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Another Side of C.Wright Mills: The Theory of Mass Society

Now that the 50th anniversary commemorations of C. Wright Mills’s sociological triptych of America in the latter half of the 20th century, The Power Elite, White Collar, The Sociological Imagination, have come and gone, there are still many reasons for continued interest in C. Wright Mills’s, The Power Elite.  Before the end of Barack Obama’s first term in office the nation struggles with many “Millsian” concerns:  how to make sense of the (false) populism of the radical right in America, the undeniable center-right turn by the Democratic Party, corporate and financial sector malfeasance, publically financed fiscal bailouts, Democratic and Republican Party attacks on unionized labor and an seemingly endless (and untouchable) expansion of the nation’s military.

What makes The Power Elite most relevant today, and much more than an analysis of the institutional structure of America in the late 1950’s, is that Mills’s thesis relies upon a compelling description of the social structure in America at the bottom level of society, what he calls a mass society. Mills suggests that, in the present, democracy exists in form and rhetoric rather than in substance and practice.  The Power Elite considers the implications of structured domination in modern democratic society and how this generates not merely political apathy but the occlusion of thought in both public life and social analysis. Exploring the underdeveloped side of Mills’s The Power Elite as it relates to his understanding of America’s movement from a society of publics into a mass society poses many questions for democratic theory: regarding political agency, the shrinking of the public sphere and the manipulation of public discourse, the neoliberal turn within the Democratic Party, the corporate agenda inherent in the conservative “populist outsiders” who compose the right wing of the Republican party and the diminishing returns of democratic politics in America.

Mills’s mass society thesis illustrates how power in America effects individuals and the ways in which social theory may need to reassess its embrace of pluralism as the guiding principle of American political society.  As this essay will argue, many sociological and political theorists, in their eagerness to rationalize and embrace the ideology of 19th century pluralism, have overlooked the significance of Mills’s mass society thesis or rejected it outright for being too pessimistic and dismissive. His theory of mass society posits a public that is atomized and alienated. It might even be the case that Mills’s mass society thesis has been seen as a challenge by the contemporary political and sociological democratic theorists who have invested their perspective on the pluralistic potentialities within the structure and distribution of power in America.

All too often, The Power Elite has been interpreted as arguing that an elite, ruling class dominates the structure of power in America (Dahl 1961; Polsby 1963; Domhoff 1967; Dye 1990; Green 1996; Rothman 1998). At a minimum, The Power Elite certainly is a book about the structure of power in America as it identifies the close relationship between military, corporate and political elites. These interpretations of Mills’s thesis remain simplistic and of little use to current scholarship by political and social scientists interested in Mills’s contribution to democratic theory.  More recently, scholars who have revisited Mills continue to focus – by and large – on his theory of power from the top; whether Mills’s thesis on the structure of power in America and its influence on society is still valid or if there’s something to be gleaned from Mills that might be of benefit to democratic theory (Peschek: 2008, Piven: 2008, Domhoff: 2007, Barrow: 2007, Aronowitz: 2003). These more recent articles clearly hold positive interpretations of Mills’s work. From Domhoff, “The book, (The Power Elite) still has astonishing relevance and freshness…today Mills looks even better than he did fifty years ago.” Peschek, bringing Mills into contemporary public discourse, suggests, “Mills would encourage us to take into account Obama’s campaign contributions, key advisors, actual policy statements…in order to have a realistic view of what kind of changes an Obama presidency would and would not bring.”   Yet, these praiseworthy treatments of Mills still focus on power at the top of American society at the expense of considering his mass society thesis. By revisiting Mills’s chapter, “The Theory of Mass Society” in The Power Elite we might make a contribution to the current state of Mills scholarship while helping make sense of today’s political condition as well. While Mills’s perspective clearly endures today, the final measure of his work must be judged by how well current social inquiry can utilize his theoretical and analytical perspective to assist in our understanding of the present.

