The Power Elite has some coffee

Ridiculously, both the "left" and the "right" are deeply involved in a nostalgic fantasy about 1950s America. Because that fantasy is so far from reality, neither are capable of coming up with realistic analysis of the current situation let alone workable plans for what should be done. For the right, in the 1950s government was small and budgets were balanced, Moms were at home cooking while Dads were working in companies that were free of the heavy hand of government. Children were happy. For a lot of the "left", the workforce was unionized and prosperous, marginal tax rates were high, banks were regulated, the social welfare system put in by FDR's New Deal was unchallenged and Ronald Reagan was still a New Deal Democrat. Perhaps all this fraudulent nostalgia should not be surprising, because the 1950s was a period in which kitschy fake sentimentality was really elevated into a mass media art form. A now obscure 1950s TV show called "Mama" combined advertising and sentimentality in a typical way.
The stories might revolve around Dagmar's braces, Nels starting a business, or the children buying presents for Mama's birthday. The entire family would contribute to the drama's resolution, however, and images of them sitting down to a cup of Maxwell House Coffee--the show's long-time sponsor--would frame each episode of the show. As George Lipsitz points out, it was common for the dramatic solutions to involve some kind of commodity purchase, not surprising given the commercial basis of American network television and the consumer culture of post-war America.
In 1956 Eisenhower was President. General Motors had just introduced the V-8 engine and had 500,000 employees in the USA and the population of Detroit was twice what it is today. More than one in 3 workers belonged to a union as compared to 1 in 9 today. Bill Gates was 1 year old and the President of IBM was boasting to stockholders about orders for 18 computers over a year. Bernie Madoff was four years away from founding his investment company and mortgages were the province of sleepy Savings and Loan banks. Everything was different, or maybe not. Here's what the sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote that year in a book called "The Power Elite":
The economy-once a great scatter of small productive units in autonomous balance-has become dominated by two or three hundred giant corporations, administratively and politically interrelated, which together hold the keys to economic decisions. The political order, once a decentralized set of several dozen states with a weak spinal cord, has become a centralized, executive establishment which has taken up into itself many powers previously scattered, and now enters into each and every crany of the social structure. The military order, once a slim establishment in a context of distrust fed by state militia, has become the largest and most expensive feature of government, and, although well versed in smiling public relations, now has all the grim and clumsy efficiency of a sprawling bureaucratic domain. In each of these institutional areas, the means of power at the disposal of decision makers have increased enormously; their central executive powers have been enhanced; within each of them modern administrative routines have been elaborated and tightened up. As each of these domains becomes enlarged and centralized, the consequences of its activities become greater, and its traffic with the others increases. The decisions of a handful of corporations bear upon military and political as well as upon economic developments around the world. The decisions of the military establishment rest upon and grievously affect political life as well as the very level of economic activity. The decisions made within the political domain determine economic activities and military programs. There is no longer, on the one hand, an economy, and, on the other hand, a political order containing a military establishment unimportant to politics and to money-making. There is a political economy linked, in a thousand ways, with military institutions and decisions. [...] If there is government intervention in the corporate economy, so is there corporate intervention in the governmental process. In the structural sense, this triangle of power is the source of the interlocking directorate that is most important for the historical structure of the present. [...] At the pinnacle of each of the three enlarged and centralized domains, there have arisen those higher circles which make up the economic, the political, and the military elites. At the top of the economy, among the corporate rich, there are the chief executives; at the top of the political order, the members of the political directorate; at the top of the military establishment, the elite of soldier-statesmen clustered in and around the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the upper echelon. As each of these domains has coincided with the others, as decisions tend to become total in their consequence, the leading men in each of the three domains of power-the warlords, the corporation chieftains, the political directorate-tend-to come together, to form the power elite of America.
