The Incoherence of the Intellectual:
C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite
Knowledge and Action

Fredy Perlman

The Mindless Years 1950‑1956

The Cheerful Robot and the Rift between Thought and Action

Abandoning workers to labor leaders who have crawled again into politics‑as‑usual, Mills took up new and fascinating career chances which involved opportunities to practice his skill rather freely. Between 1950 and 1956, he wrote two major books and numerous articles, and took his third, largest and last excursion with Professor Gerth. In all these works, the influence of Weber and Gerth is dominant; the independent political radical is pushed to the margins, and in the work with Gerth is altogether absent. Yet this framework cannot hold the man who once committed himself to deeper levels of analysis and strategy, and at the end of this period the margins expand and once again become the central concerns. However, like the earlier interruptions of Mills' search for political coherence, the new excursions and retreats are not overcome, and as a result they leave large scars.

To professors of sociology, the period which Mills later called the mindless years is Mills' most "creative" period: he wrote a sociology textbook with Gerth, plus two original contributions to the "profession." Although the well documented observations of the original works are somewhat marred by marginal observations which are cryptic and controversial, the textbook clearly lives up to the expectations of the head scholars of the profession: "Whether use of the book precedes, accompanies, or follows intensive study of the short‑run present in the laboratory, field and clinic, it should broaden the horizon of the student who generally comes into social psychology either through the gateway of psychology or of sociology." [1]

In this essay, I will focus attention to the controversial margins, because this is where Mills analyzed himself, his fellow academics, and his dehumanizing experience in the white collar hierarchy.

The introduction to White Collar contains the most comprehensive analysis of alienation that Mills ever made. In the case of the white‑collar man, the alienation of the wage‑worker from the products of his work is carried one step nearer to its Kafka‑like completion. The salaried employee does not make anything, although he may handle much that he greatly desires but cannot have. No product of craftsmanship can be his to contemplate with pleasure as it is being created and after it is made. Being alienated from any product of his labor, and going year after year through the same paper routine, he turns his leisure all the more frenziedly to the ersatz diversion that is sold him, and partakes of the synthetic excitement that neither eases nor releases. He is bored at work and restless at play, and this terrible alternation wears him out . . . . When white‑collar people get jobs, they sell not only their time and energy, but their personalities as well. They sell by the week or month their smiles and their kindly gestures, and they must practice the prompt repression of resentment and aggression. . . . Self‑alienation is thus an accompaniment of his alienated labor. [2] The separation of the individual from his own activity and even from his gestures, the individual's lack of power over his own self, is accompanied by a feeling of general powerlessness, by political indifference. To be politically indifferent is to see no political meaning in one's life or in the world in which one lives, to avoid any political disappointments or gratifications. So political symbols have lost their effectiveness as motives for action and as justifications for institutions. Mills characterizes various forms of political indifference among the white collar people; some of the people whose lives make no difference escape an awareness of this fact by means of animal thrill, sensation, and fun. However, political indifference may also be a reasoned cynicism, which distrusts and debunks all available political loyalties and hopes as lack of sophistication. Or it may be the product of an extra‑rational consideration of the opportunities available to men, who, with Max Weber, assert that they can live without belief in a political world gone meaningless, but in which detached intellectual work is still possible. [3] This analysis of political indifference is riot based on statistical studies of white collar people. It is based on personal experience. Mills and Ruth Harper write that that Our knowledge of this is firmer than any strict proof available to us.  It rests, first of all, upon our awareness, as politically conscious men ourselves, of the discrepancy between the meaning and stature of public events and what people seem most interested in. [4] Whenever in this book, I have written ‘we' I mean my wife, Ruth Harper, and myself . .  . [5]) It is a sense of our general condition that lies back of our conviction that political estrangement in America is widespread and decisive. [6] Thought is separated from living experience, and the formerly political intellectual becomes a passive spectator.  Most of us now live as spectators in a world without political interlude: fear of total permanent war stops our kind of morally oriented politics.  Our spectatorship means that personal, active experience often seems politically useless and even unreal. [7]

Mills does not accept this condition. In a section on The Morale of the Cheerful Robot he writes, whatever satisfaction alienated men gain from work occurs within the framework of alienation; whatever satisfaction they gain from life occurs outside the boundaries of work; work and life are sharply split. [8] Furthermore, Mills does not apologize for this split as the legitimate attitude of the "objective'', detached scholar. For Mills such a pose is the pose of in idiot and Mills remains a different kind of man: we are now in a situation in which many who are disengaged from prevailing allegiances have not acquired new ones, and so are distracted from and inattentive to political concerns of any kind. They are strangers to politics. They are not radical, not liberal, not conservative, not reactionary; they are inactionary; they are out of it. If we accept the Greek's definition of the idiot as a privatized man, then we must conclude that the U.S. citizenry is now largely composed of idiots. [9]

