C. Wright Mills in Context – The Roots of The Cranky

The first two chapters of Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, are devoted to early intellectual career, his philosophical roots and his place in the New York intellectual scene. I have to confess that these were, to me, the least interesting chapters because I couldn’t wait to get into the real kick-a$$ material. These first two chapters reflect the fact that, being a young academic, Mills had to pretty much fit within the system but never really felt comfortable doing so (hence, the hiding from Lazarsfeld).

The first chapter, then, retraces Mills’s pragmatic roots, especially Mead (with some reservations):

“Mead’s psychology is social, because humans are defined as a communicating species in which the capacity for speech takes pride of place. Since language is the chief way in which humans communicate with one another, both expressively, that is, in terms of emotions, and intellectually, in the transmission of ideas, speech is the key interpersonal mediation and the mediation between mind and society. The individual communicates with “society” by internalizing not only a particular other but also by internalizing the “generalized other.” Society therefore enters individual consciousness via an inner dialogue between the subject “I” and the “me” that connotes a subject who is able to take herself as a social object.

Mills argues, in partial disagreement with Mead, that the individual as a social being internalizes not society as a whole but only a segment of it, namely the social networks and institutions that constitute the salient references for social life.” (35)

There also seems to be some (not mentioned) reference to Wittgenstein and Kenneth Burke:

“By acquiring the categories of a language, we acquire the structured “ways” of a group, and along with the language, the value-implicates of those “ways.” Our behavior and perception, our logic and thought, come within the control ambit of a system of language…. A vocabulary is not merely a string of words; immanent within it are societal textures—institutional and political coordinates. Back of a vocabulary lie sets of collective action.” (From Mills dissertation)

Or here:

“Vocabularies of motive are situational but also limit the range of action. Situations, then, are always conditioned by anticipated consequences as they are embodied in certain vocabularies. In turn, vocabularies are not merely descriptions; they are attempts to influence consequences by controlling the response of others; they are “strategies of action.” If these strategies fail to achieve desired consequences, new vocabularies of motive may be adopted, but under ordinary circumstances they are quite stable, because the unanticipated is an exception.


Our actions are conditioned by the vocabularies that inform perception, the strategies we employ to achieve desired outcomes, as well as by what we think is likely to result from a series of actions. These are all elements of social life, not individual consciousness, and the operative concept is the interaction of language that is largely derived from prior situations, the situation itself, and anticipated consequences.” (36)

But even though Mills seems to have admired Dewey and other pragmatists, he was critical of their reformism and projects such as Hull House (Addams) and Dewey’s education projects as not radical enough.

Aronowitz summarizes Mills’s thesis as such:

“Taken in its entirety, Mills’s Sociology and Pragmatism may be understood as a Marxist-Weberian inspired analysis and critique of America’s dominant philosophical paradigm of the first half of the twentieth century and of its leading protagonists. At the same time, it is a demonstration of the view that ideas have no internal history of their own and can only be understood within the historically specific frameworks in which they are conceived and elaborated. These frameworks have economic, social, and political specifications and, in the case of the professionalization of philosophy, are entwined with the rise of higher learning in America in the wake of industrialization and the attempt of traditional liberal ideology to come to terms with the industrializing era.” (51)

As mentioned above, the following chapter is devoted to a mapping of the New York intellectual scene in which Mills navigated. I have to admit that I am almost completely unfamiliar with this context (not my generation, not my culture). I recognized a couple of names here and there, but that was it.

It is in this context that Mills honed some of the ideas that he will fully develop in his subsequent books and started integrated Marxist concepts into his writings. In a Veblenian (if there is such a word) vein, Mills (and Gerth) argues that the salaried middle-class cannot be the carriers of radical social transformation but are more or less completely beholden to the corporate system and subservient to the capitalist class (a position held by some in the New York scene). The experts, scientists and technicians are political dupes, and the more so that their training is rigorous and rigid. They are the functionaries of the political system, consciously or not, especially as their role in the exercise of power is disguised through objective expertise. Mills had also limited sympathy for intellectuals of retreated to the universities in the face of the McCarthy witch hunts.

“Whether the intellectual is a salaried employee of a university or of a large media or other industrial corporation, being “told what to do”—and, one might add, how to do it—undercuts the conventional wisdom, underlined by Foucault and, in a somewhat different mode, by the Frankfurt School, that knowledge is power and that artistic and intellectual work is still an autonomous activity in contemporary capitalist society. Instead, the system has made nearly all intellectuals and artists dependent on salaries, contracts, and concepts that are delivered as commands from powerful institutions. Whether applying for grants from the government or from private foundations, the intellectual is on “assignment.” Thus, much academic and commercial research is conducted only based on the willingness of those in power. The artist is no less constrained by the dictates of the art market. To paint or sculpt in ways that violate current fashions is likely to condemn the creator, regardless of her talent, to the margins of the art world or to oblivion. Clearly, we can see that Mills is nostalgic for a time when the independent intellectual and artist was still possible; when the question of how to support oneself was not an overriding consideration; or, to be more precise, when the cost of living, especially rents, made the existence of a coterie, if not a class, of independent intellectual craftsperson possible. Tacitly, he mourns the passing of the traditional intellectual, if not the conditions that made his existence possible.” (60)

Mills was undoubtedly anti-communist but completely opposed to anything related to the Cold War. He did not mince his words against liberal intellectuals who seemed to go along with the rising consumer society and as they vocally (and cowardly, for Mills) threw the baby out with the bathwater by denouncing socialist ideas they had erstwhile held. This was the reason why Mills called for a New Left that would generate a typically American brand of radicalism, untainted by communism but unafraid of the climate of the time.

It is in this context that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. gets a special beating in Aronowitz’s book as representative of this intellectual cowardly trend:

“In fact, as early as the publication of Mills’s first major work, The New Men of Power (1948), the wave of accommodation and collaboration with liberalism by these erstwhile intellectual radicals was already in full force. In 1947, Schlesinger wrote in Partisan Review that the United States was on the brink of socialism, a logical outcome of the incremental progress that had been initiated by the New Deal. In Schlesinger’s conception, socialism was little more than an expanded welfare state within the parameters of liberal democratic institutions, a characterization that was later to fit most of Western Europe’s social-democratic parties. The optimism expressed in this article could not have been more divergent from Mills’s view, expressed forcefully in his book on labor leaders, that corporate America was gearing up to steamroll over labor’s hard-won gains of the 1930s, an insight fueled by the Republican-dominated eightieth Congress’s enactment of the Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act in 1947. Two years later, Schlesinger went on to publish a full-length liberal manifesto, The Vital Center, in which radical traditions are decisively rejected—not only those associated with communism but also those of independent Marxism. Schlesinger’s book was also a signature statement of the doctrine of American exceptionalism, according to which the United States, an open, democratic society, has circumvented the conditions that produced powerful European socialist and communist movements.” (71-72)

These, I think, are the roots of Mills’s crankiness: the quick betrayal of radical idea under the not-so-courageous, and very fashionable rejection of Stalinism and the uncritical to the submission to the ideology (disguised as end of ideology) of the triumph of democratic pluralism in the exceptional American society.

This is why Mills’s subsequent work take on the structures of power in their different dimensions as they co-opt more and more categories of people that should have opposed the system, from intellectuals to labor union leaders.

More to come.

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