Traditional democratic theory assumes that citizens will, and do play a central role in politics. Mills challenges this view by illustrating the shortcomings within contemporary democratic theory, particularly its naïve treatment of pluralism, power and participation.  The way power and decision making in America has become monopolized by elites who dominate the major decisions of the day is described by Mills as a set of power relations that both foster and rest upon a society of passive masses rather than a society of active publics.  This movement within society – from active publics to passive masses – is crucial to our understanding of Mills’s thesis in both White Collar and The Power Elite and illustrates the shortcomings in contemporary sociological and political analyses of democratic society. Mills states, “the transformation of public into mass is of particular concern to us…for it provides an important clue to the meaning of the power elite.”(Mills 1956:302).

For Mills, America is simply not a society of publics, and the idea of it as such is nothing more than traditional democratic theory’s embrace of “romantic pluralism,” a nostalgic image – and maintaining itself ideologically  – of the structure of power in America (Mills 1956:244).  In reality, power and decision making is the domain of an elite, but not because they constitute a ruling class.  Rather, the existence of the power elite he describes is the result of a void created by the movement of American society from one of genuine, active publics into a passive mass. For Mills, the power elite could not exist if society was composed of genuine publics who act in a manner similar to the way traditional democratic theory suggests publics behave: active, empowered and efficacious. The power elite prevail as a direct result of this shift from a society of publics to a mass; because recent structural conditions have significantly diminished civic engagement at the middle and bottom levels of society. Today, the image of an engaged citizenry is pure romantic pluralism, nothing more than an idealized image of balance rather than real pluralism, or balance itself. This romantic view of civic sentiment is, for Mills, an ideological construction of American society fostered by elites and the social scientific community.

Alan Wolfe, in his afterward to the reissued anniversary edition of The Power Elite, says of Mills’s theory of a mass society, “he seems to have lost all hope that the American people could find themselves and put a stop to the abuses he detected” and goes on to characterize Mills as “resigned…cantankerous…sour in his anger…”. (Mills 2000; 380). Mills’s description of a mass society troubles Wolfe as it leaves no room for further study.  In Social Forces, Paul Bernstein comments, “Sociologists might benefit from drawing on pluralist approaches” in order to understand the relationship between government and the public (Bernstein 1998:49).  Bernstein suggests that not only should social and political theorists move away from the days when emphasis was placed “more on Marx than Madison”, but also that the time may be ripe for a theoretical “paradigm shift” (Bernstein 1998:46-50). Before we abandon the paradigm of a mass society marked by mass publics and a massified culture because it makes us uncomfortable to consider – and it does  – I suggest we take one more look at Mills’ treatment of society’s movement from a public into a mass in an effort to find out how we can foster societal well being, capable decision making, substantive policy deliberation and real democratic participation rather than its continued atrophy. If we can better understand the fundamentals of Mills’s mass society thesis we might suggest ways in which social science might be more useful to contemporary American society.

Mills work is a blending of social science with social criticism. Beginning with a description of contemporary society as one dominated by a set of elites, in the second half of The Power Elite Mills moves away from this model and towards a structural analysis of American society at large. It is this analysis, specifically his mass society thesis, which Wolfe calls his lackluster social criticism that makes The Power Elite compelling today. If we accept Wolfe’s criticism of these “social critique” chapters we condemn The Power Elite to the dusty shelves of American social history. At the point where Wolfe views Mills shift from doing something well – social science – to doing something poorly – social criticism – Mills discussion gains rather than loses traction. Mills clarifies the movement away from his analysis of elite domination and towards social criticism by stating, “the rise of the power elite…rests upon, and in some ways is part of, the transformation of the public in America into a mass society” (Mills1956: 297).

