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The Power Elite is a book written by sociologist C. Wright Mills in 1956. In it Mills calls attention to the interwoven interests of the leaders of the military, corporate, and political elements of society and suggests that the ordinary citizen is a relatively powerless subject of manipulation by those entities. The structural basis of The Power Elite is that, following World War II, the United States was the leading country in military and economic terms.
According to Mills, the Power Elite are those that occupy the dominant positions, in the dominant institutions (military, economic and political) of a dominant country, and their decisions (or lack of decisions) have enormous consequences, not only for the U.S. population but, “the underlying populations of the world.” Mills outlines the historical structural trends that led to the ascension of the power elite as involving a concentration of economic power and the cultural apparatus in the hands of a few, the emergence of a permanent war economy in the U.S. during and after WW2, the emergence of a bureaucratically standardized and conditioned (controlled) mass society and a political vacuum that was filled by economic and military elites. Due to the interchangeability of top positions within these three institutions, the members of the power elite develop class consciousness and a community of interests guided by a militarized culture, or what Mills described as the military metaphysic.
The book is something of a counterpart of Mills’ 1951 work, White Collar: The American Middle Classes, which examines the then-growing role of middle managers in American society. A main inspiration for the book was Franz Leopold Neumann‘s book Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism in 1942, a study of how Nazism came into a position of power in a democratic state like Germany. Behemoth had a major impact on Mills and he claimed that Behemoth had given him the “tools to grasp and analyse the entire total structure and as a warning of what could happen in a modern capitalist democracy”.
Summary of CHAPTER 1: THE HIGHER CIRCLES
- This chapter provides a description of the power elite and the mechanism through which it acquires and exercises its power on a national level.
- He describes the contemporary means of power as the hierarchies of state, military and the big corporate institutions. Other, previously decisive institutions such as family and religion are pushed aside in the contemporary United States. They adapt to contemporary life, which in turn is set and determined by the new means of power.
- Wealth, power, and popularity, in this system, attach to the positions that individuals occupy, and not to the individuals themselves.
- The power elite of the US, which never faced competition due to the absence of feudal structures (aristocracy and religion), monopolize power from the get-go.
- It becomes a caste within the upper classes, and makes all decisions that have important consequences.
- It is not a group of rulers whose every decision is correct and every consequence of such decisions is as expected.
- It is limited by the means of power, the techniques of power, and the means of communication. However, their limitations are much less compared to previous ruling classes, due to the expansion and centralization in the means of power.
- To study the unity of the US power elite, one should investigate:
- the psychology of the elite in their respective environments (their psychological similarities)
- the interrelations between the military, economical, and political institutions they are part of (the social intermingling of the means of power)
- the co-operation between the means of power (i.e. the military, big corporations, and state)
- The main theses of the book, as set by Mills, are:
- Historical circumstances have led to the rise of power elite,
- They now make key decisions,
- The enlargement and centralization of means of power increased the potency of the consequences of their decisions,
- The power elite is much more unified and powerful than the “mass society”, which is fragmented and impotent.