“The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern.”
The opening sentence of “The Power Elite,” by C. Wright Mills, seems unremarkable, even bland. But when the book was first published 50 years ago last month, it exploded into a culture riddled with existential anxiety and political fear. Mills — a broad-shouldered, motorcycle-riding anarchist from Texas who taught sociology at Columbia — argued that the “sociological key” to American uneasiness could be found not in the mysteries of the unconscious or in the battle against Communism, but in the over-organization of society. At the pinnacle of the government, the military and the corporations, a small group of men made the decisions that reverberated “into each and every cranny” of American life. “Insofar as national events are decided,” Mills wrote, “the power elite are those who decide them.”
His argument met with criticism from all sides. “I look forward to the time when Mr. Mills hands back his prophet’s robes and settles down to being a sociologist again,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in The New York Post.