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Power Elites: On the Great Illusion of Pluralist Liberalism

by Marcus Kloeckner Wednesday, Sep. 21, 2016 at 5:05 AM

With his 1956 book "The Power Elite," C. Wright Mills put the democratic character of the US to the test. Despite formal democratic structures, a power elite formed that suspends democratic processes. Real power starts from a political directorate. In truth, only small circles have power


By Marcus Kloeckner

[This article published on 7/23/2016 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.heise.de/tp/druck/mb/artikel/48/48800/1.html.

60 years after its publication Charles Wright Mills' book "The Power Elite" has lost nothing of its explosiveness.

His name: Charles Wright Mills. His birthplace: Austin, Texas. His occupation: sociologist. His calling: to take seriously his challenge as a critical social scientist.

Who still knows the name of this man today? Who established the theory of power elites with his 1956 book "The Power Elite"? Although Mills has long been a classical author of sociology, the work of the non-conformist professor at Columbia University seems to fall into oblivion. This is unfortunate because Mills put the democratic character of the US to the test. Despite formal democratic structures, a power elite formed that suspends democratic processes.

60 years after its publication, the theory of the power elite is more burning today than ever. This theory is the key to understanding the very current discussion on the relation between elites and the population.

"This book by C. Wright Mills may be the most revealing book about the United States of America written after the wars." So begins a remark of the publisher of the German edition of Mills' work on the power elite that appeared in Germany in 1962…

Mills dared to resist the predominant scholarly opinion regarding democracy in his country. The professor with a fondness for motorcycles died of a heart attack the year his book came out in Germany at the age of 46. He did what critical sociology should always have done but hardly did for many years: question existing conditions of rule, look critically at the setting of priorities in societies and uncover the hidden mechanisms of power.

With "The Power Elite," Mills broke through that wall of dominant basic ideological convictions that often develops its power in society as the great unquestioned illusion influencing citizens' ideas of reality.

Whoever does this, whoever dares to oppose orthodoxy and scrutinize basic "truths" cannot avoid doing "harm." Dogmas are shattered and cherished opinions and theories demystified. Charles Wright Mills was one of those described as a heretic.

Heretics are those persons "who stand at the periphery far from the ideological center, give new answers to old questions, pose new questions, demand answers that are awkward and alarming and are non-conformist with the general matter of course."

With these words, the Jesuit and business advisor Rupert Lay described heretics. Mills' research is paraphrased with these words. Lay remarked it is naïve to assume heresy must be a "socially acknowledged and enormously important matter." Whoever assumes this forgets "that preserving securities were always a much stronger motivation for people than recognizing truths."

"Heretics," Lay explains, "now trample about in the china shops of customary truisms and securities where people shop for answers to existential questions. This is inexcusable. Heretics are not pardoned."

Mills took up his study of philosophy, economy, and sociology in 1935. There were plenty of attacks from his colleagues. Mills rubbed people the wrong way with his view of things. Mills was uncomfortable.

The Texan first grappled with his academic career of the sociology of knowledge, that part of sociology occupied with the social construction of reality. He did not see the political system simply from the center of established opinions and theories. If he had, he probably would have joined in the choir of those who followed that naïve theoretical democratic perspective according to which democracy exists very simply when polished democratic structures exist as in his country.

Real power starts from a "political directorate."

Mills was not content with the view from the "ideological center." He resisted the appeal of orthodox political ideas that existed and exist in academia to pursue the question "from the outside" where political power in his country really lies. The sociologist of English-Irish descent wanted to know what role "simple" people on the street really have in the development of democracy.

When it is said all power starts from the people in a democracy, this is only true when social scientists don't analyze the phenomenon "power" that works through the whole political structure in a democracy.

Who really has power in a democracy? What power does the man or woman on the street have? What power do the democratic institutions have? How much power do the elites of a society have? With these questions and thoughts that characterize Mills' research on the American power elite, the son of an insurance agent and a housewife uncovered the real power relations and pushed through the fogbank or smokescreen that creates a "romantic pluralism," as Mills explained. This is an important and frightening discovery for a democracy.

With a clear mind, Mills recognized that a power elite exists in his country consisting of politics, the economy, and the military, exerts influence and makes the "power" of normal citizens nearly ridiculous. In the US, according to Mills' findings, a "political directorate" has formed that commands the real political power in the land.

