The Power Elite
by C. Wright Mills
by C. Wright Mills
An Article Review by Rachael Thomas
Last Update: April 24, 1997
Elitism goes back a long way. Many wealthy families came to America with established backgrounds. The Founders of the Constitution were intellectuals and thought of as elites. In the book, Understanding American Government, by Susan Welch, she states, "The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were an elite.", and also noting,..."that the Founders represented an elite that sought to protect it's property from the masses..." (38).
We, as part of the mass of society, sometimes do not understand the "why's" and the "how's" of decisions made by a powerful force called "elites". Decisions they make affect our jobs, our family, and our everyday life. The mass society accepts this way of life; an era where everyday changes take place without meaning, that men, as well as women, might feel powerless to change outcomes. These are the ordinary people. On the other side of this scenario are the ones that make decisions and changes of significant consequence. They are the ones that can uplift ordinary people and mold the many life's circumstance to their discretion. These are the power elite: men who can take their position in society and make decisions that will affect the ordinary man.
Men of importance make up the elite domain. However, some opposition is expressed. In the book Public Policy: the essential readings by Stella Z. Theodoulou and Matthew A. Cahn, G. William Domhoff states in his essay, "Who rules America Now?", "People may differ in their social levels, and some people may have more influence than others, but there can be no ruling class or power elite when power is constitutionally lodged in all the people, when there is democratic participation through elections and lobbying, and when the evidence of upward social mobility is everywhere apparent" (393). The power elite run corporations, command the military, and the executive establishment. Welch notes, "...that about 4,300 elite business leaders controlled well over 50% of American's corporate wealth and that almost 40% of them had once held a government post. If this is right, relatively few people share the most powerful jobs and make some of the most important decisions in America" (16). In the book Public Policy, Theodoulou states in the essay "The Power Elite", "... the elite are simply those who have the most of what there is to have, which generally held to include money, power, and prestige-as well as all the ways of life to which these lead" (77). My thought to that is that with money comes the power and prestige. However, that does not imply that the masses of society as altogether powerless.
One step below this upper class are other levels of power: the well known called celebrities, the older upper class, and those professionals who enjoy the power of politics. According to Mills, "Immediately below the elite are the professional politician 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" (73). My thought is that these "second rank" individuals are the middle class individuals that are on an "upward social mobility" trend and still hold enough power to influence those at the very top. Mills recognizes this class as a "second level" of power. However, the elite are in a social class all their own. Many have tried to penetrate that circle without success. You are either in or you are out. According to Mills, " People are either accepted into this class or they are not, and there is a qualitative split, rather than merely a numerical scale, separating them from those who are not elite" (78). Because of their prominence and exclusive backgrounds, most prominent families marry others of such repute, share the same interests and ambitions. Mills states, "They accept one another, understand one another, marry one another, tend to work and to think if not together at least alike" (78).
As members of a higher level in society, the power elite consist of a minority. Who are these powerful people that hold what no ordinary man holds? Quoting from the Internet World article, "... memebers of society who, by virtue of wealth or important leadership position, exercise power in society" (1997). These are a higher circle of people that can realize much, much more than the masses. These are the ones with money, power, and prestige. These are the ones that belong to the economic, political, and military order - the three domains. The political order is an executive establishment, individuals as well as institutions, that dominate society, benefit economically, and have the ability to control the political system. The economy, once insignificant, is now dominated by several hundred huge corporations. The military order, once a handful of men, has expanded to be the most expensive entity of government. The three great powers are linked to one another. According to Mills, "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" (76). The book, C. Wright Mills and the Power Elite, compiled by G. William Domhoff and Hoyt B. Ballard, Dennis H. Wrong states in his critique, "What Mills fails to state outright, but is, I think hinting at, is that big business has joined with the big politicians and the generals and admirals to maintain a 'permanent war economy' for the purpose of averting an otherwise inevitable economic depression" (93). I tend to agree with Mr. Mills. The three form an interlocking means of power in which each domain needs the other to be able to succeed. the elite are joined together by similar interests. Their power and prestige is derived from wealth. It is the people below, or the masses of society, that place their trust in these "minorities"; for it is these experts that make determinations, or run the show. Of the three domains, who runs it better depends on the times and situations.
The Industrial Revolution produced many elites. Opportunities have also opened up to those that avail themselves to them. Those that have the insight to foresee future links have taken steps to organize and succeed. Mills states, "There is, however, little doubt that the American power elite - which contains, we are told, some of the 'greatest organizers in the world' - has also planned and has plotted" (82). I do not agree and neither does Mills when he states, "The rise of the elite, as we have already made clear, was not and could not have been cause by a plot..." (82). The mass of society need somebody to oversee the future of the world, and must put their trust in the knowledgeable experts.
This article was very interesting, but repetitious. By repetitious I meand that Mills expressed himself in different ways with the same meanings. He talks about power, social structure, and the ones that make up the dynamic forces of the political, economic, and military domains.
According to Domhoff, C. Wright Mills was born in Texas in 1912. He was an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University at the time of his death in 1962. Mills had a Ph.D. in sociology and anthropology. Domhoff portrays Mills as being a controversial, angry, and politically oriented social scientist that never voted. The Power Elite, a book by C. Wright Mills, first appeared in 1956.
Domhoff, G. William, and Hoyt B. Ballard. C. Wright Mills and The Power Elite. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.
Theodoulou, Stella Z., and Matthew A. Cahn. Public Policy: the essential readings. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1995.
U.S. Government: rule by the elite, for the elite. [Online] Available http://www.uh.edu/campus/cougar/Vol62/104/OpEd/Op2/ Op2.html (accessed 1997, April 23).
Welch, Susan, et el. Understanding American Government. St. Paul: West Publishing Company, 1995.