What Mills' "Power Elite" Can Teach Us

C. Wright Mills

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In honor of the birthday of C. Wright Mills—August 28, 1916—let’s take a look back at his intellectual legacy and the applicability of his concepts and critiques to society today.

Career and Reputation

Mills is known for having been a bit of a renegade. He was a motorcycle-riding professor who brought incisive and scathing critiques to bear on the power structure of U.S. society at mid-twentieth century. He was also known for critiquing academia for its role in reproducing power structures of domination and repression, and even his own discipline, for producing sociologists focused on observation and analysis for its own sake (or, for career gain), rather than those who strived to make their work publicly engaged and politically viable.

His best-known book is The Sociological Imagination, published in 1959. It is a mainstay of Introduction to Sociology classes for its clear and compelling articulation of what it means to see the world and think as a sociologist. But, his most politically important work, and the one that seems to have only increasing relevance is his 1956 book, The Power Elite.

The Power Elite

In the book, worth a full read, Mills presents his theory of power and domination for mid-twentieth century U.S. society. In the wake of World War II and in the midst of the Cold War era, Mills took a critical view on the rise of bureaucratization, technological rationality, and the centralization of power. His concept, “power elite,” refers to the interlocking interests of elites from three key aspects of society—politics, corporations, and the military—and how they had coalesced into one tightly knit power center that worked to reinforce and steward their political and economic interests.

Mills argued that the social force of the power elite wasn’t limited to their decisions and actions within their roles as politicians and corporate and military leaders, but that their power extended throughout and shaped all institutions in society. He wrote, “Families and churches and schools adapt to modern life; governments and armies and corporations shape it; and, as they do so, they turn these lesser institutions into means for their ends.”

What Mills meant is that by creating the conditions of our lives, the power elite dictate what happens in society, and other institutions, like family, church, and education, have no choice but to arrange themselves around these conditions, in both material and ideological ways. Within this view of society, mass media, which was a new phenomenon when Mills wrote in the 1950s—television did not become commonplace until after WWII—plays the role of broadcasting the worldview and values of the power elite, and in doing so, shrouds them and their power in a false legitimacy. Similar to other critical theorists of his day, like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse, Mills believed that the power elite had turned the populace into an apolitical and passive “mass society,” in large part by orienting it toward a consumer lifestyle that kept it busy with the work-spend cycle.

Relevance in Today's World

As a critical sociologist, when I look around me, I see a society even more strongly in the grip of the power elite than during Mills’ heyday. The wealthiest one percent in the U.S. now own over 35 percent of the nation's wealth, while the top 20 percent own more than half. The intersecting power and interests of corporations and government were at the center of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which came on the heels of the largest transfer of public wealth to private business in U.S. history, via bank bailouts. “Disaster capitalism,” a term popularized by Naomi Klein, is the order of the day, as the power elite work together to destroy and rebuild communities all over the world (see the proliferation of private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wherever natural or man-made disasters occur).

Privatization of the public sector, like the selling off of public assets like hospitals, parks, and transportation systems to the highest bidder, and the gutting of social welfare programs to make way for corporate “services” has been playing out for decades. Today, one of the most insidious and damaging of these phenomena is the move by the power elite to privatize our nation’s public education system. Education expert Diane Ravitch has criticized the charter school movement, which has shifted into a privatized model since its debut, for killing public schools across the nation.

The move to bring technology into the classroom and digitize learning is another, and related way, in which this is playing out. The recently canceled, scandal-plagued contract between the Los Angeles Unified School District and Apple, which was meant to provide all 700,000+ students with an iPad, is an exemplar of this. Media conglomerates, tech companies and their wealthy investors, political action committees and lobby groups, and leading local and federal government officials worked together to orchestrate a deal that would have poured half a million dollars from the state of California into the pockets of Apple and Pearson. Deals like these come at the expense of other forms of reform, like hiring enough teachers to staff classrooms, paying them living wages, and improving a crumbling infrastructure. These kinds of educational “reform” programs are playing out across the country, and have allowed companies like Apple to make upwards of 6 billion dollars on educational contracts with the iPad alone, much of that, in public funds.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "What Mills' "Power Elite" Can Teach Us." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/c-wright-mills-power-elite-3026474. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2020, August 27). What Mills' "Power Elite" Can Teach Us. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/c-wright-mills-power-elite-3026474 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "What Mills' "Power Elite" Can Teach Us." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/c-wright-mills-power-elite-3026474 (accessed March 24, 2023).