C. Wright Mills
What we learned from a book published in 1956 about the "ara Trump" and the power structures of America
Many observers see Donald Trump’s presidency as a profound censure of American social development and democracy. The current questions are: Will Trump be re-elected president?? If he loses the election, will he voluntarily hand over power?? And how will the situation change if Joe Biden wins the election??
Concerned political observers have already invoked the demise of democracy in the face of Trump’s impending re-election. But this is too simple. Anyone who believes that individuals like Donald Trump are the central problem (or. Joe Biden is the solution) to the worsening crisis in US society fails to recognize its deep structural causes.
In his seminal 1956 book "The power elite" US sociologist C. Wright Mills, with analytical vision and a style that combines scholarship and literary talent, concisely and unsparingly exposes the causes of the crisis-ridden nature of American society. Not the democratic institutions central to democratic theory, parliament and the public, are for Mills the central arenas for the exercise of power in the United States of the 1950s. Rather, it is the power structures that have grown in historical practice, at the top of which an exclusive power elite has formed.
In this parallel society of the American upper class, as Mills meticulously describes, it is both the top politicians, militaries and top managers, but also the super-rich and celebrities, who compete with and against each other for money, power and prestige. What ultimately pays here above all to be able to exist is, on the one hand, a habitus of success in order to have access to the top of the American power system: "Money is the only unambiguous criterion of success, and success in this sense is still the American concept of value." (C. Wright Mills). On the other hand, it is not only the personality-bound power resources, but above all the embedding of the power elites in the world of large corporations, state bureaucracies and military power structures that allow them to appropriate power potentials, prestige and wealth:
Let us remove in our minds the hundred most powerful, the hundred richest and the hundred most famous Americans from the institutional positions they hold, which let them control people and capital, let us remove them from the sphere of action of the mass media, which put them in the limelight of publicity – they were powerless, poor and unknown. Because power does not belong to an individual; wealth does not lie in a person, and fame does not come naturally to anyone. To be famous, rich, or powerful requires access to gross institutions precisely because an individual’s position within social institutions largely determines his or her prospects for becoming and remaining rich, powerful, and famous.
C. Wright Mills
And it is precisely these structures of power and their relation to each other that have changed radically in history, according to Mills. Loosely interconnected and largely decentralized power structures have evolved into a centralized and highly bureaucratized power complex. The economic, military and state power structures and their interests have become increasingly entangled. The corporations and the military increasingly set the tone.
The militaristic capitalism of the private corporate economy exists within a weakened and only formally democratic system, in which the military institutions have already become political factors in their attitude and behavior. In terms of these relationships, the given congruence between those who control the most extensive production facilities and the men entrusted with the newly developed means of mass destruction has had a determining influence on the emergence of the power elite.
C. Wright Mills
The power elites of the respective spheres are also becoming more and more similar as a result. Among themselves, they are highly networked, know each other well personally, share common socialization experiences, and increasingly switch between political, economic, and military offices. This exclusive elitist circle, as Mills shows, has hardly any sense of the concerns and nuances of the "normal" people, the working class and white-collar workers, who retreat into the private sphere as a reaction and develop a general unease with the political show and power game.
In a trenchant critique of the elitist mindset, Mills exposes how a "organized irresponsibility" , "conservative mindset" , "higher immorality" and a "crazy realism" began to permeate U.S. society. He unmasked the "liberal rhetoric" and talk of the democratic balance of power as an illusion that serves to stabilize social inequalities and elitist claims to power, status and prestige.
Who Mills "Power Elite" and compares it with current developments in the United States, one cannot help but identify astonishing continuities. Trump, as a super-rich, professional celebrity and top politician of the political right, with his rhetoric of success, his crazy realism, his immorality, ruthlessness and conservative mindset, combines many of the characteristics and traits described by Mills. But that "Trump phenomenon" cannot be understood without analyzing the social conditions that have enabled and produced it: a society deeply permeated by structures of economic, political, and cultural inequality. And where, at the same time, the political, economic and military spheres of power closely overlap and their elites cultivate a closeness to each other that makes democratic control increasingly difficult.
Access to the level of political power – whether through political office or through organized lobbying influence on policy-making processes – remains largely dependent on economic resources and organizational power, even in contemporary America. Studies show that the political preferences of the lower and middle income classes have little influence on political decision-making processes. In this respect, Mill’s pessimistic conclusion from his Power Elite has lost none of its validity for describing the democratic state of the United States in 2020:
Today’s America is far more a formal political democracy than a democratic form of society. And even the formal political game works only weakly.
C. Wright Mills
If one looks at the development of the last decades, these alarming tendencies seem to be even stronger. Since the 1980s – that is, over several Democratic and Republican presidencies – the concentration of wealth in the U.S., which is higher than in almost any other country, has steadily increased. The resulting widening gap between elites and the upper middle classes on the one hand and the rest of the population on the other is not only of an economic nature.
As Harvard philosopher Michael J. Sander notes that in recent years the winners of globalization in the U.S., truncated to a neoliberal ideology of achievement, have turned away from the rest of society, the "losers", turned away with contempt. And as already described by Mills, this arrogance of the elites leads to political apathy and unease. This, in turn, is the source of right-wing populism in the style of Donald Trump, in order to mobilize and re-politicize the center of society in its sense. The political right is also, but not only, turning away from e-commerce "to the economically disadvantaged, but [generally] to those classes who are dissatisfied with the social position accorded them. In the pursuit of this tactic it attacks the symbols, the prominent persons and the institutions of the existing prestige system." (C. Wright Mills).
These structural developments will not be resolved by the election of Joe Biden – who for 47 years has been part of the political establishment and that structure of power and inequality whose genesis and consequences Mills described and criticized so vehemently. With Mills, one can learn not to be misled by the media focus and staging of personal power. It is first and foremost an unequal relationship within social structures that conditions and significantly shapes personal power. To let Mills have his say again:
Although it is sometimes individual people who give institutions their form, it is the institutions that also form and shape their people. In each period of history, we must weigh the character, will, or intelligence of individuals against the objective institutional structure that brings out their essence.
C. Wright Mills
Therefore, in terms of critical power structure research, it is important to look at the historically evolved social power relations as a whole: in particular, at the competing ideologies and inequalities in access to essential means of power, at corporate and media power, and at the structures of the political system and state. This force field is not only the condition for the personal power of some, but also the relative or absolute powerlessness and exclusion of others.