“What is U.S. Guv? It’s a bunch of rich men playing golf. It’s big business, big army and big government all visiting each other in company planes for the sole purpose of playing golf and talking money.”

Don DeLillo  Great Jones Street


“At the centres of public decision there are powerful men who do not themselves suffer the violent results of their own decisions…Their public views and political actions are, in this objective meaning of the word, irresponsible: the social corollary of their responsibility is the fact that others are dependent on them and must suffer the consequences of their ignorance and mistakes, their self deceptions and their biased motives.”

  1. Wright Mills The Powerless People: The Role of the Intellectual in Society


  1. Wright Mills was a tough guy intellectual, a sociologist with a heart condition who died aged 46. His book The Power Elite was first published just over fifty years ago in 1956 with an original working title ‘The High and Mighty’. In the same year he gained a factory diploma as a first class mechanic on BMW motorbikes. The book did not come out of nowhere either historically, or in the course of his own work. It described the emergence of such a power elite in the USA which began in World War II and developed as a revolving door between military, corporate and political elites, institutionalised by the Cold War, and with the media as a new component; and completed a trilogy of his own after works on the US trade union movement, and then its middle class. As a book it is exemplary of his working method which he describes in his essay On Intellectual Craftsmanship1, a how-to kit based on use of the file. In that pre-computer age, the file was a place to collect material — ideas, news clippings, fringe thoughts, excerpts from books, statistics, scraps of conversation, follow-up ideas – around a particular theme. This seems like a good working method for the present, when such a variety of socio-political critiques seem to operate in a series of parallel universes of stand-alone theories.

It was written at a time when it was difficult to be optimistic about the challenge presented by the American working class.  Demoralizing after its successes during the war and its immediate aftermath, and the radical optimism expressed by the GIs in Gertrude Stein’s Brewsie and Willie.2  Mills’ pessimism at this time was not crippling politically however. His defence of the Cuban Revolution and opposition to punitive actions and sanctions against it, understanding that it was a calculated to make Cuba more authoritarian, made him a busy public intellectual which did no good for his heart condition. In the case of The Power Elite the pessimism does not become defeatist either. He has no truck with the dominant theories of elites by the manifestly reactionary writers Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca whose analysis is single-mindedly aimed at showing the inevitability of elite power as a ‘natural order of things’. The elite he describes is a historical development in which the economic and political power of the military, the militarisation of politics and the dominance of finance capital come together.

It reads, fifty years on, as remarkably prescient with its description of ‘a military definition of reality’; the role of celebrity; the development of the ‘opinion business’; the merged elite’s monopoly claims on ‘realism’; its reproduction; and the reduction of checks and balances on such power to an ideological fantasy. On its publication it was met with misrepresentation and vitriol from other professional sociologists whose careers depended on giving objective status to the fantasy, and an acceptance of a Cold War view of the world. That ‘one of their own’ should do the necessary job of demystification was especially dangerous to them. At the same time there was little enthusiasm from the Marxist – and at that time almost exclusively Leninist- left. In the late 1960s it hardly figured at all in revolutionary critiques of capitalist society. I believe that was a loss, and that there is a danger that the kind of analysis it offers might be ignored in the refreshed anti-capitalist movement. I aim to examine why this has been the case, but before anything else, given that the book described a situation specific in time and place, to see whether his analysis is relevant now.




The existence of  a ‘global power elite’ as represented by Peter Sutherland for example,  the idea of which has got American ultra-nationalists like Samuel Huntington into hysterical mode,  implies a different set of revolving doors to that described by Wright Mills. Even so, Sutherland sat on  the board of  ABB with the militarist and nationalist, Donald Rumsfeld.3  While in   the Anglo-Saxon world at least, the elite as described by Mills is entrenched.  It is quite likely that the top guys of hedge funds or private equity outfits have no direct interest in politics, but they are likely to depend on global political intelligence, and on those who do move freely through Mills’s revolving doors. In Britain, with its numerous public-private partnerships, think-tanks and other quangos, it is encouraged.. The still evolving career of Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, now security adviser to  David Cameron, leader of the UK Conservative Party. is an instructive example.

This person was a career diplomat, latterly in that career, Douglas Hurd’s right hand woman in a strategy of continued hostility to, and denigration of the Bosnian Republic while it was under siege from Milosevic’s Serbia. As a chief negotiator the Dayton Agreement she took an equally pro-Serbian position and, very soon after, with Lord Hurd as  representatives of NatWest Bank (she as a Managing Director in NatWest Markets), negotiated a privatisation deal with Milosevic which rewarded them, and provided him with funds for an assault on Kosovo.  During the war against Bosnia itself, she and Hurd trumpeted their ‘realism’ in the affair; this is a classic case of what Mills, following Thorstein Veblen, calls ‘crackpot realism’. During this period she was also for a period, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, as well as being foreign affairs advisor to John Major. Her career with NatWest Markets continued until 2000 while she was also vice chairman of  Hawkpoint  Partners, a semi autonomous NatWest corporate finance advisory group, concentrating on governments and ‘quasi-government’ organisations as well as private equity houses in Europe.

