Talk:C. Wright Mills (1916-1962)
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Lead off: Tucker Harding--
-- This ended up much longer than I intended, and I apologize. It was a long text, after all, and the nature of his discussion really invites lots of commentary. As is usually the case with me, I may have stayed too "high" in the subject, trying to look for basic messages that I can describe back to myself. I am eager to hear the thoughts of my classmates and teachers, and hope that I learn as much from them and their own responses to Mills as I learned from Mills' writing itself.
Mills basically depicts the interacting and interlocking “higher circles” of the military, political, and business elites (the “power elite”), and describes how they are, in what is to him very clear, the real controllers of American society, rather than citizenry. In contemporary America, as Mills has it, power derives increasingly from three dominant institutional orders or “domains”, and these three elites now tend to operate together for the same ends rather than for separate interests.
Of his general observation of the slow concentration of power at the top, I am in total agreement. Of his attempt to debunk the misleading myth of pluralism (or the “theory of balance”) that America is still “individualistic”, I am in agreement. His demonstration of how power has become increasingly concentrated on a national scale is convincing to me.
Many other aspects of his thesis, however, I disagree with completely.
The idea that the directorate recognizes itself (and therefore its constituents) as elite is as bothersome for me as it was for Mills. At the top of the business, military and political hierarchies there emerged self-conscious power elites who gave orders which were then transmitted to the population. This fact is as true today as it was then, for this is how bureaucracies work. It would have been nice if Mills broadened this description and theory to include the reasons why bureaucracies are not the best way of running giant machines made of men. For something as huge, sprawling, and occasionally disjointed as a nation state, is there a better system or power structure? Do not all giant organizations, whether they be corporations or countries, need a core of leadership to get things done? Does an organization of mailroom clerks have a right to suddenly vote on a major corporate decisions? Would it be good for the corporation? Again, I wish Mills would have applied his sociology background to social structure in general as a way of getting perspective on best practice for monolithic leadership.
Mills would answer that his real point is that the separate leadership of the business, military and political hierarchies “conceive of themselves to be, and are felt by others to be, the inner circle of the ‘upper social classes’”, and that this is wrong for everyone because, as such, the tripartite leaderships have formed a genteel fraternity for controlling American society. From his answer it sounds as if these leaders have transformed a democratic social system into merely an internal democratic political system.
But I can’t help but think he’s overstated these genteel relationships, as I’ll speak more about in class. When I look at the leadership of America, I see deeply divided heads of power that are all out for the interests of their organizations, whether they be corporate, military or political parties. Some of the most powerful corporations, for example, fought hard for free trade because it was in their own interest, while others fought for tariffs and protectionism because it would serve them best. Within the highest leadership of the military, each lobbies for greater shares of the defense budget. I don’t see the unity or fraternity Mills describes.
There are also obvious examples in refute to his statements of who these “elites” are. There are individuals who did transcend humble rural origins to reach the elite levels, and I question whether it’s harder now, in the 60’s, or during the great wars than at other times in American history. Also, I’m not convinced that the highest members of the nation’s military attended Ivy League schools or the other “elite” playgrounds of the fabulously rich. I have reason to believe that the military branch of leadership tend to buddy much more closely with corporate heads than with politicians. They seem to constantly butt-heads with the politicians, in fact, who regularly tell them how they ought to conduct military operations. Look at the Iraq war and the elite group from the military, the admirals and generals, who openly testified against the decisions made by the political leadership, and even resigned over it. I don’t see the gentility or fraternity there at all. I see people who have been institutionalized in completely different ways, all trying to do the job they’ve been “raised” to do, and often resulting in counter-interest.
Mills’ description of the elite decision-makers evokes the image of a crowned and bejeweled rulership, perhaps even a dictatorship, that is self-serving and firmly in control of American citizens. Yet, we can still see that through parliamentary channels these “ruled” publics have been able to affect policy, though admittedly it is extremely challenging to do so. I’m not saying that the public is the responsible, participatory, intelligent mass of gentleman farmers able to exert equal and decisive influence in the final determination of public policy. But Mills’ emphasis on the inability of people to exercise any influence on policy is overstated.
I enjoyed his writing and found his enthusiasm very compelling at times. Yet, throughout the text I have underlined many, many statements that really deserve at least some sort of citation or sourcing—evidence is pretty thin by the time he begins to discuss the elite of his day and really begs a sort of conspiracy from above, though he states he’s not describing such a conspiracy. The idea of elite coordination is not, Mills insists, equivalent to a “conspiracy theory” of history. The bond among elites is that of common background, psychology, institutional interests and only occasionally of “explicit coordination” fashioned in conspiratorial secrecy. But what is the High and Mighty fraternity if not a closed-off, self-serving, untouchable group? Doesn’t that imply conspiratorial rule? Are they doing it accidentally, then? And if so, who is the real villain?
