Sebastian Herkommer

From "The Power Elite" to the New Upper Class of "Bourgeois Bohemians"

This is a short resumé of an article which I wrote for "Sozialismus", published in the forthcoming Supplement, October 2000 ("Macht und Lebensstil" or Power and Life style).

In this essay, I compare some aspects of "The Power Elite" by C. Wright Mills with an investigation in the "new upper class" by David Brooks. "Bobos in Paradise" is a fascinating, and in some parts highly amusing book on how America’s new dominant class of the "bourgeois bohemians"are spending their lives, the way they are consuming ordinary and luxury goods, how they work when having pleasure, and achieve orgasm instead of just enjoy it, how they produce "lyrics about the trees and the trout" when they are in their holidays on the "Montana Soul Rush", etc.

But amusement and fascination become ambivalent, and mixed with growing anger, as soon as you reflect the implications and explicit consequences of this work, which might become a bestseller like The Power Elite. The method of "comic sociology" David Brooks is applicating to his subject, contrasts with the earnest, and moral emphasis, and radical criticism which is running through the whole work of C. Wright Mills. It is not only a contrast in methods.

Comparing Bobos in Paradise with The Power Elite, we should ask two questions: First, to what extent does the analysis of the new upper class of "bourgeois bohemians" reflect real changes in the structures of power, class and lifestyle - more than fourty years after Mills?

Second, to what extent are different theoretical concepts and political aims of the two authors responsible for their descriptions of the American upper classes? Mills has written "a direct assault on the establishment" (Brooks: 27); and Brooks, however ironical and self-ironical, does agree with the new establishment. Does the shift from fundamental criticism toward affirmation indicate essential improvements in the way modern American society is ruled by its elites, or does it indicate the changed role of the intellectuals toward the dominant structures and power relations?

By raising (and answering) these questions, one can definitely learn from both investigations. As to the changes of modern capitalism we can, in a very sketchy way, observe the rise and crisis of Fordism, the technological revolution by micro-electronics, the spreading globalization, and an enormous growth of the financial markets, the emerging of share-holder capitalism and of a so called new economy. But we can also observe an increasing relevance of cultural aspects in society


Brooks’s analysis refers to this by distinguishing the information age of our days from the industrial age the final decade of which he places in the fifties of the last century. He knows, of course, that there still exist the big corporations which, among the "big three", have been one of the most important institutions of power in the view of C. Wright Mills in his time. However, Brooks is laying all stress upon the branches of information industry and alternative products which for him are paradigm industries of the new age.

He is also aware of changes in the organization of the classic as well as modern corporations, summing them up as a trend toward "the pastoral organization", with its "emphasis on creativity, flat hierarchies, flexibility, and open expression." (Brooks: 269)

Brooks observes essential differences between the old and the new elites. His main point is the increasing relevance of education and intellectual outfit. Mills, on the contrary, was heavily deploring the intellectual and cultural loss of influence of the old bourgeoisie: "By the middle of the twentieth century, the American elite have become an entirely different breed of men from those who could on any reasonable grounds be considered a cultural elite, or even for that matter cultivated men of sensibility." (Mills: 351)

Brooks, fourty years later, after "the campus gates were thrown open on the basis of brains rather than blood" (Brooks: 29), refers to an enormously enlarged educated class, which invaded the business world as well as the political system. They found access to the top positions on the basis of their cultural capital which they accumulated at the best universities of the country, in the same way as they had found access to the best schools and colleges, that is, in the view of Brooks, on the basis of their ability and merits, and not primarily on the basis of "blood and breeding".

An essential part of this cultural capital of the educated class is its countercultural ingrediences, a heritage of the 1960s. This is the essence of Brooks’s argument: "Bohemian counterculture", as he calls it, was created and developed during the students’ and intellectuals’ rebellion against the dominant bourgeois culture, and in the meantime became reconciled - by reciprocal co-optation - with the former enemy, definitely after the neoconservative counterrevolution of the 1980s has failed. "The values of the bourgeois mainstream culture and the values of the 1960s counterculture have merged." (Brooks: 43)

In other words: As a cultural consequence of the information age and as an economic consequence of the altered character of capitalism, the growing demand for highly qualified personel gives rise to a new establishment with its own set of norms and ethics, neither traditionally bourgeois, nor purely bohemian and rebellious.

I think, we can understand from this analysis that there are two processes working together: First, we are witnessing an advanced penetration of everyday life, and of all domains and institutions within the economy as well as politics and administration, by the elements of a new culture which once was a counterculture.

And, second, we experience at the same time the penetration of all fields which once had been relatively autonomous by "le terreur de l’économie". Family life and schooling, churches and sports organizations, the health system and public housing, the whole lot of "culture industry" and the organization of "events" like the Olympic games have become formed and dominated by criteria of the market and economy of time.