Instead of accepting this mass incapacity, Mills seeks to under stand it, so as to get out of it. He asks why men accept themselves with a smile and a cheer, as dependent robots and helpless idiots whose lives make no difference, and he begins to answer. Between consciousness and existence stand communications, which influence such consciousness as men have of their existence. [10] And the communications provided by the cultural apparatus of the US, consisting of' mindless commodity propaganda, obfuscating liberal rhetoric and debilitating entertainment, helps explain why the US citizenry is now largely composed of idiots: The forms and contents of political consciousness, or their absence, cannot be understood without reference to the world created and sustained by these media. . . . Contents of the mass media seep into our images of self, becoming that which is taken for granted. . . The world created by the mass media contains very little discussion of political meanings, not to speak of their dramatization, or sharp demands and expectations. . . . The prevailing symbols are presented in such a contrived and pompous civics‑book manner, or in such a falsely human light, as to preclude lively involvement and deep‑felt loyalties . . . The mass media hold a monopoly of the ideologically dead; they spin records of political emptiness.  .   .  . The attention absorbed by the images on the screen's rectangle dominates the darkened public. . . The image of success and its individuated psychology are the most lively aspects of popular culture and the greatest diversion from politics. . . . The easy identification with private success finds its obverse side, Gunnar Myrdal has observed, in 'the remarkable lack of a self‑generating, self‑disciplined, organized people's movement in America.' [11] The ideals of liberalism have been divorced from any realities of modem social structure that might serve as the means of their realization . .. The detachment of liberalism from the facts of a going society make it an excellent mask for those who do not, cannot, or will not do what would have to be done to realize its ideals. [12] In his Diagnosis of Our Moral Uneasiness, Mills turns to the effects of leisure on the drugged and deluded spectators: . . . leisure itself has largely become merely it part of consumption, no longer part of a full life, but a substitute for it. For to this sphere also, the mean of mass production—the machineries of amusement—have been applied Rather than allow and encourage men to develop their sensibilities and unfold their creativities, their leisure merely wears them out. [13]

Yet even though Mills rejects the passivity with which men accept their own fragmentation, he no longer struggles against it. The coherent  self‑determined man becomes an exotic creature who lived in a distant past and in extremely different material circumstances. The first part of White Collar opens with the following quotation from R.H. Tawney:

"Whatever the future may contain, the past has shown no more excellent social order than that in which the mass of the people were the masters of the holdings which they plowed and of the tools with which they worked. . ." [14] As for the present, cheerful robots, buyers, floorwalkers and salesgirls, professors and managers, shuffle between the Enormous File and The Great Salesroom, purge what remains of their humanity by running in The Status Panic and shopping in The Biggest Bazaar in the the World, while What goes on domestically may briefly be described in terms of the main drift toward a permanent war economy in  a garrison state. [15] The main drift is no longer the program of the right which can be opposed by the program of the left; it is now an external spectacle which follows its course like a disease.

The American labor movement capable of moving upstream against the main drift, and the leaderless men who kept right on comin', are abandoned to the media of mass distraction, and to labor leaders. Mills does not excuse this in terms of the political detachment of the objective scholar; he excuses it in terms of the political default of others, even in terms of the default of the workers themselves: the Savior did not arrive, Whatever the political promises of labor and leftward forces 15 years ago, they have not been fulfilled. . . [16]

As a result, it is not possible to see oneself as a demanding political force [17] since one has not defined a social context in which men willfully modify and create their institutions. [18] The field of strategy has been restricted to the point of impotence, since the powerless intellectual has no strategy and no one to communicate it to. Thus restricted, the impotent professor can no longer remain coherent; the rift between theory and practice, thought and action, widens; political ideals call no longer he translated into practical projects, and projected actions are no longer related to any ideals. Thus the same writer who speaks of men willfully creating their own institutions refers to political action as having real demands to make of those in key positions of power. [19] Willful self‑determination characterizes angels in a city built with words, whereas political activity in the city of men consists of submission to those in key positions of power. Behemoth is everywhere united. But the man who was once moved by this fact into deeper levels of analysis and strategy, now retreats to a post‑World War II formulation of Max Weber's salvation from impotence and routine . . . there is in America today no set of Representative Men whose conduct and character are above the taint of the pecuniary morality, and who constitute models for American imitation and aspiration. . . . Yet it is the moral man—and especially the set of socially visible or Representative Men—who by demanding moral change can best dramatize issues. [20]

Intellectual Default and Escape into Academic Cynicism

In the early 1950s, Mills seems to have been in the right frame of mind for his major project with Professor Gerth. Character and Social Structure is not a political task, it is not a strategy of action addressed to a democratically responsible public. Its aim is not to make the collective dream of the left manifest to potential forces of rebellion. It is a textbook, an encyclopedic compilation of other people's thoughts, an administrative classification of fragmentary observations, addressed to the powerless people, the status seeking academic bureaucrats who may use it on students who come "either through the gateway of psychology or of' sociology" for wisdom which "precedes, accompanies or follows intensive study of the short‑run present in the laboratory, field and clinic." An ironic result of this rational compartmentalization of fragments is that one compartment's fragments may affirm what is denied by the fragments classified into another compartment. This rationalized incoherence provides a framework in which most of Mills' earlier observations coexist with their opposites in politically trivial contexts. The book even contains a devastating critique of the bureaucratic structure it is designed to serve. The demand of the state and of corporations for trained civil servants and qualified experts of all sorts has been decisive for the modern development of universities. . . . Lorenz von Stein correctly called the modern university 'a school for bureaucrats.' [21]

