Ernest Germain

Sociology of the American Owning Class

(Spring 1958)

From Fourth International (Paris), No. :2, Spring 1958, pp. 60–66.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

C. Wright Mills
The Power Elite
423 pp. New York, Oxford University Press

The notion of class is the fundamental notion of Marxist sociology. The notion of class ideology that derives therefrom is another corner-stone of this sociology. Nevertheless, in the enormous mass of works written by Marx, Engels, and their principal disciples, these notions have undergone only fragmentary analysis. The concrete application of these categories to the study of certain countries and certain epochs is rarely given in these works in a complete and balanced fashion. Masterpieces of Marxist historiography and sociology like Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, or Franz Mehring’s The Legend of Lessing, are the exceptions, not the rule.

Obliged to use Marxism above all as an instrument of practical class struggle, the Russian Bolsheviks did not leave an overall study of the ideology, the morals, or indeed the social structure of the Czarist nobility, and Marx himself did not find the time to analyze the ideology of the English bourgeoisie outside of a few specialized fields such as that of political economy.

Such studies are very necessary, however, to give Marxism its genuine richness of explanation of social phenomena taken as a whole, in their entirety. To understand an epoch, it is not enough to know its mode of production. It is necessary further to understand how the different social classes that characterize it are formed and maintain themselves, what ideas they have about themselves, what are the historical roots and evolutionary tendencies both of this society and of the ideology of its different social classes, and in what way the social infrastructure is both reflected and deformed in each of the spheres of the superstructure.

And now an American social-democratic sociologist, Professor C. Wright Mills of Columbia University, has proved that such a sociology of a class, and above all of a dominant class, is possible. His work, The Power Elite, is a remarkable demonstration of Marxist method applied to the study of the contemporary bourgeoisie. Starting from the historical origins and social structure of this bourgeoisie, Wright Mills deduces therefrom in a masterly manner its behavior in the political, military, economic, ideological, moral, aesthetic, paedogogical, and other fields. It is an example to be followed, and it is a lesson in modesty for all Marxists. For this 99% Marxist work was written by ... a non-Marxist.

The Economic Sources of Power

The American monopolist bourgeoisie of today is indisputably [A] the most powerful class that has ever existed on this earth. No class has hitherto gathered together such material wealth, no class has had at its disposal technical means perfected to such a point. No class has exercised its power in so universal a way, penetrating with its commodities and its generals, its aeroplanes and symbols of Coca-Cola, into the most distant corners of the globe, at least of that part of the globe still subjected to the capitalist mode of production.

The roots of this immense power reach both into the history of the United States and into history itself; they come as much from the peculiarities of American development as from the general laws of capitalist development. The United States, if we leave aside the systematic extermination of its native occupants, is the only country where capitalism installed itself on a virgin land. Here there was no struggle for ascendancy over the nobility or over a royal central power; no need to share a part of the surplus-value with the old owners of the soil or of the subsoil. Here there were no mediaeval, imperial, national, religious traditions, that could oblige the bourgeoisie to accept symbiosis with other dominant strata of pre-capitalist origin. The historical peculiarities of the United States are in short reduced to this formula: in that country capitalism could develop itself in the freest way and demonstrate on the greatest scale its general tendencies of development. It is, furthermore, both these peculiarities and these general tendencies which explain the major condition for the absolute political omnipotence of the American monopoly bourgeoisie, namely, the delay in the formation of political consciousness by the American proletariat.

The history of capitalism is, in all countries, the history of the expropriation of the old owners of the means of production by the bourgeoisie; it is also the history of the steady expropriation of part of the bourgeoisie to the profit of its dominant strata. The history of Capital is not the story of a certain number of families who, from the XVIth century up till today, would transmit from generation to generation the ownership of the major part of capital. It is a history in which continuity and discontinuity are combined, in which the transmission of inherited wealth, and especially of the “rules of the game” and the morals of the system, is combined with a periodic replacement of the dominant strata of the bourgeoisie by new strata. Each epoch of the history of capitalism has its own dominant bourgeoisie.

Wright Mills begins by examining the following questions: what are the ties that connect the American monopoly bourgeoisie of today with the old pre-Civil-War “aristocratic” bourgeoisie? What are the origins of the wealth of this monopoly bourgeoisie, and with what period does its reign, properly so called, begin?

