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C. Wright Mills and The Power Elite

December 30, 2012 by and tagged ,

It is in its fifth chapter that Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals deals with the power elite. The power elite seems an obvious concept and reality to many of us but maybe we forget how against-the-grain the idea was when Mills put it on the sociological table:

“The Power Elite is a description of the structure of power in American society that disagrees with most sociology and academic political science by denying that power is widely dispersed among a welter of interest groups. Mills argues that at the national level power is highly concentrated among large corporations, the military, and the highest political “directorate.”” (168).

… And the critical reception the idea got:

“In his reply to critics, published almost two years after the appearance of the book, Mills states that its contents should be understood as an “elaborated hypothesis but based on acknowledged fact. There is no other way to write now, as a social student, about such large topics.” Taken as a whole, reviewers who criticized Mills from the liberal center and from professional disciplinary standpoints were, with few exceptions, taken aback by the boldness of the thesis and the scope of the analysis. As Mills well understood, this was a period when “social students” had retreated from taking on large topics and were settling in to a regime of truth that confined itself to what were called “measurable” hypotheses. This will to scientism inevitably condemned social studies to the intellectual politics of the small scale, a place that Mills refused to go.” (169)

It is indeed a bit funny that now pretty much every introduction to sociology textbook starts with Mills (especially the sociological imagination, of course), but, from Aronowitz’s book, one gets the clear view that Mills was always the odd man out of American sociology in the era of Parsons / Merton dominance. And also, one should also keep in mind that there is a definite conservative bent to the “will to scientism” (and probably an implicit recognition of the subordinate status of sociology in the field of social sciences).

But mostly, the concept of the power elite is an obliteration of the then-dominant pluralistic thesis:

“By suggesting a hierarchical model of power, pluralism has a place in his paradigm, but only at the middle and local levels. Mills vehemently denies that national power is subject to the influence of interest groups. The main reason is that foreign policy has assumed an overwhelming importance in the constitution of national power, and few, if any, of these interest groups are even concerned with the issues of war, the attendant military ascendancy, or the economic position of key U.S. corporations in world affairs. In fact, as discussed earlier, Mills had discovered that organized labor, the most important of these interests after 1946, willingly fell in line with its government’s global economic and military policies. Apart from patriotism and profound anticommunist sentiments, workers gained from defense contracts, while the “labor aristocracy” of skilled workers benefited from U.S. economic global hegemony.” (170)

On that basis, Mills is very (philosophically) pragmatic in his conception of power:

“Mills is not making any claims about the nature of power, except to identify the men of power by their “position to make decisions having major consequences. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure.” There is no attempt to define power in terms of “human nature” or invariant laws.” (171)

And Aronowitz makes clear the place of The Power Elite in the larger project by Mills of defining power in the social structure as a way of identifying potential agents of change (even if this ends up with pessimistic gloom). There is truly a trilogy of social structure / power and /change that runs through all three major works:

“Almost all of Mills’s writing had a political intent. As we have seen, beyond exploring the social and political dimensions of their subjects, The New Men of Power and White Collar were steps in Mills’s project of finding and evaluating potential agents of social change. In this respect, The Power Elite, the third volume of his trilogy on social structure, continues the project, but with some fundamental differences. The giant financial corporations, the political directorate, and the military are the real decision makers of society and generally understand themselves as powerful on the national stage. A decade after he began work on labor leaders, Mills finds them “integrated” into the dominant institutional orders rather than as independent social actors leading a potential army of regime changers. Thus, labor leaders and their organizations have become “dependent variables” of the three major institutional orders of power. “The United States now has no labor leaders who carry any weight of consequence in decisions of importance to the political outsiders now in charge of the visible government.” Like portions of the fading “old” middle class (mainly but not exclusively farmers), the unions, once insurgent, had settled after the war for places in what Mills terms the “middle levels” of power. As for the various strata of white-collar employees of the new middle class, Mills concludes that, far from forming a new pole of economic and political power, they constitute a primary base for the emerging mass society: slaves of consumerism, fragmented by occupational hierarchies and differential credentials, alienated from themselves as much as their work, and even more powerless than unions.” (172)

Here, the influence of the Frankfurt School is pretty obvious. In addition, the middle level of the power fulfills an ideological and legitimizing function more than an actual active one. This is indeed still very much the case today:

