American Sociological Review 2015, Vol. 80(6) 1099 –1122 © American Sociological Association 2015 DOI: 10.1177/0003122415609730 http://asr.sagepub.com
Why do workers consent to their own exploi- tation? Previous top-down approaches over- emphasize managerial control (Braverman 1974), whereas contemporary labor scholars study workers’ participation in their own worlds of work. Labor process scholars emphasize meaning-making in the symbolic interactionist tradition, documenting work- place dynamics at the point of production, as in theories of industrial games (Burawoy 1979), emotional labor (Hochschild 1983), and organizational culture (Kunda 1992). This approach yields rich ethnographic insights into how workers’ subjective experi- ences motivate them to work and, ultimately, make profits for someone else (e.g., Sallaz
2002; Sherman 2007). Such micro studies of the labor process show how managerial con- trol is established through worker consent; or how, as Marx ( 1993) put it, labor becomes subordinate to capital.
But these explanations are incomplete, for most studies of worker control and consent are set in stable work settings and formal
609730ASRXXX10.1177/0003122415609730American Sociological ReviewMears 2015
Corresponding Author: Ashley Mears, Department of Sociology, Boston University, 100 Cummington Mall, Boston, MA 02215 E-mail: [email protected]
Working for Free in the VIP: Relational Work and the Production of Consent
Abstract Why do workers participate in their own exploitation? This article moves beyond the situational production of consent that has dominated studies of the labor process and outlines the relational production of labor’s surplus value. Using a case of unpaid women who perform valuable work for VIP nightclubs, I present ethnographic data on the VIP party circuit from New York, the Hamptons, Miami, and Cannes, as well as 84 interviews with party organizers and guests. Party promoters, mostly male brokers, appropriate surplus value from women in four stages: recruitment, mobilization, performance, and control. Relational work between promoters and women, cemented by gifts and strategic intimacies, frames women’s labor as leisure and friendship, and boundary work legitimizes women’s work as distinct from sexual labor. When boundaries, media, and meanings of relationships do not appropriately align, as in relational mismatches, women experience the VIP party less as leisure and more as work, and they are less likely to participate. My findings embed the labor process in a relational infrastructure and hold insights for explaining why people work for free in culture and technology sectors of the post-Fordist economy.
Keywords relational work, labor process, consent, free labor, bodily capital
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organizations, such as the factory, the hotel, or the trading room, where people repeatedly work together within the context of estab- lished relationships. Yet, despite prevailing models of the labor process, the organization of work is not bound to the shop floor; work spills into the interpersonal realm as workers and management forge powerful, regulating relationships. This is especially evident as labor becomes more casual, and temporary and project-based employment spreads among low- and high-skilled workers alike (Kalleberg, Reskin, and Hudson 2000). For the growing numbers of contingent workers, social ties with supervisors and brokers shape the terms of work (Neff, Wissinger, and Zukin 2005; Smith 2001). As studies of informal economies demonstrate, work relationships require ongoing efforts on and off the job (e.g., Hoang 2015; Venkatesh 2006), and such relationships likely have varying effects on worker consent. When conceptualized in rela- tional rather than physical space, the value of labor emerges through personal ties and webs of reciprocity—the very heart of all economic exchange (Mauss 1954).
That people consent to the appropriation of their surplus value poses a classic conundrum for the sociology of inequality: it raises the question of how hierarchies are legitimated, and how domination goes unrecognized and reproduced by those who are dominated (e.g., Bourdieu  2001). This article advances the puzzle of consent by incorporating new developments in economic sociology around the concept of relational work, that is, the work of matching appropriate relationships to economic exchanges and their meanings (Zelizer 2012). Using the conceptual tools of relational work, I document the central role of social ties and intimacies in compelling peo- ple to enter, consent to, and forge emotional attachments in unequal exchanges.
I draw from a particular case of labor exploitation: women’s unpaid work in VIP nightclubs. Unpaid women perform valuable aesthetic labor (Warhurst and Nickson 2001) in VIP “bottle service” nightclubs; they are recruited and mobilized by promoters, who
are mostly male brokers hired by VIP clubs. These women are not paid wages; they work for free and with a felt sense of obligation to their brokers, who shower them with gifts and perks. Women’s “free labor” generates con- siderable profits for promoters and club own- ers but is largely only symbolically rewarding to the women. Methodologically breaking from past labor scholarship, I embed the pro- duction of value in a relational context by ethnographically following promoters and women throughout the VIP party circuit in New York, the Hamptons, Miami, and the French Riviera over 18 months of fieldwork. This article draws from interviews with 44 promoters, 20 women (called “girls”), and 20 clients (i.e., men who spend money in VIP parties) to show how such value is produced.
Promoters perform relational work to gen- erate value from women’s bodily capital ( Wacquant 1995) in four stages: recruitment, mobilization, performance, and control. Through relational work, cemented by gifts and strategic intimacies, promoters redefine women’s economic utility as leisure and friendship; through boundary work (Lamont and Molnar 2002), women frame their partici- pation as distinct from sexual labor. When the appropriate matches between relationships, payments, and boundaries do not align—when relational mismatches happen— women’s con- sent to participate in the VIP economy breaks down. By showing the relational work involved in getting women to work for free, I outline the relational production of consent, foreground- ing social ties as central to securing surplus value, and thus expanding prevailing models of the labor process.