Before the War of Secession, when capital accumulation was brought about still relatively slowly, the heights of the bourgeoisie constituted a more or less stable aristocracy, tracing its origins back to the period of the War of Independence of the United States. These were: the 400 metropolitan families; New England owners of ships and the textile industry; Virginia planters, and descendants of St Louis Creole aristocrats. Some “nouveaux riches” like the Vanderbilts tried to get into this caste, thanks to fortunes won in real-estate speculation and railroad building.

After the War of Secession this pseudo-aristocratic caste that crowned the American social edifice was absorbed into the new dominant stratum. The merchant and financial bourgeois aristocracy was succeeded by the pioneers of the age of the “corporations,” the big stock companies, the Rockefellers and Carnegies, Morgans and Duponts. The majority of them came themselves from the bourgeoisie, but not from its dominant layer. With a few exceptions, their families are still part of the monopoly bourgeoisie today.

It is therefore this period from 1880 to 1910 that seems to be the decisive period for the formation of the power of the monopolies. True, since then several families have disappeared therefrom. Some others have broken into it in a spectacular way (for example, the Texan oil multimillionaires since the Second World War). But, leaving aside these minor fluctuations, the stability of this dominant stratum is surprising.

Among the 90 richest families in the United States in 1900, 39% had their origins in the dominant circles of the bourgeoisie, 28% in less rich bourgeois layers. In 1950, 68% of the richest families had their origins among the higher layers of the bourgeoisie, and 62% were composed of heirs of the 90 richest families of 1925. Another characteristic fact: among the richest families of 1900, 55% had formed their own great businesses. But already in 1922, only 22% of the richest families had taken such initiatives ...

What is the origin of these fortunes that are generally of more than $ 100 million per family? Wright Mills gives an explicit answer: it was the overall economic, political, and legal conditions that we call “capitalism” which have enabled such individuals to appropriate as their private property these enormous resources in nature, technics, and labor cooperation.

No type of man could have accumulated the big fortunes had there not been certain conditions of [an] economic, material, and political sort. The great American fortunes are aspects of a particular kind of industrialization which has gone on in a particular country. This kind of industrialization, involving very private enterprise, has made it possible for men to occupy such strategic positions that they can dominate the fabulous means of man’s production; link the powers of science and labor; control man’s relation to nature – and make millions out of it. (p. 98)

Wright Mills justifiably stresses that if the state power had not been in the hands of the bourgeoisie, this accumulation could never have been produced on such a scale and at such a rhythm:

In understanding the private appropriations of the very rich, we must also bear in mind that the private industrial development of the United States has been much underwritten by outright gifts out of the people’s domain. State, local, and federal governments have given land free to railroads, paid for the cost of shipbuilding, for the transportation of important mail. Much more free land has been given to business than to small, independent homesteaders. Coal and iron have been legally determined not to be covered by the “mineral” rights held by the government on the land it leased. The government has subsidized private industry by maintaining high tariff rates, and if the taxpayers of the United States had not paid, out of their own labor, for a paved road system, Henry Ford’s astuteness and thrift would not have enabled him to become a billionaire out of the automobile industry. (p. 100)

In short, the origins of the power of the American monopoly bourgeoisie are to be found in the private appropriation of the riches of the subsoil and the discoveries and inventions of technics, in juridical conditions guaranteeing an ultra-rapid accumulation of capital, in an exceptionally favorable natural and historical milieu.

Rentiers, Managers, and Monopoly Bourgeoisie

Wright Mills demonstrates that two theories concerning the dominant strata of the American bourgeoisie are not valid: the theory according to which it is a question of idle rentiers, and the theory according to which the “managers” have replaced the owners of capital, properly so called.

The present basis of the power of the monopoly bourgeoisie is the corporation, the stock company, or rather the few hundred most important corporations in the country. The myth according to which the control of these companies is “dispersed” among a great number of stock-holders is refuted by Wright Mills. He shows that between 0.1 and 0.3% of the American population owns the great majority of stocks in these companies. The myth according to which the main administrators of these companies form a separate social stratum, that of the “managers,” as Burnham calls it, is refuted in an equally energetic fashion. Sixty percent of these administrators of the 100 most important companies are themselves the sons of bourgeois and at birth are already wealthy stock-owners. Almost in their entirety, they acquire during their career sufficient stocks to be counted in the stratum of those who get the major part of their revenues as unearned income and not as salaries. The type of specialist “manager” and “bureaucrat” predominates among the middle layers of company administrators. But their upper layer is composed of men having the necessary liaisons in the world of industry, finance, and the stock market to protect the company against “dirty work” and to cash in on “windfalls” when they present themselves. In other terms, the upper layer of administrators is with few exceptions recruited from within the stratum of the monopoly bourgeoisie itself.