In January 1998 she was appointed a BBC Governor,  and left at the very end of 2004 She had been chairman of the BBC’s Audit Committee (value for money for the public) and was its International Governor . This leaving followed two instances in which her various roles were highlighted. This was because by then she had become the chairman of QinetiQ, the privatised research arm of the Ministry of Defence, the history of which has become a known case of revolving door elites. But her BBC role had also become a subject for comment. The former Director-General Greg Dyke, had singled her out as being a moving force in his removal after the Hutton Report, having already taken an active role in criticizing news management of David Kelly’s death, and undermining the dead man’s expertise.

She is also on the  Council of the International Institute for Strategic Studies,  which has been described as a “higher echelon opinion-maker”. She has also been prominent in Ditchley Park seminars (described below) as well as being an invitee to an Intelligence Summit at Arlington USA last year along with various Israeli military think-tankers. She was also chairman of the  Information Assurance Advisory Council (IAAC) another public-private think-tank/quango aimed at cyber infrastructure protection and with the intention of ‘influencing policy development’ and pursuing its own R&D. Its ‘corporate public sector’ consists mostly of police and defence outfits, while the private corporate world is represented by BAT, HSBC amongst others.

The QinetiQ story/scandal is well known, its part privatisation sale to the Carlyle Group4 at a knock-down price on the day it lands a huge PFI contract with the MoD which has accounted for 20% of its income since then; its flotation in 2006 and the subsequent selling of Carlyle’s stake all at a profit of some 350 million pounds. Dame Pauline was non-executive chairman from 2002-5,  during which the Carlyle sale took place and the PFI deal made, and is estimated to have made some 350, 000 profit on a 50,000 original stake.5

This same QinetiQ recruited Sir Alan West, former chief of the Royal Navy. The company was brazen about the role he will play “to develop the company’s relationship with the defence establishment.” He will, they said, “be recruiting other top defence experts to the advisory board.” This person is in effect a mercenary for hire, but one who was walked through another revolving door to become internal security minister of the Gordon Brown New Labour government. Dame Pauline will simply be advisor to the opposition party.






In a rare moment of modesty former French President Charles de Gaulle said  “the cemeteries are full of irreplaceable people.”  Mills’ analysis does not require or depend on ‘irreplaceable people’, only a continuum of people who believe they are irreplaceable at the time; in particular that they alone have a true understanding of reality, and a special talent for decision-making. Nor does it require conspiracies, but is rather concerned with the reproduction and evolution of a power elite. It is not that the elite ‘believe in’ a compact elite behind the scenes and the mass down below,” Mills writes. “It is not put in that language. It is just that the people are of necessity confused and must, like trusting children, place all the new world of  foreign policy and strategy and executive action in the hands of experts.” Just now and then the language slips out of the bag, as when Peter Mandleson called Labour Party opposition to the Iraq invasion  an “infantile disorder”, perhaps unconsciously using a phrase of Lenin when defending the elite nature of the Bolshevik party.

More common Mills argues, is that “a reformulation of classical liberalism in the entirely unclassical age of the 20th century…instead of justifying the power of an elite by portraying it favourably…denies that any set of men, any class, any organization has any real consequential power.” 6 But, he goes on to describe what members of the elite do have in common. For one thing, they “cannot  be truly thought of as men who are merely doing their duty. They are the ones who determine their duty, as well as the duties of those below them…their circumstances make them independent of the good will of others, never waiting for anyone but always waited upon.” Here, he reveals how partial the power elite’s self-defined “reality” by pointing to two associated essentials. Whether it be pay rates; the queues for buses; or those in Housing Benefit and Social Security offices, the time of the poor does not count; and that being insulated from such realities and also those less onerous like housework, reinforces the elite view of the world. How beneficial it would be for BlairBrown to face a life of low-ceilinged, small windowed accommodation, and travel to work on the London Underground’s Northern Line.

This is more important than the specific class origins of the elite, but Wright Mills does not duck the challenge of its reproduction.  The evidence he produced showed that class mobility, a crucial prop to the ‘American Dream’ and meritocratic ideology, was shrinking, as it is, in different forms, now. “…By the middle years of the  20th century it is in some ways easier to transfer position and power to one’s children than it was in 1900 and 1925…to pass on to children strategic positions in the apparatus of appropriation that constitutes the higher level of American private, free enterprise. ”7 He backs this up with a ‘dry’ but revealing statistic  that “Only 9% of the very rich of our own time originated in lower-class families, ie families with only enough money to provide essential needs and sometimes minor comforts.”

He describes an education system as class-ridden as Britain’s, and in these circles “In such circles, Mills writes, “adolescent boys and girls are exposed to the table conversation of decision-makers, and thus have bred into them the informal skills and pretensions of decision-makers.”  It is not so mysterious. Maureen Duffy writing from an English point of view in her novel Capital, talks of educated young people who “ would have had a daily familiarity with the smell of power and money at their parents’ dinner tables.”  In a more conscious manner Mills talks of how “To exclude others enables the high and mighty to maintain a series of private worlds in which they can and do discuss issues in which they train their young informally for the decision-making temper”.




In the week of late October 1962, the scary week of the Cuban missile crisis, Lenny  Bruce criss-crossed the USA with sharp-edged gigs some of which are reported verbatim by Don DeLillo in his novel Underground. He starts in West Hollywood on the 22nd.

“The true edge is not where you choose to live, but where they situate you against your will. This event is infinitely deeper and more electrifying than anything you might elect to do with your own life. You know what this is? This is twentysix guys from Harvard deciding our fate.

Dig it. These are guys from the eating clubs and the secret societies. They have fraternity handshakes so complicated it takes three full minutes to do all the moves. One  missed digit you’re fucked for life. Resign from the country club, forget about the stock options and the executive retreat…

Picture it , Twentysix guys in Clark Kent suits getting to enter a luxury bunker that’s located about half a mile under the White House…

Powerless. Understand, this is how they remind us of our basic state. They roll out a periodic crisis. Is it horizontal? One great power against the other. Or is it vertical, is it up and down?”

On the 29th he was back in New York, doing a midnight show at Carnegie Hall.

“We’re not going to die.

Yes, they saved us. All the Ivy League men in those striped suits and ribbed black socks that go all the way to the knee so when they cross their legs on TV we don’t see a patch of spooky white flesh between the sock and the pants cuff. …

…They saved us in their horn-rimmed glasses and commonsense haircuts. They got their training for the missile crisis at a thousand dinner parties. Where it’s at, man. This is the summit of Western civilization. Not the art of the schlocky museums or the books in the libraries where bums off the street infest the men’s rooms. Forget all that. Forget all that. Forget the playing fields of Eton. It’s the seating plan at dinner. That’s where we won. Because they toughed it out. Because they were tested in the cruellest setting of all. Where tremendous forces come into play and crucial events unfold. Dinner parties, dig it, in the Northeast corridor. Your mother used to say, Mix, sweetheart. There was anxiety, a little hidden terror in her voice. Because she knew. Mix or die. And that’s why we won. Because these men were named and raised for this moment. Yes, tested at a thousand formative dinners. It started in adolescence. Seated next to adults, total strangers, and forced to make conversation. What a sadistic thing to say to a kid. Make conversation.”


                                    ‘THE WISE MEN’


A rather more reverential and detailed account of the elite described by Mills and Bruce comes in The Wise Men, published some 30 years later in 1986. 8Their heyday was the Truman Presidency during which the Cold War became a self-generating dynamic. The dominant figure was that Administration’s Secretary of State, Dean Ascheson, who rotated politics with being a corporate lawyer Also figuring are George Kennan, its ideologue; John McCloy Jr who moves in an out of the Defense Department and ends up as chief counsel to what were then the Seven Sisters dominant oil corporations; Robert Lovett, also in an out of the Defense Department and corporate America; and Averell Harriman, a multi-millionaire corporate chief shareholder and geo-political busybody.9 These people were, the authors say “were free to pursue what they really cared about, service to the country…” because “they did not have to worry too much about the daily chore of child care, or about their wives’ careers, or about paying the mortgage.” They were all making money when they out of the revolving door for periods back in Wall Street and were exactly people whose “circumstances make them independent of the good will of others.” In The Wise Men, however their position is not contrasted to people who have no insulation from ‘daily chores’, but rather with “the careerists who now populate the official bureaucracy, or the grasping opportunists who value a sub-Cabinet post primarily as a springboard to a lucrative job with a government contractor.”

Mills’ critique embraces both types, refusing the romanticized elitism of these ‘wise men’. With the exception of McCloy, they came from well-off families and went to Groton School and Yale or, at the very least, Harvard Law School. They were exactly people who as Mills says “have bred into them the informal skills and pretensions of decision-makers.” At Yale, Lovett, Harriman and their mentor, war time Defense Secretary Henry Stimson, had all been members of an elite secret society, The Order of Skull and Bones.  More recently, the current President George W. Bush and his 2004 opponent, John Kerry, were also members. This is not conspiracy theory, there is no suggestion that these Bonesmen are the secret government of the USA or anything of the sort, but it exists with a specifically elitist way of looking at the world, and shows an extraordinary continuity in one of the various channels in which the power elite reproduces itself.10






This perpetuation of advantage is not a central argument of the book except in that it deals with ‘the decision-making temper’, but it was an empirical reality that could hardly be ignored, as is the case now when its scale, and institutionalisation is being noticed by the excluded middle class. Neither did it preclude people ‘of merit’ like James J. McCloy coming into that elite from an unprivileged position. By university funding, scouting, think tanks and all kinds of  private-public set-ups, recruitment takes place. A main thrust of the book is instead a multi-pronged attack on capitalism’s own fantasies. He goes for it first at an ideological level by taking on Schumpeter’s elitist version of capitalist self-idealization. Schumpeter, he argues, “combines a theory of capitalist progress with a theory of social stratification to explain, and indeed celebrate the ‘creative destruction’ of the great entrepreneurs.” The Robber Baron is transformed into the Ayn Rand type hero of perennial innovation. But to do this Schumpeter has to be “rather free and easy with his moral evaluations, believing that only men of superior acumen and energy are lifted to the top by the mechanics they are assumed to create and focus.” Mills counterposes the need to understand “the objective structure of opportunities” which he details in the manner of Marx, noting the systematic confusion between technological gain and financial manipulation. On this basis he is able to point out both the tautology implicit in this self-idealization, and the inherent relationship between elitism and exploitation. “To use the acquisition of wealth as a sign of ability and then to use ability as an explanation of wealth is merely to play with two words for the same fact: the existence of the very rich.”

At an empirical level he shows that it is not and never has been usual that great fortunes have been made by nursing small businesses into large ones. Equally that men did not become very rich through rising through corporate bureaucracies  but by financial manipulation abilities. He talks of economic politicians who have been able to accumulate information and contacts “permitting them to appropriate for personal use out of the accumulation of advantages.” This accumulation invariably involves holding strategic positions as investment bankers for example, a concrete form  being to “speculate in the promotion and manipulation of securities with none, or very little risk.”

More significantly, a dominant finance capital with its economic politicians, is conducive to the ad hoc power elite since it brings together a whole class of go-betweens. The inner core of the Power Elite,” he writes, “ includes,” he men of the higher legal and financial types from the great law factories and investment firms who are almost professional go-betweens of economic, political and military affairs. By the nature of their work, they transcend the narrow milieu of any one  industry and so in a position to speak and act for the corporate world.” Because it finance capital also involves  investment here, there, and everywhere, political economy intelligence is required globally. viii It is intelligence with potential consequences: whether it be stiffening a currency; dropping bunker bombs; weakening a currency; or debating the efficacy of torture, and these are precisely the areas where the power elite exerts its monopoly on decision-making. The cohesion this makes for is augmented by a relatively new ‘opportunity’ which he highlights: how executives are given restricted options to buy stock at or below current market value, options made attractive by the 1950 tax law. 11Over time these have created more ties and go-betweens with finance capital, as well as being instrumental in recent scandals of the Enron variety.

Most of  all, in examining the ‘military definition of reality’, he takes apart the self-idealization in which a free and independent capitalism chafes at the hindrances and costs of the state. Even in its self-proclaimed turn against Keynesianism, the Anglo-Saxon version has had considerable dependence on state armaments contracts. Mills describes how US government contracts from World War II were institutionalised in the agreement between armament corporations and the military on the timing and rules of ‘reconversion’. He is prescient in describing the sheer weight of the military in scientific research; the money the military invested in universities; and the compromises with academic independence this involved. Similarly in the raft of examples he gives of the ‘crony capitalist’ nature of the corporate-military revolving doors. There are for example General E.R. Quesada of the H-bomb test team who became Vice-President of Lockheed, and General Jacob Evers who became technical adviser to the Fairchild Aircraft Corporation.





In 1961, five years after Mills’ book was published, ex-General Eisenhower, who had been President when the book was written, made a speech in which he talked of the need to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for this disastrous use of misplaced power exists and will persist.” It was, typically, delivered when it was too late to matter, his second term had finished a year earlier. The phrase is his, not Mills’ who instead talked of a definition of reality, one which benefited corporate profitability and is especially suited to power elites.

The context of both speech and book, was a normalized Cold War. Of this Mills writes with what sounds like an uncannily apt description of ‘the war on terror’:

“For the first time in American history, men in authority are talking about an emergency without foreseeable end.” Worse, when this view of reality is dominant, “Every man and nation is either friend or foe…when virtually all negotiation aimed at peaceful agreement is likely to be seen as ‘appeasement’ if not treason…in such a context the diplomat is replaced by the warlord.” Nauseating the glibness with which the ‘appeasement’ accusation has, and continues to be made.

The power elite thrives in this situation because it demands that information be secret, and because it demands that ‘decision-making temper’ it claims a monopoly of. Daniel Ellsburg has described the seductive nature of secret information, the select few knowing the real stuff. We also now have bitter experience of how secret information can be censored and manipulated to suit power elite desires. Mills, many years ahead of David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, and the Vietnam War itself, indicated how the freezing out of the State Department’s China experts who had predicted the victory of the Chinese Communists in 1948, created a situation in which the “impression grew” during the Eisenhower Presidency, “that it wasn’t safe to report the truth… about any foreign situation when the truth didn’t jibe with the preconceived notions of the people in Washington.”12.





The attacks on the book by Daniel Bell and Talcott Parsons, two stars of what Richard  Barbrook calls ‘cold war left’ intellectuals and who Mills himself called ‘executives of the mind’,  rested, as indicated above, on a wilful avoidance of Mills’ point about stock options, interlocking directorships,  and the dominance of finance capital; and on a bald assertion that power was so diffuse, that a power elite was impossible. Bell pushes this a step further by   accusing Mills of going on for conspiracy theory. The bad faith of his attack is, as so often, shown by the language:  “Although Mills contends that he does not believe in a conspiracy theory, his loose account of the centralization of power among the elite comes suspiciously close to it.” First, there is the unbacked  value judgement of “loose”, followed by what is coyly implied by ‘suspiciously close to’.

The Marxist left of the time was almost exclusively Leninist: either ‘Stalinist’ or ‘Trotskyist’.  Its attack on the book was not on the grounds of the structural reproduction of a power elite, but on the analysis of elites per se. Thus Robert Lynd  argued that it “provides a glittering focus above common, troublesome things like capitalism and its class structure.” In his far more generous review, Paul Sweezy argued that a focus on elites “inevitably diverts attention from social structure and process, and leads to a search for external causes of social phenomena.” The Lynd argument is simply unfair and carries with it a distinctive tone of self-righteousness. As well as understanding the increased power of the media, Mills is clear about the function of glitter. “In part they (celebrities) have stolen the show for that is their business; in part they have been given the show by the upper classes who have withdrawn and have other business to accomplish.”




And yet in these critiques at the time it’s possible to see how an analyses of  a power elite figured little in the 1960s and 70s, and why this might be the case again when it seems especially relevant. The worst of reasons back then was an elitist tendency in the left itself. Hard to imagine now how so many people had their heads wasted by Althusser for example which carried the same seductive appeal as that of ‘secret information’ as described by Daniel Ellsberg, the promise that you would get to know what others never could.

When it comes to conspiracy theory(ies), we have every reason to be wary however. Unfortunately when power is so secretive (promises of openness always running into ‘business confidentiality’, ‘national security’ and bureaucratic obstruction), it is a common morbid  symptom.  There are particular ‘conspiracies’ that have been uncovered like the arming of the Nicaraguan Contras. Conspiracy theory in contrast either bumps up an individual to being the hidden global string-puller, like Aristotle Onassis in the once popular Gemstone File, or more recently in the case of the World Trade Centre attack of 2001 which the Loose Change fantasists and foolish egomaniacs like Michael Meacher say, or imply, were really carried out by the Bush Administration, an omni-powerful Mafia. It discredits, by association, real investigative research and journalism.

Mills is not presenting any such conspiracy, and goes at length to show that this is not what he is doing: the Cold War was not planned by a small group of ruthless men. In a well known essay of 1970, The Tyranny of Structurelesness, Jo Freeman warned against the dangers of informal, unacknowledged elites in feminist organizations trying something very different from Leninist-type organisation. “Elites”, she noted, “are not conspiracies. Very seldom does a small group of people get together to take over a larger group for their own ends.”  This text has become well-known again, fetishized even by a post-structuralist analysis with its ‘gazes’ and ‘self-surveillances’, while study of the power elite is off its agenda as if somehow it is not elitist.

Ironically one of the most radical critiques of capitalism and its power in the late 1960s, that by the Situationist International, follows the cold war left’s assertion of the diffusion of power in modern capitalism. For the SI, in the form of the ‘spectacle’, it is indeed its strength. Though in the later Reflections on the Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord becomes more concerned with secret sources of power,  the net effect of the SI has been an ultra-leftist obsession with ‘recuperation’, and an emphasis on the cultural embededness of modern capitalism.

A more robust, and probably the most useful empirical and theoretical work to refresh a Marxist critique of capitalism since then has come from the Italian “Autonomism.” Whatever its origins, it theorized the working class militancy of the early 1970s, in a way that made the way it fought the discipline of capitalist labour central to both the development of capitalism itself, and the project of social liberation. It overthrew Leninist notions of ‘economism’ and ‘workerism’. It also fitted another anti-elitist project, a rejection of history as that of ‘kings and queens’ and the development of a history from below. It was, and remains, a crucial break with the vanguardist past. But it too can be ideologized with a mix of class guilt, and that ultra-leftism obsessed with being in the right, into something it wasn’t, one which would see the spotlight on the power elite as a betrayal of a non-elitist view of the world.

Paul Sweezy’s criticism at the time was not in these terms but that Mills sought, and was dealing with “external causes of social phenomena.” This criticism, speaking in the name of  Marxism instead implies a distorted view of what is internal and external to the workings of capitalism, one which is now being reproduced in the  form of “logic of capital”  analysis. Capitalism does have its own internal dynamic, the compulsion to accumulate, it also functions as social discipline, but it does not exist in an ahistorical vacuum. Only in the self-regulating market fantasy of bourgeois economics are there not politico-economic decisions being made by institutional and ad hoc groupings comprising individual members of the power elite. But this is echoed on the left –  perhaps from bitter experience of the inept opportunism of some Leninist groups/parties – when it is seen as somehow naff to talk about powerful individuals and the consequences of their actions, that it is inherently populist. Empirically-based theorists of the autonomia like Sergio Bologna and Feruccio Gambino, might sometimes speak of capital’s strategies or offensives in anthropomorphic style, but they also identified decisions made by identifiable decision-makers as for example in the case of “Project Independence.”

Oil, access to it, manipulation of its supply and price has not been ‘an external cause of social phenomena’. It has been a crucial factor in class politics, and geopolitical conflict in the last 35 years. Geopolitically it is intimately associated with the arms business which itself is a major source of corporate profitability and accumulation as well as in the transfers of surplus value from poorer parts of the world to richer.




The Power Elite as described by Wright Mills is in its element in the world of arms and oil business. It is a secretive world where decisions are made by those tempered in decision making: tough decisions which their own soft populations cannot make.14 That is how it is presented. And such self-presentation and the consolidation of such power has been a huge lease of life in the present by a conjunction of not unrelated circumstances. The ‘neo-liberal/hyper capitalist offensive of the 1990s; the resultant across-the board increase in inequality; the increasing mismatch between financial claims and total surplus value; rise of religious fundamentalisms; national resources ‘competition’; and a variety of anti-humanist terrorisms, all these have created the conditions of “an emergency without foreseeable end, ” as Mills put it, and ‘a military definition of reality’. It has infiltrated the language: we now have wars on AIDS; on drugs; terrorism; cancer and –grotesquely – on poverty.




At first sight it has hard to see any similarity between those East Coast aristocrats of the Cold War, and Britain’s New Labour leaders for whom the worst thing that ever happened was some other squirt challenging their role in student politics. When Jack Straw stood next to ex-General Colin Powell in the theatrical lead-up to the war on Iraq, what was visible was a man out of his depth. But years in power, a compliant media and a cosy relationship with oil companies, armaments maker, corporate capital in general, and the military have found it taking its place. Mills described those who have been able to who have been able to accumulate information and contacts “permitting them to appropriate for personal use an accumulation of advantages.”  Not all aspirants can have the breadth of connection of Dame Pauline, but, sharing a mind-set, they try to make up for it. Both consultants and lobbyists are a new form of the ‘intermediaries’ Mills describes describes, as are think tanks, and similar groupings like the British-American Project for the Successor Generation an outfit originating during the Reagan regime, worried – as now – that, the best and the brightest in Europe might not stay loyal to Washington. Its members include Geoff Mulgan, formerly of the Cabinet Office strategy unit; lobbyist Julia Hobsbawm; and institutional ‘player’ Trevor Phillips. It is funded by various heavyweights of the corporate world: Coca Cola, Monsanto, Philip Morris, BP and others, having started with money from the Pew Foundation. Its  prime mover – as they say in criminal conspiracy trials – is one Nick Butler formerly of BP and the Fabian Society. With no embarrassment, he describes how he wanted to bring in “Bright people, in many different fields, who were likely to influence outcomes in those fields. People who were interesting.” 15Smell the stink of elitism here,  “Bright…Interesting people.”  But more than that, people who are likely to “influence outcomes, and many of whom are “directly involved with US and UK defence establishments.” Dr Madson Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute (an organisation funded by British taxpayers to spread the message of privatisation in the Third World), is even more explicit: his target audience is not any old riff-raff, not the public, but a list of 660 powerful individuals, civil servants, journalists, politicians and professional businessmen.

In this world, the seminar has replaced deLillo’s golf course. There is also the Council for European Reform16 and the Ditchley Foundation, in both of which Dame Pauline often appears. The Foundation organizes and hosts conferences on a regular basis, and is involved both  independently and with the Rand Corporation and “US and UK defence establishments.” It would be tedious to list all the ‘great and the good’ and the ‘best and the brightest’ who are trustees or board members of this outfit, diplomats, the military, journalists, politicians, and the representatives of big money They can be seen, no conspiracy here – this is open elitism —  at Their programme say for 2003 tells a story: February 21-23 “The Future Role of NATO”, chaired by General Klaus Naumann; next up, March 7-9, “Higher Education: the global future and value of universities in the information age.” Then, satire outdone yet again, the same Peter Mandleson who was to talk of opposition to the Iraq War as “an infantile disorder” a year later,    chaired the next Ditchley Park conference entitled “Legitimacy/Correcting the Democratic Deficit.” This democratic deficit was to be corrected by an invitation-only gathering of the elite, ‘the best and the brightest”, the ones who count. The  gathering took place March 21-23 2003 as the invasion of Iraq got underway in the face of massive public opposition.




The revolving doors described by Mills have become increasingly well-oiled in the Anglo-Saxon world. In the US, it is almost de rigeur from Treasury Secretaries, Democrat or Republican  to come out of Goldman Sachs. From the Vice-President downwards and taking in, for example, the authors of Shock and Awe, the ‘military-industrial complex’ is embedded in the political world. In Britain under New Labour, it has been the same. ’ The case of Sir (Lord) Alan West is brazen in this respect, but is not unique. Former UK Defence Minister Ivor Caplin resigned as an MP to be senior consultant with Foresight Communications (dig that name!), a lobbyist representing firms with defence interests like EADS Lord Boyce, former chief of the defence staff has recently begun working with three companies17all which have involvement with UK defence contracts. Sir Robert Walmsley the Ministry of Defence’s former Chief of Defence Procurement is now a director of two American defence firms. These moves are said to have been endorsed by Mr Blair as being in the ‘national interest’.

The same closeness of this world has also been shown up by the relationship between BAe Systems and the British government. In the USA it’s a case of what’s good for Goldman Sachs is good for America. The investigation into the BAe- Saudi arms deal was stopped in the interests of ‘national security’; that’s the story. It invited a fair deal of outrage, rightly so, even if scandal and outrage have, by themselves, little impact on power elite decisions. Much less was made of how useless the weapons in question were to the Saudis given the geo-political realities within which they operate; or why the president of Kazakhstan should recruit Sir Richard Evans, BAE Systems ex-chairman and still board member, as chief honcho of its oil industry; or how and why Tanzania should have bought a military radar system it has no use for; or more recently, how it was that BAE should be able to break into the offices of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade; or the role of official government arms salesmen.




Oscar Wilde, at his most subversive, has a vicar preaching a charity sermon on behalf of The Society for the Prevention of Discontent Among the Upper Classes. From the very beginning of its existence the urban proletariat and its ‘underclasses’ have been the main focus of social investigation and research. A spy job as an old East Londoner described it. Real life photography, even from the best of motives, has followed the same pattern. The spotlight and the self-confidently nosey tone of investigation has almost never been turned on the power elite, not unless they have chosen the spotlight, which is normally left to those choosing to be celebrities. This is because of a subservient media which Wright Mills had understood was becoming a part of the elite itself18; ‘intelligent elitists’ as Jo Freeman put it, will not seek visibility; the command of legal and architectural resources to maintain privacy; the ad hoc network of the power elite; and the increase in the intermediaries between cause and effect in the politico-economic world.  If the capitalist movement can throw off its crippling fear of the accusation of populism, putting the spotlight on this elite (not just on its institutional meetings), its irresponsibility and its pretensions, is essential to contesting its power, and mobilizing to this end.

The analysis provided by Wright Mills is applicable to today’s Anglo-Saxon political economy: to a militarised neo-liberalism in which there are few obstacles to the elite’s irresponsibility. Individuals are replaceable and scandal by itself changes nothing, but individuals of the power elite, both singly and collectively, are responsible for decisions which have consequences not for themselves, but millions of other people of whose lives they know nothing. They have never sat in waiting rooms, stood in queues, or gone hungry. This, is itself a main cause of the power elite’s irresponsibility, and unctuous inhumanity. This is nailed down as it applies to the world of geo-politics monopolized by the elite in exceptional newspaper article by former diplomat Carne Ross. Talking from bitter experience he describes the filtering of information to a very small group of decision-makers. “They make decisions based on abstractions many removes distant from reality. Even on the ground, the strictures of security prevent diplomats from all but the briefest contact with the everyday reality of Afghans and Iraqis.”

Thomas Pynchon’s fictional Mason warns 18th century Americans against the dangerous English ruling class who amongst other things, “will not admit to error.”

A minimum requirement of bourgeois democracy, is that it should have the strength to prevent its leaders from making stupid and murderous decisions. When it came to the US-UK invasion of Iraq it failed to do the job. For the many considered and intelligent people who opposed the war, this has been a demoralizing experience. Though there is a crowded bandwagon of wise-after-the-eventers, these, like the armchair Spartan Richard Perle don’t take any responsibility for what happened, standing by the invasion decision. There have been no admissions of error from its cheerleaders.  ‘Star’ political writer of The Observer, Andrew Rawnsley, on 26th January 2003  praised Tony Blair for not ‘pandering’ to anti-war public opinion. Pandering, to the stupid masses. At the 2006 Labour Party Conference Blair himself said, “The British people will, sometimes, forgive a wrong decision. They won’t forgive not deciding.” Of this brazen elite-speak – Blair’s sheer cheek is hard to match –  Rawnsley, who one would have thought would have had the good grace to shut up, for good, said it was a “masterclass.”

This is truly scary stuff, this fetishizing of power elite leadership, its irresponsibility encouraged by its media, and by its real-life impunity. And all this while in neo-liberal-speak, citizens are told by the same elite that they must live up to their responsibilities, and increasingly that they have rights only in return for responsibilities as defined by the same elite. As well as the irresponsibility, it is the pretension of the power elite to have a monopoly on its ability to make ‘tough’ decisions. The consequences are not tough of them however, whereas many citizens are making tough decisions with consequences for themselves on a regular basis.  This has been shown to carry through to the political level in many examples of participatory democracy like the Citizens Dialogues of the Romanow Commission into healthcare in Canada. They belied “elite views that citizens are incapable of nuanced understandings of issues in healthcare reform and unwilling to make trade-offs.”

As things stand, it is the ubiquitous “shareholder” who has the means to bring judgement on and consequences for corporate irresponsibility as in the present case of British Petroleum. There is a job to be done for the anti-capitalist movement  be done in spotlighting, and  pinning down responsibility in the chains of sub-contractors in the worlds of production, torture, and ad hoc networks of power, chains which tend to obscure causes and consequences. And then a whole vocabulary to contest it. Wright Mills with his ‘warlords’, ‘organised irresponsibility’ and ‘crackpot realism’ provided part of a guide to do this and who it should be directed at.





























1 This is the final essay in Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination which has been wonderfully realized in multi-media form by Muhammed A,Asad at

2 The counter attack by Amewrican capital is described in detail by Feruccio Gambino, “Class Composition and US Direct Investment Abroad”. Red Notes 1975

3 In typical Huntington style his argument in the book Who Are We? involves little evidence, but depends heavily on Manuel Castells saying, “Elites are cosmopolitan, people are local.” The book is in effect a cry of rage against the Clinto Presidency. Sitherland on the other hand, does look the part. He has been an Irish government minister, EC Trade Commissioner, Chairman of BP and of Goldman Sachs International; is a chairman of the Trilateral Commission; was Director General of the WTO as well as being a UN Special Representative on Migration, and a financial adviser to the Vatican.

4 This might be described as a characteristic ‘power elite’ company, one set up by Frank Carlucci, A Defence Secretary under Ronald Reagan. It owns various companies making munitions and equipment for the US military and has James Baker, George H. Bush and John Major on its books in a PR and Sales role.

5 She is mentioned in Hywel Williams book Britain’s Power Elite pub Constable 2006. It was also inspired by Wright Mills but is , other than sharp comments on British politics, a disappointing book with no sense of the revolving doors or ad hoc coherence of that elite. In Dame Pauline’s case he mentions only the Milosevic loan and QinetiQ roles.

6 Which doesn’t prevent Talcott Parsons in his critique of the book – and using David Riesman to back him up – simply denying by assertion, the existence of any real, consequential power in the USA. This during the Cold War. See his essay in C.Wright Mills and the Power Elite: Essays compiled by G. William Domhoff and Hoyt B. Ballard..Beacon Press 1968

7 The perpetuation of advantage is especially important now. A study on Intergenerational Mobility by The Centre for Economic Performance (supported by the Sutton Trust) in 2005 showed that this had decreased in the USA and even more so in the UK for children born in 1970 as opposed to those born in 1970. This perpetuation is now being institutionalized by ‘family offices’. Writing in the Guardian (17/4/06) James Meek describes them as the ultimate symbol of true wealth. There are 11,000 such offices worldwide. They consist of “a full-time team of lawyers and accountants dedicated to the sole aim of protecting and cultivating one’s family wealth further into the future than most governments, let alone ordinary people would ever dream of.” 100 years is advised which rather puts the Five Year Plan to shame. Reporting the phenomena has not stopped the newspaper from advertising such an ‘office’. Lower down the ladder the perpetuation is being acted out in the housing market.

8 The Wise Men. Walter Isaacson and Ewen Thomas: Faber&Faber 1986

9 In another great Lenny Bruce riff he digs away at the exclusivity of elite names: Adlai, Averell, McGeorge

10 This order of the Skull and Bones was formed in 1832 and as described by Suzanne Goldberg (Guardian 20/5/2004) “represented the pinnacle of prestige —  or social exclusion depending on one’s point of view. Each class of Bonesmen would take it upon themselves to perpetuate the distinction by grooming its successors.” She is at pains to reject any conspiracy theory in the case of George W. Bush, though the connections helped him financially. What emerges instead is a collective belief in their entitlement to advantage.

11 In a method that has become standard, Daniel Bell’s critique of the book simply ignores this crucial point and introduces instead an irrelevance to do with trade associations.

12 On this Mills cites Charlotte Knight writing that when one Scott McLeod became head of Security in the Eisenhower State Department, “the impression grew that it wasn’t safe to report the truth to Washington about any foreign situation.” More recently Sidney Blumenthal reports that in May 2006 as the Iraq situation worsened, “Condoleeza Rice told senior staff she wants no more reporting from the embassies. She announced in a meeting that peopole write memos only for each other, and that no one else reads them. She said she wouldn’t read them. Instead of writing reports, the diplomats should “sell America.”

13 All these included in G. William Domhoff and Hoyt B. Ballard cited above.

14 See John Barker  Armchair Spartans, Variant magazine.

15 Guardian Weekend (6/11/04)

16 Investigated by William Clark, one of the few people to have investigated these networks of ad hoc power. See articles in Lobster, and more recently at

17 WS Atkins; Tricolom; Computer Sciences Ltd.

18 In The Power Elite he writes, “Entire brackets of professions and industries are in ‘the opinion business’…and are among these increased means of power at the disposal of elites of wealth and power; moreover some of the higher agents of the media are themselves either among the elites or very important among their servants.”