“By “middle level of power,” Mills connotes the Congress, which generally responds to the welter of interest groups—farmers, unions, educational interests, consumer groups, veterans, and so forth—seeking benefits or redress of their grievances from the federal government. In an age when executive authorities have all but monopolized the crucial decisions, mainly those that have to do with war and the direction of the national economy, Congress is the main site of the middle level of national power. It is called upon to ratify decisions—and preemptive actions—taken by the political directorate, in close consultation with the military and the leading corporate capitalist interests. But even the leaders of Congress, who are legally empowered—and obliged—to review and revise executive decisions, are often kept in the dark about policies and initiatives taken unilaterally by government agencies, especially intelligence services and the military.” (172)

There is also a propagandistic dimension to this (and while this is not mentioned in the book, it is clear it is the main function of the media systems):

“The elevation of the very rich and corporate executives to celebrity status alongside the usual glitterati of entertainers and politicians was for Mills a marker of the degree to which American civilization has been given over almost entirely to money and power.” (176)

I would argue that celebrity status is now granted not just to corporate superstars like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates but also to higher ranking members of the military establishment, often described as intellectual and physical Übermenschen. Think about the media fawning over the intellectual prowess of David Petraeus (before his downfall) or the fact that Stanley McCrystal ate only once a day (once a day!!). In previous decades, the same was granted to Colin Powell.

Interestingly, elevation to celebrity status is only granted to two out of three types of actors of the power elite: corporate and military, but not political actors. These always suffer from a legitimation crisis even though they might receive celebrity status while campaigning as Barack Obama did (I would argue that Obama’s elite function is to neutralize significant rising systemic opposition in the context of economic collapse where there might be a political opening for truly alternative movements, while pursuing neoliberal policies with liberal support despite massive legitimation crisis). This is a marker, I think, of their subservient status to corporate and military elites, often seen as free from criticism (unless they defraud other celebrities, like Bernie Madoff did).

“Today, many members of the U.S. Senate are certified millionaires, and a few major public officials are, like Bloomberg, billionaires. Following Mills’s schema, their fortunes derive either from inheritance or from their positions as corporate investors and executives. In either case, their direct entrance into political office signifies the merger of powerful institutional orders. Along with the rise of the tycoon-politician, there was also the advent of the soldier-politician.” (177)

Think again about Colin Powell and David Petraeus (and to a lesser extent, Wesley Clark). And obviously, corporate celebrities do not need to actually bother to run for office (and win) to influence public policy. They can create influential foundations to push their agenda without any mechanisms of accountability or legitimacy to do so (see: Bill and Melinda Gates, and the other wealthy members of the elite who write them big checks, like Warren Buffett).

This also reminds me of this infographic on the rise of the Goldman Sach’s men as masters of the Eurozone:

“The top of the economic order is indeed dominated by the corporate rich, which includes property owners and high managers. Together they make the decisions that rule much of the U.S. economy and are participants in “broader economic and political interests” that go beyond those of a single firm or managerial stratum. So the concept of “elite” includes but does not repudiate class; it redefines it.” (179)

I would argue that it not only redefines class but it integrates gender and race as well.

“Most professional politicians and the institutions they control have been relegated to the middle level of power. So, perhaps with the exception of the president of the United States and some key members of his cabinet who interact with the military and economic orders, the political directorate appears not to be distinct from the military or the large corporate elites.” (179-180)

As neatly illustrated by this other infographic (click on it for ginormous view):

So, what does this leave us with?

“As for the individual voter—the ultimate ideal sovereign of democratic societies—under conditions where the active public is all but dissolved, she is far removed from centers of decision, even though required to confer consent on those occupying decisive positions of national power. And even if Congress remains, at least constitutionally, the necessary institution of consent of the broad policies of the executive, it has lost its role as the main source of initiative and decision, especially at a time when the global rather than national politics is the main center.” (180)

Now, I am sure one could argue that this is not true and just look at what the evil Republicans are doing in Congress right now, obstructing presidential initiatives, etc. However, especially in these days of “fiscal cliff”, we all know this is political theater, right? This a manufactured crisis designed to push through further austerity, and provided media ideological cover.

