Concentrating Power and Concentrating Neglect in the New American Epoch
In C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite, there are a couple of core observations made about the structure of American society and its hierarchies, against a backdrop of modernity in the American society contrary to that of the Old World, that are central to the thesis in the book about power being concentrated in the realms of economic, political, and military influence: essentially that among other social influences like family and religion, old notions of nobility, and what it meant to be noble, are subordinate in the gradation of power to the forces that materially derive these three loci of power. It is, therefore, explicable, under modern western liberal capitalism, that there exists a number of conflicts between society's expectations of who should wield influence and why, and who actually does; this latter point addressed by Marxian economic reality, self-evidently supporting the observation of Mills in the first place, but it bears examining because of its implications on, both, social notions of survival, but likewise democratic expression.
Mills notes that after the Civil War, essentially old-style nobility which used to constitute political and economy influence personified, became subordinate to the rise of corporate capitalism, and the intertwining of capital and influence on the political (and therefore military) state. This created a new, previously not present, "gradation of power" subordinating old influential families to "local" powers– they might still have full command of that influence in matters of local importance, to the extent that it does not conflict with a globalized pursuit of the goals of the Power Elite. The byproduct of this influence, which Mills does not consider to be of this highest circle of influence and therefore does not cover, is idle rich, or at least nobility; we'll explore this tendency in a moment through portrayal in various media before and after this gradation's introduction– the trappings of wealth and influence, often without much of the former and rarely any of the latter, all while securely situated socially by the local value of the capital of status. This while the machinery of those of influence in the overlap of these three bases of power, from bankers to military men to the politically-well-connected operator, now constitute the post-Civil War visible "invisible government", as Mills notes, influential by virtue of the importance of these things against a true republicanism to western liberal capitalist order, rather than by birth, as might have entitled one to a position of influence in a previous epoch. The implications of this on society are, typical of the infighting and re-stratification of the elite sphere, often consequences paid by the (increasingly, given the implications to democratic potential of this redefinition in terms) un-influential public. As Mills writes, "Families and churches and schools adapt to modern life; governments and armies and corporations shape it; and, as they do so, they turn these lesser institutions into means for their ends."– this is the structural definition society is being re-shaped to meet.
The emphasis on this new inert kind of nobility isn't to cultivate some kind of cross-class boundary solidarity as excluded from power, but to explain who this locally influential body of power is, and has been historically, contrary to their new role as a non-factor if not wholly subjugated to the elite bases of power, and the motivations for perhaps the less than effective bipartisan politics we see in places like New York City, or Boston, or to demonstrate the same tendency with a role in more active bases of power and a different political demography, Dallas and Chicago– the local influence is all subordinate to global capitalism, but expresses as somehow distinct in its local partisan leanings. But, if one is not in a position of even local influence (politics, culture, etc.) then this idle nobility is seen as, and I'll explain this choice of words in a moment, "doomed" if unsuccessful even on the local level, or as Mills explains, "Today, to remain merely local is to fail; it is to be overshadowed by the wealth, the power, and the status of nationally important men [who represent these most elite bases of power]."
In Balzac's Old Goriot, and likewise, its postmodern cousin, the 1990 film Metropolitan, questions of post-power nobility are tackled; in Goriot it's the question of what is nobility if neither wealthy, nor politically connected– the old landlord Goriot, and his tenant the social climbing Rastignac, represent the old and new order of nobility in Paris after the restoration. Rastignac has no money, but aspires to it, and Goriot laments that his fortunes are tied to the perception of his status, whereupon previously status could be conferred by birthright. In Metropolitan, you deal with a young utopian socialist, Tom Townsend, who loses his money, but is taken in by a "doomed" preppy cadre– they're of means, but their lack of broader social import or influence, their society is languishing as they realize so is their importance, not to the society they are on top of, but to the elite who regards them as no longer of use. They fear for their survival, and true to postmodernism ideal, even Tom joins them as they decide to go down on the ship of their insularity of local eminence.
