New York: Oxford University Press, 1956, pp. 423.
In the course of his classic book, The Power Elite, Charles Wright Mills repeatedly references Thorstein Veblen, which is wholly appropriate. Like that earlier sociologist, Mills is a debunker of American myths, with this book no exception to that pattern. Its principal contention is that, contrary to the classical liberal (e.g. conservative) theory of representative government and free market economics, the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy, and the civics-class pieties that constitute the orthodoxy in American political thought, the idea that no one is in control because everyone is in control, that "we all possess equal powers to make history . . . is sociological nonsense and political irresponsibility" (22).
Rather, American political life is dominated by the concentration of power in massive economic, governmental and military institutions (particularly business corporations of national scale, the expanded executive branch of the Federal government, the large peacetime military establishment that emerged after World War II), and accordingly, by those who hold the commanding positions of these institutions. Together they constitute a (national) "power elite," which is not monolithic, but nonetheless united to a great extent by a significant convergence in perspective, interest and conduct, reinforced by the movement of office-holders among these institutions (perhaps exemplified by the revolving door between the Defense Department and industry, or between particular businesses and the regulatory bodies governing those same businesses).
Mills notes, too, that this elite is disproportionately drawn from the upper social classes, which consists not of Horatio Alger-style self-made men or successful inventor-entrepreneurs, let alone immigrants who realized the American Dream by going from rags to riches, but primarily native-born East Coast white Protestants from comfortable backgrounds. Generally the sons of businessmen (or professionals, typically lawyers) they are educated in prep schools and colleges, typically Ivy League colleges, with such education more a mark of their families' privilege than a cause of their later success. Additionally, the proportion of the rich not fitting this profile had as of his time steadily shrunk since the nineteenth century, indicating that self-made men (and upward social mobility of this dramatic type), always a great rarity, were becoming less rather than more common.1 Indeed, he notes, blue-blooded old money did not get shunted aside by the rise of the corporate rich, but fused with it (while the New Deal did not eliminate the upper strata of privilege, which was still doing quite well – with not insignificant help from tax shelters and expense accounts).
Mills also rejects the idea that the ascent to the top of these institutions is meritocratic in some meaningful way. Rather than people "starting at the bottom and working their way to the top" of a bureaucratic ladder, the pattern he finds is instead the progressive accumulation of "corporate advantages" in which inheritance plays a prominent role (e.g. dad's or granddad's positions being stepping stones for their own advancement). Questions of nepotism aside, it is striking that as one moves up the managerial ladder, toward the top executive positions, the measures of performance become ever more intangible, criteria like "managerial ability" perhaps so vague as to be nonexistent.
Rather the "merit" sought by the "top men" selecting their subordinates and successors is not "formal competence" of any kind, but "conformity" to their culture, which is characterized by, of course, loyalty to the interests and prejudices of those top men, and a standard of "leadership" and "soundness" that sets agreeableness above strength of intellect and personality (145). In line with these a propensity to "make the truism seem like the deeply pondered notion," "soften the facts into the optimistic, practical, forward-looking, cordial, brisk view," and speak "to the well-blunted point" (142), while never, ever personally saying "No" (142) is highly valued, while the prevailing ethics is the "higher immorality" of doing whatever it takes to get oneself ahead.
In short, the makers of the big decisions are selected from a pool largely determined by inherited privilege, with adherence to upper-class norms of outlook and conduct, mealy-mouthed mediocrity (not much different from the "organization man" mentality William Whyte famously described a few years earlier), and a determination to look out for Number One above all else the qualifications that set the winners apart from the losers. This is obviously not a happy state of affairs (especially given the momentous decisions this elite now makes in an age of Cold War and hydrogen bombs, as Mills points out), and unfortunately those institutions which might check the worst tendencies of such an elite, like a "civil service linked with the world of knowledge and sensibility," "nationally responsible parties that debate openly and clearly the issues" and "voluntary associations which connect debating publics with the pinnacles of decision" (361), are absent.
As Mills recounts, the United States never had a proper, politically neutral civil service, the spoils system carrying all before it. The professional politician is very much a mid-level player in the hierarchy of power as it exists now. And instead of the public envisaged in classical liberalism, what exists is a mass society, which is essentially passive before a mass media which defines its grasp of reality, and unable to relate its personal experience to national affairs on the levels of thought or action. Far from being middle-class in the sense of being small but independent property owners, the white-collar workers with which the term is typically identified are instead "property-less wage workers" (262), politically distinct from their blue-collar counterparts principally in their being even less organized. Meanwhile, the expansion of public education has failed to compensate for the situation, consisting as it does principally of instruction in "intellectual mediocrity, vocational training, nationalistic loyalties, and little else" (320). The result is a "politically fragmented, and . . . increasingly powerless" (324) populace leading lives of "impersonal drift" (310) – their disorganization a counterpoint to the cohesion of the power elite. The prevailing "conservatism" (a problematic ideology given American history, as Mills demonstrates in the chapter he devotes to the subject) a reflection of such drift more than anything else.
Few works confront Mills' subject so directly and comprehensively, and his argument is indeed a formidable one. However, that argument is also fifty years old now, and those years have not been uneventful ones. There have been significant changes in the positions of the relatively junior institutions in the power structure (organized labor being rather weaker today than in the 1950s, for instance), and even the balance among his Big Three. The executive branch, for instance, would seem to have lost power relative to the private sector (certainly to go by analyses like Thomas Frank's in The Wrecking Crew).
Additionally, Mills' discussion of military influence seems open to question. Certainly writers like Charles Dunlap Jr. and Andrew Bacevich have sounded warnings about a militaristic turn in American culture, and a "military-industrial complex" remains. Yet, his assessment still seems more reflective of the prestige of the armed forces in the post-World War II period; of the era of universal conscription, and the devotion of a tenth of the Gross Domestic Product to defense in peacetime; of the Admirals' Revolt, and the Caesarism of Douglas MacArthur, and the election of Dwight Eisenhower President for two terms; of the urgency of the early Cold War, the experience of the Korean War and the enshrinement of "massive retaliation" as military doctrine; and perhaps, of the shock of these developments compared with the state of things in the 1930s; than they do of our own time.
Some might wonder, too, if the passing of the postwar boom that was the backdrop to his critique, and the social changes of the last five decades, have not changed matters in important ways (as discussed by Michael Lind in The Next American Nation); if our "age of networks" has not rendered his critique of mass media obsolete, and given new meaning to the idea of "the public" (as seen among Evgeny Morozov's "cyber-utopians"); and if national elites have not been eclipsed by the global elite represented by the Davos Men (as David Rothkopf argues in Superclass).
Nonetheless, power in modern society remains concentrated in large institutions (national and global) of the types to which he refers, and those who command them. One would certainly be hard-pressed indeed to argue that inherited privilege, mealy-mouthed mediocrity and "the higher immorality" have ceased to be key to getting ahead. (Indeed, the data on social mobility, the epidemic of corporate short-termism and dubious accounting, and the prevailing standard of political rhetoric and debate, suggests matters have got worse rather than better in this area.) One would also be hard-pressed to show that institutions capable of addressing those flaws have actually materialized, that the new technologies which make dissent more widely heard also make it more effective. (Again, one can more easily argue that the opposite is the case for the time being.) So long as these facts remain unchanged, Mills' classic will remain relevant to any understanding of how the modern world really works.
1. Mills notes, however, that this profile is less characteristic of those who rise through the armed forces than their counterparts in government and business.