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The Power Elite is a book
written by the sociologist, C. Wright Mills,
in 1956. In it Mills called attention to the interwoven interests of
the leaders of the military, corporate, and political elements of
society and suggested that the ordinary citizen was a relatively
powerless subject of manipulation by those entities.
The structural basis of The Power
Elite was that, following World
War II, the United States was the leading country in military and
The book is something of a counterpart of
Mills' 1951 work, White Collar: The
American Middle Classes, which examined the growing role of middle managers in American society.
While White Collar characterized middle managers as agents of
The Power Elite did not differentiate them from the rest of the
non-elite in society.
A main inspiration for the book was Franz Leopold Neumanns book Behemoth:
The Structure and Practice of National Socialism in 1942, a
study of how Nazism came in position of power in a democratic state as
had a major impact on Mills and he claimed that Behemoth had given him
the "tools to grasp and analyse the entire total structure and as a
warning of what could happen in a modern capitalist democracy".
(C.Wright Mills: Power, Politics and People, (New York, 1963
Chapter 1: The
- This chapter provides a description of the power elite and the
mechanism through which it acquires and exercises its power on a
- He describes the contemporary means of power as the hierarchies
state, military and the big corporate institutions. Other, previously
decisive institutions such as family and religion are pushed aside in
the contemporary United States. They adapt to contemporary life, which
in turn is set and determined by the new means of power.
- Wealth, power, and popularity, in this system, attach to the
positions that individuals occupy, and not to the individuals
- The power elite of the US, which never faced competition due to
absence of feudal structures (aristocracy and religion), monopolize
power from the get-go.
- It becomes a caste within the upper classes, and makes all
decisions that have important consequences.
- It is not a group of rulers whose every decision is correct
and every consequence of such decisions is as expected.
- It is limited by the means of power, the techniques of power,
the means of communication. However, their limitations are much less
compared to previous ruling classes, due to the expansion and
centralization in the means of power.
- To study the unity of the US power elite, one should investigate:
- the psychology of the elite in their respective environments
(their psychological similarities)
- the interrelations between the military, economical, and
institutions they are part of (the social intermingling of the means of
- the co-operation between the means of power (i.e. the
military, big corporations, and state)
- The main theses of the book, as set by Mills, are:
- Historical circumstances have led to the rise of power elite,
- They now make key decisions,
- The enlargement and centralization of means of power
increased the potency of the consequencs of their decisions,
- The power elite is much more unified and powerful than the
"mass society" (Chapter 13), which is fragmented and impotent.
The Theory of Balance
- In this chapter, Mills describes and critiques the theory of
balance that constitutes an important element of contemporary US
ideology regarding economy and government.
- According to the theory of balance, the state and the economy are
kept in balance by competing interests. In economy, this was translated
from the economic theory that stated that there was no authoritarian
center to the sovereign economic system. In politics, this was
translated from the theory that the division of political powers would
balance the powers and leave no space to despotism.
- Mills identifies a number of flaws with this theory:
- Balance of power implies equality of power. However, one's
power balance means for another a power imbalance.
- The doctrine of the harmony of interests / balance of power
makes dissidence appear to be the source of chaos and disturbance.
- The prime focus of the theory is the Congress, however its
are members of the upper classes and cannot actually be the
representatives of the interests of the lower classes of the society.
Furthermore, the power in congress comes with seniority, hence congress
people will have to stay in the Congress as long as possible, which
makes it impossible for them to become dissidents. In the mean time,
the seniors manipulate and determine what will happen in the Congress.
And the major issues of the electorate usually cannot find space in
political campaigns, the congress itself, or even the congressional
committees. If they come up, they are structured so that discussion is
limited to certain viewpoints and the substantive issue will be
stalemated. It is not the political power of the Congress, or that of
key Congressmen, that has expanded and centralized.
- The founding fathers' idea of a checks-and-balances-state is
grounded in their belief in the US middle class as the stabilizer and
the pivot of the class balance in the US. In contemporary US economy,
however, the small entrepreneurs that once consisted the economy are
replaced by a handful of centralized corporations. Moreover, the middle
class has come to be dependent on the state and replaced by a new
middle class (white-collar employees), whose jobs cannot provide them
with tools (political freedom and economic security) to be independent,
that is yet another part of the impotent mass society. Labour unions
themselves became institutions that choose leaders and send them to
corporate positions once those leaders become established.
- The 'checks-and-balances' system is outdated and inapplicable
to contemporary US political and economical life.
- It assumes that the different balances that keep the society
equilibrium requires them to be independent of each other. However,
none of them (labour, business, state, military and so on) are
independent of each other any longer, and hence, they cannot be seen as
elements of a balancing system.
- Major interests do not compete with each other, but instead
co-operate to promote several interests as they coincide.
- The lobbies that are supposed to be checks-and-balances are
now part of the state.
Chapter 12: The
- The American power elite has gone through 4 stages, and is in a
fifth stage as of Mills' writing.
- From the Revolution through the administration of John Adams:
military, state and corporate entities were more or less united, power
elite was able to move from one role to another.
- During the early nineteenth cc: the power elite became a
top groups, each of which loosely constructed and loosely overlapping.
- From 1886 until the World War I: corporations acquired the
of a person and received the initiative to govern (from the state).
- The New Deal, from WWI till the end of WWII: competing (and
balanced) centers of power within the power elite form in political and
economic areas; corporate chiefs enter the political sphere.
- Since the Second World War:
- American democracy is now only a formality; State and
entities became hardly distinguishable; democracy is being dominated by
the corporate chiefs.
- As the focus of the power elite “shifted their attention
domestic to international affairs” (read: from colonizing the Americas
to colonizing all of it), warlords became very influential in US
politics; State and Military became hardly distinguishable.