The Power Elite Revisited: The Theory of Balance

According to Mills, traditional democratic theory relies on the composition of a political system in balance and a structure of power that stems from the wishes and actions of an active public.  The political structure of society is assumed to rest upon consent by informed, publicly engaged, self interested individuals.  As the final court of appeal, political actors and decision makers acknowledge that it is the public who holds sway in determining policy, or as Mills says, are “the loom of classic eighteenth – century democracy” (Mills 1956: 299).  Justifying this position is the belief that through discussion and deliberation – – the legitimate grounds for consent in democratic theory – – rational, just policies will emerge.  Contemporary democratic theory, and society, is built upon the theory of balance: a pluralistic model of an engaged public who decides their own fate through rational deliberation as a community at large.  Society is structured in such a way that the interests of the greatest number are served, or that competing interests are adequately refereed by active government.

This description of the structure and justification of power in modern society is, for Mills “liberal rhetoric,” a romantic ideal rather than a real, descriptive fact in contemporary American society (Mills 1956:337). Mills argues that traditional democratic theory, and the social theorists who analyze society from this tradition end up supporting a model of society which is both inadequate as an analytical, explanatory framework and deceptive in that it is largely untrue. The conditions and consequences of this movement in society, from one of a public into a mass, need reassessment.

From A Society of Publics to A Mass Society

According to Mills, when misinformation and distraction dominate as rational discourse, a mass society emerges which simply makes room for a power elite. Mills outlines the structural changes that have taken place in society to support his argument.  First, Mills comments that government today is less of a pluralistic framework than traditional liberal theory assumes.  As stated earlier, liberal democratic theory posits that pluralism is active in America as a system wherein contending interests pressure and jockey for positioning through public debate. Instead, Mills argues that pluralism exists as a social and political fact only within the sphere of the power elite: between private interests and government deliberation over what he calls the middle levels of power.  Highly organized interests do engage one another in government at this middle level but not in an adversarial manner.  According to Mills, at the middle levels of power, i.e. local and national legislative governance, private interests interact in a struggle over obtaining a particular piece of the rewards system. While many scholars argue that business does not always get its way in politics, and government does have autonomy, Mills suggests that these competing interests are not divided over any issues of decisive political importance. Elites’ interests do engage one another at the middle levels of power but they are entrenched in provincial, countervailing debates that create little more than a form of political stalemate, interpreted by the public as either a system of organized chaos, or in today’s terms, as political gridlock.  Breeding public contempt and cynicism, the clamor of these clashing private interests are then appropriated by the mass media. The net effect then is that the public is presented with a set of mid level issues, from culture war topics such as abortion or interpretations of the Second Amendment to term limit legislation or repealing the estate tax, all with little significant impact on society at large pawning themselves off as the decisive issues of the day. To the public, the struggle over these private interests over the middle level of power are treated by the mass media as being identical with the interests of the community at large, occluding rather than clarifying decision-making and the structure of power in America (Mills 1956: 267).

Moving from his treatment of the middle levels of power Mills considers the second ‘factor’ in this structural shift, the formalized media and its role in furthering the movement in society from a public into a mass (Mills 1956:302).  In a mass society communication stems from the formal media. As a result of mass society’s information system being tied to centralized points of control fewer people end up expressing opinions while ever larger numbers become passive receivers of information.  In a society of publics, “communication” emerges from a multitude of small, fairly independent opinion producers who, in their attempts to clarify the public’s stake in an issue, create what has come to be called a marketplace of ideas. While some argue that today’s internet based modes of communication, from twitter to Skype, allow for diverse, intensely pluralistic points of view to enter (and at times define) public discourse, Mills’s nineteenth century view is based on person to person discussion where deliberation occurs in public places. For Mills, communication needs to be dialogue based, with an emphasis on feedback, forethought and without censor. While some countries, most typically undemocratic authoritarian nations, have been unable to control the power and deliberative influence of the internet, we’ve seen little indication that the members of democratically composed nations utilize this medium for political and social discourse in any substantive way. In Mills’s mass society the community is not defined by the people. In contemporary mass society, the idea of what constitutes the community interest is what the media packages and presents as the community’s interest (Mills 1956:313). From there the new information industry, including the internet here in America, begins its dissemination. Even within these new information outlets community is defined by the formalized media’s preoccupation with the middle levels of power. The political community, once treated by the mass media, becomes little more than a media market.

