Taking Back Our Stolen History
C Wright Mills Publishes his Book “The Power Elite”
C Wright Mills Publishes his Book “The Power Elite”

C Wright Mills Publishes his Book “The Power Elite”

The Power Elite is a 1956 book by sociologist C. Wright Mills, in which Mills calls attention to the interwoven interests of the leaders of the military, corporate, and political elements of society and suggests that the ordinary citizen in modern times is a relatively powerless subject of manipulation by those three entities.

Mills is known for having been a bit of a renegade. He was a motorcycle-riding professor who brought incisive and scathing critiques to bear on the power structure of U.S. society at mid-twentieth century. He was also known for critiquing academia for its role in reproducing power structures of domination and repression, and even his own discipline, for producing sociologists focused on observation and analysis for its own sake (or, for career gain), rather than those who strived to make their work publicly engaged and politically viable.

His best-known book is The Sociological Imagination, published in 1959. It is a mainstay of Introduction to Sociology classes for its clear and compelling articulation of what it means to see the world and think as a sociologist. But, his most politically important work, and the one that seems to have only increasing relevance is his 1956 book, The Power Elite.

The Power Elite

In the book, worth a full read, Mills presents his theory of power and domination for mid-twentieth century U.S. society. In the wake of World War II and in the midst of the Cold War era, Mills took a critical view on the rise of bureaucratization, technological rationality, and the centralization of power. His concept, “power elite,” refers to the interlocking interests of elites from three key aspects of society—politics, corporations, and the military—and how they had coalesced into one tightly knit power center that worked to reinforce and steward their political and economic interests.

The book is something of a counterpart of Mills’ 1951 work, White Collar: The American Middle Classes, which examines the then-growing role of middle managers in American society. A main inspiration for the book was Franz Leopold Neumann‘s book Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism in 1942, a study of how Nazism came into a position of power in a democratic state like Germany. Behemoth had a major impact on Mills.

Mills argued that the social force of the power elite wasn’t limited to their decisions and actions within their roles as politicians and corporate and military leaders, but that their power extended throughout and shaped all institutions in society. He wrote, “Families and churches and schools adapt to modern life; governments and armies and corporations shape it; and, as they do so, they turn these lesser institutions into means for their ends.”

What Mills meant is that by creating the conditions of our lives, the power elite dictate what happens in society, and other institutions, like family, church, and education, have no choice but to arrange themselves around these conditions, in both material and ideological ways. Within this view of society, mass media, which was a new phenomenon when Mills wrote in the 1950s—television did not become commonplace until after WWII—plays the role of broadcasting the worldview and values of the power elite, and in doing so, shrouds them and their power in a false legitimacy. Similar to other critical theorists of his day, like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse, Mills believed that the power elite had turned the populace into an apolitical and passive “mass society,” in large part by orienting it toward a consumer lifestyle that kept it busy with the work-spend cycle.


According to Mills, the eponymous “power elite” are those that occupy the dominant positions, in the three pillar institutions (state security, economic and political) of a dominant country. Their decisions (or lack thereof) have enormous consequences, not only for Americans but, “the underlying populations of the world.” Mills posits that the institutions that they head are a triumvirate of groups that have inherited or succeeded weaker predecessors:

  1. “two or three hundred giant corporations” which have replaced the traditional agrarian and craft economy,
  2. a strong federal political order that has inherited power from “a decentralized set of several dozen states” and “now enters into each and every cranny of the social structure,” and
  3. the military establishment, formerly an object of “distrust fed by state militia,” but now an entity with “all the grim and clumsy efficiency of a sprawling bureaucratic domain.”

Importantly and as distinct from modern American conspiracy theory, Mills explains that the elite themselves may not be aware of their status as an elite, noting that “often they are uncertain about their roles” and “without conscious effort, they absorb the aspiration to be… The Ones Who Decide.” Nonetheless, he sees them as a quasi-hereditary caste. The members of the power elite, according to Mills, often enter into positions of societal prominence through educations obtained at eastern establishment universities like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. But, Mills notes, “Harvard or Yale or Princeton is not enough… the point is not Harvard, but which Harvard?”

Mills identifies two classes of Ivy League alumni: those were initiated into an upper echelon fraternity such as the Harvard College social clubs of Porcellian or Fly Club, and those who were not. Those so initiated, Mills continues, receive their invitations based on social links first established in elite private preparatory academies, where they were enrolled as part of family traditions and family connections. In that manner, the mantle of the elite is generally passed down along familial lines over the generations.

The resulting elites, who control the three dominant institutions (military, economy and political system) can be generally grouped into one of six types, according to Mills:

  • the “Metropolitan 400:” members of historically-notable local families in the principal American cities who generally represented on the Social Register
  • “Celebrities:” prominent entertainers and media personalities
  • the “Chief Executives:” presidents and CEOs of the most important companies within each industrial sector
  • the “Corporate Rich:” major landowners and corporate shareholders
  • the “Warlords:” senior military officers, most importantly the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • the “Political Directorate:” “fifty-odd men of the executive branch” of the U.S. federal government, including the senior leadership in the Executive Office of the President, who are sometimes variously drawn from elected officials of the Democratic and Republican parties but are usually professional government bureaucrats

Mills formulated a very short summary of his book on page 31 in another one of his books, The Sociological Imagination: “Who, after all, runs America? No one runs it altogether, but in so far as any group does, the power elite.’

Relevance in Today’s World

As a critical sociologist, when I look around me, I see a society even more strongly in the grip of the power elite than during Mills’ heyday. The wealthiest one percent in the U.S. now own over 35 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the top 20 percent own more than half. The intersecting power and interests of corporations and government were at the center of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which came on the heels of the largest transfer of public wealth to private business in U.S. history, via bank bailouts. “Disaster capitalism,” a term popularized by Naomi Klein, is the order of the day, as the power elite work together to destroy and rebuild communities all over the world (see the proliferation of private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wherever natural or man-made disasters occur).

Privatization of the public sector, like the selling off of public assets like hospitals, parks, and transportation systems to the highest bidder, and the gutting of social welfare programs to make way for corporate “services” has been playing out for decades. Today, one of the most insidious and damaging of these phenomena is the move by the power elite to privatize our nation’s public education system. Education expert Diane Ravitch has criticized the charter school movement, which has shifted into a privatized model since its debut, for killing public schools across the nation.

The move to bring technology into the classroom and digitize learning is another, and related way, in which this is playing out. The recently canceled, scandal-plagued contract between the Los Angeles Unified School District and Apple, which was meant to provide all 700,000+ students with an iPad, is an exemplar of this. Media conglomerates, tech companies and their wealthy investors, political action committees and lobby groups, and leading local and federal government officials worked together to orchestrate a deal that would have poured half a million dollars from the state of California into the pockets of Apple and Pearson. Deals like these come at the expense of other forms of reform, like hiring enough teachers to staff classrooms, paying them living wages, and improving a crumbling infrastructure. These kinds of educational “reform” programs are playing out across the country, and have allowed companies like Apple to make upwards of 6 billion dollars on educational contracts with the iPad alone, much of that, in public funds.

By Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

See Also: