“The Incarnation of Power” by Wright Mills Critique


The present analytical paper explores power as one of the central concepts in social and political sciences. The first part of the analysis defines the notion of elites – the individuals at the top of the social hierarchy. Those belonging to the elites can escape the ordinary environments and have a vast impact on many people’s lives. At that, they do not act out on their intentions in solitude but rather enter social circles that give them access to more resources.

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Domains such as economics, politics, and the army become the spaces that allow for the concentration of power. The second part deals with the sources of power – allocative and authoritative, their relations, and respective approaches to their analysis. No matter how many resources a person has, he or she may still face resistance. One way to go about attracting or controlling people is to employ an ideology. Many hegemonies rely on ideologies that are used to justify the actions of the leader. Yet, self-deception and deception are not the only purposes of philosophy as they may also be used for lifting people and making them more rational and well-rounded.


Power is one of the central concepts in social and political thought. Typically, the social theory addresses two aspects of the notion. It is thought that even in the most simple societies, there is a certain division between self-imposed and self-sustained strata of people. Depending on the assigned or acquired stratum, a person enjoys a certain scope of power over others. The more complex a society becomes, the more sophisticated and complex its power institutions are.

It is readily conclusive that power always implies inequality, which depending on the context, may have both positive and negative connotations. The present paper explores the close relationship between power and inequality by analyzing the works of Wright Mills, Gramsci, and Giddens and the respective concepts that those thinkers have put forward.

The Incarnation of Power: The “Great Men” of the World

Wright Mills opens his work with a passage on the origins and properties of so-called elites. The researcher points out that the majority of people are “circumscribed by the everyday worlds (Calhoun et al. 229).” They are confined to what they are able and ought to do, i.e. their rights and responsibilities. At that, the scope of both may be fairly limited, therefore, not allowing a person to rise to the next level of the hierarchy or change the social dynamics in any impactful way.

These “ordinary” people are contrasted with whom Wright Mills calls “great men,” and his simple definition of this demographic goes as “what we are not.” Great men do not just meet others’ demands – they create their own. They have the power and capacity to transcend the ordinary environments and escape the scripted, familiar life. Interestingly enough, Wright Mills is convinced that the possibility to execute power means more than the actual fact of doing so. Therefore, great men are not exactly defined by their actions but by the very probability that they will act on their ambitions.

When reading about “great men,” one may think that they are outsiders to society, that they are solitary rulers whose success is not contingent on the people nearby and mutual effort. Maybe such an image of a great person who transcended social conventions is very archetypical and manifests itself in books and movies. However, in real life, elites are rarely succeeding on their own: after all, they need to influence other people so that they could unite their forces and accomplish more together.

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The question arises as to exactly what allows some people to become elites and why today, these “great men” seem to have more power than ever. Wright Mills ties this tendency to the rapid development of the three main domains: economic, political, and military. The researcher writes that previously, economics, politics, and the army: a) offered less space to accommodate big players; b) were not as interconnected as today.

Yet, after the industrial revolution, the economy became dominated by a few big corporations controlling supply and pricing. The military started to receive more support than ever, thus, turning into the most expensive feature of the government, at least in the United States. Lastly, the political system has grown to be a centralized executive establishment. Taking these facts into consideration, one may conclude that each essential domain of social life has become a place allowing for a vast concentration of power.

It should be noted though that these three entities – economics, politics, and military – do not exist on their own. They are interlocked in a thousand ways, and the entire is so complicated that it is barely comprehensible. One of the main pieces of evidence for this enmeshment, as stated by Wright Mills, is the nature of large-scale issues and catastrophes. The writer himself describes the three main consequences of dysfunctionality in the key domains as “slump, war, and boom (Calhoun et al. 233).”

Admittedly, to give one example, war is a political event that mobilizes military forces and that impacts the economy. What is more, however, is that the three domains exchange cadres all the time. A good example would be Donald Trump – a serial entrepreneur and businessman who entered the political game in the 2010s. Having asserted his dominance in economics, he expanded his ties to ascent to power as a politician (Donald Trump Biography). These events are pretty consistent with what Wright Mills hypothesizes: big players from different domains come together to form the elites.

Wright Mills states that power has less to do with a person’s belongings than with the ability to execute one’s will even if others resist it. Being able to do so often relies on access to publicity machines and elitist social circles. For instance, celebrities often have a cult-like following that is rarely explained by their wealth and belongings. No one likes Beyonce just because she has accumulated a lot of money over the course of her career.

The resources that her powerful standing in media and show business relies on are the experiences with which she provides other people. Her music and visual works are attractive to many, which gives her the leverage to impact the social narrative and speak out about social and political problems that she deems relevant. On top of that, her publicity machines do everything possible to spread the word and make her known and recognizable. In conclusion, Wright Mills writes that elites are characterized by the mobility between circles, psychological similarities and affinities, and vast ramifications of their decisions.

Sources of Power

Now that the definition and description of the elites are given, the question that needs to be answered is what sources of power there are. In the previous section, it was already mentioned that in the framework developed by Wright Mills, personal belongings did not quite determine a person’s standing, or at least was not the end-all-be-all of power and success. Giddens puts forward the idea that every person is capable of taking action, which makes them an agent.

