Friday, January 01, 2010

C. Wright Mills: Power, Craftsmanship, and Private Troubles and Public Issues

C. Wright Mills: Power, Craftsmanship, and Private Troubles and Public Issues
by Mark K. Smith
The Encyclopedia of Informal Education


The research reported in White Collar had begun some five years before and focused on what he described as the new middle class – white collar people on salaries. The rise of white collar employment was highly significant, Mills argued, both in terms of upsetting the nineteenth-century expectation that society would be divided between entrepreneurs and workers; and by their mass way of life. This mass way of life had ‘transformed the tang and feel of the American experience’ (Mills 1951: ix). Certainly the book spoke to a particular moment and caught something of the mood. It, along with David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) and William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956) shaped the debates around the coming of age of the new middle class (Horowitz 1983: 226).

Estranged from community and society in a context of distrust and manipulation; alienated from work and, on the personality market, from self; expropriated of individual rationality, and politically apathetic – these are the new little people, the unwilling vanguard of modern society. These are some of the circumstances for the acceptance of which their hopeful training has quite unprepared them. (Mills 1951: xviii-xix)

As can be seen from the above, three themes stand out – the rise of mass society and the power of corporate society; the extent to which many of the new jobs were alienating; and the relative lack of political consciousness in the USA.

Mass society. ‘The transformation of a community of publics into a mass society is’, C. Wright Mills wrote in an article first published in 1954, ‘one of the keys to the meaning of modern life’ (Mills 1963: 353). For him it was a structural trend that had led to many of the psychological and political problems that confronted Americans (op. cit.). While not being altogether a mass society, the balance had shifted in America with the rise of mass media and changes in economic organization. As John H. Summers (2006) characterized Mills’ position, ‘For the first time in history… the territories of the United States made up a self-conscious mass society. If the economy had once been a multitude of locally or regionally rooted, (more or less) equal units of production, it now answered to the needs of a few hundred corporations’.

Alienation. C. Wright Mills argued that one of the characteristic features of contemporary American social structure was ‘its systematic creation and maintenance of estrangement from society and selfhood (1951: 340). In building his argument around the conditions of modern work he drew upon Marx – and upon American writers such as Thoreau. He contrasts traditions of craftsmanship (which at work had become the preserve of miniscule groups of professionals, and in leisure had been trivialized into ‘hobbies’) with the routinized activity of modern work.

As tool becomes machine, man is estranged from the intellectual potentialities and aspects of work; and each individual is routinized in the name of increased and cheaper per unit productivity. The whole unit and the meaning of time is modified…. The introduction of office machinery and sales devices has been mechanizing the office and the salesroom, the two big locales of white-collar work…. None of the features of work as craftsmanship is prevalent in office and salesroom, and, in addition, some features of white-collar work, such as the personality market, go well beyond the alienating conditions of wage-work. (Mills 1951: 226-7)

C. Wright Mills’ analysis of the extent to which salaried work had come to mirror the alienating features of waged work broke new ground.

Lack of consciousness. In an argument that was later to be echoed by Kenneth Galbraith (1992) and others, C. Wright Mills suggested that people experiencing a history of increasing and uninterrupted contentment ‘are not likely to develop economic resentments that would turn their political institutions into means of ideological conflict, or turn their minds to political forms’ (Mills 1951: 340). For Mills indifference was the primary factor in the lack of political consciousness he found amongst the new middle class – and American society generally. US politics were ‘anchored in the economic sphere’ (Mills 951: 343). As such, activity was centred around gaining and securing limited economic, rather than political, ends. It had 'seldom involved more than immediate material profits and losses’ (op. cit.).

White Collar was a significant contribution to debates but was subject to some sharp critique (the arguments are summarized in Horowitz 1983: 244-54). Perhaps the most significant of these came from David Riesman (1952). Riesman questioned C. Wright Mills’ lack of attention to the ‘ethnic coloring of attitudes to white collar work’; his portrayal of the mass media (i.e. they were less exploitative than he suggests); and his judgement around the impoverishment and drabness of white-collar life. There is some merit in these criticisms – but they do not in the end harm in any substantive way the central lines of his analysis. There had been a profound change in American society with the emergence of a large, salaried, middle class, but the conditions under which it laboured were surprisingly similar to those experienced by wage earners.

The power elite

Within the ‘power trilogy’ there were changes in style and broad approach – and these can be seen with some force in The Power Elite. In this book C. Wright Mills both wrote directly and, at times, beautifully. Similarly Mills’ understanding of the nature of power relationships in US changed from the first to the third book in the trilogy. As John H. Summers (2006) has again put it, Mills ‘argued that the "sociological key" to American uneasiness could be found not in the mysteries of the unconscious or in the battle against Communism, but in the over-organization of society’.

The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet in these rounds of job, family, and neighbourhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern. ‘Great changes’ are beyond their control, but affect their conduct and outlook none the less. The very framework of modern society confines them to projects not their own, but from every side, such changes now press upon the men and women of mass society, who accordingly feel that they are without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power (Mills 1956: 3)

Mills argued that a small group of men within the political, military and corporate spheres - the power elite - made ‘the decisions that reverberated into all areas of American life’ (Summers 2006). Within American society, ‘major national power now resides in the economic, the political and the military domains’ (Mills 1956: 6). Within each institution units had got bigger, became administrative and, ‘in the power of its decisions, ha[d] become centralized’ (op. cit.: 7). In the economic sphere he charted the rise of large corporations; in the political the move to more centralized executive establishments. In addition the military, in his words, had become ‘the largest and most expensive feature of government’ (ibid.).

