May 21, 2013
A Tribute to One of Occupy’s Intellectual Predecessors
Posted on Feb 29, 2012
By Peter Dreier, Truthout
Mills’ critique was not unique. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, there were other indications that many Americans were coming to question the nation’s moral and psychological condition. The novel (1955) and film (1956) “The Man in the Grey-Flannel Suit” disparaged the lifestyle of middle-class managers. J.D. Salinger’s popular 1951 novel, “Catcher in the Rye”; the 1955 film starring James Dean, “Rebel Without a Cause”; and Paul Goodman’s 1960 book, “Growing Up Absurd,” all depicted the alienation of middle-class youth, raging against “phonies.” Best-selling books by sociologically oriented journalists—William H. White’s “The Organization Man” (1956) and Vance Packard’s “The Hidden Persuaders” (1957) and “The Status Seekers” (1959)—expressed alarm during the height of the Eisenhower administration at the influence of corporate employers, advertisers and suburban developers in shaping the daily lives of American families. Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, “Death of a Salesman,” struck a similar chord. In 1952, two left-wing writers, William Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman, launched MAD, a comics magazine of political and social satire that became an instant sensation with the baby-boom generation. It poked fun at middle-class suburbia, the cold war and advertising. Its slogan, “What? Me Worry?” was intentionally ironic because many Americans were quite worried about the escalating arms race, the proliferation of fall-out shelters and the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. Malvina Reynolds’ 1962 song “Little Boxes” poked fun at the look-alike housing developments in postwar suburbs and the complacency of the people who lived in them.
“The Power Elite,” published in 1956, was the most radical, controversial and widely read of Mills’ three major books. It caused a firestorm in academic and political circles. America has a ruling elite, Mills wrote, and its most active members—top corporate executives—have little sense of social responsibility. Rather, they work collaboratively with the top military leaders and their allies in Congress and the White House (former Gen. and World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower was the Republican president at the time) to shape the nation’s major priorities based primarily on greed and self-interest. The various interest groups that could contend for power—farmer organizations, labor unions, big-city mayors and others—fought over crumbs left over after the big spending decisions, particularly the military budget, had already been decided.
Mills pointed out that the corporate, military and political elites were not separate spheres, but overlapping groups at the “command posts” of society. Top corporate executives (such as Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, former General Motors CEO Charles Wilson) were recruited to serve in the cabinet and on numerous committees providing advice to the White House and Congress. Retired generals and admirals (whom Mills called “warlords”) went to work for major defense corporations, using their influence to argue for bigger military budgets, new weapons systems and government contracts for their new employers. Corporate executives and Pentagon leaders lobbied Congress to increase the military budget, pointing out that it would create jobs in defense plants and military bases in their districts.
Mills was particularly concerned that few newspapers, academics or religious leaders spoke out against this concentration of power. Instead, most went along with the power elite’s ideology—a stance Mills called “crackpot realism,” which involves dangerous, irresponsible ideas that the public accepts as normal. One such idea was “mutually assured destruction”—that a world war could be averted if both the US and Soviet Union had enough weapons to destroy each other. Mills hated Soviet totalitarianism, but he thought the US and USSR could cooperate to avoid a costly arms race and a possible nuclear holocaust.
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