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To be an agent is to have power, even though the degree to which a person can act on their intentions varies a lot. Giddens states that power is related to resources an agent uses in order to accomplish their goals. The author makes a discernment between two types of resources – allocative and authoritative. Allocative resources typically include money and material belongings such as land and real estate. Authoritative resources, on the other hand, are the potential of a person to take control of others and steer their actions in the direction that would benefit the agent.

Giddens argues that throughout the entire history of social thought, philosophers and researchers have attempted to conceptualize power in terms of authoritative and allocative resources. The author is critical of any ideology that concentrates on allocative resources and proclaims them to be determinist in shaping the outcome of the power struggle. Possibly, the ideology that perfectly fits the description is historical materialism, which according to Giddens, should never be defended. His logic seems to be solid: after all, resources do not enter the power dynamic on their own. Human history has seen a lot of examples when a country had resources galore but did not reach prosperity until its rulers figured out how to unlock its potential.

For instance, up until the 1920s, Saudi Arabia had been a struggling country with a rural economy. However, the presence of American businessmen and their close collaboration with Saudis were game-changer. The Middle-Eastern state was able to take a leap toward industrialism and make the best of oil and natural gas (John). At least in terms of finances, Saudi Arabia has made a lot of progress and accumulated a great deal of wealth. This example showcases the uselessness of allocative resources without proper management and leadership.

The question arises as to exactly how authoritative resources are utilized to help the elites reach their goals. Alongside Wright Mills, Giddens states that the social system itself regularizes the existence of power structures. The author puts forward the term “institutional mediation of power,” which means that institutes represent important aspects of social life. These include the aforementioned domains – economics, politics, and the army – and many more such as social welfare and education. Individuals who are in the decision-making positions and govern these institutes have power varying in scope and intensity.

The scope of power means how many human and other resources a single person can reach and impact. The intensity of power, on the other hand, defines how intrusive a person might be when executing their will. To illustrate these two concepts, a good example would be a top manager that makes decisions for their subordinates at work (large scope of power). At the same time, he or she cannot tell the subordinates what to do outside their work-life (low intensity).

Apart from scope and intensity, Giddens gives power the following characteristics:

  1. it is dialectical in nature: the presence of a power figure implies subordinates;
  2. it offers openings for subordinates to resist it;
  3. it is predictable in terms of repetitiveness within the time-space domain.

The author states that power gives rise to the emergence of specific “power containers” where it is concentrated. In turn, these are characterized by the storage of information, administrative cadres, facilitation of the scope and intensity of power, and formation of ideology.

Ideology as Part of Power Dynamics

Ideology is one of the forces behind the assertion of dominance as it provides a rationale for taking a particular action. In his article, Rasci wonders whether it is possible to create an internally consistent ideology that could unify people and keep them under control. The author is convinced that there can never be any unity when it comes to philosophy or religion. Even the notions themselves are misleading: for instance, there is not one philosophy but a plethora of different movements, approaches, and perspectives, which is the first problem with ideologies. Further, Rasci states that “religion and common sense cannot constitute an intellectual order (Calhoun et al. 237).”

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By this, the author might imply that no philosophy, religious teaching, or ideology is comprehensive enough to cover all aspects of a person’s life. Moreover, not a single artificial ideology may be completely compatible with common sense, i.e. the actions that a person needs to undertake in order to resolve a particular problem.

This schism between ideology and common sense may be understood in terms of congruency, i.e. a positive relationship between thought and action. For example, a person might be thinking that they pursue the ideals of a particular religion, but in reality, their deeds indicate that they do not. This is the deceptive power of ideology that lies in assigning labels to people or distorting the original teaching or source in order to justify or explain oneself. Rasci argues that there is self-deception when a person lacks congruence between thought and action. By analogy, there is also deception as an active process when those in the decision-making positions create an illusion for the followers but in actuality, only do what benefits them.

Rasci uses the term “hegemony,” which may be explained as leadership or dominance, in relation to ideologies. The author writes that one of the strategies of power is to preserve the ideological unity of a social bloc. To do this, the elites do not let the intellectual and lower strata separate from each other to avert the former to develop critical thinking. The latter, however, is necessary for realizing oneself as a rational human being. Rasci states that ultimately, philosophy should compel a person to reject violent impulses and give his or her activities a conscious direction.


Power is a concept as old as time: it occurs in the simplest of societies and becomes more complex as they make progress. Power structures manifest and sustain themselves in any regularized social system. They rely on the presence of so-called great men: the elites that can escape the ordinary environments and make independent decisions with vast ramifications. Those who belong to the elites are not solitary leaders: instead, they tend to be concentrated in particular domains and institutions of social life such as economics, politics, and the army. There is a constant exchange between the domains, and the more ties a person has to different domains, the more powerful he or she is.

To execute their power, people use allocative and authoritative resources. When doing so, they might face resistance from their subordinates, which constitutes the dialects of power. One of the ways to take control of the masses is to introduce an ideology. Ideology is a powerful tool for maintaining hegemony, and it can also be used for the purpose of deception. Ultimately, philosophy should not be used for deception but for raising consciousness and awareness.

Works Cited

Calhoun, Craig, et al. (Eds.). Contemporary Sociological Theory. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Donald Trump Biography. 2018. Web.

John, Stephen. 12 Mind-Blowing Facts About Saudi Arabia’s Economy. Web.

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