The Shifting Contours of Elite Power

by Aeron Davis

The structures and practices of power have changes significantly since Mills wrote ‘The Power Elite’, but the need to investigate elites seems as pressing as ever.

First published: 04 December, 2012 | Category: Corporate power, Foreign policy, Inequality

I first encountered C.  Wright Mills as a 1980s politics undergraduate student.  As part of a body of work on elite theory he was offered as an alternative to the larger, broader traditions of Marxist and pluralist work.  Even then, elite theory was cast as a poor, stunted relation; the Liberal Democrats of political and social theory.  The intellectual schema, produced by Mills and other critical elite scholars was too radical for pluralists and liberals and was rather under-developed next to the varied offerings of (post) Marxism.  In the intervening years, elite theory has suffered the ignominy of becoming part of a past academic cannon, with the result that it is now relatively neglected.[1]

However, when returning to do doctoral work many years later, Mills’s work appeared to me as relevant as ever.  In my research since, largely revolving around the sociological investigation of elites,[2] I have been regularly reminded of its significance. 

In the 1950s, Mills offered an alternative critical framework for analysing those in power that went beyond the strong Marxist emphasis on class and the ownership of the means of production.  Organisation, modern bureaucracies, nationalism, war and publicity were, and are, other factors around which elites based their thinking, relations and actions.  For Mills there was not simply a top class with a shared class consciousness that naturally cohered around the same interests.  Elite power structures were more fragmented and complex.  He emphasised the sociological investigation of the structures and practices of power.  This ‘meso-level’ approach offered something more than micro-level empirical studies or larger, abstract and quantitative maps of society and power.  At the same time, much of what Mills did remains compatible with Marxist work, potentially adding an extra dimension to critical projects, both conceptually and empirically. 

The subject of elite power seems even more relevant today.  Since the 1970s, social and economic policy-making has continued to disproportionately benefit those in power.  Inequality in the US and similar capitalist democracies has risen steadily.  The top 1%, or rather 0.001%, are now wealthier than ever.  The real incomes of the middle and lower classes have stagnated or declined in recent decades.  There are fewer, more powerful chief executives, presiding over larger conglomerates.  Their incomes are hundreds of times greater than average earnings.  Individual international financiers control rather larger capital amounts than they ever did before.  US politicians are even more in hock to corporate donors.  In the US elections this year, a record $6 billion was spent on campaigning.  So too, America’s military industrial complex seems as active as ever in its interventions around the world.  The 2003 invasion of Iraq demonstrates that tiny groups of politicians and advisors are still able to push the US and other nations into major conflicts with little accountability.[3] Declining levels of voter turnout and trust as well as large social movement protests in mature democracies are testament to the growing dissatisfaction of publics with their elites. 

But at the same time there is much that has changed since Mills’s 1950s account.  World War Two and the Cold War do not dominate US political thinking as they did then.  Geo-politics has changed tremendously, with multiple regime changes and a proliferation of international institutions and treaties.  Globalisation has proceeded with the growth of international transport, communication and finance.  Financialisation and its consequences have transformed industry, trade and national economies.  The ‘mass society’ of the 1950s, critiqued by Mills, now appears a rather outdated notion.  Employment in mature economies has continued to shift from large-scale production to service industries and smaller scale production units.  The mass media, so centralised and dominant, continues to be owned by large conglomerates, but is also now fragmented in form and dispersed in multiple ways.  Civil society networks have flourished.  The shrinking industrial labour movement has been balanced by the rise of multiple, organised interest groups, campaigning on the environment, civil rights, gender equality and consumer rights. 

All these changes, amongst others, have a significant bearing on how we might now identify elite sectors, elite intermediaries, and the basis on which elites hold and exercise power in the twenty-first century.  In terms of today’s power elites, critics previously argued that Mills had over-stated the strength of American military elites.  This seems more the case now.  Although US military expenditure and activity remain high, it is politicians who make the key decisions on budgets and armed conflicts.  One also has to draw firmer distinctions between corporate and financial elites.  Financiers were an important intermediary group for Mills.  Now they are a powerful elite in their own right, probably the most powerful elite group operating in advanced economies.  While some of their interests coincide with corporate and political elites, other goals may be quite different.  The composition of elite networks has also become far more international since Mills wrote The Power Elite.  The top 0.001% of the US, Russia or elsewhere, may have more in common with each other than they do with their national citizenry.  All of this also suggests that political elites may be rather less powerful than they once were.  The combination of international institutions, high finance and extended techno-managerial bureaucracies has restricted their choices and actions. 

