The Power Elite is a 1956 book by sociologist C. Wright Mills, in which Mills calls attention to the interwoven interests of the military, corporate and political elements of society and suggests that the ordinary citizen is a relatively powerless subject of manipulation by those entities. When a small group of people rules a society, the political system is considered an oligarchy; when only money and wealth determine how a society is controlled, the political system is a plutocracy. From the standpoint of a democratic society, both oligarchy and plutocracy are inherently unjust and corrupt. The job of the politician in a plutocracy is always to find the line that provides the lowest level of pay, security, housing, consumer protection, health care and political access for society so that the economic elite can extract and hoard the greatest amount of wealth, power, and immunity from justice for themselves. Today, should America be considered a plutocracy?
The first decades of the 21st century herald a new ‘Gilded Age’ with an ideology system of ideas invented by the ruling class to promote its own interests yet presented as incorporating the moral consensus of society as a whole, to keep everyone else in check. Gramsci described cultural hegemony as a form of thought control by the dominant economic and ruling elite that permeated throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality. The trickle-down economics narrative is a grand illusion for those in power to promote to justify dominance over those who are less privileged. Of course, it is based on greed being a virtue, relying on a system to harness the selfishness of people and direct it to public good, thus freeing itself from the need to depend unrealistically upon the uncertain moral virtues of its participants. Plutocracy is government by the wealthy; by definition it is not democracy.
In the US 80% of the national wealth generated goes to the top 2%; and 65% to the upper 1%. The increasing inequality destroys the middle class and exploits the poor. In the US one-quarter of the jobs pay below the poverty line for a family of four, while one-third of the population struggle to make ends meet every month. Fast food chains in the US pay wages so low that workers’ families qualify for public assistance – the result of not earning a living wage. In this manner the plutocrats rely on public funds to allow them to profit so much. Of the fast food chains McDonald’s is at the top of this list, with Walmart the largest outside food industry involved.1 Many now believe it is not enough to define poverty as not having enough material resources to merely survive, but rather having enough resources to participate in society in a meaningful way. There has been a crisis in low paying jobs for the past forty years.
Within the plutocracy the wealthy win acceptance from the entire political class that its largely speculative activities, such as financialization – the growth of the scale and profitability of the financial sector at the expense of the rest of the economy – are normal. Through this process the financial markets, financial institutions, and financial elites gain greater influence over economic policy and economic outcomes. In addition, the wealthy control enough of the media to ensure they are credited for being the economy’s principle engine of growth. In return, they are given privileged treatment as the well-being of the national economy relies on them. Plutocrats make investments to ensure ongoing upward flow of cash. Over the decades they have spent millions of dollars opposing unions and supporting deregulation. With the subsequent increased inequality, many find themselves living in a precarious and unequal democracy of a political economy of a new gilded age.
Nader observes: concentrated power in the hands of a few should matter to you. It matters to you if you were denied full-time gainful employment or paid poverty wages, and there are no unions to defend you. It matters to you if you are denied affordable health care or are gouged by the drug industry and your medication is outrageously expensive. It matters to you if it takes a long time for you to get to and from work due to lack of good public transit or packed highways. It matters to you and your children to live in impoverished areas and have to breath dirty air or drink unsafe water and live in housing that is neglected by the landlord. It matters to you if your children are receiving substandard education in understaffed schools where they are being taught to obey rather than to question, think and imagine, especially in regards to the nature of power.2
Illusion is the ability to manipulate how other people perceive reality. What makes our society unstable is when the illusions around income inequality start to disappear. People can or are more willing to overlook income inequality as long as their quality of life remains unchanged. As long as the greediness within the plutocracy does not affect their day-to-day life – your retirement is funded, you can afford to take vacations – you are willing to look away while the economic elite are doing their thing. However, this ultimately becomes the problem – enough is not really enough for certain rich individuals. Unless there are checks and balances, the economic elite keep working the system until it breaks down. More and more find themselves in an era of insecurity as the safe routines of their lives have become undone, they now realize that the market system failed them, and this security was an illusion.
There is no difference between the fake news, misinformation, disinformation of today – such lies have been churned out for years, but today it is designed to support the plutocracy. There is an orchestrated counter-revolution based on polarization. Trump’s victim politics is a complete fraud, an old trick used by economic elite to keep working-class Americans fighting each other rather than focusing on processes to counter the plutocrats who are ripping them off. Trump and his allies stoke racial tensions even as they seek to cut taxes on the rich by shedding affordable health care for everyone else, dismantle protection for workers and consumers, and tear down environmental protections that stop wealthy corporations from poisoning communities. Victim politics is cultivated for a reason – to keep workers distracted from the real causes of economic inequality.
In a plutocracy, commercialization dominates far beyond the realm of economics and business, everything is ‘for sale’, and money is power. But in an authentic democracy, there must be commercial-free zones where the power of human rights, citizenship, community, equality and justice, are free from the corrupting influence of money. Elections and governments should be commercial-free zones, and the environment and water resources should never fall under the control of corporations or private owners. Children should not be programmed by an economy of indebtedness where their vulnerable consciousness becomes the target of non-stop marketing and advertising. It is necessary to challenge a hierarchical system in which elites are superior, have no empathy for the middle class, in fact, express distain for those who they consider inferior. For example, it is the middle class who were caught off guard with the 2008 economic crisis, and in fact, the plutocrats ensure they are blamed for the economic problems.
Social classes are hierarchical groupings of individuals that are usually based on wealth, educational attainment, occupation, income, or membership in a subculture or social network. The class system in America puts those with the most wealth, power, and prestige at the top of the hierarchy and those with the least at the bottom. During the 21st century the middle class continues to be stripped of jobs, income, and security. Max Weber (1864-1920) claims people are motivated by custom or tradition, by emotions, by religious or ethical values, and by rational goal-oriented behavior. All human behavior, Weber says is motivated by various combinations of these four basic factors. However, just because an action is rational in terms of fulfillment of a short-term goal, does not mean it is rational in terms of the whole society. It often happens, he writes, that an excessive focus on short-term goals undermines the very goals of society.
The power elite that C. Wright Mills identified over 60 years ago has coalesced into the plutocracy of today – where discipline and conformity in the office or factory are counterbalanced by a potpourri of gratifying and pleasurable consumer choices. What Mills observed can teach us a great deal about the need for change in society today. It is necessary to take steps to reverse the power now in the hands of the plutocrats: counter vote suppression gimmicks, reverse 2010 Supreme Court decision in favor of Citizens United to control the amount of money spent on elections, and take back control of the public sphere. More resources are required in public spaces – like hiring enough teachers to staff classrooms, paying them living wages, and improving a crumbling infrastructure. The return of democracy will occur with the establishment of commercial-free zones in the community that are free from the corrupting influence of money.
1 Atossa Araxia Abrahamian (15 Oct 2013) Majority of U.S. fast-food workers need public assistance: study https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-fastfood-wages/majority-of-u-s-fast-food-workers-need-public-assistance-study
2 Nader, Ralph. (30 September 2016) Plutocracy of Maximums, Democracy of Minimums. www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/37819-plutocracy-of-maximums-democracy-of-minimums