It is true that these monopolists, inasmuch as they are the directors of big companies, enjoy broader privileges than those derived from just the ownership of their immense fortunes. Privileges of tax exemptions; private spending at company expense; appropriation of immense expense accounts; grants of fantastic pensions by the companies, etc. But these privileges are in addition to their income from capital; they do not replace it. In examining the income of the 120 persons who in 1949 made a million dollars or more per year, Wright Mills found that on the average 94% of this income was income from capital. Even if the major part of the new privileges is illegal and escapes income tax, it still after all does not reach that level. The idea of the “reign of managers” in the United States is thus, roughly speaking, a myth.

But this fusion between the monopolists and the heads of the big companies means that the idea according to which the upper layers of the bourgeoisie are constituted by rentiers does not correspond to the truth either. Rentiers are spreading among the middle layers of Big Capital; they are disappearing from the highest levels. That does not mean that their number is diminishing among the richest layers; on the contrary, they are increasing there. Nor is it either that the higher layers kill themselves by overwork. Wright Mills points out that they have brought about in their own favor the 35-hour and indeed 30-hour week. But the predominance of the big monopoly companies accumulating their capital by means of self-financing has made the active heads of the great monopoly families the genuine masters of the capitalist class. This type of monopolist is distinguished from both the “captain of industry” of the years 1870–1910 and the banker-financier-rentier of the years 1910–1920.

The Selection of “The Elite”

Every ruling class is characterized by its attachment to the institutions which permit the maintenance and transmission of social power. These institutions are more complex than the formula: private property, family, state. They involve an organization of daily life that tends to convince both the ruling class itself and the entire people that those who have wealth, glory, and power form a genuine social “elite.” One of the great merits of Wright Mills’s book consists of the impeccable demonstration that he develops for us on this subject:

They live in one or more exclusive and expensive residential areas in fine old houses in which many of them were born, or in elaborately simple modern ones which they have constructed. In these houses, old or new, there are the correct furnishings and the cherished equipage. Their clothing, even when it is apparently casual and undoubtedly old, is somehow different in cut and hang from the clothes of other men and women. The things they buy are quietly expensive and they use them in an inconspicuous way. They belong to clubs and organizations to which only others like themselves are admitted, and they take quite seriously their appearances in these associations.

They have relatives and friends in common, but more than that, they have in common experiences of a carefully selected and family-controlled sort. They have attended the same or similar private and exclusive schools [...]. Their men have been to Harvard, Yale, Princeton [...]. And now they frequent the clubs of these schools, as well as the leading clubs in their own city [...] (pp. 57–8)

In each of the circles in which he moves, [each one] acquires and exercises a confidence in his own ability to judge, to decide, and in this confidence he is supported by his ready access to the experience and sensibility of those who are his social peers and who act with decision in each of the important institutions and areas of public life. One does not turn one’s back on a man whose presence is accepted in such circles [...]. (p. 70)

The ruling strata of the bourgeoisie do not like to be talked about in the newspapers; they have an arrogance and pride which are above a desire for notoriety. They have no need for their wealth or power to be trumpeted; they are too firmly established. They are sparing of speech and philanthropy. They possess above all that supreme assurance which comes from the feeling of security and power which has been inculcated into them from their earliest childhood.

There is the true portrait of a ruling class. That is what is requisite to be in the presence of a ruling class and not a group of individuals exercising power for one or two generations. The roots of this behavior are naturally to be found in economic power; but, without the poisonous flowers described by Wright Mills, we should not be in the presence of a fully developed class society.

It is hardly a question of idealizing the members of this ruling class. Behind the quietly aristocratic facade, there are plenty of paste jewels and lots of rot. The source of the evil is the very nature of bourgeois society, which makes money, capital, the common measure of all values. In no country and in no other epoch has the glorification of money as the supreme measure of man been pushed to such excesses as in the United States today. “You’re not paid to think” and “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” are only two out of innumerable formulas which have entered into daily speech and which express this ideology in a way as direct as it is naïve.

The American dominant class applies these rules in a literal fashion. It believes that everything can be bought with money, and it buys everything: lawyers and judges, newspapers and politicians, Arab sovereigns and Zionist leaders, rights to subsoil wealth and oil concessions, works of art and scholars, young women and the certainty of “eternal salvation.” In brilliant foreshortening, Wright Mills shows the American monopoly bourgeoisie in the mirror of its own convictions. The millionaire is always respected, whatever be the origin of his fortune: “a million dollars wipes out a lot of sins.” And the greater part of the corruption that exists in the United States does not have peculiar “American” origins: it is only an inordinately malignant expression of the capitalist effort to accumulate capital without scruple and without conscience toward the social results of this effort.

