Adam's Reviews > The Power Elite

The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills
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's review
May 29, 11

bookshelves: non-fiction, mudd-library, wealth-and-power-inequality
Read from May 16 to 29, 2011

C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite is a worthy classic of social science. Mills analyzes, using interviews, public records, and other sources, the structure, character, and importance of a class he calls 'the power elite,' as they are during the 1950s (in addition to delving briefly into the history that brought them to that state). Mills ascribes the following characteristics and definitions to his power elite:

By dint of their positions in relationship to large, influential institutions (chiefly, government, corporations, and the military), a small subset of the population has inordinate decision-making power. They are defined by this power; they are not merely normal people with more money, higher rank, a bigger desk, etc. They play a fundamentally different social role. They are self-conscious as a class.

Many reviewers draw attention to the fact that Mills' work is 'dated' – and while this is true, it seems that it is primarily only true in that the things Mills describes are true to a much greater extent today. If Mills thought his society was a “mass society,” he should see the cable news, Tea Party mass of today. If Mills thought his elites were immoral, ignorant, vapid or otherwise, his directorates interlocking, and his government dominated by the interests of the military-industrial complex, he should see the Bush and Obama administrations. It is probably the case that the local elites he describes are no longer important, though I really have no idea. Because most of what Mills said is still valid today, and because he was such a perspicacious, conscientious thinker, The Power Elite is still an essential window into the power structures that are driving our culture's destruction of the planet and its exploitation of and violence against much of humanity.

Mills quickly dispenses with dozens of easy but ultimately blinding assumptions and prejudices he encounters about the power elite. This is one of the chief values of the book. It is all to easy to slide into easy phrases like “the power elite is America's ruling class” or “the power elite drive history” or “the power elite collude to exploit the little guy.” These statements have grains of truth to be found in Mills' analysis, but ultimately obscure the true much more complex nature of power in the US and the world.

An updated, global analysis of the power elite with the breadth, depth, and intellectual stringency of 'The Power Elite' would be a great boon to modern radicals.

I should say, though, that I did find the book longer and more detailed than I wanted to read at the moment, and therefore I did skim most of the middle of the book.
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