Some 62 years ago on April 19, 1956, C. Wright Mills, a professor of sociology at Columbia University and the best known power elite theorist, published the book, The Power Elite, in which he called attention to the “interwoven interests of America’s three distinguishable close-knit groups: (1) the highest political leaders, including the president and a handful of key cabinet members and close advisers; (2) major corporate owners and directors; and (3) high-ranking military officers — suggesting that the ordinary citizen is a relatively powerless subject of manipulation by those governing elites”.
the sunday maverick with GLORia NDORO-MKOMBACHOTO
According to Mills, in political and sociological theory, the elite are “a small group of powerful people who hold a disproportionate amount of wealth, privilege, political power, or skill in a society”.
Characteristics of the power elite
For America, Mills argues that:
l The power elite is a single elite, not a multiplicity of competing groups.
l The power elite decides the life-and-death issues for the nation as a whole, leaving relatively minor matters for the middle level and almost nothing for the common person. The picture is dark for there is a grossly unequal and unjust distribution of power.
Even though these individuals constitute a close-knit group, they are not part of a conspiracy that secretly manipulates events in their own selfish interest.
For the most part, the elite respects civil liberties, follows established constitutional principles, and operates openly and peacefully. It is not a dictatorship; it does not rely on terror, a secret police, or midnight arrests to get its way.
Nor is its membership closed, although many members have enjoyed a head start in life by virtue of their being born into prominent families. Nevertheless, those who work hard, enjoy good luck, and demonstrate a willingness to adopt elite values do find it possible to work into higher circles from below.
The power elite derives its power not from repression or inheritance, but derives its strength from control of the highest positions in the political and business hierarchy and from shared values and beliefs.
The power elite in Zimbabwe
Over the last 38 years, Zimbabwe has had a single power elite holding on to power, creating a veneer of democracy and constitutionalism and hoodwinking the electorate into believing that elections deliver freedom and democracy.
Since independence, tightly managed elections have been used to legitimise the “winner”, who has remained the same party for close to four decades.
In Zimbabwe, the power elite has been central to and at the forefront of deciding the fate of the nation, leaving nothing for both the middle level and the common person. It thus paints a dark picture for there is a gaping hole between them and the rest of the nation. It is a gap so wide, that the power elite and those who serve them in maintaining the status quo, believe they own the nation. In the minds of the power elite, that ownership constitutes freedom to exploit the nation for the its own advancement.
The individuals that constitute the power elite in Zimbabwe while a close-knit group, do not always agree, but when under threat, they rally together in order to keep power at the exclusion of the nation.
War veterans, who in other countries are classified as a national asset, have been co-opted into the power elite and as a result are now part of a conspiracy that secretly manipulates political and economic events in their own selfish interest. Consequently, the nation is constantly being reminded time and again that because war veterans championed the liberation struggle that delivered political freedom, they deserve the monopoly of belonging to the governing elite. This means that there are no vacancies for anyone to join the power elite membership until the last war veteran drops dead! Nevertheless, those who are willing to be praise-singers and bootlickers of the power elite, and demonstrate a willingness to adopt elite values do find it possible to work into higher circles from nothingness.
The power elite in Zimbabwe derives its power from overt and covert repression and derives its strength from control of the highest positions in the political and business hierarchy. These positions allow them to loot national resources, empty government coffers and externalise proceeds at the expense of national development agenda.
The current political impasse
People living in countries that uphold democratic principles, that is surrounded by features of free government, and that constantly witnesses the comings and goings of elected officials may find the idea of a power elite farfetched. It is not.
In Zimbabwe, the power elite that came into power in 1980 has largely remained in power to this day. When a grouping of persons stay in power for too long, living off the fiscus, they lose their capacity and capability to fend for themselves. To put it differently, they become disabled and scared to venture into a world where to get ahead in life you have to work harder and smarter, facing the real economic challenges in marketplace and trusting that you will reap five-fold what you put in. Therefore, it goes without saying that when one has never run their own show, either as gainfully employed elsewhere or as a business owner and have always relied on positions parcelled out by the power elite since independence, a sense of entitlement creeps in.
The power elite in Zimbabwe is an entitled lot. The looting of national resources over a period of almost four decades has amounted to nothing. In other countries where the power elite has an advantage over others and benefit disproportionately over the rest of the nation, they invest back in their countries, setting up thriving businesses and conglomerates that employ hundreds of thousands of people.
In Zimbabwe, the power elite has been looting for consumption. There is virtually nothing of significance on the ground. Hence the current political impasse.
The current political impasse is nothing but a fight about control of the national purse. Those who have always controlled it do not want to let go. And those who tasted the sweetness of the national purse during the government of national unity formed on February 13, 2009 and ending in 2013, want in, again. Although there were glorious promises during election campaigning, the track record of the power elite tells a consistent story — there is nothing for the nation.
The power elite has continued to squander the fortunes of Zimbabwe. With 90% unemployment in the country, there are generations of young people in their 20s and 30s who have never worked. Graduates are selling airtime by the street corners. What a waste of their investment in education. The economy is in dire straits and that is currently being worsened by illiquidity in the banking system.
The whole Zimbabwean narrative is ugly and depressing. Hopelessness, despair and powerlessness of the nation at large are clear signs that the power elite is squandering the hopes and aspirations of Zimbabweans. Sadly, the nation is belatedly coming to the realisation that with the kind of predatory power elite controlling dynamics in Zimbabwe, elections are a mere white wash and will never deliver democracy nor prosperity to the ordinary person.
What the power elite informed readers of in 1956 was how much the power structure in America had changed during their lifetimes. In Zimbabwe we have not had that luxury. There has been no change of any power structure. The more things look like they are changing, the more they are staying the same. Mills’ The Power Elite is a penetrating work that remains of great relevance. While Zimbabwe’s context bear no similarities to America, it stimulates us to think about the kind of society we have and the kind of society we might want. The million- dollar question that begs an answer is: how are we going to get the kind of prosperous society we want under the current trying circumstances?
Gloria Ndoro-Mkombachoto is an entrepreneur and regional enterprise development consultant. Her experience spans a period of over 25 years. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org