Mills’s view has been interpreted by some social scientists, most prominently Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz,  as media “agenda setting”, where the field of issues that society considers relevant have been organized or mobilized by formal political and media institutions to favor certain issues and exclude others.  What is viewed as the community’s own concerns are often manufactured; in other words, public concerns appear to be more organic than they really are.  The end result of the structural changes that occur in the movement from a society of publics into a society of masses is that the formalized media replace individual autonomy of thought, leaving collective forms of discourse largely predetermined. The formalized media have discovered that irrational appeals to citizen’s concerns by professional opinion managers and advertising agencies who are skilled in the control, management and manipulation of both issues and individuals in a mass society works to their own benefit (Mills 1956:310). For Mills, the largest outlets of the mass media have done less to enlarge and animate discussions of public significance than they have transformed the public into a politically illiterate mass. The question still remains though; whether the increase in internet based sources of information are truly different from rather than merely a response to major media institutions and whether, in America at least, anyone really wants to find out more than what’s already considered “interesting and popular”.

Mills describes how political and media institutions in modern mass society manipulate people into a crowd rather than as a group capable of autonomous thought and action.  Mills believes that the information provided by the mass media both guides experiences and sets standards; that the image of what constitutes political reality may be set more by the media than by ones’ own experiences. Mills argues, when common sense becomes more common than sense, one must recognize that the problems facing contemporary society may be a result of changes in social traditions and the stereotyped image of society carried by the media (Mills 1956:313). Communications theorist Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, argues that so much of our psychological and political literacy comes from the formalized media that we tend to believe the world we see on television rather than the one that we walk through in our daily lives.  The expanding role of the media, in all its forms, and its pervasiveness throughout society is undeniable: from the internet to computer-based at home college instruction the face and substance of knowledge has changed.

For Mills, the media, as the primary factor in this trend towards a mass society, disconnects individuals from rational insight into society’s problems.  The mass media serves to distract and obscure political realities while limiting opportunities to understand ideas and their relationship to society.  Mills, like other critics of mass society, including the members of The Frankfurt School and some post-modern theorists, believe that the mass media fastens people’s attention to artificial frenzies rather than political and social realities.  What remains marginal to social science practices is whether the media may be such a powerful force in society that one must seriously consider whether it occludes or worse, absorbs critical thought. The occlusion of thought may therefore be the result of a set of institutional arrangements in society – – whether they be schools, civic organizations or the media – – that fail in their ability to adequately address the relationship between individual and society.

As Walter Lippman noted years before C. Wright Mills, “the public” may be more of a phantom category standing for “vagueness, a lack of involvement and disinterestedness rather than a group with explicitly defined, organized and clamorous interests” (Mills 1956:306).  If, as Mills says, mass society is marked by an embrace of the narrow view, individuals will accept and defend public vagueness as open mindedness, consider a lack of public involvement as reasonedness, and a disinterest in public affairs as tolerance (Mills 1956:307). As a result of what Mills describes as a breakdown in public responsibility and a trend towards a society of masses, a loss of political and social meaning has occurred.

For Mills, the task for a democratic society, its public institutions, and the field of social science is obvious.  In order to counter this trend towards a mass society public conditions must be translated into issues and issues into a set of prerogatives that has meaning for individuals and their communities.  Mills argues for a type of social inquiry that strives to provide individuals with the tools necessary for this structural view of society.  Mills believes that in today’s mass society real chaos goes unnoticed because individuals simply cannot see it, while what is accepted as the organized chaos of politics has become nothing more than a pseudo world of chaotic events: manufactured by a mass media preoccupied with entertainment, distraction and manipulation rather than providing the public with relevant information.  The commonly accepted view by many social scientists today follows the idea finely stated by Maxwell McCombs, that the formalized media “doesn’t tell people what to think as it does tell people what to think about.”

