From C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite. New York: Harper,1957, pp. 269-297.


The Power Elite

Except for the unsuccessful Civil War, changes in the power systemof the United States have not involved important challenges to itsbasic legitimations. Even when they have been decisive enough to becalled 'revolutions,' they have not involved the 'resort to the gunsof a cruiser, the dispersal of an elected assembly by bayonets, orthe mechanisms of a police state.' Nor have they involved , in anydecisive way, any ideological struggle to control masses. Changes inthe American structure of power have generally come about byinstitutional shifts in the relative positions of the political, theeconomic, and the military orders. From this point of view, andbroadly speaking, the American power elite has gone through fourepochs, and is now well into a fifth.


I. During the first--roughly from the Revolution through theadministration of John Adams--the social and economic, the politicaland the military institutions were more or less unified in a simpleand direct way: the individual men of these several elites movedeasily from one role to another at the top of each of the majorinstitutional orders. Many of them were many-sided men who could takethe part of legislator and merchant, frontiersman and soldier,scholar and surveyor.

Until the downfall of the Congressional caucus of 1824, politicalinstitutions seemed quite central; political decisions, of greatimportance; many politicians, considered national statesmen of note.'Society, as I first remember it,' Henry Cabot Lodge once said,speaking of the Boston of his early boyhood, 'was based on the oldfamilies; Doctor Holmes defines them in the "Autocrat" as thefamilies which had held high position in the colony, the province andduring the Revolution and the early decades of the United States.They represented several generations of education and standing in thecommunity . . . They had ancestors who had filled the pulpits, satupon the bench, and taken part in the government under the crown; whohad fought in the Revolution, helped to make the State and Nationalconstitutions and served in the army or navy; who had been members ofthe House or Senate in the early days of the Republic, and who hadwon success as merchants, manufacturers, lawyers, or men of letters.'

Such men of affairs, who--as I have noted-- were the backbone ofMrs. John Jay's social list of 1787, definitely included politicalfigures of note. The important fact about these early days is thatsocial life, economic institutions, military establishment, andpolitical order coincided, and men who were high politicians alsoplayed key roles in the economy and, with their families, were amongthose of the reputable who made up local society. In fact, this firstperiod is marked by the leadership of men whose status does not restexclusively upon their political position, although their politicalactivities are important and the prestige of politicians high. Andthis prestige seems attached to the men who occupy Congressionalposition as well as the cabinet. The elite are political men ofeducation and of administrative experience, and, as Lord Bryce noted,possess a certain 'largeness of view and dignity of character.'

II. During the early nineteenth century--which followedJefferson's political philosophy, but, in due course, Hamilton'seconomic principles--the economic and political and military ordersfitted loosely into the great scatter of the American socialstructure. The broadening of the economic order which came to beseated in the individual property owner was dramatized by Jefferson'spurchase of the Louisiana Territory and by the formation of theDemocratic-Republican party as successor to the Federalists.

In this society, the 'elite' became a plurality of top groups,each in turn quite loosely made up. They overlapped to be sure, butagain quite loosely so. One definite key to the period, and certainlyto our images of it, is the fact that the Jacksonian Revolution wasmuch more of a status revolution than either an economic or apolitical one. The metropolitan 400 could not truly flourish in theface of the status tides of Jacksonian democracy; alongside it was apolitical elite in charge of the new party system. No set of mencontrolled centralized means of power; no small clique dominatedeconomic, much less political, affairs. The economic order wasascendant over both social status and political power; within theeconomic order, a quite sizable proportion of all the economic menwere among those who decided. For this was the period--roughly fromJefferson to Lincoln--when the elite was at most a loose coalition.The period ended, of course, with the decisive split of southern andnorthern types.

Official commentators like to contrast the ascendancy intotalitarian countries of a tightly organized clique with theAmerican system of power. Such comments, however, are easier tosustain if one compares mid-twentieth-century Russia withmid-nineteenth-century America, which is what is often done byTocqueville-quoting Americans making the contrast. But that was anAmerica of a century ago, and in the century that has passed, theAmerican elite have not remained as patrioteer essayists havedescribed them to us. The 'loose cliques' now head institutions of ascale and power not then existing and, especially since World War I,the loose cliques have tightened up. We are well beyond the era ofromantic pluralism.

III. The supremacy of corporate economic power began, in a formalway, with the Congressional elections of 1866, and was consolidatedby the Supreme Court decision of 1886 which declared that theFourteenth Amendment protected the corporation. That period witnessedthe transfer of the center of initiative from government tocorporation. Until the First World War (which gave us an advancedshowing of certain features of our own period) this was an age ofraids on the government by the economic elite, an age of simplecorruption, when Senators and judges were simply bought up. Here,once upon a time, in the era of McKinley and Morgan, far removed fromthe undocumented complexities of our own time, many now believe, wasthe golden era of the American ruling class.

The military order of this period, as in the second, wassubordinate to the political, which in turn was subordinate to theeconomic. The military was thus off to the side of the main drivingforces of United States history. Political institutions in the UnitedStates have never formed a centralized and autonomous domain ofpower; they have been enlarged and centralized only reluctantly inslow response to the public consequence of the corporate economy.


In the post-Civil-War era, that economy was the dynamic; the'trusts'--as policies and events make amply clear--could readily usethe relatively weak governmental apparatus for their own ends. Thatboth state and federal governments were decisively limited in theirpower to regulate, in fact meant that they were themselvesregulatable by the larger moneyed interests. Their powers werescattered and unorganized; the powers of the industrial and financialcorporations concentrated and interlocked. The Morgan interests aloneheld 341 directorships in 112 corporations with an aggregatecapitalization of over $22 billion--over three times the assessedvalue of all real and personal property in New England. With revenuesgreater and employees more numerous than those of many states,corporations controlled parties, bought laws, and kept Congressmen ofthe 'neutral' state. And as private economic power overshadowedpublic political power, so the economic elite overshadowed thepolitical.

Yet even between 1896 and 1919, events of importance tended toassume a political form, foreshadowing the shape of power which afterthe partial boom of the 'twenties was to prevail in the New Deal.Perhaps there has never been any period in American history sopolitically transparent as the Progressive era of President-makersand Muckrakers.

