Kaelan Ratcliffe▪Κάϊλαν Ράτκλιφ▪كايِلان راتكِليف's Reviews > The Power Elite

The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills
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bookshelves: favorites, history, politics, radical-history, class, classic, culture-cultural-studies, sociology, civilisation-critique-of
Recommended to Kaelan Ratcliffe▪Κάϊλαν Ράτκλιφ▪كايِلان راتكِليف by: Chris Hedges
Recommended for: Anyone who's read 1984

A Dark Portrait

UPDATE: I am very excited to say that a spiritual sequel to this book has been published in 2018. It has received overwhelming praise from the likes of Noam Chomsky and Abby Martin for carrying forward C. Wright Mills tradition of studying the ruling classes as a social network. The difference now being that said classes have become transnational, something Mills had not yet seen, but has been theorised as becoming the new paradigm for twenty years. The Book is called Giants: The Global Power Elite and has been written Peter Philip's. I look forward to reading it this January 2019


I put quite a bit of thought into how I would compose this review, and I hope that the final edit does some justice in covering the dense topic Mills decided to tackle decades ago.

Since the election of Trump back in November, reports have been made on how George Orwell's novel '1984' has skyrocketed in sales everywhere, and how people are looking for information to best understand a totalitarian state (perhaps as ruled through inverted means - see Sheldon Wolin). While I have no intention of detracting from what an incredible novel 1984 is - not to mention the positive impact Orwell's views on the world bought to the literary tradition - I do, however, wish to present a book that I think should be sitting right next to the above mentioned. If Americans wish to understand their present reality, then they must look into the past. A dystopian fiction set in the United Kingdom will only provide so much in bringing truth to the curious, something I think Orwell would concur with, seeing as he didn't write 1984 to be a hand guide. Especially if said guide is to be applied to any and every country that flirts with totalitarianism.

If any comparison could be made between these two texts, it would be that the reader may feel like the character of Winston, opening up the 'Manifesto Of The Brotherhood' for the first time. With chapters titled in such a powerful manner (see chapter breakdown below), it was hard not to feel as though I was peering into a forbidden novel banned from common distribution.

What C. Wright Mills presents in the pages of The Power Elite is a critique of the United States post World War II, as its leaders were beginning to ramp up imperialistic plans to dominate the world economically, militarily and politically. He spotted a terrifying trend beginning to appear in the institutions of the day, and made the brave move to call it for what it was; abuse of power. He was criticised for this, and many of his peers thought it the ramblings of a man bitter with the society that surrounded him. However, as mentioned by Alan Wolfe in the books afterward, The Power Elite has stood the test of time - informing people about power and the dangers of its consolidation - whereas other sociological texts from the period have fallen through the trap doors of history into obscurity. I will admit, this is not an easy book to read. Despite its rather modest 361 page length, it took me a good two months to reach the final sentence (not to mention the time taken between paragraphs digesting and re-reading topics discussed [see chapter eleven below for an example of difficult theories discussed by Mills]). However, any book worth its salt is worth the time taken to complete it.

I would also like to mention that I agree with other reviews on Goodreads that this demands an update. Perhaps a consolidated version, with a new introduction and afterward would be preferable to what is available right now.

I could proceed further, and deliver a detailed explanation of how much is covered by Mills. Yet, I believe a different approach is required to inform the reader of the importance of this subject (and to hopefully persuade the same reader to make a purchase of this book). As such, below are a selection of quotes that stood out to me during my readthrough, giving the potential reader examples of the kind of content Mills discusses. I believe this will be effective in understanding what Mills was on to, in his own words, and realising how relevant it is to contemporary America today. Feel free to pick and choose a quote if the chapter title interests you, I feel trying to read all of them would take some time otherwise. I found Chapter 13 especially illuminating.


"By the power elite, we refer to those political, economic, and military circles which as an intricate set of overlapping cliques share decisions having at least national consequences. In so far as national events are decided, the power elite are those who decide them"


"It is to the metropolitan upper classes that the local society of the smaller cities looks; its newer members with open admiration, its older, with less open admiration. What good is it to show a horse or a dog in a small city of 1000,000 population, even if you could, when you know that THE Show will be in New York next fall? More seriously, what prestige is there in a $50,000 local deal, however financially convenient, when you know that in Chicago, only 175 miles away, men are turning over $500,000?"


"Almost everywhere in America, the metropolitan upper classes have in common, more or less, race, religion, and nativity. Even if they are not of long family descent, they are uniformly of longer American origin than the underlying population. . .
. . .In many cities—New York for example—there are several rather than one metropolitan 400. This fact, however, does not mean that the big-city upper classes do not exist, but rather that in such cities the status stucture is more elaborate than in those with more uni- fied societies. That there are social feuds between competing status centers does not destroy the status hierarchy."


"But what are the celebrities? The celebrities are The Names that need no further identification. Those who know them so far exceed those of whom they know as to require no exact computation. Wherever the celebrities go, they are recognized, and moreover, recognized with some excitement and awe. Whatever they do has publicity value. More or less continuously, over a period of time, they are the material for the media of communication and entertainment. And, when that time ends as it must and the celebrity still lives as he may from time to time it may be asked, 'Remember him?' That is what celebrity means."


