Commentary Magazine


The Power Elite, by C. Wright Mills

Power in America
by Dennis H. Wrong
The Power Elite. By C. Wright Mills. Oxford University Press. 423 pp. $6.00.

Like Professor Mills’s earlier books, The Power Elite is an uneven blend of journalism, sociology, and moral indignation. Having previously examined labor leaders and white-collar workers, Mills here turns his attention to the topside of American society: the old families enshrined in the Social Register, the celebrities of the mass media, the corporation executives, the generals and admirals, and the major politicians. But he does a good deal more than merely buttress a series of descriptive accounts of these august circles with the conventional apparatus of sociological research; his chief concern is with developing a theory of where the decisive power lies in American society, how it got there, and how it is exercised.

Mills maintains that the United States is run by a “power elite” of corporation executives, military men, and politicians whose interests converge or coincide, and who “are in a position to make decisions with terrible consequences for the underlying populations of the world.” This theory is introduced in the opening chapter. The middle chapters, dealing with the various American upper classes, old and new, constitute an attempt to document and illustrate the central thesis, which is then elaborated in the final section of the book, where Mills examines and rejects alternative views. He closes with a ringing indictment of American society as immoral, politically irresponsible, and led by the “second-rate mind.”

The early chapters of the book contain the best writing and some of the most incisive analysis. They trace the decline in the autonomy of the small town and its self-contained social world, the development of fashionable society and of a stylized upper-class way of life in the metropolitan centers of the East, and, finally, the replacement of the society lady and the debutante by the movie star, with the emergence of a nationwide celebrity system created and sustained by the mass media. No one, to my knowledge, has written with greater insight into the larger significance of cafe society, where the stars of all fields of endeavor mingle in the spotlight of publicity. And Mills’s criticism of Veblen’s conception of the leisure class is as acute as any I have seen. “He was,” Mills writes, “not quite serious enough about status because he did not see its full and intricate importance to power”—an omission by Veblen which Mills more than makes good.

Moving from the theme of status and wealth to that of power, Mills describes the executives, the military and, much more briefly, the politicians—the three groups he sees as an “interlocking directorate” at the apex of the American power hierarchy. He provides a lot of information about each of them, some of it based on original research and some of it merely taken from the Luce publications and business magazines. In trying to persuade us that there is really an “interlocking directorate” at work in America, he makes much of the degree to which careers in the corporate, military, and government bureaucracies are becoming interchangeable, listing the generals who have been appointed directors of large corporations or participated actively in politics, and the businessmen who have accepted government posts. Most of this data is drawn from the record of the past four years, and one may perhaps be pardoned for hesitating to join Mills in regarding the Eisenhower administration as the goal and culmination of long-term trends in American politics.

Mills completes his picture of the power structure by identifying a “middle level” of power where Congress, state political machines, and regional economic interest groups are located, and where the conception (advanced by David Riesman, John K. Galbraith and others) of a relative equilibrium between competing groups has rough applicability. He argues, however, that the Riesman-Galbraith restatements of the traditional liberal theory of a balanced society confuse the part with the whole and the desirable with the actual. (Here Mills is a polemicist and at his best, without the tone of tough-guy knowingness about the facts of power that pervades much of the book.)

Below the elite and the “middle level” lie the powerless masses, pulverized by metropolitan living and rapid industrial growth, manipulated by the power elite, and distracted from any serious concern with politics by the commercial machinery of amusement. Clearly, in Mills’s vision of them, they no longer bear much resemblance to the classic “public” of democratic theory.

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Except for this almost eschatological view of the passive, violated masses, Mills’s account of who holds the power in American society, is, it seems to me, broadly acceptable. The fundamental weakness in his whole analysis lies in his failure to tell us clearly what the elite does with its power, or why it does some things and not others—for power is not an absolute: there is only power to do particular things. What exactly does Mills’s power elite do that leads him to think it plays so crucial a role? It makes “decisions having at least national consequences.” The decisions he uses as examples are the most obvious ones conceivable: the chain of events leading up to American entrance into World War II, the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima (referred to repeatedly), the commitment of troops to Europe under NATO, the Korean war, the decision to defend Formosa. Congress wasn’t consulted about these decisions, says Mills (sounding for all the world like an Old Guard Republican), nor were you and I.

And so we weren’t, but decisions bearing on war and peace—the only kind Mills mentions—are rarely submitted to plebiscites. Most modern governments give their executive branches unusual prerogatives to deal with situations considered relevant to national security. Lincoln was in effect a military dictator during the Civil War, often neglecting to consult even his own Cabinet, and this was in a period when, Mills himself informs us, the power elite had yet to achieve its ascendancy. Wars and cold wars have vastly increased the emergency powers of the Executive and it may be that too many vital policy decisions are being concealed from Congress, the press, and the public. A lot of people have been saying as much for some time. But Mills’s anguished cry against the awesome power of the elite adds up in the end to little more than reiteration of these fairly familiar complaints, which hardly justify his view of America as virtually a totalitarian country.

But it is not only Mills’s inadequately defined notion of power that is open to question; there is also the fact that he never specifies precisely what are the interests on the basis of which the power elite decides policy. They are not, he says, the profit motives of a capitalist “ruling class” in the traditional Marxist sense, but represent a “coincidence of interest among economic, political, and military organizations.” Businessmen, he reminds us, have captured control of the New Deal Federal agencies that were created to control them, while corporations profit from orders placed by the Pentagon. Yet Mills makes it clear that he has in mind a more comprehensive unity of interests than that implied by these familiar occurrences which involve only a few industries and areas of government activity. American capitalism, he argues, is no longer a mere “scatter of special interests”: it began to produce industry-wide spokesmen like Owen D. Young in the 20’s, and today the heads of the great corporations have moved “from the industrial point of interest and outlook to the interest and outlook of the class of all big corporate property as a whole.”

Do the shared interests of the members of the elite arise, then, from the fact that they know one another personally and have common social origins and a common style of life? This is not the whole story either, according to Mills, for to see the elite as no more than a clique of like-minded men would be too succumb to a “simple-minded biographical theory of society and history.” Mills is after something more solidly rooted in history than this: he wants to identify “objective interests” that have been created by long-run “structural trends” in American institutions. Economic men, he tells us repeatedly, were dominant from the end of the Civil War until the depression, politicians acquired greater power in the New Deal era, military men became important during World War II, and all three have made common cause under the Eisenhower administration. But his account of these undeniable historical developments does not succeed in enlightening us as to what exactly are the “coincident interests” of the three groups making up the power elite.

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What Mills fails to state outright, but is, I think, hinting at, is that big business has joined with the big politicians and the generals and admirals to maintain a “permanent war economy” for the purpose of averting an otherwise inevitable economic depression. The hydra-headed elite, according to this view, has a clear interest in perpetuating the present situation because, if the threat of war were removed, the military leaders would lose their positions of power and prestige, while another depression would perhaps spell the extinction of capitalism. Although it is needed to cap his argument, Mills neglects to make this extravagant theory explicit, possibly because he can’t really bring himself to believe that his power elite is so far-seeing and Machiavellian.

I find the theory incredible. Are we to conclude that the armed belligerency of Germany, Japan, and Russia made only a secondary contribution to the new role of the military in American life? Is Soviet armed might today simply a bogey conjured up by the power elite to justify its position? Mills doesn’t say as much, but he refers in a most oblique way to the fact that America is now “in a military neighborhood” and mentions the Soviet Union only once, remarking that the United States is not yet that totalitarian! The fact is that his sense of an irresistible determinism in events commits him to a strange brand of isolationism that sees changes in American society as being virtually self-generated by the “internal dynamics” of institutions.

Mills is alive to the fact that he might be charged with advancing a new “conspiracy theory of history.” He insists that the power elite is not a band of plotters, but has come into being only because men have availed themselves of opportunities created by “institutional forces.” Recently I asked an adherent of Mills’s views whether or not he thought that important changes in American foreign policy would result if the Democrats won the 1956 election and chose as Secretary of State George Kennan, who is far from being an intellectual mediocrity and has sharply criticized what he regards as the excessive militarization of American policy. “Certainly,” was the quick response, “but the power elite would never let Kennan have the job.” Mills, of course, is not responsible for what others make of his views, but they clearly lend themselves to the idea of an organized clique secretly manipulating events. He himself finally half-recognizes this, and quotes Richard Hofstadter to the effect that identifying conspiracies in history is not the same thing as arguing that history is a conspiracy. Granted, but I do not think that Mills’s new key fits the lock of history any better than those of earlier Populist and Marxist writers.

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