President of an Elitist Club

Over fifty years ago, the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote The Power Elite (1956), in which he described how the “command posts” of U.S. society had become interlocking, intertwined–and interchangeable. This cadre of elite-managers and investors not only utilized the federal government for their interests, but periodically occupied the actual executive positions in the government (and/or military) from which policies favorable to their interests could be more directly implemented.

Even then, back in the Fifties, this was certainly not a new phenomenon in the U.S. For instance, a century ago, oil/finance mogul Paul Mellon “served” as Treasury Secretary. (Of course, more recently, a few names of some power-elitists readily come to mind: Robert Rubin, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Henry Paulson–among other notorious figures.) With the collapse of democratic process, Mills wrote, a kind of “interlocking directorate” of, at most, a few hundred individuals, increasingly shared these interchangeable “command positions”–spanning and fusing the corporate/military/federal executive sectors. In 1961, a few years after Mills’ book appeared, a departing President Eisenhower issued his now-famous (and prescient) warning about the “military-industrial complex.” That same year, Ford Motor Company president Robert S. McNamara was appointed Defense Secretary, and became the chief architect of the genocidal U.S. war against the people of Vietnam. Journalist David Halberstam would soon write ironically about the “best and the brightest”—a cadre of mostly Harvard-connected, arrogant “meritocrats,” from the Bundys to Kissinger, who were recklessly implementing murderously destructive policies, in Vietnam and elsewhere. At that time, Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital (1964) explained trenchantly how an expanding U.S. military empire captured new markets and, combined with covert counter-insurgency, “pacified” countries in preparation for privatization and capital investment.

Fast-forward to 2013: Barack Obama is president—but of what? A highly exclusive club? A club, membership of which is restricted to those occupying the aforementioned “command posts” of the now-globalized hegemony of giant transnationals (global CEOs, global banking executives, G-8 heads-of-state, etc.)? And who is sponsored to become president of such clubs? Invariably, the “most liked,” most popular, the most “easy to get along with” (i.e., co-operative, accommodating). And Barack Obama has time and again shown how helpful he can be to his fellow club members—from BP, Bank of America, insurance giants, Exelon, and so forth. But, as is generally the case, the position of “club president” is an honorary one, in which the duties largely entail being a likeable and articulate spokesperson (i.e., PR flak). His duties, however, have also included continuing the acquisition of coveted oil/gas fields (Afghanistan, Libya), as well as the negotiation of more Trade Agreements (e.g., TPP).

Twenty years ago, Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites appeared. Lasch, an historian interested in the left-populist tradition, wrote scathingly of a managerial-professional elite-class, increasingly global, which scorned civic obligations, evaded taxes, and abandoned the public-sector (via private schools, gated communities, etc.) Today, given the much-greater “financialization” of capital, his critique can be extended more explicitly to Wall Street—with its endemic “low-risk, high yield” fraud, “race-to-the-bottom” capital flight, and rampant commodity speculation. Not unlike the enclosures and expropriations of “the commons” in centuries past, privatization now guts the public-sector. Indeed, genuine values of the “public interest” and “public service” have been dismissed and marginalized, Orwellian-style. As Lasch noted, this withdrawal from all civic responsibilities characterized a new kind of feudalism (servitude)—yet devoid even of any traditional noblesse oblige toward the “masses” of “ordinary folks” (as Obama himself might put it). Social “control”—of such an increasingly redundant, restive “precariat’—became in itself a lucrative type of investment: expanding, militarized policing; and construction and operation of facilities to warehouse the legions of criminalized “offenders.”

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.