Dimensions of Elite Power

by Steven Lukes

Where does power truly lie? C. Wright Mills was an excellent guide, but his understanding of elite power was strikingly narrowly conceived.

First published: 07 December, 2012 | Category: International

The Power Elite was in part a denunciation: a sharp indictment of ‘the intellectual community’ of Eisenhower’s America for failing to provide ‘knowledge of the power elite and of their decisions.’ The intellectuals, and more particularly C. Wright Mills's fellow social scientists, had failed to live up to the requirements of democracy, which ‘implies that those who bear the consequences of decisions have enough knowledge—not to speak of power—to hold the decision-makers accountable.’

Instead they had embraced ‘the official view of the formal democratic system of power, the standard view of most academic social scientists’ of the time: the view that there is a plurality of ‘middle powers’, the ‘image of a balancing society in which no unit of power is powerful enough to do more than edge forward a bit at a time, in compromised countervailance with other such forces, and in which, accordingly, there is no unity, much less co-ordination, among the higher circles.’

The power elite, he argued by contrast,

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 organisations 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 centred the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy.

The indictment was telling: Mills did mount a serious challenge to the complacent pluralist picture of American democracy—‘the theory of balance’—then prevalent, not least by pointing to the significance of failures to decide and act, as indicated in the passage just quoted. But the political scientists had a comeback, advanced by Robert Dahl, defender of the pluralist model at both local and national levels and theorist of ‘polyarchy.'

In ‘A Critique of the Ruling Elite Model' Dahl, reasonably enough, asked for evidence of the unity of the elite and of its workings. For Dahl, who was a behaviouralist, and his colleagues and followers this meant evidence in the form of key decisions generating significant outcomes. As we have seen, Mills had an effective answer to such an exclusive focus. What is not decided upon, by never reaching the policy agenda, or by being excluded from it, can be even more consequential, than what is. On the other hand, Dahl was right to note how little evidence Mills offered to support his claims. Reading The Power Elite you will search in vain for detailed causal claims: for mechanisms that link what those in elite positions do (or don’t do) and specific outcomes. Nevertheless, I agree with Alan Wolfe, who wrote an Afterword to the book when republished in 2000, that if ‘the test of science is to get reality right, the very passionate convictions of C. Wright Mills drove him to develop a better scientific grasp of American society than his more objective and clinical contemporaries.’ It is true that ‘not much of the academic sociology of the 1950s has survived, while The Power Elite is rivalled by only very few books in terms of its longevity. In his own way, Mills contributed much to the understanding of his own era.’

But to what extent does the book offer readers a basis for grasping the reality of American society today? The answer to that question can only be complex and so we need to distinguish three different aspects of the book’s argument.

First, there is the democratic impulse that drives it, which for Mills called for what is often called ‘critique’ or ‘demystification’: the activity of unveiling or unmasking illusions propagated by compliant intellectuals and accepted as the truth by what he (in a disturbingly elitist phrase) called ‘the masses.’ The central illusion to be exposed as such was, as indicated above, that of pluralist democracy: ‘the image of a balancing society’ in which no group or faction regularly prevails. It was all the easier to believe in this illusion because of the notion, popular in the U.S. in the 1950s and early 1960s, that modern industrial society had attained what Daniel Bell called ‘the end of ideology.’ As Seymour Martin Lipset argued, the basic, politically divisive issues about how to organise an advanced industrial society had been solved (a notion resurrected after the fall of Communism into a very brief after-life in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History).  But we are now, in 2012, living in an utterly different political and ideological universe, where the electorate is deeply polarised along ideological lines and what ‘balancing’ there is takes the form of political gridlock. There are plenty illusions left to unveil but nobody can suppose that American democracy is a well-functioning, harmonious political order based on what David Riesman called ‘the power dispersal of veto-groups.’ Indeed, one central issue that divides the contending ideologies is the very question of where power lies in American society today and who its targets or victims are.