IV. The New Deal did not reverse the political and economicrelations of the third era, but it did create within the politicalarena, as well as in the corporate world itself, competing centers ofpower that challenged those of the corporate directors. As the NewDeal directorate gained political power, the economic elite, which inthe third period had fought against the growth of 'government' whileraiding it for crafty privileges, belatedly attempted to join it onthe higher levels. When they did so they found themselves confrontingother interests and men, for the places of decision were crowded. Indue course, they did come to control and to use for their ownpurposes the New Deal institutions whose creation they had sobitterly denounced.

But during the 'thirties, the political order was still aninstrument of small propertied farmers and businessmen, although theywere weakened, having lost their last chance for real ascendancy inthe Progressive era. The struggle between big and small propertyflared up again, however, in the political realm of the New Deal era,and to this struggle there was added, as we have seen, the newstruggle of organized labor and the unorganized unemployed. This newforce flourished under political tutelage, but nevertheless, for thefirst time in United States history, social legislation andlower-class issues became important features of the reform movement.

In the decade of the 'thirties, a set of shifting balancesinvolving newly instituted farm measures and newly organized laborunions--along with big business--made up the political andadministrative drama of power. These farm, labor, and businessgroups, moreover, were more or less contained within the framework ofan enlarging governmental structure, whose political directorshipmade decisions in a definitely political manner. These groupspressured, and in pressuring against one another and against thegovernmental and party system, they helped to shape it. But it couldnot be said that any of them for any considerable length of time usedthat government unilaterally as their instrument. That is why the'thirties was a political decade: the power of business wasnot replaced, but it was contested and supplemented: it became onemajor power within a structure of power that was chiefly run bypolitical men, and not by economic or military men turned political.


The earlier and middle Roosevelt administrations can best beunderstood as a desperate search for ways and means, within theexisting capitalist system, of reducing the staggering and ominousarmy of the unemployed. In these years, the New Deal as a system ofpower was essentially a balance of pressure groups and interestblocs. The political top adjusted many conflicts, gave way to thisdemand, sidetracked that one, was the unilateral servant of none, andso evened it all out into such going policy as prevailed from oneminor crisis to another. Policies were the result of a political actof balance at the top. Of course, the balancing act that Rooseveltperformed did not affect the fundamental institutions of capitalismas a type of economy. By his policies, he subsidized the defaults ofthe capitalist economy, which had simply broken down; and by hisrhetoric, he balanced its political disgrace, putting 'economicroyalists' in the political doghouse.

The 'welfare state,' created to sustain the balance and to carryout the subsidy, differed from the 'laissez-faire' state: 'If thestate was believed neutral in the days of T.R. because its leadersclaimed to sanction favors for no one,' Richard Hofstadter hasremarked, 'the state under F.D.R. could be called neutral only in thesense that it offered favors to everyone.' The new state of thecorporate commissars differs form the old welfare state. In fact, thelater Roosevelt years--beginning with the entrance of the UnitedStates into overt acts of war and preparations for World WarII--cannot be understood entirely in terms of an adroit equipoise ofpolitical power.


We study history, it has been said, to rid ourselves of it, andthe history of the power elite is a clear case for which this maximis correct. Like the tempo of American life in general, the long-termtrends of the power structure have been greatly speeded up sinceWorld War II, and certain newer trends within and between thedominant institutions have also set the shape of the power elite andgiven historically specific meaning to its fifth epoch:

I. In so far as the structural clue to the power elite today liesin the political order, that clue is the decline of politics asgenuine and public debate of alternative decisions--with nationallyresponsible and policy-coherent parties and with autonomousorganizations connecting the lower and middle levels of power withthe top levels of decision. American is now in considerable part morea formal political democracy than a democratic social structure, andeven the formal political mechanics are weak.

The long-time tendency of business and government to become moreintricately and deeply involved with each other has, in the fifthepoch, reached a new point of explicitness. The two cannot now beseen clearly as two distinct worlds. It is in terms of the executiveagencies of the state that the rapprochement has proceeded mostdecisively. The growth of the executive branch of the government,with its agencies that patrol the complex economy, does not mean the'enlargement of government' as some sort of autonomous bureaucracy:it has meant the ascendancy of the corporations' man as a politicaleminence.

During the New Deal the corporate chieftains joined the politicaldirectorate; as of World War II they have come to dominate it. Longinterlocked with government, now they have moved into quite fulldirection of the economy of the war effort and of the postwar era.This shift of the corporation executives into the politicaldirectorate has accelerated the long-term relegation of theprofessional politicians in the Congress to the middle levels ofpower.

II. In so far as the structural clue to the power elite today liesin the enlarged and military state, that clue becomes evident in themilitary ascendancy. The warlords have gained decisive politicalrelevance, and the military structure of America is now inconsiderable part a political structure. The seemingly permanentmilitary threat places a premium on the military and upon theircontrol of men, materiel, money, and power; virtually all politicaland economic actions are now judged in terms of military definitionsof reality: the higher warlords have ascended to a firm positionwithin the power elite of the fifth epoch.

In part at least this has resulted from one simple historicalfact, pivotal for the years since 1939: the focus of elite attentionhas been shifted from domestic problems, centered in the 'thirtiesaround slump, to international problems, centered in the 'forties and'fifties around war. Since the governing apparatus of the UnitedStates has by long historic usage been adapted to and shaped bydomestic clash and balance, it has not, from any angle, had suitableagencies and traditions for the handling of international problems.Such formal democratic mechanics as had arisen in the century and ahalf of national development prior to 1941, had not been extended tothe American handling of international affairs. It is, inconsiderable part, in this vacuum that the power elite has grown.

III. In so far as the structural clue to the power elite todaylies in the economic order, that clue is the fact that the economy isat once a permanent-war economy and a private-corporation economy.American capitalism is now in considerable part a militarycapitalism, and the most important relation of the big corporation tothe state rests on the coincidence of interests between military andcorporate needs, as defined by warlords and corporate rich. Withinthe elite as a whole, this coincidence of interest between the highmilitary and the corporate chieftains strengthens both of them andfurther subordinates the role of the merely political men. Notpoliticians, but corporate executives, sit with the military and planthe organization of war effort.