- The economy is now both a war economy and a private
economy. Not the politicians but the warlords and the corporate chiefs
decide about military actions.
- The phrase “Power Elite” captures the simplicity of other
- Marx, with his overemphasis on the capitalist as the only
holder of power
- Liberals, who see the politician as the head of the system
- Those, who view warlords as the dictators of the system.
- Instead, the phrase “Power Elite” forces us to consider the
union of the military, economic, and state power.
- He defends his critique of power elite as such:
- They may be honorable people. However, honor is not
question is not whether they are honorable or not. The key question is
what their honor codes are. And of course, their honor codes will be
those that support their own interests.
- They do not, and cannot adapt to the necessities of their
they rise in stature. They (i.e. no one) do not have such flexibility.
They have certain personal and business interests and [whatever this
really means] “to ask a man suddenly to divest himself of these
interests and sensibilities is almost like asking a man to become a
woman.” (p. 258)
- Like codes of honor, patriotism and its principles vary
greatly. These too are rooted in one's personal history.
- One cannot argue that they are doing their duties. In fact,
they are the ones who are determining what those very duties are.
- Even though the power elite itself as a ruling force is constant,
the individuals who constitute it and occupy positions in the dominant
hierarchies of the state, the economy, and the military is not. Even
though these individuals know each other, there is not unified policy /
ideology that ties them together or in one position.
- The inner core of the power elite consists of those who
commanding roles in various dominant hierarchies (the “big three”) and
the corporate lawyer and the financial banker, who play the role of the
unifier between the big three.
- The constant involvement of the nation in wars (and the making of
crises as permanent and total) makes it possible for the power elite to
use national security as a pretext for secrecy of intentions and in
planning and execution.
Chapter 13: The
- The public (of the public opinion) is the essence of 18th century
theory of democracy. This is a fairy tale: it is not even close to how
the US system of power works – the issues that determine their fate are
neither discussed nor determined by the public.
- However, contemporary systems are transforming the communities of
public into mass societies.
- Differences between (criteria for determining whether it is) a
public and a mass:
- the ratio of givers and takers of opinion.
- possibility of answering back an opinion without the fear of
- the opportunity for people to act out their opinions
- the penetration of institutional authority into the public.
- In terms of scale, the restricted size of the public (by
sex, age, and property [race]) turned into an enlarged mass with the
only qualification of citizenship and age.
- In terms of organization, there has been a shift from private
communities to the mass party as the major unit of organization. And
there is a widening gap between the leaders and the members of these
mass parties. The members get lost in the crowd and the participating
members become the leader's tools of manipulation.
- With the expansion of the means of mass persuasion (also known as
“mass deception”), the public of the public opinion became the target
of intense efforts of control, manipulation, and intimidation.
Opinion-making (through mass media and compulsory education) therefore
became an accepted technique of getting and holding on to power. They
now guide our very experiences, construct our standards and sense of
reality, wants, needs, identity, and self. Hence they destroy any
expectation of reasonable exchange of opinion.
- The creation of a pseudo-world by the mass media is made possible
by the structure of the society which enables people to choose only
that which is of the same opinion as they are. The remote possibility
of debate and discussion, let alone action, disappears as the
experience of the public turns into that of the mass: narrower and
limited to their routine and structural (out-of-their-own-control)
environment from which they cannot escape.
- or in his own words in The Power Elite,"In a public, as
may understand the term, (1) virtually as many people express opinions
as receive them, (2) Public communications are so organised that there
is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion
expressed in public. Opinion formed by such discussion (3) readily
finds an outlet in effective action, even against – if necessary – the
prevailing system of authority. And (4) authoritative institutions do
not penetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous in its
operations.-In a mass, (1) far fewer people express opinions
than receive them; for the community of publics becomes an abstract
collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media.
(2) The communications that prevail are so organised that it is
difficult or impossible for the individual to answer back immediately
or with any effect. (3) The realisation of opinion in action is
controlled by authorities who organise and control the channels of such
action. (4) The mass has no autonomy from institutions; on the
contrary, agents of authorised institutions penetrate this mass,
reducing any autonomy it may have in the formation of opinion by
The Conservative Mood
- The conservative theories that seek to legitimize the power
elite's actions are faulty.
- The conservative defends irrational traditionalism against
reason and denies people's right to self-control and self-determination.
- Even though conservatives push for a certain traditionalism,
very people at the top of the hierarchy lack such ideologies useful for
public consumption -their only cultural heritage is that of getting and
holding on to money. They do not have any ideology.
- Simultaneously, because the US lacks the feudal stage, these
conservative theorists also lack pre-capitalist figures (aristocracy,
peasant, petty bourgeoisie etc.) to hold on to and to promote as models
of their theories. They lack pre-industrial elements who might
subscribe to these traditionalist ideas: the power elite itself abhor
- American liberalism has been made painless for the power elite.
went a moral and intellectual decline in the last half century.
Political rhetoric became monolithic, divergent liberal positions came
to be employed in the same homogeneous liberal terms.
The Higher Immorality
- Especially following the second half of the nineteenth century,
US power elite has been getting increasingly immoral, irresponsible,
ignorant, stupid (in terms of not valuing reason as one's key
characteristic in life), and mindless in its quest for wealth and power.
- The higher immorality is a systematic, institutionalized feature
the US power elite, and the general acceptance of this immorality is an
essential feature of the mass society.
- The mass society itself is also left without any moral standards
hold on to, or even rise against. While fear, uncertainty, and doubt is
spread through military and economic crisis, “as individuals they are
defenseless; as groups, they are politically indifferent.” Even though
most relate (and wrongfully so) power with knowledge and ability, some
have given in to the immorality embodied in accomplishment.