C. Wright Mills, Man for All Seasons
Bar Harbor Island, Fla.
I appreciated Norman Birnbaum’s tribute to C. Wright Mills [“The Half-Forgotten Prophet,” March 30], though I don’t agree that he is a “half-forgotten prophet” or that he was “tied to his times,” which suggests that his work was only relevant to the times in which he lived. His classics are still in print–White Collar, The Power Elite, The Sociological Imagination and C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings as well as the book under review.
As the author of the Introduction to Letters, I was asked to speak at Books & Books, the largest independent bookstore in South Florida, on its publication in 2000. I was pleased by a good turnout and especially by a group of sociology students from the University of Miami, who told me they were great fans of Mills, having discovered his work when their sociology professor instructed them not to read it.
The relevance of Mills as “prophet” of our current crisis, symbolized by the bonuses of the AIG executives and their ilk, is summed up in The Power Elite by what Mills calls “the higher immorality”:
“In a society in which the money-maker has had no serious rival for repute and honor, the word ‘practical’ comes to mean useful for private gain, and ‘common sense,’ the sense to get ahead financially. The pursuit of the moneyed life is the commanding value in relation to which the influence of other values has declined. So men easily become morally ruthless in the pursuit of money and fast estate-building.
“A great deal of American corruption–although not all of it–is simply a part of the old effort to get rich and then to become richer.”
Those words from 1956 seem, like much of Mills’s work, a critique of 2009.
Mills is hardly “half-forgotten.” In my discipline, political science, his legacy is alive and well. True, the modern social sciences seem to be at odds with Mills’s lack of methodological “professionalism” (read: adherence to academic technocracy). His conclusions are also well to the left of today’s poli sci mainstream. Nevertheless, he is a founding father of what political scientists call “elitism,” which contends that power in the United States is concentrated in the hands of a few. His work was widely debated by “pluralists,” including the great Robert Dahl, who held more or less the opposite view. You can’t get out of graduate school in this field without having to contend with this debate, started by Mills. Five decades on, The Power Elite is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand American democracy.