C. Wright Mills & the ‘Power Elite’

Written: 2/29/2012*

C Wright Mills was not just an academic when it came to politics, but he was also a huge part social activist. I can appreciate his denouncement of many of his contemporaries who were only concerned with the facts of sociology. I’ve always thought there should be a common goal of scientists that would be led by the facts. Both aspects are very important.  As someone who takes an interest in politics, I find Mills’ writing in The Power Elite especially interesting. Despite that it is now sixty years after most of his works have been published, his works are undeniably timeless. Many others have touched on the same topics as Mills, but most haven’t done so as passionately. The proof is in his medical record, having suffered multiple heart attacks.

His observations on the concentration of power, if accurate then, are now ever more applicable. The three areas of the power elite were those of the military elite, the corporate elite and the political elite. Well that’s obviously true, given that since the fifties, the same families and businesses occupy those positions of power. The military industrial complex is a perfect example of this, as different powerful groups use their relationships with powerful political individuals to bid for a piece of the annual 1 trillion dollar pie that is allotted to defense budget. Another observation of Mills’ was how those that sit in the top positions of power, are also similar demographically, as well as other institutions with which they have a history. They attend the same schools, join the same clubs, and all know the same people. This structure of power is so overwhelming to the majority of the population, that it gives rise to sayings like ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’, which is at odds with what is considered the American Dream.

The ideas surrounding the concept of the power elite are found in several other Sociologists works. A few decades before Mills, Weber was writing about a concept called rationalization. This displacement of values, traditions and emotions for impersonal bureaucracy is responsible for the further concentration of power, and also for the alienation from power the majority of society feels. Even earlier than that, Marx touched on the structure of power in nearly all of his works. The difference is what Mills suggested we do with these ‘social facts’.

I agree with Mills’ criticism of Structural Functionalism especially in the context of today’s obvious relationships between powerful figures and organizations that affect everything in our everyday lives. Fortunately, this age of information allows for some transparency between these conflicting relationships, but they are still as pervasive as ever.  It would be interesting to see what Mills would have to say about how media serves a role in the power elite, due to its sensitization of issues, and appointment of political figures as ‘news anchors’. Unfortunately, as worked up as I get about this sometimes, I think ‘were Mills to see Fox News, he just might have another heart attack.’

*Update: It seems that this critique has become a runaway train since 2012. If Mills were around to see the 2016 presidential campaigns, I’d bet that he would find our current system infuriating and completely broken.

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Reaction to Lessons on Marx (Circa 2013)

Once again, so much of this still resonates today. I enjoyed the anecdote about my old job at the end because I’ve been away at grad school for the last two years, and back to living among typical poor college students again.

The reading and discussion of Karl Marx should be required of every student. It engages critical thinking on many levels. First, we have to put aside our preexisting feelings and sentiments to consider what it was that he was trying to convey. We then map out his theory along with historical evidence and see how alienation and a growing proletariat has already aided revolution in the past. Finally, we find the similarities in current social trends which further support his original theory.  Unfortunately, in most situations, Karl Marx has too strong of a stigma attached to him to be brought into a casual discussion. It’s as if his very name has been conditioned to bring about fear and anger in some type of Pavlovian association over the years.

Karl (note: I was already on a first-name basis with him) was certainly right that class struggles define our histories. I have endless personal examples of how divisive the topic can be. One conversation with a coworker last week reminded how duped they really have us. Basically, the other person argued that people that receive welfare should be drug tested. I think I can stop there because there’s no need to go further when it’s clear that they have no interest in helping those in need, and are pretty quick to buy into unfounded stereotypes. Perhaps, the economic downturn has made us all a little testy, and this anger and uncertainty are easily misplaced.

Reading the Communist Manifesto makes me feel disappointed that it’s not ‘socially acceptable‘ to advocate for radical social change. It also makes it clear that the existing political parties have far fewer, even superficial, differences than I originally thought. With a major election upon us, we will probably see examples of class conflict daily. Some of it will be appeals made to us in speeches from those trying to get our vote, and some of it will be in the form of voter ID laws that are being passed. Sometimes you have to look harder to see it, but it’s definitely there.