The shape and meaning of the power elite today can be understoodonly when these three sets of structural trends are seen at theirpoint of coincidence: the military capitalism of private corporationsexists in a weakened and formal democratic system containing amilitary order already quite political in outlook and demeanor.Accordingly, at the top of this structure, the power elite has beenshaped by the coincidence of interest between those who control themajor means of production and those who control the newly enlargedmeans of violence; from the decline of the professional politicianand the rise to explicit political command of the corporatechieftains and the professional warlords; from the absence of anygenuine civil service of skill and integrity, independent of vestedinterests.

The power elite is composed of political, economic, and militarymen, but this instituted elite is frequently in some tension: itcomes together only on certain coinciding points and only on certainoccasions of 'crisis.' In the long peace of the nineteenth century,the military were not in the high councils of state, not of thepolitical directorate, and neither were the economic men--they maderaids upon the state but they did not join its directorate. Duringthe 'thirties, the political man was ascendant. Now the military andthe corporate men are in top positions.


Of the three types of circle that compose the power elite today,it is the military that has benefited the most in its enhanced power,although the corporate circles have also become more explicitlyentrenched in the more public decision-making circles. It is theprofessional politician that has lost the most, so much that inexamining the events and decisions, one is tempted to speak of apolitical vacuum in which the corporate rich and the high warlord, intheir coinciding interests, rule.

It should not be said that the three 'take turns' in carrying theinitiative, for the mechanics of the power elite are not often asdeliberate as that would imply. At time, of course, it is--as whenpolitical men, thinking they can borrow the prestige of generals,find that they must pay for it, or, as when during big slumps,economic men feel the need of a politician at once safe andpossessing vote appeal. Today all three are involved in virtually allwidely ramifying decisions. Which of the three types seems to leaddepends upon 'the tasks of the period' as they, the elite, definethem. Just now. These tasks center upon 'defense' and internationalaffairs. Accordingly, as we have seen, the military are ascendant intow senses: as personnel and as justifying ideology. That is why,just now, we can most easily specify the unity and the shape of thepower elite in terms of the military ascendancy.

But we must always be historically specific and open tocomplexities. The simple Marxian view makes the big economic man thereal holder of power; the simple liberal view makes the bigpolitical man the chief of the power system; and there are some whowould view the warlords as virtual dictators. Each of these is anoversimplified view. It is to avoid them that we use the term 'powerelite' rather than, for example, 'ruling class.' (1)

In so far as the power elite has come to wide public attention, ithas done so in terms of the 'military clique.' The power elite does,in fact, take its current shape from the decisive entrance into it ofthe military. Their presence and their ideology are its majorlegitimations, whenever the power elite feels the need to provideany. But what is called the 'Washington military clique' is notcomposed merely of military men, and it does not prevail merely inWashington. Its members exist all over the country, and it is acoalition of generals in the roles of corporation executives, ofpoliticians masquerading as admirals, of corporation executivesacting like politicians, of civil servants who become majors, ofvice-admirals who are also the assistants to a cabinet officer, whois himself, by the way, really a member of the managerial elite.

Neither the idea of a 'ruling class' nor of a simple monolithicrise of 'bureaucratic politicians' nor of a 'military clique' isadequate. The power elite today involves the often uneasy coincidenceof economic, military, and political power.


Even if our understanding were limited to these structural trends,we should have grounds for believing the power elite a useful, indeedindispensable, concept for the interpretation of what is going on atthe topside of modern American society. But we are not, of course, solimited: our conception of the power elite does not need to rest onlyupon the correspondence of the institutional hierarchies involved, orupon the many points at which their shifting interests coincide. Thepower elite, as we conceive it, also rests upon the similarity of itspersonnel, and their personal and official relations with oneanother, upon their social and psychological affinities. In order tograsp the personal and social basis of the power elite's unity, wehave first to remind ourselves of the facts of origin, career, andstyle of life of each of the types of circle whose members composethe power elite.

The power elite is not an aristocracy, which is to say thatit is not a political ruling group based upon a nobility ofhereditary origin. It has no compact basis in a small circle of greatfamilies whose members can and do consistently occupy the toppositions in the several higher circles which overlap as the powerelite. But such nobility is only one possible basis of common origin.That it does not exist for the American elite does not mean thatmembers of this elite derive socially from the full range of stratacomposing American society. They derive in substantial proportionsfrom the upper classes, both new and old, of local society and themetropolitan 400. The bulk of the very rich, the corporateexecutives, the political outsiders, the high military, derive from,at most, the upper third of the income and occupational pyramids.Their fathers were at least of the professional and business strata,and very frequently higher than that. They are native-born Americansof native parents, primarily from urban areas, and , with theexpectations of the politicians among them, overwhelmingly from theEast. They are mainly Protestants, especially Episcopalian orPresbyterian. In general, the higher the position, the greater theproportion of men within it who have derived from and who maintainconnections with the upper classes. The generally similar origins ofthe members of the power elite are underlined and carried further bythe fact of their increasingly common educational routine.Overwhelmingly college graduates, substantial proportions haveattended Ivy League colleges, although the education of the highermilitary, of course, differs from that of other members of the powerelite.

But what do these apparently simple facts about the socialcomposition of the higher circles really mean? In particular, what dothey mean for any attempt to understand the degree of unity, and thedirection of policy and interest that may prevail among these severalcircles? Perhaps it is best to put this question in a deceptivelysimple way: in terms of origin and career, who or what do these menat the top represent?

Of course, if they are elected politicians, they are supposed torepresent those who elected them; and, if they are appointed, theyare supposed to represent, indirectly, those who elected theirappointers. But this is recognized as something of an abstraction, asa rhetorical formula by which all men of power in almost all systemsof government nowadays justify their power of decision. At times itmay be true, both in the sense of their motives and in the sense ofwho benefits from their decisions. Yet it would not be wise in anypower system merely to assume it.

The fact that members of the power elite come from near the top ofthe nation's class and status levels does not mean that they arenecessarily 'representative' of the top levels only. And if theywere, as social types, representative of a cross-section of thepopulation, that would not mean that a balanced democracy of interestand power would automatically be the going political fact.

