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Published: September 3, 2018 (5 years 7 months ago.)
Tags:  History · Oligarchy

The book in...
One sentence:
The first half of the book is largely driven by data and history that is used as a foundation from which Mills can launch into a few, somewhat emotionally though not inexcusable, diatribes concerning the decay of society.

Five sentences:
The book begins wonderfully by looking at the grammar and defining exactly what is mean and assumed by 'elites.' With a solid grammar in place, Mills begins building his argument with an expose on the decline of the local towns level society whose replacement have lead to the rise of national the national level society. This subsequently, and in hindsight we can see Mills was correct, leads to the centralization and concentration of power, both governmentally and privately. Obviously this centralization, a confluence of military, politics, and business, becomes self reinforcing so that you see the so-called elites emerging from the same schools, the same milieu, and the same background; a concurrent rise of militarism, globalism, and consumerism ensues. Finally the killing stroke is delivered when Mills rails against the fact that advertising (also known as propaganda) has taken over the what is left of the minds of the masses with such low-brow tactics as the creation and promotion of the cult of the celebrity.

designates my notes. / designates important.


Chapter one introduces the book. It lays out what it will cover: economic, political, and military coalescing. At this intersection we will see that there is a group that can be called the elite. This group exists and has power ‘somewhere between omnipotent and impotent.’ ‘To accept either view—of all history as conspiracy or of all history as drift—is to relax the effort to understand the facts of power and the ways of the powerful.’

It is also put forth that the world is changing more rapidly, circa 1956, than it has ever changed in the past. These changes are also more visible because of the emergence of a new observation technique: the media.

The media also gives us, in addition to a front row seat to the changes, a distraction from those very changes in the form of glamor and celebrity. In tandem these views work as cover for a covert authoritarian system.

Lastly the media also brings with it campaigns and congressional maneuvering, brought to fever pitch, but only represent the middle levels of power, ostensibly still controlled by the public, not the upper levels of power, inaccessible –if even known– to the common man.

Chapter two looks at how old-money often looks back, how it takes a historical view in which their families have shaped a local region and their place is derived from time. The key is the historical outlook, which is absent in middle class and poor people.

Alternatively, young-money sees the old as in the way of progress, but still desiring their status. Mills goes so far as to say that the young-money sees the old-money as money grubbing, while downplaying their own (rapidly expanding) wealth.

Simultaneous to the clash between the old- and young-money groups, a larger shift is taking place. The focus is moving from the local upper class to the national upper class. The big local deal is small compared to the deals of the big city. What local industry compares to GM? The national corporation has supplanted the local industry. This, described later in the book, also leads to media and entertainment refocusing to the national level as well. This all adds up to ever concentration of wealth and power, one of the main tenets of the book.

In chapter three the discussion shifts to the metropolitan 400; ‘The Social Register’ is the only real attempt at identifying American upper class since there is no aristocracy, no court society, and no true capital city. Making the list depends on large part to the clubs which one belongs to.

These clubs need not be clubs in the common sense, the Century Club for example, but can extend to a more wider definition, including schools. Boarding for girls. Prep for boys. The form a similar hierarchy as to the clubs for men. Education in private schools leading to Harvard, Yale, etc, is increasingly more important than family pedigree. These schools train the old and rich alike to behave properly in their place atop society.

From childhood through professional adult-life, the upper class is surrounded by like kind. Family friends, old schoolmates, etc. They all were trained/raised in the same manner, think the same way, accept each other as peers and accept their peers thoughts, decisions, and criticisms, if for no other reason than they come from the same exclusive circles. This ‘in crowd’ mentality creates what we today call an echo chamber. Even if the proverbial ship were sinking, unless someone ‘respectable’ points it out, the rest of the upper class could easily go on rearranging the deck chairs.

Celebrity, the bane of Society (300/400, Society=High Society), is introduced in chapter four. While celebrity itself is not new, the modern celebrity is something of an odd creation. Creation is the right word, since they are created from the top-down, created via nation wide mass communications. This coverage and the glamor and glitz of the celebrity overwhelmed Society.

The existence and the activities of these professional celebrities long ago overshadowed the social antics of the 400…

I wonder: could this be by design? As a distraction to away from the real power? In my opinion this is exactly what the celebrity was created for.

Some debutantes of the ‘thirties tried to compete with Hollywood. They hired press agents who saw to it that their pictures were in the newspapers and articles about them were printed in the national magazines. The ‘trick,’ Elsa Maxwell has said, was ‘to look so bizarre and so extreme that the truck drivers gasp but the ever-present cameraman will be bound to flash a bulb.’

This strengthens my view that the shock and awe surrounding even the celebrities of the thirties was weaponized. That last passage reminds me of the likes of Lady Gaga or the celebrity sex-tape craze.

Another shift, that came quietly alongside the trompe celebrity was the shift from family as a source of status to your position in a corporation. The small business owner earning a million dollars a year is unknown while the national CEO making 200k is known. The march toward a national stage, while discarding the local and regional stages, moves forward.

Least like the celebrity, but still sharing some of the spotlight was the military man, particular surrounding periods of war.

Interestingly the word ‘prestige’, which Mills uses in the colloquial way to describe the new celebrity class, finds in it etymology the meaning ’to dazzle.’

Chapter five discusses how this centralization gives rise to the very rich. These new rich, in their corporate positions, are rewriting the history of the mogul and the robber baron into an economic hero, fighting for the common man.

As an aside, this rings true to me when considering Donald Trump. Somehow it has been spun that a billionaire is acting on behalf of the people. Somehow his progressive past has been rewritten into that of conservatism, but I digress.

Neither the ruthlessness and illegality, with which Gustavus Myers tends to rest content, nor the far-sighted, industrial statesmanship, with which many historians now seem happier, are explanations—they are merely accusation or apology.

Eventually, when trying to understand these ultra wealthy, you reach a point of circular logic. This ability has led them to wealth. You know they posses ability because of their wealth.

This runs at odds with reality though: it often isn’t the innovator that commands wealth, it is the salesman and financiers who exploit the invention.

That said, the psychology of the rich is less important than the economic and political environment that they were built in. To understand the typical wealthy one must look beyond the often cited top few from each generation, this book looks at 275 from 1900, 1925, and 1950.

In none of the latest three generations has a majority of the very rich been composed of men who have risen.