On the basis of the definitions of reality which emerge from the work, a reader cannot responsibly cope with the whole of live experience. [22] Instead of asking why people allow themselves to be dehumanized, to be forced to live out their lives on a stage playing the roles of cheerful robots, the authors simply lean back and abandon themselves to the enjoyment of the grand spectacle for which sociologists have fashioned analytical tools. Long‑used phrases readily come to mind: 'playing a role' in the 'great theater of public life,' to move 'in the limelight,' the 'theater of War,' the 'stage is all set.’ [23] Instead of attempts to get to the root of what is happening and what might be done about it, this textbook provides cold descriptions of what usually happens, presented in such a way that one cannot imagine what might be done about it. An institution is thus (1) an organization of roles, (2) one or more of which is understood to serve the maintenance of the total set of roles. [24] Here slaves, clerks and wage workers are nothing more than obedient sheep, or roles, and the degradation and self‑annihilation involved in every act of submission is merely the part assigned to supporting characters by the script. The 'head role' of an institution is very important in the psychic life of the other members of the institution. What 'the head' thinks of them in their respective roles, or what they conceive him to think, is internalized, that is, taken over, by them. [25] The fact that the head role has power only because, and only so long as the others voluntarily separate themselves from their own power, and thus annihilate their own humanity, is also mentioned. Authority, or legitimate power, involves voluntary obedience based on some idea which the obedient holds of the powerful or of his position. 'The strongest,' wrote Rousseau, is never strong enough to be always master, unless he transforms his strength into right, and obedience into duty.' [26] But Rousseau's lead is not followed; the voluntary alienation of self‑powers is not analyzed in any politically meaningful context.

The authors mention that the social activities in which people engage are not determined by people's biology, but are specific voluntary responses to particular situations; they are historical, not "natural." The routinized activities which account for most people's daily life may well be "roles" which they voluntarily perform in the face of specific obstacles; it may well be true that, in the past, people voluntarily performed the same roles all life long, and thus alienated their selves. However, even if an actor puts on the mask of Oedipus and remains on stage reciting the same lines for the rest of his life, the actor's self cannot be confused with his mask. Yet this is precisely what the professors confuse. They point out that man as a person is a social‑historical creation, and they specify that a person (from the Latin persona, meaning 'mask) is composed of the specific roles which he enacts, although the word composed already introduces an ambiguity.  But then they say that In order to understand men's conduct and experience we must reconstruct the historical social structures in which they play roles and acquire selves. [27] In other words, by playing the role of Oedipus a man acquires a self, whereas in actual fact, by playing the role of Oedipus the man becomes a character in a play, spectacle, a dead thing: he alienates his self, and acquires a mask. By confusing the man with his masks, the professors close the very possibility of analyzing man's self‑alienation in roles and masks, But if that case they cannot study social institutions as historical forms of routinized activity, as masks which people voluntarily put on in specific circumstances. Consequently, their frequent use of the term historical conveys nothing more than the superficial observation that people perform different activities in different periods of time.

Armed with a conception which reduces man to his particular "behavior" in particular circumstances (which coexists with a fragment from Rousseau which points in the opposite direction from this conception), the professors describe social activity as a grand theatrical performance, a vast spectacle. In this enormous drama, there are not merely roles, but bureaucratically arranged sets of roles, or Institutional Orders. These Orders, or Spheres, are named in terms of the types of roles played within them; the main Orders are political, economic and military; other Orders contain religious, kinship and educational roles Each Institutional Order has a corresponding script, or symbol sphere. Standard scenes performed in the political and military orders are described in the following dramatic terms: Once a national community is fully a state, it monopolizes the use of legitimate violence within its domain, defends its domain against other states, and may attempt to expand it [28]  . . . When a nation‑state extends political protection to the trading areas of its businessmen we speak of 'imperialism.' The most explicit types of imperialism involve the acquisition of a colonial empire by purchase, or conquest, or both. [29]