TheoReTICAl BACKgRound The Labor Process How does one person manage to capture sur- plus value from another? In the sociology of work, we find a number of strategies through which owners appropriate surplus. Coercion is not a viable strategy, because as Weber ( 1978) noted, it rarely works for long. Economic incentives are not always effective,
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for as Frederick Taylor discovered, raising earnings in the piece-rate system can actually lower workers’ efforts (Sallaz 2013). Neither are wages an adequate explanation for surplus value, which is the unpaid labor that workers effectively perform above and beyond their compensated labor power; wages alone do not explain why workers often put in more than the bare minimum for which they are paid. An earlier generation of labor scholars emphasized structural determinants of exploi- tation, such as the sharp demarcation between the work of managers and laborers, deskill- ing, and large labor supplies (Braverman 1974). Such a picture of conflict and manage- rial control, however, leaves little room to see autonomy or agency in workers.
Moving beyond models of coercion and conflict, Burawoy’s (1979) theory of indus- trial games focused on the micro interac- tional mechanisms that produce worker consent. In the factory Burawoy studied, the game of “making out” allowed workers to make choices about when and how much effort to exert. The game produced a sense of social and psychological achievement, and because it dominated shop floor culture, Burawoy concluded that workers’ cultural practices led them to consent to their own exploitation, even enthusiastically so. Thus the labor process in capitalist production simultaneously obscures and secures sur- plus labor, legitimizing exploitation through consent.
An important break with both industrial sociologists and Marxist sociology, Burawoy (1979) bound his analytic lens to the labor process at the point of production—the moments of transformation of raw materials into surplus value—thereby explaining the organization of consent through work activi- ties independent of outside orientations like school, family, and the state. This move, from structure to symbolic interactions, and from ideology to situations, could now explain how workers’ motivations emerge from the work process itself.
The theory of games has explained how people are mobilized to perform their duties as
factory workers (Burawoy 1979), professionals like lawyers (Pierce 1995), service industry workers (Sallaz 2002), and even the unem- ployed (Sharone 2013). More broadly, labor process scholars have followed the symbolic interactionist tradition through the shift from hierarchical to flexible organization (Smith 2001), documenting managerial attempts to mold workplace culture to produce consent in blue- as well as white-collar workplaces (Kunda 1992; Vallas 2006).
Throughout the post-industrial decline in manufacturing and the rise in services, labor process analysts have continued to explain consent through processes of meaning- making at the workplace. Studies of emo- tional labor have examined the control of workers’ affect in interactive services ranging from airlines (Hochschild 1983) and amuse- ment parks (Van Maanen 1990) to personal care services (Boris and Parreñas 2010). Sim- ilarly, studies of aesthetic labor have exam- ined managerial control of bodily capital, an important component of work in interactive services like retail (Williams and Connell 2010), hospitality (Otis 2011), and restau- rants, where workers are recruited and trained to project attractive and sellable personas (Warhurst and Nickson 2001). Across these various sites, sociologists have examined workplace cultures and practices to explain why workers consent to managerial control of their time, bodies, and emotions.
By focusing on the situational construction of consent, and limiting their purview to sta- ble relational contexts, sociologists of work take as their basic object of analysis the accomplishment of work activities, usually at the site of work, be it the shop floor or the shopping mall. This misses how the meanings of work are also shaped through relationships and social ties beyond the accomplishment of work activities.1 Studies of informal work demonstrate the importance of relationships forged at work sites and well beyond them— for instance, the complex webs of social rela- tions that constitute urban underground economies (Duneier 1999; Venkatesh 2006) and the bonds between sex workers, clients,
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and brokers that regulate markets for sex (Bernstein 2007; Hoang 2015). Likewise, studies of freelance workers, such as those in the culture industries, reveal various social infrastructures linking aspiring workers, agents, and employers whose relationships are built on repeated interactions at jobs, agencies, and after-hours bars and other enter- tainment venues (McRobbie 2002). As the labor market becomes more casual and work moves outside of permanent contracts and stable organizations (Kalleberg et al. 2000; Smith 2001), new models of the labor process and its relational context are needed.
Within the field of economic sociology, rela- tional work is a useful concept to explain how patterned relationships can secure surplus value. Zelizer (2012:149) developed rela- tional work to mean the “creative effort peo- ple make in establishing, maintaining, negotiating, transforming, and terminating interpersonal relations.” People try to create viable matches between appropriate kinds of economic and social exchanges, thereby over- coming the tension between the “hostile worlds” of intimacy and commerce. To do this, people erect boundaries around a cate- gory of social relations, establish a set of distinctive understandings and practices that operate within that boundary, allow certain kinds of economic transactions to happen, and adopt certain kinds of media such that those transactions feel appropriate (Zelizer 2005). Relational work explains how people bring these elements together to create “rela- tional packages” (Zelizer 2012) that include particular discourses and structures of exchange, such as brokerage and gifting (Rossman 2014).
This framework has been usefully applied to understanding how people bridge seem- ingly hostile worlds like the commodification of sacred goods, for example, trades in human bodies ranging from organs (Healy 2006) and reproductive materials (Almeling 2007) to cadavers (Anteby 2010). Relational work can
even explain macro-economic outcomes like inter-organizational relationships among manufacturers (Whitford 2012) and predatory lending practices in the mortgage industry (Block 2012).
Relatively neglected in economic soci- ologists’ research agenda, however, are markets for human labor (Sallaz 2013). When the workplace is studied, it is in the context of understanding the creation of markets, for instance, markets in life insur- ance (Chan 2009) or financial goods (Abolafia 1996), rather than the creation of worker consent.
