The term "power elite" traces to the writings of C. Wright Mills, including his 1956 book, The Power Elite. The concept posits wealthy and/or well connected families and individuals who seek to expand their wealth by applying and promoting dominant social themes. Such themes may eventually develop into widely held archetypes or memes.
Often such themes seem to originate with the United Nations, World Bank, World Trade Organization, World Health Organization or other international bodies that are receptive to influence by the power elite. The themes then are picked up and rebroadcast by the mainstream media. Thus, what may seem to be the work of an independent institutional staff may actually be the brainchild of the power elite.
Concepts such as bird flu, Islamofascism and peak oil are so extensively promoted that much of the public unquestioningly accepts their fearful premises and demand action. Those with the wherewithal to provide solutions – products, services and corporate offerings via public markets – may earn vast profits as a consequence.
There is little contemporary scholarly analysis of the concept of the power elite, but it corresponds roughly to what once was called "the money power."
There are a variety of theories as to the composition and character of the power elite. It sometimes is referred to ominously as the "Illuminati," the "black church" or the "black nobility." It is not necessary to confirm such characterizations to recognize that the action and influence of modern money power are pervasive.
In most conceptions, the core of the power elite coalesces around the European and American banking dynasties and some elite, titled families, or it may be characterized as a "sub-church" within the Roman Catholic, Jewish or other religion. Chief among these dynasties are likely the Rockefellers and Rothschilds.
In some conceptions, the power elite includes members who claim to trace their ancestry to ancient times, even to Babylon and beyond. This accords with the notion that members believe their pedigrees differentiate them from the "common herd."
Signifiers of power elite activity include a disdain of free markets and the persistent and uncritical promotion of a theme or meme to the exclusion of contrary evidence or argument.