July 31st, 2012 at 11:34 am
“If [Mills] were alive today, in 2012, he would be very skeptical of, if not oppositional to, people like Obama and the Democratic Party.”—Stanley Aronowitz
In a recent interview with The Brooklyn Rail Stanley Aronowitz discussed his new book on C. Wright Mills, Taking It Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals.
In the interview, Aronowitz talks about what made Mills one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century as well as one of the most controversial radical social theorists. Aronowitz cites Mills’s profound influence on the New Left of the 1960s as well as his ability to develop new ways of thinking about society and politics that avoided the ideological rigidity that took hold among mainstream liberals and Marxists. In describing what kind of political program Mills envisioned, Aronowitz comments:
A new American left would seek to ground its politics on the American radical traditions. [Mills] was a model both for academic and nonacademic intellectuals of courage and forthrightness. He refused to submit to the vagaries of the Cold War. Although anti-Communist, he was not willing to embrace American foreign policy. If he were alive today, in 2012, he would be very skeptical of, if not oppositional to, people like Obama and the Democratic Party.
For Aronowitz, Mills was also one of the few thinkers who understood or even attempted to understand the way in which power operates in the United States. Mills believed that an elite comprised of corporate, military, and political interests maintained power in the United States. Mills’s legacy however, was not only in analyzing American society but becoming a public intellectual, who put ideas into action. Mills faulted his colleagues for not “taking it big” and failing to examine the major issues of the day. His example, Aronowitz claims, is one that has sadly been ignored:
I think he is significant today because he is a model that we should be not only appreciative of, but should try to emulate. We should not only speak out publicly, as he did, about specific issues like war, poverty, and exploitation. Those are important questions, but we ought to be following his example by trying to identify the current forces of power. Mills insisted on studying “up.” He thought—and I can tell you that this is also true today—that almost nobody in the social sciences deals with the question of power. The question of power is, more or less, carefully avoided.
In the interview, Aronowitz is also asked about the decline of public intellectuals, the direction of the labor movement, and the recent Occupy movements. While supportive of the direct action recently taken, he suggests the various Occupy movements need to do more if they want to have an impact:
The Occupy movement has so far refused to suggest the pathways to … political formation. It does not have a vision of an alternative society. What happens under those circumstances, as with all protest movements, is that if the protest can be incorporated into the existing society successfully—even if it is incorporated in a watered-down version—it will be. Because the labor movement in the 1930s, that is, the great industrial union upsurge of 1933 to 1938, did not develop its own political formation, the Democratic Party (with the help of both the Communists and a significant fraction of the Socialists, by the way) was able to form a firm alliance with the labor movement. The labor movement is now suffering for that alliance, but is completely hooked. In this election of 2012, for example, labor is going to give $400 million to Obama and his friends. That is a waste of time and a waste of money. Even the recall movement in Wisconsin was a diversion from what the labor movement can do best, which is direct action. This does not argue against all forms of electoral politics, but there are really no viable national electoral perspectives for the Left.