In Père Goriot, Balzac wrote: “Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié.” Brecht and Weill had their bankers in The Threepenny Opera start out as street racketeers. C.Wright Mills, author of The Power Elite, 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.
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, Taking It Big, 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 13 Bankers to Ferdinand Mount in The New Few have started to analyse this again.
Taking it Big 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.