Elite rule today: ‘The Power Elite’ revisited

By Tom

03 December 2012

In recent years we have witnessed a series of extraordinary scandals and crises exposing corruption, criminality and greed in different sections of Britain’s ruling class.  The financial crisis, the MPs' expenses scandal and the phone hacking scandal still haunt politicians, bankers, the media and the police, however ever much they might want to sweep them under the carpet, and they all now face a crisis of legitimacy as a result.  Yet the scandals and revelations keep coming: Jimmy Savile, Libor-fixing, the Hillsborough cover-up—to name just a few.  Each implicates distinct groups in British public life and each has given us glimpses of the powerful at work.
 
Leveson may have chosen to focus on the practices of the press, but the phone hacking scandal was as much about corruption and collusion between business executives, politicians and the police as it was about misconduct by journalists.  It revealed not just acts of criminality, but the flagrant subversion of the public interest by relatively small, interconnected groups of rich and powerful people.
 
Who are these greedy, corrupt few?  What are they up to?  Are they all in on it together?  If we want to challenge the current system and build a more just and humane society, we need to understand how power works and how elites rule.  
 
A good place to start is with the American sociologist C. Wright Mills, the father of modern elite theory.  Mills rejected the prevailing liberal view of America as an egalitarian democracy, insisting that it was a society ruled by military, economic and political elites, with the mass of the population alienated from decision making.  Over the next two weeks New Left Project will be revisiting Mills’s seminal text, The Power Elite (1956), exploring its impact, significance and relevance to our current political situation.  The series will include contributions from leading elite theorists as well as an online exclusive from the man himself.
 
In the introductory piece published today, Daniel Geary, Assistant Professor of History at Trinity College Dublin and the author of Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought, introduces C. Wright Mills and considers the significance and the limitations of his pessimistic radicalism.

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Update: You can now view all the articles in this series here.

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