C. Wright Mills

American sociologist (1916–1962)

C. Wright Mills (August 28, 1916March 20, 1962) was an American sociologist, best remembered for studying the structure of power in the U.S. in his book The Power Elite. Mills was concerned with the responsibilities of intellectuals in post-World War II society. He advocated relevance and engagement over disinterested academic observation as a "public intelligence apparatus" in challenging the policies of the institutional elites in the "Three" (the economic, political and military).

People with advantages are loath to believe that they just happen to be people with advantages. They come readily to define themselves as inherently worthy of what they possess; they come to believe themselves 'naturally' elite, and, in fact, to imagine their possessions and their privileges as natural extensions of their own elite selves.

Quotes edit

  • As an institutional fact, the cultural apparatus assumes many forms, but everywhere today it tends to be part of some national establishment. This term, “establishment,” is of course your (a British) term. The ambiguity with which you use it is at once too lovely and too useful for a mere sociologist to avoid stealing it. I now serve notice that I do intend to steal it, although I promise that I shall try not to make of it a Concept. In general, the term points to the overlap of culture and authority. This overlap may involve the ideological use of cultural products and of cultural workmen for the legitimation of power, and the justification of decisions and policies. It may involve the bureaucratic use of culture by the personnel of authoritative institutions. But the essential feature of any establishment is a traffic between culture and authority, a tacit co-operation of cultural workmen and authorities of a ruling institution. This means of exchange between them includes money, career, privilege; but, above all, it includes prestige. A zone of at least semiofficial prestige which is at once of culture and of authority is the zone of any establishment.
    • "The Cultural Apparatus," in The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills (2008)

1940s edit

  • To have peace and not war, the drift toward a war economy, as facilitated by the moves and the demands of the sophisticated conservatives, must be stopped; to have peace without slump, the tactics and policies of the practical right must be overcome. The political and economic power of both must be broken. The power of these giants of main drift is both economically and politically anchored; both unions and an independent labor party are needed to struggle effective.
    • The New Men of Power (1948).
  • The two greatest blinders of the intellectual who today might fight against the main drift are new and fascinating career chances, which often involve opportunities to practice his skill rather freely, and the ideology of liberalism, which tends to expropriate his chance to think straight. The two go together, for the liberal ideology, as now used by intellectuals, acts as a device whereby he can take advantage of the new career chances but retain the illusion that his soul remains his own.
    • The New Men of Power (1948), p. 281.

1950s edit

  • If we accept the Greek's definition of the idiot as an altogether private man, then we must conclude that many American citizens are now idiots. And I should not be surprised, although I don't know, if there were some such idiots even in Germany.
    • "Structure of Power in America", The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 9 (March 1958).
  • Those in authority within institutions and social structures attempt to justify their rule by linking it, as if it were a necessary consequence, with moral symbols, sacred emblems, or legal formulae which are widely believed and deeply internalized. These central conceptions may refer to a god or gods, the 'votes of the majority,' the 'will of the people,' the 'aristocracy of talents or wealth,' to the 'divine right of kings' or to the alleged extraordinary endowment of the person of the ruler himself.
    • Character & Social Structure (1954).
  • In the United States… a handful of corporations centralize decisions and responsibilities that are relevant for military and political as well as economic developments of global significance. For nowadays the military and the political cannot be separated from economic considerations of power. We now live not in an economic order or a political order, but in a political economy that is closely linked with military institutions and decisions. This is obvious in the repeated "oil crisis" in the Middle East, or in the relevance of Southeast Asia and African resources for the Western powers…
    • Character & Social Structure (1954).

White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951) edit

  • [A]s a proportion of the labor force, fewer individuals manipulate things, more handle people and symbols.
    • P. 65.
  • Competition has been curtailed by larger corporations; it has been sabotaged by groups of smaller entrepreneurs acting collectively. Both groups have made clear the locus of liberalism's rhetoric of small business and family farm.

    The character and ideology of the small entrepreneur and the facts of the market are selling the idea of competition short. These liberal heroes, the small businessmen and the farmer, do not want to develop their characters by free and open competition; they do not believe in competition, and they have been doing their best to get away from it.

    When the small businessmen are asked whether they think free competition is…a good thing, they answer…, 'Yes, of course—what do you mean?' … Finally: 'How about here in this town in furniture?'—or groceries, or whatever the man's line is. Their answers are of two sorts: 'Yes, if it's fair competition,' which turns out to mean: 'if it doesn't make me compete.' … The small businessman, as well as the farmer, wants to become big, not directly by eating up others like himself in competition, but by the indirect ways means practiced by his own particular heroes—those already big. In the dream life of the small entrepreneur, the sure fix is replacing the open market.

