C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite, the Old-New Left, and Queensland lived Ideologies

September 6, 2022
Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (1956) has been a major sociological work that has repeatedly been the right framework to understand the political and social chaos I have experienced and witnessed in my lifetime. It is not a perfect work and not a perfect model. The sociologist examines three firmly interlocked prongs of American power: […]

Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (1956) has been a major sociological work that has repeatedly been the right framework to understand the political and social chaos I have experienced and witnessed in my lifetime. It is not a perfect work and not a perfect model. The sociologist examines three firmly interlocked prongs of American power: the military, corporate, and political elite, but skipped too lightly on three more – religious, media, and education, powers, as in the institutions of Church-State, Broadcasting, and University Schools (or equivalent in new emerging formats). With acknowledging these limitations, it speaks well, though, to Queensland intellectual history.


C. Wright Mills wrote in a different era. American religion was on the rise. Communism was a firm ideological bloc, but was already falling-in with American-style materialism (even if the commercialism was not yet apparent). A decade later, Marshall McLuhan declares that “The medium is the message” in his Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). And it was the start of the mass education era.


Jason Willick’s opinion piece in The Washington Post (5 September 2022), “How a 1950s new left manifesto explains the 2020s new right,” links Mills’ thinking to our current culture-history war from the United States. Willick’s key point is that Mills untangled the issues in the complacent and common outlook of the western lifestyle, a world of hypo-commercialism and other forms of materialism. The key document is Mills’ “Letter to the New Left” in New Left Review, No. 5, September-October 1960. It should be read in full, but I wish to point out several major statements from the ‘Letter’ which appears to me to be the common historiographical observations I make for Queensland histories:


  1. …it may be worthwhile to examine one style of cultural work that is in effect an intellectual celebration of apathy….Many intellectual fashions, of course, do just that; they stand in the way of a release of the imagination…
  2. [‘one style of cultural work’ is] the weariness of many NATO intellectuals with what they call “ideology,” and their proclamations of “the end of ideology.” [And it continued in the late 20th century and early 21st century]
  3. Its common disposition is not liberalism as a political philosophy, but the liberal rhetoric become formal and sophisticated and used as an uncriticised weapon with which to attack Marxism.
  4. So reasoning collapses into reasonableness. By the more naïve and snobbish celebrants of complacency, arguments and facts of a displeasing kind are simply ignored; by the more knowing, they are duly recognised, but they are neither connected with one another not related to any general view. Acknowledged in a scattered way, they are never put together: to do so is to risk being called, curiously enough, “one-sided.”
  5. The end-of-ideology is a slogan of complacency, circulating among the prematurely middle-aged, centred in the present, and in the rich Western societies. In the final analysis, it also rests upon a disbelief in the shaping by men [and women, transgender, whatever label] of their own futures — as history and as biography. It is a consensus of a few provincials about their own immediate and provincial situation.
  6. …they [partisan, ‘end-of-ideology’ ideologs] must be seen as survivals from the old order, not as systematic products of the new….There too, pessimism is permitted — but only episodically and only within the context of the big optimism: the tendency is to confuse any systematic or structural criticism with pessimism itself. So, they admit criticism, first of this and then of that; but engulf them all by the long-run historical optimism about the system as a whole and the goals proclaimed by its leaders.
  7. The end-of-ideology is very largely a mechanical reaction — not a creative response — to the ideology of Stalinism. As such it takes from its opponent something of its inner quality. What does it all means? That these people have become aware of the uselessness of Vulgar Marxism, but not yet aware of the uselessness of the liberal rhetoric.


In these terms, think — for a moment longer — of the end-of-ideology:


8. (1) It is a kindergarten fact that any political reflection that is of possible public significance is ideological: in its terms, policies, institutions, men [choose label] of power are criticised or approved. In this respect, the end-of-ideology stands negatively, for the attempt to withdraw oneself and one’s work from political relevance; positively, it is an ideology of political complacency which seems the only way now open for many writers to acquiesce in or to justify the status quo.


9. (2) So far as orienting theories of society and of history are concerned, the end-of-ideology stands for, and presumably stands upon, a fetishism of empiricism: more academically, upon a pretentious methodology used to state trivialities about unimportant social areas; more empirically, upon a naïve journalistic empiricism — which I have already characterised above — and upon a cultural gossip in which “answers” to the vital and pivotal issues are merely assumed. This political bias masquerades as epistemological excellence, and there are no orienting theories.


10. (3) So far as the historic agency of change is concerned, the end-of-ideology stands upon the identification of such agencies with going institutions; perhaps upon their piecemeal reform, but never upon the search for agencies that might be used or that might themselves make for a structural change of society. The problem of agency is never posed as a problem to solve, as our problem. Instead there is talk of the need to be pragmatic, flexible, open. Surely all this has already been adequately dealt with: such a view makes sense politically only if the blind drift of human affairs is in general beneficent.


11. (4) So far as political and human ideals are concerned, the end-of-ideology stands for a denial of their relevance — except as abstract icons. Merely to hold such ideals seriously is in this view “utopian.”


12. But enough. Where do we stand on each of these four aspects of political philosophy? Various of us are of course at work on each of them, and all of us are generally aware of our needs in regard to each. As for the articulation of ideals: there I think your [‘New Left’] magazines have done their best work so far. That is your meaning — is it not? — of the emphasis upon cultural affairs. As for ideological analysis, and the rhetoric with which to carry it out: I don’t think any of us are nearly good enough, but that will come with further advance on the two fronts where we are weakest: theories of society, history, human nature; and the major problem — ideas about the historical agencies of structural change.


13. Is anything more certain than that in 1970 — indeed this time next year — our situation will be quite different, and — the chances are high — decisively so? But of course, that isn’t saying much. The seeming collapse of our historic agencies of change ought to be taken as a problem, an issue, a trouble — in fact, as the political problem which we must into issue and trouble.


14. Second, is it not obvious that when we talk about the collapse of agencies of change, we cannot seriously mean that such agencies do not exist. On the contrary, the means of history-making — of decision and of the enforcement of decision — have never in world history been so enlarged and so available to such small circles of men on both sides of The Curtains [think of the new iron curtains] as they now are. My own conception of the shape of power — the theory of the power elite — I feel no need to argue here. This theory has been fortunate in its critics, from the most diverse points of political view, and I have learned from several of these critics. But I have not seen, as of this date, any analysis of the idea that causes me to modify any of its essential features.


More could be said, and was – the whole letter is worth the read, and then think of the University of Queensland and the other Queensland power elites.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
The following two tabs change content below.
Neville Buch (Pronounced Book) Ph.D. is a certified member of the Professional Historians Association (Queensland). Since 2010 he has operated a sole trade business in history consultancy. He was a Q ANZAC 100 Fellow 2014-2015 at the State Library of Queensland. Dr Buch was the PHA (Qld) e-Bulletin, the monthly state association’s electronic publication, and was a member of its Management Committee. He is the Managing Director of the Brisbane Southside History Network.
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments