Concerned citizens need to crack open the covers of C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite as the curtains are being ripped back from the new surveillance state by whistleblowers, investigative reporters and civil liberties lawyers.
Mills’ classic needs revision in light of the expanded use of technology, but his survey of power is unrivaled to this day.
According to Mills’ detailed research, the power elite was composed of the military and corporate hierarchies in combination with the executive branch of the state. Congress, he concluded, was relegated to the “middle levels” of power, except for the cooptation of the top leadership of both parties when needed to ratify executive decisions.
We saw this revealed in the extraordinary approval of the Wall Street bailout in 2008. We have seen the role of the elite on the Libya war – Operation Odyssey Dawn – the cyber-attacks on Iran, the Long War’s counterterrorism policy and the implementation of the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force.
It has been revealed that a secret and virtually parallel constitution has been written by the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) in order to “legalize” this expanding power of the elite to obtain Big Data on the lives of ordinary citizens. The result, according to the New York Times Eric Lichtblau is “almost a parallel Supreme Court.”
It is further revealed that the secret surveillance court has been shaped by right-wing US Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. The FISA appointees therefore are “more likely to defer to government arguments that domestic spying programs are necessary.” (New York Times, July 26, 2013)
In terms of the global economy, the secret negotiations of pro-corporate “trade” agreements with Europe and the Pacific Rim would complete the design of “the new world order,” established largely beyond the reach of local, state, and congressional officials, not to mention unions and human rights groups, except for official “democracy promotion” programs aimed at Cuba, Venezuela, etc.
A virtual empire composed of distant and interconnected private and public elites contradicts representative democracy as virtually all Americans understand it. Participatory democracy, as envisioned by John Dewey, Mills and the 1962 Port Huron Statement of SDS is contained, suppressed or, as during the 60s movements and today’s Occupy struggle, appears occasionally as an oppositional uprising on the streets, the Internet, or the defiant actions of whistleblowers.
Thankfully, participatory democracy, even while sidelined, prevents total control by the power elite and at times causes contagious chain reactions. The state is the Titanic, public opposition the iceberg.
Opposition has been rising from the margins. Only 28 percent of Americans think Afghanistan is a war worth fighting, a percentage that likely will continue to drop, in nothing less than a public withdrawal from the official agenda. Nor is there popular support for US intervention in Egypt or going to war with Iran. Popular opposition to the drone war, too, is on the rise. The more the public learns about Big Brother obtaining Big Data, the more the public is troubled. What Mills called civil society, which he hoped would become a live “democracy of publics,” continues to boil up like a populist geyser.
But this opposition can only rise and flame out, unless the big institutions – the Congress, courts, mainstream journalism – are moved and divided in response to the simmerings. One of Mills’ blind spots, since he wrote in the mid-50s, was the role that a “new Left” might play in challenging those institutions, since the Left in the 50s had been crushed by McCarthyism at home and Khrushev’s revelations about the Soviet Union’s internal repression.
At the first stirrings of protest by what Mills’ called “the young intelligencia” – the Cuban revolution, the Aldermaston anti-nuclear marches, the black student sit-in movement – Mills dashed off an enthusiastic “Letter to the New Left..” He then died of a heart attack in 1962, one month before the Port Huron conference.
What we discovered in the Sixties, and what remains true today, is that effective grass roots protest can influence the institutions of power where those institutions depend on public support or consent. Differences between the “inside” and “outside” tend to blur when the outsiders become strong enough and enough insiders accept the need for reform.
This is what accounts for the remarkable 205 to 217 protest vote in the Republican-controlled House this week against the National Security Agency’s secret collection of private phone call data. The battle was between the bipartisan Congressional establishment, backing the Obama/NSA program, and dissident House members from the libertarian Right and the civil liberties Liberals. The same fight may continue on the Senate floor if Democratic Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) teams up with Tea Party Senator Rand Paul (R-KY).
In part, the drama was simply staged. Republican leader John Boehner surely could have rounded up the few votes needed to spike the NSA program. An identical scenario played out during the House debate on the Libyan war in 2011, when a near majority voted to impose the War Powers Resolution against the will of the national security elite. In both cases, the House establishment – led by Boehner – had no choice but to let their dissident members vent, in response to their district’s public opinion, before blowing the whistle and herding most of them back to business as usual.
