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"The Power Elite"


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Are the boards of major corporations, and the elite and powerful more generally, too interconnected to fail?:

Power elites after fifty years, by Daniel Little: When C. Wright Mills wrote The Power Elite in 1956, we lived in a simpler time. And yet, with a few important exceptions, the concentration of power that he described continues to seem familiar by today's standards. The central idea is that the United States democracy -- in spite of the reality of political parties, separation of powers, contested elections, and elected representation -- actually embodied a hidden system of power and influence that negated many of these democratic ideals. The first words of the book are evocative:

The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family, and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern. 'Great changes' are beyond their control, but affect their conduct and outlook none the less. The very framework of modern society confines them to projects not their own, but from every side, such changes now press upon the men and women of the mass society, who accordingly feel that they are without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power.

And a page or two later, here is how he describes the "power elite":

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.

Mills offers a sort of middle-level sociology of power in America. He believes that power in the America of the 1950s centers in the economic, political, and military domains -- corporations, the state, and the military are all organized around networks of influence at the top of which stands a relatively small number of extremely powerful people. (It seems that Mills's description of the military is less apt today; perhaps not surprising, given that Mills was writing in the middle of the Cold War.) Power is defined as the ability to achieve what one wants over the opposition of others; and the levers of power are the great institutions in society -- corporations, political institutions, and the military. And the thesis is that a relatively compact group of people exercise hegemony in each of these areas. Moreover, power leads often to wealth, in that power permits firms and individuals to gain access to society's wealth. So a power elite is often also an economic elite.

The central thrust of the book stands in sharp opposition to the fundamental assumption of then-current democratic theory: the idea that American democracy is a pluralist system of interest groups in which no single group is able to dominate all the others (Robert Dahl (1959), A Preface to Democratic Theory). Against this pluralistic view, Mills postulates that members of mass society are dominated, more or less visibly, by a small group of powerful people in the elite. (See an earlier posting on power as influence for discussion of how power works.)

So what is Mills's theory, exactly? It is that there is a small subset of the American population that (1) possess a number of social characteristics in common (for example, elite university educations, membership in certain civic organizations); (2) are socially interconnected with each other through marriage, friendship, and business relationship; (3) occupy social positions that give them a durable ability to make a large number of the most momentous decisions for American society; (4) are largely insulated from effective oversight from democratic institutions (press, regulatory system, political constraint). They are an elite; they are a socially interconnected group; they possess durable power; and they are little constrained by open and democratic processes.

And, of course, there needs to be a theory about recruitment and the social mechanisms of steering given individuals into the elite group. Is it family background? Is it the accident of attendance at Yale? Is it a meritocracy through which talented young people eventually grasp the sinews of power through their own achievement in the organizations of power? We need to have an account of the social means of reproduction through which a set of power relations is preserved and reproduced throughout generational change.

What is interesting in rereading Mills's classic book today, is how scarce the empirical evidence is within the analysis. It is not really an empirical study at all, but rather a reflective essay on how this sociologist has been led to conceptualize American society, based on his long experience and study. The most empirical chapter is the section on chief executives of corporations; Mills provides an historical and quantitative narrative of the rise and consolidation of the corporation over the prior 75 years. But overall, there is quite a bit of descriptive assertion in the book; relatively little analysis of the social mechanisms that reproduce this social order; and very little by way of empirical validation of the analysis as a whole.

So how does it look today? To what extent is there a compact set of powerful people in contemporary America who have a disproportionate ability to bend the future to their interests and desires? One thing is strikingly clear: the concentration of wealth in America has increased significantly since 1956. Edward Wolff provides a summary graph for the percentage of wealth owned by the top 1% of wealth holders since 1920 in Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and What Can Be Done About It. In 1955 the top 1% held 30% of the nation's wealth; from 1970 to 1980 this percent declined to about 22%; and from the Reagan administration forward the percentage climbed past its previous highs to about 38% in 2000. So plainly there is an economic super-elite in the United States. This is a group that benefits from durable privileges and inequalities of access to wealth and income.

But this isn't exactly what Mills had in mind; he was interested in a power elite -- a fairly compact group of people who had the ability to make fundamental decisions in the three large areas of modern life that he highlights. And though he doesn't say very much about this point, he implies that it is an interconnected group -- through interlocking directorships in corporations, for example. So how can we assess the degree to which contemporary society in the United States is run through such a system? Is there a power elite today?

In one sense it is obvious what the answer is. Corporations continue to have enormous influence on our society -- banks, energy companies, pharmaceutical companies, food corporations. In fact, the collective power of corporations in modern societies is surely much greater than it was fifty years ago, through direct economic action and through their ability to influence laws and regulations. Their directors and CEOs do in fact constitute a small and interlocked portion of the population. And these leaders continue to have great ability to determine social outcomes through their "private" decisions about the conduct of the corporation. Moreover, as we have learned only too well in the past year, there is very little regulative oversight over their decisions and choices. So the existence of a "power elite" is almost a visible fact in today's world.

