The late, visionary sociologist C. Wright Mills stated in 1956 that acts of elite deviance that cause social harm, regardless of their criminality in a legal sense, are part of the “higher immorality of the power elite.”
Who are the power elite?
Mills observed that a small group of wealthy and powerful individuals controlled America’s dominant institutions (i.e., political, economic and military). More specifically, the governing elite in the U.S. are comprised of: 1) the highest political leaders, including the president and a few key cabinet members and advisors, 2) major corporate owners and directors, and 3) the highest-ranking military officers.
Mills called this group the power elite. Incredibly, Mills made his observations nearly sixty years ago.
Mills claimed that although the power elite constitute a close-knit group, these individuals are not part of a grand conspiracy that secretly manipulates world events in order to pursue their own diabolical self-interests. It is not a dictatorship and it does not rely on the physical torture of fellow citizens in order to maintain its dominant position in society.
Quite significantly, the power elite do not have to. Because of their control over the key institutions in U.S. society, the power elite need not resort to harsh physical coercion in order to maintain their interests and achieve their goals.
Membership in the power elite, despite its relatively small size, is not closed to outsiders, although some of its members gain their status due at least in part to being born into prominent families. An example of this is former President George W. Bush, the son of a wealthy oilman and former U.S. president. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, leveraged family wealth and social connections to achieve elite status through business entrepreneurship. Of course, Donald Trump, who parlayed his business success into becoming the U.S. president, is the current poster boy of the power elite.
Regardless of personal history, Mills argued that membership in the power elite is limited to those few individuals who effectively control the political, economic and military institutions in society. Interestingly, Mills was echoed in 1961 by President Eisenhower in his farewell address when he warned of the self-serving acts of the “military-industrial complex”—that is, his term for the power elite.
What really binds the power elite to one another are their mutual interests, social networks, and the adoption of elite ideology and values. The importance of social networks cannot be overstated for it is in these powerful, yet informal, networks that bonds are formed, elite values learned and heritage share. Although diversity is increasing in the U.S., the majority of the power elite are still white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males.
Members of the power elite attend the same private schools and universities, join the same clubs and fraternities, belong to the same churches and charities, and live in the same neighborhoods. They work and play together, and they employ one another. White elites enjoy broad-based, informal social networks that provide access to information and referrals that result in preferential employment opportunities.
Once inside of organizations, privileged, white males are sponsored to the top of the hierarchy by other (older) white, male mentors. This phenomenon, known as “homosocial reproduction,” refers to the tendency of a homogenaic organization to reproduce itself by continuously promoting the same types of individuals.
This process tends to exclude women and minorities while protecting the white, male status quo in the U.S. The consequences of homosocial reproduction are profound because elite, white, social networks ensure that the concentration of power and control over the key institutions of society remain in the privileged hands of the few.
A central contradiction of the power elite is that they frequently violate the very laws they are sworn to uphold. Why would individuals who are entrusted to occupy the top command posts of society break the laws they help to create? Mills argued that bound by mutual interests, the power elite periodically commit acts of elite wrongdoing (e.g., dumping toxic waste) and enact policies (e.g., declaration of war) that are designed to perpetuate their power and preserve their control over society.
Mills stated that elite acts that cause either physical or social harm represent the higher immorality of the power elite. He argued that not only crime per se, but also governmental deeds that cause social harm, regardless of their criminality in a legal sense, be included in the conceptual definition.
The higher immorality of the power elite is also possible because the elites do not have to win the moral consent of those over whom they hold power. Instead, a passive society simply trusts that the elites will act on behalf of the so-called public interest. Mills argued that this condition is accompanied by a “fear of knowledge” and anti-intellectualism in modern society. He said that an over reliance or dependency on television news “sound bites” and media disseminated elite rhetoric results in alienation among the masses, which can be exploited by the elites.
Mills (1956, p. 343) concluded that the higher immorality is a “systematic feature of the American elite.” Indeed, its general acceptance by the masses without critique is an essential feature of modern U.S. society.
Although the power elite are bound by mutual interests and social networks, they frequently squabble among themselves, as any hotly contested presidential election or corporate merger will demonstrate. According to Mills, however, these differences are relatively minor and vastly overshadowed by a fundamental agreement on a “world view.”
This world view is comprised by a set of values, beliefs and attitudes that shape and galvanize the power elite’s agenda and prevents deep divisions from arising among them. In other words, the power elite have a shared set of global values (such as the expansion of western capitalism) that trump minor differences and unite them.
Mills noted that the power elite establish the governing policy agenda in such vital areas as foreign policy and national security. Also, the power elite are the authors of the governing ideology and frame policy issues based on their agenda and desired outcomes. According to Mills, the public’s role in the policy making process in U.S. society is largely symbolic—that is, voting in elections every two or four years. Consequently, the general public does not directly influence the nature or content of fundamental polices, including the decision to declare war.
Although Mills wrote his groundbreaking book in 1956, his powerful insights and critiques arguably are more relevant today than they were during the cold war. Indeed, Mills’ warning rings true now more than ever: Beware the excesses and higher immorality of the power elite.
I examine the power elite and their use of propaganda in my book Mass Deception: Moral Panic and The U.S. War on Iraq. I explore the public’s fascination with serial killers in my best-selling book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.
Mills, C. W. (1956). The power elite. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dr. Scott Bonn is an author, professor, public speaker and commentator. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website docbonn.com