William F. Warde

The High and the Mighty

A Review-Article on the Power Elite

(Winter 1957)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.1, Winter 1957, pp.19-23.
(William F. Warde was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2009 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2009; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.


The starting point for understanding politics and developing a sound policy for labor’s political action in the United States today is an accurate knowledge of the real structure of American society. That society is composed of different classes, ranging from wage workers in the factories, fields and offices to stockholders of the corporations which own and operate them. Which class rules this country and how do its agents secure their domination over our economic, political and cultural life?

A recently published book [1] essays to answer these questions. Imagine an eighteenth-century account of the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV of France, his statesmen and generals, his bankers and bureaucrats, his courtiers and nobility, his entertainers and mistresses, such as the (Duke de Saint-Simon gave. The author of this new book, C. Wright Mills, presents an analogous portrait of the more impersonal and hypocritical but no less tyrannical regime of King Capital and his entourage in the United States today.

Mills is a professor of sociology at Columbia University. But he is a maverick on the academic ranges where the herd keeps close to the capitalist corral. He is a shrewd observer, honest reporter and scornful critic of monopoly capitalism in the tradition set by Gustavus Myers, author of The Great American Fortunes; Thorstein Veblen, author of The Theory of the Leisure Class; and the Ferdinand Lundberg of the 1930s who wrote America’s 60 Families. This school of left liberal sociologists exposed the pretensions of the plutocrats and told many truths about them, from the shady formation of their fortunes to the shoddy imitative fabric of their culture. This is the third in his panel of studies of the most significant social strata in this country. In The New Men of Power Mills anatomized the union officialdom; in White Collar, the urban middle-class elements. Now his lens and scalpel is turned upon the people who command the heights of American life. He gives a close-up view of the principal traits, private and public postures, and modes of functioning of our master class. He exposes the realities behind the masks fabricated by the public relations experts and the press. A streamlined Veblen, he uses irony to pierce the hides of the sacred cows of our own caste system from the Brass Hats to the button-pressing corporation moguls. This is descriptive sociology at its best.


Mills first sets out to demolish the fiction that there are no classes in American society. He views the population as divided into three strata, not in strict accordance with their property relations and economic functions, but according to the measure of power they actually possess. These are the power elite; the middle levels; and the mass.

He then proceeds to demonstrate that the proclaimed equality of American democracy is a fraud and that the various segments of the people exist and operate on extremely different levels. As the colonial wit observed:

“Men are born both free and equal
But differ greatly in the sequel.”

There is a colossal, almost unbridgeable gap between the bulk of the population at the bottom and the rulers on top in possession, enjoyment and exercise of wealth, power, freedom and the good things of life.

Ordinary Americans are powerless to determine the decisions that most vitally shape their lives. They are not consulted beforehand and often do not even know what these decisions are until they are struck by their consequences. The major decisions are made for them by people in pivotal positions who have centralized the means of information and the policy-making powers in their hands. Consequently “the men and women of the mass society ... feel that they are without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power.”

The power elite, on the other hand, are “in positions to make decisions having major consequences ... Their failure to act, their failure to make decisions, is itself an act that is often of greater consequence than the decisions they do make. For they are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure, in which are now centered the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy.”

The government, the armed forces and the corporations are the major institutional hierarchies. These are more important than any other institutions. “Families and churches and schools adapt to modern life; government and armies and corporations shape them, and, as they do so they turn these lesser institutions into means for their ends.”

In a passage as searing in its truth as in its irony, Mills observes:

“The life-fate of the modern individual depends not only upon the family into which he was born or which he enters by marriage, but increasingly upon the corporation in which he spends the most alert hours of his best years; not only upon the school where he is educated as a child and adolescent, but also upon the state which touches him throughout his life; not only upon the church in which on occasion he hears the word of God, but also upon the army in which he is disciplined.

“If the centralized state could not rely upon the inculcation of nationalist loyalties in public and private schools, its leaders would promptly seek to modify the decentralized educational system. If the bankruptcy rate among the top five hundred corporations were as high as the general divorce rate among the thirty-seven million married couples, there would be economic catastrophe on an international scale. If members of armies gave to them no more of their lives than do believers to the churches to which they belong, there would be a military crisis.”

These three institutions have become so swollen and centralized that they overshadow and overwhelm all other departments of American life.

“The economy – once a great scatter of small productive units in autonomous balance – has become dominated by two or three hundred giant corporations, administratively and politically interrelated, which together hold the keys to economic decisions.

“The political order, once a decentralized set of several dozen states with a weak spinal cord, has become a centralized, executive establishment which has taken up into itself many powers previously scattered, and now enters into each and every cranny of the social structure.

“The military order, once a slim establishment in a context of distrust fed by state militia, has become the largest and most expensive feature of government, and, although well versed in smiling public relations, now has all the grim clumsy efficiency of a sprawling bureaucratic domain.”

