Mills 'The Power Elite' Analysis

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18th Sep 2017 Politics Reference this

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 Rudenko Viacheslav 

The ruling elite consists of people occupying such positions that give them the opportunity to rise above the environment of ordinary people and make decisions that have the greatest consequences. Whether they make these decisions or not- it is less important than the fact of owning such key positions; their avoidance of known actions and decisions is in itself an action that often entails more important consequences than the decisions they make. This is due to the fact that “they command the most important institutions and organisations of modern society.” For us, it is important that the activities of the elite not only can provide a stabilising function for the whole society or its subsystems, but can also destabilise its condition.

In the work “The Power Elite”, Mills carried out an institutional analysis of America’s contemporary. As he points out, among all spheres of the life of the society, there are three most important: economic, political and military. It is here where we must look for the roots of the real elite of society. Mills concluded that at the head of America more or less permanent group of families. Representatives of this ruling elite have so much in common (beginning with religion and education and ending with membership in the same clubs) that they represent a single group that gradually concentrates in their hands full power. Although these people consist in different parties, they also have similar interests and views. Because of this, it leads to that the election of the president or congressmen, in fact, a fiction that has no significant meaning. Thus, the country is governed by a narrow “ruling elite”, which occupies the highest level in the power structure. The lower level in this structure is occupied by the majority of citizens who allegedly are the reliance of democracy, but in reality, they are subordinate to the will of the elite. The single rule of the ruling elite, as C. Mills asserted, not only poses a threat to democracy, but can also provoke a third world war. Sharply criticising the dominance of the elite, Charles Mills posited positive hopes for intellectuals, which, in his opinion, should become the core that will strengthen American society, returning it to democratic origins.

The book “The Power Elite” contains a comprehensive analysis of the American ruling elite:   

  • its composition and main characteristics;
  • mechanisms of its formation;
  • its place in society;
  • its historical evolution; etc.

The research itself is a visual example of how a practical embodiment of the style of thinking should look like, which called by Mills as “sociological imagination,”.

The ruling elite: “consists of people occupying positions that give them the opportunity to rise above the environment of ordinary people and make decisions that have the greatest consequences.”

C. Mills believed that there are three distinct levels of power.

  • The first – the highest level – is occupied by the ruling elite, which formally and informally accepts the most important political decisions and removes the popular masses from governing the country;
  • The second level is an “intermediate level” of power reflecting group interests in local and regional authorities, whose influence on the adoption of fundamental decisions is limited;
  • The third level is the level of the “actual lack of rights of the masses”, on which the main part of society is located, which does not exert any influence on the decision-making.

This naturally leads to the conclusion that in fact American democracy and people’s democracy – is nothing more than a deception.

The main fact: the possession of command positions in the social system, in which effective means are concentrated, providing – power, wealth, prestige, fame.

The ruling elite has a national character:
Analysing the provincial upper classes of the old and new formations and the upper strata of the central cities (the so-called “layer of four hundred families”), and Mills showed that their power capabilities are limited, and their decisions do not have a decisive influence on social processes. Higher positions in local hierarchies have lost the importance they had before. This is due to the institutional development of society, its enlargement and the formation of national social networks.

Many members of the ruling elite came out from the local tops; But those who occupy the highest positions in the local hierarchies do not belong to it. The key to understanding the power of the elite must be sought in the social structure of modern society, its most important institutions.

That is:

(1) economic institutions: corporations;

(2) political institutions: the state;

(3) military institutions: the army.

These institutions in American society dominate and subordinate all other institutions (school, family, church, science, etc.), turning them into tools for the realisation of their goals. There have been processes of enlargement and centralisation in these three areas:

  • Economy: instead of a lot of small entrepreneurs – 200-300 large corporations;
  • Public administration: instead of a decentralised structure of state and municipal governments, a centralised government;
  • Military: instead of a decentralised structure of means of violence, a centralised military department that has become “the largest and the most expensive government agency”.

The ruling elite is effectively closed from foreign: through the working mechanisms of selection and recruitment, predominance of appointees and the role of subjective evaluation in appointments. Staying in the elite gives you direct access to the valuable benefits of life: wealth, power, prestige. Access to these benefits depends not so much on the personal qualities of a person, but on the positions in power.

Disappearance of the “public”: “The questions that determine the fate of people are not put and are not solved by the general public”. Key decisions for society are made by the elite, often without any regard for the public. Also, there is a growing gap between the elite and the managed population.

A huge role here is played by the media: in place of democratic discussion and decision-making, authoritarian decision-making mechanisms based on the technologies of propaganda processing and the formation of “public opinion” come. The market of opinions is monopolised: several large monopolists came to the place of numerous independent producers of opinions. Outcome: universal spiritual ignorance, stupor, loss of life guides and criteria, the triumph of immorality, the collapse of the mind, the general atmosphere of insecurity and impotence. A similar function is also performed by the education system.

“Immorality at the top”: a structural problem. The society itself is arranged in such way that to achieve success person must drop moral. Moral orientations are often become disastrous for a career. In the lower classes a similar structural problem is “philistine Machiavellianism”. In a society where money is the only indisputable measure of prosperity (and human value), it cannot be otherwise.

The main Elite-forming sign is not outstanding individual qualities, but possession of command positions, leading positions. The ruling elite, writes Mills, “consists of people, occupying such positions that give them the opportunity to rise above the environment of ordinary people and make decisions that have major consequences. This is due to the fact that they command the most important hierarchical institutions and organizations of modern society. They occupy strategic command posts in the social system, in which effective means are concentrated, ensuring the power, wealth and fame that they use.” It is the occupation of key positions in the economy, politics, military and other institutions that provides power and thereby constitutes the elite. Such an understanding of the elite distinguishes left-liberal concepts from Machiavellian and other theories that lead to elitism from special qualities of people.