We cannot infer the direction of policy merely from the socialorigins and careers of the policy-makers. The social and economicbackgrounds of the men of power do not tell us all that we need toknow in order to understand the distribution of social power. For:(1) Men from high places may be ideological representatives of thepoor and humble. (2) Men of humble origin, brightly self-made, mayenergetically serve the most vested and inherited interests. Moreover(3), not all men who effectively represent the interests of a stratumneed in any way belong to it or personally benefit by policies thatfurther its interests. Among the politicians, in short, there aresympathetic agents of given groups, conscious and unconscious,paid and unpaid. Finally (4), among the top decision-makers we findmen who have been chosen for their positions because of their 'expertknowledge.' These are some of the obvious reasons why the socialorigins and careers of the power elite do not enable us to infer theclass interests and policy directions of a modern system of power.

Do the high social origin and careers of the top men mean nothing,then, about the distribution of power? By no means. They simplyremind us that we must be careful of any simple and direct inferencefrom origin and career to political character and policy, not that wemust ignore them in our attempt at political understanding. Theysimply mean that we must analyze the political psychology and theactual decisions of the political directorate as well as its socialcomposition. And they mean, above all, that we should control, as wehave done here, any inference we make from the origin and careers ofthe political actors by close understanding of the institutionallandscape in which they act out their drama. Otherwise we should beguilty of a rather simple-minded biographical theory of society andhistory.

Just as we cannot rest the notion of the power elite solely uponthe institutional mechanics that lead to its formation, so we cannotrest the notion solely upon the facts of the origin and career of itspersonnel. We need both, and we have both--as well as other bases,among them that of the status intermingling.

But it is not only the similarities of social origin, religiousaffiliation, nativity, and education that are important to thepsychological and social affinities of the members of the powerelite. Even if their recruitment and formal training were moreheterogeneous than they are, these men would still be of quitehomogeneous social type. For the most important set of facts about acircle of men is the criteria of admission, of praise, of honor, ofpromotion that prevails among them; if these are similar within acircle, then they will tend as personalities to become similar. Thecircles that compose the power elite do tend to have such codes andcriteria in common. The co-optation of the social types to whichthese common values lead is often more important than any statisticsof common origin and career that we might have at hand.

There is a kind of reciprocal attraction among the fraternity ofthe successful--not between each and every member of the circles ofthe high and mighty, but between enough of them to insure a certainunity. On the slight side, it is a sort of tacit, mutual admiration;in the strongest tie-ins, it proceeds by intermarriage. And there areall grades and types of connection between these extremes. Someoverlaps certainly occur by means of cliques and clubs, churches andschools.

If social origin and formal education in common tend to make themembers of the power elite more readily understood and trusted by oneanother, their continued association further cements what they feelthey have in common. Members of the several higher circles know oneanother as personal friends and even as neighbors; they mingle withone another on the golf course, in the gentleman's clubs, at resorts,on transcontinental airplanes, and on ocean liners. They meet at theestates of mutual friends, face each other in front of the TV camera,or serve on the same philanthropic committee; and many are sure tocross one another's path in the columns of newspapers, if not in theexact cafes from which many of these columns originate. As we haveseen, of 'The New 400' of cafe society, one chronicler has namedforty-one members of the very rich, ninety-three political leaders,and seventy-nine chief executives of corporations. (2)

'I did not know, what I could not have dreamed,' WhittakerChambers has written, 'of the immense scope and power of Hiss'political alliances and his social connections, which cut across allparty lines and ran from the Supreme Court to the Religious Societyof Friends, from governors of states and instructors in collegefaculties to the staff members of liberal magazines. In the decadesince I had last seen him, he had used his career, and, inparticular, his identification with the cause of peace through hispart in organizing the United Nations, to put down roots that madehim one with the matted forest floor of American upper class,enlightened middle class, liberal and official life. His roots couldnot be disturbed without disturbing all the roots on all sides ofhim.

The sphere of status has reflected the epochs of the power elite.In the third epoch, for example, who could compete with big money?And in the fourth, with big politicians, or even the bright young menof the New Deal? And in the fifth, who can compete with the generalsand the admirals and the corporate officials now so sympatheticallyportrayed on the stage, in the novel, and on the screen? Can oneimagine Executive Suite as a successful motion picture in1935? Or The Caine Mutiny?

The multiplicity of high-prestige organizations to which the eliteusually belong is revealed by even casual examination of theobituaries of the big businessman, the high-prestige lawyer, the topgeneral and admiral, the key senator: usually, high-prestige church,business associations, plus high-prestige clubs, and often plusmilitary rank. In the course of their lifetimes, the universitypresident, the New York Stock Exchange chairman, the head of thebank, the old West Pointer--mingle in the status sphere, within whichthey easily renew old friendships and draw upon them in an effort tounderstand through the experience of trusted others those contexts ofpower and decision in which they have not personally moved.

In these diverse contexts, prestige accumulates in each of thehigher circles, and the members of each borrow status from oneanother. Their self-images are fed by these accumulations and theseborrowings, and accordingly, however segmental a given man's role mayseem, he comes to feel himself a 'diffuse' or 'generalized' man ofthe higher circles: a 'broad-gauge' man. Perhaps such insideexperience is one feature of what is meant by 'judgment.'

The key organizations, perhaps, are the major corporationsthemselves, for on the boards of directors we find a heavyoverlapping among the members of these several elites. On the lighterside, again in the summer and winter resorts, we find that, in anintricate series of overlapping circles; in the course of time, eachmeets each or knows somebody who knows somebody who knows that one.

The higher members of the military, economic, and political ordersare able readily to take over one another's point of view, always ina sympathetic way, and often in a knowledgeable way as well. Theydefine one another as among those who count, and who, accordingly,must be taken into account. Each of them as a member of the powerelite comes to incorporate into his own integrity, his own honor, hisown conscience, the viewpoint, the expectations, the values of theothers. If there are no common ideals and standards among them thatare based upon an explicitly aristocratic culture, that does not meanthat they do not feel responsibility to one another.

All the structural coincidence of their interests as well as theintricate, psychological facts of their origins and their education,their careers and their associations make possible the psychologicalaffinities that prevail among them, affinities that make it possiblefor them to say of one another: He is, of course, one of us. And allthis points to the basic, psychological meaning of classconsciousness. Nowhere in America is there as great a 'classconsciousness' as among the elite; nowhere is it organized aseffectively as among the power elite. For by class consciousness, asa psychological fact, one means that the individual member of a'class' accepts only those accepted by his circle as among those whoare significant to his own image of self.

Within the higher circles of the power elite, factions do exist;there are conflicts of policy; individual ambitions do clash. Thereare still enough divisions of importance within the Republican party,and even between Republicans and Democrats, to make for differentmethods of operation. But more powerful than these divisions are theinternal discipline and the community of interests that bind thepower elite together, even across the boundaries of nations at war.


Yet we must give due weight to the other side of the case whichmay not question the facts bu only our interpretation of them. Thereis a set of objections that will inevitably be made to our wholeconception of the power elite, but which has essentially to do withonly the psychology of its members. It might well be put by liberalsor by conservatives in some such way as this:

"To talk of a power elite--isn't this to characterize men by theirorigins and associations? Isn't such characterization both unfair anduntrue? Don't men modify themselves, especially Americans such asthese, as they rise in stature to meet the demands of their jobs?Don't they arrive at a view and a line of policy that represents, sofar as they in their human weaknesses can know, the interests of thenation as a whole? Aren't they merely honorable men who are doingtheir duty?"

What are we to reply to these objections?

I. We are sure that they are honorable men. But what is honor?Honor can only mean living up to a code that one believes to behonorable. There is no one code upon which we are all agreed. That iswhy, if we are civilized men, we do not kill off all of those withwhom we disagree. The question is not: are their codes of honor? Theanswer to that question is that they are the codes of their circles,of those to whose opinions they defer. How could it be otherwise?That is one meaning of the important truism that all men are humanand that all men are social creatures. As for sincerity, it can onlybe disproved, never proved.

II. To the question of their adaptability--which means theircapacity to transcend the codes of conduct which, in their life'swork and experience, they have acquired--we must answer: Simply no,they cannot, at least not in the handful of years most them haveleft. To expect that is to assume that they are indeed strange andexpedient: such flexibility would in fact involve a violation of whatwe may rightly call their character and their integrity. By the way,may it not be precisely because of the lack of such character andintegrity that earlier types of American politicians have notrepresented as great a threat as do these men of character?

It would be an insult to the effective training of the military,and to their indoctrination as well, to suppose that militaryofficials shed their military character and outlook upon changingfrom uniform to mufti. This background is more important perhaps inthe military case than in that of the corporate executives, for thetraining of the career is deeper and more total.

'Lack of imagination,' Gerald W. Johnson has noted, 'is not to beconfused with lack of principle. On the contrary, an unimaginativeman is often a man of the highest principles. The trouble is that hisprinciples conform to Cornford's famous definition: "A principle is arule of inaction giving valid general reasons for not doing in aspecific instance what to unprincipled instinct would seem to beright." '

Would it not be ridiculous, for example, to believe seriouslythat, in psychological fact, Charles Erwin Wilson represented anyoneor any interest other than those of the corporate world? This is notbecause he is dishonest; on the contrary, it is because he isprobably a man of solid integrity---as sound as a dollar. He is amember of the professional corporation elite, just as are hiscolleagues, in the government and out of it; he represents the wealthof the higher corporate world; he represents its power; and hebelieves sincerely in his oft-quoted remark that 'what is good forthe United States is good for the General Motors Corporation and viceversa.'

The revealing point about the pitiful hearings on the confirmationof such men for political posts is not the cynicism toward the lawand toward the lawmakers on the middle levels of power which theydisplay, nor their reluctance to dispose of their personal stock. Theinteresting point is how impossible it is for such men to divestthemselves of their engagement with the corporate world in generaland with their own corporations in particular. Not only their money,but their friends, their interests, their training--their lives inshort--are deeply involved in this world. The disposal of stock is,of course, merely a purifying ritual. The point is not so muchfinancial or personal interests in a given corporation, butidentification with the corporate world. To ask a man suddenly todivest himself of these interests and sensibilities is almost likeasking a man to become a woman.

III. To the question of their patriotism, of their desire to servethe nation as a whole, we must answer first that, like codes ofhonor, feelings of patriotism and views of what is to the wholenation's good, are not ultimate facts but matters upon which thereexists a great variety of opinion. Furthermore, patriotic opinionstoo are rooted in and are sustained by what a man has become byvirtue of how and with whom he has lived. This is no simplemechanical determination of individual character by socialconditions; it is an intricate process, well established in the majortradition of modern social study. One can only wonder why more socialscientists do not use it systematically in speculating aboutpolitics.

IV. The elite cannot be truly thought of as men who are merelydoing their duty. They are the ones who determine their duty, as wellas the duties of those beneath them. They are not merely followingorders: they give the orders. They are not merely 'bureaucrats': theycommand bureaucracies. They may try to disguise these facts fromother s and from themselves by appeals to traditions of which theyimagine themselves the instruments, but there are many traditions,and they must choose which ones they will serve. They face decisionsfor which there simply are no traditions.

Now, to what do these several answers add up? To the fact that wecannot reason about public events and historical trends merely fromknowledge about the motives and character of the men or the smallgroups who sit in the seats of the high and mighty. This fact, inturn, does not mean that we should be intimidated by accusations thatin taking up our problem in the way we have, we are impugning thehonor, the integrity, or the ability of those who are in high office.For it is not, in the first instance, a question of individualcharacter; and if, in further instances, we find that it is, weshould not hesitate to say so plainly. In the meantime, we must judgemen of power by the standards of power, by what they do asdecision-makers, and not by who they are or what they may do inprivate life. Our interest is not in that: we are interested in theirpolicies and in the consequences of their conduct of office.We must remember that these men of the power elite now occupy thestrategic places in the structure of American society; that theycommand the dominant institutions of a dominant nation; that, as aset of men, they are in a position to make decisions with terribleconsequences for the underlying populations of the world.


Despite their social similarity and psychological affinities, themembers of the power elite do not constitute a club having apermanent membership with fixed and formal boundaries. It is of thenature of the power elite that within it there is a good deal ofshifting about, and that it thus does not consist of one small set ofthe same men in the same positions in the same hierarchies. Becausemen know each other personally does not mean that among them there isa unity of policy; and because they do not know each other personallydoes not mean that among them there is a disunity. The conception ofthe power elite does not rest, as I have repeatedly said, primarilyupon personal friendship.