His quick answer would be that the villain is, indeed, the elite; his emotional description of these privileged good ol’ boys and their lifestyles speaks to this. It is here that he would have done well to address not the location of social power, but the more fundamental question of the sources or functions of social power in a society itself. Do we not want a core leadership of elected officials who are able to make decisions on their own? Do we want them to put major military decisions to a public vote? “Should we bomb this city? You, the people, decide.” I think that rather than constrain America’s despicable history of aggression, were tactical decisions put to a popular vote, I think the public would be, in many instances, much more brutal than the careful advisors who ascend to Mills’ described throne of judges and executioners.
He died a mere seven months before the Cuban Missile Crisis almost started a nuclear war. Khrushchev’s recklessness in sending missiles to Cuba started the White House towards big decisions, but the fearful populace was driven there as well. The fact that Kennedy’s inner circle backed down from the brink of war doesn’t sit well in Mills’ picture. A handful of men may indeed have had full opportunity to make the wrong decision and produce mass death, but they didn’t. I wonder how such a vote would have decided history if it was left to the knowing public. I don’t know enough to make assumptions, but I do know that a fearful public is indeed a rash and hasty lot. New York and Berklee would have voted down a military strike, but what of the entire Southern belt? Look at the support for the war in Iraq when it began. Public opinion is now fairly solidly against the war-- more than half of Americans – 55% - think the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq (the highest figure to date), while 41% think taking military action there was the right thing to do. As the war began, however, Americans overwhelmingly approved of U.S. action against Iraq; 69% approved military action (the highest level of support in CBS polls for the war).
This calls the idea of real Leadership into the mix—and Mills doesn’t seem to really address the role of leadership in a nation’s policy. “In so far as national events are decided, the power elite are those who decide them.” But he doesn’t bother to examine a single such decision in detail, nor address with any sort of rational detail how and why those decisions were made.
Masses and Publics
He hammered home the point that people lived lives that were bounded by social circumstance and deeply shaped by social forces not of their own making, and we think immediately of our reading of Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man. In the final chapters he describes the bottom of the social hierarchy, the “mass society” which he describes as powerless, disorganized, and manipulated. The “mass” is replacing the active “public”.
Mills thinks the powerful elite has reduced free citizens to mass apathy and calls for the transformation of manipulated masses into resistant “publics” that will be at once ideological and radical. P. 309
In certain ways, his labeling the US as a “mass society” in which everyday people have no organizational bases and hence no way to develop their own opinions and political trajectories makes some sense, and I’m happy to agree in many ways. But, one can’t just ignore the industrial union movement, the civil rights movement and the other movements that arose—gay rights, gender rights, anti-discriminatory laws that were spawned irrevocably from the Civil Rights Movement, environmentalism—such giant misses in Mills’ descriptions had me frustrated because, for as much sense as he made at times, there were so many other instances where it was painfully easy to raise a refute. I would have loved to have a beer with him.
Contrary to Mills’ “mass society” that had such movements as unable to affect the centralized power base because of the shaping and molding of society from the elite, it seems that their real ineffectuality came mostly from their inability to organize themselves, and this could even be because of the lack of “mass” that Mills ascribes as representative of the American public. For example, union members in the building and trades unions saw the civil rights, women’s and environmental movements as threats to their good jobs. They were, in fact, a public that was concerned with their own lot, rather than a vocal mass of conformists. Also, many union members did not like what they saw as anti-Americanism of the anti-war movement. They were not supporters of the war, but they disliked protesters’ anti-Marine marches even more. We see a deeply partisan public which to me appears more anti-mass than anything else.
The higher message
To finish at a much higher level of consideration, Mills foresees the extinction of reason and freedom in a world dominated by the powerful few at the expense of the powerless many.
But he’s not as pessimistic as I thought after my first reading.
His use of “elite” rather than “class” illustrates something very important in his thoughts about power structure and the roles of society and people. Classes rise and fall with the economic and confrontational dynamic of history; but Mills’ elites are shown to be taking events into their own hands, acting willfully and purposefully. The rise of an “event” or “role-determining” power elite seems to actually portray a sense of freedom in men. That people determine history and have the power to change it and transform it. “The course of events in our time depends more on a series of human decisions than on any inevitable fate.” P. 24, 21
Mills glows for me when he seems to identify reason with freedom. He conceives of all political problems as intellectual problems, and this translates the dichotomy between the elites and the “subjects of rule” (my own quote, not his) into a more fundamental difference between reason and unreason. The misbehaving elites “never let their brains show”, endorse “irrationality”, believe in the “military metapshysic”, exhibit “psychological illiteracy” and generally accept the divorce of knowledge from power. P. 310, 333, 354.
For Mills, reason can solve all of these problems, if only it were allowed.
For those who can make it, we meet Tuesday 5-7 in the Avery café, shared by architecture and sociology. The group is mainly for clarifying conceptual, textual, and context questions and difficulties before the discussion Wednesday, but everything is fair game.
Enter Avery (follow link for map), take the stairs down to your immediate left, continue through the corridor and down the next flight of stairs, and there we will be.