Though most are still economically active, not totally living as a leisure class, they are not self-made men, but heirs. The easiest way to be very rich: be born very rich.

You don’t make it to the very rich from hard work, you need to have a stock of money and parlay it when an opportunity arises. Then you accumulate advantages. For example you reach a point where you get to play with other people’s (and governmental) money. Hedge funds, I’m looking at you.

Historically the very rich were the targets of expose, often called muckraking to discredit those who dare expose how the sausage is made. Today, with all the ‘human interest’ and celebrity distractions, the very rich are much less public.

Chapter six exhibits the CEOs and how they and the very rich are tightly wrapped together. In 1956 most of the stock owners fell into the top 0.2% of the population, by wealth. In contrast, 98.6% held no stock at all. These numbers are as representative today as they were 60+ years ago. It is no wonder then why the very rich would want CEOs that best serve their interests. The easiest way to do that: align said interests by admitting the CEOs to the very rich (or selecting CEOs from the existing very rich).

CEO and upper level management used to need brilliance, now they need character. They no longer lead or look to the future, they have many below them that do that. Instead, they act as a governor to check those below them. They have to be ‘in’, think, act, speak like the other executives. This is more important than technical ability. Judgment is what they do.

So what does this new CEO class look like? They are “business liberals” and have have “taken over liberal rhetoric and used it for their own purposes”. This isn’t to say they are actually liberal, but it is the show that is put on in an age (still today as it was then) when liberalism was regarded highly.

Interestingly Mills points out that CEOs don’t read. They don’t need knowledge, with all those knowledgeable worker bees beneath them. They don’t need to expand their horizons, everyone in their circle thinks essentially the same way. All of their input is sanitized and boiled down into a stark reductionism presented as a memo chock-a-block full of bullet (talking) points.

The ‘running’ of a large business consists essentially of getting somebody to make something which somebody else will sell to somebody else for more than it costs.

Entrepreneur and bureaucratic are middle-class words and don’t accurately convey what the CEO (or very rich) follow in their limited, common meanings. The higher you go, the more mixed up they become with the political.

Another interesting side note: Mills wrote a bit about how mechanization and automation were being brought into the business world. Again, I would say this is portending is apropos.

Mills looks closer at the corporate rich in chapter seven. First of all, says Mills, taxes are nothing but a joke to the rich. They avoid, defer, pay only capital gains, set up foundations or charities and give gifts so that they will end up paying less than a salaried worker (even more so today).

In Mills’ day, the expense accounts was the hot button topic. It allowed the corporate honchos to expense anything under the sun, since the accounting on this was at best vague if anything more than what said executive claimed. Though this isn’t as ubiquitous today, the increased salaries and, particularly, stock options have more than offset its loss.

Some examples, most still relevant today:

vacation properties in the company name (for entertaining potential clients)
access to corp lawyers and accountants
top class medical coverage
company cars/chauffeurs
company paid travel (corporate jet?)
scholarships for children
club dues

In short, the author restates, in no uncertain terms, that the corporate and political world are merging, relying more and more on one another.

Chapter eight turns its attention toward, what Mills calls, the warlords. By warlords he means military men. Somehow, he wonders, civilians have reined in these men of violence.

This usurping has occurred in much the same manner as the political and economic circles, it is merely a merging of power into a unified upper class (which I would unhesitatingly label: oligarchy).

Among themselves, rank and honor, keeps the men of violence vying for rank. This keeps most of them with their attention on what is right in front of them, as oblivious to the true concentration of power happening above their heads. This is not hard to see. As of 1956, 6 officers and 9 generals have become president. Today, in the 21st century we still see military service as a pillar to stand on when running for office.

Like the very rich and the corporate rich, the military elite have their own path to power. West point and the academy teach disciple, military mind, contempt for civilians, although not they are also taught not to show the latter. The Pentagon, a city in its own right, not unlike Vatican City, is something of a capstone where a successful student of military power will one day be employed.

Historically the military existed to protect a nation’s interests and to ‘keep the peace’, with invasions being nearly a thing of the past for decades. This, of course, is not exactly true. Mills quickly covers up such sentiment: now, with more advanced weapons, there is no longer a plan for peace. It is accepted that it will no longer be peace interrupted by periods of war, but war interrupted by periods of peace. Yes, this resembles the world of the 21st century. Endless, regionally contained (away from the voters), war.

Mills once again dons his prophet hat in exclaiming that we were entering the era of the never ending emergency, in 1956!

Continuing with the idea that power and wealth were concentrating, it is reasonable to assume that the tools of war (hard power) would follow suit.

Now, the governments of the world have a total centralized monopoly of violence. Rifles, the weapon of choice for such a long time, are now mere toys. The question of arming the population is irrelevant in the era of fighter jets and bombs. As things like drones and other electronic warfare come online, there will be need for less and less men controlling them. While this isn’t the same kind of concentration of power Mills is talking about (the average military man is not an elite) it does paint a stunningly similar picture of concentration of (hard) power.

Chapter nine continues looking at the military ascendancy of the warlords. The conclusion is that the military are fast becoming part of the elite. Their goals are coinciding with politics, the very rich, the executives, and economics in general.

In 1956 almost half of the ambassadors came from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and prep schools. This, of course, is the typical path of the very rich. Similar infiltration has occurred as the standards previously required for high level government and State Dept. positions have been reduced. While one might consider the Ivy League schools to be high standards, this is simply not the case. Though I am unable to speak for 1956, modern times shows that money begets admittance to these so-called prestigious schools. That isn’t to say all the students attending are dull, but that intelligence and ability are requirements that can be shirked via money and influence.

In other schools, the military has essentially taken over scientific research. Its budget more than all American research put together, dollar-wise. Universities are, in many cases, merely financial branches of the military, getting sometime 80% of their income in military grants circa 1956. The same as it ever was.

This understanding spills over into the general economy. There is no aspect of the economy where the military hasn’t wrangled its way in permanent war economy. The scariest thing to officials is not war, it is peace. Consider how much is spent on military contracting and then rebuilding, not to mention all of the support and infrastructure, often manned by civilians, required to keep the whole military industrial complex humming along. There is a reason why the Pentagon “can’t” be audited.

