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Bell, The Power Elite-Reconsidered

Bell, The Power Elite-Reconsidered

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The Power Elite-ReconsideredAuthor(s): Daniel BellReviewed work(s):Source:
American Journal of Sociology,
Vol. 64, No. 3 (Nov., 1958), pp. 238-250Published by:
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Accessed: 24/02/2012 05:12
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THEPOWERELITE-RECONSIDERED1
DANIELBELL
ABSTRACTThe Power Elitehas had a wideemotionalappealbecauseof its rhetoricand its tough-minded"un-masking"ofnaive,Populistillusions aboutdemocratic checksonpower.But a detailed,textual analysisof the bookshows a looseand confusing useof terminology.Its conceptualschemedraws from Europeanexperienceswhich donot apply inAmerican life. Itsmethodis staticandahistorical. Power,as Mills de-finesit,is violence, but thisavoidsmore problemsthan it illuminates.The book failsto dealwith thena-ture of interestsor to definethe character ofpoliticaldecisions.
C.Wright Mills'sThe Power Elite isoneof those rare books inrecentsociologythatdeals withthe "worldof causality" asagainst meredescription.Power is adifficultsubject; itseffects aremore observable thanitscauses. Even thepower-wielders oftendonotknowwhatfactorsshaped theirde-cisions.Byseeing power through apeculiarconfiguration of elites,Millsprovides aframeto locatethesources ofbehavior. Itis, inaddition, somnethinglse: apoliticalbook whoseloosetexture andpowerfulrhet-orichaveallowed differentpeople to readtheirown emotionsintoit. Fortheyoungneo-Marxists inEngland (videthe grouparound theUniversitiesand LeftReview)and theold, orthodox MarxistsinPoland(vide thereceptionbyAdam Schaff,theparty's officialphilosopher),ithasbecomeaprimerfor theunderstandingof Americanpolicyand motives. This iscurious,sinceMillsisnotaMarxist,and,ifanything,hismethodandconclusionsareanti-Marxist.But because itistough-minded and"un-masks" thenaive, Populist illusions aboutpower,ithaswon aready responseamongradicals. Yet ThePowerElite is notan em-piricalanalysis of power inthe UnitedStates,though manyreadershave mistakenitsillustrationsfor suchananalysis, but aschemeforthe analysis ofpower; and aclosereadingofitsargument willshow,Ithink, howconfusingandunsatisfactorythisscheme is.
THEMOODANDTHEINTENT
Themood that pervadesMills'sbook,andmost ofhiswork, providessome cluetotheresponse. Inwriting aboutlabor (TheNewMenofPower),thewhite-collarclass,andnowthe powerelite,Millsiswritingnot awhole humancomedy butoneaspectofit,whatBalzaccalledthe etudede meurs,"thecomedyof morals." Someof the Balzacmethod isthere: Balzac soughttoreconcilethediscoveriesofsciencewith poetry andto buildupvisualeffects bythemassingoffactualdetail.Millswrites invividmeta-phorsandsurroundsthem withstatisticafterstatistic. Butmorethanstylisticanal-ogyis involved.Balzac livedat atimeverymuchlike ours-atime of upheavalwhenoldmores were calledintoquestion,whenforthefirsttimeindividualsocial mobilitywas becoming possible,whenStendhal'sJulienSorel,theyoungmanfromtheprov-inces, couldseek tomoveinto theworld oftheupperclass. Balzac'sheroes, LouisLam-bert,Rastignac,and,most ofall,Vautrin(alateral descendantofMacheath,fromJohnGay's Beggar'sOpera),beginasmo-bilemen,seeking a place insociety, butendby hatingthe bourgeois societytheyfound.Their stanceis that oftheoutsider,andtheirworld (Vautrin'sunderworlds a coun-tersociety tothe upperworld,asis BertBrecht'sThree Penny Opera)is builton thepremise thatthe publicmorality,its man-ners andideals,is alla fraud.It is interest-ingthat Millsquoteswith approvalBalzac'sdictum,"Behind every fortuneis a crime,"
1
This is arevised versionof a paperpresentedbefore the FacultyColloquium of the ColumbiaUniversitySociology DepartmentinMay, 1958.
238
 
