The Power Elite
The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills Oxford Press, 1956 The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of Job, family, and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern. ‘Great changes’ are beyond their control, but affect their conduct and outlook none the less.
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The very framework of modern society confines them to projects not their own, but from every side, such changes now press upon the men and women of the mass society, who accordingly eel that they are without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power. But not all men are in this sense ordinary. As the means of information and of power are centralized, some men come to occupy positions in American society from which they can look down upon, so to speak, and by their decisions mightily affect, the everyday worlds of ordinary men and women.
They are not made by their Jobs; they set up and break down Jobs for thousands of others; they are not confined by simple family responsibilities; they can escape. They may live in many hotels and houses, but they are bound by no one community. They need not merely ‘meet the demands of the day and hour’; in some part, they create these demands, and cause others to meet them. Whether or not they profess their power, their technical and political experience of it far transcends that of the underlying population. What Jacob Burckhardt said of ‘great men,’ most Americans might well say of their elite: ‘They are all that we are not. The power elite 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 ot 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 organizations 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 centered the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy. The power elite are not solitary rulers. Advisers and consultants, spokesmen and opinion-makers are often the captains of their higher thought and decision. Immediately below the elite are the professional politicians of the middle levels of power, in the Congress and in the pressure groups, as well as among the new and old upper classes of town and city and region.
Mingling with them, in curious ways which we shall explore, are those professional celebrities who live by being continually displayed but are never, so long as they remain celebrities, displayed enough It such celebrities are not at the head ot any ominating hierarchy, they do often have the power to distract the attention of the public or afford sensations to the masses, or, more directly, to gain the ear of those who do occupy positions of direct power.
More or less unattached, as critics of morality and technicians of power, as spokesmen of God and creators of mass sensibility, such celebrities and consultants are part of the immediate scene in which the drama of the elite is enacted. But that drama itself is centered in the command posts of the major institutional hierarchies. The truth about the nature and the ower of the elite is not some secret which men of affairs know but will not tell. Such men hold quite various theories about their own roles in the sequence of event and decision.
Often they are uncertain about their roles, and even more often they allow their fears and their hopes to affect their assessment of their own power. No matter how great their actual power, they tend to be less acutely aware of it than of the resistances of others to its use. Moreover, most American men of affairs have learned well the rhetoric of public relations, in some cases even to the point of using it when they are alone, and thus coming to believe it.
The personal awareness of the actors is only one of the several sources one must examine in order to understand the higher circles. Yet many who believe that there is no elite, or at any rate none of any consequence, rest their argument upon what men of affairs believe about themselves, or at least assert in public. There is, however, another view: those who feel, even if vaguely, that a compact and powerful elite of great importance does now prevail in America often base that feeling upon the historical trend of our time.
They have felt, for example, the domination of the military event, and from this they infer hat generals and admirals, as well as other men of decision influenced by them, must be enormously powerful. They hear that the Congress has again abdicated to a handful of men decisions clearly related to the issue of war or peace. They know that the bomb was dropped over Japan in the name of the United States of America, although they were at no time consulted about the matter. They feel that they live in a time of big decisions; they know that they are not making any.
Accordingly, as they consider the present as history, they infer that at its center, making decisions or failing to make them, there must be an elite of power. On the one hand, those who share this feeling about big historical events assume that there is an elite and that its power is great. On the other hand, those who listen carefully to the reports of men apparently involved in the great decisions often do not believe that there is an elite whose powers are of decisive consequence. Both views must be taken into account, but neither is adequate.
The way to understand the power of the American elite lies neither solely in recognizing the historic scale of events nor in accepting the personal awareness reported by men of apparent decision. Behind such men and behind the vents of history, linking the two, are the major institutions of modern society. These hierarchies of state and corporation and army constitute the means of power; as such they are now of a consequence not before equaled in human history-and at their summits, there are now those command posts of modern society which offer us the sociological key to an understanding of the role of the higher circles in America.
