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The Power Elite Hardcover – December 31, 1956
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First edition: The Power Elite stands as a contemporary classic of social science and social criticism. C. Wright Mills examines and critiques the organization of power in the United States, calling attention to three firmly interlocked prongs of power: the military, corporate, and political elite. The Power Elite can be read as a good account of what was taking place in America at the time it was written, but its underlying question of whether America is as democratic in practice as it is in theory continues to matter very much today. What The Power Elite informed readers of in 1956 was how much the organization of power in America had changed during their lifetimes, and Alan Wolfe's astute afterword to this new edition brings us up to date, illustrating how much more has changed since then. Wolfe sorts out what is helpful in Mills' book and which of his predictions have not come to bear, laying out the radical changes in American capitalism, from intense global competition and the collapse of communism to rapid technological transformations and ever changing consumer tastes. The Power Elite has stimulated generations of readers to think about the kind of society they have and the kind of society they might want, and deserves to be read by every new generation.
Top customer reviews
This edition has an excellent cover, which pictorially depicts Mills central thesis. There are three principal interlocking directorates that make the essential decisions for Americans... and nowadays, as I am reminded by my non-American friends, for them as well. The three directorates are the economic, the political and the military, symbolized by Wall Street, the Pentagon and the White House. Mills is a sociologist by training, and he buttresses his thesis with the hard numbers on wealth and social mobility. Mills examines the historical movement from the days of America's agrarian past, with slower modes of communications, when power was much more diffusely spread throughout the populace through the first concentrations after the Civil War, by the "Robber Baron's," which were joined in the next half century by the political elites and finally, after the Second World War, by the military, which Mills rather goadingly calls "the warlords."
Mills impressively debunks the enduring myth of "Horatio Alger." Yes, there are always the few that are truly "self-made men," who grab "the good chance," but, by in large, membership in the power elite is hereditary, buttressed by advantageous marriages. Attending the "right schools" is the largest single factor that distinguishes "the power elite." America has its own Eton's and "Oxbridge." Though I haven't seen the two colleges combined yet in a single word, currently ALL the Supreme Court judges are graduates of either Harvard or Yale. Early on in his book, Mills references the work of Floyd Hunter, who wrote Community Power Structure in 1953. Hunter's work examines the power structure of Atlanta, Georgia, and claims that all the important decisions concerning civic life were made by 50 men (yes, with the emphasis on the male) who, by and large, were members of the Piedmont Club.
I've greatly appreciated the work of David Riesman, who wrote another sociological classic, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (A Yale Paperbound, Y-41). Mills critique of Riesman's work is impressive, and I have come to the conclusion that perhaps both are right, in the sense that both "classical physics" and quantum mechanics are right: it all just depends on the size of the physical phenomenon being examined. Riesman postulates in American society, conflicting interest groups balance each other out, and thus no one is really in charge. Mills says that is largely true of the middle layer of power in America, and he lumps Congressmen into this category. By like Floyd Hunter, he says that the very top decisions, like deciding to make an Atomic bomb... and to drop it... are made by only a very few individuals.
Mills' work is replete with bon mots and pithy and incisive observations. Considering his own profession: "One continual weakness of American `social science,' since it became ever so empirical, has been its assumption that a mere enumeration of a plurality of causes is the wise and scientific way of going about understanding modern society, Of course, it is nothing of the sort: it is a paste-pot eclecticism which avoids the real task of social analysis..." As to the power of the media: "Most of `the pictures in our heads' we have gained from these media- even to the point where we often do not really believe what we see before us until we read about it in the paper..." Imagine this observation from 1956, on the distractive power of the media: In the sense that the volume of publicity and acclaim is mainly and continuously upon those professional celebrities, it is not upon the power elite." Like other astute observers of American society, Mills bemoans the loss of community that small towns and more "holistic individuals" provided and even quotes Albert Einstein who says that if he were a young man again he would not try to be a scientist or a scholar or teacher by rather a plumber or peddler "...in the hope to find that modest degree of independence still available..."
In this edition there is an Afterword by Alan Wolfe which critiques some of the issues that he feels Mills got wrong. One was the decline in military expenditures, proving that the "warlords" really were not that influential...Wolfe wrote this in the year 2000, one year before the so-called War on Terror sharply increased military expenditures and hence the military's influence, once again.
Yes, Virginia, there really is a "they" who run things, but "they" continue to prefer to do so discreetly, and use mechanisms like the distractions of celebrities and abstract formulations like "market forces" to disguise their decisions. Mills work endures. 6-stars.
The Power Elite provides that root knowledge to the reader. Power does not emanate from a vacuum and people who wield it do not pop out of thin air. The Power Elite provides the structure a reader needs to understand where the people and organizations originated and how their power grew to influence elected government in shadowy ways.
This is required reading and most certainly NOT a conspiracy theory. It is a sociological approach to real events and people and trends that led us to where we are today. Those that ignore history are doomed to relive it. It is our doom that The Power Elite was not taken seriously by the general population. It still isn't, but it ought to be. The result is our Deep State which has made the elected government subservient to its will.
and that's me, hollering from the choir loft...
For the first time in history, he argued, the territories of the United States made up a self-conscious mass society. If the economy had once been a multitude of locally or regionally rooted, (more or less) equal units of production, it now answered to the needs of a few hundred corporations. If the government had once been a patchwork of states held together by Congress, it now answered to the initiatives of a strong executive. If the military had once been a militia system resistant to the discipline of permanent training, it now consumed half the national budget, and seated its admirals and generals in the biggest office building in the world.
This could go on and on!
He spoke a Seen Truth and became one of the eliminated, prior to The JFK coup Decade. "They", read His books too.
Viewing that capsule of Time by travelling with Mills to See :
the Orwellian Handwriting was on the Wall.... not to have been oblivious to the obvious....
Mills would have Crusaded the intellect public to action..... Elimination of the Truth by any means....is Just another distraction