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C Wright Mills Power Elite Essay Workshop

Much of "The Power Elite" was a tough-talking polemic against the "romantic pluralism" embedded in the prevailing theory of American politics. The separation of powers in the Constitution, the story went, repelled the natural tendency of power to concentrate, while political parties and voluntary societies organized the clash of interests, laying the people's representatives open to the influence of public opinion. This "theory of balance" still applied to the "middle levels of power," Mills wrote. But the society it envisioned had been eclipsed.

For the first time in history, he argued, the territories of the United States made up a self-conscious mass society. If the economy had once been a multitude of locally or regionally rooted, (more or less) equal units of production, it now answered to the needs of a few hundred corporations. If the government had once been a patchwork of states held together by Congress, it now answered to the initiatives of a strong executive. If the military had once been a militia system resistant to the discipline of permanent training, it now consumed half the national budget, and seated its admirals and generals in the biggest office building in the world.

The "awesome means of power" enthroned upon these monopolies of production, administration and violence included the power to prevent issues and ideas from reaching Congress in the first place. Most Americans still believed the ebb and flow of public opinion guided political affairs. "But now we must recognize this description as a set of images out of a fairy tale," Mills wrote. "They are not adequate even as an approximate model of how the American system of power works."

The small groups of men standing at the head of the three monopolies represented a new kind of elite, whose character and conduct mirrored the antidemocratic ethos of their institutions. The corporations recruited from the business schools, and conceived executive training programs that demanded strict conformity. The military selected generals and admirals from the service academies, and inculcated "the caste feeling" by segregating them from the associational life of the country. Less and less did local apprenticeships serve as a passport to the government's executive chambers. Of the appointees in the Eisenhower administration, Mills found that a record number had never stood for election at any level.

Above the apparent balance of powers, Mills said, "an intricate set of overlapping cliques" shared in "decisions having at least national consequences." Rather than operating in secret, the same kinds of men — who traded opinions in the same churches, clubs and schools — took turns in the same jobs. Mills pointed to the personnel traffic among the Pentagon, the White House and the corporations. The nation's three top policy positions — secretary of state, treasury and defense — were occupied by former corporate executives. The president was a general.

Mills could not answer many of the most important questions he raised. How did the power elite make its decisions? He did not know. Did its members cause their roles to be created, or step into roles already created? He could not say. Around what interests did they cohere? He asserted a "coincidence of interest" partially organized around "a permanent war establishment," but he did little more than assert it. Most of the time, he said, the power elite did not cohere at all. "This instituted elite is frequently in some tension: it comes together only on certain coinciding points and only on certain occasions of 'crisis.' " Although he urged his readers to scrutinize the commanding power of decision, his book did not scrutinize any decisions.

These ambiguities have kept "The Power Elite" vulnerable to the charge of conspiracy-mongering. In a recent essay in Playboy called "Who Rules America?" Arthur Schlesinger Jr. repeated his earlier skepticism about Mills's argument, calling it "a sophisticated version of the American nightmare." Alan Wolfe, in a 2000 afterword, pointed out that while Mills got much about the self-enriching ways of the corporate elite right, his vision of complacent American capitalism did not anticipate the competitive dynamics of our global economy. And of late we have seen that "occasions of crisis" do not necessarily serve to unify the generals with the politicians.

Yet "The Power Elite" abounds with questions that still trouble us today. Can a strong democracy coexist with the amoral ethos of corporate elites? And can public argument have democratic meaning in the age of national security? The trend in foreign affairs, Mills argued, was for a militarized executive branch to bypass the United Nations, while Congress was left with little more than the power to express "general confidence, or the lack of it." Policy tended to be announced as doctrine, which was then sold to the public via the media. Career diplomats in the State Department believed they could not truthfully report intelligence. Meanwhile official secrecy steadily expanded its reach. "For the first time in American history, men in authority are talking about an 'emergency' without a foreseeable end," Mills wrote in a sentence that remains as powerful and unsettling as it was 50 years ago. "Such men as these are crackpot realists: in the name of realism they have constructed a paranoid reality all their own."

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The Power Elite is a 1956 book by sociologistC. Wright Mills, in which Mills calls attention to the interwoven interests of the leaders of the military, corporate, and political elements of society and suggests that the ordinary citizen is a relatively powerless subject of manipulation by those entities.


The book is something of a counterpart of Mills' 1951 work, White Collar: The American Middle Classes, which examines the then-growing role of middle managers in American society. A main inspiration for the book was Franz Leopold Neumann's book Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism in 1942, a study of how Nazism came into a position of power in a democratic state like Germany. Behemoth 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".[1]


According to Mills, the eponymous "power elite" are those that occupy the dominant positions, in the dominant institutions (military, economic and political) of a dominant country, and their decisions (or lack of decisions) have enormous consequences, not only for the U.S. population but, "the underlying populations of the world." The institutions which they head, Mills posits, are a triumvirate of groups that have succeeded weaker predecessors: (1) "two or three hundred giant corporations" which have replaced the traditional agrarian and craft economy, (2) a strong federal political order that has inherited power from "a decentralized set of several dozen states" and "now enters into each and every cranny of the social structure," and (3) the military establishment, formerly an object of "distrust fed by state militia," but now an entity with "all the grim and clumsy efficiency of a sprawling bureaucratic domain."