Which leads us to the second aspect of Mills’s argument worth attending to: namely, his own conception of power. Does it help us to attain a non-illusory answer to that question? It is striking that the power of the members of Mills's power elite is very narrowly conceived. Their power resources derive solely from their official positions at the head of ‘the major hierarchies and organisations’—specifically, the government, the military and large corporations—‘the strategic command posts of the social structure.’ Individuals are powerful actors because they occupy leading positions in these central institutions. There is within this conception no room for or reference to other kinds of power: for example, the power to influence ideas and shape prevailing commonsense, to mobilise support for and against policies and even to ‘manufacture consent.’ Most significantly, Mills’s approach, in common with ‘elite theory’ generally, totally neglects what we might call extractive power—the power to extract, preserve and augment material power resources. It is true that Mills writes about ‘the corporate rich’ but only in terms of their corporate power. As the author of a recent book on ‘oligarchy’ (Jeffrey A. Winters, Oligarchy, Cambridge University Press, 2011) has noted, this fails to account for the materially-based power of the super-rich, whose wealth and incomes are sedulously preserved and defended by the democratic state—the power, in short,

of those who control high concentrations of wealth. They remain powerful whether or not they are the best at what they do, organisations are complex, or they hold any formal offices.

Such materially-based oligarchs of course existed in the 1950s but their significance is far greater today, as material inequality soars without apparent limit. An adequate account of today’s power elites must seek knowledge of the impact of that power on society at large, both direct (as fostered, for instance by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision) and indirect. In part their very existence has consequences for social relations and social consciousness, but they also influence ‘the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women’ in ways that are quite independent of whatever corporate power they may possess. And what are the prospects of turning such knowledge into the democratic power of holding this power elite accountable?

The third aspect of the argument of The Power Elite is its exclusively national focus: it exhibits what is sometimes called ‘methodological nationalism.’ The powerful are viewed in abstraction from the global environment: their power resources, the impact of their power and their interests, preoccupations and interconnections are all located within the United States. Such an approach is, of course, implausible today and was, indeed, misleading then.

Perhaps most plausible then was Mills’s portrayal of the military ‘warlords.’ At the height of the Cold War the future author of The Causes of World War Three (1958) could write that they, ‘along with their fellow travellers and spokesmen, are attempting to plant their metaphysics firmly among the population at large,’ to propagate the sense of ‘an emergency without a foreseeable end,’ so that ‘war or a high state of war preparedness is felt to be the normal and seemingly permanent condition of the United States.’ Alan Wolfe, in his 2000 Afterword, rightly discounted this prophecy, pointing to the decline of domestic support for a large and permanent military establishment. Most Americans, he suggested, ‘just want to get on with the business of making enough money to lead the best lives they can.’  In the 1990s, he observed, ‘opposition to military adventures abroad has seriously curtailed the ability of the military to have its way in both foreign and domestic policy;’ the American people would no longer be attracted by ‘the rhetoric of emergency—and with it the need for significant personal sacrifice.’   And yet within three years the political, not the military, elite led the US to war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, making effective use of the rhetoric of emergency and without any need for significant personal sacrifice.

What is least plausible today is Mills’s close-up picture of the big corporations and the machinery of the state, largely neglecting the world without. Business is ever more global in its operations, seeking profits through lower labour costs abroad and profitable markets everywhere, and in its structures and personnel, and corporate elites are increasingly transnational. Increasingly some corporations no longer carry an identifiable national identity and, despite the international regulating organisations, they have more and more ways to elude regulations and restrictions imposed by states, to which corporate elites have ever more tenuous ties. And the state elites are, accordingly, less and less in control of the economic environment on the success of which their legitimacy depends, and ever more preoccupied with reacting to and seeking to affect developments beyond their borders. These developments are nowhere better illustrated than by the current Euro crisis and nowhere better described than in the prophetic pages about the globalisation of capitalism in The Communist Manifesto. They were, of course, at work in the 1950s. The United States has for over a century played the crucial hegemonic role of maintaining the wider system, and in particular preserving it from the worst effects of crises. Its state elite, despite its close symbiosis with the corporate elite, has at times put defending the ever more global capitalist markets from disaster before advancing the interests of U.S. corporations. Thus, for instance, the United States’s role in reviving the European economies after the Second World War meant the prioritizing of global over national corporate interests. But the international situation and foreign policy only appear in the index of The Power Elite in relation to the military.

Yet this book does, without question, pass the test of being one of the classics of sociology. It confronts a range of fundamental issues, methodological, substantive and normative, it treats them boldly and systematically, and it is inspired by a distinctive vision. Its call to social scientists to expose the workings of power remains as urgent as ever. And its clear and vivid argument enables us to discern what still holds true in its account of where power lies in the present-day United States and to distinguish this from the ways in which it is truer to its time than to ours.

This article is part of NLP’s series, The Power Elite Revisited.

Steven Lukes is Professor of Sociology at New York University. He is the author of many books, including 'The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat' (1995), 'Power: A Radical View' (Expanded Edition, 2004) and 'Moral Relativism' (2008).

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