The leading men in each of these three domains, the corporation chieftains, warlords and political directors, form the power elite. This interlocking directorate “share decisions having at least national consequences,” and often determining world development. The scope and effects of their operations make their power qualitatively superior to the power of those lower in the social scale.

“The owner of a roadside fruit stand does not have as much power in any area of social or economic or political decision as the head of a multi-million-dollar fruit corporation; no lieutenant on the line is as powerful as the Chief of Staff in the Pentagon; no deputy sheriff carries as much authority as the President of the United States.”

The heads of these institutions fuse with the very rich to constitute the inner circle of the upper crust which has acquired the consciousness, customs, connections and assurance of a ruling order. Although smaller cities have hierarchies of their own, these are petty, provincial and subordinated to the big national institutions – the giant corporations, the federal government and the military – even more than a small local union is subordinated to its international. The big shots in the little cities look to the commanders in the urban centers for leadership. In passing, Mills gives a graphic description of the realities of small-town snobbery as well as of the breeding grounds of the elite in the upper reaches of metropolitan high life.

He establishes the fact that the very rich did not get that way by savings from their salaries or even by scrambling up the ladder of corporation success. In the main they have inherited their wealth and along with it their power, prestige and the other attributes of aristocracy. The very rich of 1950 are largely the descendants of the very rich of 1900. These acquired their fortunes thanks to the right of private property, by corporate manipulations, by favorable tax legislation, through compliant political authorities, the exploitation of other people’s inventions, “outright gifts out of the people’s domain,” and war profiteering. “The very rich have used existing laws, they have circumvented and violated existing laws, and they have had laws created and enforced for their direct benefit.”

Their immense revenues are derived from their ownership of the giant corporations. They are closely tied up in a thousand ways with the chief executives of the monopolies. The corporate rich alone are really free, or at least enjoy incomparably more freedom of action and of inaction than anyone else. Their wealth affords them unrestricted command over the labor of society and its products and liberates them from the grim material necessities of the lower classes. “Money provides power and power provides freedom.”

Mills points out that the plutocracy, the corporation executives, the military and political leaders, are in the main drawn from the Protestant, urban, white and native-born sections of the population.


The new note in this up-to-date study, compared to previous portraits of America’s ruling class, is the ascendancy of the military. This is the most ominous aspect of the new phase in the degradation of American democracy resulting from the predominance of monopoly capitalism and its imperialist policies. The American Republic, born as a staunchly anti-militarist nation, has become transformed into the opposite since World War II. Professional army men, once regarded as potential oppressors and parasites, have now become the most exalted of untouchables. The Pentagon is their headquarters and monument; the occupation of the White House, their principal domestic conquest to date.

The military and political representatives of monopoly capitalism have no outlook other than maintaining the nation on a permanent war footing. They have saddled the country with a permanent and ever-growing military establishment which already dominates the economy through its expenditures, the male youth through the draft acts, as well as scientific research and development and the higher educational institutions.

Mills emphasizes that permanent militarism means permanent war as an indispensable instrument of national capitalist policy. As American politics has become more militarized, the military have become more political. As politics gets into the army, the army gets into politics on the highest level. Senator McCarthy was bridled and gagged primarily because he tried to interfere with the Army High Command. The military men not only shuttle between the capitals of the world as diplomats but increasingly staff the executive posts of key corporations and enter the highest executive offices from Secretary of State to the Presidency.

The corporate rich, the warlords and the big politicians jointly develop and administer domestic and foreign policies. The trio have been amalgamated into a single force through the present Republican “Cadillac Cabinet.”

“The three top policy-making positions in the country (secretaries of state, treasury and defense) are occupied by a New York representative of the leading law firm of the country, which does international business for the Morgan and Rockefeller interests; by a mid-west corporation executive who was a director of a complex of over 30 corporations; and by the former president of one of the three or four largest corporations and the largest producer of military equipment in the United States.”

Mills observes: “The military capitalism of private corporations exists in a weakened and formal democratic system containing a military order already quite political in outlook and demeanor.” It would be hard to improve on this definition.

Mills does not give much comfort to those who see any fundamental differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties. He says:

“During the New Deal, the corporate chieftains joined the political directorate; as of World War II, they have come to dominate it.”

“More and more of the fundamental issues never come to any point of decision before the Congress or before its more powerful committees, much less before the electorate in campaigns.”

Most basic decisions are made by a small, uncontrollable group centered around the Chief Executive.

Mills scornfully dismisses the notion that there is any “balance of powers” among the different sections of the population as a whole. Decisive power on decisive issues is concentrated exclusively in the top circles centralized around the Chief Executive. He says that a small amount of power is scattered around among middle-class elements while the masses are deprived of any power whatsoever.

