Power is a concept that is widely researched and discussed by various scholars. Sociologist Dennis Gilbert in the book The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality, summarizes different ideas of power and class inequality that are worth examining. This paper discusses the three perspectives of power described in Gilbert’s book and the concept of the national power elite. Furthermore, pluralism and its views on the elite aspect of power are analyzed.
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The Three Perspectives of Power
Power can be defined as a demonstration of someone else’s dominant will and the ability to force people to submit to this will despite having a contrary opinion, according to Lexico Dictionary (“Power” n.d.). The grounds for subordination to such power may be different. In modern political science and sociology, there are many concepts of power. For example, the first perspective of power, which is elite, assumes that there are few people who are the most valuable element of society. The Elite’s dominant position is in the interest of the whole nation because people from the ruling minority are the most productive part of the community.
According to the second perspective, there are many powerful groups in various spheres of life in a society. Competition between those groups allows the masses to control the activities of elites and prevent the formation of a single dominant group. The third concept of power, class perspective, defines the ruling class, which is a class of owners. Class identification is closely related to the presence or absence of economic capital in this concept (Gilbert 2018). The elite and class perspectives have more in common than the pluralist concept because they highlight that the minority is the elite group.
Mills’ Concept of the National Power Elite
A classic work, The Power Elite, created by American political scientist C. Wright Mills gave an analysis of the U.S. elite in the middle of the twentieth century. In The Power Elite, Mills defined the elite as those who hold “command posts” (Mills 2000, p. 4). According to Mills (2000), a social institution is understood as a set of roles and statuses designed to meet a particular social need. Among institutions that are the most significant for society, there are three hierarchies: corporate, political, and military. Those who lead these social institutions represent the power elite.
In The Power Elite, political leaders, corporate leaders, and military commanders together make the most important political decisions. Mills (2000) explained that by the power elite, he meant those political, economic, and military circles that are interrelated, people from these circles share the right to make decisions of national importance. The elite of power has a group cohesion due to shared interests and personal solidarity, resulting from traditional education, social origin, the nature of interpersonal relationships, lifestyle, according to Mills (2000).
This nature of relations is due to the coincidence of the interests of the military, political, and economic hierarchies in ensuring the stability and progressive development of society, Mills (2000) suggests. However, social similarity and the psychological community of people who sit on commanding heights are essential. Therefore, people from one elite institution can quickly move to another one (for example, from political to economic).
An example of a powerful institution that fits into Mills’ national power elite is an international conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway Inc. that possesses fourth place in Fortune 500 ranking (“Berkshire Hathaway” 2019). Holding company’s CEO Warren Buffett belongs to the power elite because he has political end economic power as he holds decision-making in various companies included in the conglomerate, for instance, McLane Company, GEICO, and others (“Berkshire Hathaway” 2019). Moreover, Buffet has a corporate commanding position, as it is stated in The Power Elite that constitutes its belonging to the elite.
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Berkshire Hathaway has global operations; therefore, the conglomerate is interested in protecting its assets and can subsequently donate financial resources to support a military defense that also gives a source of power. The critical infrastructure that the conglomerate holds maintains its political power because it has an essential impact on countries and people’s operations. Thus, the corporation and its CEO belong to the power elite defined by C. Wright Mills.
Pluralist Criticisms of Mills’ National Power
Different political scientists criticized Mills’ national power of the elite. As Mills criticized mainly the pluralist perspective of power, scholars that supported this concept had to oppose Mills’ view. Some claimed that Mills had not given an empirical analysis of power and misused the term “elite” that was presented inaccurately (Gilbert 2018). Both parties were criticized for their views with an argument that the distribution of power is more complicated: between the elite and the mass, there are numerous institutions, groups, political parties, and so on (Gilbert 2018). Mills promoted the omnipotence of the elite; pluralists supported the supremacy of the mass.
The most opposed statement of Mills’ concept of power elite was the one related to elite cohesion. The author was criticized for opposing the elite and society, for his assertion of the closeness of the ruling elite and its strong sense of cohesion and community (Gilbert 2018). Pluralists suggested that presenting one group as a significant power holder is a simplified view of power (Gilbert 2018). Furthermore, it was argued that elite cohesion is questioned due to diverse opinions on the direction where the country and its central institutions should go to and agree on (Gilbert 2018). Discussion on the distribution of power between autonomous groups (that pluralists stated) and one group (that Mills claimed) that hold decision-making power is still in place.
Pluralist Understandings of Power
Pluralism implied that policy and decision-making are located mostly within the government in a country, but there should be other political groups that have the power to gain influence. The main issue that pluralism researches are how power and control are distributed in the country or an organization (Lundberg 2014). Groups of individuals aim to satisfy their interests while gaining control. The lines of conflict are diverse and changing every time because power is evolving, and it involves negotiation between the government and non-government groups.
The pluralist concept of power has an organizational feature: various parties and social movements express the interests of society. The list of possible sources of power is almost limitless: legitimate power, financial resources, knowledge, charisma, and experience. Pluralists also emphasize the differences between potential and real strength because it can change places (Gilbert 2018).
Real power is defined as the ability to force people to execute something, and there is a potential power that has a capacity to get power due to a change in circumstances (“Potential” n.d.). Different groups can express their veto on decisions; this ability to have an impact on power is the most crucial concept that all pluralism concepts have in common.
Various scholars still analyze different perspectives of power described in Gilbert’s The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality. Contemporary scientists add new arguments on the matter of power identification that keeps the discussion going further. Despite having different views, theories that were produced years ago have similarities with the realities of the modern world. Thus, the conflict between pluralists and elite power supporters may still be in place many years from now.
Berkshire Hathaway. 2019. Web.
Gilbert, Dennis. 2018. The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality. 10th. ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Lundberg, Erik. 2014. A Pluralist State? Civil Society Organization’s Access to the Swedish Policy Process 1964-2009. Örebro: Örebro University.
Mills, Charles Wright. 2000. The Power Elite. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
“Potential.” N.d. Vocabulary.com Dictionary. Web.
“Power.” N.d. Lexico Dictionary. Web.