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An elite in political and sociological theory, is a small group of people who control a disproportionate amount of wealth or political power.
C. Wright Mills wrote in his 1957 book The Power Elite of the "elite" as "those political, economic, and military circles, which as an intricate set of overlapping small but dominant groups share decisions having at least national consequences. Insofar as national events are decided, the power elite are those who decide them."
According to Mills, the governing elite in the US primarily draws its members from three areas: (i) the highest political leaders (including the president) and a handful of key cabinet members and close advisers; (ii) major corporate owners and directors; and (iii) high-ranking military officers. These groups overlap, and elites tend to circulate from one sector to another, consolidating power as they do so.
Unlike the ruling class, a social formation based on heritage and social ties, the power elite is characterized by the organizational structure through which its wealth is acquired. According to Mills, part of the power elite is "the managerial reorganization of the propertied classes into the more or less unified stratum of the corporate rich." Domhoff further clarified the differences in the two terms: "The upper class as a whole does not do the ruling. Instead, class rule is manifested through the activities of a wide variety of organizations and institutions... Leaders within the upper class join with high-level employees in the organizations they control to make up what will be called the power elite."
The Marxist theoretician Nikolai Bukharin anticipated the power-elite theory in his 1929 work, Imperialism and World Economy: "present-day state power is nothing but an entrepreneurs' company of tremendous power, headed even by the same persons that occupy the leading positions in the banking and syndicate offices".