But to get more specific -- and to make more precise comparisons over time -- it seems that we need some way of identifying and quantifying the idea of a sociologically real "power elite." One way of trying to do that is by making use of the tools of social network analysis. For example, here is a network graph of corporate America compiled by kiwitobes. What the graph demonstrates is that the boards of America's largest corporations are populated with directors who overlap substantially across companies; there is a high degree of interconnectedness across the boards of directors of major corporations. So this bears out part of Mills's thesis in today's corporate social reality.

But even more compelling would be a study that doesn't exist yet -- a social network map that represents something like the whole population of a community, linking individuals to the institutions in which they occupy a position of power. The vast majority of the population would exist in single points at the bottom of the map; most people don't have a position of power at all. But, if Mills is right, there will be a small subset of people who are interconnected through many relationships to institutional sources of power: memberships in boards, offices in corporations, directorships of banks, trustees of universities. And we might give our thought experiment one additional feature: we might look at snapshots of the same data for each generation identified by families. Now we have Mills's hypothesis in a nutshell: at a given time there is a small subset of the population who occupy most of the positions of power; and the probability is great that the sons and daughters of this group will occupy similar positions of power in the next generation. And in fact, it is perfectly visible in our society that the likelihood of occupying a position of power in one generation is highly influenced by the power status of the antecedent generation.

Regrettably, we don't have a direct ability to carry out this experiment. But we might consider a test case invoking an important decision and a large number of "stakeholders", large and small: the current effort to reform the health care system in the United States. Will this issue be resolved in a fully democratic way, with the interests of all elements of society being represented fairly in the outcome? Or will a relatively small group of corporations, political interests, and professions be in a position to invisibly block reforms that would be democratically selected? And if this is in fact the case, then doesn't that speak loudly in support of the power elite hypothesis?

With the advantage of fifty years of perspective, I think two observations can be made about Mills's book. First, he seems to have diagnosed a very important thread in the sociological reality of power in America -- albeit in a way that is more intuitive and less empirical than contemporary sociologists would prefer. And second, he illustrates a profoundly important ability to exercise his sociological imagination: to arrive at a way of looking at contemporary society that allows us to make sense of many of the observations that press upon us.

(Another important voice on this subject is G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America? Power, Politics, and Social Change (1967). Domhoff has a very nice web version of his theory on his web page.)

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bakho says...

Kevin Phillips in Wealth and Democracy writes historically. Once families cross a threshhold of wealth, the wealth is self perpetuating. Some of the US wealthy go back to 18th century millionaires.

sewells says...

Perhaps I'm being naive but it would appear to me that as long as we cling to the contingent fact of our having evolved as social primates in a dominance hierarchy that power elites are unavoidable.

I would suggest that if we want to change that, we should consider how best we can opt out of participation in dominance hierarchies to the greatest degree possible.

I think the best way to do that would be to reduce the incidence of coercion in our dealings with each other. Under such a scheme, the state monopoly on coercion would be directed toward ensuring that no one is coerced unless such coercion is absolutely necessary. This would give the government a role in say, ensuring that loan documents are clearly written and understandable in order to prevent coercion by fraud, etc.

Don't get me wrong. Criminals will have to be coerced by virtue of being imprisoned, etc. Holdouts will have to be coerced using eminent domain, etc. But, lessening the incidence of coercion to the greatest degree possible would seem the surest blow that could be struck against elitism in my opinion.


The Deciders By JOHN H. SUMMERS

May 14, 2006 | New York Times

The Deciders

"The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern."

The opening sentence of "The Power Elite," by C. Wright Mills, seems unremarkable, even bland. But when the book was first published 50 years ago last month, it exploded into a culture riddled with existential anxiety and political fear. Mills — a broad-shouldered, motorcycle-riding anarchist from Texas who taught sociology at Columbia — argued that the "sociological key" to American uneasiness could be found not in the mysteries of the unconscious or in the battle against Communism, but in the over-organization of society. At the pinnacle of the government, the military and the corporations, a small group of men made the decisions that reverberated "into each and every cranny" of American life. "Insofar as national events are decided," Mills wrote, "the power elite are those who decide them."

His argument met with criticism from all sides. "I look forward to the time when Mr. Mills hands back his prophet's robes and settles down to being a sociologist again," Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in The New York Post. Adolf Berle, writing in the Book Review, said that while the book contained "an uncomfortable degree of truth," Mills presented "an angry cartoon, not a serious picture." Liberals could not believe a book about power in America said so little about the Supreme Court, while conservatives attacked it as leftist psychopathology ("sociological mumbo jumbo," Time said). The Soviets translated it in 1959, but decided it was pro-American. "Although Mills expresses a skeptical and critical attitude toward bourgeois liberalism and its society of power," said the introduction to the Russian translation, "his hopes and sympathies undoubtedly remain on its side."

Even so, "The Power Elite" found an eclectic audience at home and abroad. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara debated the book in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir published excerpts in their radical journal, Les Temps Modernes. In the United States, Mills received hundreds of letters from Protestant clergymen, professors and students, pacificists and soldiers. This note came from an Army private stationed in San Francisco: "I genuinely appreciate reading in print ideas I have thought about some time ago. At that time, they seemed to me so different that I didn't tell anyone." In the aftermath of the global riots of 1968, the C.I.A. identified Mills as one of the most influential New Left intellectuals in the world, though he had been dead for six years.

The historical value of "The Power Elite" seems assured. It was the first book to offer a serious model of power that accounted for the secretive agencies of national security. Mills saw the postideological "postmodern epoch" (as he would later call it) at its inception, and his book remains a founding text in the continuing demand for democratically responsible political leadership — a demand echoed and amplified across the decades in books like Christopher Lasch's "Revolt of the Elites" (1995), Kevin Phillips's "Wealth and Democracy" (2002), Chalmers Johnson's "Sorrows of Empire" (2004) and Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter With Kansas?" (2004).

Much of "The Power Elite" was a tough-talking polemic against the "romantic pluralism" embedded in the prevailing theory of American politics. The separation of powers in the Constitution, the story went, repelled the natural tendency of power to concentrate, while political parties and voluntary societies organized the clash of interests, laying the people's representatives open to the influence of public opinion. This "theory of balance" still applied to the "middle levels of power," Mills wrote. But the society it envisioned had been eclipsed.

For the first time in history, he argued, the territories of the United States made up a self-conscious mass society. If the economy had once been a multitude of locally or regionally rooted, (more or less) equal units of production, it now answered to the needs of a few hundred corporations. If the government had once been a patchwork of states held together by Congress, it now answered to the initiatives of a strong executive. If the military had once been a militia system resistant to the discipline of permanent training, it now consumed half the national budget, and seated its admirals and generals in the biggest office building in the world.

The "awesome means of power" enthroned upon these monopolies of production, administration and violence included the power to prevent issues and ideas from reaching Congress in the first place. Most Americans still believed the ebb and flow of public opinion guided political affairs. "But now we must recognize this description as a set of images out of a fairy tale," Mills wrote. "They are not adequate even as an approximate model of how the American system of power works."

The small groups of men standing at the head of the three monopolies represented a new kind of elite, whose character and conduct mirrored the antidemocratic ethos of their institutions. The corporations recruited from the business schools, and conceived executive training programs that demanded strict conformity. The military selected generals and admirals from the service academies, and inculcated "the caste feeling" by segregating them from the associational life of the country. Less and less did local apprenticeships serve as a passport to the government's executive chambers. Of the appointees in the Eisenhower administration, Mills found that a record number had never stood for election at any level.

The small groups of men standing at the head of the three monopolies represented a new kind of elite, whose character and conduct mirrored the antidemocratic ethos of their institutions. The corporations recruited from the business schools, and conceived executive training programs that demanded strict conformity. The military selected generals and admirals from the service academies, and inculcated "the caste feeling" by segregating them from the associational life of the country. Less and less did local apprenticeships serve as a passport to the government's executive chambers. Of the appointees in the Eisenhower administration, Mills found that a record number had never stood for election at any level.

Above the apparent balance of powers, Mills said, "an intricate set of overlapping cliques" shared in "decisions having at least national consequences."  Rather than operating in secret, the same kinds of men — who traded opinions in the same churches, clubs and schools — took turns in the same jobs. Mills pointed to the personnel traffic among the Pentagon, the White House and the corporations. The nation's three top policy positions — secretary of state, treasury and defense — were occupied by former corporate executives. The president was a general.

Mills could not answer many of the most important questions he raised. How did the power elite make its decisions? He did not know. Did its members cause their roles to be created, or step into roles already created? He could not say. Around what interests did they cohere? He asserted a "coincidence of interest" partially organized around "a permanent war establishment," but he did little more than assert it. Most of the time, he said, the power elite did not cohere at all. "This instituted elite is frequently in some tension: it comes together only on certain coinciding points and only on certain occasions of 'crisis.' " Although he urged his readers to scrutinize the commanding power of decision, his book did not scrutinize any decisions.

These ambiguities have kept "The Power Elite" vulnerable to the charge of conspiracy-mongering. In a recent essay in Playboy called "Who Rules America?" Arthur Schlesinger Jr. repeated his earlier skepticism about Mills's argument, calling it "a sophisticated version of the American nightmare." Alan Wolfe, in a 2000 afterword, pointed out that while Mills got much about the self-enriching ways of the corporate elite right, his vision of complacent American capitalism did not anticipate the competitive dynamics of our global economy. And of late we have seen that "occasions of crisis" do not necessarily serve to unify the generals with the politicians.

Yet "The Power Elite" abounds with questions that still trouble us today.

The trend in foreign affairs, Mills argued, was for a militarized executive branch to bypass the United Nations, while Congress was left with little more than the power to express "general confidence, or the lack of it."

Policy tended to be announced as doctrine, which was then sold to the public via the media. Career diplomats in the State Department believed they could not truthfully report intelligence. Meanwhile official secrecy steadily expanded its reach.

"For the first time in American history, men in authority are talking about an 'emergency' without a foreseeable end,"

Mills wrote in a sentence that remains as powerful and unsettling as it was 50 years ago.

"Such men as these are crackpot realists: in the name of realism they have constructed a paranoid reality all their own."

John H. Summers teaches intellectual history at Harvard. He is currently writing a biography of C. Wright Mills.


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