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A Tribute to One of Occupy’s Intellectual Predecessors

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Posted on Feb 29, 2012
Think-N-Evolve (CC-BY)

C. Wright Mills.

By Peter Dreier, Truthout

(Page 2)

At Columbia, Mills mastered the techniques of social research, particularly the skills of conducting interviews and doing large surveys, which he used to carry out several projects that his senior colleagues suggested. But Mills was restless. He wanted to use his academic perch to reach outside academia, influence public thinking and help build a progressive movement.

In New York City, he met a widening circle of radicals and rebels, like novelist Harvey Swados, critic Dwight McDonald and labor activist J.B.S. Hardman, who expanded Mills’ political horizons. He quickly became what today we call a “public intellectual,” writing essays for progressive and left-wing opinion magazines like the New Republic; The Nation; New Leader; Partisan Review; Dissent; and especially Politics, which criticized America’s warfare state and sought ways to invigorate grassroots democracy.

The country Mills wrote about had overcome the Depression, triumphed over fascism in World War II and was in the midst of an unprecedented economic boom. The gross national product and the standard of living increased rapidly in the postwar decade. A growing number of American families were able afford to move to the suburbs, buy homes, install air conditioners, purchase a new contraption called a television, pay for a new car every few years, take a yearly vacation (and stay at a new phenomenon called a “motel”) and even fly on an airplane. They could send their children to college and save money for a comfortable retirement.

The postwar prosperity was fueled by big government initiatives—a massive national highway-building program; huge subsidies and financial aid to expand the college and university system; federal insurance to increase home building and home buying; and, most importantly, an immense defense budget. All this government spending boosted employment and put money in people’s pockets, stimulating the consumer demand that provided America’s businesses with record profits.

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Business, political, religious and academic leaders justified all this government spending as critical to winning the cold war. Russia, Japan, Germany and the rest of Europe had been destroyed—economically and physically—by the war. The United States, in contrast, was the dominant economic and military superpower in the world. American businesses were able to produce goods—cars, cameras, TVs, movies, blue jeans and sodas—that would sell at home and around the world.

But most business and political leaders warned, all this could end unless the United States was ready to stop the spread of Communism, especially in Europe and the poor nations of the world. American schools and universities had to train the next generation of skilled workers, corporate managers, school teachers and scientists, particularly to compete with Russia, which launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957. We even had to be prepared, if necessary, to fight a war with the Soviet Union.

The vast defense budget—what some called a “permanent war economy”—paid for expensive new weapons systems; military bases around the world; and millions of American civilians and troops employed by the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and private military contractors. At home, the fear of Communists and other radicals led to the hysteria called McCarthyism, led by business groups worried about stronger unions and higher taxes and by politicians who got into office by scaring voters about the Red Menace taking over the public schools, unions, Hollywood and universities.

Mills rebelled against this conventional thinking. In his first few years at Columbia, Mills joined a network of academics who provided research to help union leaders understand the major social and economic changes facing their members. A wave of militant strikes across the country after the war and an increase in union membership gave radicals hope that the labor movement would be in the forefront of progressive change. Mills’ ties to the labor movement led to the first of his major books on what he called the “main drift” of American society—“The New Men of Power: America’s Labor Leaders,” published in 1948.

When Mills was writing the book, union membership had increased fivefold in the previous decade and represented one-third of non-farm workers. He believed that unions could be a bulwark against America’s drift toward “war and slump” by pushing to convert the war economy to civilian uses, improving workers’ incomes and job security and giving ordinary Americans a voice in government to challenge big business power.


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By Alan MacDonald, March 6, 2012 at 2:34 pm Link to this comment

An excellent and inspiring article about a great progressive sociologist, Peter Dreier—- and kudos to truthdig for supporting this type of inter-generational history of the progressive idea.

Best luck and love to the “Occupy Empire” educational and revolutionary movement.

Liberty, democracy, justice, and equality
Over
Violent/Vichy
Empire,

Alan MacDonald
Sanford, Maine

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By thegrowlingwolf, March 1, 2012 at 11:18 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m an old school Sociologist—we were a very wise bunch of Americans—two books I cut my sociological teeth on were Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class and C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite.  These two works by American geniuses explain all about what’s happening—in one case over 100 years later and in the case of the Power Elite 56 years ago.  Too bad you folks are just now discovering C. Wright Mills—of course our idiot politicians have no idea about anything sociology or economics.  H.L. Mencken also taught us that everything the government says is a LIE.  You start from there and it becomes crystal clear.

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By gerard, March 1, 2012 at 8:26 pm Link to this comment

Foucauldian:  Second hand, sorry to say.

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By Foucauldian, March 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm Link to this comment

gerard, February 29 at 12:43 pm

A personal mentor, Gerard, or second-hand?

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By Foucauldian, March 1, 2012 at 2:05 pm Link to this comment

Even looks like a rebel, doesn’t he?

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moonraven's avatar

By moonraven, March 1, 2012 at 12:00 pm Link to this comment

jimmy:  Thanks.  I try to bring some common sense and global experience to this site.

Most folks don’t want either of those—they want to keep sucking on the koolaid.