Mills paints a sad but faithful picture of the decadence of liberalism:

“Postwar liberalism has been organizationally impoverished: the prewar years of liberalism-in-power devitalized independent liberal groups, drying up the grass roots, making older leaders dependent upon the federal center and not training new leaders round the country. The New Deal left no liberal organization to carry on any liberal program; rather than a new party, its instrument was a loose coalition inside an old one, which quickly fell apart, so far as liberal ideas are concerned. Moreover, the New Deal used up the heritage of liberal ideas, made them banal as it put them into law; turned liberalism into a set of administrative routines to defend rather than a program to fight for.

“In their moral fright, postwar liberals have not defended any left or even any militantly liberal position; their defensive posture has, first of all, led them to celebrate the ‘civil liberties,’ in contrast with their absence from Soviet Russia. In fact, many have been so busy defending civil liberties that they have had neither the time nor the inclination to use them. ‘In the old days,’ Archibald MacLeish remarked at the end of the ’forties, freedom was ‘something you used ... [It] has now become something you save – something you put away and protect like your other possessions – like a deed or a bond in a bank.’”

If liberalism has collapsed as an influential force, the intellectuals as a whole have surrendered their roles as independent opinion-molders and enlighteners of the people. The field has been left free for the unchallenged supremacy of the monopolist advocates of “The American Century.”

Mills does not have any higher appraisal of the qualifications and objectives of the union officialdom. The leaders of labor are today “well below the top councils; they are of the middle levels of power.” But they are striving for higher stakes among the “national power elite.” In pursuing “the strategy of maximum adaptation,” they encounter obstacles both from above and from below. “They feel a tension between their public: their union members – before whom it is politically dangerous to be too big a ‘big-shot’ or too closely associated with inherited enemies – and their newly found companions and routines of life.” As a result, the labor leaders occupy uneasy positions between their business associates and the union ranks.

Mills ends his survey of the power elite with this indictment. The current monopolizers of power have no responsibility to the people or to anyone else. Within the existing setup they are uncontrolled and uncontrollable and they profit from this state of irresponsibility. The possessors of power are split from and opposed to the possessors of knowledge. He terms their irresponsibility the “higher immorality.” “Commanders of power, unequalled in human history, they have succeeded within the American system of organized irresponsibility.”


Lenin wrote his classic analysis of imperialism in 1916, basing it on materials provided by the Englishman Hobson and the German Hilferding. In the 40 years since then colossal changes have affected imperialism as a world system and especially the position of the US within it. The imperialist system, which was then at its peak, is crumbling before our eyes and, instead of a network of comparatively equal competitive states, it has become centralized in the American colossus whose power is its main support.

Equally important modifications have been introduced into the internal organization of US monopoly capitalism. The Mills study is valuable in its analysis of some of the most significant of these changes in the political, social psychological and cultural superstructure of American imperialism.

It is plain that American monopoly capitalism has passed into a higher stage of its development. In place of the more or less automatic operation of capitalism, the federal government and its military component has today become the principal prop of the economy and the national prosperity. Whole industries, such as aircraft, directly depend upon the federal expenditures made possible by heavy taxation. As the monopolists have become more dependent upon the state power, the government has become more openly dependent upon them.

“The invisible government” that the progressives of yesteryear sought to disclose, has become not only visible but insolent. The monopolists hold the reins of government tightly in their hands. The ripe fruits of capitalist evolution, as Mills describes them, are vast inequalities of wealth and power, plutocracy in place of democracy, and a frightfully expensive and expanding militarism.

In other countries a militarized state monopoly capitalism has taken on fascist or openly dictatorial forms – but not yet here. Thanks to the historical privileges of the US, its immense wealth and the under-development of class conflicts, American capitalists have not been compelled to discard the old democratic forms, even though they have curtailed them. But the danger of extreme reaction, as evidenced in the shapes of McCarthyism and militarism, remain lodged in the inner structure and inescapable tendencies of the system.

Mills exhibits both the strong and the weak points of his school of sociology, which owes more to the German writers Mannheim and Weber than to Marxism. He excels in the generalized description of the outstanding traits of social groupings. He often stumbles and falls down, however, in dealing with the fundamental nature and relations of the class forces in our society. For example, he takes exception to two fundamental propositions of historical materialism. He claims that “the American government is not ... a committee of the ruling class,” and refuses to acknowledge that there is any single ruling class in this country. These are oversimplified Marxist theses, he says.

His contention that the American government is not a committee of the ruling class is based upon his special conception of the power elite. Which of the three sides of the triangle composed of the corporate rich, the warlords and the politicians, is predominant and which subordinate? Which is the master and which the servants?

It is instructive to note that Mills, who is so scrupulous about defining inequalities in other segments of the social structure, places all three of these forces on an equivalent level. He does so on the ground that each of them exercises a portion of power. But surely that does not dispose of the basic issue. In whose interests do they wield their power? The facts which he himself amasses demonstrate that the military and the politicians, while advancing their own careers, act primarily in promoting the interests of the billionaires.

