The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

c. wright mills

I picked up C. Wright Mills' classic sociological study THE POWER ELITE as part of my current research, and slogged through the first 250 pages, which anatomize the various groups which made (make) up the top levels of American society--corporate executives, politicians, military "warlords," etc. But after those chapters it begins to get very interesting, and very prescient. His argument is, essentially, that we fool ourselves into thinking that America is an egalitarian society whose decision-making process is very much still the Jeffersonian/Habermasian model of rational actors in a marketplace of ideas weighing the best options and choosing the most reasonable policy. Instead, Mills says that the "elite"--because of a wide variety of factors, not least of which is the fact that the "public" has now turned into a "mass" that is much more capable of passively receiving information than critically weighing it--have much more power than they ever have, but continue to tell us fairy-stories about how we are actually the ones in power in this society.

Some of Mills' paragraphs could have been written today. Take this one:

Scholars... have found an absence of mind and morality in the public life of our times, and what they have managed to create is a mere elaboration of their own conservative mood. It is a mood quite appropriate to men living in a material boom, a nationalist celebration, a political vacuum. At its heart there is a feeling of pseudo-power based on mere smugness. By its softening of the political will, this mood enables men to accept public depravity without any private sense of outrage, and to give up the central goal of western humanism, so strongly felt in nineteenth-century American experience: the presumptuous control by reason of man's fate.

Had he been listening to Bush?

Or this:

The petty right... have brought to wide attention a new conception of national loyalty, as loyalty to individual gangs who placed themselves above the established legitimations of the state and invited its personnel to do likewise. They have made clear the central place now achieved in the governmental process by secret police and secret 'investigations,' to the point where observant men speak realistically of a shadow cabinet based in considerable part upon new ways of power which include the wire tap, the private eye, the use and threat of blackmail. They have dramatized the hollowing out of sensibility among a population which for a generation has been steadily and increasingly subjected to the shrill trivialization of the mass means of entertainment and distraction.

Last year John H Summers of Harvard, who's working on a biography of Mills, wrote a half-century retrospective on THE POWER ELITE for the NEW YORK TIMES, saying

"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."



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