As the requirements of the top places in each of the majorhierarchies become similar, the types of men occupying these roles atthe top--by selection and by training in the jobs--become similar.This is no mere deduction from structure to personnel. That it is afact is revealed by the heavy traffic that has been going on betweenthe three structures, often in very intricate patterns. The chiefexecutives, the warlords, and selected politicians came into contactwith one another in an intimate, working way during World War II;after that war ended, they continued their associations, out ofcommon beliefs, social congeniality, and coinciding interests.Noticeable proportions of top men from the military, the economic,and the political worlds have during the last fifteen years occupiedpositions in one or both of the other worlds: between these highercircles there is an interchangeability of position, based formallyupon the supposed transferability of 'executive ability,' based insubstance upon the cooptation by cliques of insiders. As members of apower elite, many of those busy in this traffic have come to lookupon 'the government' as an umbrella under whose authority they dotheir work.

As the business between the big three increases in volume andimportance, so does the traffic in personnel. The very criteria forselecting men who will rise come to embody this fact. The corporatecommissar, dealing with the state and its military, is wiser tochoose a young man who has experienced the state and its militarythan one who has not. The political director, often dependent for hisown political success upon corporate decisions and corporations, isalso wiser to choose a man with corporate experience. Thus, by virtueof the very criterion of success, the interchange of personnel andthe unity of the power elite is increased.

Given the formal similarity of the three hierarchies in which theseveral members of the elite spend their working lives, given theramifications of the decisions made in each upon the others, giventhe coincidence of interest that prevails among them at many points,and given the administrative vacuum of the American civilian statealong with its enlargement of tasks--given these trends of structure,and adding to them the psychological affinities we have noted--weshould indeed be surprised were we to find that men said to beskilled in administrative contacts and full of organizing abilitywould fail to do more than get in touch with one another. They have,of course, done much more than that: increasingly, they assumepositions in one another's domains.

The unity revealed by the interchangeability of top roles restsupon the parallel development of the top jobs in each of the bigthree domains. The interchange occurs most frequently at the pointsof their coinciding interest, as between regulatory agency and theregulated industry; contracting agency and contractor. And, as weshall see, it leads to coordinations that are more explicit, and evenformal.

The inner core of the power elite consists, first, of those whointerchange commanding roles at the top of one dominant institutionalorder with those in another: the admiral who is also a banker and alawyer and who heads up an important federal commission; thecorporation executive whose company was one of the two or threeleading war materiel producers who is now the Secretary of Defense;the wartime general who dons civilian clothes to sit on the politicaldirectorate and then becomes a member of the board of directors of aleading economic corporation.

Although the executive who becomes a general, the general whobecomes a statesman, the statesman who becomes a banker, see muchmore than ordinary men in their ordinary environments, still theperspectives of even such men often remain tied to their dominantlocales. In their very career, however, they interchange roles withinthe big three and thus readily transcend the particularity ofinterest in any one of these institutional milieux. By their verycareers and activities, they lace the three types of milieuxtogether. They are, accordingly, the core members of the power elite.

These men are not necessarily familiar with every major arena ofpower. We refer to one man who moves in and between perhaps twocircles--say the industrial and the military--and to another man whomoves in the military and the political, and to a third who moves inthe political as well as among opinion-makers. These in-between typesmost closely display our image of the power elite's structure andoperation, even of behind-the-scenes operations. To the extent thatthere is any 'invisible elite,' these advisory and liaison types areits core. Even if--as I believe to be very likely--many of them are,at least in the first part of their careers, 'agents' of the variouselites rather than themselves elite, it is they who are most activein organizing the several top milieux into a structure of power andmaintaining it.

The inner core of the power elite also includes men of the higherlegal and financial type from the great law factories and investmentfirms, who are almost professional go-betweens of economic, politicaland military affairs, and who thus act to unify the power elite. Thecorporation lawyer and the investment banker perform the functions ofthe 'go-between' effectively and powerfully. By the nature of theirwork, they transcend the narrower milieu of any one industry, andaccordingly are in a position to speak and act for the corporateworld or at least sizable sectors of it. The corporation lawyer is akey link between the economic and military and political areas; theinvestment banker is a key organizer and unifier of the corporateworld and a person well versed in spending the huge amounts of moneythe American military establishment now ponders. When you get alawyer who handles the legal work of investment bankers you get a keymember of the power elite.

During the Democratic era, one link between private corporateorganizations and governmental institutions was the investment houseof Dillon, Read. From it came such men as James Forrestal and CharlesF. Detmar, Jr.; Ferdinand Eberstadt had once been a partner in itbefore he branched out into his own investment house from which cameother men to political and military circles. Republicanadministrations seem to favor the investment firm of Kuhn, Loeb andthe advertising firm of Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn.

Regardless of administrations, there is always the law firm ofSullivan and Cromwell. Mid-West investment banker Cyrus Eaton hassaid that 'Arthur H. Dean, a senior partner of Sullivan &Cromwell of No. 48 Wall Street, was one of those who assisted in thedrafting of the Securities Act of 1933, the first of the series ofbills passed to regulate the capital markets. He and his firm, whichis reputed to be the largest in the United States, have maintainedclose relations with the SEC since its creation, and theirs is thedominating influence on the Commission.

There is also the third largest bank in the United States: theChase National Bank of New York (now Chase-Manhattan). Regardless ofpolitical administration, executive of this bank and those of theInternational Bank of Reconstruction and Development have changedpositions: John L. McCloy, who became Chairman of the Chase Nationalin 1953, is a former president of the World Bank; and his successorto the presidency of the World Bank was a former seniorvice-president of the Chase National Bank. And in 1953, the presidentof the Chase National Bank, Winthrop W. Aldrich, had left to becomeAmbassador to Great Britain.

The outermost fringes of the power elite--which change more thanits core--consist of 'those who count' even though they may not be'in' on given decisions of consequence nor in their career movebetween the hierarchies. Each member of the power elite need not be aman who personally decides every decision that is to be ascribed tothe power elite. Each member, in the decisions that he does make,takes the others seriously into account. They not only ;makedecisions in the several major areas of war and peace; they are themen who, in decisions in which they take no direct part, are takeninto decisive account by those who are directly in charge.

