The American Prospect, May - June 1999Bedside Reader:
The Power Elite Now
Wright Mills’s The Power Elite was published in 1956, a time, as Mills himself put it, when Americans were living through “a material boom, a nationalist celebration, a political vacuum.” It is not hard to understand why Americans were as complacent as Mills charged.
Let’s say you were a typical 35-year-old voter in 1956. When you were eight years old, the stock market crashed, and the resulting Great Depression began just as you started third or fourth grade. Hence your childhood was consumed with fighting off the poverty of the single greatest economic catastrophe in American history. When you were 20, the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor, ensuring that your years as a young adult, especially if you were male, would be spent fighting on the ground in Europe or from island to island in Asia. If you were lucky enough to survive that experience, you returned home at the ripe old age of 24, ready to resume some semblance of a normal life—only then to witness the Korean War, McCarthyism, and the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Into this milieu exploded The Power Elite. C. Wright Mills was one of the first intellectuals in America to write that the complacency of the Eisenhower years left much to be desired. His indictment was uncompromising. On the one hand, he claimed, vast concentrations of power had coagulated in America, making a mockery of American democracy. On the other, he charged that his fellow intellectuals had sold out to the conservative mood in America, leaving their audience—the American people themselves—in a state of ignorance and apathy bearing shocking resemblance to the totalitarian regimes that America had defeated or was currently fighting.
One of the goals Mills set for himself in The Power Elite was to tell his readers—again, assuming that they were roughly 35 years of age—how much the organization of power in America had changed during their lifetimes. In the 1920s, when this typical reader had been born, there existed what Mills called “local society,” towns and small cities throughout Am erica whose political and social life was dominated by resident businessmen. Small-town elites, usually Republican in their outlook, had a strong voice in Con gress, for most of the congressmen who represented them were either members of the dominant families themselves or had close financial ties to them.
By the time Mills wrote his book, this world of local elites had become as obsolete as the Model T Ford. Power in America had become nationalized, Mills charged, and as a result had also become interconnected. The Power Elite called attention to three prongs of power in the United States. First, business had shifted its focus from corporations that were primarily regional in their workforces and customer bases to ones that sought products in national markets and developed national interests. What had once been a propertied class, tied to the ownership of real assets, had become a managerial class, rewarded for its ability to organize the vast scope of corporate enterprise into an engine for ever-expanding profits. No longer were the chief executive officers of these companies chosen because they were of the right social background. Con nections still mattered, but so did bureaucratic skill. The men who possessed those skills were rewarded well for their efforts. Larded with expense accounts and paid handsomely, they could exercise national influence not only through their companies, but through the roles that they would be called upon to serve in “the national interest.”
Similar changes had taken place in the military sector of American society. World War II, Mills argued, and the subsequent start of the Cold War, led to the establishment of “a permanent war economy” in the United States. Mills wrote that the “warlords,” his term for the military and its civilian allies, had once been “only uneasy, poor relations within the American elite; now they are first cousins; soon they may become elder brothers.” Given an unlimited checking account by politicians anxious to appear tough, buoyed by fantastic technological and scientific achievements, and sinking roots into America’s educational institutions, the military, Mills believed, was becoming increasingly autonomous. Of all the prongs of the power elite, this “military ascendancy” possessed the most dangerous implications. “Ameri can militarism, in fully developed form, would mean the triumph in all areas of life of the military metaphysic, and hence the subordination to it of all other ways of life.”
In addition to the military and corporate elites, Mills analyzed the role of what he called “the political directorate.” Lo cal elites had once been strongly represented in Congress, but Congress itself, Mills pointed out, had lost power to the executive branch. And within that branch, Mills could count roughly 50 people who, in his opinion, were “now in charge of the executive decisions made in the name of the United States of America.” The very top positions—such as the secretaries of state or defense—were occupied by men with close ties to the leading national corporations in the United States. These people were not attracted to their positions for the money; often, they made less than they would have in the private sector. Rather they understood that running the Central Intelli gence Agency or being secretary of the Treasury gave one vast influence over the direction taken by the country. Firmly interlocked with the military and corporate sectors, the political leaders of the United States fashioned an agenda favorable to their class rather than one that might have been good for the nation as a whole.