Yet relational work has much to offer when explaining worker consent. For instance, gifting, a prominent form of relational work, plays an important role in motivating work- ers. In economic experiments, workers who receive gifts rather than cash payments put in more effort to uphold their sense of reciprocal obligation (Kube, Maréchal, and Puppe 2012). In economists’ alternative strands of labor theory, the labor contract has even been described as a partial gift exchange (Akerlof 1982).
Indeed, the concept of relational work has been fruitfully applied to cases of labor that are morally contested, such as markets for intimate bodily labors like sex work (Bern- stein 2007; Hoang 2015). In realms that mix intimacy and money, commercial sex services exist at one end of a spectrum and “pure” romantic relationships at the other; in between are practices involving intimate economic exchanges, from sponsorship (Swader et al. 2012) to treating (Clemens 2006). People perform relational work to frame these dubi- ous exchanges as appropriate, for instance, by matching appropriate payment media to the exchange, and through boundary work, which draws conceptual distinctions and creates symbolic distances between categories of people and practices (Lamont and Molnar 2002).
Relational work is especially useful in the contemporary context of growing contingent labor to explain why people work for no or low pay. “Free labor” has been abundantly
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documented among the freelance workforce, notably in culture, media, and technology industries (Frenette 2013; Hesmondhalgh 2010; Neff et al. 2005). Free labor, originally conceived to account for user-generated con- tent on the Internet (Terranova 2000), is unpaid work given freely and endowed with a sense of autonomy (Andrejevic 2009). Free labor occurs when, for example, unpaid fashion models walk on a luxury designer’s catwalk hoping to gain status (Mears 2011), tech employees spend hours doing unpaid coding to build their portfolios (Neff 2012), and a journalist writes for free at The Atlan- tic.com seeking exposure (Christin 2014). Such work may not immediately look like work; indeed, much work overlaps with forms of activity commonly recognized as leisure (Stebbins 1982). Although not employment—a formal exchange of labor for wages—all of these cases meet a socio- logical definition of work, the “process whereby human beings transform things of the world to create value” (Sallaz 2013:10). Each of these workers marshals a skill set, exerts labor power, and creates a product. They also generate surplus value, because employers gain economic profits through inadequately compensating their efforts, which are understood in these contexts as self-investments and symbolically valuable. However, people who perform free labor are often compensated in the form of gifts, perks, or access to new social networks. Relational work provides a framework for analyzing the web of social connections that render these unequal exchanges meaningful and worthwhile.
Taking these insights from economic soci- ology, I conceive of the workplace as embed- ded in a relational infrastructure to explain how workers are recruited, mobilized, and controlled, and why they accept no payment for their valuable efforts. Using core elements of the relational framework—relationships, meanings, media, and boundaries—this arti- cle examines, in Burawoy’s (1979:30) terms, how relational work “obscures and secures” labor’s surplus value.
The CAse: BoTTle seRVICe VIP CluBs
This article uses the case of unpaid women and their paid brokers, called promoters, who attend leisure events and parties catering to the global elite. This clientele is called VIP, “very important people,” which is a purchas- able status denoting valued consumers. VIPs are highly mobile and have large amounts of disposable income; they get access to a wide variety of “free stuff ” by virtue of their prior spending records (McClain and Mears 2012). For example, frequent flyers enjoy elite status with access to airlines’ free services like upgrades, airport lounges, and expedited security. VIP customers similarly receive extra care and attention by service workers in luxury settings (Sherman 2007). Because free goods and services comprise what it means to be VIP, these services are a good case for studying the economy of free labor. And unlike airlines, hotels, or other elite spaces, the VIP party scene relies on labor that is not fixed to an organizational space, enabling a relational analysis of work that spills into informal spaces and extra-organizational social activities.
The VIP party scene is dispersed globally, tapping into the world’s wealthiest stratum, which is more international and mobile than ever before (Atkinson, Piketty, and Saez 2009). These parties appear in what Sassen (2000) calls “urban glamour zones” in global cities like New York and Miami, as well as exclusive tourist destinations, which are over- looked yet crucial nodes for the global circu- lation of the business class. VIPs circulate throughout a transatlantic calendar of events and parties from St. Barts in January to St. Tropez in July (Cousin and Chauvin 2013).
In such nodes, VIPs frequent exclusive nightclubs that typically offer “bottle ser- vice.” Rather than order drinks at the bar, VIP clients rent tables and purchase whole bottles of alcohol, carried by “bottle girls”— attractive cocktail waitresses in revealing clothing—to clients’ tables, at prices ranging
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from $250 per bottle of Absolut vodka (750 ml which retails for $25) to $5,000 for a magnum-size (1.5 liters) bottle of Cristal champagne (which retails for $750). The average price is $1,500 per table on a Satur- day night at such nightclubs (Elberse, Barlow, and Wong 2009). Firework sparklers accom- pany expensive bottles, a clear indicator of conspicuous consumption (Veblen  2009). Door personnel screen who is allowed to enter, and at what price, ensuring the bottle service club is an exclusively VIP space.2
MeThods I gained access to VIP clubs from previous fieldwork in the fashion modeling industry, which has substantial ties to party promoters. In my earlier fieldwork, promoters invited me to their parties free of charge with free dinner included; to begin this project, I accepted their invitations and began going out with them in New York.
Over the course of 18 months, I attended 17 clubs and went out with promoters on more than 120 nights, in addition to taking four trips to VIP destinations. I interviewed 44 promoters and 20 women, as well as 20 male clients whose interviews I use as sup- plemental data. Interviews were recorded and sometimes lasted over the course of several days as extended conversations. Of the 44 promoters interviewed, I accompanied all but eight of them to their parties at least once and as many as 10 times. I sometimes visited three or four clubs over the course of one night. These nights generally began with din- ner at 10 p.m. and ended between 3 and 4 a.m., with occasional after-parties stretching beyond 8 a.m. the next day.
During the summer I moved into an apart- ment rented by promoters; it was a four-bed- room loft in Union Square accommodating nine women, each of whom were allowed to stay rent-free in exchange for going out with the promoter at least four nights a week. I lived in a single room in the loft for a dis- counted price of $200 per week on the condi- tion that I go out with the promoter at least
two nights a week. The loft was chaotic and dirty, and after interviewing the women who lived there, I left by my third week.
Methodologically, I used Kusenbach’s (2003) go-along ethnographic method, a hybrid of interviewing and participant obser- vation, by following promoters on their daily and nightly rounds to trace the social archi- tecture of elite nightlife. Daytime observa- tions proved as important as nighttime encounters, as one promoter told me: “There can be no night without the day.” Yet, a pro- moter’s day rarely begins before 11 a.m. and often starts as late as 2 p.m. when he wakes up. Promoters generally welcomed my pres- ence, since their job chiefly involves getting women to hang out. In exchange for promot- ers’ participation, I dressed the part and went out with them at night; through my own bod- ily capital, I was able to maneuver the prob- lem of ethnographic access in studying up (Gusterson 1997).
Reflecting the demographics of promoters, my sample is majority men and just five women. Half of the 44 promoters interviewed were immigrants (n = 22). Most spoke multi- ple languages and could converse with inter- national clients and models. Of the 44 promoters interviewed in New York, just eight were white Americans.
I also accepted invitations to VIP destina- tions on four occasions: five nights in Miami (March), two separate weekends in the Hamp- tons (June), and one week in Cannes (July), with most expenses paid by promoters, clubs, and VIP clients. Two trips, to Miami and Cannes, were with a promoter named Santos, whom I met at a club in New York. After explaining my research, interviewing him, accompanying him out, and several text con- versations later, Santos invited me to attend his parties in Miami over the month of March, during the Electronic Music Festival. The festival draws music industry personnel as well as clients, promoters, and models from around the world. I paid for my own flight to Miami and stayed for free with four young women in the accommodations Santos arranged for all of us together, in the
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guesthouse of a villa on Star Island, rented by a group of Californian mortgage bankers (who paid $50,000 for the weekend rental). A year later, I met up with Santos in Europe, first in Milan for a night out at a club where he promotes, and then I followed him to Cannes for a week, again staying for free in his rental villa with eight other women. Finally, I visited the Hamptons on two week- end trips during the summer season, first with a promoter named Sampson, whom I met on the street in Soho with one of Santos’s associ- ates, and again with a group of clients I met through promoters.
Copious amounts of alcohol and some- times drugs are supplied to women free of charge; I generally held a glass of champagne during the parties but refrained from drinking more than occasional sips, enough to fit in. This made me a rare sober participant, which proved useful; for instance, I could drive home when a promoter was too drunk. Taking notes was easy, as everyone was constantly tapping on their phones, especially promot- ers, even as they danced inside clubs.
I secured the samples of women and cli- ents from clubs in New York. It was impos- sible to secure lists of clients or women from nightclubs or promoters, so I built a conveni- ence sample composed of participants I recruited in three ways: through face-to-face meetings at dinners and parties, through pro- moters, and through snowball sampling. I primarily relied on snowball sampling and introductions from promoters to interview clients. To interview women, I recruited pri- marily through tables. Each night out, I habit- ually introduced myself to each woman at the table to find out how she met the promoter we accompanied. At this point in our conversa- tion, I typically would explain my role as a writer working on a project about nightlife. Interviews with women focused on their rela- tionships with promoters and clients and their careers in the scene. Among the 20 women interviewed, their median age was 23. At 31 to 32, I was regularly the oldest woman at promoters’ tables, but still welcome because I look younger.
I coded interview transcripts and field notes using the software Nvivo with a coding scheme that emerged inductively in accord- ance with the analytic strategy of grounded theory (Charmaz 2001). I replaced all names with pseudonyms and removed potentially identifying information.
FIndIngs: The VAlue oF gIRls’ WoRK In the market for entertainment, a nightclub seeks to create an exciting environment in which customers spend money on alcohol; nightclubs are part of the “experience econ- omy,” where goods are secondary to the con- sumption experience itself (Pine and Gilmore 1999). VIP clubs attempt to mobilize big- spending clients who will pay high premiums on bottle service. Prized clients are called “whales,” as in finance and gambling lingo. They have significant stores of disposable income with which to buy bottles. I observed whales spending $200,000 for parades of hundreds of sparkler-lit bottles of champagne brought to their table (known as a “bottle train”). Clubs also value affluent businessmen and tourists, who spend in steadier and smaller amounts of $1,000 to $2,000 a night. Next are “fillers,” men who buy drinks at the bar but have some cultural capital, which keeps the club from looking empty. Below fillers, men perceived as having low eco- nomic and cultural capital are described as “bridge and tunnel,” so-called because they are not recognized as Manhattan dwellers and are barred entry.