While the drama last week illustrated Mills’ thesis that the Congress has declined to a “middle level” of power, it also was a sign of how suspicion and critical public opinion can make it difficult for the power elite to secure its position.
When a constitutional crisis in the Sixties divided the executive and legislative branches, conservative intellectuals like Harvard’s Samuel Huntington condemned the “excess of democracy.” Not long after, Lewis Powell wrote his famous memo outlining a secret strategy to re-establish corporate power over the state in the face of popular movement.
Here is a brief list of what had happened as a result of those “democratic excesses” (read: social movements taking matters in our own hands):
- The US was defeated embarrassingly in the Indochina wars;
- Richard Nixon was driven from office for unconstitutional schemes to shut down whistleblowers – Ellsberg-Russo;
- Anti-war and anti-racism “conspirators” were jailed – Chicago Eight, Harrisburg and Gainesville anti-war trials, Black Panther trials in New York and New Haven, etc.;
- Most important for today’s crisis, the Congress passed the War Powers Resolution to rein in the imperial presidency, and held extensive hearings on domestic spying and counter-intelligence operations by the CIA and FBI.
As a result of those protests and hearings led by Senator Frank Church, in which the NSA’s spying on 75,000 Americans was revealed, the present Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was written and the Congressional intelligence committees were created as “reforms.”
After a significant run of some 40 years, in which vast conservative counter-movements arose to block the progress of the Sixties – leading to the Reagan, Nixon, and Bush-Cheney eras – those 1975 reforms have run their course and need to be sent back to Congress for repairs. Already the Congressional leadership is scheming quietly to placate the current opposition with reformist tinkering. Superficial reform, however, is unlikely to placate an opposition, which now stretches from Congress to the New York Times and FOX News to the passionate supporters of Pfc. Bradley Manning.
While most of the public holds a Washington-centric picture of the unfolding conflict, it is important to realize that the underlying cause of the rift has been the skeptical resistance of many Americans, whether expressed in public opinion surveys or persistent grass-roots protest. If one looks at the electoral map, the chief congressional opponents of the new surveillance state are from either progressive constituencies – senators Wyden and Jeff Merkley Oregon, Mark Udall from Colorado, John Conyers from Michigan, Jerrold Nadler from Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch from Vermont, or from libertarian Tea Party enclaves where the John Birch Society once considered Dwight Eisenhower a communist and today believe that Obama is far worse.
Mills was prescient on one further point: that the power elite would attempt to globalize. Even at the height of the Cold War, Mills predicted a bureaucratic “convergence” between the two super-powers resulting in a bi-polar dominance over other nations or blocs. The policy result of this convergence would become known as “detente” and was opposed by the Non-Aligned bloc of the Third World. Detente eventually collapsed under pressure from those on the Right who demanded “rollback.” But the “convergence” agenda may be reappearing between Obama’s America and Putin’s Russia, as illustrated in the quandary over the status of Edward Snowden.
Obama is threatening to derail the planned September summit with the Russians if Snowden is given protection in Moscow. Putin, angered by the US role in Syria and Iran, is moving toward rapprochement with China but is clearly uncomfortable with giving protection to Snowden if it means a crisis with the US. By contrast, at least three countries in the Third World – Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia – are offering refuge to Snowden, despite threats from the State Department, and Ecuador already is protecting Julian Assange in its London consulate. Since Obama is unlikely to back down, the question is whether Putin will embrace Snowden instead of additional “convergence” with the US. To Putin’s left are Russians who want him to stand up for Russian sovereignty. And to Obama’s right, of course, the entire Republican Party opposes “convergence” with Moscow and is hoping to undermine Obama’s proposed nuclear arms agreement.
It is complicated. But the best map of power relations remains the one charted by Mills in 1956. The power elite can be divided in its quest for a new world order. Social and revolutionary movements contribute to causing those divisions. Unity between the outside movements and the more moderate elements of the elite can lead to significant shifts of power and policy, at least for a time. One presidential election or one Supreme Court appointment can make a critical difference. So can contradictory populist movements of the Right and Left, when and if they unite. The revolts initiated by either anarchists or libertarians, or both, lead to crisis and reform, sometimes to the disappointment of the original catalysts. We are in such a time.