The Rhetoric of C. Wright Mills

Reading The Power Elite is a joy. Mills writes with clarity, verve, and emotion. He clearly feels that something is out of kilter in American society and that social science can help to understand the problem. Alan Wolfe wrote an afterword in 2000 to praise Mills for his ability as a social scientist, but takes issue with his ability as a social critic. The first ten chapters of the book describe mid 20c American society very well, the final five chapters shift to social criticism. Wolfe thinks that Mills is too pessimistic as a social critic, condemning most Americans to a mass society unable to change and uninterested in future reform. I think that Mills is mostly correct about his condemnation of America. I’m not sure there are any reasons for optimism.

Despite – perhaps because of – the ostracism of mind from public affairs, the immorality of accomplishment, and the general prevalence of organized irresponsibility, the men of the higher circles benefit from the total power of the institutional domains over which they rule. For the power of these institutions, actual or potential, is asribed to them as the ostensible decision-makers. Their positions and their activities, and even their persons, are hallowed by these ascriptions; and, around all the high places of power, there is a penumbra of prestige in which the political directorate, the corporate rich, the admirals and generals are bathed. The elite of society, however modest its indivdual members, embodies the prestige of the society’s power. Moreover, few individuals in positions of such authority can long resist the temptation to base their self-images, at least in part, upon the sounding board of the collectivity which they head. Acting as the representative of his nation, his corporation, his army, in due course, he comes to consider himself and what he says and believes as expressive of the historically accumulated glory of the great institutions with which he comes to identify himself. When he speaks in the name of his country or its cause, its past glory also echoes in his ear.

The higher immorality is the term Mills uses to describe the decline of American power and public culture. Power isn’t necessarily bad if it acts based on principles, but when those principles are ignored the result is cynicism. The public withdraws or falls into mass society bewitched by mass media and celebrity culture while the power elite deal for themselves alone.

The moral uneasiness of our time results from the fact that older values and codes of uprightness no longer grip the men and women of the corporate era, nor have they been replaced by new values and codes which would lend moral meaning and sanction to the corporate rountines they must follow. It is not that the mass public has explitictly rejected received codes; it is rather that to many of the members these codes have become hollow. No moral terms of acceptance are available, but neither are any moral terms of rejection. As individuals they are morally defenseless; as groups, they are politically indifferent.

David Bromwich talked about the legacy of political correctness on Radio Open Source earlier this month. He argued that liberals have abandoned the common language, confrontational, occasionally grotesque, for a language that always avoids offense. Obama and Mrs. Clinton say things are “not helpful”, the Republican talk shows respond with “corrupt”, “depraved”, “posionous”. Mills was there making the same point 60 years ago.

Daron Acemoglu also appeared on Radio Open Source to talk about his most recent book, Why Nations Fail. Acemoglu, an economist, has spent the last decade studying the behavior of extractive elites who take the resources of society but give nothing back. The ultimate result is failure.