Group cohesion and the diversity of the composition of the ruling elite, which is not limited to the elite of the political, directly taking state decisions, but includes the leaders of corporations, politicians, senior civil servants and higher officers. They are supported by intellectuals, well-established within the existing system.

The unifying factor of the ruling elite is not only the common interest of the constituent groups in preserving their privileged position and the social order that provides it, but also the proximity of the social status, educational and cultural level, the range of interests and spiritual values, lifestyle, and personal and family ties.

There is also profound difference between the elite and the masses. Natives of the people can enter the elite only by occupying high positions in the social hierarchy. However, they have few real chances for this. The possibilities for the influence of the masses on the elite through elections and other democratic institutions are very limited. With the help of money, knowledge, the sophisticated mechanism of manipulating consciousness, the ruling elite controls the masses virtually uncontrollably. The recruiting of the elite is carried out mainly from its own environment based on acceptance of its social and political values. The most important criteria for selection are the possession of resources of influence, as well as business qualities and a conformist social position.

The first and main function of the ruling elite in society is to ensure its own domination. Exactly this function by which decision of administrative tasks is subordinated. Mills denies the inevitability of the elitism of society, criticizes it from consistently democratic positions. Mills comments on the popular ideas about the “managerial revolution”, according to which, the power in the enterprises passed to the managers from the bottom, rational managers who care about both the profits for the owners and the dignity of the workers. Mills argues that in fact, managers are divided into two classes: those who are engaged in executive organisational work, and those who make key decisions. So, the second, higher class of managers is not separate from the owners of the group. As a rule, they have part in the shares of the enterprise. In fact, their interests do not differ from the interests of owners, as in their position they “make money”.

At the very top of the social structure of the United States is the ruling elite, and below it is a politically formless inert society. If you look at it objectively, there is not so widely praised by the liberals the public, which discusses various issues, and then implements decisions directly or through representatives. The place of a reasonable and free personality envisaged by such a model is now occupied by the “crowd man”, and a mass society takes the place of a politically active organisation organised into grassroots associations of civil society. As We see large corporations instead small shopkeepers today, and instead of communicating between the buyer and the seller, we see mass advertising, as well in politics: instead of exchanging views, we see mass ideological processing.

From what has been said it is clear that an inert society is the result of the influence of the mass media. The basis of resistance to them may be the comprehension of their experience, but the problem is that even our experience we perceive through the prism created by the mass media. Also, these media divert us from knowing the world through communication with loved ones. Probably, this function is performed by the TV bursting into the kitchen? Media does not only form our view of the world, but also our view of ourselves, imposing desires, dreams, and a vision of our position in society. The way out of this situation is to create and maintain alternative media that are not monopolised by the powers that be. This will allow us to see a real clash of opinions and analyse them.

The education system has an effect similar to the mass media. In modern educational institutions, instead of political goals (the ability to link personal experience with social processes and to be active in public life), dominate market goals (the desire to become a steep specialist and move along the career ladder) which go together with ideologic propaganda of ruling class.

The structure of an inert society is this: we are alienated from each other and closed in our own world, to which we look through the prism created by the mass media and the education system. We cannot relate our position to a real social structure. As a result, we become non-initiative and politically inert. Above the mass of such disunited people rises the organised elite, making the most important decisions, concerning all.

Such pessimistic picture drawn by Mills. Pessimistic, because it does not contain a hint of a strategy of liberation. Perhaps Mills simply did not set the goal of this book to reflect on liberation strategies, or maybe he did not really see the opportunity to change society for the better, who knows?

The concept of “elite” within the framework of the proposed cultural-institutional approach which historically defined (along with aristocracy and nomenclature) as a form of existence of power groups that define institutional boundaries. In other words, the elites are groups that perform, first of all, stabilising functions on the scale of the whole society, as well as its individual subsystems. And within the framework of this function, the elites consider the limits of the existence of other institutions and individuals. In this sense, they are institutionalising institutions. The existence of the elite is connected with the bourgeois industrial society. This means that they are the product of the social relations of this particular society. In this context, there are three characteristics of the modern society which are important: openness of the society, openness of power and openness of politics. In connection with these changes, the elites are institutionalised.

The study of the ruling elite of the US did not go unnoticed. Later, the conclusions of C. Mills were reflected in the ideology of the “new left” throughout the world. In addition, the modern English sociologist A. Giddens who has convincingly shown that the term “ruling elite”, invented by C. Mills in relation to the United States, can rightly be attributed to the Soviet Union.

Mills carried out an institutional analysis of America’s contemporary. He pointed out that among all spheres of the life of society the leading place is occupied by three – economic, political and military. Mills believes that power elites represent only their own interests, which include maintaining an “eternal economic war” to control American capitalism, and masking “manipulative control of social and political order with the help of the mass media.” Mills concluded that at the head of America is more or less the permanent group of families. This leads to the fact that the election of the president or congressmen is a fiction, which has no essential meaning. The lower level in this structure is occupied by the majority of citizens who allegedly to the reliance of democracy, but in reality they are subordinate to the will of the elite. Mills saw the main social danger in increasing “rationality without reason,” that is, in using “ruling elite” rational means ,developed by scientists, to achieve irrational goals.

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