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In his 1956 work of the same name, American sociologist C. Wright Mills coined the term power elite to characterize a new coalition of ruling groups that rose to dominance in the post-World War II United States. Mills rejected the conventional view of a dispersed, plural, and democratic organization of power and instead saw an increasing concentration of that power in the hands of the three institutional orders that composed the power elite: the military, large corporations, and government leaders. This concentration of power was progressively more centralized and undemocratic. Public discussion and debate over policy was replaced by elite command and control. Mills argued that “within American society, major national power now resides in the socioeconomic, political and the military domains” (Mills 2000, p. 6); the family, religious, or educational arenas, dominant in other eras, have become subordinated to the governmental-military-industrial complex.
Much like the Frankfurt school, Mills synthesized the perspectives of Karl Marx and Max Weber. Advanced capitalist societies were characterized by increasing instrumental rationalization. Following from the dominance of means-ends and strategic rationality, bureaucratic and technological elements became the central structuring factors of social order. Political authority and social power required command and control over technologies, industrial production, the military, and in another sense the higher levels of government. Thus the new power elite derived its position from the concentration of power in large corporations and oligopolies that dominated sectors of industries, and in a strata of political leaders who directed an expanded federal state, as well as a military that dwarfed most other nations in size and had become the largest expenditure in the federal budget.
While the image of a society of small landowners with few sources of concentrated power may have been idealized, it contained an element of truth. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the United States had become more urban and industrialized. With industrial capitalism came greater concentration of power in the large industries that dominated in the mid to late-twentieth century.
Mills opposed the pluralist school whose foremost representative was political scientist Robert Dahl. Pluralists argued that there were many centers of power in the United States, multiple interest groups that were each capable of setting agendas and checking other powerful groups through veto. Mills believed that the pluralist view was wrong. Power in the United States was highly concentrated and, in most respects, undemocratic. Only the power elite really set the agenda. The notion of a vital political public in which important issues are discussed (an idea central to John Dewey [1859–1952], another important influence on Mills) was descriptively untrue. National government was characterized by an increasing concentration of executive power and a diminution of legislative power. The pluralist outlook mistook mid-level debates on power, which may have had a plural character, for the major centers of power.
Social and political power was concentrated in a small group of interlocking elites who shared a common social world. While members of the power elite did not necessarily possess a unified class consciousness, they traveled in common social circles, followed common career paths, and formed interlocking groups.
Mills agreed with mass society theorists that the displacement of public discussion made way for the influencing, directing, and manipulating of public opinion through new media of communication. The power elites gained control of mass media but also were surrounded by a culture of celebrity in which they participated. The elites not only associated with entertainment celebrities, drawing on their cultural capital, they became celebrities themselves.
Mills’s synthesis of Marx and Weber was not doctrinaire. Mills did not conceive of the power elite as class in Marx’s sense. The three institutional orders were not united by a common relation to production, class consciousness, or simple economic interests. They constituted an elite in the sense used by Vilfredo Pareto (1843-1923) or Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941). They formed an alliance for ruling groups with interlocking membership and sociality. This alliance can shift over time and circumstance.
Mills’s conception of the power elite was a major influence on the New Left, especially on its non-dogmatic appropriation of Marx and the radical tradition. It also initiated a major body of research on power structure that further challenged the pluralist argument. The most wellknown proponent of power structure research is G. William Domhoff, who continued Mills’s research into the social construction of elites in U.S. society.
Critics have noted that Mills may have overstated the permanent role of the military in influencing U.S. society and in forming the power elite. They point out that the nature of leading companies and industrial elite has changed rather radically since the l960s. Still recent research on the concentration of wealth and power in the United States, such as that conducted by Kevin Phillips (2003), seems to lend support to Mills’s concerns.
- Aronowitz, Stanley. “A Mills Revival?” Logos 2: 3. http://www.logosjournal.com/mills_aronowitz.pdf.
- Ballard, Hoyt , and G. William Domhoff, eds. 1968. C. Wright Mills and the Power Elite. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Dahl, Rober 2005. Who Governs?: Democracy and Power in an American City. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Domhoff, William. 2005. Who Rules America? Power, Politics and Social Change. 5th ed. New York: McGraw Hill.
- Hayden, Tom, Richard Flacks, Stanley Aronowitz, and Charles C. Lemer 2006. Radical Nomad: C.Wright Mills And His Times. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
- Lukes, Stev 2004. Power: A Radical View. 2nd ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Mills, Wright. 2000. The Power Elite. new ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Phillips, K 2003. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. New York: Broadway Books.
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