    But if small men wish to close their ranks, why do they continue to talk…about free competition? The answer is that the political function of free competition is what really matters now…[f]or, if there is free competition and a constant coming and going of enterprises, the one who remains established is 'the better man' and 'deserves to be where he is.' But if instead of such competition, there is a rigid line between successful entrepreneurs and the employee community, the man on top may be 'coasting on what his father did,' and not really be worthy of his hard-won position. Nobody talks more of free enterprise and competition and of the best man winning than the man who inherited his father's store or farm. …

    … In Congress small-business committees clamored for legislation to save the weak backbone of the national economy. Their legislative efforts have been directed against their more efficient competitors. First they tried to kill off the low-priced chain stores by taxation; then they tried to eliminate the alleged buying advantages of mass distributor; finally they tried to freeze the profits of all distributors in order to protect their own profits from those who could and were selling goods cheaper to the consumer.

    The independent retailer…has been pushing to maintain a given margin under the guise of 'fair competition' and 'fair-trade' laws. He now regularly demands that the number of outlets controlled by chain stores be drastically limited and that production be divorced from distribution. This would, of course, kill the low prices charged consumers by the A&P, which makes very small retail profits, selling almost at cost, and whose real profits come from the manufacturing and packaging.

    Under the threat of 'ruinous competition,' laws are on the books of many states and cities legalizing the ruin of competition.

    • Section One: The Competitive Way of Life.
  • In a society of employees dominated by the marketing mentality, it is inevitable that a personality market should arise. For in the great shift from manual skills to the art of 'handling', selling and servicing people, personal or even intimate traits of employees are drawn into the sphere of exchange and become commodities in the labor market.
  • Kindness and friendliness become aspects of personalized service or of public relations of big firms, rationalized to further the sale of something. With anonymous insincerity, the Successful Person thus makes an instrument of his own appearance and personality.
  • In the formulas of 'personnel experts', men and women are to be shaped into the 'well rounded, acceptable, effective personality.' Just like small proprietors, they cannot higgle over prices, which are fixed, or 'judge the market' and accordingly buy wisely.
  • The personality market, the most decisive effect and symptom of the great salesroom, underlies the all pervasive distrust and self-alienation so characteristic of metropolitan people. Without common values and mutual trust, the cash nexus that links one man to another in transient contact has been made subtle in a dozen ways, and made to bite deeper into all areas of life and relations. People are required by the salesman ethic and convention to pretend interest in others in order to manipulate them. In the course of time, and as this ethic spreads, it is got on to. Still, it is conformed to as part of one;s job and one's style of life, but now with a winking eye, for one knows that manipulation is inherent in every human contact. Men are estranged from one another as each secretly tries to make an instrument of the other, and in time a full circle is made: one makes an instrument of himself and is estranged from it also.

Letters & Autobiographical Writings (1954) edit

Page numbers are from 2000 University of California Press edition
  • The more we understand what is happening in the world, the more frustrated we often become, for our knowledge leads to feelings of powerlessness.
    We feel that we are living in a world in which the citizen has become a mere spectator or a forced actor, and that our personal experience is politically useless and our political will a minor illusion. Very often, the fear of total permanent war paralyzes the kind of morally oriented politics, which might engage our interests and our passions. We sense the cultural mediocrity around us-and in us-and we know that ours is a time when, within and between all the nations of the world, the levels of public sensibilities have sunk below sight; atrocity on a mass scale has become impersonal and official; moral indignation as a public fact has become extinct or made trivial.
    We feel that distrust has become nearly universal among men of affairs, and that the spread of public anxiety is poisoning human relations and drying up the roots of private freedom. We see that people at the top often identify rational dissent with political mutiny, loyalty with blind conformity, and freedom of judgment with treason. We feel that irresponsibility has become organized in high places and that clearly those in charge of the historic decisions of our time are not up to them. But what is more damaging to us is that we feel that those on the bottom-the forced actors who take the consequences-are also without leaders, without ideas of opposition, and that they make no real demands upon those with power.
    • pp. 184-185.
  • The point is that we are among those who cannot get their mouths around all the little Yeses that add up to tacit acceptance of a world run by crackpot realists and subject to blind drift. And that, you see, is something to which we do belong; we belong to those who are still capable of personally rejecting. Our minds are not yet captive.
    • p. 185.
  • To really belong, we have got, first, to get it clear with ourselves that we do not belong and do not want to belong to an unfree world. As free men and women we have got to reject much of it and to know why we are rejecting it.
    • p. 187.