The selection of the monopoly “elite” has, however, brought about during the last decades an important modification in the psychology and behavior of the dominant strata of the American bourgeoisie. The “self-made man” never existed in the literal meaning of the term. But it was a myth which, half a century ago, expressed the lack of “standing” of the dominant layers, the “robber barons” who had got rich by pillaging the public domain.

The stage of ferocious competition among these “self-made men” has been followed by a stage in which upper monopoly strata of the bourgeoisie are linked together among themselves by innumerable common interests. Representatives of different families and “interests” sit on the boards of the same banks; they meet in the same public administrations. The success of each of the companies depends less on some individual “success” than on intimate collaboration with other important companies, a collaboration which insures an uninterrupted flow of credits and information about the conjuncture.

Thus the ideal type of monopolist is no longer that of the speculator who makes a couple of million dollars by a daring coup, nor that of an industrialist who, like Rockefeller, destroyed his competitors by lowering prices to 10% of their previous level. The ideal type of monopolist is “the dynamic man with a smile of irresistible charm,” who keeps up good relations with all the members of his class, who, without knowing much about society, knows how to surround himself by savants from whom he will borrow some useful ideas, who, without being a technician, will have sufficiently competent technicians on his staff to remain on top of technical progress. In such an atmosphere, where magnates choose their own successors at the head of the economy, where it is useless to have personal attainments because the most exceptional attainments can be bought, the (positive or negative) qualities of individuals become obstacles to rather than preconditions of success.

The American monopoly bourgeoisie chooses its leaders, at the head of the economy and of society, by co-optation. Irresponsibility toward formal “electors,” including “stock-holders,” contains in reality a very well understood responsibility toward the dominant class itself. It chooses its chiefs in its own image. It wants them above all to be conformist. To have been born into a bourgeois family, to have received a bourgeois education, to have the morals and habits of the big bourgeoisie – that is the one thing that cannot be bought in adulthood if one has not in fact enjoyed it. That is why bourgeois conformism, the fact of resembling one another intellectually and morally, is the most striking quality among the monopolists. That is why, if Washington read Voltaire and Locke to relax, Eisenhower reads cowboy tales and detective stories ...

The Dominant Class and Its Military Apparatus

One of the peculiarities of XIXth-century American capitalism was the extreme weakness of the central state apparatus. The majority of the population was armed as a result of its existence as colonists in the midst of a hostile native milieu. The militia system won out over that of a permanent army. In the same way, local and “state” administration was stronger than “federal” administration. The rule of the bourgeoisie was direct; but because it was direct and decentralized, the broad petty-bourgeois masses (the majority of the American population at that epoch) could identify themselves with it.

Two powerful factors changed that situation. The Spanish-American War, on the eve of the XXth century, marked the official birth of American imperialism; entry into the First and then the Second World War marked the march of that imperialism toward world domination. The participation of American capital, only yesterday the country cousin of the powerful of this world, in the struggle for world domination, involved the creation of a fleet and an army capable of carrying the combat through. The geographical position of the United States, even more than that of Great Britain, involved a gradual worldwide extension of military support-points and naval and air bases throughout the globe. From the penetration of Japan to the conquest of Cuba, and from Wilson’s Fourteen Points to the Washington Naval Conference, the international expansion of American imperialism has been accompanied by a gradual strengthening of the permanent military apparatus of the United States.

The entry of the United States into the Second World War produced a qualitative transformation in this evolution. United States imperialism has no longer been simply participating in a struggle for a new carving-up of the world. It has become the principal world power, that to which since 1944 the world destiny of the whole capitalist system has been entrusted. Its normal existence has suddenly become that of preparing for or waging war. There has resulted a gradual militarization of all political and social life, a militarization that reached its culminating point (so far) with the Korean War and the wave of the “witch hunt.” At the same time, rearmament and the existence of a vast sector of war economy not only appear to be a normal and permanent institution; they seem more and more to be the only possible guarantees of prosperity and a high level of employment.

