On Crackpot Realism: An Homage to C. Wright Mills

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When I first began to read serious books on politics and government,
back in the 1960s, I fell into much admiration for the writings
of the New Left sociologist C. Wright Mills. He is probably best
remembered for his variant of elite theory, as laid out in his
book The Power Elite (Oxford University Press 1956), but
he influenced me at least as much by what he wrote in The Sociological
Imagination
(Oxford University Press 1959). Between those two
volumes, however, he wrote a little book called The Causes of
World War Three
(Simon and Schuster 1958). In that passionate
and ideologically inspired tract, Mills explicated a concept that
I have called to mind frequently over the years — never more however
than in the past year and a half — the concept of "crackpot
realism."

For Mills,
this signified a frame of mind characteristic of what another
elite theorist,
Thomas R. Dye, has called "the serious
people" of the governing circles. Such people are to be distinguished
from the glad-handing, back-slapping buffoons who seek and gain
election to public office. The electoral office seekers are specialists:
they know how to get votes, but as a rule they know nothing about
how to "run a railroad," whether that railroad be a business,
a government agency, or any other sort of large operating organization.
So, after the election, the elected office holders always turn
to the serious people to run the show — the Dick Cheneys and the
Donald Rumsfelds, to pick not so randomly from the current corps.

The serious
people always pretend to be the grownups, as opposed to the starry-eyed
rest of us, who couldn’t run Halliburton or
G. D. Searle & Co. if our lives depended on it. These are the
sorts of executives who are tempted to, and sometimes actually
do, roll their eyes at the silly questions journalists ask them
at press conferences. Visibly pained by the necessity of spelling
out the facts of life, they explain that childish things, such
as keeping the country at peace, simply won’t get the job done.
Sometimes, the public must recognize that as a no-nonsense response
to the harsh situation we face, the serious people have to drop
some bombs here and there in order to reestablish a proper arrangement
of the world’s currently disordered affairs. The serious people
are frequently to be found "stabilizing" something or
other.

Trouble is,
Mills explained, these serious people are fools. They seem to
know what’s going
on, and how to right what’s wrong with
the world, only if one accepts their own view of how the world
works. So "practical" are these serious people, however,
that they understand nothing beyond their noses and outside the
circle of their own constricted understanding and experience. Strange
to say, the power elite does not get out much — remember the first
President Bush’s amazement when he, a former Director of Central
Intelligence, visited a supermarket and encountered for the first
time the mind-boggling technology of a bar-code reader at the checkout
counter. Especially when these movers and shakers deal with matters
of war and peace, they continue to make the same sorts of disastrous
decisions over and over, constantly squandering opportunities to
maintain the peace, almost invariably painting themselves into
corners of their own making, and all too often deciding that the
only option that makes sense in their predicament is to bomb their
way out.

As
my education continued, I outgrew many of the lessons I had learned
from Mills, whose own understanding of social science was
flawed in various ways. Still, he had some powerful insights, especially
about political sociology, and even today I do not hesitate to
recommend that young scholars read his major works. Among the more
timeless of his insights, I believe, is his understanding of crackpot
realism. I extract a few lines here to illustrate his thinking
about this matter (taken from pp. 86–88 of The Causes of World
War Three). As you read these thoughts, consider whether they
might be as applicable today as they were forty-five years ago.

In crackpot
realism, a high-flying moral rhetoric is joined with an opportunist
crawling
among a great scatter of unfocused fears
and demands. In fact, the main content of "politics" is
now a struggle among men equally expert in practical next steps — which,
in summary, make up the thrust toward war — and in great, round,
hortatory principles. (p. 86)

.
. . The expectation of war solves many problems of the crackpot
realists;
it also
confronts them with many new problems. Yet these,
the problems of war, often seem easier to handle. They are out
in the open: to produce more, to plan how to kill more of the enemy,
to move materials thousands of miles. . . . So instead
of the unknown fear, the anxiety without end, some men of the higher
circles
prefer the simplification of known catastrophe. (p. 87)

. . . They
know of no solutions to the paradoxes of the Middle East and
Europe,
the Far East and Africa except the landing of
Marines. Being baffled, and also being very tired of being baffled,
they have come to believe that there is no way out — except war — which
would remove all the bewildering paradoxes of their tedious and
now misguided attempts to construct peace. In place of these paradoxes
they prefer the bright, clear problems of war — as they used to
be. For they still believe that "winning" means something,
although they never tell us what. (p. 88)

. . . Some
men want war for sordid, others for idealistic, reasons; some
for personal
gain, others for impersonal principle. But most
of those who consciously want war and accept it, and so help to
create its "inevitability," want it in order to shift
the locus of their problems. (p. 88)

Besides Mills’s own writings, readers interested in his ideas
may wish to read the well-done biography by Irving Louis Horowitz, C.
Wright Mills: An American Utopian
(The Free Press 1983).

Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute, editor of The Independent Review, and author of Crisis and Leviathan and the editor of Arms, Politics, and the Economy.

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