The violence of a modern national army is legitimated by the symbols and sentiments of the nation and its cause; the men of this army are disciplined for obedience to a hierarchy of staff and line officers. The following sentence explains that Discipline rests upon acceptance of the nation's  cause and is guaranteed by sanctions—including loss of status and career chances and, in the last analysis, capital punishment. [30] This explanation of discipline, not merely in terms of force, but in terms of the nation's cause, in terms of right, obscures tile meaning of the statement from Rousseau which was quoted with approval by the professors. The strongest is never strong enough to be always master, unless he transforms his force into right and obedience into duty, This is the origin of the right of the strongest, a right seemingly accepted in irony, and actually established in principle. But will this word never be explained to us? Force is a physical power; I don't see what morality can result from its effects. To give in to force is an act of necessity, not of will; it's at best an act of prudence. In what sense could it he a duty? Asked Rousseau after the statement quoted by the professors. . . What kind of a right perishes when force ceases? If one has to obey because of force, one need not obey because of duty; and if one is no longer forced to obey, one is no longer obliged. We can see that this word right does not add anything to force; here it means nothing at all. . . . Obey power! If that means give in to force, the precept is good but superfluous; I answer that it will never be violated. . . . Since no man has any natural authority over his equal, and since force produces no right only conventions remain as the basis of all legitimate authority among men. . . . To alienate is to give or sell. . . . (But) to say that a man gives himself freely  is to say something absurd and inconceivable; such an act is illegitimate and void if only because the man who does this is not in his right mind. To say the same thing about a population is to suppose a population of madmen; but madness does not create right. . . . To renounce one's liberty is to renounce one's quality as a man the rights of humanity as well as the duties. . . . In short, it is a vain and contradictory convention which stipulates absolute authority for one and unlimited obedience for the others. [31] If Rousseau's argument had been re‑thought coherently, and not included bureaucratically as a fragment from a file, the professors would have explained that military discipline rests on a complete renunciation of one quality as a man, that even a modern national army is never strong enough to be always master, and consequently that the continued renunciation of one's humanity cannot be guaranteed by anything.

If obedience and discipline could be guaranteed, man would have no history. But this is not the point of the last paragraph of Character and Social Structure, where it is said that man not only has a history, but creates it. Neither his anatomy nor his psyche fix his destiny. He creates his own destiny as he responds to his experienced situation, and both his situation and his experiences of it are the complicated products of the historical epoch which he enacts. That is why he does not create his destiny as an individual but as a member of a society. Only within the limits of his place in an historical epoch can man as an individual shape himself, but we do not yet know, we call never know, the limits to which men collectively might remake themselves. [32] This conclusion is undermined by most of what precedes it. According to paragraphs which immediately precede the conclusion, it is not men, but nations, namely frozen concentrations of men's alienated powers, that make modern history. On the one hand, there is the U.S.S.R., the world's greatest land power. . . On the other hand, there is the U.S.A., the world's greatest industrial and naval power. . . All countries are now interdependent, but all countries are also now directly or indirectly dependent upon the dollar or the ruble standard, upon what the United States or the Soviet Union does or fails to do. [33] It is a spectacle with two superhuman heroes; they act, and men obey. The very possibility of collective projects based on shared perspectives and strategies is dismissed by a reasoned cynicism which distrusts and debunks all political activity. In the professional jargon of these authors, reference to straightforward communication among self‑determined individuals would lack sophistication; instead of community, there are roles, and the verbal exchange between roles is not communication but manipulation; the manipulator has a monopoly on his skill: he is a symbol expert; his manipulated audience consists of men who are not specialists in symbols but in other "disciplines" (i.e. they have even alienated their power to express themselves): Skill groups, such as poets and novelists, specialize in fashioning and developing vocabularies for emotional states and gestures; they specialize in telling us how we feel, as well as how we should or might feel, in various situations. [34] In terms of this type of language, political action is reduced to efficient manipulation, because the world consists of rat‑like masses who move and shift in response to particular symbolic stimuli. In the scholar's study or the agitator's den the symbols which legitimate various kinds of political systems may be rearranged, debunked, or elaborated. . . For changes in the legitimating symbols to be realized, masses of people must shift the, their allegiances. [35] In this political world gone meaningless, in which detached intellectual work is still possible, the detached scholar soars so high above human activity that he can no longer distinguish men from things. The lines get blurred, and what had once been political programs and strategies of action now become commodities on a nineteenth century Smithian market ruled by an invisible hand; what was once called the politics of truth in a democratically responsible society is now seen as big units competing with small fry on a political market where competition leads to concentration and results in the formation if duopolies, monopolies and cartels: If the rival creed cannot be liquidated and is itself not strong enough to establish another monopoly in the symbol sphere, a 'duopoly' may arise. This is a situation of accommodation to a tolerant though competitive co‑existence. . . . Thus out of competition there occurs a move toward concentration. One or several competitors increasingly wins out, and the smaller units, eager to avail themselves of the prestige of the big winner, will jump on the band wagon. Symbol cartels will thus be formed. . . . Another general mode of concentration occurs by the alliance of a few big units for the more effective suppression of a number of small fry who are thus gobbled up. [36]

Once the detached debunkers who wrote these lines are off the around, they stop at nothing. Even Mills' early definition of political strategy is so restated that it can he reduced to the manipulative commodity propaganda of a public relations man. Strategic choice of motive is part of the attempt to motivate the act for the other persons involved in our conduct, which is here translated to mean that We control another man by manipulating the premiums which the other accepts. [37]

