Damn this term. It endlessly shows up in international relations scholarship. And it’s a huge pet-peeve of mine. Why? Because even a superficial reflection shows it to be more or less incoherent.
First, against what is ‘material’ power contrasted? Immaterial power? That would be silly; immaterial power is oxymoronic, since power implies some sort of real (capacity for) influencing of situations and people. ‘Ideational’ power, perhaps? What on earth is that? The power of ideas? Like the ideas we have about how to operate firearms or build nukes or construct sturdy fortifications or organise and direct military manoeuvres? Except these are usually exactly the sort of things that constitute ‘material power’, as far as I can tell. Ideas about morality and ethics? That sounds a bit better—perhaps there is material power, and then there is persuasive power or discursive power or normative power?
But this leads to the second problem. What isn’t material? As I just implied, nothing in society is exclusively material, as even the crudest tools of coercion or enticement require some learning and knowledge to be used. Discourse and persuasion have materiality. Just think about how much nicer it is to have a discussion in a pub in a relaxed atmosphere, or over coffee or something, compared to, I don’t know, sitting in cold puddle of mild sulfuric acid while a loud siren wails. Talking requires vocal chords, and typing requires fingers. It’s hard to debate in person when you have a sore throat or over the internet when you have arthritis, and so on.
Most people who use the term ‘material power’ really seem to mean something like ‘guns, land, money’. And of course, in the end, the meaning of a term is its use in language. What’s the problem if we all know what the term means, even if taken literally it makes no sense? Well, mainly I worry (slash actually see) that when people use it, they treat those guns, lands, and monies as if they have independent and pre-existing power—as if first you have these ‘material’ things that nourish or kill, and then you can add or subtract ideas on top of them (ideas, of course, being not material but…what, system-states of our immortal souls, which have no physical substrate?). And that this is only true of those things in particular, and not true of everything that features in social life. Then once you’ve established this special domain of ‘material power’ you go on to contrast it against moral norms or culture or something.
Military power, economic power, industrial power, financial power, yada yada any or all of these are probably fine as concepts. They adequately allow for the ways ‘the power to X’ emerges and accrues through the interaction of creative and knowledgeable people with their physical environment. Even better, X can be so many things!
But no, we got ‘materialist explanations’ (= realism, of course) and ‘material power’ (= realism’s instrumental variable) and because we got them, we can’t have nice things.
Which, if you think about it, is what these ‘realists’/’materialists’ have been saying all along. How meta.