...and of their role as a public within it." So says the author, in assessing the impact of the main stream media on the public they purportedly "serve." This book is an excellent act of remediation for the media's purposeful deficiencies. C. Wright Mills, a Texas populist of sorts, published this classic analysis of the power structure within American society in 1956, and it remains largely valid today. Of course, the names of the guilty have changed, and yes, it is an indictment of the small coterie of individuals who largely run things, and make the decisions... not so much so in the smoked-filled back rooms, but quietly, in the open, often on the golf courses, while the media serves as an immense distraction, filled with the meaningless doings of the latest "celebrities," and other manufactured "crisis." And that is just one of Mills' incisive observations. He left us far too young, at the age of 45, in 1962. This book was a "de rigueur" read of the `60's, which most regrettably I missed the first time around, for it explains so much. Influential? Carlos Fuentes, who wrote a novel which I consider to be the best history of Mexico, Death of Artemio Cruz dedicated his work to Mills, "the true voice of North America."
This edition has an excellent cover, which pictorially depicts Mills central thesis. There are three principal interlocking directorates that make the essential decisions for Americans... and nowadays, as I am reminded by my non-American friends, for them as well. The three directorates are the economic, the political and the military, symbolized by Wall Street, the Pentagon and the White House. Mills is a sociologist by training, and he buttresses his thesis with the hard numbers on wealth and social mobility. Mills examines the historical movement from the days of America's agrarian past, with slower modes of communications, when power was much more diffusely spread throughout the populace through the first concentrations after the Civil War, by the "Robber Baron's," which were joined in the next half century by the political elites and finally, after the Second World War, by the military, which Mills rather goadingly calls "the warlords."
Mills impressively debunks the enduring myth of "Horatio Alger." Yes, there are always the few that are truly "self-made men," who grab "the good chance," but, by in large, membership in the power elite is hereditary, buttressed by advantageous marriages. Attending the "right schools" is the largest single factor that distinguishes "the power elite." America has its own Eton's and "Oxbridge." Though I haven't seen the two colleges combined yet in a single word, currently ALL the Supreme Court judges are graduates of either Harvard or Yale. Early on in his book, Mills references the work of Floyd Hunter, who wrote Community Power Structure in 1953. Hunter's work examines the power structure of Atlanta, Georgia, and claims that all the important decisions concerning civic life were made by 50 men (yes, with the emphasis on the male) who, by and large, were members of the Piedmont Club.
I've greatly appreciated the work of David Riesman, who wrote another sociological classic, The Lonely Crowd. Mills critique of Riesman's work is impressive, and I have come to the conclusion that perhaps both are right, in the sense that both "classical physics" and quantum mechanics are right: it all just depends on the size of the physical phenomenon being examined. Riesman postulates in American society, conflicting interest groups balance each other out, and thus no one is really in charge. Mills says that is largely true of the middle layer of power in America, and he lumps Congressmen into this category. By like Floyd Hunter, he says that the very top decisions, like deciding to make an Atomic bomb... and to drop it... are made by only a very few individuals.
Mills' work is replete with bon mots and pithy and incisive observations. Considering his own profession: "One continual weakness of American `social science,' since it became ever so empirical, has been its assumption that a mere enumeration of a plurality of causes is the wise and scientific way of going about understanding modern society, Of course, it is nothing of the sort: it is a paste-pot eclecticism which avoids the real task of social analysis..." As to the power of the media: "Most of `the pictures in our heads' we have gained from these media- even to the point where we often do not really believe what we see before us until we read about it in the paper..." Imagine this observation from 1956, on the distractive power of the media: In the sense that the volume of publicity and acclaim is mainly and continuously upon those professional celebrities, it is not upon the power elite." Like other astute observers of American society, Mills bemoans the loss of community that small towns and more "holistic individuals" provided and even quotes Albert Einstein who says that if he were a young man again he would not try to be a scientist or a scholar or teacher by rather a plumber or peddler "...in the hope to find that modest degree of independence still available..."
In this edition there is an Afterword by Alan Wolfe which critiques some of the issues that he feels Mills got wrong. One was the decline in military expenditures, proving that the "warlords" really were not that influential...Wolfe wrote this in the year 2000, one year before the so-called War on Terror sharply increased military expenditures and hence the military's influence, once again.
Yes, Virginia, there really is a "they" who run things, but "they" continue to prefer to do so discreetly, and use mechanisms like the distractions of celebrities and abstract formulations like "market forces" to disguise their decisions. Mills work endures. 6-stars.