The Power Elite (Oxford University Press, 2000)

Sunday, February 22, 2009



"Consigned to a kind of academic purgatory for the last three decades of the twentieth century, at a time when social theory had migrated from the social sciences obsessed with case studies and social “problems” to literature and philosophy where he was rarely discussed and almost never cited., C. Wright Mills was an absent presence. All sociologists, and most people in other social scientific disciplines knew his name, and in their political unconscious, recognized his salience, but were deterred by fear and careerism from following his path as a public political intellectual. Yet in the wake of scandals involving leading corporations and their Chief Executive and Financial Officers, which have become daily fare even in mainstream media, and the hegemony of corporate capital over the American state, which was widely reported in the press and television with unembarrassed approbation, Mills’s work is experiencing a small but pronounced revival." - Stanley Aronowitz

P. 4 - "The power elite are not solitary rulers. Advisers and consultants, spokesmen and opinion-makers are often the captains of their higher thought and decision. Immediately below the elite are the professional politicians of the middle level of power, in the Congress and in the pressure groups, as well as among the new and old upper classes of town and city and region. Mingling with them, in curious ways which we shall explore, are those professional celebrities who live by being continually displayed ... if such celebrities are not at the head of any dominating hierarchy, they do often have the power to distract the attention of the public or afford sensations to the masses, or, more directly, to gain the ear of those who do occupy positions of direct power."

P. 6 - "Families and churches and schools adapt to modern life; governments and corporations and armies shape it; and, as they do so, they turn these lesser institutions into means for their ends. Religious institutions provide chaplains to the armed forces where they are used as a means of increasing the effectiveness of its morale to kill. Schools select and train men for their jobs in corporations and their specialized tasks in the armed forces. The extended family has, of course, long been broken up by the industrial revolution, and now the son and father are removed from the family, by compulsion if need be, whenever the army of the state sends out the call. And the symbols of all these lesser institutions are used to legitimate the power and the decisions of the big three."

P. 8-9 - "At the pinnacle of each the three enlarged and centralized domains, there have arisen those higher circles which make up the economic, political and military elites. At the top of the economy, among the corporate rich, there are the chief executives; at the top of the political order, the members of the political directorate; at the top of the military establishment, the elite of soldier-statesmen clustered in and around the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the upper echelon. As each of these domains has coincided with the others, as decisions tend to become total in their consequence, 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. 9-10 - "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 ... 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."

P. 12 - "The American elite entered modern history as a virtually unopposed bourgeoisie. No national bourgeoisie, before or since, has had such opportunities and advantages. Having no military neighbors, they easily occupied an isolated continent stocked with natural resources and immensely inviting to a willing labor force. A framework of power and an ideology for its justification were already at hand. Against mercantile restriction, they inherited the principle of laissez-faire; against Southern planters, they imposed the principle of industrialism. The Revolutionary War put an end to colonial pretensions to nobility, as loyalists fled the country and many states were broken up. The Jacksonian upheaval with its status revolution put an end to pretensions to monopoly of descent by the old New England families ... The tempo of the whole capitalist development made it impossible for an inherited nobility to develop and endure in America."

P. 15 - "Nowadays we must qualify the idea of the elite as composed of higher types of individuals, for the men who are selected for and shaped by the top positions have many spokesmen and advisors and make-up men who modify their self-conceptions and create their public images, as well as shape many of their decisions ... The American elite often seems less a collection of persons than of corporate entities ... even the most free-lance celebrity is usually a sort of synthetic production turned out each week by a disciplined staff which systematically ponders the effect of the easy ad-libbed gags the celebrity 'spontanteously' echoes."

P. 24 - "Nobody called for or permitted Napoleon to chase Parlement home on the 18 Brumaire, and later to transform his consulate into an emperorship. Nobody called for or permitted Adolf Hitler to proclaim himself 'Leader and Chancellor' the day President Hindenburg died, to abolish and usurp roles by merging the presidency and the chancellorship. Nobody called for or permitted Franklin D. Roosevelt to make the series of decisions that led to the entrance of the United States into World War II. It was no 'historical necessity', but a man named Truman who, with a few other men, decided to drop a bomb on Hiroshima. It was no historical necessity, but an argument within a small circle of men that defeated Admiral Radford's proposal to bomb troops before Dienbienphu. Far from being dependent upon the structure of institutions, modern elites may smash one structure and set up another in which they then enact quite different roles."

P. 32 - "The old upper-class person feels that his prestige originates in time itself ... In New England and the South, more families than in other regions are acutely conscious of family lines and old residence, and more resistant to the ascendancy of the newly rich and newly arrived ... The men and women of the old upper class generally consider money in a negative way - as something in which the new upper-class people are too closely interested ... these rich men and their women folk, the old upper class believes, were and are more interested in 'community and social' qualifications than in mere money."

P. 89 - "'Power for power's sake' is psychologically based on prestige gratification. But Veblen laughed so hard and so consistently at the servants and the dogs and the women and the sports of the elite that he failed to see that their military, economic and political activity is not at all funny. In short, he did not succeed in relating a view of their power over armies and factories to what he believed, quite rightly, to be their funny business. He was, in my view, not quite serious enough about their status because he did not see its full and intricate importance to power. He saw 'the kept classes' and 'the underlying population', but in his time, he could not really understand the prestige of the power elite."

