The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills – Meaning, Types and Explanation

C. Wright Mills, a famous sociologist published the book “The Power Elite” in the year 1956. It focuses on the interlinked interests of leaders of military, corporate etc. As per Mills, the term “Power Elite” which is commonly used in his book stands for the individuals who usually hold the dominant post in supreme institutions inclusive of economic and political of a ruling country and henceforth, the decisions on any subject taken by them have a huge impact on the U.S. population and the world in general. The supreme institutions lead by them are led by three men and have won over their weak counterparts.

Mills also specifies that it is quite common that the elite being unaware of their position as elite. This is more so because they are often uncertain about their roles. They slide into their desire unconsciously but Mills often calls them as a “Quasi-hereditary caste”. The associates of power elite often end up in promising societal work due to their education qualification from well-known institutes like Harvard, Princeton etc. Mills also introduces two types of Ivy League alumni which consist of those who are entertained in the higher rank fraternity mainly Porcellian and Fly Club and those who are not.

The elites that command the ruling organizations can be easily classified into six major types as per Mills.

These are basically:-

• The Metropolitan 400:

It represents the historical local families in well-known American cities.

• Celebrities:

They showcase the media personalities and entertainers.

• The Chief Executives:

This stands for presidents and CEO’s of the famous organizations within each industrial sector.

• The Corporate Rich:

They represent the main landowners and corporate shareholders.

• The Warlords:

The senior military officers, most commonly, the Joint Chief of Staff come under this term.

• The Political Directorate:

This stands for fifty odd men of the U.S. executive branch.

Practise Question and Answer:

Write a Short Note on Concept of ‘Power elite’.

Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca saw  elite rule as inevitable and said that the basis for it was the superior personal qualities of the elite. However, C.Wright Mills presented the ‘power elite’ theory restricted to the US society.

He saw elite rule as based on exploiting the masses because the elite had different interests, creating the potential for conflict. He explained elite rule in institutional terms. He argued that  the institutional structure was such that it monopolized power at the top hierarchy. In the USA, three key institutions:

(1)        Corporates[big]

(2)        Military

(3)        Federal government

They Occupied critical positions in the society and the elites were those who held high posts in these three.

The interests and activities of these elites were similar and formed a single ruling majority- the power elite – a coincidence of economic, military and political power. Their rise was aided by the consolidation of big businesses and increasing political and defence centralization. This led to centralized decision-making power.

The cohesiveness of the power elite was due to similar social backgrounds (white, male, mainly protestant) and the revolving door phenomenon. They share similar values and interests and have unaccountability in the USA. Power and self-aggrandizement were their sole concerns


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Sabnam, pursuing Sociology from Miranda House, Delhi University hails from the land of red River, Assam. She is a pure non-realist, because, as she puts it, "reality hurts and pain is not what I endure but what I pour into paper!".