The sale of motives on a strategy market does not, however, explain historical change. To explain that, the professors return to Max Weber, and the fourth part of the book, on Dynamics, deals with The Sociology of Leadership. This part repeats and elaborates the cynical comments of Mills' first article with Professor Gerth. The detached professors, one of whom is said to have benefited from contact with the academic wisdom of the other, are once again passive spectators of a familiar drama, the Nazi "revolution," which has now become, for them, the archetype of all historical change and a synonym for revolution. It is convenient to grasp the psychological and ideological aspects of revolutionary movements by focusing upon their definition of historical time and reality and upon their conception of freedom . . . A keen sense of a new unheard‑of mission inspires the charismatic leader and his followers. . . . Optimism, of a previously unheard‑of surge, lifts up the followers of the charismatic leader. With eyes fixed on the distant yet foreshortened goal, they move ahead with the certainty of the sleepwalker, often immunized against the costs of blood, self‑sacrifice and terror which the deliberate destruction of the old entails. . . . These experiences of time and reality dovetail with those of the freedom which is to come through detachment in action. Freedom means liberation, and with the increasing size and power of the charismatic following, freedom is felt to increase. For freedom is seen and felt to be a sharing in the expanding movement of the leader. The enthusiasm of the faithful follower is experienced as essential to freedom. [38] As for the outcome of such a "revolution": the professors restate their conclusion to the article they wrote a decade earlier, clarifying it for those who had not understood its implications the first time: Revolution involves a turnover in personnel; but such turnover is not by itself a revolution. A circulation of elites is not enough; there must also be a restructuring of a system of domination and authority. [39]

Character and Social Structure may be seen as an index of a society coming apart. Neither a cure nor a diagnosis, it is itself symptom of an age when sensitive minds experience stress and strain.  It is a sign of times of distress, of a state of normlessness, written by passive spectators of an erupting volcano who do not know or would rather not know that the eruption they're watching is not natural but social, and that human motion, including their own, is what creates the and maintains the flames. Then occurs in intellectual circles trial and error, criticism and countercriticism, self‑searching and doubt, skepticism and enlightenment, desperate attempts to revive and to reaffirm what proves in the end to be outlived and hollow. Words and deeds fail to jibe, and boredom overcomes many who feel weary of uninspiring days. [40]

Rejection of Crackpot Realism and Academic Incoherence

Mills spent the rest of the mindless years, from 1953 to 1958, recovering from his desperate attempt to revive and to reaffirm what proved in the end to be outlived and hollow. As if to dissociate himself once again from the normless, detached, cynical Spirit that floats above a world of masses shifting enthusiastically under the wands of charismatic leaders, Mills wrote an introduction to the work of a man who was the very antithesis of Max Weber, a man who would have dismissed The Sociology of Leadership as a second rate mid‑nineteenth century farce, a man who, according to Mills, is nevertheless the best social scientist America has produced, [41] Thorstein Veblen. He was a masterless, recalcitrant man, and if we must group him somewhere in the American scene, it is with those most recalcitrant Americans, the Wobblies. On the edges of the higher learning, Veblen tried to live like a Wobbly. It was a strange place for such an attempt. The Wobblies were not learned, but they were, like Veblen, masterless men, and the only non‑middle class movement of revolt in twentieth‑century America. [42]

The trip into academic incoherence, or rather the journey to a Paradise where man could be seen through the eyes of God,  was an interruption of Mills’ development, but not the end of the road; the trip left deep scars, but it did not stunt him. Mills was, after all, a masterless, recalcitrant man, at times almost a sort of intellectual Wobbly. He seems to have been two different men, and it is significant that the longest quotation from Veblen's works which he chose for his introduction says, "The current situation in America is by way of being something of a psychiatrical clinic. . . . Perhaps the commonest and plainest evidence of this unbalanced mentality is to be seen in a certain fearsome and feverish credulity with which a large proportion of the Americans are affected. [43]

Credulity is a state of delusion; it represents a rift between thought and action. The behavior of a credulous person lacks coherence: he cannot act in terms of what he thinks, and his thoughts are not related to anything he does. It did not take Mills long to remember that his life goal had not been to become a detached inmate in a psychiatric ward; it did not take him long to begin to break loose. He tried to get to the heart of the absence of mind in politics, the failure of nerve and conservative mood which had dropped over people like a drugged sleep The psychological heart of this mood is a feeling of powerlessness—but with the old edge taken off, for it is a mood of acceptance and of a relaxation of the political will. The intellectual core of the groping for conservatism is a giving up of the central goal of the secular impulse in the West: the control through reason of man's fate. [44] In what seems like a desperate attempt to revive the early framework which had once served as a starting point, Mills returns, in 1954, to what he had called Dewey's style of liberalism in his doctoral dissertation. Men in masses have troubles although they are not always aware of their true meaning and source. Men in publics confront issues, and they are aware of their terms. It is the task of the liberal institution, as of the liberally educated man, continually to translate troubles into issues and issues into the terms of their human meaning for the individual. [45] The following year, 1955, he reintroduces into the center of his work the ideals he had tried to translate into projects in 1948. Among these values none has been held higher than the grand role of reason in civilization and in the lives of its civilized members. And none has been more sullied and distorted by men of power in the mindless years we have been enduring. Given the caliber of the American elite, and the immorality of accomplishment in terms of which they are selected, perhaps we should have expected this. But political intellectuals too have been giving up the old ideal of the public relevance of knowledge. Among them a conservative mood—a mood that is quite appropriate for men living in a political vacuum—has come to prevail. [46] The same man who two years earlier had not opposed a passive, detached, "realistic" description of the state as it monopolizes the use of legitimate violence within its domain, now indignantly writes: There is no opposition to public mindlessness in all its forms nor to all those forces and men that would further it. But above all—among the men of knowledge, there is little or no opposition to the divorce of knowledge from power, of sensibilities from men of power, no opposition to the divorce of mind from reality. [47] The reality which these men of knowledge accept without opposition is described in The Power Elite. America—a conservative country without any conservative ideology—appears now before the world a naked and arbitrary power, as, in the name of realism, its men of decision enforce their often crackpot definitions upon world reality. The second‑rate mind is in command of the ponderously spoken platitude. In the liberal rhetoric, vagueness, and in the conservative mood, irrationality, are raised to principle. Public relations and the official secret, the trivializing, campaign and the terrible fact clumsily accomplished, are replacing the reasoned debate of political ideas in the privately incorporated economy, the military ascendancy, and the political vacuum of modem America. [48]