Although written very much as a product of its time, The Power Elite has had remarkable staying power. The book has remained in print for 43 years in its original form, which means that the 35-year-old who read it when it first came out is now 78 years old. The names have changed since the book’s appearance—younger readers will recognize hardly any of the corporate, military, and political leaders mentioned by Mills—but the underlying question of whether America is as democratic in practice as it is in theory continues to matter very much.
The obvious question for any contemporary reader of The Power Elite is whether its conclusions apply to the United States today. Sorting out what is helpful in Mills’s book from what has become obsolete seems a task worth undertaking.
Each year, Fortune publishes a list of the 500 leading American companies based on revenues. Roughly 30 of the 50 companies that dominated the economy when Mills wrote his book no longer do, including firms in once seemingly impregnable industries such as steel, rubber, and food. Putting it another way, the 1998 list contains the names of many corporations that would have been quite familiar to Mills: General Motors is ranked first, Ford second, and Exxon third. But the company immediately following these giants—Wal-Mart Stores—did not even exist at the time Mills wrote; indeed, the idea that a chain of retail stores started by a folksy Arkansas merchant would someday outrank Mobil, General Electric, or Chrysler would have startled Mills. Furthermore, just as some industries have declined, whole new industries have appeared in America since 1956; IBM was fifty-ninth when Mills wrote, hardly the computer giant—sixth on the current Fortune 500 list—that it is now. (Compaq and Intel, neither of which existed when Mills wrote his book, are also in the 1998 top 50.) To illustrate how closed the world of the power elite was, Mills called attention to the fact that one man, Winthrop W. Aldrich, the Am erican ambassador to Great Britain, was a director of 4 of the top 25 companies in America in 1950. In 1998, by contrast, only one of those companies, AT&T, was at the very top; of the other three, Chase Manhattan was twenty-seventh, Metropolitan Life had fallen to forty-third, and the New York Central Railroad was not to be found.
Despite these changes in the nature of corporate America, however, much of what Mills had to say about the corporate elite still applies. It is certainly still the case, for example, that those who run companies are very rich; the gap between what a CEO makes and what a worker makes is extraordinarily high. But there is one difference between the world described by Mills and the world of today that is so striking it cannot be passed over. As odd as it may sound, Mills’s understanding of capitalism was not radical enough. Heavily influenced by the sociology of its time, The Power Elite portrayed corporate executives as organization men who “must ‘fit in’ with those already at the top.” They had to be concerned with managing their impressions, as if the appearance of good results were more important than the actuality of them. Mills was disdainful of the idea that leading businessmen were especially com petent. “The fit survive,” he wrote, “and fitness means, not formal competence—there probably is no such thing for top executive positions—but conformity with the criteria of those who have already succeeded.”
It may well have been true in the 1950s that corporate leaders were not especially inventive; but if so, that was because they faced relatively few challenges. If you were the head of General Motors in 1956, you knew that American automobile companies dominated your market; the last thing on your mind was the fact that someday cars called Toyotas or Hondas would be your biggest threat. You did not like the union which organized your workers, but if you were smart, you realized that an ever-growing economy would enable you to trade off high wages for your workers in return for labor market stability. Smaller companies that supplied you with parts were dependent on you for orders. Each year you wanted to outsell Ford and Chrysler, and yet you worked with them to create an elaborate set of signals so that they would not undercut your prices and you would not undercut theirs. Whatever your market share in 1956, in other words, you could be fairly sure that it would be the same in 1957. Why rock the boat? It made perfect sense for budding executives to do what Mills argued they did do: assume that the best way to get ahead was to get along and go along.
Very little of this picture remains accurate at the end of the twentieth century. Union membership as a percentage of the total workforce has declined dramatically, and while this means that companies can pay their workers less, it also means that they cannot expect to invest much in the training of their workers on the assumption that those workers will remain with the company for most of their lives. Foreign competition, once negligible, is now the rule of thumb for most American companies, leading many of them to move parts of their companies overseas and to create their own global marketing arrangements. America’s fastest-growing industries can be found in the field of high technology, something Mills did not anticipate. (“Many modern theories of industrial development,” he wrote, “stress technological developments, but the number of inventors among the very rich is so small as to be unappreciable.”) Often dominated by self-made men (another phenomenon about which Mills was doubtful), these firms are ruthlessly competitive, which upsets any possibility of forming gentlemen’s agreements to control prices; indeed, among internet companies the idea is to provide the product with no price whatsoever—that is, for free—in the hopes of winning future customer loyalty.
These radical changes in the competitive dynamics of Ameri can capitalism have important implications for any effort to characterize the power elite of today. C. Wright Mills was a translator and interpreter of the German sociologist Max Weber, and he borrowed from Weber the idea that a heavily bureaucratized society would also be a stable and conservative society. Only in a society which changes relatively little is it possible for an elite to have power in the first place, for if events change radically, then it tends to be the events controlling the people rather than the people controlling the events. There can be little doubt that those who hold the highest positions in America’s corporate hierarchy remain, as they did in Mills’s day, the most powerful Americans. But not even they can control rapid technological transformations, intense global competition, and ever-changing consumer tastes. Ameri can capitalism is simply too dynamic to be controlled for very long by anyone.
One of the crucial arguments Mills made in The Power Elite was that the emergence of the Cold War completely transformed the Amer ican public’s historic opposition to a permanent military establishment in the United States. In deed, he stressed that Amer ica’s military elite was now linked to its economic and political elite. Personnel were constantly shifting back and forth from the corporate world to the military world. Big companies like Gen eral Mo tors had become dependent on military contracts. Scientific and technological innovations sponsored by the military helped fuel the growth of the economy. And while all these links between the economy and the military were being forged, the military had become an active political force. Members of Congress, once hostile to the military, now treated officers with great deference. And no president could hope to staff the Depart ment of State, find intelligence officers, and appoint ambassadors without consulting with the military.
Mills believed that the emergence of the military as a key force in Amer ican life constituted a substantial attack on the isolationism which had once characterized public opinion. He argued that “the warlords, along with fellow travelers and spokesmen, are attempting to plant their metaphysics firmly among the population at large.” Their goal was nothing less than a redefinition of reality—one in which the Ameri can people would come to accept what Mills called “an emergency without a foreseeable end.” “War or a high state of war preparedness is felt to be the normal and seemingly permanent condition of the United States,” Mills wrote. In this state of constant war fever, America could no longer be considered a genuine dem ocracy, for democracy thrives on dissent and disagreement, precisely what the military definition of reality forbids. If the changes described by Mills were indeed permanent, then The Power Elite could be read as the description of a deeply radical, and depressing, transformation of the nature of the United States.
Much as Mills wrote, it remains true today that Congress is extremely friendly to the military, at least in part because the military has become so powerful in the districts of most congressmen. Mil itary bases are an important source of jobs for many Amer icans, and government spending on the military is crucial to companies, such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which manufacture military equipment. Ameri can firms are the leaders in the world’s global arms market, manufacturing and exporting weapons everywhere. Some weap ons systems never seem to die, even if, as was the case with a “Star Wars” system designed to destroy incoming missiles, there is no demonstrable military need for them.
Yet despite these similarities with the 1950s, both the world and the role that America plays in that world have changed. For one thing, the United States has been unable to muster its forces for any sustained use in any foreign conflict since Vietnam. Worried about the possibility of a public backlash against the loss of American lives, American presidents either refrain from pursuing military adventures abroad or confine them to rapid strikes, along the lines pursued by Presidents Bush and Clinton in Iraq. Since 1989, moreover, the collapse of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe has undermined the capacity of America’s elites to mobilize support for military expenditures. China, which at the time Mills wrote was con sidered a serious threat, is now viewed by American businessmen as a source of great potential investment. Domestic political support for a large and permanent military establishment in the United States, in short, can no longer be taken for granted.
