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.

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.

Income & Wealth Inequality

Note: I hope most of this has already become part of our collective consciousness. In the time between Occupy Wall St. then and Bernie Sanders now, I’m hoping that most of these ideas aren’t new to many.

The study of the political economy highlights the distribution of wealth in the US in ways that the majority of the population would rather ignore. The phrase ‘welfare state’ tends to evoke ideas involving the distribution of tax money to public assistance programs. Particularly, programs like FDAC and food stamps, rather than any of the widespread middle class, upper class, and corporate benefits are suggested. This is, in part, due to the dominant ideology that tends to view “successful” individuals or businesses as living the American Dream. The idea that they can be dependent on public funds is incompatible with this view, and rarely included in any formal socialization.

The American Dream itself is sometimes at odds with itself, as it exists in a Capitalist Democratic framework. In order to see the tug-of-war between liberty and equality, one must employ critical thinking. But how often do we critically analyze concepts which we consider second-nature? Essentially, one must favor one over the other because liberty and equality tend to compete for government resources.

* See the Noam Chomsky documentary on Netflix called ‘Requiem for the American Dream’, for more about the push and pull between inequality & democracy. Pretty concise and informative!

Although many Americans accept that taxes are a necessary burden, the public rarely looks in depth at tax codes and public expenditures, given that our public servants are entrusted to make these decisions using their expertise, with our best interests in mind. As an example, the City of Detroit provided Marathon Oil Company a 175 million dollar personal property tax reduction in order to expand its operations in the city. Although the idea behind this tax break (as the public was led to believe) was to create more jobs for inhabitants of the city, the deal resulted in a net gain of only 15 jobs for Detroit residents. This is one of the countless examples of the political influence held by large corporations. Sadly, although not the sole reason, this added to the economic troubles that sent the City of Detroit to bankruptcy. In addition to the economic impact, Detroit residents also are now faced with the environmental consequences of the refinery’s expansion. (Update: For now, let me resist the urge to add more on the problems [e.g., Flint water crisis] that have arisen since the time of this essay).

By focusing on public assistance fraud as the greatest public enemy, little attention is paid to more egregious crimes committed by corporations and the wealthy. After the economic crisis on Wall Street crippled our economy, the banks have managed to keep their top CEOs and bankers from being arrested, while nearly 8,000 Americans were arrested in association with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Meanwhile, there have been only a handful of politicians that have called attention to this type of inequality. They have kept quiet, in part, by their willingness to accept millions from these corporations in campaign contributions, bolstered by the 2008 ruling made by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This ruling has set the stage for a future where inequality will only continue to rise. Liberty too will suffer, when the majority are unable to pursue their own self-interest because their voices will have been muted by an extremely powerful elite.