In each of these institutional areas, the means of power at the disposal of decision makers have increased enormously; their central executive powers have been enhanced; within each of them modern administrative routines have been elaborated and tightened up.

As each of these domains becomes enlarged and centralized, the consequences of its activities become greater, and its traffic with the others increases. (Mills 1956: 7)

As might be expected from the book's title Mills looked to the discourses of elite theory that had been pioneered by Pareto (1935) and Michels (1949) (see Bottomore 1966 for an overview of elite theory). C. Wright Mills was dismissive of notions such as ruling class - which he described as a ‘badly loaded phrase’ (Mills 1956: 277). For him the theory underpinning the idea of a ‘ruling class’ did not give enough autonomy to the political order. In making sense of this we can see the influence in The Power Elite of Max Weber (not unexpectedly given the work that he and Hans Gerth had undertaken). The unity of the elite for Mills rested, ‘upon the corresponding developments and coincidence of interests among economic, political and military organizations (op. cit.: 292).

It also rests upon the similarity of origin and outlook, and the social and personal intermingling of the top circles from each of these dominant hierarchies. This conjunction of institutional and psychological forces, in turn, is revealed by the heavy personnel traffic within and between the big three institutional orders, as well as by the rise of go-betweens as in the high-level lobbying. (Mills 1956: 292)

The book’s controversial analysis both found a wider readership, and stimulated considerable and sometimes angry debate (Summers 2006). There were questions around the degree to which the analysis of power relationships held up (particularly with regard to the role of the judiciary and political parties) and to the concept of power employed. According to Parsons (1964: 199-225) power for Mills was a zero-sum concept (either you have it or you don’t) and failed to attend to way it is generated within social systems. However, as John H Summers (2006) has commented, the historical value of The Power Elite seems assured:

It was the first book to offer a serious model of power that accounted for the secretive agencies of national security. Mills saw the postideological "postmodern epoch" (as he would later call it) at its inception, and his book remains a founding text in the continuing demand for democratically responsible political leadership….

"The Power Elite" abounds with questions that still trouble us today. Can a strong democracy coexist with the amoral ethos of corporate elites? And can public argument have democratic meaning in the age of national security?

Personal troubles and public issues

C. Wright Mills argued that perhaps the most helpful distinction with which the sociological imagination works is that between personal troubles and public issues (Mills 1967: 395; Mills 1959: 8). For him troubles have to do with 'an individual's character and with those limited areas of social life of which he is directly and personally aware' (op. cit.). To describe those troubles and to resolve them, he argues, we must attend the individual's biography and the scope of their immediate milieux - what Mills describes as 'the social setting that is directly open to his personal experience and to some extent his willful activity' (Mills 1967: 395-6). A trouble is, thus, a private matter: 'values cherished by an individual are felt by him to be threatened' (ibid.: 396).

In contrast, issues have to do with 'matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the limited range of his life' (Mills 1967: 396; Mills 1959: 8). He continues:

They have to do with the organization of many such milieux into the institutions of society as a whole... An issue is a public matter: values cherished by publics are felt to be threatened... It is the very nature of an issue, unlike even widespread trouble, that it cannot very well be defined in terms of the everyday environments of ordinary men. An issue, in fact, often involves a crisis in institutional arrangements.

This crisis can be seen in the experience of unemployment:

When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. (Mills 1959: 9)

For much of the time governments tend to cloak or to present such public issues as private troubles: it is the fault of individuals that they cannot find work, rather than an outcome of structural or political arrangements. Furthermore, given the orientation of social workers and educators, when working with individuals or groups, it is all to easy to end up working with people around the immediate issue or trouble. In C Wright Mills’ (1967: 534) words they can ‘slip past structure to focus on isolated situations’ and consider problems ‘as problems of individuals’. We can confuse personal troubles with public issues. Indeed, this critique by Mills of the professional ideology of what he described as social pathologists (social workers who focus on individual adjustment rather than structural change) remains of fundamental concern.

On intellectual work

In an appendix of 31 pages to The Sociological Imagination (1959), C. Wright Mills provides us with one of the defining twentieth century statements concerning the nature of intellectual life - and the sort of qualities that we need to carry into our activities as practitioners. He begins the Appendix by making a point that many of us have learnt the hard way - 'the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives. They seem to take both too seriously to allow such disassociation, and they want to use each for the enrichment of the other' (ibid.: 195). This is a theme that appears time and again in Mills's work. It involves him in constantly looking to the relationship between the whole and the parts. By looking to the whole - and seeing the parts as elements of the whole - we are able to see the connections between things. To see how one element cannot exist in this way or that - without the presence of another. Mills wrote:

Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether he knows it or not, the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft; to realize his own potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way, he constructs a character which has as its core the qualities of a good workman.

What this means is that you must learn to use your life experience in your intellectual work: continually to examine and interpret it. In this sense craftsmanship is the center of yourself and you are personally involved in every intellectual product upon which you work. (Mills 1959: 196)

In these words we can see sentiments that are familiar to informal and community educators. We have had to focus on our selves, to develop a particular character or way of being as workers, and to make a commitment to our craft. We have had to use our life experience, to reflect on encounters and feelings, to build theories and commitments about how we may act and live our lives.

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