The immediate consequence of these changes in the world’s balance of power has been a dramatic decrease in that proportion of the American economy devoted to defense. At the time Mills wrote, defense expenditures constituted roughly 60 percent of all federal outlays and consumed nearly 10 percent of the U. S. gross domestic product. By the late 1990s, those proportions had fallen to 17 percent of federal outlays and 3.5 percent of GDP. Nearly three million Americans served in the armed forces when The Power Elite appeared, but that number had dropped by half at century’s end. By almost any account, Mills’s prediction that both the economy and the political system of the United States would come to be ever more dominated by the military is not borne out by historical developments since his time.
And how could he have been right? Business firms, still the most powerful force in American life, are increasingly global in nature, more interested in protecting their profits wherever they are made than in the defense of the country in which perhaps only a minority of their employees live and work. Give most of the leaders of America’s largest companies a choice between invading another country and investing in its industries and they will nearly always choose the latter over the former. Mills believed that in the 1950s, for the first time in American history, the military elite had formed a strong alliance with the economic elite. Now it would be more correct to say that America’s economic elite finds more in common with economic elites in other countries than it does with the military elite of its own. The Power Elite failed to foresee a situation in which at least one of the key elements of the power elite would no longer identify its fate with the fate of the country which spawned it.
Mass Society and the Power Elite
Politicians and public officials who wield control over the executive and legislative branches of government constitute the third leg of the power elite. Mills believed that the politicians of his time were no longer required to serve a local apprenticeship before moving up the ladder to national politics. Because corporations and the military had become so interlocked with government, and because these were both national institutions, what might be called “the nationalization of politics” was bound to follow. The new breed of political figure likely to climb to the highest political positions in the land would be those who were cozy with generals and CEOs, not those who were on a first-name basis with real estate brokers and savings and loan officials.
For Mills, politics was primarily a facade. Historically speaking, American politics had been organized on the theory of balance: each branch of government would balance the other; competitive parties would ensure adequate representation; and interest groups like labor unions would serve as a counterweight to other interests like business. But the emergence of the power elite had transformed the theory of balance into a romantic, Jeffersonian myth. So anti democratic had America become under the rule of the power elite, according to Mills, that most decisions were made behind the scenes. As a result, neither Congress nor the political parties had much substantive work to carry out. “In the absence of policy differences of consequence between the major parties,” Mills wrote, “the professional party politician must invent themes about which to talk.”
Mills was right to emphasize the irrelevance of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century images to the actualities of twentieth-century American political power. But he was not necessarily correct that politics would therefore become something of an empty theatrical show. Mills believed that in the absence of real substance, the parties would become more like each other. Yet today the ideological differences between Republicans and Dem o crats are severe—as, in fact, they were in 1956. Joseph McCarthy, the conservative anticommunist senator from Wis consin who gave his name to the period in which Mills wrote his book, appears a few times in The Power Elite, but not as a major figure. In his emphasis on politics and economics, Mills underestimated the important role that powerful symbolic and moral crusades have had in American life, including McCarthy’s witch-hunt after communist influence. Had he paid more attention to Mc Carthyism, Mills would have been more likely to predict the role played by divisive issues such as abortion, immigration, and affirmative action in American politics today. Real substance may not be high on the American political agenda, but that does not mean that politics is unimportant. Through our political system, we make decisions about what kind of people we imagine ourselves to be, which is why it matters a great deal at the end of the twentieth century which political party is in power.
Contemporary commentators believe that Mills was an outstanding social critic but not necessarily a first-rate social scientist. Yet I believe that The Power Elite survives better as a work of social science than of social criticism.
At the time Mills was writing, academic sociology was in the process of proclaiming itself a science. The proper role of the sociologist, many of Mills’s colleagues believed, was to conduct value-free research emphasizing the close em pirical testing of small-bore hypotheses. A grand science would eventually be built upon extensive empirical work which, like the best of the natural sciences, would be published in highly specialized journals emph a sizing methodological innovation and technical proficiency. Because he never agreed with these objectives, Mills was never considered a good scientist by his sociological peers.