Within American society, major national power now resides in the economic, the political, and the military domains. Other institutions seem off to the side of modern history, and, on occasion, duly subordinated to these. No tamily is as directly powerful in national affairs as any major corporation; no church is as directly powerful in the external biographies of young men in America today as the military establishment; no college is as powerful in the shaping of momentous events as the National Security Council.
Religious, educational, and family institutions are not autonomous centers of national power; on the contrary, these decentralized areas are increasingly shaped by the big three, in which developments of decisive and immediate consequence now occur. Families and churches and schools adapt to odern life; governments and armies and corporations shape it; and, as they do so, they turn these lesser institutions into means for their ends. Religious institutions provide chaplains to the armed forces where they are used as a means of increasing the effectiveness of its morale to kill.
Schools select and train men for their Jobs in corporations and their specialized tasks in the armed forces. The extended family has, of course, long been broken up by the industrial revolution, and now the son and the father are removed from the family, by compulsion if need be, whenever the army of the state sends out the call. And the symbols of all these lesser institutions are used to legitimate the power and the decisions of the big three.
The life-fate of the modern individual depends not only upon the family into which he was born or which he enters by marriage, but increasingly upon the corporation in which he spends the most alert hours of his best years; not only upon the school where he is educated as a child and adolescent, but also upon the state which touches him throughout his life; not only upon the church in which on occasion he hears the word of God, but also upon the army in which he is disciplined.
If the centralized state could not rely upon the inculcation of nationalist loyalties in public and private schools, its leaders would promptly seek to modify the decentralized educational system, If the bankruptcy rate among the top five hundred corporations were as high as the general divorce rate among the thirty-seven million married couples, there would be economic catastrophe on an international scale. If members of armies gave to them no more of their lives than do believers to the churches to which they belong, there would be a military crisis.
Within each of the big three, the typical institutional nit has become enlarged, has become administrative, and, in the power of its decisions, has become centralized. Behind these developments there is a fabulous technology, for as institutions, they have incorporated this technology and guide it, even as it shapes and paces their developments. The economy-once a great scatter of small productive units in autonomous balance-has become dominated by two or three hundred giant corporations, administratively and politically interrelated, which together hold the keys to economic decisions.
The political order, once a decentralized set of several dozen states with a weak spinal cord, has become a entralized, executive establishment which has taken up into itself many powers previously scattered, and now enters into each and every crany of the social structure. The military order, once a slim establishment in a context of distrust fed by state militia, has become the largest and most expensive feature of government, and, although well versed in smiling public relations, now has all the grim and clumsy efficiency of a sprawling bureaucratic domain.
In each of these institutional areas, the means of power at the disposal of decision makers have increased enormously; heir central executive powers nave been enhanced; within each ot them modern administrative routines have been elaborated and tightened up. As each of these domains becomes enlarged and centralized, the consequences of its activities become greater, and its traffic with the others increases. The decisions of a handful of corporations bear upon military and political as well as upon economic developments around the world.
The decisions of the military establishment rest upon and grievously affect political life as well as the very level of economic activity. The decisions made within the political domain determine economic activities and ilitary programs. There is no longer, on the one hand, an economy, and, on the other hand, a political order containing a military establishment unimportant to politics and to money-making. There is a political economy linked, in a thousand ways, with military institutions and decisions.
On each side of the world-split running through central Europe and around the Asiatic rimlands, there is an ever-increasing interlocking of economic, military, and political structures. If there is government intervention in the corporate economy, so is there corporate intervention in the overnmental process. In the structural sense, this triangle of power is the source of the interlocking directorate that is most important for the historical structure of the present. The fact of the interlocking is clearly revealed at each of the points of crisis of modern capitalist society-slump, war, and boom.
In each, men of decision are led to an awareness of the interdependence of the major institutional orders. In the nineteenth century, when the scale of all institutions was smaller, their liberal integration was achieved in the automatic economy, by an autonomous play of arket forces, and in the automatic political domain, by the bargain and the vote. It was then assumed that out of the imbalance and friction that followed the limited decisions then possible a new equilibrium would in due course emerge.
