49 pages 1 hour read

C. Wright Mills

The Power Elite

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1956

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

In The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills argues that power is exercised through the dominant institutions in American society, specifically corporations, the military, and the executive branch of the national government. Those holding the top positions in these institutions make the consequential decisions and do so without democratic accountability in the US in the mid-20th century. Mills held a Ph.D. in sociology and was a sociology professor at Columbia University. Originally published in 1956, this nonfiction book became a seminal one in sociology and remains on the required reading list for social scientists in the 21st century. In 1969, a prestigious book award was established in Mills’s name.

All quotations and references in this guide are from the 2000 paperback edition with an afterword from Alan Wolfe. Mills uses male pronouns throughout to describe the entities discussed, and the guide quotes from these at times.

Summary

The three dominant institutions in the US—corporations, the military, and the executive branch—shape the others, such as the family and school, and the individuals who operate within them. The individuals who lead these dominant institutions form an elite group that accumulates wealth, power, and prestige. This group operates nationally and displaced local elites. Given the lack of stability of family lines in the US, this group is not an aristocracy, but wealth is the only passport to the upper class. However, this class shares a common socialization, which includes precollegiate private schools, Ivy League clubs, and the gentlemen’s clubs of the mid-20th century. The members of this top tier have class consciousness and recognize each other. The positions of power that they hold provide a measure of prestige, which translates into legitimacy. However, some in this group spurn fame, yielding that to celebrities who distract the public from pondering the distribution of power.

In the mid-20th century, there is a class of the super wealthy in the US. Typically, rising into this class entails a big jump, such as starting a business, and the accumulation of financial advantages. Based on research of the wealthy, Mills observes that the ancestors of most of the people in this class made the big jump by 1950. The super wealthy make money from investments, not salaries and wages. Those in this class are, thus, dependent upon corporations, as this tiny elite level owns the bulk of stocks. The members of this class have access to the best lawyers, who enable them to greatly reduce their tax burdens. Corporate leaders also enjoy multiple perks, such as expense accounts and club fees. Wealth, in short, begets more wealth.

Simply put, the super wealthy and corporate leaders are an integrated group. The leaders command the American economy from their positions of corporate power, making the critical decisions that impact wages and pricing for the masses. Increasingly, corporate leaders influence and control political decisions as well. These top corporate leaders tend to be Protestant, male, white, urban, and educated. They are elevated into top positions because they resemble their superiors, not only in demographics but also in attitude and behavior. They are not promoted for their talents or values.

For the first time in American history, in the mid-20th century, military leaders are an integral part of the power elite. Given the acceptance of belief in a permanent state of emergency because of nuclear weapons, military leaders ascended in power and dictate foreign policy decisions. The top leaders, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tend to resemble one another physically and attitudinally, given the intense socialization of the military. Politicians in Congress failed to debate policy alternatives; instead, they accepted the military’s version of reality, yielding power to its leaders. Indeed, military leaders are more involved in politics and diplomacy than ever before, such as in negotiating treaties. The enlargement of the military and the need for sophisticated weapons forged close ties to corporations that win contracts to manufacture the munitions. The interests of the corporations and the military are, thus, married. Top leaders move seamlessly from the military to the corporate boardroom to the executive branch. With its increasing power, the military acquired prestige. However, its leaders also engage in public relations to ensure this reputation.

Congress delegates much of its lawmaking responsibility to the executive branch. At the top of the executive bureaucracy, political outsiders—people who spent the bulk of their careers outside politics—are those most likely to be at the helm. Such leaders have no democratic experience and increasingly rule administratively. For this reason, Mills criticizes prevailing theories of political power that are centered on Congress. That institution operates at a middle level of power, while the elite make the consequential decisions. There is no countervailing power to that group, which, as a result, is able to operate irresponsibly. With no programmatic political parties offering policy choices to the public, the elite pursue a pro-business agenda of reduced taxes, free trade, reduced government programs, and military spending. This agenda benefits the upper class, but the middle class is not organized to challenge it.

Increasingly, the power elite manipulates the public and sells their policies to it. The public has no role in the formation or selection of those policies. American society, Mills fears, is transforming into a mass one. In such a society, individuals are politically powerless. Mass media and compulsory education contribute to the manipulation of individuals, defining their identity and aspirations and failing to encourage an understanding of their context. Individuals are dependent on institutions but are not in charge of the direction of those institutions.

Among opinion leaders, a conservative mood that abandoned reason as the basis for political rule took hold. Despite the powerlessness of the citizenry, liberal rhetoric celebrating elections and free speech is still commonplace. This meaningless rhetoric provides cover to the members of the elite, who need not justify their power. They have no need to win the consent of the citizenry. Given their lack of knowledge, the immorality of their accomplishments, and their irresponsibility, they would have a difficult time doing so. Yet a distracted public, though it senses something amiss, is faced with the rise of arbitrary and irrational power exercised by this elite class.

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