History and Biography in a Global Age: The Legacy of C. Wright Mills

by Lauren Langman **

This paper was originally delivered at the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting in Washington D.C., August 2000

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Contemporary society itself, with its alienating methods of production, its enveloping techniques of political domination, its international anarchy--in a word, its pervasive transform[ed] the very 'nature' of man and the conditions and aims of his life (1959, p.13)

Although C. Wright Mills penned these words over 40 years ago, they seem as relevant today as then. Indeed given the nature of digitalized, computerized post-fordist production, the erosion of the political by marketing, with elections now a moment of the culture industries, the universalization of amusement-consumerism, all moments of the globalization of capital with its neo-liberal ideology, Mills words remain contemporary. While in the 60's a number of then young, typically rebellious sociologists found Mills a powerful inspiration in face of the paths sociology had taken. Notwithstanding the tumultuous times, his passion for human fulfillment through reason and his many insights have been eclipsed by both the growing irrelevancy of most contemporary social theory and the massive expansion of "empirical" research no more relevant today than when he scribed his telling critique, The Sociological Imagination.

For C. W. Mills. American sociology circa the late 50's had failed to live up to the promises of its founders. For Marx and Weber, sociology examined the emergence and consequences of capitalism, the growth of Protestantism and the industrial division of labor which had changed work, governance, the society and its communities. But what must be noted is that these social changes led to changes in people lives. Lords became merchants, peasants became workers and both were subjected to market forces and business cycles. The bonds that held people together were rent asunder and new forms of personal and collective behavior marked the new age of large factories, cities and Nation States. Some classes ascended to wealth and power-or were rendered poor and powerless. In this modern era, more and more of social life depended on rational organizations and formally trained administrative cadres-especially given modern corporations and Nation States which now stood as the fundamental contexts of social life. For Mills, sociology had forgotten its classical origins. The sociological imagination was meant restore that tradition and locate individual biographies within larger historic trends to understand the varieties of social types and their specific instantiations. Structural and institutional changes were not just "there", they impacted the lives of actual people to grant them freedom or subject them to domination. The sociological imagination promised to show how oneís personal life, issues and problems in work, marriage and meaning were linked to the larger social realities. It should enable people to understand the social forces that impacted their lives.

For a variety of reasons, following WWII, American sociology in what Mills was the first to term the "post modern" age, had forgotten its early roots and moved to either obscurantist "grand theory", Parsonís structural functionalism or "abstracted empiricism" belaboring irrelevant minutiae. Grand theory, an excessively verbose conservative ideology masked as social theory was primarily concerned with "the problem of order". It systematically and decidedly affirmed the dominant economic system, its class structure and its gender arrangements and ignored questions of classes, power, inequality, alienation, conflict, change and most of all, the life experiences of actual people-especially poor and/or marginal people. At the same time, mini-empires of grant funded research, led by "managers of the mind", well trained in "scientific methods" of sampling and analysis, moved sociological research from its original concerns to an obsessive gathering of isolated, de-contextualized factoids. Mills, was one of the first Americans to read the Frankfurt School critiques of instrumental reason as a hegemonic ideology sustaining the status quo, technologically based capitalism and the spurious "objectivity" of abstracted empiricism. Such "research" agendas could no more understand the nature of the times or address the vital questions of the age than could"grand theory".

On the one hand, given the events of the 1960's, a number of audiences began to pay heed to the questions and issues raised by Mills. One important reason for his popularity was his ability to write in a clear, lucid way quite different from the majority of sociologists. As a public intellectual, he defended populist agendas-criticizing the power elites as well as his own profession for ignoring them. The echoes of his clarion calls can yet be heard-and I would say contemporary sociology is that much better for his presence. We need only note that we now have sections concerned with women, minorities, gender, Marxism and gays. But at the same token, the dominant directions of sociology today, like our culture in general, have moved away from critical concerns. While functionalism has been relegated to the ash bins of textbooks, there now exist a plethora of social theories and approaches largely indifferent to the sociological imagination. Post modernism, post structuralism and rational choice theories, are not only indifferent to the concerns of classical sociology, but blind to the actual life experiences of real people and the role of new forms of power that are masked by popular culture.

As we begin the next millennium, I would like to argue that we should take stock of the legacy of C. W. Mills. I would like to argue that the sociological imagination is needed today as much if not more than when Mills first penned his critique. In the current age in which more and more people face deskilled McJobs and downward mobility, we find a more fragmented social fabric in which the pluralization of life worlds and highly differentiated carnival cultures of the now globalized "culture industries" fosters privatized hedonism and a withdrawal of concern with the social or political-save as entertainment (Gabler, 2000). Meanwhile, the political system is more and more beholden to the new "men and women of power" in the new centers of globalized power. Telegenic clones compete to serve trans national capital while the neo liberal State is ever more indifferent to the multitudes.

