In 1956, the famed sociologist C. Wright Mills published The Power Elite, a blistering critique of concentrated political, economic and military power in the United States. The book influenced many protest movements of the 1960s and has inspired radical scholars and activists ever since.
Now, in 2023, Heather Gautney is continuing Mills’s project of analyzing and mapping out elite power in the U.S. In her new book, The New Power Elite, she offers a wide-ranging and urgent analysis of entrenched corporate power in the U.S. today. From Wall Street to Big Tech, from billionaires to celebrities, Gautney maps out the composition of today’s power elite and its methods of exploiting poor and working people to extract evermore wealth and profit.
The New Power Elite is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding and challenging elite power today and creating a more just and democratic society that prioritizes human needs over corporate profits.
Gautney is a professor of sociology at Fordham University. She has published numerous books and articles on U.S. politics and social movements, including Protest and Organization in the Alternative Globalization Era: NGOs, Social Movements, and Political Parties and Crashing the Party: From the Bernie Sanders Campaign to a Progressive Movement. She served as a senior policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders on his 2020 presidential campaign and in the U.S. Senate Budget Committee, and she co-chaired the Biden-Sanders Taskforce on Education in 2020.
In this exclusive interview with Truthout, Gautney discusses how both Democrats and Republicans allied with corporate elites to create today’s neoliberal order and its concerted project of elite class rule, the dangers of ignoring the working class, and how we might organize toward a more egalitarian order.
Derek Seidman: The Power Elite, by C. Wright Mills, was published in 1956. You write that your book is “a continuation of Mills’ program” to understand the nature of elite power. Why did you feel that it was important, in our current moment, to write this book?
Heather Gautney: First, I was a graduate assistant of Stanley Aronowitz, who was a Mills scholar. I had read The Power Elite and other works by Mills, and I was always excited about him and interested in crafting language and critiques that would appeal beyond the ivory tower of academia. Stanley was that kind of public intellectual, and he brought me up in that lineage.
The other thing was that for most of my “academic career” I was an activist in the global justice movement, against free trade agreements and other aspects of neoliberal capitalism. I wrote my first book on that. I got to this point where I knew what I was against, but I didn’t have a firm understanding of exactly who the people were that I was protesting. So that was a motivation to write this book — a desire to see the other side of it.
That also brought me to apply for a fellowship in Congress, to try to situate myself in government, where people are making these kinds of consequential decisions. I applied for a fellowship, and I ended up working for Bernie Sanders. You really get a sense of the power structures when you work for him because he is contesting them like no one else is. That gave me a particular vantage point — to sort of be on the inside but not be of the inside.
In terms of why I wrote this book now, Mills beckoned his readers to perform the same kind of analysis he performed in The Power Elite for their moment. The idea was that I and others would do this for our time. That’s a lineage that Mills left.
In your book you talk about the “concerted class program” of corporate elites and how it has shaped the rise of today’s political and economic order. Can you say a little bit about what you mean by this?
I wanted to emphasize this because a feature of neoliberalism is that it poses as ahistorical. It hides its tracks. It presents capitalism as the best possible system while degrading other systems. So for me, it’s really important to show that the political and social inequalities that we have today are by design. They didn’t happen by accident.
For example, there’s a lot of commentary about how the Koch brothers played the long game and how smart the right wing has been. But it leaves out the role of the Democrats in the neoliberal class project. The reality is that the Democratic Party at a particular time — really in the lead up to Bill Clinton — made a decision that they were going to sever ties with workers and build ties with corporations. They even had the Koch brothers on the Democratic Leadership Council’s executive council. That’s how flagrant it was.
That was a political decision to try to out-GOP the GOP, but it was also a class decision to side with corporate interests and against workers’ interests. Clinton came out of the gate with the North American Free Trade Agreement. He pushed for welfare reform. He deregulated the financial industries and telecommunications — all of these things that we’re paying the price for now, but which have been hugely profitable for Big Tech and Wall Street. This wasn’t an accident. And the class perspective — the idea that this was a concerted elite class project — has really been pushed aside.
We also tend to look at the billionaire class and make a distinction between, say, George Soros and the Koch brothers. But what I try to show in the book is that corporate elites and those who serve them do share common interests on many fundamental things.
In Jeffrey Winters’s book Oligarchy, he talks about “wealth defense” — this confluence of interests among the very rich on particular policy issues like taxation or maintaining a low minimum wage. Bill Gates is supposed to be some wonderful, progressive philanthropist, but talk to him about trade unions or investment in the public sector and he starts to sound a heck of a lot like Charles Koch.
And it’s not just that the rich are rich. Another goal of my book was to emphasize the social relationships undergirding elite power — the ideas, methodologies, and technologies they’ve imposed on people to get rich and how destructive and horrific they are. There’s a fundamental class program at work in the making of the gross inequality we have today — and at its core is the social relationship of exploitation.
