C. Wright Mills’ sociology attempted to explain the structure and main drift of American society in the twentieth century, and with that some of the main trends in all industrialized societies. It was a huge aim, in the central tradition of sociology and social thought. His main theses, the centralization of power in the United States, and the bureaucratization of its institutions and life, are built on the conceptions of Max Weber’s sociology. Mills’ distinctive focus was on the collapse of the original democratic ideal of the United States, under pressure of institutional changes, into a mere liberal rhetoric. These democratic values, Mills said, could not be realized within the present social structure.
Mills regarded Weber’s work as the most important of classic sociology. He described him as a classic liberal writing in a world set against liberalism—the description in part fits Mills himself—and as the most sophisticated revisionist of Marx. In a further way Mills followed Weber, for he argued, with Weber, that the sociologist’s selection of subject-matter, of processes to be explained, was inevitably made with reference to values. Our sociology should be shaped by our human and social concerns.
Yet though many of Mills’ conceptions were drawn from Weber and the writings of classic sociology, his style and vision are characteristically radical and American, influenced very considerably by Veblen. From Veblen, Mills learnt independence and disrespect in face of the “official realities” and centres of power. “He had,” Mills wrote, “an awareness of the false consciousness— ‘crackpot realism’—all around him, and the sturdiness of mind and character to stand against it.” He learnt from Veblen that sociology could be art. “Veblen’s books do what all art properly should do: they smash through the stereotyped world of our routine perception and feeling and impulse; they alert us to see and to feel and to move towards new images . . . his insights, if acquired early, often make a difference in the quality of one’s life.” “They create a coherent world,” Mills goes on, “describe the types of men selected and shaped by the society, and judge them by explicit standards.” “Much of Veblen’s comedy,” Mills says, “comes from making these fresh standards explicit.”
A lot of what Mills wrote about Veblen, in his introduction to the Theory of the Leisure Class, can stand as a comment on his own work. Like Veblen, he wrote closely to the observed detail of American life, stressing the human meanings of the society he describes—the quality of work, leisure, feeling and politics that the society makes generally possible. This direct and descriptive account of American society is conceptually highly structured—Mills classifies, offers types, and tries to explain behaviour within a structure. The work has complex sociological dimensions, and sharp observation, yet we must remember that Mills is offering a model, inevitably generalized and selective.
In style, Mills is more urgent, colloquial, deliberately plainspeaking than Veblen. He is consciously addressing a crisis—too anxious, too aware of failure around him, too wholly engaged, to be able to write with Veblen’s ironic detachment.
Mills’ work is based on remarkably explicit moral and social values. An impressive number of contemporary American social critics seem to have the utopian merit of starting from fundamentals—the idea of man and his proper mode of life—Goodman, Margaret Mead, Riesman and Arendt, and from an older sense of American values, Veblen, as well as Mills.
In both the Power Elite and White Collar Mills describes the original democratic ideal of America: a market economy of autonomous small farmers, entrepreneurs, and professional men, making up the classic public of liberal democracy. The level of knowledge and culture of the decision makers is high; the community is small-scale, the means of public communication widely available. Formal freedoms are real freedoms. This account of Jeffersonian democracy is important as a point of reference for Mills’ work, but also as offering a sociological basis for liberal political theory. Mills asks that our ideals for human conduct should be related to the institutions within which men and women act. Here is the institutional foundation of classic democracy—it has all but disappeared. If we value these ideals, we must explain their non-fulfilment with reference to the changing social structure, and, if we can, devise new institutions and structures in which they can be realized.