Writing on C. Wright Mills
In 1957 he proposed, in fact, a new book to his publisher in the field of the philosophy of history, whose title was supposed to be The Fourth Epoch. Like many of Mills’ projects, it was not completed because he could not attract fund- ing for it. Nevertheless, thanks to other writings and some of his drafts collected at the University of Texas, Austin, we are able to understand the main ideas of that work and why it would have become so important for political theory.
In our era where one crisis follows another, leftist intellectuals have been looking for real agents for revolutionary change. They have been looking for discontented groups from different social strata who have the will and capacity for eradicating the social injustices caused by capitalism. The new economic and political realities have led radical social scientists to abandon Marx’s confident belief in a “proletarian revolution” and to talk more about the importance of raising class consciousness through intellectual radicalism. We find also new questionings on the future of socialism and the search for a new alternative system that shares with socialism the same ideal of an egalitarian classless society and that counters the cruelties of capitalism. It is very important to note that the road to social democracy is very sinuous, what we need however, as Daniel singer has noted it, is “a new manifesto. Not a blueprint, not a detailed program; but a project, the vision of a different society, the proof that history has not come to an end, that there is a future beyond capitalism.” Social groups who are burning for a socialist transition of the world must abandon the use of empty rhetoric in denouncing capitalism, they should instead regain their autonomy and join forces to organize their political and ideological power in a way which surpasses the powers of the dominant capitalist classes.
As he would write in The Marxists, a political philosophy had to encompass not only an analysis of society and a set of theories of how it works but “an ethic, an articulation of ideals.” It followed that intellectuals should be explicit about their values and rigorous in considering contrary positions. It also followed that research work should be supplemented by blunt writing that was meant to inform and mobilize what he called, following John Dewey, “publics.” In Mills’ words, “The education and the political role of social science in a democracy is to help cultivate and sustain publics and individuals that are able to develop, to live with, and to act upon adequate definitions of personal and social realities.”
Perhaps you know Foucault’s remark that despite the torrent of criticism directed against his philosophical system, “Hegel prowls through the twentieth century.” Consigned to a kind of academic purgatory for the last three decades of the twentieth century, at a time when social theory had migrated from the social sciences obsessed with case studies and social “problems” to literature and philosophy where he was rarely discussed and almost never cited., C. Wright Mills was an absent presence. All sociologists, and most people in other social scientific disciplines knew his name, and in their political unconscious, recognized his salience, but were deterred by fear and careerism from following his path as a public political intellectual. Yet in the wake of scandals involving leading corporations and their Chief Executive and Financial Officers, which have become daily fare even in mainstream media, and the hegemony of corporate capital over the American state, which was widely reported in the press and television with unembarrassed approbation, Mills’s work is experiencing a small but pronounced revival. Although his name rarely appears on the reading lists of fashionable graduate courses in social and cultural theory, the republication of four of his major books, with new introductions by the historian Nelson Lichtenstein (New Men of Power), the social critic Russell Jacoby (White Collar) political theorist Alan Wolfe (The Power Elite), and sociologist Todd Gitlin (The Sociological Imagination) is likely to aid in exposing his work to students and younger faculty.
For a variety of reasons, following WWII, American sociology in what Mills was the first to term the “post modern” age, had forgotten its early roots and moved to either obscurantist “grand theory”, Parson’s structural functionalism or “abstracted empiricism” belaboring irrelevant minutiae. Grand theory, an excessively verbose conservative ideology masked as social theory was primarily concerned with “the problem of order”. It systematically and decidedly affirmed the dominant economic system, its class structure and its gender arrangements and ignored questions of classes, power, inequality, alienation, conflict, change and most of all, the life experiences of actual people-especially poor and/or marginal people. At the same time, mini-empires of grant funded research, led by “managers of the mind”, well trained in “scientific methods” of sampling and analysis, moved sociological research from its original concerns to an obsessive gathering of isolated, de-contextualized factoids. Mills, was one of the first Americans to read the Frankfurt School critiques of instrumental reason as a hegemonic ideology sustaining the status quo, technologically based capitalism and the spurious “objectivity” of abstracted empiricism. Such “research” agendas could no more understand the nature of the times or address the vital questions of the age than could”grand theory”.
Mills’ first question is:
What is the structure of this particular society as a whole? What are its essential components and how are they related to one another? How does it differ from other varieties of social order? Within it, what is the meaning of any particular feature for its continuance and for its change?
I believe that Fromm’s attention to the substance of Mills’ first question is illustrated by the following:
These problems of happiness, ethical motivation, and destructiveness must be studied in the larger context of the character structure prevailing in any given culture and in sub-groups of this culture. They must be part of extensive studies of the character structure typical of various nations, of their national characters. It must be emphasized again that such studies must be not focused on childhood training but on the structure of the society as a whole, on the functions of the individual in this structure (“Psychoanalytic Characterology and Its Application to the Understanding of Culture” 1949)
Thomas Dye, a political scientist, and his students have been studying the upper echelons of leadership in America since 1972. These “top positions” encompassed the posts with the authority to run programs and activities of major political, economic, legal, educational, cultural, scientific, and civic institutions. The occupants of these offices, Dye’s investigators found, control half of the nation’s industrial, communications, transportation, and banking assets, and two-thirds of all insurance assets. In addition, they direct about 40 percent of the resources of private foundations and 50 percent of university endowments. Furthermore, less than 250 people hold the most influential posts in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government, while approximately 200 men and women run the three major television networks and most of the national newspaper chains.