Mills’s commentary can be viewed in a similar manner to what may be described, by Emile Durkheim, as a modern form of anomie, or what Jürgen Habermas refers to as crisis tendencies. Insulated from the truth of the society they live in, individuals lose their confidence as public actors, feel pointless, and become politically non-efficacious, with no belief in their capacity to impact the political structure.  With the middle levels of power locked in organized stalemate the individual in a mass society has become, in Mills’ words, “trapped by his confining circle…cut off…alienated…from any understanding of the structure and the process of society” (Mills 1956:321).

These structural trends in modern society, in conjunction with the manipulative character of the formalized media, result in a decline in the components necessary for a public society.  The loss of political communication, of community structure, the decline in voluntary organizations, and the loss of the structural arrangements that connected publics with the centers of power all reflect the conditions of a mass society.  In the end, the will for rationally deliberated decisions and political action is lost.  As a result, the power elite simply maneuvers to fill this vacuum created by the shift from a society of publics into a mass society, and serve their interests.  Contrary to most interpretations of Mills’s book, political will is realized at the higher levels of society not because power in America is maintained by a ruling class, but as a direct result of structural trends which have created a mass society marked by reduced levels of public engagement in decision making, and a loss of political will at the bottom level.

Mills states that “only where publics and leaders are responsive and responsible are human affairs in democratic order…only when the mind has an autonomous basis, independent of power but powerfully related to it can mind exert a force on the shaping of human affairs” (Mills 1956:355).  For Mills, this active public mind can only develop when knowledge has political relevance.  Mills’s concept of the higher immorality emerges when individuals live in a condition that disallows political efficacy.  The higher immorality refers not to a form of dogmatic thought in American politics that is unwilling to be held accountable for its actions, but rather to the virtual absence of public thought.  At a minimum, dogmatic thought has some kind of ethos or justification for its ideas and values no matter how repugnant it may be.  In contrast, for Mills, what is so alarming about American political discourse today is that it has no ethos.  It has become mindless, disinterested and fearful of all knowledge that may have a public, politically relevant role (Mills: 1956:356).  As a result of these structural, social, and psychological changes in the conditions of contemporary society, the power elite simply takes advantage of the institutional power arrangements concentrated in the domains where they interact.  Because vagueness, liberal rhetoric and irresponsibility have been raised to the level of principle, political power exists only in the hands of a small few.  As historian Herbert Storing proclaims, in America during the founding period, the fear of the anti – Federalists was that political liberty would be lost in the new republic because “the few never sleep while the many are rarely truly awake.”  Storing’s anti – Federalist quote can be read as an acknowledgment that quiescence, disinterestedness, and an inability to publicly engage political power would be the rule rather than the exception in American public life.

Mills’s thesis points to a larger issue than simply the structure of power at the top of American society.  Instead, he has more to say about the middle and lower levels of society where a disorganized system of “organized irresponsibility” prevails (Mills 1956:361).  This organized irresponsibility seen as an immoral system where social obligation and public responsibility have become, in mass society, nothing more than hollowed out ideals cynically fostered by the mass media permeate and ridicule all levels of public life.

At the end of his analysis of the movement toward a mass society, Mills outlines the conditions that must be addressed if this process is to be reversed.  In other words, Mills articulates what must happen in order for the reemergence of an active public consonant with the logic of traditional democratic theory.  Once again Wolfe misses an opportunity to best address Mills’s legacy. Wolfe says instead, “…missing from the book is a statement of what concretely could be done to make the world accord more with the values in which Mills believed.”  Mills does turn towards an inquiry into how American society can ensure that the ideals of democratic society become practices, or that the many remain truly awake.  We must now turn to Mills’s conclusion in order to understand hi prescription for contemporary society’s disease.

