The Mass Society
from the book
The Power Elite
by C.Wright Mills
Oxford Press, 1956
In the standard image of power and decision, no force is held
to be as important as The Great American Public. More than merely
another check and balance, this public is thought to be the seat
of all legitimate power. In official life as in popular folklore,
it is held to be the very balance wheel of democratic power. In
the end, all liberal theorists rest their notions of the power
system upon the political role of this public; all official decisions,
as well as private decisions of consequence, are justified as
in the public's welfare; all formal proclamations are in its name.
Let us therefore consider the classic public of democratic
theory in the generous spirit in which Rousseau once cried, 'Opinion,
Queen of the World, is not subject to the power of kings; they
are themselves its first slaves.'
The most important feature of the public of opinion, which
the rise of the democratic middle class initiates, is the free
ebb and flow of discussion. The possibilities of answering back,
of organizing autonomous organs of public opinion, of realizing
opinion in action, are held to be established by democratic institutions.
The opinion that results from public discussion is understood
to be a resolution that is then carried out by public action;
it is, in one version, the 'general will' of the people, which
the legislative organ enacts into law, thus lending to it legal
force. Congress, or Parliament, as an institution, crowns all
the scattered publics; it is the archetype for each of the little
circles of face-to-face citizens discussing their public business.
This eighteenth-century idea of the public of public opinion
parallels the economic idea of the market of the free economy.
Here is the market composed of freely competing entrepreneurs;
there is the public composed of discussion circles of opinion
peers. As price is the result of anonymous, equally weighted,
bargaining individuals, so public opinion is the result of each
man's having thought things out for himself and contributing his
voice to the great chorus. To be sure, some might have more influence
on the state of opinion than others, but no one group monopolizes
the discussion, or by itself determines the opinions that prevail.
Innumerable discussion circles are knit together by mobile
people who carry opinions from one to another, and struggle for
the power of larger command. The public is thus organized into
associations and parties, each representing a set of viewpoints,
each trying to acquire a place in the Congress, where the discussion
continues. Out of the little circles of people talking with one
another, the larger forces of social movements and political parties
develop; and the discussion of opinion is the important phase
in a total act by which public affairs are conducted.
The autonomy of these discussions is an important element
in the idea of public opinion as a democratic legitimation. The
opinions formed are actively realized within the prevailing institutions
of power; all authoritative agents are made or broken by the prevailing
opinions of these publics. And, in so far as the public is frustrated
in realizing its demands, its members may go beyond criticism
of specific policies; they may question the very legitimations
of legal authority. That is one meaning of Jefferson's comment
on the need for an occasional 'revolution.'
The public, so conceived, is the loom of classic, eighteenth-century
democracy; discussion is at once the threads and the shuttle,
tying the discussion circles together. It lies at the root of
the conception of authority by discussion, and it is based upon
the hope that truth and justice will somehow come out of society
as a great apparatus of free discussion. The people are presented
with problems. They discuss them. They decide on them. They formulate
viewpoints. These viewpoints are organized, and they compete.
One viewpoint 'wins out.' Then the people act out this view, or
their representatives are instructed to act it out, and this
they promptly do.
Such are the images of the public of classic democracy which
are still used as the working justifications of power in American
society. But now we must recognize this description as a set of
images out of a fairy tale: they are not adequate even as an approximate
model of how the American system of power works. The issues that
now shape man's fate are neither raised nor decided by the public
at large. The idea of the community of publics is not a description
of fact, but an assertion of an ideal, an assertion of a legitimation
masquerading-as legitimations are now apt to do-as fact. For now
the public of public opinion is recognized by all those who have
considered it carefully as something less than it once was.
These doubts are asserted positively in the statement that
the classic community of publics is being transformed into a society
of masses. This transformation, in fact, is one of the keys to
the social and psychological meaning of modern life in America.
I. In the democratic society of publics it was assumed, with
John Locke, that the individual conscience was the ultimate seat
of judgment and hence the final court of appeal. But this principle
was challenged-as E. H. Carr has put it-when Rousseau 'for the
first time thought in terms of the sovereignty of the whole people,
and faced the issue of mass democracy.'
II. In the democratic society of publics it was assumed that
among the individuals who composed it there was a natural and
peaceful harmony of interests. But this essentially conservative
doctrine gave way to the Utilitarian doctrine that such a harmony
of interests had first to be created by reform before it could
work, and later to the Marxian doctrine of class struggle, which
surely was then, and certainly is now, closer to reality than
any assumed harmony of interests.
III. In the democratic society of publics it was assumed that
before public action would be taken, there would be rational discussion
between individuals which would determine the action and that,
accordingly, the public opinion that resulted would be the infallible
voice of reason. But this has been challenged not only ( 1 ) by
the assumed need for experts to decide delicate and intricate
issues, but (2) by the discovery-as by Freud-of the irrationality
of the man in the street, and (3) by the discovery- as by Marx-of
the socially conditioned nature of what was once assumed to be
IV. In the democratic society of publics it was assumed that
after determining what is true and right and just, the public
would act accordingly or see that its representatives did so.
