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A Tribute to One of Occupy’s Intellectual Predecessors

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

C. Wright Mills.

By Peter Dreier, Truthout

(Page 3)

At the core of “The New Men of Power” is Mills’ survey of 500 labor leaders. He discovered that blue-collar workers’ route to the middle class was more likely to occur via better union contracts than by being recruited into the ranks of corporate management. He found that CIO union leaders were more progressive than their AFL counterparts, that many were open to the idea of a third political party based in the labor movement and that an astonishing 69 percent of industrial union leaders believed that the potential for fascism was a real threat in the United States. Mills was particularly impressed with Walter Reuther, who had just been elected president of the United Auto Workers, and other progressive union leaders whom he hoped would move the labor movement leftward.

Mills examined the other major segments in American society contending for political power. He warned that moderates in big business and conservatives among small business, both well-entrenched within the Republican Party, as well as mainstream business-friendly cold-war liberals within the Democratic Party, could marginalize or even co-opt the labor movement. He dismissed the far left (particularly the Communist Party) and the far right as too small and isolated to be influential.

Mills’ chapter, “The Program of the Left,” outlined a labor-based radical agenda that was really an expansion of the New Deal plus a call for halting the arms race and the war economy. It reflected bits and pieces of the views of Norman Thomas’ Socialist Party, Walter Reuther’s UAW and what would later that year become former Vice President Wallace Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign for the White House. It included proposals for consumer cooperatives, neighborhood committees to monitor business practices (including the continuation of war-time price controls) and workplace democracy.

“The New Men of Power” was cautiously optimistic about the labor movement’s potential. But in 1947, while Mills was writing the book, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act over President Harry Truman’s veto, which weakened unions’ ability to organize. Mills was also disappointed when, in the 1948 elections, the AFL and CIO unions (including the UAW) endorsed Truman over Thomas (whom Mills voted for). In that political climate, few major union leaders were inclined to challenge the cold war, the arms race and the attacks on radical dissent. Indeed, most unions would soon purge themselves of their radical leaders as part of the Red Scare hysteria. Mills drifted away from working with progressive labor activists as his confidence in the labor movement gave way to skepticism.



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Having examined the blue-collar working class, Mills’ next book, “White Collar: The American Middle Classes,” published in 1951, explored the social conditions and psychology of the growing strata of Americans in the professions and middle management, living in urban neighborhoods and suburbs and exemplifying the “American way of life” that the nation’s leaders contrasted with the drab and compliant life in Communist Russia.

Based on interviews and surveys as well as analysis of popular culture, Mills concluded that many middle-class Americans were socially, intellectually and politically stifled, trapped working in offices in large business bureaucracies over which they had no control (including no union representation). Instead of finding pleasure and pride in craftsmanship at work, they pursued happiness and status by buying things they didn’t need and living without much purpose. He coined the phrase “cheerful robot” to decry the unthinking conformity of much of America’s middle-class culture.

In a speech in England, Mills described what he meant: “We know that men can be turned into robots—by chemical means, by physical coercion, as in concentration camps and so on. But we are now confronting a situation more serious than that—a situation in which there are developed human beings who are cheerfully and willingly turning themselves into robots.”

Mills believed that such conformity was an aspect of what he called “mass society”—a condition of widespread political apathy that allowed business and political leaders to pursue the arms race and the potential for a nuclear war without much opposition.


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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

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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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


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


“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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