In chapter ten Mills expounds on how less and less the political elite serve at a local or state level. More are entering at the national level directly, often with little or no political experience. This is completely the opposite of how it was in the era of the founding fathers. More and more are not even elected, they are appointed. Political outsiders, mostly of the corporate type, have taken over the political executive posts. All of this is no more than another aspect of bureaucratization.

Chapter eleven starts looking at the lie that has been sold to the American people: the idea that America is ruled by the people, that there are many competing interest groups, in the economic and political realms, that there is a kind of balance of power keeping them all in check.

Few look beyond the public relations statements, which they take as true, to understand what is happening in secret or how the groups in question interact in a hierarchy of power.

How can such a lie sustain itself? Up to the Civil War, 4/5th of the white, free population were independent proprietors (Jeffersonian), but that declined after the war as corporate power came into focus. The middle class moved from largely independent to dependent, white-collar, workers.

The new working middle class has no political influence, they are held together by corporate authority. They are, in fact, worse off than the lower class since the lower class are at least organized.

The checks and balances only work with a preexisting balanced social structure and balance state. Since the lobby has become the government, since the very rich have taken over, there are no longer checks and balances. There are no longer competing interests. The very rich, the corporate rich, and the (rich) warlords have merged.

From here Mills produces in the last four chapters, in my opinion the best part of this work. He looks pragmatically at the effects his country is under, holding back none of his emotions. While this does remove the objectivity one might crave in a political work, I think that emotion, particularly anger, is exactly what one should be feeling, whether in 1956 or 2018. In the afterword, by Alan Wolfe, there is a criticism of the second part of this book. I think Mr. Wolfe, from Chicago University, is trying to control the interpretation of a book that itself calls out such academics for not being able to see beyond their ivory towers.

Chapter twelve begins by enumerating the 4 epochs of the power elite. We are now in the 5th, as of 1956.

In the first epoch we find the time between the American Revolution and John Adams. This period shows little to no unification. The second epoch begins in the early 19th century and includes Jeffersonian politics and Hamiltonian economics. In this second epoch the overlap of power begins. The Federalists become the Democrats and Republicans. The military is a secondary concern. The third epoch begins in 1886 with the 14th amendment protecting corporations. The shift from government to corporate power begins. The military is still secondary. This third era also includes the likes of post-Civil War trusts, robber barons, muckrakers, and corporations beginning to regulate government. It last until about 1920 and the New Deal. The fourth epoch, starting with the New Deal, does nothing to reverse the trend of political-economic relations. There is a struggle between large and small property owners, labor begins to organize, and the lower class still has a bit of influence. There is a degree of a welfare state and favors for all while still trying to maintain some kind of balance in the status quo.

Since WW2 until this book (1956) we were in the fifth era. Here we see the government and corporate worlds intertwine, the military entering the elite, and the ruling class lashing themselves together by ‘class consciousness’ more than heredity, ala the aristocracy. These so-called elites have the same view, developed in their similar upbringings, often centered around prep and ivy leagues. There is a little conflict in these upper echelons of power, money, and influence, but in the end the know they are all in it together when they say of those they disagree with: he is one of us.

During this period the elite are still men of honor, but the code of honor they follow is such that they protect their interests. They often believe what they are doing is for the best even when the masses protest. This is poignant, they think they know better than everyone. They ooze chutzpa. Hubris en extremis.

Mills makes clear that his criticism is not an attack on their honor, but an attack on their code.

The core of this power elite changes ever so slowly. They are, again, not all friends but they are in it together. The surrounding fringe, who essentially server the core, changes with more regularity.

On the question of how this came to be, I’ll let Mills speak for himself.

The conception of the power elite, accordingly, does not rest upon the assumption that American history since the origins of World War II must be understood as a secret plot, or as a great and co-ordinated conspiracy of the members of this elite. The conception rests upon quite impersonal grounds.

There is, however, little doubt that the American power elite—which contains, we are told, some of ‘the greatest organizers in the world’—has also planned and has plotted. The rise of the elite, as we have already made clear, was not and could not have been caused by a plot; and the tenability of the conception does not rest upon the existence of any secret or any publicly known organization. But, once the conjunction of structural trend and of the personal will to utilize it gave rise to the power elite, then plans and programs did occur to its members and indeed it is not possible to interpret many events and official policies of the fifth epoch without reference to the power elite. ‘There is a great difference,’ Richard Hofstadter has remarked, ‘between locating conspiracies in history and saying that history is, in effect, a conspiracy … ’ 16

Here I disagree, there is most certainly secretive and public groups constantly conspiring. Do the get everything they want? Doubtfully. But over time they seem to get more and more of what they want. To dismiss things, or not mention them at all, like the Rhodes and Milner groups is a great disservice to the would-be understander of history. The author even says “there is little doubt that the power elite has planned and plotted,” and then simply dismisses his own statement.

There is accordingly reason to suspect—but by the nature of the case, no proof —that the power elite is not altogether ‘surfaced.’ There is nothing hidden about it, although its activities are not publicized. As an elite, it is not organized, although its members often know one another, seem quite naturally to work together, and share many organizations in common. There is nothing conspiratorial about it, although its decisions are often publicly unknown and its mode of operation manipulative rather than explicit.

This IS organization, though not of the top down kind a 1950’s mind would be looking for. This is the decentralized, graph theory, based kind of organization. Terrorist cells, so we are told, would operate this way. There is no close-knit organization, but a loose collection of cells all with the same general aim. We would call this a terrorist NETWORK today. What different between a terrorist network and a power elite network? Both work semi-independently toward a common goal, sometimes in very different, if not conflicting, ways.

Chapter thirteen examines the public, education, and how, theoretically, democratic society works.

In the democratic society of publics it was assumed that before public action would be taken, there would be rational discussion between individuals which would determine the action, and that, accordingly, the public opinion that resulted would be the infallible voice of reason. But this has been challenged not only (1) by the assumed need for experts to decide delicate and intricate issues, but (2) by the discovery—as by Freud—of the irrationality of the man in the street, and (3) by the discovery—as by Marx—of the socially conditioned nature of what was once assumed to be autonomous reason.

The “irrationality of the man in the street” is revealing. While I would mostly agree that experts are required to decide technical issues, and social conditioning plays an inordinate role in the decision making process for most people, Mills reveals his juxtaposing the man in the street to the ’educated’ men, of which he is a member of. Further, are the experts and men at the top (as opposed to in the street) purely rational? Are they not as affect by social conditioning, which Mills shows in the first half of the book, as the rest of us? Their biases may be different, but they are still biases.