This can easily be seen in the case of such a popular Culture Hero and sycophant of the rich as Arthur Godfrey. But it is equally demonstrable in the career of such a capitalist politician as Henry Wallace. The prospective Presidential candidate of 1944 was pitched out of the Democratic cabinet and humbled in 1946 because he hesitated at that time to go along with the Cold War policies projected by the postwar needs of imperialism. Even so powerful a general as MacArthur was brought to heel in 1951 when he tried to resist and divert the main line of monopolist foreign policy. Both the politicians and the Brass Hats function as executors of policies whose contents are essentially dictated by the national and international objectives of the ruling rich.

In the same spirit, Mills substitutes the term “power elite” for ruling class, because, he says, ruling class is “a badly loaded phrase.” This substitution is more polite. But is it more accurate and scientific? “Ruling class” is a combined concept: class is an economic category, rule a political one. Mills says he prefers “power elite” because it is exclusively political in connotation. This sounds eminently plain and simple, but the situation is not so simple as he makes out.

It is true that “ruling class” contains in a single concept references to both economic relations and political functions. Is this justified by the facts? Mills himself admits that in many cases, and even in this one, the economically predominant class is likewise politically predominant. In fact, this is the rule in the history of class society. But, he objects, there are exceptions to this rule. It has occasionally happened that the economically superior class is not politically sovereign, and vice versa. This is so. But in all such exceptional cases there remain two further questions to be answered: (1) which class is decisive in determining basic state policies, and (2) which class serves which?

The American monopolists are not only economically but, as he abundantly proves, also politically sovereign. They are not like the Japanese and German capitalists who were politically subordinated to feudalized landowners and militarists. The American military and political leaders have only a relative autonomy and are strictly dependent upon the plutocracy. What, therefore, prevents Mills from designating the monopolists as the “ruling class”?

There appear to be two reasons. One is his reluctance to be too closely identified with Marxism. The other is inherent in his own theoretical method and outlook. He views the distribution of power as systematically disorganized and the power elite as fundamentally “irresponsible.” This is one-sided. The superficial disorganization of American politics is contrived and used to assure the supremacy of monopolists. And while it is true that the power elite have no responsibility toward the people, this is only the outer side of their loyalty and subservience to the real masters of America. The warlords and the politicos are fully responsible when it comes to safeguarding the welfare of the wealthy.

By thus prying the upper stories of the political superstructure loose from their economic foundation, Mills opens the possibility of a liberal-labor capitalist regime to enforce policies contrary to the economic interests of the monopolists. He laments the absence of an enlightened and independent Civil Service, as though such a bureaucracy would not be as subordinate to the ruling rich as the other institutions of government. He explicitly says that the leaders of capitalist society need not be historically and socially determined in their major actions.


Mills demonstrates that the sovereignty of the people is a mockery in the United States. How, then, is the promise of democracy to be made a reality? Reformists aim to make the power elite “responsible” to the people; the revolutionary forces seek to dislodge the plutocratic triumvirate and replace it by a government power responsible to the masses. That requires not only fundamental changes in the political setup but also the nationalization of the productive apparatus.

In this book Mills does not offer any political prescriptions, although they are implicit in much of what he says. It will obviously take a very formidable counter-power to discipline, let alone dislodge, the coalition of plutocrats, warlords and professional politicians. In this country such a power can be found in only one place: in the ranks of organized labor.

Organized labor is already objectively counterposed to Big Business on the industrial field. Mills points out:

“The concentration of corporation power and the informal coordination of the business world – with and without interlocking directorships – has become such that the Department of Labor estimates that only some 147 employers really bargain out their wage terms with their labor forces. These bargains set the pattern of wage contracts; thousands of other employers may go through the motions of bargaining, but the odds are high that they will end up according to the pattern set by the few giant deals.”

Thus a small band of monopolist employers confront the tens of millions of wage workers in negotiations over wages and working conditions.

This economic opposition is bound to break through and assert itself on the political arena. Mills is aware of this. We know from other sources, such as the speech he delivered to a United Automobile Workers Educational Conference in 1951, that Mills urges the formation of a Labor Party as the indicated next step in American politics. The political outlook of this professor is more advanced than that of the labor leaders. His advice is well worth listening to. In any event, he has indicated the way to begin the mass political processes which can bring about the downfall of the plutocratic power elite, who, in his own words, are neither representative, virtuous, meritorious nor able; and through the establishment of a Workers and Farmers Government make democracy for the first time the governing reality of American life.


1. The Power Elite, by C. Wright Mills. Oxford University Press, N. Y. 1956. 423 pp. $6.


Last updated on: 22 April 2009