The complete transformation of the situation and international responsibilities of the American bourgeoisie in half a century – the last phase of this transformation, furthermore, has just been opened by the manufacture of intercontinental ballistic weapons in the USSR, which makes the territory of the US itself a probable battlefield of the next world war – has led to a profound change in the attitude of the tops of the bourgeoisie toward the personnel directing military institutions, the generals of the army and the air force and the admirals of the navy. Outsiders coming from the middle layers of the bourgeoisie, they have become in the course of a generation full members of the dominant strata themselves.

At the same time the nature of these military institutions has also been modified. In their structure they more and more resemble corporations. A vast pyramid of technicians responsible to the next higher echelon is crowned by chiefs who centralize a universe of specialized information – “on one sheet of paper” – for the purpose of making overall strategic decisions, essentially inspired by the reflexes and habits of self-defense learned within their class. These supreme leaders do not have very much in common with “combatants exposed to enemy fire.” The only time in their lives that they pick up a gun, Wright Mills ironically states, is when they go duck-hunting in the company of directors of big stock companies. And an insurance company has even observed that the mortality rate of officers at the front is less than that of wage-earners in big industry (p. 189).

What fundamentally distinguishes the generals and admirals from the “civilian” chiefs of Big Business, is that they are more bureaucratized and stereotyped than the latter. “The military spirit” has modeled them rigorously; success in their career has done the rest. Besides, unlike the civilian sectors of Big Capital, the military chiefs are connected among themselves by the formal bonds of discipline, hierarchy, and seniority: they have at their disposal in addition an immense objective apparatus that collects and interprets information and produces “solutions.” All that has undoubtedly increased their specific-weight within the dominant class. It is indeed not by accident that we have seen, just after World War II, generals occupying political positions of the greatest importance: a McArthur, proconsul in Japan; a Marshall, Secretary of State; an Eisenhower, President of the United States.

Nevertheless, the specific weight of the military caste in the capitalist class as a whole must not be exaggerated. What has happened is not the appearance of a caste having specific interests. We have rather witnessed the fusion, or better still, the gradual absorption of the tops of the army and the navy by the dominant strata of the monopolists. It is the heads of the big stock companies that act as the principal advisers of the supply departments of the army; from time to time (Wilson!) they even become Secretary of Defense. Simultaneously, on leaving the army, the military chiefs have been regularly integrated into Big Business. General Lucius D. Clay became president of the board of directors of the Continental Can Company; General Bradley fills the same function with Bulova Research Laboratories Inc., and General McArthur at Remington Rand. General Doolittle is vice-president of Shell Oil, General Wedemeyer fills the same function at AVCO, General Leslie R. Groves at Remington Rand, and General Bedell Smith at the American Machine and Foundry Company. Admiral Moreell is chairman of the board of the Jones and Langhlin steel trust, Admiral Alan Kirk of that of Mercast Inc., and General Matthew B. Ridgeway that of the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research (p. 214).

Shell, Mellon, Jones and Laughlin, Continental Can (tied up with the Morgan group), are not just any old companies; they are companies forming part of the domain of the most powerful monopolists in the country. And it is in this domain that the generals and admirals have been integrated. As soon as this integration has become a fact, the military chiefs are no longer acting in function of particular interests, even though they be clique interests, but as an integral part of the leading monopolist strata of the American bourgeoisie, and are totally identified with the interests of those strata.

The Political Personnel of Big Business

During the XIXth century, politics was a career looked down on by the American bourgeoisie. It was considered that only those who were incapable of succeeding in any profession became professional politicians; and it was supposed that they sordidly enriched themselves out of public funds. In this legend there is quite a lot of exaggeration (in the last analysis, a generation of businessmen robbed the state far more than three generations of politicians!), but there is still quite a lot of truth. In his preface to The Civil War in France, Engels quotes the example of the American state as that of an apparatus which renders itself autonomous of society in order to plunder it with impunity.

The period of the break-through of the monopoly bourgeoisie did not fundamentally change this situation: the leading political personnel simply put itself in a more open and cynical fashion (particularly during the period of Mark Hanna!) at the service of Big Capital, combining the latter’s legislation for pillage in the grand manner with its own little short-term thievery. Even the period of the ’20s more resembles that situation that it does the present structure of American government.

Already during the ’20s, however, a gradual change began to take place in the recruiting of leading political personnel. While the professional politician continued to dominate the lower and intermediate jobs in the political hierarchy, the higher jobs began to be granted in increasing numbers directly to members of the dominant strata. They predominated first among the ambassadors, where a Mellon was to be seen serving during the ’20s. The Roosevelt period and the Eisenhower period powerfully accentuated these tendencies. Nearly half the present cabinet secretaries and sub-secretaries never carried out political functions before being called to the heights of the administrative hierarchy. And the Eisenhower government illustrates in a striking way the personal union between the monopolists and the state: the principal secretaries are not only members of the predominant monopoly strata, but also the representatives of key interests within these strata: General Motors-Dupont; the firm of lawyers that serves the Morgan interests; a Rockefeller in person; the principal bank of the West of the United States.

