In 1956, C. Wright Mills published The Power Elite, a political and sociological analysis of the supremacy of a relatively small elite in US economic, political and military decision making. For Mills, the existence of this elite was relatively new, and the magnitude of its power without historical precedent.
There is much to applaud in Mills's study, which traces the particular socialpolitical organization of small town, midsize city and urban center. He exposes patterns of authority and the genealogy of access to it that other intellectuals of his time did not recognize. He perceives the relative autonomy of, as well as important linkages across, the three loci of power: corporations, the political administration and the military.
Yet there are arguably certain problems with and incoherence in Mills's associated economic analysis and history. This essay explores the tacit Millsian economics of elite power by examining the economic setting of his leading assumptions and claims. Where this proves illuminating, it employs the theoretical framework of the Social Structure of Accumulation to understand how elite power manages conflicts in the corporate, political and military institutions that Mills dubbed the “means of power” (Mills 1956, 13). It argues that Mills's concept of a power elite emerges only at a distinctive stage in the development of capitalism: in the aftermath of World War II, when US international hegemony was consolidated and its foreign policy became increasingly militarized.
Mills's economic premises range from institutionalist to neoclassical to Marxian, although not Keynesian. Sometimes he makes economic assumptions that seem indefensible: for example, his presumption that the effects of past business failures were exclusively local, producing no macroeconomic consequences.
Mills's historiography of the concentration of economic power is naïve in juxtaposing the world of modern corporations with a “recent” precorporate past, finessing late nineteenth-century antitrust movements and ignoring mass unemployment in the 1890s. On the other hand, he anticipated such important developments as the mechanization of white collar work and the associated increase in supervisory-to-nonsupervisory worker ratios.
Individual agency and institutional context
Mills's project of identifying the elite is at the same time a criticism of histories that extrapolate from the purported invisible hand of the economy to a metahistorical dynamic beyond any one person's control, and therefore beyond individual agency.