That can no longer be assumed, and it is not assumed by the men at the top of each of the three dominant hierarchies. For given the scope of their consequences, decisions-and indecisions-in any one of these ramify into the others, and hence top decisions tend either to become coordinated or to lead to a commanding indecision. It has not always been like this. When numerous small entrepreneurs made up the economy, for example, many of them could fail and the consequences still remain local; political and military authorities did not intervene.
But now, given political expectations and military commitments, can they afford to allow key units of the private corporate economy to break down in slump? Increasingly, they do intervene in economic affairs, and as they do so, the controlling decisions in each order are inspected by agents of the other two, and economic, military, and political structures are interlocked. At the pinnacle of each of the three enlarged and centralized omains, there have arisen those higher circles which make up the economic, the political, and the military elites.
At the top of the economy, among the corporate rich, there are the chief executives; at the top of the political order, the members of the political directorate; at the top of the military establishment, the elite of soldier- statesmen clustered in and around the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the upper echelon. As each of these domains has coincided with the others, as decisions tend to become total in their consequence, the leading men in each of the three domains of power- he warlords, the corporation chieftains, the political directorate-tend-to come together, to torm the power elite ot by C.
Wright Mills America. * In the standard image of power and decision, no force is held to be as important as The Great American Public. More than merely another check and balance, this public is thought to be the seat of all legitimate power. In official life as in popular folklore, it is held to be the very balance wheel of democratic power. In the end, all liberal theorists rest their notions of the power system upon the political role of this public; ll official decisions, as well as private decisions of consequence, are Justified as in the public’s welfare; all formal proclamations are in its name.
Let us therefore consider the classic public of democratic theory in the generous spirit in which Rousseau once cried, ‘Opinion, Queen of the World, is not subject to the power of kings; they are themselves its first slaves. ‘ The most important feature of the public of opinion, which the rise of the democratic middle class initiates, is the free ebb and flow of discussion. The possibilities of answering back, of organizing autonomous rgans of public opinion, of realizing opinion in action, are held to be established by democratic institutions.
The opinion that results from public discussion is understood to be a resolution that is then carried out by public action; it is, in one version, the ‘general will’ of the people, which the legislative organ enacts into law, thus lending to it legal force. Congress, or Parliament, as an institution, crowns all the scattered publics; it is the archetype for each of the little circles of face-to-face citizens discussing their public business. This eighteenth-century idea of the public f public opinion parallels the economic idea of the market of the free economy.
Here is the market composed of freely competing entrepreneurs; there is the public composed of discussion circles of opinion peers. As price is the result of anonymous, equally weighted, bargaining individuals, so public opinion is the result of each man’s having thought things out for himself and contributing his voice to the great chorus. To be sure, some might have more influence on the state of opinion than others, but no one group monopolizes the discussion, or by itself determines the opinions that prevail.
Innumerable discussion circles are knit together by mobile people who carry opinions from one to another, and struggle for the power of larger command. The public is thus organized into associations and parties, each representing a set of viewpoints, each trying to acquire a place in the Congress, where the discussion continues. Out of the little circles of people talking with one another, the larger forces of social movements and political parties develop; and the discussion of opinion is the important phase in a total act by which public affairs are conducted.
The autonomy of these discussions is an important element in the idea of ublic opinion as a democratic legitimation. The opinions formed are actively realized within the prevailing institutions of power; all authoritative agents are made or broken by the prevailing opinions of these publics. And, in so far as the public is trustrated in realizing its demands, its members may go beyond criticism ot specitlc policies; they may question the very legitimations of legal authority. That is one meaning of Jefferson’s comment on the need for an occasional ‘revolution. The public, so conceived, is the loom of classic, eighteenth-century democracy; discussion s at once the threads and the shuttle, tying the discussion circles together. It lies at the root of the conception of authority by discussion, and it is based upon the hope that truth and Justice will somehow come out of society as a great apparatus of free discussion. The people are presented with problems. They discuss them. They decide on them. They formulate viewpoints. These viewpoints are organized, and they compete. One viewpoint ‘wins out. Then the people act out this view, or their representatives are instructed to act it out, and this they promptly do. Such are he images of the public of classic democracy which are still used as the working justifications of power in American society. But now we must recognize this description as a set of images out of a fairy tale: they are not adequate even as an approximate model of how the American system of power works. The issues that now shape man’s fate are neither raised nor decided by the public at large.