Rejecting the divorce of mind from reality, Mills is able to distinguish the men from the masks, he can see the human beings who renounce their humanity and alienate their selves in roles instead of creating their own lives; he does not call it alienation, but he describes it as a dominant fact about everyday life in American society. Today many people have to trivialize their true interests into 'hobbies,' which are socially considered as unserious pastimes rather than the center of their real existence. But only by a craftsmanlike style of life can the split domains of work and leisure become unified; and only by such self‑cultivation can the everyday life become a medium for genuine culture. . . The mere chronological fact of more time on our hands is a necessary condition for the cultivation of individuality, but by no means guarantees it. As people have more time on their hands, most of it is taken away from them by the debilitating quality of their work, by the pace of their everyday routine, and by the ever‑present media of mass distraction. [49] Mills continues to look for the vehicles between existence and consciousness, the media which guide men to find the aim of life in that tired frenzy by which we strive for the animated glee we call fun . [50]

His analysis of the mediators between consciousness and existence now has nothing in common with the skill groups that specialize in telling us how we feel or with the symbol cartels selling motives to shifting masses which he had seen from his vantage point on Mt. Olympus. Public relations displace reasoned argument; manipulation and undebated decisions of power replace democratic authority. More and more, as administration has replaced politics, decisions of importance do not carry even the panoply of reasonable discussion it? public, but are made by God, by experts, and by men like Mr. Wilson. . . . The height of such mindless communications to masses, or what are thought to be masses, is the commercial propaganda for toothpaste and soap and cigarettes and automobiles. [51]

And when he looks at the intellectuals, Mills does not find them detached: by the work they do not do they uphold the official definitions of reality, and, by the work they do, even elaborate it. [52]  The colleagues to whom he devoted a portion of his life, especially those engaged in Scientific Sociology, do not fit Mills' definition of masterless men. Many of them are engaged in molecular work, and molecular work has no illustrious antecedents, but, by virtue of historical accident and the unfortunate facts of research finance, has been developed a great deal from studies of marketing and problems connected with media of mass communications. [53] His own chosen "discipline" is split into two schools of equally alienated men in whose hands the social studies become an elaborate method of insuring that no one learns too much about man and society, the first by formal but empty ingenuity; the second, by formal and cloudy obscurantism. One group engages in the large‑scale bureaucratic style of research into small‑scale problems, [54] while the other group consists of Grand Theorists busy with a seemingly arbitrary elaboration of distinctions which do not enlarge one's understanding of recognizably human problems or experience. [55] Professors claiming to be detached adapt to the requirements of the dominant bureaucracies; their private interests just happen to coincide with the interests of men with money and power, so that their research is at once a contribution to Pure Science and the source of a comfortable income. These experts are in fact hired technicians and salesmen of knowledge, middlemen who derive their livelihood and status from transforming and processing the discoveries of science, philosophy and art for their employer and customer, the Power Elite, the warlords, corporate chieftains and political directorate of the United States.

The one‑time program of the right has become an accomplished fact, and the left which was to move upstream against the main drift has disappeared. With a renewed will to move against the main drift, Mills seems to have been left completely alone, scarred, but not mastered. He begins, once again, to locate himself in his social context, and thus also to locate his task. What knowledge does to a man (in clarifying what he is, and setting it free)—that is the personal ideal of knowledge. What knowledge does to a civilization (in revealing its human meaning, and setting it free)—that is the social ideal of knowledge. [56] Neither a charismatic nor a hereditary member of the Power Elite, and clearly neither a self‑sold nor a lucky new arrival, this recalcitrant man who was at times sort of an intellectual Wobbly, cannot find either personal or social meaning in the Higher Circles: I certainly am not aware of any desire to be more like the rich in the sense that I am sometimes aware of wanting to be more like some of the crack mechanics I know. [57] He defines himself as a third type of man, one whose work does have a distinct kind of political relevance: his politics, in the first instance, are the politics of truth, for his job is the maintenance of an adequate definition of reality. In so far as he is politically adroit, the main tenet of his politics is to find out as much of the truth as he can, and to tell it to the right people, at the right time, and in the right way. . . The intellectual ought to be the moral conscience of society. . . [58] This is the role of mind, of intellect, of reason, of ideas: to define reality adequately and in a publicly relevant way. The role of education. . . is to build and sustain publics that will 'go for,' and develop, and live with, and act upon, adequate definitions of reality. [59]