From here Mills concludes that the public has become nothing more than a mass. This has happened primarily through communication asymmetry. At one extreme end of communication you have two people talking to one another. At the other extreme one spokesperson is speaking to millions; mass media. In the latter there is little to no flow of public opinion back to the speaker. Communication becomes a one way street.

The rules for who can speak and what they can say may be formal or informal. Anyone can certainly speak with anyone else, but Joe Average isn’t ever going to get a national platform, not that it is illegal, but the system is built, informally, to prevent it.

The Internet is interesting to look at in the regard, but I still think it is more confusion than real discourse. While it is formally possible to have a ’nobody’ reach the masses via the Internet, informally, like most other mass media it is unlikely. Couple this with the decades long drive towards more hedonistic outlooks and you see most people navigating to funny or exciting pages rather than of places of true communication.

Mills goes on to define a mass as a centralized expression consisting of more passive consumers. “Passive consumers”, need I say more?

Conversely a public is defined, by Mills, as a society in which people can all readily communicate to exchange opinions and ideas.

Again, we are free to communicate, but the social conditioning has left us unwilling or unable to communicate effectively nor focus on ‘real’ issues. Banal left/right dichotomies are trotted out ad nauseam while real ‘bipartisan’ issues, say, for example decaying infrastructure, suicide rates, and drug overdoses, are left to the conspiracy theorists.

How do you move from a public to a mass? Education. Education used to be liberal, as in liberating the mind, not the modern liberal as progressive meaning. Education was used for creating thoughtful citizens. Now it prepares you with job skills, merely vocational. Even further, modern education has taken up the mantle of social justice, moving a second step away from liberating minds and a first step from vocational training into full-scale indoctrination. This, it seems, is part of a feedback loop created by the aforementioned social conditioning.

All of this leads to a sort of mental divide and conquer. Whereas cities physically segregate people into milieux, education segregates us in opinion. A difference of opinion or values is now seen as rude. Today, you are more likely to be shouted down for expressing even the tamest of dissent than the be listened to, and responded to, critically.

This all leads to further segregation as people choose to associate with similar people. The same follows when people choose the media that fits their bias. Today this is self-selection bias is represented by so-called echo chambers.

The total result of this divisiveness and fracturing of society is that man loses his ability to be independent. He is driven by media, advertising, propaganda. Worse still, man loses the ability to even think about his position, his (lack of) independence, giving himself over to the mass produced world around him, focusing on the near-term: what can he get, as easy as possible that will make him happy (at least temporarily, though he never realizes the fleeting nature of this). As the generations pass, the ability to even consider this lack of independence disappears and we are left with the aforementioned passive consumers dead set in their belief that their ability to purchase 100 styles of jeans, to tune into 1000 television channels, or to dress in a way that conforms to one of the ever shifting fashion of cliques is testament to their (unconsidered) independence.

All of this can be succinctly summarized:

The top is coalescing into a unified power.
The middle is fragmenting into mass.
The bottom is already mass society.

Chapter fourteen looks at what is essentially the end of conservatism. There was, in 1956 and according to Mills, no more model of conservatism. There was no holdovers from a Feudal era like Europe had. This lack of ideology was no problem at all, since the elite follow no such ideologies. One could say their ideology is nothing more than pragmatism. This lets them jabber in liberalisms that are nothing more than hollow words uttered to appeal to the masses. A belief in this hollow ideology is created by hired academic hacks and public relations firms.

Those who espoused true conservatism may look for an aristocracy, but, since on can not be found, they turn to reinventing it as the ‘spirit of aristocracy, removing this faux-aristocracy from any actual social conditions. Sometimes they would go so far as to claim this new aristocracy was classless! The end result is a non-result; nothing more than a pipe dream support by ivory tower professors, hired by the very rich to keep true conservatives chasing their tails.

All the while, the eroding effect of liberalism takes it toll on the masses. More time is spent defending civil liberties than using them. They’ve become something you lock away and protect, like a deed or bond. Here again Mills shows his foresight. Today we have everything from the ACLU and Black Lives Matter to anti-fa protesting this that and the other thing, while not actually doing anything to create the better world they want. They protest, I assume, because that is what they were taught. They think marching and holding signs is somehow a counter to the real power holders. They, likely, were taught that there is a balance of power and if they make their ‘powerful’ voices heard, those in actual power will change.

Liberalism as a social theory rests on the notion of a society in automatic balance.11

Nothing could be further from the truth.

in postwar America mind has been divorced from reality.

What we actually have, and had since at least 1956, is a mass of useful idiots.

The right has been doing the liberal work on the middle levels, unknowingly, for decades. The left has been used as a battering ram to keep moving the goal posts, the conversation, the narrative, further left. The right concedes here and there and, over time, the whole left/right paradigm -flawed as it is- shifts.

This leads to a constant tension between those in the middle-classes. They see things only getting worse and often disengage into the immoral depravities that the high-class promote though said liberalism; sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. After decades of this, the results are staring us in the face. The masses are more interested in status and petty immoralities (sex scandals, etc) than pragmatic issues, even when they have very real effects directly on them. I look again at the crumbling infrastructure all across the country. The lead in so many of our pipes/drinking water is diabolic, yet the very people drinking said poison don’t know or care half as much about what they are putting in their bodies as what their favorite team or celebrity is doing. This leads smoothly into the next chapter.

Corruption as a feature, not a bug, is looked at in chapter fifteen. You may have corrupt individuals and you may have corrupt organizations. I imagine most would agree that latter worse. A corrupt individual, in a sound organization may be harmful, but may also be ferreted out. In fact, if the organization is sound, the removal of corruption would likely occur. On the other hand, a sound individual in a corrupt organization can be removed in the same manner. Worse still is that the corrupt organization may serve to corrupt the sound individual or even create an environment that breed more corruption. Sound individuals will soon find no place among such corrupt organization and will be force to follow the age old: if you can’t beat them, join them.

The business world is such a corrupt ‘organization’. Businessmen are expected to try to ‘cheat’ to get ahead. The regulating factor, usually a government, doling out penalties that pale in comparison reinforces this cheat-if-you-can-and-take-a-slap-on-the-wrist-if-caught mentality.