The idea of the community of publics is not a description of fact, but an assertion of an ideal, an assertion of a legitimation masquerading-as legitimations are now apt to do-as fact. For now the public of public opinion is recognized by all those who have considered it carefully as something less than it once was. These doubts are asserted positively in the statement that the classic community of publics is being transformed into a society of masses. This transformation, in fact, is one of the keys to the social and psychological meaning of modern life in America. . In the democratic society of publics it was assumed, with John Locke, that the individual conscience was the ultimate seat of Judgment and hence the final court of appeal. But this principle was challenged-as E. H. Carr has put it-when Rousseau ‘for the first time thought in terms of the sovereignty of the whole people, and faced the issue of mass democracy. ‘ II. In the democratic society of publics it was assumed that among the individuals who composed it there was a natural and peaceful harmony of interests.
But this essentially conservative doctrine gave way to the Utilitarian doctrine that such a harmony of interests had first to be created by reform before it could work, and later to the Marxian doctrine of class struggle, which surely was then, and certainly is now, closer to reality than any assumed harmony of interests. Ill. In the democratic society of publics it was assumed that before public action would be taken, there would be rational discussion between individuals which would determine the action and that, accordingly, the public opinion that resulted would be the infallible voice of reason.
But this has been challenged not only ( 1 ) by the assumed need for experts to decide delicate and intricate issues, but (2) by the discovery-as by Freud-of the irrationality of the man in the street, and (3) by the discovery- as by Marx-of the socially conditioned nature of what was once assumed to be autonomous reason. IV. In the democratic society of publics it was assumed that after determining what is true and right and Just, the public would act accordingly or see that its representatives did so. In the long run, public opinion will not only be right, but public opinion will prevail.
This assumption has been upset by the great gap now existing between the underlying population and those who make decisions in its name, decisions of enormous consequence which t until well after the fact. *** e public otten does not even know are being made Public opinion exists when people who are not in the government of a country claim he right to express political opinions freely and publicly, and the right that these opinions should influence or determine the policies, personnel, and actions of their government.
In this formal sense there has been and there is a definite public opinion in the United States. And yet, with modern developments this formal right- when it does still exist as a right -does not mean what it once did. The older world of voluntary organization was as different from the world of the mass organization, as was Tom Paine’s world of pamphleteering from the world of the mass media. Since he French Revolution, conservative thinkers have Viewed With Alarm the rise of the public, which they called the masses, or something to that effect. The populace is sovereign, and the tide of barbarism mounts,’ wrote Gustave Le Bon. ‘The divine right of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings,’ and already ‘the destinies of nations are elaborated at present in the heart of the masses, and no longer in the councils of princes. ‘ During the twentieth century, liberal and even socialist thinkers have followed suit, with more explicit reference to what we have called the society of asses. From Le Bon to Emil Lederer and Ortega y Gasset, they have held that the influence of the mass in unfortunately increasing.
But surely those who have supposed the masses to be all powerful, or at least well on their way to triumph, are wrong. In our time, as Chakhofln knew, the influence of autonomous collectivities within political life is in fact diminishing. Furthermore, such influence as they do have is guided; they must now be seen not as publics acting autonomously, but as masses manipulated at focal points into crowds of demonstrators. For as publics become asses, masses sometimes become crowds; and, in crowds, the psychical rape by the mass media is supplemented up-close by the harsh and sudden harangue.
Then the people in the crowd disperse again-as atomized and submissive masses. In all modern societies, the autonomous associations standing between the various classes and the state tend to lose their effect as vehicles of reasoned opinion and instruments for the rational exertion of political will. Such associations can be deliberately broken up and thus turned into passive instruments of rule, or they can more slowly wither away from lack of use in the face of centralized means of power.
But whether they are destroyed in a week or wither in a generation, such associations are replaced in virtually every sphere of life by centralized organizations, and it is such organizations with all their new means of power that take charge of the terrorized or-as the case may be-merely intimidated, society of masses. The institutional trends that make for a society of masses are to a considerable extent a matter of impersonal drift, but the remnants of the public are also exposed to more ‘personal’ and intentional forces.