However, the major work of this period, The Power Elite, was not a politically motivated task; it was suggested by friends that I ought to round out a trilogy by writing a book on the upper classes. . . And yet that is not 'really' how 'the project' arose; what really happened is (1) that the idea and the plan came out of my files, for all projects with me begin and end with them, and books are simply organized releases from the continuous work that goes into them. . . [60] The definition of reality which emerges from these files locates the enemy with a 500 watt glare. And Nazi is only one of his names. The top of modem American society is increasingly unified, and often seems willfully co‑ordinated: at the top there has emerged an elite of power. The middle levels are a drifting set of stalemated, balancing forces: the middle does not link the bottom with the top. The bottom of this society is politically fragmented, and even as a passive fact increasingly powerless: at the bottom there is emerging a mass society. [61] However, this large analysis of possible futures which have turned into harsh realities, does not even cast the beam of a pocket flashlight on the alienation of activity, power and intellect, on the comprehensive renunciation of humanity which accounts for, but does not guarantee, the power of the elite. It does not proceed in terms of the struggle between the Power Elite and the alienated population, a struggle in which the right has temporarily realized its program; it does not create on awareness of the field of strategy still open to the left. In his critical introduction to Veblen, Mills even chastises Veblen for overlooking the "social functions" of upper class leisure, status and prestige, saying that leisure activities are one way of securing a coordination of decision between various sections and elements of the upper class, that status activities provide a marriage market, and that prestige buttresses power. [62] Mills repeats this critique in The Power Elite. [63] But he thereby completely obfuscates Veblen's carefully drawn distinction between "social functions" which serve human life and those which stunt it. Indignation about the stunted development and pathological condition of the American population does not become analysis in Mills' work. He continues to repeat what he already knew in 1948, namely that the "social functions" of the upper class are not going to be destroyed by labor leaders, that the current crop of labor leaders is pretty well set up as a dependent variable in the main drift, [64] and that within the present framework of political economy . . . unions are less levers for change of that general framework than they are instruments for more advantageous integration with it. [65] Mills ends an article with the statement that, For the businessman, the politician, and the labor leader—each in curiously different ways—the more apathetic the members of their mass organizations. . . the more operating power the leaders have as members of the national power elite. [66] But Mills does not go into the meaning of that apathy as a profound renunciation of self. He seems, rather, to take the apathy as an original datum, as the starting point for analysis, but not itself subject to analysis. As a result, he confines historical change to events which take place within the higher circles, and cannot focus on the potential initiative of the alienated, on historical change which consists of de‑alienation and consequently deals with the pathological condition, the unbalanced mentality with which a large portion of the Americans are affected.

Mills is aware of the gap between the central goal. . .: the control through reason of man's fate, and the actual condition of the American population. He no longer accepts that stunted condition as the full human stature of the mass, as a realization of self in the mask and the role. He writes that, From almost any angle of vision that we might assume, when we look upon the community of publics, we realize that we have moved a considerable distance along the road to a mass society. [67]

He realizes that the manipulated man of the "mass" is a human being who has alienated what is "inalienable," his humanity. However, he seems to assume that the "social functions" which serve the Power Elite can guarantee and even deepen the transformation of publics into masses, [68] and as a result he does not regard the appropriation of the lost humanity as the road to historical change. He turns, instead, to Dewey's style of liberalism, to "historical change" initiated at the top and by the top, to men selected and formed by a civil service that is linked with the world of knowledge and sensibility. [69] [—> Contents]

Notes to Chapter 2

1 Robert K. Merton's Foreword to C. Wright Mills and H. H. Gerth, Character and Social Structure: The Psychology of Social Institutions, New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1953, pp. vii‑viii. [—> main text]

2 Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. xvi‑xvii. [—> main text]

3 Ibid., p. 327. [—> main text]

4 Ibid., p. 328. [—> main text]

5 Ibid., p. 355. [—> main text]

6 Ibid., p. 331. [—> main text]

7 "Liberal Values in the Modern World: The Relevance of 19th Century Liberalism Today," Anvil and Student Partisan (Winter, 1952), in Power, Politics and People, p. 187. [—> main text]

8 White Collar, p. 235. [—> main text]

9 Ibid., p. 328. [—> main text]

10 Ibid., pp. 332‑333. [—> main text]

11 Ibid., pp. 334‑337. [—> main text]

12 "Liberal Values in the Modern World," loc. cit., p. 189. [—> main text]