As for power elites taken as a whole, I would argue that two contradictory trends are in evidence.  On the one hand, elites appear wealthier and more powerful than ever, relative to ordinary citizens.  The ranks and incomes of the super rich grow annually.  The top 1% now own a third of US net worth, including 40% of its financial wealth.  Fewer politicians, CEOs and financiers make decisions that affect far larger publics (the US population has doubled since the 1950s).  Meanwhile, fewer mega companies have come to dominate their market sectors.  Just half a dozen media conglomerates own a majority of all media in the US, from film and music to publishing and news.  Extensive public relations and lobbying operations have developed to enable management of news media and public debate, as well as the production of specialist information. 

On the other hand, ruling elites appear more constrained by circumstances.  Politicians, financiers and CEOs all know rather less than they did about those sectors they manage (elite ignorance was also a theme in Mills’s work).  They are professional leaders, lacking experience or knowledge about what they decide on.  It is a world of technical expertise, complexity and risk.  Thus elites are more reliant on ‘experts’ and technicians to advise them, many of whom have specialist knowledge and narrow outlooks.  Investment bankers can no longer understand complex financial products created by people with Maths PhDs.  Politicians are not equipped to challenge expert advice on economics, military capabilities, health systems and a wealth of other policy areas.  Large, complex state and international bureaucracies and legal systems make the implementation of elite decisions far more problematic and slow.  CEOs and politicians are moved on from their positions ever-more rapidly.  So too, the erratic power of a powerful and varied news media has offered greater challenges to elites wishing to gain or maintain power.  US politicians, more than ever, are dependent on favourable news outlets and large financial war chests to fund advertising blitzes.  Businesses, such as Barclays, News International and BP, can be hurt by extensive negative media coverage.  24 hour instant news and alternative news generators, make elite media management a far more difficult task.  Consequently, the ruling lives of today’s elites, despite their huge rewards and retirement funds, can be nasty, brutish and short. 

In effect, decision-making and wealth, and hence power, are more concentrated and centralised, but the wielding of power by individuals may be more constrained.  The mechanisms of control, from financial to new ICT advances, are more inhuman and unforgiving, even for ruling elites.  The range of intermediaries, who have an influence on elites, has extended.  Journalists, editors, technical and expert networks, accountants and bureaucrats, at home and abroad, both aid and restrict elites.  Risks and consequences are difficult to fathom.  Paradigm shifts are harder to achieve. 

The changes in elite personnel, as well as in the basis and exercise of their power, do not in any way make Mills’s work irrelevant.  Indeed, the need to investigate elites and elite power structures seems as pressing as ever.  Engagement with higher-level social theory, or extensive survey-based research, may be more intellectually attractive or score well on research exercises.  General condemnations of neoliberalism may keep critical spirits up, as may studies of counter-cultural trends, consumers and opposition movements.  But, if social scientists want to engage with contemporary questions of power, then more sociological-style investigations of elites should be encouraged.  And, intellectually, Mills offers as good a conceptual starting point as any for such projects. 

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

Aeron Davis is Professor of Political Communication at Goldsmiths College, University of London.  He is the author of Public Relations Democracy (MUP, 2002), The Mediation of Politics (Routledge, 2007), Political Communication and Social Theory (Routledge, 2010), and Promotional Cultures (Polity, 2013)


[1] See for example G. William Domhoff, ‘Mills’s The Power Elite, 50 Years Later’, Contemporary Sociology, Vol.  35, 2006, pp.547-550; and Mike Savage and Karel Williams (eds.), Remembering Elites, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

[2] e.g. Aeron Davis, Political Communication and Social Theory, Routledge, 2010; and Aeron Davis, The Mediation of Power: A Critical Introduction, Routledge, 2007.

[3] See for example Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Didn’t Tell You About Capitalism, London: Penguin/Allen Lane, 2010; and Charles Ferguson, Inside Job: The Financiers Who Pulled Off the Heist of the Century, Oxford: Oneworld, 2012.

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