There are two competing theories which attempt to explain who really controls what in the world. One, the pluralist theory, says that the world is run by hundreds of competing special interest groups. Everyone belongs to one or more of these groups, so everyone has some power.

The other is the power elite theory. It says that there are a handful of individuals (perhaps less then a thousand) who together effectively run the world. They aren’t some shadowy conspiracy that manipulates things from behind the scenes. Rather, they are the leaders of industry and politics whose decisions together dictate public and (to a large extent) private policy.

The modern interpretation of this idea was introduced and popularized by C. Wright Mills in his 1956 book entitled (appropriately enough) The Power Elite. He suggested that there were three types of power elite

  • The Political Elite - These are the politicians who actually have the power to get laws passed. Not every senator or governor belongs to the power elite (in fact most probably don't); only those who have enough influence to make laws and effect the decisions of their peers.
  • The Business Elite - These are the leaders of industry. They have a lot of money, more importantly are in a position to have a major impact on the economy if they so desire. Most importantly, the world depends on their product to run, giving them a great deal of leverage.
  • The Military Elite - These are the 'top brass' of the various armed forces. Their power is of a more basic type; they have the skills and resources to wage war. People who want to wage war are dependent on them, and every else is frightened of them (or should be).

Certainly not everyone in these fields belongs to the power elite. When you look at it (according to Mills), each of institutions is really run by only a handful of people. The president and a few party leaders pretty much run politics. A few corporate owners and directors pretty much dictate how industry works. The military is run by its high ranking officers. His idea was not that the members of the power elite wield absolute power, at least not individually. Rather, it is only in collaboration that they run things. The government makes laws which govern society; industry produces what society needs (or thinks it needs); the military keeps society safe (from itself, if necessary). They are all horribly intertwined and interconnected. The government makes laws which the military and industry must follow, but will make laws to keep them both happy since it needs the military to protect itself and industry to do most of its work. The military depends on industry to built its toys, but is necessary to protect the interests the military-industrial complex. When all three branches work together, what they want to happen pretty much happens. Only when the power elite fights amongst itself does everybody else get a say in things. For example: the power elite pretty much decides whose going to be a presidential candidate, but we get to vote on which party wins.

The close cooperation amongst the power elite is reinforced because they mostly all operate in the same social circles. The read the same books, drive the same cars, and play golf at the same clubs. The all share a similar worldview, and thus interests. This allows them to work together effectively, but also means that the reasoning behind their decisions is often not apparent to those outside of their social circle. Society is run by another society within it. The power elite is by no means a closed circle. Certainly people can join it, though it usually takes about three generations for a family to generate enough clout to promote one of its members into the elite circle. Inheritence helps, but is by no means necessary or sufficient.

The power elite dosn't rule through repression or inheritence. Rather they rule through their positions. Each is in a position where certain people listen to them, thus they can control some aspect of how things work.

Of course, things have changed a lot since 1956, however, and there should probably be a few more groups included on the list. Such as: the educational elite; the media elite; the religious elite; scientific elite; the judicial elite; or the cultural elite.