Mills would help us understand why the progressive moment of sociology was short lived. More specifically, let us recall that the 60's were an era of relative economic growth and prosperity. The dominant tropes of television encouraged consumerism as the "goods" life through eating tv dinners in suburbia. A number of social critiques addressed alienation, conformity. "one dimensionality" and questions of meaning. By the end of that era, given a variety of structural forces led to a variety of mobilizations over civil rights, anti war protests and the growth of feminism. And these events did inspire a number of sociologists, who were informed by the sociological imagination. The legacy of that era yet endures-if only in voto soce.

But why did that era wane and now fewer sociologists pay attention to the sociological imagination. A number of factors might be noted, the Civil Rights act and the end of the Viet Nam war lowered the intensity of pressures for social change. At the same time, the young sociological Turks were seeking academic jobs and/or tenure and the sociological factions that Mills described did not take kindly to leftist firebrands. The failure of progressive social movements to lead to a more rational, egalitarian society led many away from activism, perhaps the impact of the failure of the 1968 French workers movement should be noted. At that time, many French Marxists, veterans of Kojeveís Hegelian Nietzsche seminar might be noted. Baudrillard, Lyotard, Foucault and Derrida moved away from Marxist or progressive traditions to the hyperealities of pomo and post structural theories. Radicalism then moved from social movements to deconstructing local texts and discourses.

By the end of the 70's, the progressive moments of sociology had waned as rock and roll became mainstream, sexual freedom became normative and the remnants of activism became institutionalized. Yet in that era, radical changes in technology began to transform capitalist production. Little noted then, but Mills foretold what Bluestone, Bowles and Gintis would later call the de-industrialization of an America being turned into an "industrial wasteland". New strategies of computerized, digitalized production, and/or the movement of production to off shore sites of cheap labor would portend the erosion of the labor movement and the decline of wages, colas, and many of the benefits that labor had won after long hard struggles. By the 80's, issues of unemployment, plant closings and the growth of low paid service work garnered little attention in an era dominated by the make believe politics of the Reagan era in which the cultural tone was set by idolizing the rich of Dallas, Dynasty and Knotts Landing.

Most sociologists ignored the underside of the growing "worlds of pain" described by Rubin (l972). Not so grand theories moved to center stage. Theory moved to new and unimagined realms of irrelevance or narrow fields of limited in which esoteric language replaced the clear lucidity of both classical theory or the progressive populist analyses of Mills. Smithís economics returned as rational choice theory. This trend, had been noted earlier by Mills, much affected the kinds of people recruited to sociology. Sociology moved back to the farm boys, "second rate minds" from "third rate states" gravitated to sociology as a career in data collection. But this move, a reflection of the general indifference of sociology to actual people and their struggles to survive and find meaning was an important factor in the rise and spread of cultural studies in the academy. The Greshamís Law of ideas was evident, bad sociology forced out good. By having abandoned the sociological imagination, sociology would be all the poorer while a variety of disciplines like communication, cultural studies and literature became sites of social critique in general and the sociological imagination in particular. Thus for example Hallís concerns with media, identity and hegemony said more about race/class relations than Elmira revisited again.

History and Biography

In order to consider the nature of history and biography in our time, I would like to first note some of C. W. Mills observations-and their impact on sociology. I would then like to show how globalization has impacted the lives of people-and for most people, this influence has been adverse. Finally, recalling Mills understanding of social dynamics, I would like to suggest we are moving into a new stage of what I will call cyberfeudalism.

Prosperity, Meaning and Understanding

For both Marx and Weber, the rise of capitalism and in turn the Enlightenment eroded the hegemony of Church based religion as a moral code, as an explanatory framework and the basis of legitimation for dynastic rule. One of the important issues for Mills was the question of making sense of his times, how could people now understand the world in order to find life meaningful, why were people anxious while better off. . Despite the post war economic expansion of corporations, or perhaps because of it, notwithstanding higher standards of living, suburbanization and automobilization, there was a pervasive anxiety about the "stability" of the new economy. Always in the background during the cold war was the fear of communists from within and nuclear war from without. (1)

Mills captured the geist of his time as he noted that "nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct: What ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in other milieux, they move vicariously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and of threats which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel" (1959, p.3). People were little aware of how rational capitalism might provide material comforts and or fantasied gratifications-but its alienation could not easily be assuaged despite its largesse. (2) Nor could most folks see and understand how the "cold war" that threatened their lives depended on a number of elites-or would be elites-whose careers and power were based on the manufacture of "red menace".