The choice of the personnel directing the state, like the choice in the principal stock companies, is therefore made neither through effective election, nor through a professional career, nor even through bureaucratic success. This personnel is chosen by co-optation by its peers, within the upper layers of the dominant class itself (p. 235)! At the top of the government, just as at the top of society, the fusion among economic leaders, military chiefs, and cabinet members is perfect. It is in the same milieu, indeed in the same families, that they are chosen!

Wright Mills shows in a masterly fashion how this personal union between the monopolists and the state destroys the legend of “the balance of forces” which supposedly governs the relations among social forces in the United States. Granted, the pressure groups and lobbies try to influence the decisions of the American government. To the extent that they are workers or petty-bourgeois, they sometimes succeed on a local scale; rarely on a “state” scale, almost never on a “federal” scale. And even when they do succeed, it is in secondary questions which nowise modify the structures in which they must act, and which fix the “rules of the game” in favor of the monopolists. The famous exclamation of Charles Wilson that “what is good for General Motors is good for the United States” expresses not so much a philosophy as a reality. The American government functions in order to assure the obtention of surplus-value and capital accumulation by the dominant monopoly layers of the American bourgeoisie.

Wright Mills observes how the real differences between the two big American political parties have disappeared, to the point where they are obliged to invent subjects of discord to justify their autonomous existence. The members of Congress, representatives and senators, represent most of the time a resultant among the forces of contradictory pressures at the city, region, or “state” level; that is why their real power keeps declining. Those who preside over congressional commissions and who have real legislative power work hand-in-hand with the Executive, and, by their origin and the interests they represent, are inextricably tied up with Big Business. Wright Mills states:

The interpenetration between government and the business world has reached a degree [...] where the two can no longer be considered separate worlds.

American Monopolists and Bourgeois Democracy

How have the monopoly strata of the American bourgeoisie succeeded in establishing so strict a control over society in the United States without having to pass over to openly totalitarian forms of government, Bonapartist and military dictatorship or fascist dictatorship? There are two essential answers to this question. Wright Mills gives a first one; he only sketches out the second.

As American industrialization has been pushed to its ultimate stages, as agriculture itself is drawn into the utmost mechanization, as the old more or less coherent collectivities disappear in the country, the general characteristic of American society becomes that of “mass society,” or to speak in clearer language of the total atomization of the people. The “public” has been transformed into a “mass”, says Wright (we should have preferred the formulation, has been atomized), which involves:

  1. that an increasing number of individuals no longer have opinions of their own and no longer express them, but are simple passive receivers of opinions broadcast by the great instruments of “formation of public opinion” (the press, radio, television, cinema, advertizing, etc.);
  2. that these instruments are organized in such a way as to render impossible any dialogue between the “producers” and “consumers” of opinions; when a speaker in a public meeting expresses false opinions, you can interrupt him and the whole hall would be able to follow you; but it is useless to interrupt in your isolated apartment a speaker who, on television, is talking to ten million viewers;
  3. that non-conformist or critical elements have in practice no means at their disposal to get their ideas to penetrate into the mass, these means being monopolized by the dominant class and by the state;
  4. that the mass is not independent of the institutions but is on the contrary penetrated by the agents of these institutions, who control within them the expression of opinions, and even the opinions themselves.

In a more explicit and Marxist form, we can say that the petty-bourgeois democracy of old, based on a certain equality among the citizens of small agricultural or artisanal collectivities, has given way under monopoly capitalism to a purely formal “democracy,” the mass of citizens being only a vast “market” to which the monopolists “sell” ideas as they sell automobiles and toothpaste.

Wright Mills insists (exaggerating, in our opinion) on the structural causes of this evolution: the growth of the population, the development of cities and of technics; the hypertrophy of the means for forming public opinion, etc. Unquestionably, it is a question here of the material framework of the atomization of the “American public” of old, of which conservative liberals dream with nostalgia. Without these material transformations, this “atomization” would have been impossible. But this new framework does not necessarily involve this atomization; it involves it only to the extent that the political labor movement is lacking or is in decline.