The Power Elite (1956) edit

  • The truth about the nature and the power of the elite is not some secret which men of affairs know but will not tell. ... No matter how great their actual power, they tend to be less acutely aware of it than of the resistance of others to its use.
    • p. 4.
  • Most American men of affairs have learned well the rhetoric of public relations, in some cases even to the point of using it when they are alone, and thus coming to believe it.
    • p. 5.
  • 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… 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… 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.
    • p. 7; discussing sectors of society which Mills feels have only recently become the dominant factors in determining the ultimate course of society.
  • People with advantages are loath to believe that they just happen to be people with advantages. They come readily to define themselves as inherently worthy of what they possess; they come to believe themselves 'naturally' elite, and, in fact, to imagine their possessions and their privileges as natural extensions of their own elite selves.
    • p. 14.
  • The idea of the elite as composed of men and women having a finer moral character is an ideology of the elite.
    • p. 14.
  • America is a nation with no truly national city, no Paris, no Rome, no London, no city which is at once the social center, the political capital, and the financial hub.
    • P. 47.
  • Hegel is correct: we learn from history that we cannot learn from it.
    • p. 23.
  • It is not characteristic of American executives to read books, except books on 'management' and mysteries. ... Those who who do venture into this arena ... are looked upon by their colleagues with mingled awe and incredulity.
    • p. 130.
  • The market is sovereign and in the magic economy of the small entrepreneur there is no authoritarian center… in the political sphere… the equilibrium of powers prevails, and hence there is no chance of despotism.
    • P. 242, describing the view commonly held in the eighteenth century.
  • The broadening of the economic order which came to be seated in the individual property owner… dramatized by Jefferson's purchase of the Louisiana Territory… "The supremacy of corporate economic power… consolidated by the Supreme Court decision of 1886 which declared that the Fourteenth Amendment protected the corporation… [the New Deal, leading to], within the political arena, as well as in the corporate world itself, competing centers of power that challenged those of the corporate directors.
    • P. 270-272; key shifts in power relations which Mills contends have brought us to the current state.
  • The American elite does not have any real image of peace — other than as an uneasy interlude existing precariously by virtue of the balance of mutual fright. The only seriously accepted plan for peace is the full loaded pistol. In short, war or a high state of war-preparedness is felt to be the normal and seemingly permanent condition of the United States.
  • For the first time in American history, men in authority are talking about an 'emergency' without a foreseeable end,...Such men as these are crackpot realists: in the name of realism they have constructed a paranoid reality all their own.
  • America - a conservative country without any conservative ideology - appears now before the world a naked and arbitrary power, as, in the name of realism, its men of decision enforce their often crackpot definitions upon world reality. The second-rate mind is in command of the ponderously spoken platitude. In the liberal rhetoric, vagueness, and in the conservative mood, irrationality, are raised to principle. Public relations and the official secret, the trivializing campaign and the terrible fact clumsily accomplished, are replacing the reasoned debate of political ideas in the privately incorporated economy, the military ascendancy, and the political vacuum of modern America.
  • These men have replaced mind with platitude, and the dogmas by which they are legitimated are so widely accepted that no counterbalance of mind prevails against them. They have replaced the responsible interpretation of events with the disguise of events by a maze of public relations.
  • What the main drift of the twentieth century has revealed is that the economy has become concentrated and incorporated in the great hierarchies, the military has become enlarged and decisive to the shape of the entire economic structure; and moreover the economic and the military have become structurally and deeply interrelated, as the economy has become a seemingly permanent war economy; and military men and policies have increasingly penetrated the corporate economy.
  • In a public, as we may understand the term, (1) virtually as many people express opinions as receive them, (2) Public communications are so organised that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public. Opinion formed by such discussion (3) readily finds an outlet in effective action, even against – if necessary – the prevailing system of authority. And (4) authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous in its operations.-In a mass, (1) far fewer people express opinions than receive them; for the community of publics becomes an abstract collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media. (2) The communications that prevail are so organised that it is difficult or impossible for the individual to answer back immediately or with any effect. (3) The realisation of opinion in action is controlled by authorities who organise and control the channels of such action. (4) The mass has no autonomy from institutions; on the contrary, agents of authorised institutions penetrate this mass, reducing any autonomy it may have in the formation of opinion by discussion.
  • The top of modern American society is increasingly unified and often seems wilfully co-ordinated: at the top there has emerged an elite of power.The middle levels are a drifting set of stalemated balancing forces: the middle does not link the bottom with the top.The bottom of this society is fragmented,and even as a passive fact,increasingly powerless:at the bottom there is emerging a mass society.
  • But now that war has become seemingly total and seemingly permanent, the free sport of kings has become the forced and internecine business of people, and diplomatic codes of honor between nations have collapsed. Peace is no longer serious; only war is serious. Every man and every nation is either friend or foe, and the idea of enmity becomes mechanical, massive, and without genuine passion. When virtually all negotiation aimed at peaceful agreement is likely to be seen as 'appeasement,' if not treason, the active role of the diplomat becomes meaningless; for diplomacy becomes merely a prelude to war or an interlude between wars, and in such a context the diplomat is replaced by the warlord......In other words 'the morale of the State Department is so broken that its finest men flee from it, and advise others to flee.'.
  • Without an industrial economy, the modern army, as in America, could not exist; it is an army of machines. Professional economists usually consider military institutions as parasitic upon the means of production. Now, however, such institutions have come to shape much of the economic life of the United States.
  • Religion, virtually without fail, provides the army at war with its blessings, and recruits from among its officials the chaplain, who in military costume counsels and consoles and stiffens the morale of men at war.
  • The family provides the army and navy with the best men and boys that it possesses. And, as we have seen, education and science too are becoming means to the ends sought by the military.