The rise of neoliberalism is a core theme of your book. You emphasize how the neoliberal order has atomized people and weakened social solidarity.
Neoliberals say that they are promoting a system that safeguards individual liberty. But in reality, it’s a system that promotes the primacy of profit-making against the collective, or public, good. That’s why neoliberals call any public spending “collectivist” in a pejorative way.
We see this play out in the school system. In their view, public schools are an impingement on human freedom because they require parents to pay into a system that, they say, forces them to enroll their children in supposedly subpar schools. Never mind that public schools perform the same or better than many private schools. So, they promote “liberalizing” education so that parents have a “choice.” But what they really want to do is privatize education and turn it into a profitable industry. The whole charter school movement was about this. Everybody goes to school, right? It’s a gigantic field for profiteering.
Also, they seek to undermine public education because they know that public schools are spaces where people learn things like civic engagement, tolerance and critique. They know that people can be empowered in these spaces.
Within this construct of “protecting individual liberty,” the federal government — when acting as an agent of public spending and human and environment protection — becomes the bad guy because it’s imposing a supposedly collectivist way of life on people. It’s a view of freedom as deriving from individual sovereignty and competition as opposed to the idea of a common good — the idea that we can have an institutional system that we all share in and build together, that’s not commodified or produced through relations of exploitation.
And obviously, there’s a direct relationship between the corruption of the public school system and many Americans’ lack of ability to discern between truthful reporting and conspiracy theories and disinformation. If you have an uneducated public and an atomized population, you have the ability to manipulate on a mass scale. I believe that was by design. Today, a small number of people wield more control over the means of communication than any dictator has in history. Think about that.
The ultra-right lurch and pro-corporate agenda of Republicans is no secret to most, but you really emphasize the central role the Democratic Party has played in consolidating and promoting the neoliberal corporate order. Can you explain more?
I try to show that the Republican and Democratic parties basically operate as a political establishment based on a general consensus around the neoliberal economic order — divesting from public institutions and privatizing them, giving corporations the freest hand possible, disabling working-class institutions like unions, and so on. I try to demonstrate that Democrats have participated in creating and sustaining this order as much as the Republicans have.
Republicans obviously swing much further to the right and are not afraid to be autocratic. Democrats are more technocratic. It wasn’t that long ago that Joe Biden was on the Senate floor talking about how we have to reduce Social Security and Medicare because we can’t increase the deficit. Barack Obama tried to cut Social Security by manipulating Consumer Price Index calculations. He and other Democrats have used the federal budget and fiscal austerity as an excuse to disable social programs that working people rely on.
If you don’t have a political force that’s going to get in the way of the Republican Party then the political horizon is going to shift to the right. And that’s exactly what happened. When the Democrats decided to be the party of Walmart and Wall Street, you didn’t have any progressive wing to anchor the kind of New Deal paradigm that had been shaping U.S. politics and the political economic structure.
That’s where I think Bernie was incredibly impactful. He came along in 2016 and demonstrated that a lot of people were open to the word “socialism.” He resurrected that New Deal wing. And I think he exposed the Democrats more than anyone.
This was the benefit of working in the Senate with him and working on his campaigns. You see this stuff up really close. You’re painfully aware of the fact that if you have a progressive viewpoint that, because of the money and corporate interests in politics, you are up against a Goliath.
I had an interesting experience during my first year working for Bernie in 2013. The Farm Bill was up, and Bernie had submitted a handful of amendments. One of them was genetically modified organisms (GMO) labeling. Everybody — at least in Vermont — wants to know if there are genetically modified organisms in their food. Not one Democrat voted for it. No one. I went back and I looked at the campaign contributions for members of the Senate. All of them were getting money from Monsanto. So of course they weren’t going to vote for GMO labeling, because that would have screwed over the company that was giving them a couple thousand dollars for their next campaign. It was so flagrant.
That was like a kind of a “come-to-Jesus” moment for me. It was like, “Oh, this is how it works. They don’t even want us to know what’s in our food.” The Democrats would rather side with this horrible corporation than with everyday people. We saw this with a host of other stuff — Democrats trying to block Bernie from lowering the cost of prescription drugs because they were all getting money from Big Pharma. It was, and is, an utter disgrace.
You have a whole chapter on Wall Street. What are some ways that Wall Street preserves elite class rule today and dominates poor and working people?
One criticism of Mills was that he didn’t adequately account for the rise of finance capital. That was in the 1950s. Now, we can’t ignore it — it’s the fundamental matrix of the global economy.
