Photo by Yaroslava Mills, courtesy of C. Wright Mills Estate.
From The Archive
C. Wright Mills
No. 21  November 2012

If I Were President

  

Photo by Yaroslava Mills, courtesy of C. Wright Mills Estate.
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The new President, like all Presidents before him, began his office by throwing out men unlike himself and by gathering around him men of similar views. But Mills also got two other types into his official and unofficial family of advisors. Some men of very different but still intelligent views he felt might by their opposition sharpen his own views and make his administration aware of a fuller range of fact and possibility. And then, just for laughs and to remind himself of the need to remain sane, he induced a few of the old types—he seemed especially to favor generals and admirals—to sit in on the virtually continuous round table (sometimes private, sometimes public) which he instituted at the heart of the government. When these crackpots became unbearably boring or too shrill in their paranoic hysteria; or when they talked too much or refused to talk at all—merely glowering and grumping—he changed them. It may be that the behavior of these men in the presence of ideas did more than any other thing to discredit all that they stood for; they were laughed out of American power. It was of course predicted that since Mills had been a professor he would probably recruit a lot of professors. He did try, but it turned out that there were two kinds of college professors: smart ones and dumb ones. The smart ones were smart in the same way that anyone is smart, although they usually knew more, having spent more time at it. The dumb ones likewise, although perhaps a little more lazy than most and certainly more pretentious.

Every Sunday afternoon, for three hours or so, the round table became altogether public. It went on the air. Each week its personnel changed somewhat depending on the topic, but generally about half of its dozen or so members were in the government and half were not. Entirely unrehearsed and extremely animated, this round table came to serve at least five domestic purposes: by means of their conduct on it, new men were recruited for government work, etc. Many of the key policies of the new administration first came to life in a phrase, an idea, an argument. The general idea of the permanent peace economy, for example, was first outlined by a young economist from California who literally talked continuously for the full three hours. And of course the round table was the prime official means of public information. The transcript was edited into a tighter form and most Monday papers carried it in full. Once a month it became a pamphlet.

But something else began after some six months to come about. Because of the intellectual quality of these discussions—and because of the results of decisions which they saw first take form here, many people came to realize that decisions affecting the way they live are after all made by some changing bunch of men, not by “governments” or some other sort of abstract forces, and so they began to want to get in on the act; they began to take these discussions very seriously, and in this they were encouraged. Before, there had been so-called public opinion polls—a crude and mechanical technique by which the statistics of superficial “opinions” were taken for the opinion of the public. These now became obsolete, as genuine publics of discussion began to form in various towns and sections of larger cities. After several discussions of some issue, international, national, or local propositions were formulated and debated, and an ingenious system of summarizing and reporting these over once a month on a national scale was devised. Probably what kept it alive, what created and maintained such an active public discussion, was the fact that these propositions were not only debated: they became the subjects of the President’s round table as well as those of the state governors, and as such they were accepted, rejected, acted upon.

Finally, a less tangible fact, but one of signal importance to the quality of American life as we know it today, is due in some part to the round table. On it there was created and held up a new model of national character. Any system of society contains such models, which are imitated and become the goals of the young. In terms of them personal success and failure tend to be defined. It soon became obvious under the dispensation that intellectual brilliance, wit, the ability to talk well and to imagine thoroughly and concretely, to translate abstractions into human terms, to see the larger meaning of the small-scale detail, the capacity to reason with others—all the traits which the President honored so easily by virtue of what he was, and which accordingly he honored most in others—became universally admired.

Many observers of those days and months of the first two years of Mills’s first term marveled at the speed with which this great change, at once institutional and personal, seemed to come about. They marveled too at how many old features of American life previously taken for granted as a national part of a going concern simply disappeared. It may be useful to list a few of these in order to indicate the originating period of what is now so everyday among us:

1. Advertising—the practice of lying about various private makes of commodities, spuriously associating them with the curious beings then considered sexually attractive, above all, the continual and shrill public hocking of commodities—all this had disappeared by the sixth month of the first term. In the new newspapers there appeared simple descriptions and pictures of the variety of things available. Grade quality labeling of all foodstuffs became a national law at about the same time.

