intertwined with the politics of a military state (p.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 silent hollowing out (p.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 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 and the shady deal. Blessed are the cynical, for only they have what it takes to succeed (p.347).

The man of knowledge has not become a philosopher king; but he has often become a consultant, and moreover a consultant to a man who is neither king-like nor philosophical. It is, of course, true that the chairman of the pulp writers section of the Authors’ League helped a leading senator ‘polish up the speeches he delivered in the 1952 senatorial campaign’. But it is not natural in the course of their careers that for men of knowledge to meet with those of power. The links between university and government are weak, and when they do occur, the man of knowledge appears as an ‘expert’ which usually means as a hired technician. Like most others in this society, the man of knowledge is himself dependent for his livelihood upon the job, which nowadays is a prime sanction of thought control. Where getting ahead requires the good opinions of more powerful others, their judgements become prime objects of concern. Accordingly, in so far as intellectuals serve power directly – in a job hierarchy – they often do so unfreely (p.353).

Despite – perhaps because of – the ostracism of mind from public affairs, the immorality of accomplishment, and the general prevalence or organized irresponsibility, the men of the higher circles benefit from the total power of the institutional domains over which they rule (p.357).

Status follows big money, even if it has a touch of the gangster about it. Status follows power, even if it be without background. Below, in the mass society, old moral and traditional barriers to status break down and Americans look for standards of excellence among the circles above them, in terms of which to model themselves and judge their self-esteem (p.357-8).

There is no question that this selection of quotations smacks of my own interests; but they are, I would suggest, representative if not comprehensive. I agree with many, and disagree with a some. What is beyond dispute is their relevance for our present era of financial capitalism. As so often it is tempting to exaggerate the extent and pace of social change, to allow discontinuity to trump continuity. C Wright Mills still has edge and bite.


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