On the fringes and below them, somewhat to the side of the lowerechelons, the power elite fades off into the middle levels of power,into the rank and file of the Congress, the pressure groups that arenot vested in the power itself, as well as a multiplicity of regionaland state and local interests. If all the men on the middle levelsare not among those who count, they sometimes must be taken intoaccount, handled, cajoled, broken or raised to higher circles.


When the power elite find that in order to get things done theymust reach below their own realms--as is the case when it isnecessary to get bills passed through Congress--they themselves mustexert some pressure. But among the power elite, the name for suchhigh-level lobbying is 'liaison work.' There are 'liaison' militarymen with Congress, with certain wayward sections of industry, withpractically every important element not directly concerned with thepower elite. The two men on the White House staff who arenamed 'liaison' men are both experienced in military matters;one of them is a former investment banker and lawyer as well as ageneral.

Not the trade associations but the higher cliques of lawyers andinvestment bankers are the active political heads of the corporaterich and the members of the power elite. 'While it is generallyassumed that the national associations carry tremendous weight informulating public opinion and directing the course of nationalpolicy, there is some evidence to indicate that interaction betweenassociations on a formal level is not a very tight-knit affair. Thegeneral tendency within associations seems to be to stimulateactivities around the specific interests of the organization, andmore effort is made to educate its members rather than to spend muchtime in trying to influence other associations on the issue at hand .. . As media for stating and re-stating the overall value structureof the nation they (the trade associations) are important. . . Butwhen issues are firmly drawn, individuals related to the largercorporate interests are called upon to exert pressure in the properplaces at the strategic time. The national associations may act asmedia for coordinating such pressures, but a great volume ofintercommunication between members at the apex of power of the largercorporate interests seems to be the decisive factor in final policydetermination.

Conventional 'lobbying,' carried on by trade associations, stillexists, although it usually concerns the middle levels ofpower--usually being targeted at Congress and, of course, its ownrank and file members. The important function of the NationalAssociation of Manufacturers, for example, is less directly toinfluence policy than to reveal to small businessmen that theirinterests are the same as those of larger businesses. But there isalso 'high-level lobbying.' All over the country the corporateleaders are drawn into the circle of the high military and politicalthrough personal friendship, trade and professional associations andtheir various subcommittees, prestige clubs, open politicalaffiliation, and customer relationships. "There is . . . an awarenessamong these power leaders,' one first-hand investigator of suchexecutive cliques has asserted, 'of many of the current major policyissues before the nation such as keeping taxes down, turning allproductive operations over to private enterprises, increasing foreigntrade, keeping governmental welfare and other domestic activities toa minimum, and strengthening and maintaining the hold of the currentparty in power nationally.'

There are, in fact, cliques of corporate executives who are moreimportant as informal opinion leaders in the top echelons ofcorporate, military, and political power than as actual participantsin military and political organizations. Inside military circles andinside political circles and 'on the sidelines' in the economic area,these circles and cliques of corporation executives are in on mostall major decisions regardless of topic. And what is important aboutall this high-level lobbying is that it is done within the confinesof that elite.


The conception of the power elite and of its unity rests upon thecorresponding developments and the coincidence of interests amongeconomic, political, and military organizations. It also rests uponthe similarity of origin and outlook, and the social and personalintermingling of the top circles from each of these dominanthierarchies. This conjunction of institutional and psychologicalforces, in turn, is revealed by the heavy personnel traffic withinand between the big three institutional orders, as well as by therise of go-betweens as in the high-level lobbying. The conception ofthe power elite, accordingly, does not rest upon theassumption that American history since the origins of World War IImust be understood as a secret plot, or as a great and coordinatedconspiracy of the members of this elite. The conception rests uponquite impersonal grounds.

There is, however, little doubt that the American powerelite--which contains, we are told, some of 'the greatest organizersin the world'--has also planned and has plotted. The rise of theelite, as we have already made clear, was not and could not have beencaused by a plot; and the tenability of the conception does not restupon the existence of any secret or any publicly known organization.But, once the conjunction of structural trend and of the personalwill to utilize it gave rise to the power elite, then plans andprograms did occur to its members and indeed it is not possible tointerpret many events and official policies of the fifth epochwithout reference to the power elite. "There is a great difference,"Richard Hofstadter has remarked, "between locating conspiraciesin history and saying that history is, in effect aconspiracy . . ."

The structural trends of institutions become defined asopportunities by those who occupy their command posts. Once suchopportunities are recognized, men may avail themselves of them.Certain types of men from each of the dominant institutional areas,more far-sighted than other, have actively promoted the liaisonbefore it took its truly modern shape. They have often done so forreasons not shared by their partners, although not objected to bythem either; and often the outcome of their liaison has hadconsequences which none of them foresaw, much less shaped, and whichonly later in the course of development came under explicit control.Only after it was well under way did most of its members findthemselves part of it and become gladdened, although sometimes alsoworried, by this fact. But once the coordination is a going concern,new men come readily into it and assume its existence withoutquestion.

So far as explicit organization--conspiratorial or not--isconcerned, the power elite, by its very nature, is more likely to useexisting organizations, working within and between them, than to setup explicit organizations whose membership is strictly limited to itsown members. But if there is no machinery in existence to ensure, forexample, that military and political factors will be balanced indecisions made, they will invent such machinery and use it, as withthe National Security Council. Moreover, in a formally democraticpolity, the aims and the powers of the various elements of this eliteare further supported by an aspect of the permanent war economy: theassumption that the security of the nation supposedly rests upongreat secrecy of plan and intent. Many higher events that wouldreveal the working of the power elite can be withheld from publicknowledge under the guise of secrecy. With the wide secrecy coveringtheir operations and decisions, the power elite can make theirintentions, operations, and further consolidation. Any secrecy thatis imposed upon those in positions to observe high decision-makersclearly works for and not against the operations of the power elite.

There is accordingly reason to suspect--but by the nature of thecase, no proof--that the power elite is not altogether 'surfaced.'There is nothing hidden about it, although its activities are notpublicized. As an elite, it is not organized, although its membersoften know one another, seem quite naturally to work together, andshare many organizations in common. There is nothing conspiratorialabout it, although its decisions are often publicly unknown and itsmode of operation manipulative rather than explicit.