THEPOWERELITE-RECONSIDERED239
and sees it as a judgment whichappliesequally today. Mills,too,is anoutsider. But, whatever its initial impulse, Mills'sbookis moldedbymore directintellectualprogenitors. These areVeblen,fromwhomthe rhetoricand irony is consciously copied;Weber,forthepictureof socialstructure,not however of classes,but of vertical or-ders, or Standen; and, mostcrucially,Pa-reto, but notfor thedefinitionofelite,whichis much different from Mills's, butthe method. FromPareto is drawn thescorn for ideas and thedenial that ideologyhas any operativemeaninginthe exerciseofpower. By seeing poweras an underlying"combinationof orders," Mills parallelsinmethod what Pareto wasdoing in seeing so-cial groups as "combination of residues."Thisleads,Ithink, despite the dynamismintherhetoric,to astatic,ahistoricalap-
proach.2
THEARGUMENT
Ifone seeks to relatesequence to argu-ment asitunfolds in Mills'sopening chap-ter (the others are largely uneven illustra-tions rather thandevelopment or demon-stration ofthethesis),there isaperplexingshuttling backandforthon thekey prob-lem of how power iswielded.One canonly showthisbysomedetailed quotation, adifficult butnecessaryburdenforexposi-
tion.3
Within Americansociety, says Mills,majornationalpower"nowresidesintheeconomic, political andmilitarydomains."The wayto understand hepowerof theAmerican lite liesneitherolelyinrecognizing
thehistorical scaleofevents,nor inacceptingthepersonalawarenessreportedbymen ofap-parentdecision.Behind such men andbehindtheeventsofhistory,linkingthetwo,arethemajorinstitutions ofmodernsociety.Thesehierarchiesofstateandcorporationandarmyconstitute the means ofpower:assuch,theyare nowofaconsequencenotbeforeequalledin humanhistory-andat theirsummits,thereare nowthose commandpostsof modem soci-etywhichoffer us thesociologicalkeytoanunderstandingoftherole of thehighercirclesinAmerica [p.5].Thispower, tobepower,apparentlymeanscontrol over theinstitutionsofpower:By thepowerful, wemean,ofcourse,thosewhoare able torealize theirwill, evenifothersresist it.Noone,accordingly, canbetrulypowerful unless hehas access tothe commandofmajorinstitutions, for itisovertheseinsti-tutionalmeans ofpower thatthetruly power-fulare,inthe firstinstance,powerful[p.9].Itisshared byonly a fewpersons:Bythepowerelite,werefertothosepoliticalandeconomic andmilitarycircleswhich asanintricatesetofoverlappingcliquessharede-cisionshavingatleastnationalconsequences.Inisofarasnationaleventsaredecided, thepower elite arethose who decide them[p. 18].Butthesepeoplearenot the"historymakers"ofthe time. The"powerelite"isnot,Millssays(p.20), atheoryofhistory.Historyis acomplexnetofintendedandunintendeddecisions.Theideaofthe powereliteimpliesnothingabout theprocessofdecision-making assuch:itis anattempt todelimit socialareaswithinwhich thatprocess,whiatevertscharacter,goeson.Itisaconceptionofwhoisinvolved intheprocess[p. 21].Butdecisionsaremade:Inourtime thepivotalmomentdoesarise,and atthatmoment smallcirclesdodecide orfail todecide.Ineithercase,theyare aneliteofpower.
.
. [p.22].Does the elitethenmakehistory?Some-times itisrole-determined,sometimesrole-determining(pp.24-25).But
2Myownmasters,inthisrespect,areDewey andMarx:Dewey,forhisinsistence onbeginningnotwith structurebut withproblems;withtheques-tion ofwhy somethingis calledintoquestion; whythings areinchange andwhatpeople did; Marx,for theinterplayofideologyandpower;fortheemphasisonhistory, on crises astransforming mo-ments, on politics as anactivity rooted inconcreteinterests andplayed outin determinablestrategies.'Allitalics,unless otherwiseindicated, are mine.Theyare intended tounderlinekeystatements. Allcitations are from C.Wright Mills, ThePowerElite (NewYork:OxfordUniversityPress, 1956).

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