A great sociologist explains the logic of our wars: “crackpot realism”

Summary: Every day brings forth a new tide of analysis about events. Yet world dynamics change only slowly, and instead of new clickbait we should look at old insights that we have not learned. Such as this explanation of US grand strategy by the late great sociologist C. Wright Mills: the “crackpot realism” of our leaders. Written at the peak of the cold war, it aptly describes the logic of our mad wars since 9/11. The real fools are, of course, those who blindly follow such leaders.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“The view that all is blind drift is largely a fatalist projection of one’s own feeling of impotence and perhaps … a salve of one’s guilt.”
— From C. Wright Mill’s “The Power Elite” (1956).

Mills' Causes of WWIII


From C. Wright Mills’

The causes of World War Three (1958)


… Among both {the USSR and USA}, there are “war parties” and “peace parties,” and among both there are what can be called crackpot realists. These are men who are so rigidly focused on the next step that they become creatures of whatever the main drift — the opportunist actions of innumerable men — brings. They are also men who cling rigidly to general principles. The frenzied next step plus the altogether general principle equal U. S. foreign policy.

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. But without any program.

Programs require that next steps be reasonably linked with principled images of a goal. To act toward goals requires that the next step be consciously worked out in terms of its consequences, and that these consequences be weighed and valued in terms of the goal. Lacking a program, the opportunist moves short distances among immediate and shifting goals. He reacts rather than inaugurates, and the directions of his reactions are set less by any goals of his own than by the circumstances to which he feels forced to react out of fear and uneasiness.

Crackpot Realist

Since he is largely a creature of these circumstances, rather than a master of independent action, the results of his expedient maneuvers and of his defaults are more products of the main drift than of his own vision and will. To be merely expedient is to be in the grip of historical fate or in the grip of those who are not merely expedient.

Sunk in the details of immediate and seemingly inevitable decisions to which he feels compelled to react, the crackpot realist does not know what he will do next; he is waiting for another to make a move.

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. The terms of the arms race, once the race is accepted as necessary, seem clear; the explicit problems it poses often seem “beyond politics,” in the area of administration and technology. War and the planning of war tend to turn anxiety into worry; perhaps, as many seem to feel, genuine peace would turn worry into anxiety.

War-making seems a hard technological and administrative matter; peace is a controversial and ambiguous political word. So instead of the unknown fear, the anxiety without end, some men of the higher circles prefer the simplification of known catastrophe.The official expectation of war also enables men to solve the problems of the economic cycles without resort to political policies that are distasteful to many politicians and to large segments of the American public. The terms of their long-term solution, under conditions of peace, are hard for the capitalist elite to face.

Some of them, accordingly, have come to believe that the world encounter has reached a point where there is no other solution but war, even when they sense that war can be a solution to nothing. They have come to believe this because those in control in each of the countries concerned are trapped by the consequences of their past actions and their present hostile outlook. They live in a world filled with events that over whelm them. They know of no solutions to the paradoxes of the Middle East and Europe, the Far East and Africa except the landing of Marines.

Clear world

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.

Moreover, there is a point about war parties that does not hold so firmly for peace parties. The success of the war party in one nation interacts with the success of the war party in the other. When such cliques win in Russia, their counterparts are strengthened in the United States, and vice versa. Thus, when in some debate among decision-makers a war party wins out, it is able to consolidate its gains because its victories accumulate, as does the mutual fright it feeds upon and increases.

For those who would quietly attain modest goals in a short while, and who are acting within a main drift that is generally beneficent, crackpot realism is quite fitting. They need neither enduring means nor orienting programs of scope.

But for those who are in the main drift toward World War III and who would stop that drift and attain a world condition of peace, opportunism is merely a series of cumulative defaults. Short-run pursuits are leading to long-run consequences that are not under the control of any program.

The absence of an American program for peace is a major cause of the thrust and drift toward World War III.In the meantime, and in the absence of such a program, elites of political, military, and economic power are at the focal points of the economic, political, and military causes of war. By their decisions and their indecisions, by their defaults and their ignorance, they control the thrust of these causes. They are allowed to occupy such positions, and to use them in accordance with crackpot realism, because of the powerlessness, the apathy, the insensibility of publics and masses; they are able to do so, in part, because of the inactionary posture of intellectuals, scientists, and other cultural workmen.

—————————— End excerpt. ——————————

C W Mills

About the author

“I am an outlander, not only regionally, but deep down and for good.”

Charles Wright Mills (1916 – 1962) was a professor of sociology at Columbia University. His work had a wide influence in both the social sciences and politics. He coined the term “The Power Elite” in his 1956 book of that name. For more about him see his Wikipedia entry and the website about his work.

For More Information

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  3. A warmonger review, looking at the articles advocating a US war with Libya.
  4. Our geopolitical experts, like Max Boot, lead America into the dark.
  5. America’s hawks sing a song of national decline.
  6. After 13 years of failed wars, do we know our warmongers?
  7. Will our geopolitical “experts “lead us to ruin?

8 thoughts on “A great sociologist explains the logic of our wars: “crackpot realism””

  1. Fabius Maximus,

    This attitude has bled far into America’s military establishment. I witnessed similar behavior at the level of COLs and LTCs in Afghanistan. Even our war parties, while at war, remain adrift!

    PF Khans

  2. Now there are at least more pigs at the trough. Health care is today 20 % of GDP. Finance is 10%.
    Both were tiny by comparison in 1958. Warmongering isn’t the easy game it was when Eisenhower warned us about them simply due to new competition from the other elites. And soon we will have climate change taxes supporting whole new climate change industries. If you add up all these new and growing fractions of GDP diverted to elites it’s coming up on 50%. No wonder there’s no money for middle class wages, infrastructure, education, and the poor.

    1. Peter,

      I agree. But to be clear, there are two things conflated in your numbers. The overhead of health care is only half paid for by the government — but it is, as you note, a massive drag on household incomes (as are rising costs for education, from grade school through college).

      Government spending is a drag only to the extent taxes are raised to pay for it. And total household taxes have been roughly flat for generations as a percent of GDP and income (total taxes are also flat as a percent of a household’s income for most Americans — we have the far-Right’s flat tax. They’re not happy because it’s not yet tilted to exempt the rich).

  3. This was an excellent post FM. Peter B has opened up the topic of how hawkish elites have changed in 50+ years.

    The overall situation is more favorable for the US militarily with only two mid-sized adversaries compared to an almost comparable one. And the European frontier is 1000 mi further east. As against this the US GDP is more like 20÷ than 40% of the world. The old elites would even tolerate some forms of communism (Yugoslovia) whereas the new elites won’t even tolerate independent capitalism. Is this due to a change in ideology or economic conditions?

    PS I remember quality paperbacks for 50 cents too.

    1. Social Bill,

      Thanks for the review! Unfortunately the vox populi disagree. This has gotten only 150 hits so far today. It should have twice that to be considered a slow day. Clickbait rules in 21st C America!

      I’m working on tomorrow’s post: “5 easy ways to pick up a hot chick at a Hillary campaign meeting“. Next week I’ll run the same post (with a few changes) as “5 easy ways to pick up a rich handsome guy at a Trump campaign meeting“.

  4. Pingback: Washington’s ‘crackpot’ nuclear posture endangers the world to an alarming degree – All Points of View

  5. Pingback: Washington’s ‘crackpot’ nuclear posture endangers the world to an alarming degree |

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