"The major economic fact about the very rich is the fact of the accumulation of advantages: those who have great wealth are in a dozen strategic positions to make it yield further wealth. Sixty five per cent of the very richest people in America today are involved in enterprises which their families have passed on to them or are simply living as rentiers on the huge returns from such properties. The remaining 35 per cent are playing the higher economic game more actively, if no more daringly, than those who used to be called entrepreneurs but who in later day capitalism are more accurately called the economic politicians of the corpo- rate world."


"These executives, it is held, are responsible for the refrigerator in the kitchen and the automobile in the garage as well as all the planes and bombs that now guard Americans from instant peril. All of them, or nearly all, have come up from the bottom of the ladder; they are either farm boys who have now made good in the big city, or poor immigrants who have come to America and now enjoy the dream of success it allows. Full of the know-how that made America great; efficient, straightforward, honest, the chief executives, it is often said, ought really to be allowed to run the government, for if only such men were in charge there would be no waste, no corruption, no infiltration. Dirty politics, in short, would become clean business."


"But it is not so much by direct campaign contributions that the wealthy exert political power. And it is not so much the very rich as the corporate executives the corporate reorganizes of the big propertied class who have translated the power of property into political use. As the corporate world has become more intricately involved in the political order, these executives have become intimately associated with the politicians, and especially with the key 'politicians' who form the political directorate of the United States government."


"For the first time in American history, men in authority are talking about an 'emergency' without a foreseeable end. During modern times, and especially in the United States, men had come to look upon history as a peaceful continuum interrupted by war. But now, the American elite does not have any real image of peace other than as an uneasy interlude existing precariously by virtue of the balance of mutual fright. The only seriously accepted plan for 'peace' is the fully loaded pistol. In short, war or a high state of war preparedness is felt to be the normal and seemingly per- manent condition of the United States."


"From the standpoint of the party politician, a well-trained general or admiral is an excellent legitimator of policies, for his careful use often makes it possible to lift the policy 'above politics,' which is to say above political debate and into the realm of administration, where, as statesman Dulles said in support of General Eisenhower for President, there are needed men with the capacity for making grave decisions."


"A small group of men are now in charge of the executive decisions made in the name of the United States of America. These fifty-odd men of the executive branch of the government include the President, the Vice President, and the members of the cabinet; the head men of the major departments and bureaus, agencies and commissions, and the members of the Executive Office of the President, including the White House staff."


"Those who profit by the general framework of the status quo can afford more easily than those who are dissatisfied under it to entertain such views as the mechanics of social change. Moreover, 'in most fields . . . only one interest is organized, none is, or some of the major ones are not.' In these cases, to speak, as Mr. David Truman does, of 'unorganized interests' is merely to
use another word for what used to be called 'the public,' a conception we shall presently examine."


"In so far as the structural clue to the power elite today lies in the political order, that clue is the decline of politics as genuine and public debate of alternative decisions with nationally responsible and policy coherent parties and with autonomous organizations connecting the lower and middle levels of power with the top levels of decision. America is now in considerable part more a formal political democracy than a democratic social structure, and even the formal political mechanics are weak."


"From almost any angle of vision that we might assume, when we look upon the public, we realize that we have moved a considerable distance along the road to the mass society. At the end of that road there is totalitarianism, as in Nazi Germany or in Communist Russia. We are not yet at that end. In the United States today, media markets are not entirely ascendant over primary publics. But surely we can see that many aspects of the public fife of our times are more the features of a mass society than of a community of publics."


"The greatest problem of the spokesmen for an American conservatism is simply to locate the set of people whose interests the conservative ideology would serve, and who, in turn, would accept it. Classic conservativism has required the spell of tradition among such surviving elements of pre-industrial societies as an aristocracy of noble men, a peasantry, a petty-bourgeoisie with guild inheritances; and these are precisely what America has never had. For in America, the bourgeoisie has been pre- dominant from its beginnings—in class, in status, and in power. In America, there has not been and there can be no conservative ideology of the classic type."


"The higher circles in America today contain, on the one hand, the laughing, erotic, dazzling glamour of the professional celebrity, and, on the other, the prestige aura of power,might and wealth. These two pinnacles are not unrelated. The power elite is not so noticeable as the celebrities,and often does not want to be; the 'power' of the professional celebrity is the power of distraction. America as a national public is indeed possessed of a strange set of idols. The professionals, in the main, are either glossy little animals or frivolous clowns; the men of power, in the main, rarely seem to be models of representative men."
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Reading Progress

November 18, 2016 – Shelved
November 18, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
January 12, 2017 – Started Reading
January 16, 2017 – Shelved as: favorites
January 16, 2017 – Shelved as: history
January 16, 2017 – Shelved as: politics
January 16, 2017 – Shelved as: radical-history
January 16, 2017 – Shelved as: class
January 16, 2017 – Shelved as: classic
January 16, 2017 – Shelved as: culture-cultural-studies
January 16, 2017 – Shelved as: sociology
March 2, 2017 – Finished Reading
May 13, 2017 – Shelved as: civilisation-critique-of

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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BMR, LCSW OOH! Are you going to write a review of it?

Kaelan Ratcliffe▪Κάϊλαν Ράτκλιφ▪كايِلان راتكِليف Just finished one! I didn't realise it would update before I finished writing a review! Tough book!

BMR, LCSW Yeah, it took me awhile to get through it.

message 4: by HBalikov (new)

HBalikov I am encouraged to hear that you find The Power Elite still relevant. With a little refurbishing it can serve as a rallying point for many.

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