Oct 6, 2008

power in the north

this week, we read from various writers on inequality in power. (and also from marx's capital and the grundrisse, but of those two densities let no more be said.) rhetorical imperatives seem to drive at least most of the classical social theorists to propose strongly monocausal explanations for phenomena like class and inequality, even though that kind of explanation is singularly unconvincing under the least scrutiny. having read for weeks about how there is an ineluctability to the rise of the proletariat, it's refreshing to read mills and see acknowledgment that there are conditions under which agency gives rise to major change.
The power elite are not solitary rulers. Advisers and consultants, spokesmen and opinion-makers are often the captains of their higher thought and decision. ... When knowledgeable journalists tell us that 'events, not men, shape the big decisions,' they are echoing the theory of history as Fortune, Chance, Fate, or the work of The Unseen Hand. For 'events' is merely a modern word for these older ideas, all of which separate men from history-making, because all of them lead us to believe that history goes on behind men's backs. History is drift with no mastery; within it there is action but no deed; history is mere happening and the event intended by no one. The course of events in our time depends more on a series of human decisions than on any inevitable fate. The sociological meaning of 'fate' is simply this: that, when the decisions are innumerable and each one is of small consequence, all of them add up in a way no man intended -- to history as fate. But not all epochs are equally fateful. As the circle of those who decide is narrowed, as the means of decision are centralized and the consequences of decisions become enormous, then the course of great events often rests upon the decisions of determinable circles. This does not necessarily mean that the same circle of men follow through from one event to another in such a way that all of history is merely their plot. The power of the elite does not necessarily mean that history is not also shaped by a series of small decisions, none of which are thought out. It does not mean that a hundred small arrangements and compromises and adaptations may not be built into the going policy and the living event. The idea of the power elite implies nothing about the process of decision-making as such: it is an attempt to delimit the social areas within which that process, whatever its character, goes on.
c. wright mills, the power elite

mills proposes to identify the social areas within which the power elite emerge, but i'm much more interested in figuring out their morphology, the signals that identify their presence. this is interesting because i've always contended that the US has an elite that's hidden in plain sight -- the result of a country founded on a deep-rooted belief in equality of individual and opportunity. as in many other countries that have bought into the western intellectual tradition of means-ends rationality and of equal opportunity, virtue and normative value has attached itself to what we become, not what we are. where then does the morphology of elitism hide? i spent some time writing about one place where i thought it might go.

others, of course, have located signals in the construction of the canon of general knowledge, which is general only in creating a distinction between those who have it and those who don't. e.h. gombrich has a great essay on the topic called "the tradition of general knowledge." systems of education and egalitarian access frequently are walled around by barriers that are difficult to see.
Even when academic degrees, scientific training, special aptitudes as tested by examinations and competitions, open the way to public office, there is no eliminating that special advantage in favor of certain individuals which the French call the advantage of positions déjà prises. In actual fact, though examinations and competitions may theoretically be open to all, the majority never have the resources of meeting the expense of long preparation, and many others are without the connections and kindships that set an individual promptly on the right road, enabling him to avoid the gropings and blunders that are inevitable when one enters an unfamiliar environment without any guidance or support.
gaetano mosca, the ruling class

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