Each one of us has a different definition of what we consider to be a “classic”.
Though I had read this particular book a long, long time ago, it was only after a former colleague recommended it anew, that I decided to have a look.
Well, it certainly has legs, as it’s still in print, after more than sixty years!
The author’s thesis is basically that there are three groups of people who call the shots in the United States, what he calls a “triangle of power”: corporations, politicians, and the military.
Before one becomes too dismissive of the notion as being too simplistic or simply the ranting of a left-wing academic, it is good to recall the parting words of Dwight Eisenhower, no left-wing academic, as he left office, that society should beware the “military-industrial complex”, a short five years after the book came out.
From a 2020 perspective, has anything really changed that much? The percentage of the national budget devoted to the military may no longer be as great as it was then, at the height of the Cold War, though it is still considerable. In fairness to the military, some of the pioneering research it conducted, did have positive consequences for society. One has only to mention DARPA and the creation of the internet.
There are undoubtedly areas where there has been progress, such as the appearance of genuine risk-takers à la Silicon Valley, and a greater percentage of Americans who own stock.
More generally, though, the following quote could have been written yesterday: “It is, as a matter of fact, not the far-seeing inventor or the captain of industry, but the general of finance who becomes one of the very rich”.
On the education front, the recent SAT scandal demonstrates once again how coveted an Ivy League degree is, as it was then.
And, up until more recent events, one might have hoped to have seen American society become more inclusive, with women and different racial groups, primarily Black, finding a greater place within the three sectors mentioned above. Maybe some have, yet not a lot seems to have changed very much since we witnessed Washington being set on fire fifty years ago, only blocks from the White House.
At one point, the author takes up the notion of the self-made man making it to the pinnacle, and the much-touted belief that social mobility was greater in America than anywhere else, as William Buckley claimed in a riveting debate with James Baldwin half a century ago.
Well, today any number of statistics will show that Canadians are twice as mobile as their next-door neighbours, in no small part because employment opportunities aren’t quite what they used to be; this in turn can be attributed to the “digital divide”.
And, finally, just in case anyone thought things were really improving south of the border, one simply has to read Paul Krugman’s article in the New York Times of July 1st, entitled “Why Do the Rich Have So Much Power?”
Wright Mills, The Power Elite, Oxford University Press