With the broadening of the base of politics within he context of a folk-lore of democratic decision-making, and with the increased means of mass persuasion that are available, the public of public opinion has become the object of intensive efforts to control, manage, manipulate, and increasingly intimidate. In political, military, economic realms, power becomes, in varying degrees, uneasy before the suspected opinions of masses, and, accordingly, opinion-making becomes an accepted technique of power-holding and power- getting.
The minority electorate ot the propertied and the educated is replaced by the total suffrage-and intensive campaigns for the vote. The small eighteenth-century professional army is replaced by the mass army of conscripts-and by the problems of nationalist morale. The small shop is replaced by the mass-production industry-and the national advertisement. As the scale of institutions has become larger and more centralized, so has the range and intensity of the opinion-makers’ efforts. The means of opinion-making, in fact, have paralleled in range and efficiency the other institutions of greater scale that cradle the modern society of masses.
Accordingly, in addition to their enlarged and centralized means of administration, exploitation, and iolence, the modern elite have had placed within their grasp historically unique instruments of psychic management and manipulation, which include universal compulsory education as well as the media of mass communication. Early observers believed that the increase in the range and volume of the formal means of communication would enlarge and animate the primary public. In such optimistic views-written before radio and television and movies-the formal media are understood as simply multiplying the scope and pace of personal discussion.
Modern conditions, Charles Cooley wrote, ‘enlarge indefinitely the competition of ideas, and hatever has owed its persistence merely to lack of comparison is likely to go, for that which is really congenial to the choosing mind will be all the more cherished and increased. ‘ Still excited by the break-up of the conventional consensus of the local community, he saw the new means of communication as furthering the conversational dynamic of classic democracy, and with it the growth of rational and free individuality.
No one really knows all the functions of the mass media, for in their entirety these functions are probably so pervasive and so subtle that they cannot be caught by the means of social research now available. But we do now have reason to believe that these media have helped less to enlarge and animate the discussions of primary publics than to transform them into a set of media markets in mass-like In their attempts to neutralize or to turn to their own use the articulate public, the opinion-makers try to make it a relay network for their views.
If the opinion-makers have so much power that they can act directly and openly upon the primary publics, they may become authoritative; but, if they do not have such power and hence have to operate indirectly and without visibility, they will assume the stance of manipulators. Authority is power that is explicit and more or less ‘voluntarily’ obeyed; manipulation is the ‘secret’ exercise of power, unknown to those who are influenced. In the model of the classic democratic society, manipulation is not a problem, because formal authority resides in the public itself and in its representatives who are made or broken by the public.
In the completely authoritarian society, manipulation is not a problem, because authority is openly identified with the ruling institutions and their agents, who may use authority explicitly and nakedly. They do not, in the extreme case, have to gain or retain power by hiding its exercise. Manipulation becomes a problem wherever men have power that is concentrated and willful but do not have authority, or when, for any reason, they do not wish to use their power openly. Then the powerful seek to rule without showing their powerfulness.
They want to rule, as it were, secretly, without publicized legitimation. It is in this mixed case-as in the intermediate reality ot the American today-that manipulation is a prime way of exercising power. Small circles of men are making decisions which they need to have at least authorized by indifferent or recalcitrant people over whom they do not exercise explicit authority. So the small circle tries to manipulate these people into willing acceptance or cheerful support of their decisions or opinions-or at least to the rejection of possible counter-opinions.
Authority formally resides ‘in the people,’ but power is in fact held by small circles of men. That is why the standard strategy of manipulation is to make it appear that the people, or at least a large group of them, ‘really made the decision. ‘ That is why even when the authority is available, men with access to it may still prefer the secret, quieter ways of manipulation. But are not the people now more educated? Why not emphasize the spread of education rather than the increased effects of the mass media?
The answer, in brief, is that mass education, in many respects, has become- another mass medium. The prime task of public education, as it came widely to be understood in this country, was political: to make the citizen more knowledgeable and thus better able to think and to Judge of public affairs. In time, the function of education shifted from the political to the economic: to train people for better-paying jobs and thus to get ahead. This is especially true of the high-school movement, hich has met the business demands for white-collar skills at the public’s expense.
In large part education has become merely vocational; in so far as its political task is concerned, in many schools, that has been reduced to a routine training of nationalist loyalties. The training of skills that are of more or less direct use in the vocational life is an important task to perform, but ought not to be mistaken for liberal education: Job advancement, no matter on what levels, is not the same as self- development, although the two are now systematically confused.
Among ‘skills,’ some re more and some are less relevant to the aims of liberal-that is to say, ]liberating- education. Skills and values cannot be so easily separated as the academic search for supposedly neutral skills causes us to assume. And especially not when we speak seriously of liberal education. Of course, there is a scale, with skills at one end and values at the other, but it is the middle range of this scale, which one might call sensibilities, that are of most relevance to the classic public.
To train someone to operate a lathe or to read and write is pretty much education of skill; to evoke from eople an understanding of what they really want out of their lives or to debate with them stoic, Christian and humanist ways of living, is pretty much a clear-cut education of values. But to assist in the birth among a group of people of those cultural and political and technical sensibilities which would make them genuine members of a genuinely liberal public, this is at once a training in skills and an education of values.
It includes a sort of therapy in the ancient sense of clarifying one’s knowledge of one’s self; it includes the imparting of all those skills of ontroversy with one’s self, which we call thinking; and with others, which we call debate. And the end product of such liberal education of sensibilities is simply the self-educating, self-cultivating man or woman. The knowledgeable man in the genuine public is able to turn his personal troubles into social issues, to see their relevance for his community and his community’s relevance for them.
He understands that what he thinks and feels as personal troubles are very often not only that but problems snared by others and indeed not subject to solution by any one individual but only by modifications of the structure of the groups in which he ives and sometimes the structure of the entire society. Men in masses are gripped by personal troubles, but they are not aware of their true meaning and source. Men in public confront issues, and they are aware of their terms.
It is the task of the liberal institution, as of the liberally educated man, continually to translate troubles into issues and issues into the terms of their human meaning for the individual. In the absence of deep and wide political debate, schools for adults and adolescents could perhaps become hospitable frameworks for Just such debate. In a community f publics the task of liberal education would be: to keep the public from being overwhelmed; to help produce the disciplined and informed mind that cannot be overwhelmed; to help develop the bold and sensible individual that cannot be sunk by the burdens of mass life.
But educational practice has not made knowledge directly relevant to the human need of the troubled person of the twentieth century or to the social practices of the citizen. This citizen cannot now see the roots of his own biases and frustrations, nor think clearly about himself, nor for that matter about anything else. He does not see the frustration of idea, of intellect, by the present organization of society, and he is not able to meet the tasks now confronting ‘the intelligent citizen. ‘ Educational institutions have not done these things and, except in rare instances, they are not doing them.
They have become mere elevators of occupational and social ascent, and, on all levels, they have become politically timid. Moreover, in the hands of ‘professional educators,’ many schools have come to operate on an ideology of life adjustment’ that encourages happy acceptance of mass ways of life rather than the struggle for individual and public transcendence. There is not much doubt that modern regressive educators have adapted their notions of educational content and practice to the idea of the mass.
They do not effectively proclaim standards of cultural level and intellectual rigor; rather they often deal in the trivia of vocational tricks and ‘adjustment to life’-meaning the slack life of masses. ‘Democratic schools’ often mean the furtherance of intellectual mediocrity, vocational training, nationalistic loyalties, and little else. The Chief Executives The corporations are the organized centers of the private property system: the chief xecutives are the organizers of that system.
As economic men, they are at once creatures and creators of the corporate revolution, which, in brief, has transformed property from a tool of the workman into an elaborate instrument by which his work is controlled and a profit extracted from it. The small entrepreneur is no longer the key to the economic life of America; and in many economic sectors where small producers and distributors do still exist they strive mightily-as indeed they must if they are not to be extinguished-to have trade associations or governments act for