2. Fashion—along with advertising, fashion as it was known disappeared. It was seen to be not only fearfully wasteful but ugly as well because it was based upon a kind of standardized boasting—to which one in fashion felt compelled to conform. Previously all this had been induced and stimulated by a planned obsolescence of all sorts of commodities, especially automobiles and clothing. Economically, fashion was merely a trick to make for a faster turnover of goods. In clothing for everyday use people came to adopt a kind of costume which we know today. A training suit in three weights—one light cotton, one half wool, one altogether wool. They were in bright colors and of course very cheap, altogether comfortable. People also began to design and to make their own clothing according to their own taste, and hence they came to admire one another’s appearance all the more because each knew that the other was responsible for whatever appearance he contrived. Genuine individuality of appearance thus came about, although even then most people came to see it as a delightful kind of holiday game especially for adolescent circles. Why did they do this? Why eliminate advertising and fashion? It was in part the utter pollution of all public communications for which advertising was directly responsible and fashion its adjunct. But in even greater part it came about by the realization of the enormous waste of both. People came to see that this waste was in fact a waste of their own human labor with which they were paying for it all. And in accordance with the new way of considering matters rationally, they realized that they would do better to spend their energies on other things.

3. The automobile—this waste was especially notable in the case of personal transportation, for here it involved not only the altogether ridiculous yearly changes in private automobiles but also the enormous frustration of traffic and parking. For the fashion in automobiles had run in the direction of larger and more powerful land monsters. It was the usual thing to see a 160-pound man being carried along—or rather being stalled in traffic—every morning and every evening by a two-ton, eighteen-foot-long, six-foot-wide land monster. With one stroke, the terrible highway and city traffic and parking problems were reduced to a set of merely administrative issues. Previously families had had one, possibly two, huge private vehicles which were used for all private transport. Now it was recognized that for a man to go to work and back in a large city all that was needed was a two-hundred-pound two-wheeler. A very ingenious little machine was developed, half scooter and half motorcycle and nicely devised for weatherproofing. For intercity use, of course the VW minibus in its several variations became standard. Most families had one. It was thought that anything as large as thirteen-foot ought to be made to sleep in comfort a medium-sized family and to carry as luggage a scooter in it too. Hotels and motels were replaced by campgrounds as we know them today. These larger vehicles were not allowed in cities. Intercity freight was taken over by railway trains and intracity freight by an expanded subway system.

4. When the President remarked that mother’s home cooking was usually a horrible set of concoctions not worthy of human consumption and that food was too serious a pleasure to throw away like that, at first there was motherly indignation of great furor, but then here and there, soon everywhere, it was asked, Is this food really good? Once it became a subject for really free and open discussion rather than of routine sentiment, the mothers hadn’t a chance. Besides, they began to ask, at first petulantly but soon gladly: Why should we each of us in our little kitchens unfrost this stuff and fry that?

5. Previously, most people who could afford it had “their own house” and those who couldn’t afford it felt that they wanted such a distinct little dwelling. They were still largely made, as they had been for generations, by hand labor on the site. Before the President turned the White House into an historical museum and moved the government to a better climate in a more central location, he started a large conversation on housing, and the new official city had no private residences. The best Scandinavian patterns were studied and improved upon. The apartment dwelling of some thirty families each contained several kitchens connected by dumbwaiter to small kitchens in each apartment. Usually people found a kitchen output much better and just as cheap. But on occasion women would cook themselves. Since it was not a daily routine for them and since the kitchen’s standard was high, they came to enjoy it and to study it a bit. There came about a lively, culinary interchange between individuals, families, and the centralized kitchen. In the apartment unit also there was of course a centralized nursery and kindergarten and as well a club room and, up in one top corner, a little set of guestrooms for visiting in-laws and friends. There were individual gardens as well as a collective garden.