It is not that the elite 'believe in' a compact elite behind thescenes and a mass down below. It is not put in that language. It isjust that the people are of necessity confused and must, liketrusting children, place all the new world of foreign policy andstrategy and executive action in the hands of experts. It is justthat everyone knows somebody has got to run the show, and thatsomebody usually does. Others do not really care anyway, and besides,they do not know how. So the gap between the two types gets wider.

When crises are defined as total, and as seemingly permanent, theconsequences of decision become total, and the decisions in eachmajor area of life come to be integrated and total. Up to a point,these consequences for other institutional orders can be assessed;beyond such points, chances have to be taken. It is then that thefelt scarcity of trained and imaginative judgment leads to plaintivefeelings among executives about the shortage of qualified successorsin political, military, and economic life. This feeling, in turn,leads to an increasing concern with the training of successors whocould take over as older men of power retire. In each area, thereslowly arises a new generation which has grown up in an age ofcoordinated decisions.

In each of the elite circles, we have noticed this concern torecruit and to train successors as 'broad-gauge' men, that is, as mencapable of making decisions that involve institutional areas otherthan their own. The chief executives have set up formal recruitmentand training programs to man the corporate world as virtually a statewithin a state. Recruitment and training for the military elite haslong been rigidly professionalized, but has now come to includeeducational routines of a sort which the remnants of older generalsand admirals consider quite nonsensical.

Only the political order, with its absence of a genuine civilservice. Has lagged behind, creating an administrative vacuum intowhich military bureaucrats and corporate outsiders have been drawn.But even in this domain, since World War II, there have been repeatedattempts, by elite men of such vision as the late James Forrestal's,to inaugurate a career service that would include periods in thecorporate world as well as in the governmental.

What is lacking is a truly common elite program of recruitment andtraining; for the prep school, Ivy League College, and law schoolsequence of the metropolitan 400 is not up to the demands now madeupon members of the power elite. (3) Britishers, such as FieldMarshall Viscount Montgomery, well aware of this lack, recently urgedthe adoption of a system 'under which a minority of high-caliberyoung students could be separated from the mediocre and given thebest education possible to supply the country with leadership.' Hisproposal is echoed, in various forms, by many who accept hiscriticism of 'the American theory of public education on the groundthat it is ill-suited to produce the "elite" group of leaders . . .this country needs to fulfill its obligations of world leadership.'


In part these demands reflect the unstated need to transcendrecruitment on the sole basis of economic success, especially sinceit is suspect as often involving the higher immorality; in part itreflects the stated need to have men who, as Viscount Montgomerysays, know 'the meaning of discipline.' But above all these demandsreflect the at least vague consciousness on the part of the powerelite themselves that the age of coordinated decisions, entailing anewly enormous range of consequences, requires a power elite that isof a new caliber. In so far as the sweep of matters which go into themaking of decisions is vast and interrelated, the information neededfor judgments complex and requiring particularized knowledge, the menin charge will not only call upon one another; they will try to traintheir successors for the work at hand. These new men will grow up asmen of power within the coordination of economic and political andmilitary decision.


The idea of the power elite rests upon and enables us to makesense of (1) the decisive institutional trends that characterize thestructure of our epoch, in particular, the military ascendancy in aprivately incorporated economy, and more broadly, the severalcoincidences of objective interests between economic, military, andpolitical institutions; (2) the social similarities and thepsychological affinities of the men who occupy the command posts ofthese structures, in particular the increased interchangeability ofthe top positions in each of them and the increased traffic betweenthese orders in the careers of men of power; (3) the ramifications,to the point of virtual totality, of the kind of decisions that aremade at the top, and the rise to power of a set of men who, bytraining and bent, are professional organizers of considerable forceand who are unrestrained by democratic party training.

Negatively, the formation of the power elite rests upon (1) therelegation of the professional party politician to the middle levelsof power, (2) the semi-organized stalemate of the interests ofsovereign localities into which the legislative function has fallen,(3) the virtually complete absence of a civil service that constitutea politically neutral, but politically relevant, depository ofbrainpower and executive skill, and (4) the increased officialsecrecy behind which great decisions are made without benefit ofpublic or even Congressional debate.

As a result, the political directorate, the corporate rich, andthe ascendant military have come together as the power elite, and theexpanded and centralized hierarchies which they head have encroachedupon the old balances and have now relegated them to the middlelevels of power. Now the balancing society is a conception thatpertains accurately to the middle levels, and on that level thebalance has become more often an affair of entrenched provincial andnationally irresponsible forces and demands than a center of powerand national decision.

But how abut the bottom? As all these trends have become visibleat the top and on the middle, what has been happening to the greatAmerican public? If the top is unprecedentedly powerful andincreasingly unified and willful; if the middle zones areincreasingly a semi-organized stalemate--in what shape is the bottom,in what conditions is the public at large? The rise of the powerelite, we shall now see, rests upon, and in some ways is part of, thetransformation of the publics of America into a mass society.


(1) 'Ruling class' is a badly loaded phrase, 'Class' is aneconomic term; 'rule' a political one. The phrase, 'ruling class,'thus contains the theory that an economic class rules politically.That short-cut theory may or may not at time be true, but we do notwant to carry that one rather simple theory about in the terms thatwe use to define our problems; we wish to state the theoriesexplicitly, using terms of more precise and unilateral meaning.Specifically, the phrase 'ruling class,' in its common politicalconnotations, does not allow enough autonomy to the political orderand its agents, and it says nothing about the military as such. Itshould be clear to the reader by now that we do not accept asadequate the simple view that high economic men unilaterally make alldecisions of national consequence. We hold that such a simple view of'economic determinism' must be elaborated by 'political determinism'and 'military determinism'; that the higher agents of each of thesethree domains now often have a noticeable degree of autonomy; andthat only in the often intricate ways of coalition do they make upand carry through the most important decisions. Those are the majorreasons we prefer 'power elite' to 'ruling class' as a characterizingphrase for the higher circles when we consider them in terms ofpower.

(2) See above, FOUR: The Celebrities.


(3) See above, THREE: Metropolitan 400.


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