Power and Intellect

by Daniel Geary

The first of a series of articles on C. Wright Mills’s 'The Power Elite' considers the significance and limitations of its pessimistic radicalism today.

First published: 03 December, 2012 | Category: Activism, Corporate power, Philosophy and Theory, Politics

Fifty years ago, the world lost one of its great left-wing intellectuals.  On March 20, 1962, C. Wright Mills died of a heart attack in his home in West Nyack, New York.  Mills was born in Waco, Texas in 1916.  A precocious and rebellious youth, he gravitated to the academic field of sociology, earning his BA and MA at the University of Texas at Austin and his PhD from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  In 1945, he took a job at Columbia University, where he would work for the rest of his life. 

Mills drew on the classical sociological theorists including Karl Mannheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx.  He often employed the latest research methods of modern American sociology.  Yet, Mills was always attracted to sociology because more than any other academic discipline it promised to investigate the big questions:  how modern society was organized and how the life chances and psyches of individuals within it were affected.  Though Mills made his name while teaching at the most prominent sociology department in the world, he grew disenchanted with the academic discipline of sociology.  But he never lost faith in what he called the ‘sociological imagination,’ which he defined as that ‘quality of mind essential to comprehend the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world.’ 

In the early 1940s, Mills forged a commitment to left-wing politics that would last a lifetime.  Radicalism offered Mills the holistic view of society that he craved and embodied his values of democracy, equality, and individual creativity.  Mills came to radical politics in a fallow period for the American left.  Most of his work was written in-between the two great radical upsurges in the twentieth-century U.S.:  the ‘Old Left’ of the 1930s and 1940s, centered around industrial unionism and socialist parties; and the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, which challenged racial and gender hierarchies as well as the Cold War.  In the mid-1940s, Mills had a brief bout of enthusiasm for organized labor’s potential to reshape modern industrial society along more democratic lines that led to the publication of his first book, The New Men of Power (1948).  However, he soon concluded that organized labor had been incorporated into the Cold War state and was no longer a promising force for opposition.  Unable to identify any possible agency of social change, Mills’s major works, White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956), expressed a sharply pessimistic radicalism.  Lacking a sense of countertendencies or dialectical contradictions that might lead to future progressive change, Mills offered a bleak analysis of the United States: a mass society dominated by repressive large-scale bureaucracies controlled by an ‘interlocking directorate’ of corporate, military, and political leaders—the ‘power elite.’ 

The Sociological Imagination (1959) was Mills’s best book.  More than just a compelling polemic against trends in academic sociology, it offered an expansive and inspiring vision of the power of social intelligence to comprehend the world and to imagine better alternatives.  Mills’s richest book was White Collar (1951).  From several different angles, it offered a portrait of middle-class workers at mid-century and the bureaucratic organisations that restricted their creativity and independence.  The Power Elite (1956), however, was Mills’s most important book. 

When Mills wrote The Power Elite, American intellectual discourse was dominated by a consensus liberalism that celebrated the postwar social order for its widely-shared prosperity and endorsed the Cold War battle against Communism.  Mills challenged the ‘pluralist’ view of liberals that the U.S. was a democratic society in which interest groups checked the power of one another.  The power to make the ‘big decisions’ of war and foreign policy, he argued, was not dispersed among interest groups but rather concentrated in the hands of a power elite: a small, mostly self-perpetuating group drawn from interconnected political, economic, and military circles.  One of the most important contributions of The Power Elite was to focus attention on the militarisation of American politics and society.  Mills overrated the extent to which top military brass held power equivalent to that of political and corporate leaders, but his critique of the ‘military ascendancy’ was a major departure from a liberal discourse that had mostly justified the startling growth of American military power as a Cold War imperative.  Years before President Eisenhower would coin the term ‘military-industrial complex,’ Mills demonstrated how military spending served the needs of economic leaders to foster economic growth through creating a ‘permanent war economy.’ 

Versus liberals, Mills put forth a more expansive vision of democratic society: one in which individuals would not simply be represented by interest groups but ‘in which men at large are presented with genuine alternatives, the moral meanings of which are clearly open to public debate.’  However, Mills pessimistically concluded that the capacity for meaningful political debate had been lost in a hollowed-out American public sphere.  The power elite, he argued, had the ability to ‘officially define’ reality:  to control the terms by which citizens understood major political issues.  Trapped in a mass society, Americans had literally lost the ability to think for themselves.  Thus Mills could locate no source of resistance to the power elite within American society.  Like liberals, Mills perceived postwar American politics as marked by a stable consensus. 

It is ironic then that Mills had his greatest impact on the New Left – a mass social movement whose emergence his social theory failed to predict.  Yet, toward the end of his life, Mills softened his pessimistic stance.  In the late 1950s, he started to sense growing sources of resistance to the Cold War.  He began to believe that new social actors such as culture workers and Third World revolutionaries could replace the complacent industrial working class as agents of social change.  Mills contributed personally to efforts to reenergise democratic debate by writing The Causes of World War Three (1958), which warned of the dangers of nuclear warfare and Listen, Yankee (1960), which defended the Cuban Revolution.  Mills viewed the New Left in international terms, reflecting the connections he had made with left-wing intellectuals in Latin American as well as western and eastern Europe.  He played a pivotal role in importing the term ‘New Left’ from Britain to the U.S. with his publication of ‘Letter to the New Left’ (1960) in New Left Review.  Though Mills died while the New Left was still germinating, he became one of its most influential thinkers.  For example, his work had a major impact on the major white left-wing student organisation in the U.S.:  Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which drafted its famous Port Huron Statement just months following Mills’s death. 

To be sure, Mills had his flaws and limitations.  In particular, his analysis neglected racism and sexism.  Driven by his radical pessimism, his analysis often exaggerated power elite control and the loss of individual creativity.  In his own time, Mills’s bleak analysis helped inspire New Left activism.  By stripping readers of their illusions about who ruled American society, Mills could spur readers to make their country more democratic.  However, it is no longer shocking to assert that a small, self-selected power elite rules the U.S.  Today the pessimism of The Power Elite might only confirm the cynicism of so many citizens that little can be done to change our worlds. 

Yet Mills’s work remains relevant for those of us who today seek a more just and equal world that fosters individual creativity.  The uncompromising nature of Mills’s critique stemmed partly from his ambitious vision of a society organised along truly democratic lines.  We need to recover this optimistic faith that always lay beneath the surface of Mills’s pessimistic radicalism.  More than ever, we need to imagine alternatives to neoliberal capitalism and social austerity.  But more than that, we need to explain not only why change is desirable, but also how it is possible.  Mills’s work cannot help us here.  It can certainly help us reenergise radical social thought, but what we need most of all is to rekindle the left as a viable social movement.

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

Daniel Geary is Assistant Professor of History at Trinity College Dublin and is the author of Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought.

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