13 "A Diagnosis of Our Moral Uneasiness," New York Times Magazine (November 23, 1952); complete version published for the first time in Power, Politics and People, pp. 332‑333. [—> main text]

14 R.H. Tawney, quoted in Mills, White Collar, p. 1. [—> main text]

15 " Liberal Values in the Modern World," loc. cit., p. 187. [—> main text]

16 Ibid. [—> main text]

17 White Collar, p. 327. [—> main text]

18 “A Diagnosis of Our Moral Uneasiness," loc. cit., p. 337. [—> main text]

19 “Liberal Values in the Modern World," loc. cit., p. 187. [—> main text]

20 " Diagnosis of Our Moral Uneasiness," loc. cit., pp. 336‑337. [—> main text]

21 Mills and Gerth, Character and Social Structure, p. 254. [—> main text]

22 Mills, “The Powerless People," loc. cit., p. 299. [—> main text]

23 Mills and Gerth, Character and Social Structure, p. 10. [—> main text]

24 Ibid., p. 13. [—> main text]

25 Ibid. [—> main text]

26 Ibid., p. 195. [—> main text]

27 Ibid., p. 14. [—> main text]

28 Ibid., p. 203. [—> main text]

29 Ibid., p. 204. [—> main text]

30 Ibid., p. 229. [—> main text]

31 Jean‑Jacques Rousseau, Du Contrat Social, Paris: Union Générale d'Editions, 1963, pp. 54‑56. [—> main text]

32 Mills and Gerth, Character and Social Structure, p. 480. [—> main text]

33 Ibid., pp. 472‑473. [—> main text]

34 Ibid., p. 56. [—> main text]

35 Ibid., p. 298. [—> main text]

36 Ibid., pp. 289‑290. Italics added. [—> main text]

37 Ibid., pp. 117, 118. [—> main text]

38 Ibid., p. 445 and p. 447. [—> main text]

39 Ibid., p. 442. [—> main text]

40 Ibid, p. 430. [—> main text]

41 Mills, Images of Man: The Classic Tradition in Sociological Thinking (anthology with introduction), New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1960, p. 13. [—> main text]

42 Introduction to the Mentor edition of Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, New York: New American Library, 1953, p. ix. [—> main text]

43 Ibid., p. viii. [—> main text]

44 "The Conservative Mood," Dissent, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Winter, 1954), in Power, Politics and People, p. 208.  [—> main text]

45 Mass Society and Liberal Education, Chicago: Center for the Study of Liberal Education for Adults, 1954, pamphlet republished in Power, Politics and People, p. 370. [—> main text]

46 "On Knowledge and Power," Dissent, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Summer, 1955), in Power, Politics and People, p. 599. [—> main text]

47 Ibid., p. 604. [—> main text]

48 The Power Elite, New York: Oxford University Press, 1956, pp. 360‑361. [—> main text]

49 "The Unity of Work and Leisure," Journal of the National Association of Deans of Women  (January, 1954), in Power, Politics and People, pp. 348‑349. [—> main text]

50 The Sociological Imagination, p. 348. [—> main text]

51 “On Knowledge and Power," loc. cit., p. 609. [—> main text]

52 Ibid., p. 612. [—> main text]

53 "Two Styles of Research in Current Social Studies," Philosophy of Science, Vol. 20, No. 4 (October,1953), in Power, Politics and People, p. 554. [—> main text]

54 "IBM Plus Reality Plus Humanism = Sociology," Saturday Review of Literature (May 1, 1954), in Power, Politics and People, p. 570. [—> main text]

55 Ibid., p. 571. [—> main text]

56 "On Knowledge and Power," loc. cit., p. 606. [—> main text]

57 C. Wright Mills and The Power Elite, compiled by G. William Domhoff and Hoyt B. Ballard, Boston: Beacon Press, 1968, p. 239. [—> main text]

58 Mills, "On Knowledge and Power," loc. cit., p. 611. [—> main text]

59 Mass Society and Liberal Education, loc. cit., p. 373. [—> main text]

60 The Sociological Imagination, p. 200. [—> main text]

61 The Power Elite, p. 324. [—> main text]

62 Introduction to Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, p. xvi. [—> main text]

63 The Power Elite, pp. 88‑89. [—> main text]

64 “The Labor Leaders and the Power Elite," Roots of Industrial Conflict, edited by Arthur Kornhauser, Robert Durbin and Arthur M. Ross. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1954; in Power, Politics and People, p. 105. [—> main text]

65 Ibid., p. 108. [—> main text]

66 Ibid., p. 109. [—> main text]

67 Mass Society and Liberal Education, loc. cit., p. 358. [—> main text]

68 The Power Elite, Chapter 13. [—> main text]

69 Ibid., p. 361. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Perlman, Fredy. The Incoherence of the Intellectual: C. Wright Mills’ Struggle to Unite Knowledge and Action. Detroit: Black & Red, 1970.

Table of Contents

Chapter 3: The Intellectual as Historical Agency of Change 1958‑1962

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