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By jimmmmmy, March 1, 2012 at 11:28 am Link to this comment

moonraven well said. i like your comments, there is no button to select “like” on this sites comments.

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By moonraven, March 1, 2012 at 11:10 am Link to this comment

Folks lingering on in their 60s and 70s from cancer might disagree with John Poole—they might well wish they had died, cleanly and rapidly, from a heart attack in their 40s.

Actually, many men die from heart attacks at that age—it’s considered the highest risk age for heart attacks among males.

So Poole, what are you trying to accomplish with your trolling, anyway?  Put somebody down because he wasn’t a koolaid addict like you?

Drink it someplace else.  This isn’t a bar.

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By John Poole, March 1, 2012 at 9:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

To Gerard and Jimmmmmy: I well deserve your mocking of my poorly expressed
opinion. I meant to say that by birth year happenstance some are spared having
the face the conscription crucible which can leave such men feeling unsure about
themselves and incomplete. Mill’s two divorces and a likely third are more
important to me than his writing for my mantra is: get your own house in order
before casting aspersions outward. Mills seems to have been too smitten with his
own “outlander” status.

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By John Poole, March 1, 2012 at 8:51 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Gerard and Jimmmmmy:  My point was very poorly expressed and both of you are
justified in mocking my words.  I meant to say that some by pure happenstance of
birth date end up not having to face the conscription crucible and I maintain that
not having to face such a defining crucible can leave a male feeling incomplete.
It’s a very delicate subject for many and would need another post to explore. 
Mills two divorces with a likely third one on the way tells me he never got his own
house in order before casting aspersions outward.  He seems to have been very
smitten by his “outlander” stance.

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By Mike Strong, March 1, 2012 at 6:12 am Link to this comment

Can you just give me the darn article on a single page (put the option at the top). I hit all those pages at the bottom and just said the heck with it.

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By Shenonymous, March 1, 2012 at 2:59 am Link to this comment

The best show of respect for his ideas is to buy his
books, read them, then do something to further
his…and your ideas. 

I found it curious that Drier did not give note to
Mills’ intellectual sibling Saul Alinsky whose work
affected millions of Americans as well.

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By Michael Cavlan RN, February 29, 2012 at 11:00 pm Link to this comment

When I read the title on this, I immediately thought

Ralph Nader

ROCKY ANDERSON FOR PRESIDENT

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By rumblingspire, February 29, 2012 at 9:01 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

THE PEANUT BUTTER CONSPIRACY - Living loving life
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NGWjfHuhYzs

“buying things they didn’t need and living without much purpose.”

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By gerard, February 29, 2012 at 7:57 pm Link to this comment

Poole:  Wow!  Profound!

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By Richard N. Juliani, February 29, 2012 at 7:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Some of us who studied and were greatly influenced by Mills’ work when we were students back in the 1950s-60s regard his book “The Sociological Imagination” as perhaps his most important work.  And after all these years, I still talk about it in class since he described the core of sociological analysis in that work—- the intersection of individual experience with social structure.  It holds up as well today as it did then—- and remains absolutely worth reading.  One should also read his essay on the “classic tradition” which he used as an introduction to an anthology of excerpts from the “founding fathers” of modern sociology in the book “Images of Man.”  Great stuff.  I still remember the day that I saw the announcement of his death in the classified obituary listings of the NY Times—- and how sad I felt. He was a hero to our generation.

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By John Poole, February 29, 2012 at 4:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I knew I’d catch hell for my theory. What I’d like to express is these so called
heroes are usually failures at what counts most- being a caring mate and
nurturing father. Two failed marriages and perhaps the third on the rocks? Guys
like this are always looking to fix the world when they are fucking up their
personal world (oh, I see, the stupid cunts he married just didn’t “understand
him”).  The bit about military service was mentioned only to suggest certain males
never have to face a defining crucible. I never met the guy but I’d like to know if a
defining crucible confronted him and what was his response. He seems to have
glided within the higher echelons of academia comfortably.

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By jimmmmmy, February 29, 2012 at 3:46 pm Link to this comment

so to be a true amerikan once must serve as in the military, pretty far out theory

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By John Poole, February 29, 2012 at 2:37 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This guy fits into my theory that males born too early to fight in WWII and too late
for Korea end up with a certain world view.  So he died of a heart attack at age
45? Not much to want to emulate there if it wasn’t DNA related. Did rage and
resentment kill him? Was there a wife or children? What was he like as a human
not as a polemicist?

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By jimmmmmy, February 29, 2012 at 2:12 pm Link to this comment

what wonderful article.  i would likely never been made aware of this marvelous human being eithout the internet and site like yours.outstanding !

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By jimmmmmy, February 29, 2012 at 2:08 pm Link to this comment

what a truly wonderful article. if it were not for the internet and new sites like truthdig i would have been aware of this marvelous human being. out standing.!

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By gerard, February 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm Link to this comment

Mills was one of my most significant mentors.  I wrote a long comment which got lost in transit somewhere in the ether.  Suffice it to say to Truthdig, thanks for this resume of a significant contemporary.

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By moonraven, February 29, 2012 at 1:05 pm Link to this comment

This guy was my idol when I entered university in 1962.

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