The system remains pretty much as Mills described it. This is why the right wing's vision of deregulated free markets is so absurd. Where economic power is highly concentrated and tightly connected to a vast military and political sector absence of regulation does not separate government and business, it just encourages catastrophic failure. Everything remains interconnected even if the government stops enforcing regulations on BP and Lehman and Blackwater, or if the civilian branch of the government allows Donald Rumsfeld and his neo-con would-be imperial viceroys embark the military on wild adventures. The lack of regulation and checks and balances doesn't return the nation to a simpler age, it just means that the effects of the inevitable panics and scandals become worse. The temper tantrums of the "left" about the slow pace and often indirect paths of the Obama administration reforms and the shock that the "left" expresses about how government and corporate America are connected are no less ridiculous. The idea that someone is going to become President, give the interlocking directorate a stern talking to like Harry Truman did, and make significant changes by sheer "leadership" is stunningly puerile and shallow. After all, Truman's big words did not do much. It was only when Eisenhower managed the system that Truman's orders to desegregate the military were put into practice. Truman's vetoes of Taft-Hartley were overridden. Truman was unable to find a way to end the Korean war. The power elites in corporate, military, and political sectors were easily able to shrug off all the signifying. Here's what Mills had to say about financial crisis back in that long-ago era.
The fact of the interlocking is clearly revealed at each of the points of crisis of modern capitalist society-slump, war, and boom. In each, men of decision are led to an awareness of the interdependence of the major institutional orders. In the nineteenth century, when the scale of all institutions was smaller, their liberal integration was achieved in the automatic economy, by an autonomous play of market forces, and in the automatic political domain, by the bargain and the vote. It was then assumed that out of the imbalance and friction that followed the limited decisions then possible a new equilibrium would in due course emerge. That can no longer be assumed, and it is not assumed by the men at the top of each of the three dominant hierarchies. For given the scope of their consequences, decisions-and indecisions-in any one of these ramify into the others, and hence top decisions tend either to become coordinated or to lead to a commanding indecision. It has not always been like this. When numerous small entrepreneurs made up the economy, for example, many of them could fail and the consequences still remain local; political and military authorities did not intervene. But now, given political expectations and military commitments, can they afford to allow key units of the private corporate economy to break down in slump? Increasingly, they do intervene in economic affairs, and as they do so, the controlling decisions in each order are inspected by agents of the other two, and economic, military, and political structures are interlocked.
The right can complain that the government should have kept its hands off the crisis and the left can swoon with surprise when it turns out that the banks are politically connected, but that's how the system works and has worked for more than half a century. When Mills writes "It has not always been like this", he is referring to a time well before the Great Depression and before the New Deal grew the government and World War II and the Cold War created the vast military that we take for granted. By 1956, Mills had become deeply pessimistic about the possibility of change because of the power of this interlocking web of elites. But it turns out he was very wrong. Only two years before the "Power Elite" was published, Thurgood Marshall successfully argued Brown versus Board of Education and just the year before Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Malcolm X was 31, out of jail, and loyal member of an obscure organization called the Nation of Islam - totally out of sight of the people at the highest ranks of American society. Martin Luther King was just six years from going to jail in Birmingham Alabama. Around the time MLK went to jail, Betty Fredian would publish "The Feminine Mystique". In 1956 Gloria Steinam was an undergraduate at Smith College and Robin Morgan who later became the prototypical "militant feminist" and still later attacked Presidential candidate Obama for interfering with Hillary Clinton's career, was a child actress playing "Mama's" daughter in that TV show and drinking Maxwell's Coffee as each problem was resolved. The ordinary people who participated in the feminist and civil rights movement as well as the anti-Vietnam war movement did not topple the elites from their perches, but they did change society without permission and against the wishes of the interlocking directorate. Elites don't always get their way. It's really hard to imagine America before the feminist and civil rights movements but there is no advantage in wallowing in nostalgia for what never was. We would do better to start dealing with the world as we find it.And the world as we find it is hard to change, but not frozen in time. This is the Obama White House Passover Seder using the Maxwell House Haggadah which tells the story of some elites in Egypt who didn't get their way. Mama would never have imagined something like this. Dagmar neither.


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