To attract VIPs, clubs stage a glamorous platform for them to spend money, with high- profile DJs, chic and expensive-looking décor, brand name alcohol, special events, and restricted access to an exclusive crowd. Their chief attraction is a high volume of beautiful women, similar to women’s roles in other areas of the service economy (Warhurst and Nickson 2001). Consistent with past research on nightlife (e.g., Rivera 2010), clubs aim to have more women than men inside. By my count, clubs averaged about
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3:2 women to men. However, the quantity of women does not suffice to distinguish the VIP space. VIP clubs seek a high quantity of “quality” women, assessed exclusively in terms of feminine beauty. Exploiting the cor- relation between attractiveness and status (Webster and Driskell 1983), clubs target women whose bodies correspond to those valued in the high-fashion arena as models. Such women are ubiquitously called “girls.” In the VIP scene, girls are young (roughly 16 to 25 years), thin (size 0 to 6), tall (at least 5’9” without heels), and typically although not exclusively white, all of which is gauged visually.3
First published in 1956, The Power Elite stands as a contemporary classic of social science and social criticism. C. Wright Mills captivated readers with his penetrating analysis and fiery cri- tique of the organization of power in the United States, calling attention to three firmly interlocked prongs of power: the military, corporate, and political elite. But while The Power Elite can be read as an accurate account of what was taking place in America at the time it was written, its underlying question of whether America is as democratic in practice as it is in theory is every bit as significant to the culture of today. What The Power Elite informed readers of in 1956 was how much the power structure in America had changed during their lifetimes, and Alan Wolfe's astute afterword to this new edition brings us up to date, illustrating how much more has changed since then. Wolfe offers profound insight into what is still valid in Mills's book and also explores those predictions that have not come to bear, discussing the radical changes in American capitalism, from intense global competition and the collapse of communism to rapid technological transfor- mations and ever-changing consumer tastes. A penetrating work that remains of great rele- vance, The Power Elite stimulates us to think about the kind of society we have and the kind of society we might want. The late C. Wright Mills, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, was a leading critic of modern American civilization. Alan Wolfe is the Director of the Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. He is the author or editor of more than ten books, including Marginalized in the Middle and One Nation, After All.
1 The Higher Circles 3
2 Local Society 30
3 Metropolitan 400 47
4 The Celebrities 71
5 The Very Rich 94
6 The Chief Executives 118
7 The Corporate Rich 147
8 The Warlords 171
9 The Military Ascendancy
10 The Political Directorate
11 The Theory of Balance 242
12 The Power Elite 269
13 The Mass Society 298
14 The Conservative Mood
15 The Higher Immorality 343
The Higher Circles
THE powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family, and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can nei- ther understand nor govern. 'Great changes' are beyond their con- trol, but affect their conduct and outlook none the less. The very framework of modern society confines them to projects not their own, but from every side, such changes now press upon the men and women of the mass society, who accordingly feel that they are without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power.
But not all men are in this sense ordinary. As the means of in- formation and of power are centralized, some men come to oc- cupy positions in American society from which they can look down upon, so to speak, and by their decisions mightily affect, the everyday worlds of ordinary men and women. They are not made by their jobs; they set up and break down jobs for thousands of others; they are not confined by simple family responsibilities; they can escape. They may live in many hotels and houses, but they are bound by no one community. They need not merely 'meet the demands of the day and hour'; in some part, they create these demands, and cause others to meet them. Whether or not they profess their power, their technical and political experience of it far transcends that of the underlying population. What Jacob Burckhardt said of 'great men,' most Americans might well say of their elite: 'They are all that we are not.'1
The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men
4 THE POWER ELITE
and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences. Whether they do or do not make such decisions is less important than the fact that they do occupy such pivotal positions: their failure to act, their failure to make decisions, is itself an act that is often of greater consequence than the decisions they do make. For they are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society. They rule the big corpora- tions. They run the machinery of the state and claim its preroga- tives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure, in which are now centered the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy.
The power elite are not solitary rulers. Advisers and consultants, spokesmen and opinion-makers are often the captains of their higher thought and decision. Immediately below the elite are the professional politicians of the middle levels of power, in the Congress and in the pressure groups, as well as among the new and old upper classes of town and city and region. Mingling with them, in curious ways which we shall explore, are those profes- sional celebrities who live by being continually displayed but are never, so long as they remain celebrities, displayed enough. If such celebrities are not at the head of any dominating hierarchy, they do often have the power to distract the attention of the pub- lic or afford sensations to the masses, or, more directly, to gain the ear of those who do occupy positions of direct power. More or less unattached, as critics of morality and technicians of power, as spokesmen of God and creators of mass sensibility, such celebri- ties and consultants are part of the immediate scene in which the drama of the elite is enacted. But that drama itself is centered in the command posts of the major institutional hierarchies.
The truth about the nature and the power of the elite is not some secret which men of affairs know but will not tell. Such men hold quite various theories about their own roles in the sequence of event and decision. Often they are uncertain about their roles, and even more often they allow their fears and their hopes to affect their assessment of their own power. No matter how great their actual power, they tend to be less acutely aware of it than of the
THE HIGHER CIRCLES
resistances of others to its use. Moreover, most American men of affairs have learned well the rhetoric of public relations, in some cases even to the point of using it when they are alone, and thus coming to believe it. The personal awareness of the actors is only one of the several sources one must examine in order to understand the higher circles. Yet many who believe that there is no elite, or at any rate none of any consequence, rest their argument upon what men of affairs believe about themselves, or at least assert in public.
