Power Elite

views updated May 18 2018

Power Elite


In his 1956 work of the same name, American sociologist C. Wright Mills coined the term power elite to characterize a new coalition of ruling groups that rose to dominance in the post-World War II United States. Mills rejected the conventional view of a dispersed, plural, and democratic organization of power and instead saw an increasing concentration of that power in the hands of the three institutional orders that composed the power elite: the military, large corporations, and government leaders. This concentration of power was progressively more centralized and undemocratic. Public discussion and debate over policy was replaced by elite command and control. Mills argued that within American society, major national power now resides in the socioeconomic, political and the military domains (Mills 2000, p. 6); the family, religious, or educational arenas, dominant in other eras, have become subordinated to the governmental-military-industrial complex.

Much like the Frankfurt school, Mills synthesized the perspectives of Karl Marx and Max Weber. Advanced capitalist societies were characterized by increasing instrumental rationalization. Following from the dominance of means-ends and strategic rationality, bureaucratic and technological elements became the central structuring factors of social order. Political authority and social power required command and control over technologies, industrial production, the military, and in another sense the higher levels of government. Thus the new power elite derived its position from the concentration of power in large corporations and oligopolies that dominated sectors of industries, and in a strata of political leaders who directed an expanded federal state, as well as a military that dwarfed most other nations in size and had become the largest expenditure in the federal budget.

While the image of a society of small landowners with few sources of concentrated power may have been idealized, it contained an element of truth. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the United States had become more urban and industrialized. With industrial capitalism came greater concentration of power in the large industries that dominated in the mid to late-twentieth century.

Mills opposed the pluralist school whose foremost representative was political scientist Robert Dahl. Pluralists argued that there were many centers of power in the United States, multiple interest groups that were each capable of setting agendas and checking other powerful groups through veto. Mills believed that the pluralist view was wrong. Power in the United States was highly concentrated and, in most respects, undemocratic. Only the power elite really set the agenda. The notion of a vital political public in which important issues are discussed (an idea central to John Dewey [18591952], another important influence on Mills) was descriptively untrue. National government was characterized by an increasing concentration of executive power and a diminution of legislative power. The pluralist outlook mistook mid-level debates on power, which may have had a plural character, for the major centers of power.

Social and political power was concentrated in a small group of interlocking elites who shared a common social world. While members of the power elite did not necessarily possess a unified class consciousness, they traveled in common social circles, followed common career paths, and formed interlocking groups.

Mills agreed with mass society theorists that the displacement of public discussion made way for the influencing, directing, and manipulating of public opinion through new media of communication. The power elites gained control of mass media but also were surrounded by a culture of celebrity in which they participated. The elites not only associated with entertainment celebrities, drawing on their cultural capital, they became celebrities themselves.

Millss synthesis of Marx and Weber was not doctrinaire. Mills did not conceive of the power elite as class in Marxs sense. The three institutional orders were not united by a common relation to production, class consciousness, or simple economic interests. They constituted an elite in the sense used by Vilfredo Pareto (18431923) or Gaetano Mosca (18581941). They formed an alliance for ruling groups with interlocking membership and sociality. This alliance can shift over time and circumstance.

Millss conception of the power elite was a major influence on the New Left, especially on its non-dogmatic appropriation of Marx and the radical tradition. It also initiated a major body of research on power structure that further challenged the pluralist argument. The most well-known proponent of power structure research is G. William Domhoff, who continued Millss research into the social construction of elites in U.S. society.

Critics have noted that Mills may have overstated the permanent role of the military in influencing U.S. society and in forming the power elite. They point out that the nature of leading companies and industrial elite has changed rather radically since the 1960s. Still recent research on the concentration of wealth and power in the United States, such as that conducted by Kevin Phillips (2003), seems to lend support to Millss concerns.

SEE ALSO Autocracy; Bureaucracy; Crony Capitalism; Dahl, Robert Alan; Elites; Frankfurt School; Groups; Hierarchy; Interest Groups and Interests; Leninism; Marx, Karl; Military; Military-Industrial Complex; Mills, C. Wright; Oligarchy; Pareto, Vilfredo; Pluralism; Policy Analysis; Pressure Groups; Social Influence; Stratification; Wealth; Weber, Max


Aronowitz, Stanley. 2003. A Mills Revival? Logos 2: 3. http://www.logosjournal.com/mills_aronowitz.pdf.

Ballard, Hoyt B., and G. William Domhoff, eds. 1968. C. Wright Mills and the Power Elite. Boston: Beacon Press.

Dahl, Robert. 2005. Who Governs?: Democracy and Power in an American City. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Domhoff, G. William. 2005. Who Rules America? Power, Politics and Social Change. 5th ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

Hayden, Tom, Richard Flacks, Stanley Aronowitz, and Charles C. Lemert. 2006. Radical Nomad: C.Wright Mills And His Times. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Lukes, Steven. 2004. Power: A Radical View. 2nd ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mills, C. Wright. 2000. The Power Elite. new ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Phillips, Kevin. 2003. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. New York: Broadway Books.

Brian J. Caterino

power élite

views updated May 29 2018

power élite A concept developed by C. Wright Mills in his book of that name (published in 1956) and used by him to refer to the American ruling élite. According to his analysis this was an élite which was composed of business, government, and military leaders, bound together by the shared social backgrounds of these leaders and the interchange of personnel between its three segments. Mills's text provoked considerable controversy. A representative selection of liberal and radical responses, together with a retrospective essay by Mills himself, will be found in G. William Domhoff and and Hoyt B. Ballard ( eds.) , C. Wright Mills and the Power Elite (1968)

élite, power

views updated May 21 2018

élite, power See POWER ÉLITE.