Conclusion: From a Mass Society to a Society of Publics

From my analysis of Mills’s argument I have identified key variables which must be realized by individuals and adequately explained by social theorists – – as practical components and not simply ideals – – in order for a stable democratic society to emerge in an era where the movement towards a mass society appears to be irreversible (Mills 1956:324).  The conditions that must be remedied in order to recreate a society of publics are: 1. A rational deliberation and decision – making  structure  2. A realizable sense of political obligation  3. A realizable notion of political will  4. A (relatively) high degree of public engagement.  Ironically, Mills acknowledges that these essential conditions for a democratic society already do exist in contemporary society.  His description of the power elite is detailed in such a manner that one comes to the realization that the reason elites succeed as an organized group, and subsequently why the bottom of society remains disorganized, is because the basic conditions for public life are being met exclusively by the power elite.  Mills noticed that the power elite simply posses the practical components of democratic, public life because the rest of American society has become a disorganized mass.

In a mass society the individual has little rational deliberation or decision making power or access to it.  As a group, the mass public has no training, nor any of the tools necessary to articulate and address their wants and needs.  Instead they are ruled by the logic of a mass society: common sense and stereotype.  In contrast, the individual in the higher circles has the ability to rationally deliberate within the decision-making structures of power.  The individuals in the higher circles are highly educated and encouraged to articulate their interests.  In addition, Mills argues that those in the higher circles think in stereotypes (about class, race, social issues, for example) too instead of common sense, but, in contrast to the individual in the mass, elites’ stereotyped common sense view of society works to their benefit.

Second, in contrast to the higher circles, the individual in a mass society has no realizable sense of political obligation.  In a mass society, the individual is a member of an alienated, leaderless group, becoming cynical and politically quiescent.  For Mills, the problem of the individual in a mass society is that they grow to learn they simply do not belong to a society of publics.  Political engagement is viewed as having no payoff, and payoff is what determines one’s actions in an instrumental society of self – interested actors and “smart-rackets” (Mills 1956:347). The power elite, or the individual in the higher circles is indebted to the political system.  Their political obligation is realizable; it pays off and provides fulfillment.  In addition, the higher circles have efficient institutional structures which coordinate like-minded organizations, such as interest and civic groups, which assist them in obtaining their rewards for civic engagement.

Third, in contrast to the higher circles, the individual in a mass society has no realizable sense of political will.  Their will is absent because it has become unrealized.  Like political obligation, there are no structural features in society to assist in its realization.  At the bottom level of society the formalized media channels the mass will into spectacles and entertainment, serving to distract and occlude critical thought.  In the higher circles, political will formation is realized because it is an operative fact of life; it is encouraged because it is rewarded.  Operating in a cumulative manner, this system of rewards brings additional will formation, with higher degrees of political obligation.  Its opposite also holds true. In stark contrast to the higher circles, its absence is real for the individual in a mass society because there are so few, if any opportunities for ones political will to be realized.

Finally, Mills addresses the matter of social theory’s retreat from structural inquiry towards a preoccupation with the idea of a democratic society in balance as the prevailing view (Mills 1956:336). Mills levels his attack against academic social science because much of what social science research does is the study of observable political behavior.  This situation may be due to the fact that the social sciences, and political science in particular, are ideologically blinded by democratic theory; uncritical of the basic core assumptions of liberal democratic theory and political pluralism.  The belief that there remains a plurality of competing groups throughout society who form a balanced political system is, unfortunately, accepted as fact by many political scientists. It would be a step backwards if this viewpoint begins to influence current research in sociological theory.

