Who did this guy think he was?

MillsI was reading C. Wright Mills’ White Collar this morning.  It’s a searching look at American society after World War II.

I was struck by the tone.

[“White-collar man”] is pushed by forces beyond his control, pulled into movements he does not understand; he gets into situations in which his is the most helpless position. The white-collar man is the hero as victim, the small creature who is acted upon but who does not act, who works along unnoticed in somebody’s office or store, never talking loud, never talking back, never taking a stand.

Surely, I thought to myself, you could render an account that describes the relative power, standing and autonomy of this social group in a way that’s not quite so patronizing.  I mean, isn’t there?  Couldn’t Wright have got most of the descriptive work done here without being so diminishing.  But, no.  It looks as if he has gone out of his way to take the imperial point of view.  Haughty, even.

[“white-collar man”] is more often pitiful than tragic, as he is seen collectively, fighting impersonal inflation, living out in slow misery his yearning for the quick American climb.

Naturally I took particular  umbrage at this passage.

…white-collar man has no culture to lean upon except the contents of a mass society that has shaped him and seeks to manipulate him to its alien ends. For security’s sake, he must strain to attach himself somewhere, but no communities or organizations seem to be thoroughly his. This isolated position makes him excellent material for synthetic molding at the hands of popular culture—print, film, radio, and television. As a metropolitan dweller, he is especially open to the focused onslaught of all the manufactured loyalties and distractions that are contrived and urgently pressed upon those who live in worlds they never made.

This argument is what it is.  You buy it or you don’t.  Personally, I think it’s a bit of myth making that bears an uneven connection to the realities of American life, and almost no connection to the lived experience of middle class life after World War II.  This world was fun,  terrifying, experimental, and reckless.  A large group of people were undertaking individual and collective acts of social and cultural mobility.   White collar?  Try cervical collar.  This was a whip lash world.     (See my chapter “When Cars Could Fly: Raymond Loewy, John Kenneth Galbraith and the 1954 Buick” in Culture and Consumption II for an elaboration of this argument.  See  Home Fires for something more ethnographic.)

C. Wright Mills missed all of this.  What you get is the odor of disappointment, that the middle class was refusing narratives preferred by the radical sociologist.   His topic is the little people, and naturally any reference to autonomy, agency, experiment, self definition or, gasp, individualism is not only not welcome but an impediment to the larger argument.

Wright was a school master, reproving students  for not rising to the intellectual challenge.   How else to explain the tone.  It’s so very confident of the speaker’s authority.  So unafraid of openly scorning the subject.  So certain that the speaker knew better and could claim a higher standing.   Edward Said helped us understand those moments when Western critics presume to generalize and diminish other cultures.  He called it Orientalism.  But what term do we use when  intellectuals diminish not other cultures but their own? Occidentalism?

But the real question is whether anything like this is now possible.  Would anyone talk this way in the present day?   Would anyone dare?  Yes, the white-collar man has been transformed inside and out.  That much is clear.  What about the intellectual?  Any movement there?

3 thoughts on “Who did this guy think he was?”

  1. The same remarks are made today but aimed elsewhere. Think Mitt Romney’s 47% comment.

    Mr.Mills’ comments may now reflect how the middle class white collar feel about themselves given the economic inequality squeeze that seems to be developing.

  2. Thanks for taking on one of the founding fathers of student activism, particularly with respect to the authoritarian quality of his academic voice. You are providing a needed insight into his “theory-in-use.” (And I say this as a fan of the the C.Wright Mills oeuvre.) I would like to believe that the ‘talking heads” in academia today will soon face stiff competition from other “voices,” from an array of nontraditional, multi-platform, and blended learning opportunities.

    1. Larry, well said, there are several things to admire in Mills’ work. Pity about the high handed tone. Looking forward to hearing those new voices!

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