Importantly, and in distinction from modern American conspiracy theory, Mills explains that the elite themselves may not be aware of their status as an elite, noting that "often they are uncertain about their roles" and "without conscious effort, they absorb the aspiration to be ... The Ones Who Decide." Nonetheless, he sees them as a quasi-hereditary caste. The members of the power elite, according to Mills, often enter into positions of societal prominence through educations obtained at eastern establishment universities like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. But, Mills notes, "Harvard or Yale or Princeton is not enough ... the point is not Harvard, but which Harvard?" Mills identifies two classes of Ivy League alumni, those initiated into an upper echelon fraternity or final club, such as Porcellian and Fly Club, and those who are not. Those so initiated, Mills continues, receive their invitations based on social links first established in elite private preparatory academies, where they are enrolled as part of antebellum family traditions. In this manner, the mantle of the elite generally passes through families.

The resulting elites, who control the three dominant institutions (military, economy and political system) can be generally grouped into one of six types, according to Mills:

  • the "Metropolitan 400" - members of historically notable local families in the principal American cities, generally represented on the Social Register
  • "Celebrities" - prominent entertainers and media personalities
  • the "Chief Executives" - presidents and CEOs of the most important companies within each industrial sector
  • the "Corporate Rich" - major landowners and corporate shareholders
  • the "Warlords" - senior military officers, most importantly the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • the "Political Directorate" - "fifty-odd men of the executive branch" of the U.S. federal government, including the senior leadership in the Executive Office of the President, sometimes variously drawn from elected officials of the Democratic and Republican parties but usually professional government bureaucrats

Mills formulated a very short summary of his book: "Who, after all, runs America? No one runs it altogether, but in so far as any group does, the power elite."[2]

Reception and criticism[edit]

Commenting on The Power Elite, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. derisively said, "I look forward to the time when Mr. Mills hands back his prophet's robes and settles down to being a sociologist again."[3]

Adolf Berle noted the book contained "an uncomfortable degree of truth", but Mills presented "an angry cartoon, not a serious picture".[3]Dennis Wrong described The Power Elite as "an uneven blend of journalism, sociology, and moral indignation".[4]

A review of the book in the Louisiana Law Review bemoaned that the "practical danger of Mr. Mills' pessimistic interpretation of the current situation is that his readers will concentrate on answering his prejudicial assertions rather than ponder the results of his really formidable research".[5]

Nonetheless, consideration of the book has become moderately more favorable over time. In 2006, G. William Domhoff wrote, "Mills looks even better than he did 50 years ago".[6] Mills' biographer, John Summers, admitted that The Power Elite was "vulnerable to the charge of conspiracy-mongering" but declared that its historical value "seems assured".[3]In a purposeful extension of Mills' Power Elite, his proposed International System, and Comparative Sociology, Muhammed Asadi (2012) suggests that the modern World System is highly militarized and a counterpart of the US permanent war economy where a global division of labor based on military Keynesian stabilization exists concomitant with economic accumulation. He calls these countries "militarized states" whose superior economic growth stabilizes the World System run by the Command States (counterpart to Wallerstein's Core but includes military, cultural and political domination in addition to financial and trade domination) just like military spending in the US stabilizes the US economy. Militarization and wars are therefore encouraged by the Command States and facilitated by them just as suggested by Mills in The Causes of World War Three (1958), a book that came out of the Power Elite, the preparation for war leads to wars [7]

In popular culture[edit]

Episode 5 in MindhunterTV series (Netflix) contains a scene in which one of the main characters, a sociology PhD student Deborah "Debbie" Mitford, writes a paper on C. Wright Mills's The Power Elite.

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

Historically prominent families, such as the Kennedy family, form the "Metropolitan 400." Shown here are Rose and Joseph Kennedy in 1940.
  1. ^C.Wright Mills: Power, Politics and People, (New York, 1963 p.174)
  2. ^Mills, C. Wright. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press. p. 31. 
  3. ^ abcSummers, John (14 May 2006). "The Deciders". New York Times. Retrieved 14 February 2014. 
  4. ^Wrong, Dennis (September 1956). "The Power Elite, by C. Wright Mills". Commentary Magazine. Retrieved 14 February 2014. 
  5. ^Woodard, Calvin (December 1956). "THE POWER ELITE, by C. Wright Mills". Louisiana Law Review. Retrieved 14 February 2014. 
  6. ^Domhoff, G. William (2006). "Mills's The Power Elite, 50 Years Later". Contemporary Sociology. 
  7. ^http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/dissertations/447/

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