What is Elite Deviance and Why is it Dangerous?


In 1956, the late, legendary U.S. sociologist C. Wright Mills observed that a small group of wealthy and powerful individuals controlled America’s dominant institutions (i.e., political, economic and military).  More specifically, the governing elite in the U.S. are comprised of:

1) the highest political leaders, including the president and a few key cabinet members and advisors,

2) major corporate owners and directors, and

3) the highest ranking military officers.

Mills called this group the power elite.  Interestingly, Mills was echoed in 1961 by President Eisenhower in his farewell address when he warned of the self-serving acts of the “military-industrial complex”—that is, his term for the power elite.

A central contradiction of the power elite is that they frequently violate the very laws they are sworn to uphold.  Why would individuals who are entrusted to occupy the top command posts of society break the laws they help to create?  Mills argued that bound by mutual interests, the power elite periodically commit acts of elite wrongdoing (e.g., dumping toxic waste) and enact policies (e.g., declaration of an unprovoked war) that are designed to perpetuate their power and preserve their control over society.  Mills stated that elite acts that cause either physical or social harm represent the higher immorality of the power elite.  Mills argued that not only crime per se, but also governmental deeds that cause social harm, regardless of their criminality in a legal sense, be included in the conceptual definition.  Another U.S. sociologist named David Simon in 1995 expanded upon Mills’ concept of the higher immorality to include immoral or unethical acts in his concept of “elite deviance.”  According to Simon, elite deviance is the deviant behavior of societal elites (the people who head governmental or corporate institutions) that makes them negative role models who encourage distrust, cynicism, and alienation among non-elites.

Acts of elite deviance take place in part because of the way corporate, political, and military intelligence institutions are structured: they are bureaucracies.  Significantly, bureaucratic organizations are structured in ways that regularize crime and deviance.  More specifically, bureaucracies are goal-oriented, amoral entities which exist to maximize profits and/or expand their own power.  These goals encourage an ends over means mentality among the top commanders of bureaucracies.  For example, the top executives of a public, for-profit corporation are well aware that the board of directors and shareholders are much more interested in meeting quarterly profit goals than they are in the actual decisions and actions required to meet those goals.

The higher immorality of the power elite is also possible because the elites do not have to win the moral consent of those over whom they hold power.  Instead, a passive U.S. society simply trusts that the elites will act on behalf of the so-called public interest.  C. Wright Mills argued that this condition is accompanied by a “fear of knowledge” and anti-intellectualism in modern society.  As noted by critical social theorists, an over reliance or dependency on television news “sound bites” and media disseminated elite rhetoric results in alienation among the masses, which can be exploited by the elites.  In fact, Mills foreshadowed the great Dr. Noam Chomsky when he stated that the manipulation of public opinion and uncontested decisions of power have replaced democratic authority in contemporary society.  Mills concluded that the higher immorality is a systematic feature of the American societal elite.  Its general acceptance by the public without critique is an essential feature of modern U.S. society.

Do you agree with this conclusion?  Doc Bonn wants to know.

Dr. Scott Bonn is Professor of Criminology at Drew University and a media expert.  He is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq.”  Doc Bonn is currently researching and writing a book on the public’s fascination with serial homicide and psychopathic serial killers.  Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and email him directly at docbonn1@gmail.com.


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Posted on May 9, 2012, in Mass Deception, Social Issues and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Who is the ruling class that gives orders? If you correct the spelling of sacrifices, the image would be superb.

  2. I would add two additional components to the third level of this grid. Police and private police such as security companies (think Blackwater/Xe) who contract with governments both nationally and internationally. These type of “enforcers” were seen at the Quebec City “Summit of Americas”, Toronto “G20″ and will be seen in the Chicago G20. These enforcement groups under direct or contractual control of Government will use “blind force” to drive home the point of their control over the public as has also been seen in various sites in the US during the OWS movement last fall.

    One additional component would be private legal firms to advise on prosecution or defense for state, corporate or political dilemmas where things have gone “wrong”. These private legal counsellors provide the State, corporations or govenment assistance and advice in matters like International law violations, skirting international / domestic law and international prisoner treaties.

    Interestingly Geoffrey Perret, in his biography of Eisenhower, claims that, in one draft of the speech, the phrase was “military-industrial-congressional complex”, indicating the essential role that the United States Congress plays in the propagation of the military industry, but the word “congressional” was dropped from the final version to appease the then-currently elected officials





  3. First off I would like to say great blog! I had a quick question in
    which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I have had trouble clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out. I truly do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or hints? Kudos!

  4. Thanks for finally writing about >What is Elite Deviance and Why is
    it Dangerous? | Doc Bonn Blog <Liked it!

  1. Pingback: The Roth Show: Dr. Scott Bonn Talks Criminology and Serial Killers « ImaginePublicity

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