Today, like then, our society faces crises of meaning and understanding, but that said, there is a greater fragmentation of social life based on the many new kinds of jobs, specialized education, consumer styles and participation in the myriad taste cultures and leisure sites of advanced capital. This has led to a cacophony of competing voices that would claim or grant meanings. And quite often, these different meanings stand in violent opposition to each other. On the one hand, the move to consumer society, fostered largely by television based advertising, has made consumption the overall hegemonic ideology which promised happiness through the "goods life". But the shallowness of consumerism, its narcissism and its lack of a moral posture has led to a plethora of alternatives. These can take such forms as religious conservatism that would take us back to an imagined past of a simpler times when orthodox religion had clear answers to moral questions-while affirming essentialist identities. The fragmentation of progressive forces into a plurality of competing identity claims along racial, ethnic, gender or cultural-if not counter cultural lines provided a number of alternative communities of meaning that would give voice to the silent and grant and recognize valorized identities. And finally, for segments of those marginalized by global capital, instead of dealing with the realities of capitalist restructuring various extremist groups blame minorities, Jews or a UN conspiracy to take over the world.

While the dominant self image and national mood of confidence and prosperity of the 1990's was primarily based on the affluent, the gaps of rich and poor grew-and much of this divide was often closely tied to issues of race/ethnicity. The past 20 years witnessed a massive production of wealth, but most has been appropriated by the economic elites- the top 20%,(see below). Even in this stratum, most of that wealth has gone to the upper echelons who have fostered a variety of cynical justification for the greater disparities of income and wealth. Meanwhile, the bottom 20% have lost considerable ground, even when working. Many of those now marginalized include racial minorities. But it might be noted that included among the marginalized are a number of counter-cultures of downwardly mobile youth ranging from punks to Goths sporting a number of studs, posts, rings, spikes, tatoos and florescent colors that guarantee unemployment-save in a few record shops or health food stores (Cf Rojek, 1999). But whereas most countercultures have envisioned a better world, many of the youth counter cultures of today seek only more varied and intense forms of personal gratification.

Alienated work

Among the most influential books that Mills wrote exemplifying the sociological imagination was his analysis of the new middle classes, various clerks, sales persons and service workers who ranks were just beginning to swell. For Mills, work was one of the central linkages between the person and the larger society. Mills was among the first to chart the movement of alienation from the factory floor to the sales floor and the office. In the shadow of Millís legacy, we might well note that his influence generated a number of studies of how work adversely impacts the lives of actual people. Let me just note three such studies. One such example was Hochschildís The Managed Heart, now itself a sociological classic. In this ground breaking work, Hochschild showed how while for Marx, alienation was based on the appropriation of the workers labor and the products s/he produced for others, today, for service workers, flight attendants as a prime example, corporate demands for "pleasant" service and self presentation, the required forms of social interaction became commodified and feelings commercialized. Warmth, cordiality and sympathy have become part of corporate competition utilized in the service of profits-notwithstanding the adverse consequences for the worker. But further, in this vein, Leidner has shown that for more and more "interactive service work" that includes much of the fast food industry, not only must minimum wage workers show the "proper" deference and demeanor, but management manages to enlist the public to collude in the surveillance of workers. Finally, let me note that his recent book, Corrosion of Character, Sennett has argued that in the new, post Taylorized flexible work environments of modern corporation, where flextime, innovation and team cooperation rather than rigid rules and hierarchy are stressed, loyalty to the group/organization has eroded in favor short term instrumental relations which may provide "success" in business, but cannot much provide the narratives (of identity) that sustain family life or civic involvement upon such values. This is perhaps one reason why so many workers put in long hours at their corporations-away from friends, families or communities (Hochschild, 1998).

It is also worth noting that today the variety of work and many of the jobs today could hardly be imagined by Mills. These would range from webmaster to fast foods to the electronic sweatshops of sales offices, insurance companies and reservations departments. Further, in addition to the short term commitments and limited loyalties just noted, one of the most rapidly growing segment of the new work force of today are the various "consultants", temps and "home" workers whose jobs tend to be of limited duration and for the most part are without benefits. What these changes in the work force indicate is that work in the contemporary labor force little provides a basis for social ties, connections and commitments.

While work is often quite alienating, one of the salient issues of the current age is the very availability and stability of work. But it is worth recalling that for Mills, "the immense productivity of mass-production technique and the increased application of technologic rationality are the first open secrets of modern occupational change: fewer men turn out more things in less time. . . . This industrial revolution seems to be permanent, seems to go on through war and boom and slump; thus a decline in production results in a more than proportional decline in employment; and an increase in production results in a less than proportional increase in employment" (1951, p. 66-67).