Although some social scientists, including political scientists, may not be entirely convinced of pluralism’s accuracy as a social fact, their preoccupation with positivistic research methods force them to consider it as a theoretical standard from which power and politics are understood.  Mills’s concern with this theory of romantic pluralism is that its logical result is the systematic study of elections and voters (Mills 1956:359).  This furthers a kind of public and intellectual confusion wherein social scientists examine the superficial levels of society where manufactured “political” issues are debated and minimally resolved – – what Mills would call the middle levels of power – – thereby reinforcing liberal optimism which clings to a formal model of democratic society.  For Mills, social scientists’ preoccupation with the study of clashing interests and electoral behavior as being of primary significance to democratic theory is little more than a mythical understanding of democracy as a self -regulating system where power is distributed through formal procedure.  This narrow view of American politics is not only romantic and mythic; it fails as a critical form of social analysis. Mills, if for no other reason, deserves a second look for his understanding of this theoretical and practical insight. Social theory should direct its focus beyond the mere enumeration of facts and towards an understanding of social theorizing from his vantage point. For Mills, one must begin with an inquiry into how a multitude of social forces fit together, form a determinant model of society and act to maintain certain social relations that benefit some and exclude others.

Mills, to his own academic marginalization, passionately argued that it is the primary task of both a liberal society and social science to inform publics.  Like the model of deliberative democracy that contemporary society is built upon, Mills believes social science, through critical social analysis, has an obligation to inform publics and to translate private troubles into public issues that have meaning for individuals and their communities. For the individual in a mass society, public engagement is low, if not nearly non- existent.  Individuals occasionally vote, but beyond this limited method of political behavior, there is little else that could qualify as engagement with public life, if we understand engagement as an attempt to control the outcome of one’s fate through public actions.  At the bottom level of society limited forms of engagement do occur, but little of it is of a similar type to the forms of engagement that elite practices currently embody.  Elites’ public engagement allows individuals to play a part in the outcome of decisions that affect their lives.  Voting, associational ties, civic groups, letter writing, lobbying, and a multitude of various public acts come into play in the lives of those in the higher circles.  Engagement levels are certainly greater within the higher circles, but on the average they still remain low.  However, unlike the bottom levels of society, relatively low degrees of public engagement by those in the higher circles still works to their benefit.

These are the conditions that Mills argues must be addressed by social theorists and concerned political actors if America is to move away from its present structure of inequality and towards a society that allocates political rewards and encourages civic engagement in a more egalitarian manner.  To argue, as current academic social scientists do, that society is a system of relatively balanced, pluralistic interests where the publics wishes are understood as “clear” and “influential” is to evaluate the status quo as both satisfactory, and even good.  This view has the effect, Mills says, of turning a hopeful 18th century liberal ideal of balance into a political fact that ends up hiding the truth about contemporary society.  Ideologically and politically, it is the higher circles that emerge as the dominant group in society; they have the most to gain from this image of balance.  The impact of this ideological maneuver serves the higher circles by making their interests appear to be identical with the interests of the whole community, a view that reinforces apolitical behavior at the bottom levels of society.  In fact, one may even wish to consider whether the attempt to achieve procedural “balance” in society may itself serve the formalized ideological rubric of modern power.

At the bottom of society lies a disorganized public, ostracized from public affairs, unable to sense political accomplishment, cynical and mistrustful.  Mills comments that individuals at this level of society have lost their political will because they see no way to realize it, they have no sense of belonging because they simply do not belong (Mills 1956: 324).  The present system of power in America – – politically and in academic circles – -argues that society is a self-regulating plurality of conflicting groups with no authoritarian center and no chance for despotism.  Checks and balances, as an ideological image of a just society, operates so pervasively as a way of reinforcing the structure of power in America that even social scientists have come to believe that so long as power is not nakedly displayed, it must not be power (Mills 1956:244).

For Mills, the present system of power in America is not egalitarian, and is explicit in its ability to operate in an ideologically deceptive manner. This too may be an exceptionally relevant and enduring aspect of The Power Elite. Instead of limiting Mills’s description of American society to little more than an elite model of power, current sociological and political theorists who wish to understand the conditions and the context of modern democratic society and the theory of balance it rests upon should reconsider his description of the movement from a society of publics to a society of masses.  The Power Elite, and Mills’ mass society thesis, endures as a challenge to social theorists to find new critical ways of understanding and clarifying the relationship between contemporary liberal democratic theory and the quiescent, disenchanted society it rests upon.

 

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