There is, however, another view: those who feel, even if vaguely, that a compact and powerful elite of great importance does now prevail in America often base that feeling upon the his- torical trend of our time. They have felt, for example, the domi- nation of the military event, and from this they infer that generals and admirals, as well as other men of decision influenced by them, must be enormously powerful. They hear that the Congress has again abdicated to a handful of men decisions clearly related to the issue of war or peace. They know that the bomb was dropped over Japan in the name of the United States of America, although they were at no time consulted about the matter. They feel that they live in a time of big decisions; they know that they are not making any. Accordingly, as they consider the present as history, they infer that at its center, making decisions or failing to make them, there must be an elite of power.
On the one hand, those who share this feeling about big histori- cal events assume that there is an elite and that its power is great. On the other hand, those who listen carefully to the reports of men apparently involved in the great decisions often do not believe that there is an elite whose powers are of decisive consequence.
Both views must be taken into account, but neither is adequate. The way to understand the power of the American elite lies nei- ther solely in recognizing the historic scale of events nor in accept- ing the personal awareness reported by men of apparent decision. Behind such men and behind the events of history, linking the two, are the major institutions of modern society. These hierar- chies of state and corporation and army constitute the means of power; as such they are now of a consequence not before equaled in human history—and at their summits, there are now those com- mand posts of modern society which offer us the sociological key to an understanding of the role of the higher circles in America.
6 THE POWER ELITE
Within American society, major national power now resides in the economic, the political, and the military domains. Other insti- tutions seem off to the side of modern history, and, on occasion, duly subordinated to these. No family is as directly powerful in national affairs as any major corporation; no church is as directly powerful in the external biographies of young men in America to- day as the military establishment; no college is as powerful in the shaping of momentous events as the National Security Council. Religious, educational, and family institutions are not autono- mous centers of national power; on the contrary, these decentral- ized areas are increasingly shaped by the big three, in which de- velopments of decisive and immediate consequence now occur.
Families and churches and schools adapt to modern life; governments and armies and corporations shape it; and, as they do so, they turn these lesser institutions into means for their ends. Religious institutions provide chaplains to the armed forces where they are used as a means of increasing the effectiveness of its mo- rale to kill. Schools select and train men for their jobs in corpora- tions and their specialized tasks in the armed forces. The extended family has, of course, long been broken up by the indus- trial revolution, and now the son and the father are removed from the family, by compulsion if need be, whenever the army of the state sends out the call. And the symbols of all these lesser institu- tions are used to legitimate the power and the decisions of the big three.
The life-fate of the modem individual depends not only upon the family into which he was born or which he enters by marriage, but increasingly upon the corporation in which he spends the most alert hours of his best years; not only upon the school where he is educated as a child and adolescent, but also upon the state which touches him throughout his life; not only upon the church in which on occasion he hears the word of God, but also upon the army in which he is disciplined.
If the centralized state could not rely upon the inculcation of na- tionalist loyalties in public and private schools, its leaders would promptly seek to modify the decentralized educational system. If the bankruptcy rate among the top five hundred corporations were as high as the general divorce rate among the thirty-seven million married couples, there would be economic catastrophe on an inter-
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national scale. If members of armies gave to them no more of their lives than do believers to the churches to which they belong, there would be a military crisis.
Within each of the big three, the typical institutional unit has become enlarged, has become administrative, and, in the power of its decisions, has become centralized. Behind these develop- ments there is a fabulous technology, for as institutions, they have incorporated this technology and guide it, even as it shapes and paces their developments.
The economy—once a great scatter of small productive units in autonomous balance—has become dominated by two or three hundred giant corporations, administratively and politically in- terrelated, which together hold the keys to economic decisions.
The political order, once a decentralized set of several dozen states with a weak spinal cord, has become a centralized, execu- tive establishment which has taken up into itself many powers previously scattered, and now enters into each and every crany of the social structure.
The military order, once a slim establishment in a context of dis- trust fed by state militia, has become the largest and most expen- sive feature of government, and, although well versed in smiling public relations, now has all the grim and clumsy efficiency of a sprawling bureaucratic domain.
In each of these institutional areas, the means of power at the disposal of decision makers have increased enormously; their cen- tral executive powers have been enhanced; within each of them modern administrative routines have been elaborated and tightened up.
As each of these domains becomes enlarged and centralized, the consequences of its activities become greater, and its traffic with the others increases. The decisions of a handful of corpora- tions bear upon military and political as well as upon economic developments around the world. The decisions of the military es- tablishment rest upon and grievously affect political life as well as the very level of economic activity. The decisions made within the political domain determine economic activities and military programs. There is no longer, on the one hand, an economy, and, on the other hand, a political order containing a military establish-
8 THE POWER ELITE
ment unimportant to politics and to money-making. There is a political economy linked, in a thousand ways, with military insti- tutions and decisions. On each side of the world-split running through central Europe and around the Asiatic rimlands, there is an ever-increasing interlocking of economic, military, and politi- cal structures.2 If there is government intervention in the corpo- rate economy, so is there corporate intervention in the govern- mental process. In the structural sense, this triangle of power is the source of the interlocking directorate that is most important for the historical structure of the present.
