The Power Elite


Some things are hard to see.

That’s because their eventual impact was so profound that not only has everything subsequent to them been influenced – good and bad – on a fundamental level, but the very critical apparatus that forms the context within which the thing existed has been so fundamentally altered that one has difficultly reconstructing it. I think this is true, for example, of the silent film star Harold Lloyd. His timing, his takes, his pacing were so profoundly influential on all of comedic filmmaking after him, that it is often difficult for novices to see just what’s so innovative.

Until you show them what comedy filmmaking was like before him, and they see the context that he changed.

In other words, in some cases, the impact of certain works is difficult to recognize because we have trouble remembering what the world was like when the thing appeared, and because everything afterwards carried a piece of it.

This problem is made even more challenging, however, because, sometimes, even though these things ended up having massive impact, at their introduction, they were so out of the mainstream that they were ignored or shouted down by their contemporaries.

This latter was not, of course a problem for the eminently successful Harold Lloyd, but definitely was for C. Wright MillsThe Power Elite. For while Mr. Mills’ ideas about the actual nature of how America works are now so much a part of standard pundit parlance that virtually every node on the political spectrum trumpets them as established fact, this was not the case in 1956 when The Power Elite was published.

For 1956 was the height of the Eisenhower years. And while no one in the United States would admit it to themselves at the time (conceited arrogance having not the status it holds among Americans today), America was something of a beacon to the world – even if only because after nearly blowing itself to pieces in World War Two, the planet had no where else to look for optimism.

And central to this optimism that America embodied was the idea that America was, as the Economist describes it, a pluralist system of interest groups in which no single group is able to dominate all the others. Clearly, an appealing idea to nations reeling from the effects of fascism.

Into this context Mills wrote:

The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences. Whether they do or do not make such decisions is less important than the fact that they do occupy such pivotal positions: their failure to act, their failure to make decisions, is itself an act that is often of greater consequence than the decisions they do make. For they are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure, in which are now centered the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy.

So much for pluralism.

As one would expect of a book that ran so counter to America’s – and the planet’s – hopes and dreams, The Power Elite was roundly dismissed when it appeared, called “an angry cartoon and not a serious picture”, filled with “moral indignation” and “prejudicial assertions”.

To all of which you may say “So what?” So this.

You can’t understand American history since 1956 without understanding the tidal wave of discontent towards American civilization that this book stirred up, a discontent that particularly resonated with Baby Boomers who have felt disconnected and disenfranchised from a political system and culture that, curiously, they have dominated all that time.

And also this: that navigating this discontent is particularly important to anyone in advertising or marketing. Because these industries exist in that dark middle ground between what people are, what they think they are and what they hope to become. And nowhere was that discrepancy more baldly delineated for Americans than in this book (although William Whyte’s The Organization Man, which appeared the same year (and which Mills reviewed for the New York Times), comes a close second).

But lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is this: the reminder that life has always been a struggle against a ruling class if you have eyes to see it. Which means that simpler yesterday that you are shouting about, it never was. For most of us, things are hard. They are always hard. But as Eisenhower’s successor would say “We do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Of course, that guy was a card-carrying member of the Power Elite.

The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills was published by Galaxy/Oxford Univeristy Press in 1956 – order it from Amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).