By the 90's, it became evident to most people that the transformations of capitalism led to a restructuring of manufacturing. The computerization of work not only impacted workers, but many skilled professions saw permanent changes in the nature of their work. More and more jobs were automated, comptuterized and/or exported. Many lower echelon management jobs have been made redundant and eliminated. Some social critics such as Rifkin, and of course Aronowitz and DaFazio raised serious questions about the future of a society in which large segments of the work force faced declining wages if not permanent marginalization. While these concerns were pushed out of sight by Clintonís embrace of neo-liberalism that created a large number of jobs, most of these were for the lower echelons of service work, without benefits, job security or prospects of a better future. It has been said in jest that there are so many jobs that many folks have 2 or 3. But for every systems analyst, webmaster, genetic engineer, financial planner or e-commerce millionaire, there are perhaps 5 or 6 lower echelon McJobs. Now it may well be that the production of jobs cannot be micro managed-as the Soviet experience demonstrated-but at the same time, the distributions of rewards and wage levels are political questions-to which neo-liberalism has given an answer-the personal sacrifices of the majority are morally desirable since like the Protestant ethic, asceticism serves ultimately provides greater wealth-but today, not to those who do the sacrificing (see Teeple, 1996).

The changing nature of work has much impacted the life of the lower statum. Much in line with the concerns raised by Mills a number of sociologists began to explore the conditions of life for the lower stratum that came to be termed the underclass. While a long tradition going back to DuBois, Frazier, and St Clair Drake and Clark had been concerned with the conditions of the Afro American ghetto, William Wilson (1996) systematically traced the impact of globalization on the lives of the poor. He argued that the closing of urban factories for the sake of corporate capitalism has had a deleterious impact on poor communities-sucking their very life blood. Not only did the loss of jobs contribute to crime, violence and family instability, but at the same, elites members of Afro-American communities were likely to move, intensifying the "social isolation" of the poor, depriving such communities of "successful* role models with organizational skills. Now while his thesis has been much debated and criticized, it nevertheless exemplified the sociological imagination. In much the same vein, as Sassen (1998) has noted, global capital/information flows have changed the nature of global cities fostering gentrification. Anderson (1990) showed how the influx of affluent people into formerly poor areas has led to anger and resentment between the largely white newcomers and the largely Black residents.

Power elites

Studied in classical social theory, Mills well knew the role of elites in directing a society-claims of democracy and popular participation notwithstanding. For Marx, the domination by ruling classes was the basis of history. These classes not only controlled wealth, but political power as well as the means of cultural production (e.g.) they controlled ideologies and beliefs. Similarly, for Weber, domination, legitimacy and authority were central themes and indeed he seems to have suggested that politics was the only way to find meaning in the modern world. Further, while Marx saw political leaders simply as the agents of capital, Weber noted that political life was a "vocation" in which ones career was based on a particular "calling" not simply reducible to economics. Weberís student Michals noted that elite domination was not just a characteristic of society writ large, but took place within organizations as well. Thus for Mills some citizens, especially those born into affluence and likely to go to a few select elite schools, had disproportionate power and control over economic, political and even military institutions. These groups, historical blocs rather than a unified ruling class, long described by Domhoff, have had a disproportionate-and undemocratic influence over the work most of us do, the products we buy, the way we live-and now the ways we get sick and find health care. But further, these power elites make economic and political choices that not only have great impact on the society, but for a number of reasons, their influences are rendered either invisible-or transformed into the "will of the people" to command "spontaneous assent" (Gramsci). But what must now be noted is that the new face of power is no longer national but global.

When Mills wrote SI, he argued that the appropriate context of modern social life was not the local community but the Nation State. Indeed much of the 20th C must be understood in terms of nationalist conflicts, the vagaries of national economies and impact of national cultures. But the dominant historical context of contemporary life is no longer the Nation State but globalization, the condition of our age in which the constraints of geography upon economic, culture and political life recede (Waters, 1995). Thus globalization can be seen as a fundamentally new form of economy, governance and culture (Cf. Waters, 1995). Globalization now stands as the fundamental historical context that most impacts people*s lives. From the alpha geek millionaires of Silicon Valley to Mongolian nomads with modems, the universalization of electronic communication and the resulting time and space compression has radically transformed contemporary lives. The fundamental historical reality that now impacts individual biographies is now globalization-this is the central moment of the sociological imagination of our age.

Continued here

1 But Mills noted that much of the fear of communism was fostered by those industries, generals and politicians for whom this fear brought profits, power and career advance, or more often-all.

2 Curiously enough, similar critiques of capitalist consumerism were soon voiced by Lefebvre (1956) and by Marcuse (1954).

Used with Permission of the Author...2001