The fact of the interlocking is clearly revealed at each of the points of crisis of modern capitalist society—slump, war, and boom. In each, men of decision are led to an awareness of the interdependence of the major institutional orders. In the nine- teenth century, when the scale of all institutions was smaller, their liberal integration was achieved in the automatic economy, by an autonomous play of market forces, and in the automatic political domain, by the bargain and the vote. It was then assumed that out of the imbalance and friction that followed the limited deci- sions then possible a new equilibrium would in due course emerge. That can no longer be assumed, and it is not assumed by the men at the top of each of the three dominant hierarchies.
For given the scope of their consequences, decisions—and inde- cisions—in any one of these ramify into the others, and hence top decisions tend either to become co-ordinated or to lead to a com- manding indecision. It has not always been like this. When nu- merous small entrepreneurs made up the economy, for example, many of them could fail and the consequences still remain local; political and military authorities did not intervene. But now, given political expectations and military commitments, can they afford to allow key units of the private corporate economy to break down in slump? Increasingly, they do intervene in economic af- fairs, and as they do so, the controlling decisions in each order are inspected by agents of the other two, and economic, military, and political structures are interlocked.
At the pinnacle of each of the three enlarged and centralized domains, there have arisen those higher circles which make up the economic, the political, and the military elites. At the top of the
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economy, among the corporate rich, there are the chief exec- utives; at the top of the political order, the members of the politi- cal directorate; at the top of the military establishment, the elite of soldier-statesmen clustered in and around the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the upper echelon. As each of these domains has co- incided with the others, as decisions tend to become total in their consequence, the leading men in each of the three domains of power—the warlords, the corporation chieftains, the political directorate—tend to come together, to form the power elite of America.
The higher circles in and around these command posts are often thought of in terms of what their members possess: they have a greater share than other people of the things and experiences that are most highly valued. From this point of view, the elite are simply those who have the most of what there is to have, which is generally held to include money, power, and prestige—as well as all the ways of life to which these lead.3 But the elite are not simply those who have the most, for they could not 'have the most' were it not for their positions in the great institutions. For such institutions are the necessary bases of power, of wealth, and of prestige, and at the same time, the chief means of exercising power, of acquiring and retaining wealth, and of cashing in the higher claims for prestige.
By the powerful we mean, of course, those who are able to rea- lize their will, even if others resist it. No one, accordingly, can be truly powerful unless he has access to the command of major in- stitutions, for it is over these institutional means of power that the truly powerful are, in the first instance, powerful. Higher politi- cians and key officials of government command such institutional power; so do admirals and generals, and so do the major owners and executives of the larger corporations. Not all power, it is true, is anchored in and exercised by means of such institutions, but only within and through them can power be more or less contin- uous and important.
Wealth also is acquired and held in and through institutions. The pyramid of wealth cannot be understood merely in terms of the very rich; for the great inheriting families, as we shall see, are
10 THE POWER ELITE
now supplemented by the corporate institutions of modern soci- ety: every one of the very rich families has been and is closely connected—always legally and frequently managerially as well— with one of the multi-million dollar corporations.
The modern corporation is the prime source of wealth, but, in latter-day capitalism, the political apparatus also opens and closes many avenues to wealth. The amount as well as the source of income, the power over consumer's goods as well as over pro- ductive capital, are determined by position within the political economy. If our interest in the very rich goes beyond their lavish or their miserly consumption, we must examine their relations to modern forms of corporate property as well as to the state; for such relations now determine the chances of men to secure big property and to receive high income.
Great prestige increasingly follows the major institutional units of the social structure. It is obvious that prestige depends, often quite decisively, upon access to the publicity machines that are now a central and normal feature of all the big institutions of mod- ern America. Moreover, one feature of these hierarchies of cor- poration, state, and military establishment is that their top posi- tions are increasingly interchangeable. One result of this is the accumulative nature of prestige. Claims for prestige, for example, may be initially based on military roles, then expressed in and augmented by an educational institution run by corporate execu- tives, and cashed in, finally, in the political order, where, for Gen- eral Eisenhower and those he represents, power and prestige fi- nally meet at the very peak. Like wealth and power, prestige tends to be cumulative: the more of it you have, the more you can get. These values also tend to be translatable into one another: the wealthy find it easier than the poor to gain power; those with status find it easier than those without it to control opportunities for wealth.
If we took the one hundred most powerful men in America, the one hundred wealthiest, and the one hundred most celebrated away from the institutional positions they now occupy, away from their resources of men and women and money, away from the media of mass communication that are now focused upon them— then they would be powerless and poor and uncelebrated. For
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power is not of a man. Wealth does not center in the person of the wealthy. Celebrity is not inherent in any personality. To be cele- brated, to be wealthy, to have power requires access to major in- stitutions, for the institutional positions men occupy determine in large part their chances to have and to hold these valued ex- periences.
3 The people of the higher circles may also be conceived as
members of a top social stratum, as a set of groups whose mem- bers know one another, see one another socially and at business, and so, in making decisions, take one another into account. The elite, according to this conception, feel themselves to be, and are felt by others to be, the inner circle of 'the upper social classes.'4
They form a more or less compact social and psychological entity; they have become self-conscious members of a social class. People are either accepted into this class or they are not, and there is a qualitative split, rather than merely a numerical scale, separating them from those who are not elite. They are more or less aware of themselves as a social class and they behave toward one another differently from the way they do toward members of other classes. They accept one another, understand one another, marry one an- other, tend to work and to think if not together at least alike.