And it is here, in our opinion, that the second cause of the decline of bourgeois democracy in the United States lies, a cause on which Wright Mills touches lightly, but to which he does not accord all the attention that it deserves. In fact, though the atomization of citizens is only an advanced form of the division of labor and the degradation produced by capitalist industry and described in detail by Marx, the labor movement in Europe, beginning in the ’80s, has constituted a powerful counterweight to this evolution.

It is within the labor movement that the worker found the needs of culture and human warmth that an inhuman society had slowly killed in the “average citizen.” It is within this labor movement that the working-class youth has discovered other worlds than alcohol or dancing. It is within the same movement that the worker begins to become a citizen again, that he learns how to formulate an opinion on political subjects and to express it, that he has learned that his opinion counts and can change things. It is there that he has rewon a sense of dignity and independence from Capital. It is by gaining articulate class consciousness in the labor movement that the worker can overcome the atomization produced by capitalism, that he can face it as an individual integrated in an organized class.

Now the United States has never known a mass political labor movement, but to the degree that the CIO unions were sufficiently democratic at the beginning to permit self-activity by the masses within them, experience has shown that potentially the American working class could escape from the total control of its life and thought by capital, that it could begin its emancipation in its own class organization. [1]

It is therefore the lack of a political mass movement and the rapid degeneration of the mass trade unions that explains the omnipotence of the ideas, the norms, and the code of the monopolists in the United States, which is at the same time their political omnipotence. It is the lack of a great labor party that transforms the elections into a farce, the press into a monopoly of the bourgeoisie, and the tens of millions of workers into robots shut up in occupations, habits, pleasures, and thoughts prefabricated by their masters. By a tragic reversal of things, the totalitarian society of ant-men which, according to the ideologists of capitalism, would be the final end of socialism, is now being constructed in the United States, in the paradise of Big Capital.

It is in the final analysis this same factor that explains the unlimited political rule of the monopolists in the United States. It explains why, in the absence of a powerful political party of the working class, the monopolists can continue to manipulate all the classic instruments of bourgeois democracy without having to run the risk of introducing authentic representatives of the workers into the mechanism of the administration. But the day when the American trade unions create a great Labor Party, many characteristics of the American political regime that Wright Mills considers definitive will experience a shaking’ up that will be as rapid as it is radical. The evolution he describes is neither fatal nor irreversible. The same forces which, on a world scale, favor the upsurge of the Revolution, will end by undermining the political influence of Capital on the American workers.

Dominant Class or Power Elite?

If Wright Mills’s excellent analysis grows weak in its examination of the causes of the current atomization of American society, it is disappointing when it touches on the fundamental theoretical question: do the monopolists in power represent a social class, or are they, to quote the author’s own words, a “power elite”? Needlessly disfiguring the remarkable results of his own work, and demonstrating a regrettable lack of moral courage, Wright Mills tries in a few formulae to polemicize against the “simplistic” Marxist notion of class. Thus he writes on page 277: “The simple Marxist view makes the big economic man the real holder of power [...]; and again, on the same page:

‘Ruling class’ is a badly loaded phrase. ‘Class’ is an economic term; ‘rule’ a political one. The phrase, ‘ruling class,’ thus contains the theory that an economic class rules politically. That short-cut theory may or may not at times be true, but we do not want to carry that one rather simple theory about in the terms that we use to define our problems; we wish to state the theories explicitly, using terms of more precise and unilateral meaning. Specifically, the phrase ‘ruling class,’ in its common political connotations, does not allow enough autonomy to the political order and its agents, and it says nothing about the military as such. It should be clear to the reader by now that we do not accept as adequate the simple view that high economic men unilaterally [?] make all decisions of national consequence. We hold that such a simple view of ‘economic determinism’ must be elaborated by ‘political determinism’ and ‘military determinism’; that the higher agents of each of these three domains now often have a noticeable degree of autonomy; and that only in the often intricate ways of coalition [?] do they make up and carry through the most important decisions.

We shall let the term “simple” go, though it appears four times in this passage as quoted: we cannot know whether it is aimed at the deformers of Marxism, who make a simplistic and mechanistic elaboration of it, or Marxism itself. In the first case, Wright Mills should have been more explicit; in the second, he does not bring even the shadow of a proof. Should we maliciously say that he is himself the victim of an “education which becomes more and more an instrument for forming public opinion,” as he so correctly defines it? As for the “precise and unilateral” notions, we confess that the term “power elite” seems to us far from this ideal, and highly equivocal.

