C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite Still Speaks to Today’s America

Knowing that inequality and powerlessness helped produce European fascism, C. Wright Mills exposed postwar American power and warned of an authoritarian turn in The Power Elite. The book speaks to our own moment of inequality and right-wing anger.

American sociologist C. Wright Mills, 1960. (Archive Photos / Getty Images)

People living in “democratic” societies have a strong sense nowadays that the world they live in is not of their own making and that someone else is pulling the strings. Many have lost faith in basic institutions like the legal system and news media and distrust their political leaders. In their work lives, they are disillusioned and coerced and only feel themselves when they are not working. When they go to the polls, if they even do, they feel that the outcome has already been decided and that things are not likely to change, at least not for them.

Many of the tens of thousands at the “Save America” rally on January 6 were driven by this general sense, and the belief — perpetrated by political and media elites and spread through social media algorithmically designed to churn rage into profits — that the presidential election had been stolen and their democracy was at stake. Like gas on a fire, President Trump incited those gathered to march down Pennsylvania Avenue, confront lawmakers, and “fight like hell” or “you won’t have a country anymore.” Then, at the Capitol, a menacing crowd broke barricades, attacked police, and marauded through the halls of Congress, some waving Confederate flags and donning militia and conspiracy group garb, as Senators and Congressmen hid in closets and under their desks.

Composite sketches of January 6 rioters present a familiar picture of anomie and manipulation, the kind that shows itself when people become aware of their own powerlessness and individual conscience is swept aside in the jouissance of mass defiance. Some were there to harm, even kill, legislators. But most were regular, previously law-abiding people, radicalized in a context of chronic alienation and government corruption, egged on by right-wing media and a president who played to their fears and sense of betrayal. Liberals helped fan the flames of resentment by relentlessly painting Trump voters as losers and lowlifes.

C. Wright Mills wrote of these tendencies in his classic text The Power Elite, which foreshadowed the events of January 6 and the power dynamics and erosion of social norms that it represents. Driven by a deep understanding of the historical role that endemic inequality and powerlessness played in the rise of European fascism, Mills was compelled to expose the stark realities of elite power in postwar America and warn of the country’s authoritarian drift.

The Big Decisions

His approach, and sense of alarm, was derived from Franz Neumann’s Behemoth, a seminal analysis of the Third Reich’s distinct form of capitalism, marked by a coincidence of interests among interlocking yet competing institutional power blocs — in industry, the Nazi party, the state, and military — collaborating in a program of imperialist expansion and totalitarian governance. Top among their shared goals was to destroy subordinate classes’ bases of social solidarity and institutional intermediaries with the state — civic associations, political parties, and trade unions — and, of course, intimidate them with jackboot violence.

Mills took up Neumann’s mantle with a critique of the concentration of institutional authority in the United States, where elites were making “big decisions” like building up military budgets or waging secret wars that affected masses of people without their knowledge or consent. He conceived of elite power not as the province of any one individual, but as embedded in the leadership positions of the country’s top political, military, and economic institutions. Within this “interlocking directorate,” leaders moved seamlessly from one top institution to the next, forming an upper crust of the power structure from which all other institutions took their cues.

Against the notion of the US government as democratically accountable vis-à-vis a system of checks and balances, Mills pointed to the dominance of the executive branch and its ability to command key administrative bodies, stack the judiciary, veto laws, set foreign policy, and execute wars, essentially without Congress, the body closest to the people. Legislators exercised some regulatory authority over economic and military affairs, and sometimes set policy, but remained locked in a purgatory of competing interests and compromise.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, pictured here in 1949, is one of six ruling elites Mills identified. (Wikimedia Commons)

At the reins of economic power were the corporate chiefs, who brokered arms deals and international trade agreements, and determined the shape of the national economy, from employment levels and consumer activity to tax, monetary, and immigration policy. As corporations consolidated power and penetrated deeper into the fabric of domestic life through work, entertainment, and consumerism, the military-industrial complex fed on the permanent war economy and greased, or forced open, markets abroad.

Mills passed away a few months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, when a cadre of powerful men came frighteningly close to waging a catastrophic nuclear war. That such high-stakes decisions affecting the future of human and planetary life lay in the hands of “irresponsible elites” weighed heavily on his work. America’s obsession with communism, he argued, was the work of “crackpot realists” who had created “a paranoid reality all their own.” That reality would be used to legitimize torture, secret wars, and a massive buildup of nuclear arms, for decades to come, as well as the repression and illegal surveillance of US citizens at home.

It’s Worse

Since Mills wrote The Power Elite, the antidemocratic currents that he observed have intensified to a degree that not even he could have imagined.