Yet not much of the academic sociology of the 1950s has survived, while The Power Elite, in terms of longevity, is rivaled by very few books of its period. In his own way, Mills contributed much to the understanding of his era. Social scientists of the 1950s emphasized pluralism, a concept which Mills attacked in his criticisms of the theory of balance. The dominant idea of the day was that the concentration of power in America ought not be considered excessive because one group always balanced the power of others. The biggest problem facing America was not concentrated power but what sociologists began to call “the end of ideology.” America, they believed, had reached a point in which grand passions over ideas were exhausted. From now on, we would require technical expertise to solve our problems, not the musings of intellectuals.
Compared to such ideas, Mills’s picture of American reality, for all its exaggerations, seems closer to the mark. If the test of science is to get reality right, the very passionate convictions of C. Wright Mills drove him to develop a better empirical grasp on Am erican society than his more objective and clinical contemporaries. We can, therefore, read The Power Elite as a fairly good account of what was taking place in America at the time it was written.
As a social critic, however, Mills leaves something to be desired. In that role, Mills portrays himself as a lonely battler for the truth, insistent upon his correctness no matter how many others are seduced by the siren calls of power or wealth. This gives his book emotional power, but it comes with a certain irresponsibility. “In Am erica today,” Mills wrote in a typical passage, “men of affairs are not so much dogmatic as they are mindless.” Yet however one may dislike the decisions made by those in power in the 1950s, as decisionmakers they were responsible for the consequences of their acts. It is often easier to criticize from afar than it is to get a sense of what it actually means to make a corporate decision involving thousands of workers, to consider a possible military action that might cost lives, or to decide whether public funds should be spent on roads or welfare. In calling public officials mindless, Mills implies that he knows how they might have acted better. But if he did, he never told readers of The Power Elite; missing from the book is a statement of what concretely could be done to make the world accord more with the values in which Mills believed.
It is, moreover, one thing to attack the power elite, yet another to extend his criticisms to other intellectuals—and even the public at large. When he does the latter, Mills runs the risk of becoming as antidemocratic as he believed America had become. As he brings his book to an end, Mills adopts a term once strongly identified with conservative political theorists. Appalled by the spread of democracy, conservative European writers proclaimed the twentieth century the age of “mass society.” The great majority, this theory held, would never act rationally but would respond more like a crowd, hysterically caught up in frenzy at one point, apathetic and withdrawn at another. “The United States is not altogether a mass society,” Mills wrote—and then he went on to write as if it were. And when he did, the image he conveyed of what an American had become was thoroughly unattractive: “He loses his independence, and more importantly, he loses the desire to be independent; in fact, he does not have hold of the idea of being an independent individual with his own mind and his own worked-out way of life.” Mills had become so persuaded of the power of the power elite that he seemed to have lost all hope that the American people could find themselves and put a stop to the abuses he detected.
One can only wonder, then, what Mills would have made of the failed attempt by Republican zealots to impeach and remove the President of the United States. At one level it makes one wish there really were a power elite, for surely such an elite would have prevented an extremist faction of an increasingly ideological political party from trying to overturn the results of two elections. And at another level, to the degree that America weathered this crisis, it did so precisely because the public did not act as if were numbed by living in a mass society, for it refused to follow the lead of opinion makers, it made up its mind early and thoughtfully, and then it held tenaciously to its opinion until the end.
Whether or not America has a power elite at the top and a mass society
at the bottom, however, it remains in desperate need of the blend of
social science and social criticism which The Power Elite offered.
It would take another of Mills’s books—perhaps The Sociological
Imagination—to explain why that has been lost.
Alan Wolfe, University Professor at Boston University, is a sociologist and the author of One Nation, After All and Whose Keeper? Social Science and Moral Obligation.
Copyright © 1999 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Alan Wolfe, "The Power Elite Now," The American Prospect no. 44, May-June 1999. Readers may redistribute this article to other individuals for noncommercial use, provided the document remains intact and unaltered in any way. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to The Electronic Policy Network (firstname.lastname@example.org).