"A centralization of all power and information means a few have certain positions in our society from which they can look down on the others and influence the everyday world of average persons. These few are not slaves of their vocations or prisoners of their jobs. Rather they can create or eliminate jobs for thousands of others. They are not narrowed by the constant daily and family obligations but can slip away whenever they want. They can live where they want and are not bound to a certain place. For them, it is not said they only did `what the day and hour demanded.' Others fulfilled these demands."
Charles Wright Mills

These statements show Mills was a friend of clear words that reveal real conditions. Mills recognized limits on developing (social) power are set to the normal citizen. "The average person seems driven by powerful forces that he can neither understand nor master – within the limits set to `simple' persons, the limits of his everyday environment (the circle of family and friends, occupational life, and neighborhood)."

"In truth, only small circles have power."

In a democracy, enormous power imbalances exist so people are exposed to limits and experience pressures in their actions in which they can hardly change anything and which they cannot overcome.

With great clarity, Mills argued with those who claim every person has the power to influence history. "That is sociologically nonsense and politically irresponsible." To insist that "we all determine history would be irresponsible because every attempt to locate responsibility for serious decisions is nipped in the bud."

The question emerges about the concrete active subject tabooed in academic and intellectual circles. 60 years ago in academia, people were quickly suspected of misjudging the complexity of real conditions when the acting subject was emphasized. Nothing has changed in this suspicion up to today. There is a good reason for this. When the ideological blindnesses of all those who follow that "great illusion" are pushed aside, the stigmatization of the "subject question" acted like a powerful protective shield around the actors – the deciders and men of action in society. This became suddenly obvious. The uncritical belief in a pluralistic liberalism produced that "great illusion."

In his analyses, Mills concluded that authority lies with the people "purely formally." "In truth, the power of taking the initiative lies only with the numerically small circles." The sociologist spoke of a current "strategy of manipulation" giving the impression "that the people, or at least a large part of the people, actually make the decisions."

Such statements bring horror or dismay to the faces of some democracy theoreticians. To clear away misunderstandings, Mills did not use empty phrases or paint horror scenarios on the wall. Mills identified exactly the power at the top. For Mills, the power elites were neither omnipotent nor powerless. For Mills, the power elites are not gods who govern the whole world.

Mills described the ideas of an omnipotent or impotent power elite as "empty abstractions brought into the public as excuses or boasts. Still, we must use them to clarify the big problems confronting us."

Mills clearly warned of the great conspiracy thesis that a single ruling class exists that controls the whole American society…"

"The interpretation that everything can be referred back to a conspiracy of several identifiable rogues or to the acts of great men is also a rash interpretation of the fact that changes in the social structure open up historical chances to certain elites that they either see or do not see. Whoever adopts one of these two ideas by understanding history as a conspiracy or as a fateful power can hardly understand real power relations and the conduct of the powerful." C. Wright Mills

Mills dissected the power elite by choosing a broad access to his research theme. He did not only grapple with the actors, their self-understanding, their actions and the psychological relations of the elites among themselves. He also considered the historical, economic, and political structures in which elites are embedded and which offer them chances, opportunities, and challenges.

Elites fall in love with themselves

One of Mills' most important findings leads to the core of elite existence. The sociologist established that the elites of his society act out of a deep inner drive and are firmly convinced of rightly belonging to the elites.

The attitude of the elite that it automatically holds the legitimate monopoly on forming the world in its hands is explained from this basic engagement.

The role "of the elites" in our time is very striking in the current discussion. The criticisms of an arrogant, presumptuous, and detached power elite are loud.

The leading figures of our society and the "normal" people are separated from each other in a democratic system by a trench that could hardly be deeper or broader. What was true in Mills' time is true today. While a small segment of the population has enormous capital resources [1] (economic, cultural, social and symbolic capital), a large part have only a fraction of this capital.

While some make decisions through their capital advantages and on the basis of their positions at the powerhouses and interfaces of power that affect the whole society, "the power" of simple persons extends from his living room to his front door.

Mills emphasized that decisions made by the power elite have far-reaching consequences. "If they fail to act and make a decision, this often has more momentous consequences than their actual resolutions…"

What we now witness in Europe is the product of an unfettered power elite.