Of course, with the revolving door between business and politics, this should come as no surprise. What originally started as businesses trying to get ahead, however cutthroat they might need to behave, has spilled over into politics. One blatant example of this is regulatory capture. From there the dog-eat-dog mentality spilled over from politics into the street where it was adopted by the common man. The end result is that cheating the law is bad, but getting away with it is smart.

Those that have reached these higher echelons have created a myth, the myth of the self made man, to justify their goings-on and positions. This mythical man is created by a criteria of those that came before him. When trying to fit in, no matter the context, the existing structure will influence how you develop. Even if the so-called self made man pulls himself up, he is doing so in a preexisting culture. A simple example can be seen in art. A few artists may have blazed paths centuries ago, but many more followed along, regurgitating the same-old art. Modern rock music, for example, was greatly influenced by the 60’s rock idols. These rock idols can trace their roots back to jazz. The trail continues farther and farther back. Movies follow the same path.

This is important to understand because the elite shape not only their own milieu, but those of everyone below them, consciously or not (I would argue very consciously). An idea can be introduced by patronizing a few chose artists. The masses will rehash the same idea, unwittingly carrying water, spreading the oligarchical ideas the whole time.

A simple example of this can be seen in the current influx of movies dealing with artificial intelligence. If, playing the role of an elite, I would want to introduce people to the concept of A.I., of superior intelligence, of true artificial consciousness, what better way than to promote A.I. and all of its trappings in the cinema? First promote your ‘original’ work and show the world that it is a (manufactured) success. Other writers and directors, completely devoid of any direct influence, will see that movies featuring A.I. are selling. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the success will be emulated, further spreading the idea -in this case A.I., but it could be anything. Another example that follow the same pattern we see in Western media endlessly? LGBT. Without being pro- or con-, it is easy to see that LGBT is overrepresented when it comes to television and Hollywood. Why? Probably because the elite want to introduce this idea to the masses. Why? I would say, without straying too much from power, that promoting LGBT will result in less babies, which will result in a lower population. Call it soft eugenics.

Getting back on track, we can see modern validity in the next two statements by Mills:

Knowledge is no longer widely felt as an ideal; it is seen as an instrument. In a society of power and wealth, knowledge is valued as an instrument of power and wealth, and also, of course, as an ornament in conversation.

Today this manifests as vocational training in school. Ask a student or their parents what school is for. They will tell you to get into a good college. Ask them what college is for. To get a good job. What is a good job for? To earn lots of money. What is money for? To buy stuff. Maybe this is a bit callous, but on the whole it is true. You’d rarely hear an answer about developing as an individual or understanding (even experiencing) the splendor world. Occasionally you may stumble upon someone who has a goal of starting a family, though that is waning in recent years.

‘Bad men increase in knowledge as fast as good men,’ John Adams wrote [in 1790], ‘and science, arts, taste, sense and letters, are employed for the purpose of injustice as well as for virtue.’9

This again is common to see today. The true men of knowledge become consultants to those of power, often unwillingly, because of need for a job/money.

The most important aspect of the book, equally as valid a criticism today, is given near the end of the book:

The height of such mindless communications to masses, or what are thought to be masses, is probably the demagogic assumption that suspicion and accusation, if repeated often enough, somehow equal proof of guilt—just as repeated claims about toothpaste or brands of cigarettes are assumed to equal facts. The greatest kind of propaganda with which America is beset, the greatest at least in terms of volume and loudness, is commercial propaganda for soap and cigarettes and automobiles; it is to such things, or rather to Their Names, that this society most frequently sings its loudest praises.

In short, propaganda is what has allowed the influencers to amplify their influence to the point of almost total opaque control.

There is a lengthy afterword by Alan Wolfe. It praises and criticizes simultaneously in what feels to me a kind of controlled opposition. He does hail from Chicago University… Some of his arguments were valid in the late 90s, but 20 years later I’d say Mills was spot on, if very early to the party.

Further Reading

Exceptional Excepts

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. Religious institutions provide chaplains to the armed forces where they are used as a means of increasing the effectiveness of its morale to kill. Schools select and train men for their jobs in corporations and their specialized tasks in the armed forces. The extended family has, of course, long been broken up by the industrial revolution, and now the son and the father are removed from the family, by compulsion if need be, whenever the army of the state sends out the call.

If the centralized state could not rely upon the inculcation of nationalist loyalties in public and private schools, its leaders would promptly seek to modify the decentralized educational system. If the bankruptcy rate among the top five hundred corporations were as high as the general divorce rate among the thirty-seven million married couples, there would be economic catastrophe on an international scale.

The economy—once a great scatter of small productive units in autonomous balance—has become dominated by two or three hundred giant corporations, administratively and politically interrelated, which together hold the keys to economic decisions.

When numerous small entrepreneurs made up the economy, for example, many of them could fail and the consequences still remain local; political and military authorities did not intervene. But now, given political expectations and military commitments, can they afford to allow key units of the private corporate economy to break down in slump? Increasingly, they do intervene in economic affairs, and as they do so, the controlling decisions in each order are inspected by agents of the other two, and economic, military, and political structures are interlocked.

Such an elite may be conceived as omnipotent, and its powers thought of as a great hidden design. Thus, in vulgar Marxism, events and trends are explained by reference to ‘the will of the bourgeoisie’; in Nazism, by reference to ‘the conspiracy of the Jews’; by the petty right in America today, by reference to ‘the hidden force’ of Communist spies.

the prestige system of American society has now for the first time become truly national in scope; and that the more trivial and glamorous aspects of this national system of status tend at once to distract attention from its more authoritarian features and to justify the power that it often conceals.

The school-rather than the upper-class family—is the most important agency for transmitting the traditions of the upper social classes, and regulating the admission of new wealth and talent.

This world, [celebrity] which is now the American forum of public honor, has not been built from below, as a slow and steady linking of local societies and metropolitan 400’s. It has been created from above. Based upon nation-wide hierarchies of power and wealth, it is expressed by nation-wide means of mass communication.

