The power elite revisited

In

, Balzac wrote: “Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié.” Brecht and Weill had their bankers in
start out as street racketeers. C.Wright Mills, author of
, took the same view of the financiers and industrialists he perceived to be controlling the America of his day – the 1950s, Cold War era. His analysis was even darker than Eisenhower’s construction of the military-industrial complex. Mills saw a polity and economy directed towards perpetual war in order to prolong power and profit.

[amazon_image id=”B000U35R6Y” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Power Elite.[/amazon_image]

The Power Elite was criticised by other sociologists such as Daniel Bell for its abstraction. Its themes were seen as too big, insufficiently rooted in empirical evidence and institutional analysis. And certainly, the 1950s are remote from our own times in so many ways. Communism and the Cold War seem long, long ago.

Yet Stanley Aronowitz’s intellectual biography,

, does well to remind us of Mills’ work and thought, which was extremely influential on the nascent New Left in the US, and has subsequently been largely forgotten. One reason is that Mills did so much to try to carve out the space for public intellectuals in American culture, albeit not with much lasting success – but at least demonstrating the scope for engagement with a wide public in accessible language.

The other is that for all the abstraction of the analysis of ‘the power elite’, the current crisis reminds us that the idea and reality of the elite is crucial. If only we had not forgotten about it between the 1960s and 2008. Events have reopened people’s eyes to the exercise of power by the wealthy and connected, and authors from Simon Johnson and James Kwak in 

to Ferdinand Mount in 
have started to analyse this again.

 is a good introduction to the arc of Mills’ thinking, culminating in his newly-relevant analysis of power. It is also quite well written, something I can’t remember ever saying before about a book by an academic sociologist – Aronowitz has evidently taken Mills’ lead on accessibility. Although the author has a political perspective that I don’t share, I enjoyed reading it.

[amazon_image id=”0231135408″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Taking it Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals[/amazon_image]

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2 thoughts on “The power elite revisited

    • Perhaps I’ve been reading the wrong sociologists. I hope I would be as harsh about economists who write badly – heaven knows, there are plenty. Is there more pop economics than pop sociology around? I think Aditya Chakrabortty has criticised sociologists for not engaging enough outside the academy, although I can’t track down the article at the moment.

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