In the long run, public opinion will not only be right, but public
opinion will prevail. This assumption has been upset by the great
gap now existing between the underlying population and those who
make decisions in its name, decisions of enormous consequence
which the public often does not even know are being made until
well after the fact.
Public opinion exists when people who are not in the government
of a country claim the right to express political opinions freely
and publicly, and the right that these opinions should influence
or determine the policies, personnel, and actions of their government.
In this formal sense there has been and there is a definite public
opinion in the United States. And yet, with modern developments
this formal right-when it does still exist as a right -does not
mean what it once did. The older world of voluntary organization
was as different from the world of the mass organization, as was
Tom Paine's world of pamphleteering from the world of the mass
Since the French Revolution, conservative thinkers have Viewed
With Alarm the rise of the public, which they called the masses,
or something to that effect. 'The populace is sovereign, and the
tide of barbarism mounts,' wrote Gustave Le Bon. 'The divine right
of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings,'
and already 'the destinies of nations are elaborated at present
in the heart of the masses, and no longer in the councils of princes.'
During the twentieth century, liberal and even socialist thinkers
have followed suit, with more explicit reference to what we have
called the society of masses. From Le Bon to Emil Lederer and
Ortega y Gasset, they have held that the influence of the mass
in unfortunately increasing.
But surely those who have supposed the masses to be all powerful,
or at least well on their way to triumph, are wrong. In our time,
as Chakhofin knew, the influence of autonomous collectivities
within political life is in fact diminishing. Furthermore, such
influence as they do have is guided; they must now be seen not
as publics acting autonomously, but as masses manipulated at focal
points into crowds of demonstrators. For as publics become masses,
masses sometimes become crowds; and, in crowds, the psychical
rape by the mass media is supplemented up-close by the harsh and
sudden harangue. Then the people in the crowd disperse again-as
atomized and submissive masses.
In all modern societies, the autonomous associations standing
between the various classes and the state tend to lose their effect
as vehicles of reasoned opinion and instruments for the rational
exertion of political will. Such associations can be deliberately
broken up and thus turned into passive instruments of rule, or
they can more slowly wither away from lack of use in the face
of centralized means of power. But whether they are destroyed
in a week or wither in a generation, such associations are replaced
in virtually every sphere of life by centralized organizations,
and it is such organizations with all their new means of power
that take charge of the terrorized or-as the case may be-merely
intimidated, society of masses.
The institutional trends that make for a society of masses
are to a considerable extent a matter of impersonal drift, but
the remnants of the public are also exposed to more 'personal'
and intentional forces. With the broadening of the base of politics
within the context of a folk-lore of democratic decision-making,
and with the increased means of mass persuasion that are available,
the public of public opinion has become the object of intensive
efforts to control, manage, manipulate, and increasingly intimidate.
In political, military, economic realms, power becomes, in
varying degrees, uneasy before the suspected opinions of masses,
and, accordingly, opinion-making becomes an accepted technique
of power-holding and power-getting. The minority electorate of
the propertied and the educated is replaced by the total suffrage-and
intensive campaigns for the vote. The small eighteenth-century
professional army is replaced by the mass army of conscripts-and
by the problems of nationalist morale. The small shop is replaced
by the mass-production industry-and the national advertisement.
As the scale of institutions has become larger and more centralized,
so has the range and intensity of the opinion-makers' efforts.
The means of opinion-making, in fact, have paralleled in range
and efficiency the other institutions of greater scale that cradle
the modern society of masses. Accordingly, in addition to their
enlarged and centralized means of administration, exploitation,
and violence, the modern elite have had placed within their grasp
historically unique instruments of psychic management and manipulation,
which include universal compulsory education as well as the media
of mass communication.
Early observers believed that the increase in the range and
volume of the formal means of communication would enlarge and
animate the primary public. In such optimistic views-written before
radio and television and movies-the formal media are understood
as simply multiplying the scope and pace of personal discussion.
Modern conditions, Charles Cooley wrote, 'enlarge indefinitely
the competition of ideas, and whatever has owed its persistence
merely to lack of comparison is likely to go, for that which is
really congenial to the choosing mind will be all the more cherished
and increased.' Still excited by the break-up of the conventional
consensus of the local community, he saw the new means of communication
as furthering the conversational dynamic of classic democracy,
and with it the growth of rational and free individuality.
No one really knows all the functions of the mass media, for
in their entirety these functions are probably so pervasive and
so subtle that they cannot be caught by the means of social research
now available. But we do now have reason to believe that these
media have helped less to enlarge and animate the discussions
of primary publics than to transform them into a set of media
markets in mass-like society.
In their attempts to neutralize or to turn to their own use
the articulate public, the opinion-makers try to make it a relay
network for their views. If the opinion-makers have so much power
that they can act directly and openly upon the primary publics,
they may become authoritative; but, if they do not have such power
and hence have to operate indirectly and without visibility, they
will assume the stance of manipulators.
Authority is power that is explicit and more or less 'voluntarily'
obeyed; manipulation is the 'secret' exercise of power, unknown
to those who are influenced. In the model of the classic democratic
society, manipulation is not a problem, because formal authority
resides in the public itself and in its representatives who are
made or broken by the public. In the completely authoritarian
society, manipulation is not a problem, because authority is openly
identified with the ruling institutions and their agents, who
may use authority explicitly and nakedly. They do not, in the
extreme case, have to gain or retain power by hiding its exercise.
Manipulation becomes a problem wherever men have power that
is concentrated and willful but do not have authority, or when,
for any reason, they do not wish to use their power openly. Then
the powerful seek to rule without showing their powerfulness.
They want to rule, as it were, secretly, without publicized legitimation.
It is in this mixed case-as in the intermediate reality of the
American today-that manipulation is a prime way of exercising
power. Small circles of men are making decisions which they need
to have at least authorized by indifferent or recalcitrant people
over whom they do not exercise explicit authority. So the small
circle tries to manipulate these people into willing acceptance
or cheerful support of their decisions or opinions-or at least
to the rejection of possible counter-opinions.
Authority formally resides 'in the people,' but power is in
fact held by small circles of men. That is why the standard strategy
of manipulation is to make it appear that the people, or at least
a large group of them, 'really made the decision.' That is why
even when the authority is available, men with access to it may
still prefer the secret, quieter ways of manipulation.
But are not the people now more educated? Why not emphasize
the spread of education rather than the increased effects of the
mass media? The answer, in brief, is that mass education, in many
respects, has become-another mass medium.
The prime task of public education, as it came widely to be
understood in this country, was political: to make the citizen
more knowledgeable and thus better able to think and to judge
of public affairs. In time, the function of education shifted
from the political to the economic: to train people for better-paying
jobs and thus to get ahead. This is especially true of the high-school
movement, which has met the business demands for white-collar
skills at the public's expense. In large part education has become
merely vocational; in so far as its political task is concerned,
in many schools, that has been reduced to a routine training of
The training of skills that are of more or less direct use
in the vocational life is an important task to perform, but ought
not to be mistaken for liberal education: job advancement, no
matter on what levels, is not the same as self-development, although
the two are now systematically confused. Among 'skills,' some
are more and some are less relevant to the aims of liberal-that
is to say, ]liberating-education. Skills and values cannot be
so easily separated as the academic search for supposedly neutral
skills causes us to assume. And especially not when we speak seriously
of liberal education. Of course, there is a scale, with skills
at one end and values at the other, but it is the middle range
of this scale, which one might call sensibilities, that are of
most relevance to the classic public.
To train someone to operate a lathe or to read and write is
pretty much education of skill; to evoke from people an understanding
of what they really want out of their lives or to debate with
them stoic, Christian and humanist ways of living, is pretty much
a clear-cut education of values. But to assist in the birth among
a group of people of those cultural and political and technical
sensibilities which would make them genuine members of a genuinely
liberal public, this is at once a training in skills and an education
of values. It includes a sort of therapy in the ancient sense
of clarifying one's knowledge of one's self; it includes the imparting
of all those skills of controversy with one's self, which we call
thinking; and with others, which we call debate. And the end product
of such liberal education of sensibilities is simply the self-educating,
self-cultivating man or woman.
The knowledgeable man in the genuine public is able to turn
his personal troubles into social issues, to see their relevance
for his community and his community's relevance for them. He understands
that what he thinks and feels as personal troubles are very often
not only that but problems shared by others and indeed not subject
to solution by any one individual but only by modifications of
the structure of the groups in which he lives and sometimes the
structure of the entire society.
Men in masses are gripped by personal troubles, but they are
not aware of their true meaning and source. Men in public confront
issues, and they are aware of their terms. It is the task of the
liberal institution, as of the liberally educated man, continually
to translate troubles into issues and issues into the terms of
their human meaning for the individual. In the absence of deep
and wide political debate, schools for adults and adolescents
could perhaps become hospitable frameworks for just such debate.
In a community of publics the task of liberal education would
be: to keep the public from being overwhelmed; to help produce
the disciplined and informed mind that cannot be overwhelmed;
to help develop the bold and sensible individual that cannot be
sunk by the burdens of mass life. But educational practice has
not made knowledge directly relevant to the human need of the
troubled person of the twentieth century or to the social practices
of the citizen. This citizen cannot now see the roots of his own
biases and frustrations, nor think clearly about himself, nor
for that matter about anything else. He does not see the frustration
of idea, of intellect, by the present organization of society,
and he is not able to meet the tasks now confronting 'the intelligent
Educational institutions have not done these things and, except
in rare instances, they are not doing them. They have become mere
elevators of occupational and social ascent, and, on all levels,
they have become politically timid. Moreover, in the hands of
'professional educators,' many schools have come to operate on
an ideology of life adjustment' that encourages happy acceptance
of mass ways of life rather than the struggle for individual and
There is not much doubt that modern regressive educators have
adapted their notions of educational content and practice to the
idea of the mass. They do not effectively proclaim standards of
cultural level and intellectual rigor; rather they often deal
in the trivia of vocational tricks and 'adjustment to life'-meaning
the slack life of masses. 'Democratic schools' often mean the
furtherance of intellectual mediocrity, vocational training, nationalistic
loyalties, and little else.