Facts like these, which have been duplicated in countless other studies, suggest to many observers that power in the United States is concentrated in the hands of a single power elite. Scores of versions of this idea exist, probably one for each person who holds it, but they all interpret government and politics very differently than pluralists. Instead of seeing hundreds of competing groups hammering out policy, the elite model perceives a pyramid of power. At the top, a tiny elite makes all of the most important decisions for everyone below. A relatively small middle level consists of the types of individuals one normally thinks of when discussing American government: senators, representatives, mayors, governors, judges, lobbyists, and party leaders. The masses occupy the bottom. They are the average men and women in the country who are powerless to hold the top level accountable.
The power elite theory, in short, claims that a single elite, not a multiplicity of competing groups, decides the life-and-death issues for the nation as a whole, leaving relatively minor matters for the middle level and almost nothing for the common person. It thus paints a dark picture. Whereas pluralists are somewhat content with what they believe is a fair, if admittedly imperfect, system, the power elite school decries the grossly unequal and unjust distribution of power it finds everywhere.
People living in a country that prides itself on democracy, that is surrounded by the trappings of free government, and that constantly witnesses the comings and goings of elected officials may find the idea of a power elite farfetched. Yet many very intelligent social scientists accept it and present compelling reasons for believing it to be true. Thus, before dismissing it out of hand, one ought to listen to their arguments.
See also H. T. Reynold’s blog: the Reasonable Progressive
Mills, Hunter, and power structure research are relatively distinctive in that they see power as originally rooted in organizations, not in individuals, voluntary associations, interest groups, and parties, as mainstream political science does, nor in classes, as Marxists do, although they certainly agree that voluntary associations, interest groups, and classes can arise historically in some countries from their organizational base, as has been the case in industrialized capitalist societies. On the other hand, Mills, Hunter, and the field of research they created do not see organizations in the neutral and benign way characteristic of most organizational theorists, whose primary focus since their field arose in the 1920s has been to help make organizations function more efficiently and smoothly. This often means that the organizational theorists are trying to help control the workforces for the managers who hire them, or get more out of them (“efficiency”), which is just the opposite of the approach Hunter and Mills would advocate.
Power structure researchers start with and are wary of organizations because they see them as power bases for those at the top due to the information and material resources that leaders control, as supplemented by their ability to reshape organizational structures, hire and fire underlings, make alliances with other organizational leaders, and many other factors. However, they do not resign themselves to this situation, as Robert Michels (1915/1958) did when he said that he who says organization says oligarchy. Power structure researchers differ from Michels in that they believe in the promise of greater equality and participation. For them, power at the top is not inevitable. Organizations can be restructured and controlled by the rank-and-file through a variety of means when people organize themselves through a combination of unions, political parties, cooperatives, and other means.
Over the past few decades, we have witnessed the gradual proliferation of economistic terms, phrases and reasoning across the whole planet. In spite of this pro- mulgation, most people in many instances can only make vague sense of words like Dow Jones or NASDAQ averages, S&P 500, FTSE 100, DAX and NIKKEI etc. Interest- ingly, this new wave of economistic lan- guage was enthroned alongside the “rediscovery” of “affect,” “community,” the “environment,” the “uncanny,” “third way” and “compassionate conservatives.” These polar trends infused the emergent corporate-speak with a strange sugar-coat- ing that made its there-is-no-alternative (TINA) “reforms” easier to “swallow.” The gradual spread of corporate suit-speak however lends some credence to the famil- iar allegation that society is subsumed in the ill-conceived jargons of the business field. To paraphrase the famous American aphorism, the business of human societies (not just America) now seems to be “busi- ness.” The buccaneering entrepreneur is no longer an American folk hero or oddity but a model for the likes of rapper 50 Cents, the young African refugee in Malta or the brand-conscious academic version of the “X Factor” and the “Apprentice.
Many critics of “neoliberalism” blame Friedrick von Hayek inspired “think tanks” and “policy institute” for transforming a marginal idea at the University of Chicago into the “neoliberal utopia” that “ embod[ies] itself in the reality of a kind of infernal machine ” (Bourdieu 1998: 36). But are Hayek’s “self- directing automatic system” or John Nash and the Rand Corporation’s “Game Theory” really new in the larger scheme of things? The basic elements of Hayek’s free market “body/machine complex” and the corresponding idea of the “Prisoner’s Di- lemma” dates back to the origin of modern mechanistic thought.
First, It is not possible to be concerned with empirical realities without the use of abstraction. One cannot empty one’s minds and just see what is what. Even the most fanatical views are put forth in the name of fact or assumed to be self-evident. In selecting what one sees and what ones makes of it, therefore, there are meanings, abstractions, and not mere events. Second, the suppression of abstractions only means that they will be smuggled in as general propositions among detailed observations and anecdote. Third, it is not possible to render meaningful observations that are made or interviews that are held during brief visits without a sense of real history. What one sees is not just suddenly there. At least part of its meaning lies in its development. And all historical knowledge is abstract—inferences about past events from still-existing signs and reports. Fourth, in observing one society, or any specific feature of it, one inevitably compares it with other societies one knows, especially one’s own. This is not only a source of standards of perceptions, but also of self-perception.