I have mentioned these few changes of the everyday life in America because they were the most obvious changes brought about merely by a little rational reflection of how one might best arrange such matters. Back of them—in fact, part of them—were the decisive institutional changes in political and economic affairs. The origins of these we shall consider later. But of course the great changes occurred in the international scene during the second half of the first term and were fairly well installed as we know them today by the middle of the second term.

International Results

It began, as did so much in the Mills Administrations, on the round table. At first, a few people—official and unofficial—from West European countries were invited to join the discussions, which were not on international affairs at all but domestic American. Then a few from Eastern Europe: the Poles and the Yugoslavs were particularly exciting. Several of them were much admired as discussants and reasoners. In the meantime a truly huge interchange of professors and students on a worldwide scale was instituted and paid for by a unilateral reduction in the war budget of 3 percent on the part of the United States. As many as one-third of the students of German universities, for example, were in U.S. universities at some time or other during their first three years. Near every university of any size in the world there was built a large dormitory and apartment house entirely free for any qualified student or professor, and of course in all underdeveloped countries big new colleges and universities were speedily erected, along with supporting secondary schools. This interchange program developed in such a way that it became usual for any college student to spend at least one of his four years out of his own country.

Came soon the day when a Russian philosopher and a Russian official joined the round table. The topic was housing, and of course the Danish architects ran away with it. But still the Russians were there. You see, in these hundreds of discussions about common human problems, the tone, the standard of men and women reasoning together, was established, and also—even more important—the idea and fact that things happened because of these discussions. This was a place of decision, not “just talk.” When international topics finally came up, they came up within that atmosphere. At first they were all American in personnel, but soon it became evident that students and officials of other nations had to be brought in, if only for ready factual information and for statements of policy, and so they were. For the round table as such, of course, no one was official. No one spoke for, or by what he said committed, his government. So firmly was this rule established and understood that people in positions of power felt free to speak in public in a free and open way. There were also a series of official conferences in something of the old manner, but even these were influenced by the manner and by what was said on the round table. Then there was the general context and the chief means by which the military metaphysics was replaced by an industrial view of the world problem; by which the permanent peace economy was established and total disarmament achieved.

In a very schematic way, we may now review the arguments and the decisions involved:

1. War had become idiotic, so let’s abolish it. But how? There are only two possible ways, (a) either make the weapons unavailable to everyone, or (b) make them available only in the name of an authority really responsible to all mankind. The first (a) way of disarmament was thought not too neat a solution, for it seemed difficult to enforce in a world still composed of nation states, and virtually all scientific work seemed relevant to the weaponry of war, so the second way (b) was adopted: physical science itself, and not merely the stockpile of bombs, was internationalized. All laboratories of consequence, previously private and public, were taken over by the scientific center. Scientists of all nations were in completely free interaction with one another, and responsible only to the world authority itself. The scientific center was financed by the scientific and military budgets of every nation—that budget was simply turned over to the world’s authority. This did not happen at once: the first year, 30 percent; the second, 60 percent; the third year, all of it. But the savings resulting from lack of duplication between nations and between industries made reduction quickly possible.

2. The development and the production of weapons—out of the pool and the flow of scientific work—soon dwindled to a trickle, and then ceased altogether. It was simply that no one felt any need for them. What people did feel a need for were ways to quickly industrialize the underdeveloped countries of the world, and in due course the scientific center was devoting most of its budget and personnel to this end. It was, in short, precisely in the area of science and technology that the military metaphysics was abolished and replaced by an industrial view of the problems of the world.

C. Wright Mills (1916–1962) laid down this incomplete manuscript—published here for the first time—sometime after the 1956 publication of The Power Elite. “What would it mean for the outlook and policies of the USA were its elite to wake up tomorrow morning altogether rid of the military metaphysics, miraculously cured of crackpot realism?” Mills asked in a short preface. “What would I do if I were President of the United States? I am tired of dodging this old question. I am going to answer it.”

C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) was one of the leading social critics of the twentieth century. His books included The New Men of Power, White Collar, The Power Elite, and The Sociological Imagination.

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