To call "Bobo capitalism" an enlightened capitalism, as Brooks does, is daring. But he is right when he points at a decisive failure of Daniel Bell. In his work on "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism" of 1976, Bell had predicted that hedonism, cultural and sexual emancipation and other "bohemian" monstrosities would lead to the end of bourgeois society. Therefore, in his neoconservative manner, he pleaded for a revival of the old virtues of family, religion, work ethic etc. Brooks can triumphantly claim that the cultural contradictions are resolved, and by the amalgamation of the new play ethics including a "moderate, small-scale morality" (Brooks: 250) capitalism has regained strength and prosperity. "Bell thought he was witnessing the end of the bourgeoisie, but at the moment it looks as if the bourgeoisie has, in fact, revived itself by absorbing (and being absorbed by) the energy of bohemianism." (Brooks: 139)

This is the irony of the story. Radicals like Mills and the leaders of student revolt in the sixties have against their will supported forces of modernization which were necessary to prolong the existing ways of production and distribution of the national wealth.

This experience is one of the major reasons why today’s intellectuals seem to be reconciled with "the system". Mills attacked the power elite in his days because it used "the effective means of power and the wealth and the celebrity" for their own narrow purposes which they pretended to be of national interest. This could work, in his view, under conditions of mass society, i. e. uncontrolled and unchallenged by the people.

And he made clear, that it is the system, not the personalities which must be attacked. "The men of the higher circles are not representative men; their high position is not a result of moral virtue; their fabulous success is not firmly connected with meritorious ability. Those who sit in the seats of the high and mighty are selected and formed by the means of power, the sources of wealth, the mechanics of celebrity, which prevail in their society. ... They have succeeded within the American system of organized irresponsibility." (Mills: 361)

Bobo Brooks on the other hand, encourages the new upper class. "They have to assume a leadership role. They are the best-educated segment of society and among the most affluent, and yet by and large they have not devoted their energies to national life." They should do "what the postwar ruling class did. It means developing a public service ethos. ... They are largely unscarred by economic depression and war. They can be silly a lot of the time. But if they raise their sights and ask the biggest questions, they have the ability to go down in history as the class that led America into another golden age." (Brooks: 272-73)

Tone and melody are different as can be. The "free radical" Mills (Todd Gitlin) is disgusted and scandalized at public irresponsibility, and social inequality, and the way mass media are manipulating the minds, and the threat of an atomic war, etc. The "confessing Bobo" Brooks (S. H.) is critical in a soft and ironical way, he is amused by much of the hollowness of the otherwise celebrated "third culture", and he feels himself well: "We’re not so bad" (11). "Bobos have done wonderful things to the world of American capitalism." (269) "A lot is wonderful. ... It’s good to live in a Bobo world." (270)

Brooks’s view is exclusively directed to the successful, to those who are better off. It is not even cynical, when he conveys a short moment of insight, as the following sentence reveals: "Bobos have reason to feel proud of the contributions they have made to their country. Wherever they have settled, they made life more enjoyable (for those who can afford it)." (269)

This naive honesty shows that Brooks is the up to date ideologist of the new upper class. On the whole, he performs his role of justifying the "enlightened" capitalism by glossing over and leaving aside those topics and actual problems which would disturb the picture. There is not a hint of other classes than the upper class, beware of the excluded or marginalized, nor are there mentioned the mechanisms of closure apart from the struggles within the upper classes themselves (Mills in The Sociological Imagination, p. 200: "... ‚the reality‘ of any one stratum is in large part its relation to the rest."); there is no sensibility for remaining restrictions after the campus gates had been thrown open, and nothing is said about increasing inequality. As a cultural sociologist he lays stress on cultural phenomena. Lifestyle has become more important, no doubt, but he fails to see the relations with the institutional structures and the sources of power.

In a critical remark on Thorstein Veblen’s The Leisure Class, Mills wrote: "... 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... He was, in my view, not quite serious enough about status because he did not see its full and intricate importance to power." (Mills: 89) - I am afraid that we have to applicate this to the analysis of Brooks.

In my eyes, this underlines "the sociological and political relevancy of C. Wright Mills today" (Gitlin). The relevancy of Mills’s analysis and methods is definitely underlined by the distracting effect a witty and entertaining book like that about the Bobos in the American paradise may have. But, the application of Mills’s views and theoretical instruments as a political sociologist, as a merciless critic of ideology, and as an analyst of power and class relations and class consciousness can only be fruitful if it is open for the reality of cultural as well as economic and political changes within modern capitalism.


(Vortragsfassung vom 28. September 2000 beim Soziologie-Kongress in Köln, ad-hoc Veranstaltung zur Aktualität von C. Wright Mills, organisiert und geleitet von H. J. Krysmanski)