The Sociological Imagination (1959) edit

  • [O]ne could translate the 555 pages of The Social System into about 150 pages of straightforward English. The result would not be very impressive.
    • p. 31, commenting on the verbosity of the chief work of competing sociologist Talcott Parsons.
  • It is the political task of the social scientist — as of any liberal educator — continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals. It is his task to display in his work — and, as an educator, in his life as well — this kind of sociological imagination. And it is his purpose to cultivate such habits of mind among the men and women who are publicly exposed to him. To secure these ends is to secure reason and individuality, and to make these the predominant values of a democratic society.
  • One great lesson that we can learn from its systematic absence in the work of the grand theorists is that every self-conscious thinker must at all times be aware of — and hence be able to control — the levels of abstraction on which he is working. The capacity to shuttle between levels of abstraction, with ease and with clarity, is a signal mark of the imaginative and systematic thinker.
  • Any contemporary political re-statement of liberal and socialist goals must include as central the idea of a society in which all men would become men of substantive reason, whose independent reasoning would have structural consequences for their societies, its history and thus for their own life fates.
    • p. 174.
  • Above all, do not give up your moral and political autonomy by accepting in somebody else's terms the illiberal practicality of the bureaucratic ethos or the liberal practicality of the moral scatter. Know that many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues — and in terms of the problems of history making.
    • Appendix: "On Intellectual Craftsmanship"

1960s edit

  • The ideals of liberalism have been divorced from any realities of modern social structure that might serve as the means of their realization. ... The detachment of liberalism from the facts of a going society make it an excellent mask for those who do not, cannot, or will not do what would have to be done to realize its ideals.
    • "Liberal Values in the Modern World," in Power , Politics and People (1963), p. 189.
  • If you do not specify and confront real issues, what you say will surely obscure them. If you do not embody controversy, what you say will be an acceptance of the drift to the coming human hell.
    • Foreword, The Marxists (1962).
  • IBM Plus Reality Plus Humanism=Sociology
    • Power, Politics, and People Boston: Beacon Press, (1963).
  • Every revolution has its counterrevolution — that is a sign the revolution is for real. And every revolution must defend itself against this counterrevolution, or the revolution will fail.
    • Listen Yankee (1960), pp. 54.
  • We know well that all new cultural beginnings today must be part of world culture; that no truly intellectual life can occur if the mind is restricted; that no art can have genuine and everlasting value if it is not in a universal language. East and West. God knows there is enough restriction. Enough laziness of stereotypes. Smash them, we say to ourselves. And the only way to do that is to open up a true world forum that is absolutely free.
    • Listen Yankee (1960), pp. 144-145.
  • Here's to the day when the complete works of Leon Trotsky are published and widely distributed in the Soviet Union. On that day the USSR will have achieved democracy!
    • Mills was invited to speak in the Soviet Union as an honored guest, due to his criticisms of economies in the West; he was asked to make a toast at a banquet, and in his contrarian way, toasted Trotsky, whose works had been banned in the Soviet Union by Stalin. Reported in Saul Landau, "C. Wright Mills: The Last Six Months", Ramparts (August 1965), p. 49-50.