The professional celebrity, male and female, is the crowning result of the star system of a society that makes a fetish of competition. In America, this system is carried to the point where a man who can knock a small white ball into a series of holes in the ground with more efficiency and skill than anyone else thereby gains social access to the President of the United States. It is carried to the point where a chattering radio and television entertainer becomes the hunting chum of leading industrial executives, cabinet members, and the higher military. It does not seem to matter what the man is the very best at; so long as he has won out in competition over all others, he is celebrated.

Some debutantes of the ’thirties tried to compete with Hollywood. They hired press agents who saw to it that their pictures were in the newspapers and articles about them were printed in the national magazines. The ’trick,’ Elsa Maxwell has said, was ’to look so bizarre and so extreme that the truck drivers gasp but the ever-present cameraman will be bound to flash a bulb.’ 17

Yet prestige is the shadow of money and power.

As military men have become more powerful during the wars and during the war-like interludes between, they too have joined the new national prestige scheme. They, as well as policemen, derive such importance as they have from the simple fact that violence is the final support of power and the final resort of those who would contest it. Only when revolution or crime threaten to disturb domestic order does the police captain, and only when diplomacy and war threaten international order, do the generals and admirals, come to be recognized for what at all times they are: indispensable elements of the order of power that prevails within and between the national states of the world.

through the magnifying glass of the mass media, men and women now form a kaleidoscope of highly distracting images

Many modern theories of industrial development stress technological developments, but the number of inventors among the very rich is so small as to be unappreciable. It is, as a matter of fact, not the far-seeing inventor or the captain of industry but the general of finance who becomes one of the very rich. That is one of the errors in Schumpeter’s idea of the ‘gale of innovations’: he systematically confuses technological gain with financial manipulation. What is needed, as Frederick Lewis Allen once remarked, is ‘not specialized knowledge, but persuasive salesmanship, coupled with the ability to command the millions and the investment-sales machinery of a large banking house, and to command also the services of astute corporation lawyers and stock-market operators.’ 4

It had cost some $40 billion to build all the manufacturing facilities existing in the United States in 1939. By 1945, an additional $26 billion worth of high quality new plant and equipment had been added—two thirds of it paid for directly from government funds. Some 20 of this $26 billion worth was usable for producing peacetime products. If to the $40 billion existing, we add this $20 billion, we have a $60 billion productive plan usable in the postwar period. The top 250 corporations owned in 1939 about 65 per cent of the facilities then existing, operated during the war 79 per cent of all new privately operated facilities built with government money, and held 78 per cent of all active prime war supply contracts as of September 1944. 6 No wonder that in World War II, little fortunes became big and many new little ones were created.

I. No man, to my knowledge has ever entered the ranks of the great American fortunes merely by saving a surplus from his salary or wages. In one way or another, he has to come into command of a strategic position which allows him the chance to appropriate big money, and usually he has to have available a considerable sum of money in order to be able to parlay it into really big wealth. He may work and slowly accumulate up to this big jump, but at some point he must find himself in a position to take up the main chance for which he has been on the lookout. On a salary of two or three hundred thousand a year, even forgetting taxes, and living like a miser in a board shack, it has been mathematically impossible to save up a great American fortune.*

What has happened is that the very rich are not so visible as they once seemed, to observers of the muckraker age, for example—who provided the last really public view of the top of American society. The absence of systematic information and the distraction of ‘human-interest’ trivia tend to make us suppose that they do not really matter and even that they do not really exist. But they are still very much among us—even though many are hidden, as it were, in the impersonal organizations in which their power, their wealth, and their privileges are anchored.

The six and a half million people who owned stock in publicly held corporations in 1952 made up less than 7 per cent of all adults in the population. 6 But that is not the whole story; in fact, by itself, it is misleading. What is important is, first, what types of people own any stock? And second, how concentrated is the value of the stock they own?

First of all: 45 per cent of the executives, 26 per cent of all professional persons, and 19 per cent of all supervisory officials hold stock. But only 0.2 per cent of the unskilled workers, 1.4 per cent of the semi-skilled workers, and 4.4 per cent of foremen and skilled workers hold stock. 7 Some 98.6 per cent of all workers in manufacturing own no stock whatsoever.

Second, in 1952, only 1.6 million (25 per cent) of the 6.5 million people who held any stock received as much as $10,000 per year from any and all sources. We do not know how much of that $10,000 came from dividends, but there is reason to believe that the average proportion was not great. 8 In 1949, some 165,000 about one-tenth of 1 per cent of all U.S. adults—received 42 per cent of all the corporate dividends going to individuals. The minimum income of these people for that year was $30,000. 9 The idea of a really wide distribution of economic ownership is a cultivated illusion: at the very most, 0.2 or 0.3 per cent of the adult population own the bulk, the pay-off shares, of the corporate world.

What the business liberals represent is the outlook and the interests of the newer propertied class as a whole. They are ‘sophisticated’ because they are more flexible in adjusting to such political facts of life as the New Deal and big labor, because they have taken over and used the dominant liberal rhetoric for their own purposes

It is not characteristic of American executives to read books, except books on ‘management’ and mysteries; ‘The majority of top executives almost never read drama, great fiction, the philosophers, the poets. Those who do venture into this area … are definitely sports of the executive type, looked upon by their colleagues with mingled awe and incredulity.’ 25 Executive circles do not overlap very much with those of artistic or literary interest. Among them are those who resent reading a report or a letter longer than one page, such avoidance of words being rather general. They seem somehow suspicious of long-winded speeches, except when they are the speakers, and they do not, of course, have the time. They are very much of the age of the ‘briefing,’ of the digest, of the two-paragraph memo. Such reading as they do, they often delegate to others, who clip and summarize for them. They are talkers and listeners rather than readers or writers. They pick up much of what they know at the conference table and from friends in other fields.

The ‘running’ of a large business consists essentially of getting somebody to make something which somebody else will sell to somebody else for more than it costs.

War is of course the health of the corporate economy; during war the political economy tends to become more unified, and moreover, political legitimations of the most unquestionable sort—national security itself—are gained for corporate economic activities.

All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence. Why, then, is not military dictatorship the normal and usual form of government?

for the first time in American history, men in authority are talking about an ‘emergency’ without a foreseeable end. During modern times, and especially in the United States, men had come to look upon history as a peaceful continuum interrupted by war. But now, the American elite does not have any real image of peace—other than as an uneasy interlude existing precariously by virtue of the balance of mutual fright. The only seriously accepted plan for ‘peace’ is the fully loaded pistol. In short, war or a high state of war preparedness is felt to be the normal and seemingly permanent condition of the United States.

Given the means of violence that now exist, ‘massive retaliation’ is neither a war plan nor an image of victory, but merely a violent diplomatic—which is to say political—gesture and a recognition that all-out war between two nations has now become the means of their mutual destruction. The position amounts to this: with war all nations may fall, so in their mutual fright of war, they survive. Peace is a mutual fright, a balance of armed fear.

A recent member of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department wrote: ‘One hopes that the American public will see at last that the word “security” has become a euphemism. It covers the primitive political drive of the last five years to eliminate intellectual and moral distinction from the Government service, and to staff the Government instead with political good fellows who cannot be suspected of superiority. Under the reorganized Foreign Service, for example, educational standards for admission are being avowedly lowered. It is as if the mediocrity of the mindless has become the ideal.’ 26

‘What officials fear more than dateless war in Korea,’ Arthur Krock reported in April of 1953, ‘is peace … The vision of peace which could lure the free world into letting down its guard, and demolishing the slow and costly process ofbuilding collective security in western Europe while the Soviets maintained and increased their military power, is enough to make men in office indecisive. And the stock market selling that followed the sudden conciliatory overtures from the Kremlin supports the thesis that immediate prosperity in this country is linked to a war economy and suggests desperate economic problems that may arise on the home front.’ 45

The warlords, along with fellow travelers and spokesmen, are attempting to plant their metaphysics firmly among the population at large.

Daily, in war and in peace, they [the military] release items and stories to the press and to the three or four dozen newsmen housed in the newsroom of the Pentagon. They prepare scripts, make recordings, and take pictures for radio and TV outlets; they maintain the largest motion-picture studio in the East, bought from Paramount in 1942. They are ready to serve magazine editors with prepared copy. They arrange speaking engagements for military personnel and provide the speeches. They establish liaison with important national organizations, and arrange orientation conferences and field trips for their leaders, as well as for executives and key people in the business, the educational, the religious, the entertainment worlds. They have arranged, in some 600 communities, ‘advisory committees’ which open the way to their messages and advise them of unfavorable reactions. 56

The cost of this program varies from year to year, but interested Senators have estimated it as between $5 million and $12 million. Such estimates, however, mean little, for the position of the military is such that they were able to enjoy, during one twelve-month period, some $30 million worth of motion pictures, which they co-operated in producing; obtain millions of dollars worth of free time on TV, and, according to Variety’s estimate, about $6 million of free radio time.

tendency in a mass society for manipulation to replace explicitly debated authority

But it confuses, indeed it does not even distinguish between the top, the middle, and the bottom levels of power. In fact, the strategy of all such romantic pluralism, with its image of a semi-organized stalemate, is rather clear: You elaborate the number of groups involved, in a kind of bewildering, Whitmanesque enthusiasm for variety. Indeed, what group fails to qualify as a ‘veto group’? You do not try to clarify the hodge-podge by classifying these groups, occupations, strata, organizations according to their political relevance or even according to whether they are organized politically at all. You do not try to see how they may be connected with one another into a structure of power, for by virtue of his perspective, the romantic conservative focuses upon a scatter of milieux rather than upon their connections within a structure of power. And you do not consider the possibility of any community of interests among the top groups. You do not connect all these milieux and miscellaneous groups with the big decisions: you do not ask and answer with historical detail: exactly what, directly or indirectly, did ‘small retailers’ or ‘brick masons’ have to do with the sequence of decision and event that led to World War II? What did ‘insurance agents,’ or for that matter, the Congress, have to do with the decision to make or not to make, to drop or not to drop, the early model of the new weapon? Moreover, you take seriously the public-relations-minded statements of the leaders of all groups, strata, and blocs, and thus confuse psychological uneasiness with the facts of power and policy. So long as power is not nakedly displayed, it must not be power. And of course you do not consider the difficulties posed for you as an observer by the fact of secrecy, official and otherwise.

In fact, his parochialism is in some cases so intense that as a local candidate he may even invite and collect for local display an assortment of out-of-state attacks upon him, thus turning his campaign into a crusade of the sovereign locality against national outsiders. 20

Political freedom and economic security were anchored in the fact of small-scale and independent properties; they are not anchored in the job world of the new middle class. Scattered properties, and their holders, were integrated economically by free and autonomous markets; the jobs of the new middle class are integrated by corporate authority. The white-collar middle classes do not form an independent base of power: economically, they are in the same situation as property-less wage workers; politically they are in a worse condition, for they are not as organized.

There is nothing magical or eternal about checks and balances. In time of revolution, checks and balances may be significant as a restraint upon unorganized and organized masses. In time of rigid dictatorship, they may be significant as a technique of divide and rule. Only under a state which is already quite well balanced, and which has under it a balanced social structure, do checks and balances mean a restraint upon the rulers.

The supremacy of corporate economic power began, in a formal way, with the Congressional elections of 1866, and was consolidated by the Supreme Court decision of 1886 which declared that the Fourteenth Amendment protected the corporation. That period witnessed the transfer of the center of initiative from government to corporation.

The ‘welfare state,’ created to sustain the balance and to carry out the subsidy, differed from the ‘laissez-faire’ state: ‘If the state was believed neutral in the days of T.R. because its leaders claimed to sanction favors for no one,’ Richard Hofstadter has remarked, ‘the state under F.D.R. could be called neutral only in the sense that it offered favors to everyone.’ 7

Neither the idea of a ‘ruling class’ nor of a simple monolithic rise of ‘bureaucratic politicians’ nor of a ‘military clique’ is adequate. The power elite today involves the often uneasy coincidence of economic, military, and political power.

But what is honor? Honor can only mean living up to a code that one believes to be honorable.

Since the French Revolution, conservative thinkers have Viewed With Alarm the rise of the public, which they called the masses, or something to that effect. ‘The populace is sovereign, and the tide of barbarism mounts,’ wrote Gustave Le Bon. ‘The divine right of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings,’ and already ‘the destinies of nations are elaborated at present in the heart of the masses, and no longer in the councils of princes.’ 4 During the twentieth century, liberal and even socialist thinkers have followed suit, with more explicit reference to what we have called the society of masses. From Le Bon to Emil Lederer and Ortega y Gasset, they have held that the influence of the mass in unfortunately increasing.

But surely those who have supposed the masses to be all powerful, or at least well on their way to triumph, are wrong. In our time, as Chakhotin knew, the influence of autonomous collectivities within political life is in fact diminishing. 5 Furthermore, such influence as they do have is guided; they must now be seen not as publics acting autonomously, but as masses manipulated at focal points into crowds of demonstrators. For as publics become masses, masses sometimes become crowds; and, in crowds, the psychical rape by the mass media is supplemented up-close by the harsh and sudden harangue. Then the people in the crowd disperse again—as atomized and submissive masses.

With the broadening of the base of politics within the context of a folk-lore of democratic decision-making, and with the increased means of mass persuasion that are available, the public of public opinion has become the object of intensive efforts to control, manage, manipulate, and increasingly intimidate.

in addition to their enlarged and centralized means of administration, exploitation, and violence, the modern elite have had placed within their grasp historically unique instruments of psychic management and manipulation, which include universal compulsory education as well as the media of mass communication.

we must recognize that ‘the common sense’ of our children is going to be less the result of any firm social tradition than of the stereotypes carried by the mass media to which they are now so fully exposed.

III. The media have not only filtered into our experience of external realities, they have also entered into our very experience of our own selves. They have provided us with new identities and new aspirations of what we should like to be, and what we should like to appear to be. They have provided in the models of conduct they hold out to us a new and larger and more flexible set of appraisals of our very selves.

IV. As they now generally prevail, the mass media, especially television, often encroach upon the small-scale discussion, and destroy the chance for the reasonable and leisurely and human interchange of opinion. They are an important cause of the destruction of privacy in its full human meaning. That is an important reason why they not only fail as an educational force, but are a malign force:

Alongside or just below the elite, there is the propagandist, the publicity expert, the public-relations man, who would control the very formation of public opinion in order to be able to include it as one more pacified item in calculations of effective power, increased prestige, more secure wealth.

mass education, in many respects, has become—another mass medium.

The prime task of public education, as it came widely to be understood in this country, was political: to make the citizen more knowledgeable and thus better able to think and to judge of public affairs. In time, the function of education shifted from the political to the economic: to train people for better-paying jobs and thus to get ahead. This is especially true of the high-school movement, which has met the business demands for white-collar skills at the public’s expense. In large part education has become merely vocational; in so far as its political task is concerned, in many schools, that has been reduced to a routine training of nationalist loyalties.

The training of skills that are of more or less direct use in the vocational life is an important task to perform, but ought not to be mistaken for liberal education: job advancement, no matter on what levels, is not the same as self development, although the two are now systematically confused. 10 Among ‘skills,’ some are more and some are less relevant to the aims ofliberal—that is to say, liberating—education.

The knowledgeable man in the genuine public is able to turn his personal troubles into social issues, to see their relevance for his community and his community’s relevance for them. He understands that what he thinks and feels as personal troubles are very often not only that but problems shared by others and indeed not subject to solution by any one individual but only by modifications of the structure of the groups in which he lives and sometimes the structure of the entire society.

It is the task of the liberal institution, as of the liberally educated man, continually to translate troubles into issues and issues into the terms of their human meaning for the individual.

in the hands of ‘professional educators,’ many schools have come to operate on an ideology of ‘life adjustment’ that encourages happy acceptance of mass ways of life rather than the struggle for individual and public transcendence. *

People, we know, tend to select those formal media which confirm what they already believe and enjoy. In a parallel way, they tend in the metropolitan segregation to come into live touch with those whose opinions are similar to theirs. Others they tend to treat unseriously.

Liberalism as a social theory rests on the notion of a society in automatic balance. 11

in postwar America mind has been divorced from reality.

Given the state of the mass society, we should not expect anything else. Most of its members are distracted by status, by the disclosures of pettier immortalities, and by that Machiavellianism-for the-little-man that is the death of political insurgency.

‘Crisis’ is a bankrupted term, because so many men in high places have evoked it in order to cover up their extraordinary policies and deeds; as a matter of fact, it is precisely the absence of crises that is a cardinal feature of the higher immorality.

A society that is in its higher circles and on its middle levels widely believed to be a network of smart rackets does not produce men with an inner moral sense; a society that is merely expedient does not produce men of conscience. A society that narrows the meaning of ‘success’ to the big money and in its terms condemns failure as the chief vice, raising money to the plane of absolute value, will produce the sharp operator and the shady deal.

‘Nothing is more revealing,’ James Reston has written, ‘than to read the debate in the House of Representatives in the Eighteen Thirties on Greece’s fight with Turkey for independence and the Greek-Turkish debate in the Congress in 1947. The first is dignified and eloquent, the argument marching from principle through illustration to conclusion; the second is a dreary garble of debating points, full of irrelevancies and bad history.’ 6

Knowledge is no longer widely felt as an ideal; it is seen as an instrument. In a society of power and wealth, knowledge is valued as an instrument of power and wealth, and also, of course, as an ornament in conversation.

‘Bad men increase in knowledge as fast as good men,’ John Adams wrote, ‘and science, arts, taste, sense and letters, are employed for the purpose of injustice as well as for virtue.’ 9 That was in 1790

The height of such mindless communications to masses, or what are thought to be masses, is probably the demagogic assumption that suspicion and accusation, if repeated often enough, somehow equal proof of guilt—just as repeated claims about toothpaste or brands of cigarettes are assumed to equal facts. The greatest kind of propaganda with which America is beset, the greatest at least in terms of volume and loudness, is commercial propaganda for soap and cigarettes and automobiles; it is to such things, or rather to Their Names, that this society most frequently sings its loudest praises.

Table of Contents

· 01: The Higher Circles

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page 14:
page 15:
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page 22:
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· 02: Local Society

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· 03: Metropolitan 400

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· 04: The Celebrities

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· 05: The Very Rich

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· 06: The Chief Executives

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· 07: The Corporate Rich

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· 08: The Warlords

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· 09: The Military Ascendancy

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· 10: The Political Directorate

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· 11: The Theory of Balance

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· 12: The Power Elite

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· 13: The Mass Society

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· 14: The Conservative Mood

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· 15: The Higher Immorality

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· Afterword: by Alan Wolfe

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