Whoever follows the news these days 60 years after "The Power Elite" and sees the social and political dislocations can only conclude that a critical view of today's power elites is urgently necessary. Nothing has changed in the actions of the power elites that Mills made known six decades ago. Their actions are marked by gaining power, securing power, maximizing power and influencing control of all kinds to help this triad of power blossom fully.

In the ideal case, the interests of the power elite stand on one level with the interests of normal citizens. But often this is not the case. Despite democratic processes, the power elites of this world succeed again and again in enforcing their political ideas and concepts and wreak havoc so great it can hardly be quantified.

What would Mills say if he could witness what power elites made out of the European unification process when an elite project of the European "Euro" currency was decided and realized over the heads of people despite warnings of a disaster.

Countries face economic collapse. Youth unemployment in states like Portugal, Italy, Spain and Greece between 30 and 50% destroying the hopes of young persons for a better life, a "bailout umbrella" in the billions unfurled by states that a few years ago still preached the social state was too expensive and had to be "trimmed." All this makes many citizens speechless and bewildered.

What we are now experiencing in Europe is the product of an unfettered power elite that gradually multiplied its wealth and power over decades. All this is socially disintegrating and does grave harm to democracy.

Mills demonstrated his power elite theory on the basis of the US society of the 1950s, a society with special qualities that cannot be transferred one to one to European conditions. His theory is outdated in some respects by the historical development. The historical context of his power elite theory cannot be ignored. The current social and political dislocations lead directly to the center of Mills' work.

Early on he warned of the weak spots in the democratic system and of the naiveté of the theory of a "balance of powers." In the 1950s, Mills recognized the striking political process in his country. He saw that elites differentiate from the democratic structures by linking, joining forces in the circles of power and exerting influence in different influential organizations. Nothing has changed in this in the last decades.

A journalistic interest in the discreet power structures of the elites hardly exists.

Sociology seems to have nearly forgotten that part of its discipline in the tradition of Mills that analyzes the structures of the power elites. The media that could report about the circle of the powerful ignore this.

Recently the media like Spiegel [2] reported about the formal opening of a Russian think tank in Berlin…

There are many good reasons that the media diverts attention from the effects of foundations and think tanks. What goes do they pursue? Who are their members and their wire-pullers, the brains-behind-them? Is there a hidden agenda? Can they influence politics and society? Yes. What does this influencing look like? How is it organized? Who are the concrete actors that exert influence? Answering these central questions is important for a democracy.

As an example, the Trilateral Commission [3] had its annual meeting in March 2013 in Berlin but this went unreported in the German media. What is the Trilateral Commission? When did it originate? Why does it exist? What ideology does it follow?

When the founding of a Russian think tank was news, the big media suddenly recognized the importance of these institutions in influencing politics. But the media keeps the public in the dark again and again regarding the formative process of western power elites [Power elites only want the best for the planet (4)].

It took almost 60 years until the German media realized the meeting of the Bilderberg group was "a theme." Critical reports like the 1975 Spiegel article on the role of the Council on Foreign relations, a central think tank of liberals in the US, are like very beautiful pearls that are hard to find [Spiegel.de].

Two articles on the meeting of US power elites in the Bohemian Grove [5] exist in the Spiegel archive – one from 1979 [6] and one from 1982 [7]. A journalistic interest in the discreet power structures of the elites hardly exists.

Not surprisingly, Mills grappled with the media and remarked critically this is "one of the most important means of enforcing power available to the elite of wealth and power."

"The propagandist, the advertising expert who molds public opinion in the initial stage and helps in enhancing prestige and protecting wealth, is on the same plane (as the media) or a little below." Charles Wright Mills

This sounds radical but Mills learned early on about the dangers that power imbalances can cause in a state. Mills had a close friendship with the German sociologist Hans Gerth [8] who escaped the Nazi dictatorship (and taught at the University of Wisconsin, Madison) His insights about Nazi rule received through Gerth led to his dedication to power structure research. From the confrontation with the Nazi regime, Mills realized the social sciences must concentrate more intensely on rule criticism.

The only well-known German power structure researcher Hans-Jurgen Krysmanski [9] who died in June 2016 [10] said: "Mills showed how the rule of the few can be secured in a modern western industrial society and parliamentary democracy without the masses noticing."

Mills' "The Power Elite" should be required reading for everyone who treasures democracy.


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