P. 95 - "Two general explanations for the fact of the very rich - now and in the past - are widely available. The first, of muckraker origin, was best stated by Gustavus Myers, whose work is a gigantic gloss in pedantic detail on Balzac's assertion that behind every great fortune there lies a crime. The robber barons, as the tycoons of the post-Civil-War era came to be called, descended upon the investing public much as a swarm of women might descend on a bargain basement on Saturday morning. They exploited natural resources, waged economic wars amongst themselves, entered into combinations, made private capital out of the public domain, and used any and every method to achieve their ends. They made agreements with railroads for rebates; they purchased newspapers and bought editors; they killed off competing and independent businesses, and employed lawyers of skill and statesmen of repute to sustain their rights and secure their privileges ... It is better, so the image runs, to take one dime from each of ten million people at the point of a corporation than $100,000 from each of ten banks at the points of a gun. It is also safer."

P. 99-100 - "The general facts, however, are clear: the very rich have used existing laws, they have circumvented and violated existing laws, and they have had laws created and enforced for their direct benefit ... the very rich could use the device of the corporation to juggle many ventures at once and to speculate with other peoples money. As the 'trust' was outlawed, the holding company law made it legal by other means for one corporation to own stock in another. Soon, the formation and financing of holding companies offered the easiest way to get rich quickly that had ever legally existed in the United States."

P. 100 - "In understanding the private appropriations of the very rich, we must also bear in mind that the private industrial development of the United States has been much underwritten by gifts out of the people's domain. State, local and federal governments have given land free to railroads, paid for the cost of shipbuilding ... Much more free land has been given to businesses than to small independent homesteaders ... if the taxpayers had not paid, out of their own labor, for a paved road system, Henry Ford's astuteness and thrift would not have enabled him to become a billionaire out of the automobile industry."

P. 102 - " ... But the first really great fortunes were developed during the economic transformation of the Civil War era, and out of the decisive corruptions that seem to be a part of all American wars. A rural, commercial capitalism was then transformed into an industrial economy, within the legal framework of the tariff, the National Banking Act of 1863 and, in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment, which by later interpretations sanctified the corporate revolution. During this shift in the political framework and economic base, the first generation of the very rich came to possess units of wealth that dwarfed any that had previously been appropriated. Not only were the peaks of the money pyramid higher, but the base of the upper levels was apparently broader. By 1892, one survey revealed the existence of at least 4,046 American millionaires ... We shall take this generation, which came to full maturity in the 'nineties, as the first generation of the very rich. But we shall use it merely as a bench mark for the two following generations, the second coming to maturity about 1925, and the third, in the middle years of the twentieth century ... 275 American men and women, each of whom has possessed a minimum of about $30 million."

P. 130 - "It is not characteristic of American executives to read books, except books on 'management' and mysteries; ... top executives almost never read drama, great fiction, the philosophers, the poets. Those who do venture into this area ... are definitely sports of the executive type, looked upon by their colleagues with mingled awe and incredulity. Executive circles do not overlap much with those of artistic or literary interest."

P. 164 - "As for the happiness of the rich, that is a matter that can be neither proved nor disproved. Still, we must remember that the American rich are winners within a society in which money and money-values are the supreme stakes. If the rich are not happy it is because none of us are happy. Moreover, to believe that they are unhappy would probably be un-American. For if they are not happy, then the very terms of success in America, the very aspirations of all sound men, lead to ashes rather than fruit ... We simply must believe that the American rich are happy, else our confidence in the whole endeavor might be shaken. For all of the possible values of human society, one and one only is truly sovereign, truly universal, truly and completely acceptable goal of man in America. That goal is money, and let there be no sour grapes about it from the losers."

P. 169 - "In general, however, the ideology of the executives, as members of the corporate rich, is conservatism without any ideology. They are conservative, if for no other reason than that they feel themselves to be part of a fraternity of the successful. They are without ideology because they feel themselves to be 'practical' men ... more and more of the corporate executives have entered government directly; and the result has been a virtually new political economy at the apex of which we find those who represent the corporate rich."

P. 240 - "No intellectually qualified personnel for a genuine bureaucracy can be provided if the Civil Service is kept in a political state of apprehension; for that selects mediocrities and trains them for unreflective conformity."

P. 248 - "The prime focus of the theory of balance is the Congress of the United States, and its leading actors are the Congressmen. Yet as social types, these 96 Senators and 435 Representatives are not representative of the rank and file citizens. They represent those who have been successful in entrepreneurial and professional endeavors. Older men, they are of the privileged white, native-born of native parents, Protestant Americans. They are college graduates and they are at least solid, upper-middle class in income and status. On the average, they have no experience of wage or lower-salaried work. They are, in short, in and of the new and old upper classes of local society."