Mills offers a theoretical framework for understanding the social hierarchy and dynamics depicted in "Old Goriot" by arguing that a small group of powerful individuals control institutions of Mills' identified bases of power: the economy, government, and military. This concentration of power creates a hierarchy that determines one's social status and ability to survive. Mills argues the rise of capitalism in the post-Civil War United States as exacerbating this trend, as it has led to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, and contrary to the social trends of class and status in Europe, in an era where the United States would ultimately become the mono-polar global hegemony, overtaking every major empire in previous world history in the post-Civil War century.
Instructive to this point about how this interacts with the public, as an interpersonal avatar for this struggle's impact on cultural identity, can be found in Christopher Lasch's reflection on the film My Dinner with Andre in his book The Minimal Self: Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory represent two sides of the New York socialite class concerned with the arts– Shawn sees himself as an artist, but one simply trying to survive, enjoying quotidian comforts of city living as he does; Gregory frustrated with mere survival when their social and cultural milieu might have typically afforded them artistic fulfillment in the old world, seeks higher enlightenment. They're both right, and they're both wrong; it's the breakdown of the synthesis stage of the dialectic where a coherent social position fails to emerge:
Lasch's interpretation of "My Dinner with Andre" is, itself, rooted in his critique of contemporary culture; the individualism and consumerism that dominated the 1980s, arguing that these trends contribute to a fragmentation of the self and a lack of meaningful relationships with others– as he argues in "The Culture of Narcissism", "We demand too much of life, too little of ourselves." In the film, the characters represent respective opposing worldviews: one focused on material success and the other on personal growth and connection– they are embodying the struggle Lasch identifies to find meaning and purpose in a society that prioritizes superficial values, in service and at the expense of, the self. In Balzac, the characters also similarly grapple with issues of survival and self-preservation, but within the context of a changing social hierarchy and dynamics of pre-republican/post-revolutionary France. Balzac portrays a society in which social status and power are determined by wealth and connections rather than personal merit, but this is against the backdrop of the change out of the United States, where this society begins to view a loss of wealth with a loss of the character of nobility, as depicted in Goriot's decline and Rastignac's proposed ascension, with a third darker character representing the inevitable specter capitalism represents as a consequence of centuries of imperialist and feudal rule. The characters must navigate this system in order to secure their own survival and protect their social standing.
Through the lens of Mills' framework, we can see articulated the struggles of the society and its citizens shaped by larger social forces; individual actions and choices are constrained by social hierarchy and dynamics of their time, certainly, but as well as changing economic and prevailing corresponding political culture; these cultural artifacts can be consumed as commentary on the destructive effects of this system on individuals and society as a whole. To evaluate all of this as in opposition with each other, and not as cascading consequences for a sense of justice in the public, would be incorrect and prioritizing of anodyne cultural reshaping for the elites at the root of the problem, rather than serving the interests of a just society. Mills might agree with someone like John Rawls, who would likely argue that the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few, as theorized by Mills to be increasingly concentrated (as the "gradation" of power shifts into clearer and more "visible" hierarchy) in the three bases of power, is problematic from a democratic perspective; Rawls' framework suggests that a (theoretically sound) just society should be based on a social contract in which individuals agree to a set of basic principles that, primarily, ensure: fairness, equal opportunities for all members of society, with this latter point defined as benefiting first the least advantaged members of society to the standard of the least disadvantaged. The concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few would undermine this social contract, creating disproportionate influence over the political process and the distribution of resources, which increasingly in modernity, means military and economic influence over political policy and culture.
Rawls might argue that the individualism and consumerism depicted in "My Dinner With Andre" seems to concur with Mills that this is an intra-elite struggle for which the general public bears the burden, making it problematic from a justice perspective: a just society would prioritize the well-being of all individuals, this distinct from the ability to accumulate wealth and material security of one's well-being. The film's focus on material success and superficial values in the film could be argued to be demonstrative of society, as a result, debating the wrong question; not addressing the underlying inequality, but the best way to navigate it, a postmodern languished condition. Such a society, Rawls might argue of the ones depicted in art but reflective of the one Mills surveys, would fail to ensure fairness and equal opportunities for all members, and self-evidently, transparently even, instead privileges certain individuals based on arbitrary factors just as wealth and status implied to be commensurate with it. It would not, consequently, be inappropriate to suggest that Lasch might tend to agree with, both, Rawls' interpretation of such a society as unjust, but likewise Mills' assertion of the new hierarchy, that the things that have historically (and in rhetoric, still are, but demonstrably no longer are) the bedrock of a community are now subjugated under any concern that benefits first and primarily anything of interest of the three bases of power. Per Lasch, the full context for the quoted passage earlier:
The best defenses against the terrors of existence are the homely comforts of love, work, and family life, which connect us to a world that is independent of our wishes yet responsive to our needs. It is through love and work, as Freud noted in a characteristically pungent remark, that we exchange crippling emotional conflict for ordinary unhappiness. Love and work enable each of us to explore a small corner of the world and to come to accept it on its own terms. But our society tends either to devalue small comforts or else to expect too much of them. Our standards of "creative, meaningful work" are too exalted to survive disappointment. Our ideal of "true romance" puts an impossible burden on personal relationships. We demand too much of life, too little of ourselves.
What might Mills argue about the present state of corporatist autocracy in the United States, whereupon policy outcomes are directly tied to lobbying and not democratic processes in a representative democracy, where campaign finance more often than voter sentiment decides elections, and where an unelected Supreme Court, influenced by the corporatist forces of the same has effected regime change in the case of democratic election results to the contrary? Mills would likely argue that the present state of corporatist autocracy in the United States is a clear example of the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few, interpreting the dominance of corporate interests in the political process as evidence of the close relationship between economic and political power in the United States, with the defense industry more blended into economic and political decisionmaking than ever. The current political system in the United States is not truly democratic, as policy outcomes are more influenced by lobbying and campaign finance than by the will of the people; Mills' framework would conclude that this is a failure of representative democracy, a dereliction that exists to allow the appetite of the wealthy and powerful to be sated. The resulting influence of corporatist forces on the Supreme Court and the court's ability to effect regime change in the case of democratic election results would be seen by Mills as a further erosion of democracy; the Supreme Court's actions in these cases represent an undemocratic usurpation of power by the unelected branch of government, an outright assault on the public--families, marginalized groups, the economically vulnerable, etc. but communities, as a concept, more broadly, and this was tolerated because of local power brokering sating local elites for so long.
Mills would argue that the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few leads to the neglect of the most vulnerable members of society. He would see the dominance of corporate interests in the political process as prioritizing the profits of the wealthy over the needs of the majority, particularly those who are marginalized and lack the resources to advocate for themselves. This neglect can manifest itself in a lack of investment in public goods such as education, healthcare, and social welfare programs that benefit vulnerable individuals and families– essentially engendering a culture that rewards self-interest at the expense of the public, while seeking to encouraging blaming the prevailing public culture for a lack of personal success when the social fabric becomes incoherent (think the famous "personal responsibility" trope from bad faith austerity politics). Lasch has identified the resulting prevailing individualism and consumerism promoted by the political system Mills describes as emerging decades before as assaulting concepts community and connection between individuals; the emphasis on material success and superficial values creates a culture of narcissism and self-absorption that undermines the ability of individuals to form meaningful relationships and contribute to the common good, and then this process, in the Rawlsian view of this conflict, becomes self-fulfilling, the debate from "My Dinner with Andre" bearing out, so concerned with survival, that a question of, for example, revolution becomes an untenable task when viewed from the perspective of individual, and not collectivized, incentive.