Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The power elite?

The Power Elite, by C. Wright Mills, was first published 50 years ago last month. In it, the author argued that, at the pinnacle of the government, the military and the corporations, a small group of men made the decisions that reverberated "into each and every cranny" of American life. Here is an essay that looks back at that book and its impact on America and the world:

Mills could not answer many of the most important questions he raised. How did the power elite make its decisions? He did not know. Did its members cause their roles to be created, or step into roles already created? He could not say. Around what interests did they cohere? He asserted a "coincidence of interest" partially organized around "a permanent war establishment," but he did little more than assert it. Most of the time, he said, the power elite did not cohere at all. "This instituted elite is frequently in some tension: it comes together only on certain coinciding points and only on certain occasions of 'crisis.' " Although he urged his readers to scrutinize the commanding power of decision, his book did not scrutinize any decisions.
. . .
Yet "The Power Elite" abounds with questions that still trouble us today. Can a strong democracy coexist with the amoral ethos of corporate elites? And can public argument have democratic meaning in the age of national security? The trend in foreign affairs, Mills argued, was for a militarized executive branch to bypass the United Nations, while Congress was left with little more than the power to express "general confidence, or the lack of it." Policy tended to be announced as doctrine, which was then sold to the public via the media. Career diplomats in the State Department believed they could not truthfully report intelligence. Meanwhile official secrecy steadily expanded its reach. "For the first time in American history, men in authority are talking about an 'emergency' without a foreseeable end," Mills wrote in a sentence that remains as powerful and unsettling as it was 50 years ago. "Such men as these are crackpot realists: in the name of realism they have constructed a paranoid reality all their own."