P. 262 - "Alongside the old middle class - increasingly invested within the state machinery - and the new middle class - born without independent political shape and developed in such a way as never to achieve it - a new political force came into the political arena of the 'thirties: the force of organized labor. For a brief time, it seemed that labor would become a power-bloc independent of corporation and state but operating upon and against them. After becoming dependent on the governmental system, however, the labor unions suffered rapid decline in power and now have little part in major national decisions. 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."

P. 274 - "In so far as the structural clue to the power elite today lies in the political order, that clue is the decline of politics as genuine and public debate of alternative decisions - with nationally responsible and policy-coherent parties and with autonomous organizations connecting the lower and middle levels of power with the top levels of decision. America is now in considerable part more a formal political democracy than a democratic social structure, and even the formal political mechanics are weak."

P. 277-278 - "The simple Marxian view makes the big economic man the real holder of power; the simple liberal view makes the big political man 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 'ruling class' ... Its members exist all over the country, and it is a coalition of generals in the roles of corporation executives, of politicians masquerading as admirals, of corporation executives acting like politicians, of civil servants who become majors, of vice-admirals who are also the assistants to a cabinet officer, who is himself, by the way, really a member of the managerial elite ... The power elite today involves the often uneasy coincidence of economic, military and political power."

P. 289 - "The inner core of the power elite also includes men of the higher legal and financial type from the great law factories and investment firms, who are almost professional go-betweens of economic, political and military affairs, and who thus act to unify the power elite. The corporation lawyer and the investment banker perform the functions of the 'go-between' effectively and powerfully. By the nature of their work, they transcend the narrower milieu of any one industry, and accordingly are in a position to speak and act for the corporate world or at least sizable sectors of it. The corporation lawyer is a key link between the economic and military and political areas; the investment banker is a key organizer and unifier of the corporate world and a person well versed in spending the huge amounts of money the American military establishment now ponders. When you get a lawyer who handles the legal work of investment bankers you get a key member of the power elite."

P. 294 - "It is not that the elite 'believe in' a compact elite behind the scenes and a mass down below. It is not put in that language. It is just that the people are of necessity confused and must, like trusting children, place all the new world of foreign policy and strategy and executive action in the hands of experts. It is just that everyone knows that 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."

P. 315 - "But the media, as now organized and operated, are even more than a major cause of the transformation of America into a mass society. They are also among the most important of those increased means of power now at the disposal of elites of wealth and power; moreover, some of the higher agents of those media are themselves either among the elites or very important among their servants. Alongside or just below the elite, there is the propagandist, the publicity expert, the public-relations man, who would control the very formation of public opinion in order to be able to include it as one more pacified item in calculations of effective power, increased prestige, more secure wealth."

P. 317 - "Manipulation becomes a problem wherever men have power that is concentrated and willful but do not have the authority, or when, for any reason, they do not wish to use their power openly. Then the powerful seek to rule without showing their powerfulness. They want to rule, secretly, as it were, without publicized legitimation ... Authority formally resides 'in the people', but the power of initiation is in fact held by small circles of men. This is why the standard strategy of manipulation is to make it appear that the people, or at least a large group of them, 'really made the decision'. That is why even when the authority is available, men with access to it may still prefer the secret, quieter ways of manipulation."

P. 320 - "The structural trends of modern society and the manipulative character of its communication technique come to a point of coincidence in the mass society, which is largely a metropolitan society. The growth of the metropolis, segregating men and women into narrow routines and environments, causes them to lose any firm sense of their integrity as a public. The members of publics in smaller communities know each other more or less fully, because they meet in several aspects of the total life routine. The members of masses in a metropolitan society know one another only as fractions in a specialized milieux ... Prejudgment and stereotype flourish when people meet in such ways. The human reality of others does not, cannot, come through."

P. 322 - "On the one hand, there is the increased scale and centralization of the structure of decision; and, on the other, the increasingly narrow sorting out of men into milieux. From both sides, there is the increased dependence upon the formal media of communication, including those of education itself. But the man in the mass does not gain a transcending view from these media; instead he gets his experience stereotyped, and then he gets sunk further by that experience. He cannot detach himself in order to observe, much less to evaluate, what he is experiencing, much less what he is not experiencing. Rather than that internal discussion we call reflection, he is accompanied through his life-experience with a sort of unconscious, echoing monologue. He has no projects of his own: he fulfills the routines that exist ... he drifts, he fulfills habits, his behavior a result of a planless mixture of the confused standards and the uncriticized expectations that he has taken over from others whom he no longer really knows or trusts, if indeed he ever really did"

P. 326 - "Those who grope for ideologies with which to explain their conservative mood ... feel that they have somehow been tricked by liberalism, progressivism, radicalism and they are a little frightened. What many of them want, it would seem, is a society of classic conservatism. Conservatism in its classic form is of course traditionalism become self-conscious and elaborated, argumentative and rationalized. It also involves some 'natural aristocracy'. Sooner or later all those who relax the grand tension of human rationality must take up the neo-Burkian defense of a traditional elite, for in the end, such an elite is the major premise of a genuinely conservative ideology."

Posted by St. Drogo at 11:15 AM  

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