100 Books: 100 Texts That Influenced My Thinking–The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills

Franz Leopold Neumann’s book Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, a study of how Nazism came into power in a democracy like Germany, had major impact on sociologist C. Wright Mills, specifically manifest in his seminal 1956 text, The Power Elite.

He once claimed that Behemoth had given him the “tools to grasp and analyze the entire total structure and as a warning of what could happen in a modern capitalist democracy.”

According to Mills, members of the “power elite” are those who occupy the dominant positions, in the dominant institutions (military, economic and political) of a dominant country.  Their decisions (or lack of decisions) have enormous consequences, not only for the U.S., but also for “the underlying populations of the world.”

Three major groups lead those institutions:

(1)Corporations–two or three hundred giant corporations, which have replaced the traditional agrarian and craft economy.

(2) Strong Federal Political Order that has inherited power from “decentralized set of several dozen states,” and “now enters into each and every cranny of the social structure”

(3) 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.”

The military spending in the US stabilizes the US economy and benefits the military industries.  The very preparation for war might lead to actual wars.

The elites themselves may not be aware of their status as elites–“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 often enter into positions of prominence through educations obtained at eastern establishment universities, such as 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 upper echelon fraternity or final club, such as Porcellian and Fly Club, and those who are not. Those  initiated receive their invitations based on social links first established in elite private preparatory academies, where they are enrolled as part of antebellum family traditions.  The mantle of the elite generally passes through families.

The elites that control the three dominant institutions–military, economy, and political–are grouped into one of six types:

The “Metropolitan 400”–members of historically notable families in the principal American cities, generally represented on the Social Register

“Celebrities” – prominent entertainers and media personalities

“Chief Executives” – presidents and CEOs of the most important companies within each industrial sector

“Corporate Rich”–major landowners and corporate shareholders

“Warlords”–senior military officers, the Joint Chiefs of Staff

“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 drawn from elected officials of the Democratic and Republican parties but usually professional government bureaucrats

Mills askd in his book: “Who, after all, runs America? No one runs it altogether, but in so far as any group does, the power elite.”

Dennis Wrong has criticized The Power Elite as “an uneven blend of journalism, sociology, and moral indignation,” a style that defined all of Mills work.

Others have singled out Mills’ angry tone and negative cynicism, claiming that he perceived himself as a modern prophet.

Then there was charge that the book encourages “conspiracy-mongering.”