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“The Power Elite” by C. Wright Mills

The book The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills discusses the relations between the wealthy social class of rulers and their impact on global political and economic power. The author vividly portrays that a strong sense of tradition, an abiding respect for the common ways, will frequently serve to deter such oppressive action. Men are not, ordinarily, quick to defy, or to sanction the acts of others who defy, the approved values, the fundamental precepts of the common code. They respect the established modes of behavior; they insist on a proper observance of “right” procedures, even, one must add, when the purposes for which those forms are utilized are in seeming incompatibility with the traditional goals. This, surely, is what Tocqueville had in mind when he insisted both on the necessity of forms and on the force of tradition if the excesses of democratic power were to be curbed. But whatever may have been the impact of these and other factors as a mitigating force, they have clearly not eliminated abuses of power from life.

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The book critically portrays negative consequences of minority rule and the great role of such leaders as David Rockefeller, Robert McNamara and Averell Harriman. As the most important, Mills tells readers that it is not enough, consequently, to think in terms of the dispersion of legal or political powers alone, for political power cannot–in a democratic system at least–exhaust the vast areas of social action. There are those who would invade the rights of others, and political power, no matter how potent, is never the only way by which that can be done. Mills states: “The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences” (Mills 3). Political power remains, however, a primary means of curbing that transgression, whether that transgression is the work of private or of lesser political powers. Hence, to restrain the uses of political power by an involved system of checks and balances may, in a particular instance, prevent rather than further the control of a particular oppressive act.

Where there is a great diversity of groups, there is not one but a multiplicity of traditions, some of which stand in direct opposition to others. Thus, a tradition that teaches one to respect and to treat decently (i.e., equally) all men, without regard to race or religious affiliation, is countered by a tradition that teaches one to regard some men as intrinsically inferior to others and to treat them not equally but each according to his kind. And where there is great social and occupational mobility, so that men born into one group will in the course of their lives generally pass through and into others, the sentiments that bind them to one another and that guide their conduct tend to be those of the particular group to which they momentarily adhere, and not simply those of the larger community to which they are also attached. There is still, of course, this sense of the greater community, but it is no longer deep and firmly rooted. I agree with Mills that the qualities of friendship, of shared experiences, of a commitment to common values, are dissipated in all too great a measure by the vast size and complexity of America, by the lost ties of neighborhood and of community. To increase a grant of power is not necessarily to abandon it, or even, in a particular situation, to make its control more difficult. On the contrary, in any given situation this may be the indispensable and thoroughly safe means to correct an evident injustice. But it does carry with it certain dangers that always attend an undue concentration of power, and it does not escape the limitations we have already noted with respect to the principle of responsibility in American democracy. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which the remoteness of the bureaucracy–or of certain portions of the bureaucracy–from both the indicated superior officers and from the public that is affected by it is in some cases such as effectively to remove it from ready direction and control.

Mills is right stating that this is especially true where the bureaucratic unit–which seeks not simply to achieve the ostensible purpose for which it was created, but also to increase the power and prestige of its officials–successfully surrounds itself with an aura of secrecy, so that few know or can feel competent to judge what that particular unit does. “Moral distrust of the American elite-as well as the fact of organized irresponsibility-rests upon the higher immorality, but also upon vague feelings about the higher ignorance” (Mills 335). The American system attempts to combine both principles, which is logically and factually impossible. What the American system does is to espouse both but to practice neither. This is not the principle of responsibility. The difficulties attendant on individual or group withdrawal are no less serious when applied to that extreme form of concerted withdrawal that we call secession. It is true that in a given situation a particular group may, by separating itself from an established state, escape what it conceives to be the oppressive measures of the latter and achieve a greater degree of freedom.

In sum, the book vividly portrays drawbacks and threats of the elite power and its negative consequences for the global population. Under such conditions, a conflict of values between a constituent state and the national government would involve distinct sets of interests clearly opposed and embodied in their respective political units: the constituent state would represent one set of interests, the national state, another. There are divisions or conflicts within the constituent state no less strong or important than those that apply in the first relationship, the insistence on the higher claim of the constituent state serves only to promote the special interests of the group that happens to control the government of the constituent state.

Works Cited

Mills, C. W. The Power Elite. Oxford University Press, USA, 2000.

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