The "new edition" of this edition of this 1950's social science classic is nothing more than a reprint with a short 15-page critical essay from 2000 tacked on the end. What it really needs is a real and extensive updating to be read as anything other than a work limited by and to the time and place of its creation.
I first read The Power Elite as a student of history and government in the late 1970s, when much of the criticism and commentary that Mills aimed at the economic, political, and military elites he saw leading the country remained valid. These three groups of leaders made up the "power elite", replacing the leadership classes of aristocracy, nobility, royalty, philosophy, and property that in other times and geographies provided a tight-knit, disconnected, closed, and enforced (through arms and law) leadership class. In the America of mid-Twentieth century, this new power elite managed its three spheres of influence through social ties (Mills stresses the role of educational institutions like boarding schools and Ivy League universities), family ties, and corporate-government ties. It was a leadership group without formal boundaries or legal authority, growing and refreshing through knowledge and efficiency, and tied to its "mass society" (Mills's term) through public relations, marketing, and political campaigning.
For the time, Mills was mostly right, but my how times have changed! Mills missed and failed to predict huge shifts in the economic and political landscape of the world:
- The big box explosion--the Walmartification of America that emptied out Main Street, which in Mills's analysis was both the source and the subject of the power elite. No longer. Corporate America is now global, and America's Main Street is only a consumer, not a provider of talent and direction.
- The entrepreneurial explosion--the hardware, software, and services that didn't exist then have now provided an outlet for that talent and direction that is no longer "elite" but far more powerful. What would Mills say about an Apple corporation that now has the highest aggregate stock valuation in the U.S.?
- The globalization explosion-Mills never envisioned the global economy as it exists today. Corporations are no longer just international but globally managed, financed, and staffed. While this change has had positive (lower prices, new markets) and negative (lowered wages and standards of living in the U.S.) benefits, the power elite as Mills wrote no longer exists.
- The security explosion-even the 2000 afterward was written before the defining event of the new century, which heralded a new societal, economic, and military reality that reshaped governing, governance, and the response of the governed.
- The media implosion-Mills relied on the power of an increasingly centralized media to control and manage the sheep-lead public he posited, a power which indeed amplified and controlled public opinion for the next few decades until the disenfranchised (Nixon's "Silent majority") had grown disenchanted with their lack of voice, and broadcasting had become narrowcasting.
- The social network explosion--The technology-enabled voice which roared has already played roles in toppling governments and shaping and amplifying the no longer silent majority.
The point is not that Mills was wrong then, but that the world has changed so much that he is no longer right now. Updating the theory would take a major update throughout, not just a tacked-on critical essay. It might be time.