Wright Mills’s objection to the term “ruling class” is that it puts the accent too much on the “economic” phenomenon, and allows too little “autonomy” to political and military agents. To speak of a ruling class as an “economically determined” notion is, however, more than abusive, and quite contrary to the sense of Marxism. A ruling class is by definition a group of men who, holding control of the means of production or of social surplus-product, fashion social institutions so as to preserve, transmit, and guarantee that control. It is therefore a social and not an economic phenomenon. In transitional historical periods, which nevertheless occupy centuries, it can even be deprived of the principal economic wealth: think of the court nobility under the absolute monarchy from the XVIth to the XVIIIth century! Wright Mills’s objection is therefore absolutely unfounded. To demonstrate that we are not faced with a ruling class, he ought to demonstrate that those who hold the political and military power are not born into the bourgeoisie, do not make their studies at the side of other sons of bourgeois, have not taken courses in “aristocratic” “universities, do not live in fashionable suburbs, do not frequent the clubs and associations of the monopolists, do not occupy on retirement posts on the boards of directors of big companies, do not invest their “savings” in stocks of these same companies (speculations helping to fill out the budget, thanks to “tips” from a good source!). In short, he ought to demonstrate that the members of another social class (for example, members of the working class, or of the new middle class of white-collar workers, or of the class of craftsmen and working farmers) occupy the leading posts of the political and military apparatus, and that they “infiltrate” bit by bit into the predominant strata of society, despite the fact that they are not, and do not become, bourgeois.

Now not only does Wright Mills nowhere show such an evolution; his whole book shows the contrary. In many places he speaks of the class consciousness of the tops of American society (pp. 29, 31, 283). This, he says on page 30, is the most apparent in the upper class, an intimately united class. The members of the owning classes, he says on page 69, having studied at the same universities, belonging to the same clubs, and bound together by innumerable ties of marriage and friendship, are spread over various leading circles, economic, political, and military.

One promising son enters upon a high governmental career – perhaps the State Department; his first cousin is in due course elevated to a high executive place in the headquarters of a corporation; his uncle has already ascended to naval command; and a brother of the first cousin is about to become the president of a leading college. And, of course, there is the family law firm, whose partners keep in close touch with outlying members and with the problems they face.

Really, is it not the picture of a ruling class that is thus described?

The independence of the political power? On page 125, Wright Mills writes:

Not the politicians of the visible government, but the chief executives who sit in the political directorate, by fact and by proxy, hold the power and the means of defending the privileges of their corporate world [...] and no powers effectively and consistently countervail against them [...].

And on page 169 he specifies:

Yet more and more of the corporate executives have entered government directly; and the result has been a virtually new economy at the apex [sic!] of which we find those who represent the corporate rich.

And on page 275 he emphasizes again that it is the representatives of the big stock companies that are “politically predominant.”

As for the military chiefs, Wright Mills specifies that they have been “recruited from among the ruling strata of the civilian population” (p. 173), that they came to agreements with the big companies (p. 213), that they fused with the monopolists (pp. 214–215). It is true that he indicates that with the growth of the arms sector in the economy, the military chiefs wield an influence on the whole economy; but they wield it, just by chance, for the almost exclusive profit of the great monopoly companies ...

What then remains of Wright Mills’s thesis, in the light of his own analysis, is the fact that the ruling monopoly strata of the American bourgeoisie are being recruited not only among the direct representatives of the monopoly companies, but also among the bourgeois military and political chiefs who are periodically drawn into the “inner circle,” to which, as it were, they bring fresh blood. That is an old phenomenon in the history of the bourgeoisie. It strengthens the notion of a ruling class instead of weakening it, for this political and military leading personnel, which identifies itself so well with the interests of the monopolists, itself comes, as Wright Mills describes in an excellent way, from the same social milieu, follows the same ideologico-moral code, and has the same political and social consciousness. It is therefore that it is part of the same ruling class.

This final fault of Wright Mills’s book should be an additional reason for Marxists to study in a detailed and critical fashion this otherwise excellent work. And they will have no reason to exult until the day when one of them, without committing Wright Mills’s errors, but imitating and surpassing all his qualities, will succeed in making an equally complete and detailed analysis, say of the British, French, German, or Indian ruling class.


1. See on this subject the excellent work by Daniel Guerin: Ou va le peuple américain?

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Note by MIA

A. In the source this line of text is missing. Thanks to Wim S. and Adrien Verlee for point us in the direction of the French text.

Last updated on 21 April 2021