I attacked the problem of Wall Street from a couple of different perspectives. The first was coming from the analysis in Randy Martin’s book The Financialization of Everyday Life. I looked at the ways in which debt is used as a mechanism of social control and extraction of value from everyday people — student debt, credit card debt, housing debt, predatory lending with payday loans and car loans. It’s banks targeting poor people, trying to extract wealth from people who don’t have anything.
Another piece of it was how Wall Street was able to game the housing market, making risky bets and essentially treating the global economy like a casino. Time and time again, Wall Street has been able to “externalize risk” onto everyday people, abetted by politicians on their payroll who are all too happy to issue huge bank bailouts, then impose budget cuts to make up for losses.
Then you have private equity firms buying up whole sectors like the rental housing market. They started doing it in the shadow of the housing market crash, because people lost their homes, and they were able to buy up cheap homes. Now they have these huge rental companies where they make incredible amounts of money renting to people, price-gouging them.
They’ve done the same in health care. I wrote about this in the book because I was extremely alarmed by it — that private equity firms are buying up hospitals and “re-engineering” them. They’re closing hospitals even in rural areas, which is frightening because rural communities rely on these hospitals. If your hospital closes down, you might be two hours away from another one. If you have a heart attack, and a private equity firm closes your local hospital because it’s not “profitable,” you’re just going to die. They don’t care. It’s not about serving the health care needs of the country. It’s about what’s best for these private equity firms and their profit margins.
We should be turning on MSNBC and seeing reports on this every day, because it’s absolutely consequential. But instead, it’s Donald Trump, and more Donald Trump.
You argue that celebrities are part of the new power elite in a way they weren’t when Mills wrote his book. Can you talk about this in the context of Trump?
In my book I talk about the role of entertainment in politics. If you look at some of the darkest periods in human history and the rise of dictatorships, they were all very charismatic leaders. They used entertainment and music and all of these trappings of amusement to bring people in.
Trump really had that skill. He had a dimension of humor. He was very skillful at presenting himself as the “everyman” as well as the ideal man. To his followers, he was the billionaire with a big airplane and beautiful wife, the “American Dream” personified — but also one of you. These are the features that Theodor Adorno identified in his analysis of German fascism. I’m not equating the U.S. with that historical moment, but the tactics were all there and remain there.
Much of this is possible not just because of political disaffection, but because of the primacy of entertainment in our culture. Celebrities now have corporate, cultural and political power. They have that power because publicity, branding and advertising have become major means of public engagement in our society today, all enabled by communications technologies and social media.
Trump is made possible by this confluence of political factors, but also cultural factors. I’m not the only person to point out that “The Apprentice” was very popular. He’s painted as this big executive in the show, and it rated very highly early on. Everyone got to know Trump. And it brought him a certain kind of publicity that translated into political power. We’re seeing more of that now. Look at Dr. Mehmet Oz and Herschel Walker. They didn’t ultimately win, but they won their primaries. And the general elections were close, especially in Georgia. The fact that Walker came that close to winning says something about celebrity in politics. That’s how we live with celebrity now. We don’t have that relationship with politicians, and we don’t trust politicians in this country, but we love and adore celebrities.
We don’t have a Democratic Party that is interested in representing the interests of working-class people. That’s how I think Trump is possible. And that’s how Ron DeSantis becomes possible.
Are there any cracks or fissures that you see in the class rule of the new power elite? And what should organizers do today to mount a stronger challenge to the current order?
I outlined a few areas at the end of the book that I think are fertile for progressive efforts to diffuse elite power and work toward a more egalitarian order. One of them is the media. Quite frankly, I’m disgusted by the corporate media. I think it’s really important that we support and engage in all kinds of independent media. Truthout is an example — Truthout is great. Adolph Reed has this incredible online project called Nonsite. Without these outlets, we’d be missing something really important. We have these centers of information and commentary, and we need more of them.
We also have to center the concept of public goods in our political life. That’s been the primary frontier of the political establishment’s attack on working-class and poor people. I think that’s a really concrete, policy-driven space that people from all kinds of political backgrounds can focus on. Even people who are manipulated by the right believe in the importance of Social Security and Medicare. I think Bernie was really good at this.
Finally, I think, as a movement, we need to get out of our silos. There’s this fragmentation of movements. I really wanted my book to say to people: Elite power is so concentrated, and so deep, and so ruthless and violent, that there’s no way that one movement over here or over there is going to be able to take on all of these forces. This kind of siloing has to stop. I really believe that people need to get out of their comfort zones and do what Jane McAlevey called “organizing” as opposed to just mobilizing. Labor unions are really good at this. They’re willing to go beyond the converted. We need more institutions like that.
Until we have a real understanding as movements of the fundamental relation of capitalism undergirding all of our struggles, then I don’t think anything’s going to happen. In fact, it will just get worse.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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