Another idea which I found interesting was that of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. I have a great deal of experience with this given that I have been in the restaurant business for over ten years now. I first worked at a quaint diner, and now I work mainly in restaurants that would be considered by most to be ‘fine-dining’.  It’s funny to watch people from the server’s perspective because their attempts at buying and displaying their status are constant and thinly-veiled. Most patrons jump at the chance to talk about their latest vacation, but they also maintain their aloof composure about it (lest they appear to not vacation regularly because they were ‘too’ excited). They balk when presented with a wine that has a screw top, and ask for their wine to be decanted regardless of whether or not it is a wine that would need to be aerated. I gladly comply with their often strange requests as it is my profession, but as a psychology major it is far more interesting than just another ‘entitled’ customer.

Racial & Ethnic Inequality

I have been convinced for a while that our society systematically avoids frank discussions about the intersection of ethnicity and socioeconomic status. I also believe we live in a time where it is necessary to explore this topic, given the increasing digital resources that make communication easier than ever. Although I admit, I have rarely taken the opportunity to do so; this important discussion is one that I am ready and willing to have.*

*While it was less than 5 years ago when I wrote this, it is even more true now.

In grade school discussions of culture and ethnicity, I always envied my peers with such diversity in their history. We (and many other young people) were asked to write essays on the topic of our personal ethnic identities, and I felt like I had nothing to contribute to that conversation. My family history goes far back to some of the first British settlers that lived in this country in the early 1600s. Having ancestral roots in England and colonial America did not seem to be ‘show and tell’ material to me.  I mistook (and took for granted) my ethnic identity, descending primarily from the ‘Anglo Core Group’, for being bland, if not completely non-existent. American ideology, as previously discussed, is so deeply engrained in our worldview that sometimes we forget that it’s even there at all (edit: when I say ‘we forget’ there, notice the ethnocentricism. I would avoid even that phrasing now, but I’m still learning!). I was fascinated by my classmate’s stories of their families’ immigration and history, as well as learning about other languages and traditions. Although I knew that these rich cultural differences were different from mine, I wrongly assumed their experience was as “easy” and nurtured (historically speaking) as my ancestors’. This is in part due to my socialization in school, where they often leave out the ‘bad parts’, and in part due to a subjective life experience – a perspective, from which I had never tried to depart.  I did not consider the accident of birth until much later.

The optimistic perspective from which I viewed society had kept me from the insight that comes with a comprehensive understanding of what ethnicity really means. Though this understanding hasn’t made me any less hopeful, I now see the responsibility that comes along with it. The knowledge of how minority groups have been treated historically can not only help me become a more empathetic human being, but it can also allow me to positively impact the society in which I live. In my youthful naivety, I could have never imagined how something like skin color or cultural heritage could affect all subsequent life chances. Now, with every news story I read, I find myself asking how race played a part in the situation. I wonder also how others react to the same story, and if they might respond differently with a sociological perspective. Analyzing news stories and American ideological principles requires knowledge of social facts, as well as the ability to interpret the subtle elements that present themselves in any given idea.

In one recent example, Shanesha Taylor, a homeless mother of two, was arrested for leaving her kids in her car during a job interview. She had no one to watch her kids while she was attending the interview, and witnesses quickly responded to the sounds of her children’s cries. Now, she faces two child abuse charges, and her children are in protective custody. I cannot claim that the outcome would be different were she and her children of another ethnicity, but I can see how societal disadvantages for minorities (i.e. discrimination in labor and housing markets) helped to create the situation in the first place. Now, the public reaction to the story is even more indicative of the latent racism that makes having meaningful conversations about this topic so difficult. I can hardly blame the mother for making a poor choice, when I consider how limited her alternatives might have been. (UPDATE: I just searched for later developments, and Shanesha was sentenced to 18 years of probation. Yes, that’s 18 YEARS, not MONTHS!)

As the story exemplified, the importance of discussing ethnic stratification in this country cannot be understated. This requires the suspension of stereotypes and assumptions, and a willingness to consider alternative ideas. I would like to urge my peers to accept that challenge, in order to create a society where mothers aren’t forced to make decisions based on survival, and can instead show their children what it means to produce upward mobility. This should be a goal for everyone, regardless of how they identify ethnically, because it involves revitalizing the American Dream.