The Causes of World War Three (1960) edit

  • For the corporation executives, the military metaphysic often coincides with their interest in a stable and planned flow of profit; it enables them to have their risk underwritten by public money; it enables them reasonably to expect that they can exploit for private profit now and later, the risky research developments paid for by public money. It is, in brief, a mask of the subsidized capitalism from which they extract profit and upon which their power is based.
  • An expensive arms race, under cover of the military metaphysic, and in a paranoid atmosphere of fright, is an economically attractive business. To many utopian capitalists, it has become the Business Way of American Life."
  • Some men want war for sordid, others for idealistic, reasons; some for personal gain, others for impersonal principle. But most of those who consciously want war and accept it, and so help to create its "inevitability," want it in order to shift the locus of their problems.
  • They know of no solutions to the paradoxes of the Middle East and Europe, the Far East and Africa except the landing of Marines. Being baffled, and also being very tired of being baffled, they have come to believe that there is no way out—except war—which would remove all the bewildering paradoxes of their tedious and now misguided attempts to construct peace. In place of these paradoxes they prefer the bright, clear problems of war—as they used to be. For they still believe that "winning" means something, although they never tell us what.

Power, Politics, and People (1963) edit

  • The first rule for understanding the human condition is that men live in second-hand worlds. They are aware of much more than they have personally experienced; and their own experience is always indirect.
    • "The Cultural Apparatus"
  • Liberalism, as a set of ideals, is still viable, and even compelling to Western men. That is one reason why it has become a common denominator of American political rhetoric; but there is another reason. The ideals of liberalism have been divorced from any realities of modern social structure that might serve as the means of their realization. Everybody can easily agree on general ends; it is more difficult to agree on means and the relevance of various means to the ends articulated. The detachment of liberalism from the facts of a going society make it an excellent mask for those who do not, cannot, or will not do what would have to be done to realize its ideals.
    • "Liberal Values in the Modern World"
  • Moral distrust of men in public life is an old American convention. In the current campaign, however, it has reached unprecedented heights: each of the leading candidates has felt it necessary to make public an accounting of his personal income.
    • "Diagnosis of Our Moral Uneasiness".
  • Laws without supporting moral conventions invite crime, but much more importantly, they spur the growth of an expedient, amoral attitude. In our kind of society - with its absence of pre-capitalist traditions - the only way to do away with training devices is to change the laws and their enforcement so that, unlike the current income tax, they do not depend upon individual integrity. Another way is to pass only laws that result from great social movements with concomitant changes in moral codes, but there is no such movement underway in any area of American society today.
    • "Diagnosis of Our Moral Uneasiness"
  • When ever the standards of the moneyed life prevail, the man with money, no matter how he got it, will eventually be respected.
    • "Diagnosis of Our Moral Uneasiness", III
  • In a society which the money-makers have had no serious rival for repute and honor, the word "practical" comes to mean useful for private gain, and "common sense," the sense to get ahead financially. The pursuit of the moneyed life is the commanding value, in relation to which the influence of others values has declined, so men eas**"Diagnosis of Our Moral Uneasiness", III
    • "Diagnosis of Our Moral Uneasiness", III
  • Today in the United States there is no Left: practical political activities are monopolized by an irresponsible two-party system; cultural activities - although formally quite free - tend to become nationalist or commercial or mere private.
    Today in Western Europe what remains of the older Left is weak; its remnants have become inconsequential as a cultural and political center of insurgent opposition. "The Left" has indeed become "established." Even if the Left wins state power, as in Britain, it often seems to its members to have little room for maneuver - in he world or in the nation.
    • "The Decline of the Left"

Quotes about C. Wright Mills edit

  • "All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence," said C. Wright Mills, echoing, as it were, Max Weber's definition of the state as "the rule of men over men based on the means of legitimate, that is allegedly legitimate, violence." The consensus is very strange; for to equate political power with "the organization of violence" makes sense only if one follows Marx's estimate of the state as an instrument of oppression in the hands of the ruling class.
  • In The Sociological Imagination, Mills stresses the importance of institutions: "Much of human life consists of playing... roles within specific institutions. To understand the biography of an individual, we must understand the significance and meaning of the roles he has played and does play; to understand these roles we must understand the institutions of which they are a part."

External links edit

Wikipedia has an article about: