June 19, 2013
A Tribute to One of Occupy’s Intellectual Predecessors
Posted on Feb 29, 2012
By Peter Dreier, Truthout
This piece originally appeared at Truthout.
C. Wright Mills, the radical Columbia University sociologist who died 50 years ago (March 20, 1962) at age 45, would have loved Occupy Wall Street. In the 1950s, when most college professors were cautious about their political views and lifestyles, Mills rode a motorcycle to work; wore plaid shirts, jeans and work boots instead of flannel suits; built his house with his own hands; and, in a torrent of books and articles, warned that America was becoming a nation of “cheerful robots,” heading toward a third world war and was being corrupted by an economic elite.
In three books published between 1948 and 1956—“The New Men of Power,” “White Collar” and “The Power Elite”—Mills challenged the widely held belief that American society, having triumphed over the fundamental problems of the 20th century (depression, war and fascism) had become a model of economic success, political democracy and social well-being. At a time when social scientists and journalists were extolling America’s post-World War II prosperity, Mills warned about the dangers of the growing concentration of wealth and power.
Mills’ most influential book, “The Power Elite,” published in 1956, challenged the predominant view that America was a classless society and that all segments of society—farmers, workers, middle-class consumers, small business and big business—had an equal voice in its democracy. Instead, he described the power structure created by overlapping circles of business, military and political leaders whose big decisions determined the nation’s destiny, including war and peace.
The academic and media establishment attacked Mills’ caustic critique of what he called the “American celebration.” His was a lonely voice among academic sociologists, but his books sold well, suggesting that at least some Americans were not happy with the postwar status quo. His writings eventually struck a chord with a significant segment of the American public and with the small but growing radical movement on college campuses. In a 1961 article, “Who Are the Student Boat-rockers?” in Mademoiselle magazine, student activist Tom Hayden listed the three people over 30 whom young radicals most admired. They were Norman Thomas, Michael Harrington and Mills.
Whether they refer to the elite as the “establishment,” the “power structure” or the “top 1 percent,” Americans understand that this concentration of power subverts democracy. They see the revolving door among corporate board rooms, top military brass and the cabinet—exemplified by men like Robert Rubin, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, John Snow, Tim Geithner and John Bryson who served in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. They know that corporate campaign contributions buy access and influence and tilt the political playing field toward big business interests, made worse by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 that individuals and corporations can exercise almost unlimited “free speech” through political donations. The current wave of SuperPACs dominating our elections, funded primarily by millionaires and billionaires, reflects the corruption of democracy by big money.
Growing up in a middle class family, Charles Wright Mills graduated from Dallas Technical High School in 1934. After a year at Texas A&M University, he transferred to the University of Texas, graduating with a degree in philosophy in 1939. He earned his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Wisconsin, where he focused his research on social psychology and social theory. After a brief stint teaching at the University of Maryland, he arrived at Columbia in 1945 to work at the university’s new survey research center and teach sociology. He remained at Columbia until he died of a heart attack in 1962.
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