Our Research Agenda
It is over 50 years since the death of C. Wright Mills and longer since his ground-breaking book, The Power Elite (1956), punctured what he called the Great American Celebration of the 1950s – a culture narcissistically self-congratulatory, inward looking, celebrating its democratic credentials while becoming increasingly elite-dominated and dangerously attached to a “military definition of reality” in an age of nuclear politics. It is over 50 years since President Dwight Eisenhower, having presided over the building of a garrison state, warned of the dangers to democracy of a “military-industrial complex” and the dominance of federal research contracts in the postwar university. It is 50 years since Martin Luther King’s definitive ‘I Have a Dream’ speech which, in conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement, provided critical space for the diversification of America’s racialised power structure.
Since then, the United States has experienced a major shift of income and wealth away from the bottom 50% of the population towards its upper echelons. The widening socio-economic and thereby also increasingly political inequality is not only to be observed in American politics but indeed indeed throughout the world as neoliberal globalization has widened the gulf between the wealthy and the privileged and most of the rest of society. These structural inequalities are not just inherent in the structures of contemporary capitalism but also the outcome of conscious political choice often driven by elite interests and shaped by elite discourse. In other words, we need to investigate both the structure and the agency of elite power.
That the recognition of the dangers of elite power is back on the intellectual and political agenda is clear – the financial economic excesses of neoliberalism brought home that message in 2008; the war on terror re-enlivened interest in elite politics; the Iraq war brought into sharp relief the gap between neo-conservative foreign policy elites, and their liberal interventionist allies, and the general publics of many countries; the power of money – and the populist-rhetorical division of American society between the top 1% and the bottom 99% - in the 2012 US elections showed, once again, the significance of Wall Street rather than Main Street in the voices that really matter in American democracy; claims of the re-emergence of the ‘military-industrial complex’ and, most recently, the ‘data surveillance-intelligence complex’ as revealed by ‘whistleblower’ Edward Snowden have resurfaced as huge private corporations continue to win massive arms, security, and other government contracts; and the rise of transnational elites continues to make inroads into political democracy in the West and shape international relations across the globe. This comes at a time when elites and their decisions are being challenged around the world. Not only is this evident in the favelas of Rio and the squares across the Middle East and North Africa, but also through the consistent leaking of top secret and sensitive information by groups such as wikileaks.
While some sociologists have begun re-evaluating the role of elites in society and politics in the 21st century, mainstream political science and international relations (and the social sciences more generally) remain almost silent on the question of elite power per se – in theoretical terms let alone in terms of political significance in democratic political systems.
Clearly, matters have moved on in quantum leaps since the 1950s and 1960s: globalisation, cosmopolitanism, neoliberalism, lone superpower status, emerging powers seeking to win a higher status in the global order, greater racial diversity across American society’s higher echelons, and a hi-tech military that is more lethal in both hardware and software than any seen in world history – and more densely networked and interlocked with other key elite institutions and mind-sets than ever before. Analysing these development the research undertaken by the scholars of EPIC seeks to make sense of elite power in today’s world.