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.