And for Mills, intellectuals and academics are not blameless (even though he had some hope for them as agents of change… we all know better now, don’t we?):

“Beyond ideology, there are practical motives for the power elite to try to win the loyalty of intellectuals. Technology has become the bread and butter of business as much as war. Humanists—those trained in literature, philosophy, and history—have, in addition to scientists and engineers, been among the pioneers of new technologies associated with communications such as cybernetics and other electronic innovations. We are familiar with the phrase “knowledge is power,” but Mills was skeptical of the assertion that the bearers of knowledge were fated to occupy high positions in the power arrangements of U.S. society. Instead, he argued that even as industry, the military, and the state increasingly relied on expertise, especially those who possessed scientific and technological knowledge, the power elite was in a position to buy knowledge and employ those who possessed it, thereby placing intellectuals and experts in a subordinate position. Moreover, the growing importance of information technology by the 1950s provided major incentives to giant corporations to engage actively in education and increase their role and control of scholars and intellectuals.” (182)

And, of course, any elite, as Bourdieu taught us, must have mechanisms guaranteeing its reproduction:

“But there is another set of motives for the emergence of what Martin Kenney, following the suggestions of Mills and Thorstein Veblen, termed “the university/industrial complex.” The elite is interested in guaranteeing its own continuity and survival. Its formation, in addition to inherited wealth, relies heavily on a select group of elite prep schools, Ivy League universities, and other select institutions, such as Stanford. Mills notes that becoming a Harvard, Yale, or Princeton graduate is taken by corporate executives as a sign of candidature for entrance into the elite just as the high military officer corps is recruited, overwhelmingly, from the three main military academies: West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy. We might add that of the many professional schools that train business executives, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the Wharton School of Pennsylvania, and Stanford also occupy special positions. Additionally, the law programs of these institutions confer elite status to its students. So it is not only the ties of practical technological alliances that bind some universities to the power elite; it is also what Pierre Bourdieu was later to term the acquisition of various forms of intellectual and social “capital,” whose components go beyond the curriculum. The Harvard or Yale undergraduate and professional student typically acquires a set of values, attitudes, and orientations that prepares him or her for being considered potential members of the power elite.” (182-183)

Add habitus to social capital as well.

“The fundamental condition for preventing the rise of a highly centralized power elite—and the concomitant submergence of the institutions of popular will—is for Mills, as for Dewey, democracy, which entails rough political equality for individuals and which is not necessarily fulfilled by the practice of voting or by representative institutions such as legislatures. As we have seen, these representative institutions retain their limited viability at a level below national power, but given the position of the main elites atop a world in which wars—actual and potential—and the global economy dominate politics, only an alert, critical, and active public can hope to thwart the further erosion of democratic participation.” (184)

I would also add that local politics is just as problematic as the national level. One need only look at the nonsense that comes out of state legislatures and school boards to realize that subsidiarity is not always best.

“Mills assures us that America is not fully a mass society nor was it ever mainly a community of publics. But he is plainly disturbed to discover that a highly effective media of mass communication (later he is to term these “the cultural apparatus”), consumerism, the decline of voluntary associations that once afforded people the chance to articulate their concerns and views, and the segregation and isolation of large chunks of the population have combined to vitiate the chance that an “articulate public” can challenge the power elite. Rejecting a connotation of conspiracy, the institutional trends that together contribute to making the public a “phantom” are a consequence of drift rather than motive. Equally important is Mills’s analysis of the demise of the old middle class as an independent social and political force—the historical public in American life—and the failure of the new middle class to fill that space, which prepared the ground for the massification process now in full swing.” (185-186)

Heck, that is a question to which Brad Delong still can’t find an answer. The system is delegitimized thanks to the economic collapse triggered by elite behavior but, at the same time that cultural battles are going the liberal way (gay marriage), the cultural underpinnings of the world system are still solidly in place through media concentration and successful propagation of the neoliberal and individualistic ideologies (what Bauman calls “the liquid society”).

And then, there is this (a perfect illustration, in my view):

“It was more sophisticated than we had imagined: new documents show that the violent crackdown on Occupy last fall – so mystifying at the time – was not just coordinated at the level of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and local police. The crackdown, which involved, as you may recall, violent arrests, group disruption, canister missiles to the skulls of protesters, people held in handcuffs so tight they were injured, people held in bondage till they were forced to wet or soil themselves –was coordinated with the big banks themselves.”

How can one not get cranky in the face of a triumphant power elite?

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