Now, we do not want by our definition to prejudge whether the elite of the command posts are conscious members of such a so- cially recognized class, or whether considerable proportions of the elite derive from such a clear and distinct class. These are matters to be investigated. Yet in order to be able to recognize what we intend to investigate, we must note something that all biogra- phies and memoirs of the wealthy and the powerful and the emi- nent make clear: no matter what else they may be, the people of these higher circles are involved in a set of overlapping 'crowds' and intricately connected 'cliques.' There is a kind of mutual at- traction among those who 'sit on the same terrace'—although this often becomes clear to them, as well as to others, only at the point at which they feel the need to draw the line; only when, in their common defense, they come to understand what they have in common, and so close their ranks against outsiders.
The idea of such ruling stratum implies that most of its mem-
12 THE POWER ELITE
bers have similar social origins, that throughout their lives they maintain a network of informal connections, and that to some de- gree there is an interchangeability of position between the various hierarchies of money and power and celebrity. We must, of course, note at once that if such an elite stratum does exist, its social visi- bility and its form, for very solid historical reasons, are quite dif- ferent from those of the noble cousinhoods that once ruled various European nations.
That American society has never passed through a feudal epoch is of decisive importance to the nature of the American elite, as well as to American society as a historic whole. For it means that no nobility or aristocracy, established before the capitalist era, has stood in tense opposition to the higher bourgeoisie. It means that this bourgeoisie has monopolized not only wealth but prestige and power as well. It means that no set of noble families has com- manded the top positions and monopolized the values that are generally held in high esteem; and certainly that no set has done so explicitiy by inherited right. It means that no high church dig- nitaries or court nobilities, no entrenched landlords with honorific accouterments, no monopolists of high army posts have opposed the enriched bourgeoisie and in the name of birth and prerogative successfully resisted its self-making.
But this does not mean that there are no upper strata in the United States. That they emerged from a 'middle class' that had no recognized aristocratic superiors does not mean they remained middle class when enormous increases in wealth made their own superiority possible. Their origins and their newness may have made the upper strata less visible in America than elsewhere. But in America today there are in fact tiers and ranges of wealth and power of which people in the middle and lower ranks know very little and may not even dream. There are families who, in their well-being, are quite insulated from the economic jolts and lurches felt by the merely prosperous and those farther down the scale. There are also men of power who in quite small groups make decisions of enormous consequence for the underlying population.
The American elite entered modern history as a virtually unop- posed bourgeoisie. No national bourgeoisie, before or since, has had such opportunities and advantages. Having no military neighbors, they easily occupied an isolated continent stocked with
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natural resources and immensely inviting to a willing labor force. A framework of power and an ideology for its justification were already at hand. Against mercantilist restriction, they inherited the principle of laissez-faire; against Southern planters, they im- posed the principle of industrialism. The Revolutionary War put an end to colonial pretensions to nobility, as loyalists fled the coun- try and many estates were broken up. The Jacksonian upheaval with its status revolution put an end to pretensions to monopoly of descent by the old New England families. The Civil War broke the power, and so in due course the prestige, of the ante-bellum South's claimants for the higher esteem. The tempo of the whole capitalist development made it impossible for an inherited nobil- ity to develop and endure in America.
No fixed ruling class, anchored in agrarian life and coming to flower in military glory, could contain in America the historic thrust of commerce and industry, or subordinate to itself the capi- talist elite—as capitalists were subordinated, for example, in Ger- many and Japan. Nor could such a ruling class anywhere in the world contain that of the United States when industrialized vio- lence came to decide history. Witness the fate of Germany and Japan in the two world wars of the twentieth century; and indeed the fate of Britain herself and her model ruling class, as New York became the inevitable economic, and Washington the inevitable political capital of the western capitalist world.
4 The elite who occupy the command posts may be seen as the
possessors of power and wealth and celebrity; they may be seen as members of the upper stratum of a capitalistic society. They may also be defined in terms of psychological and moral criteria, as certain kinds of selected individuals. So defined, the elite, quite simply, are people of superior character and energy.
The humanist, for example, may conceive of the 'elite' not as a social level or category, but as a scatter of those individuals who at- tempt to transcend themselves, and accordingly, are more noble, more efficient, made out of better stuff. It does not matter whether they are poor or rich, whether they hold high position or low, whether they are acclaimed or despised; they are elite because of the kind of individuals they are. The rest of the population is
14 THE POWER ELITE
mass, which, according to this conception, sluggishly relaxes into uncomfortable mediocrity.5
This is the sort of socially unlocated conception which some American writers with conservative yearnings have recently sought to develop.* But most moral and psychological concep- tions of the elite are much less sophisticated, concerning them- selves not with individuals but with the stratum as a whole. Such ideas, in fact, always arise in a society in which some people pos- sess more than do others of what there is to possess. People with advantages are loath to believe that they just happen to be people with advantages. They come readily to define themselves as in- herently worthy of what they possess; they come to believe them- selves 'naturally' elite; and, in fact, to imagine their possessions and their privileges as natural extensions of their own elite selves. In this sense, the idea of the elite as composed of men and women having a finer moral character is an ideology of the elite as a privi- leged ruling stratum, and this is true whether the ideology is elite- made or made up for it by others.
In eras of equalitarian rhetoric, the more intelligent or the more articulate among the lower …