Though his era was marked by conservative consensus, deep-seated social inequality, and a proliferation of millionaires (from twenty-seven thousand in 1953 to ninety thousand in 1965), income gaps were at historic lows and working people still shared in the economic gains. Now, with the degraded quality of work, ruthless attacks on labor unions, and stripping of social supports, incomes have shrunk, and the average wage is no higher than it was forty years ago despite increased productivity. Half of US workers live paycheck to paycheck, and incomes are so low that tens of millions rely on public assistance to get by. Millions of working poor battle hunger, poor health, social ostracization, and police violence on a daily basis. And life expectancy has declined, in part due to the sharp increase in drug addiction at the hands of billionaire-owned pharmaceutical companies.

Meanwhile, those at the top have never been wealthier and more conspicuous in their consumption.

As most Americans register negative net worth, just three billionaires control more wealth than the bottom half of the entire country. When tens of millions were suffering and dying at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, 745 US billionaires increased their collective wealth by $2 trillion over just nineteen months. And as the incomes of 99 percent of the world’s population went into free fall, and more than 160 million pushed into poverty, the ten wealthiest — all multibillionaires — more than doubled their collective wealth.

For Mills, confronting this condition of gross inequality and the concentrated power of the “Very Rich” required study of “the economic and political structure of the nation in which they [became] the very rich.” For us, today, that means not only naming the names of elites, but identifying the techniques and institutional means through which they build and share power. In the sphere of politics and the state, for example, such an analysis would recognize political elites’ decades-old, bipartisan consensus regarding the antidemocratic expansion of executive power; the proliferation of US militarism; the hegemony of the “free market”; and the disenfranchisement of poor and working-class people — whether through Democrats’ brand of technocratic governance or the openly autocratic style of the GOP.

In the economic sphere, it would reveal how the accumulation of extreme wealth on Wall Street and among today’s billionaires hinged on the historical collaboration among state, corporate, and banking elites in accelerating the integration of financial markets worldwide and “externalizing” risk onto the public. While successive financial crises and earlier protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank drew back the curtain on the cruelties of predatory lending and high-risk speculation, multimillionaire bankers continue to siphon wealth from individuals and institutions by securitizing people’s homes and retirement savings, “reengineering” corporations and plundering their assets and workforces, and subordinating whole populations via debt. As financial elites expand monopoly control over essential industries and most major corporations, their systemic-level power has become even more totalitarian and destabilizing.

With financialization, common techniques of wealth-making among today’s corporate elites include tax evasion, exploitation of government resources and officials, disciplining of workers and unions, monopoly power, and use of philanthropic giving for the purposes of furthering privatization, public relations, and feeding narcissistic impulses. Among the wealthiest are a handful of multibillionaire tech giants, often lauded as visionaries, who exercise monopoly control over the means of communication, shrewdly manipulate global supply chains and workers, and profit off advertising schemes that involve surveilling masses of people and stoking social and political division among them.

For Mills, celebrities’ status in the hierarchy of the American power structure was one of subordination to political, military, and corporate elites. Since then, they have infiltrated the highest circles of corporate power through media ownership, high-value branding, and the ubiquity of social media, and they perform key legitimizing functions in the social reproduction of neoliberal capitalism as conspicuous consumers and archetypes of the self-helped, self-made, self-actualized individual. Celebrities have also infiltrated into the highest circles of political power, most notably with the presidency of Donald Trump, who not only demonstrated the culture industry’s increased political potency, but revealed the dangers of a system in which people are willing to accept affective stimulation and entertainment as substitutes for democratic power.

As Neumann and Mills both laid bare, the rise of authoritarianism is predicated on the suppression of popular will, whether through violence and intimidation or entertainment, anti-intellectualism, and egoist consumer culture. For the new power elite, the very idea of a public, of a common good, and even a representative state, is anathema to human liberty and the unfettered pursuit of property. In subverting social solidarities, intellectual independence, and sense of public obligation that constitute egalitarian societies, they have established monopoly control over the mass media, and starved — or politicized and banalized — the country’s organs of knowledge production and public discourse.

As a result, a shocking number of Americans are now willing to accept even the most clownish conspiracies as truth, while just a handful of moguls wield more power over the means of communication than any dictator has in world history.

Who Will Push Back Against Today’s Power Elite?

During and after the Great Depression, seemingly irremediable social inequality led to the rise of right-wing nationalist forces worldwide. In Europe, the popular anger and despair was harnessed by demagogues and corporate monopolists to amass authoritarian power. Those forces were also gathering in the United States but were staved off, at least in part, by New Deal supports and protections. As such, supports are almost entirely stripped away, human despair is growing, and right-wing regimes are once again redirecting popular anger and humiliation into violent rage and xenophobia.

Now, in the United States, when white nationalists march in the streets and fundamentalists infiltrate school boards, voting booths, newsrooms, and the US Capitol, Republicans applaud their efforts and Democrats act as if they had no part in precipitating the decline. Standing above the fray, profiting off the misery, and driving today’s authoritarian turn, is a new power elite, who are not only richer and more dominant than ever before, but profoundly more repressive.

What are the forces, pray tell, that can stand in their way?