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Materialism: Understanding the Theory and its Implications for Society


The current state of relations in society is characterized by the growing diversity of views on the diplomatic reality. Numerous theories and assumptions were developed to explain the true causes and hidden implications of the changing balance of power. The past years witnessed the rapid expansion of materialism and its growing effects on society. Materialists keep to a state-centered view of diplomacy which treats egoism, individuality, and the search for power and dominance as the principal drivers of social life. More often than not, materialists are right in the way how they perceive the postmodern reality. Objectively, materialism is the most realistic of all IR ideologies, and the best prism for analyzing the current situation in any society in particular, and in the world as a whole. However, is materialism really so perfect and worth following? This paper will try to find an answer for this question.

Materialism: Understanding the Theory and its Implications for Society. It cannot be denied that materialism dominated the theory of social relations during the 20th century. Two world wars, the Cold War, the Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the development of new social organizations altogether contributed to chaos and anarchy in social relations. Given the growing tension between states and their striving to dominate in the arena of international relations, it comes with no surprise that materialism became the main trend in IR in the 20th century. Understanding the realistic implications of materialism is impossible without trying to grasp the meaning of materialism and its implications for practice.

It is essential to mention that materialism is a rare example, when the theory is based on to reflect the fundamental elements of the human nature. Simply put, materialism treats egoism as the definitive feature of the human activity and “denies the relevance of society government” (Donnelly 2000). Materialism is realistic within the limits, which accept and promote unchangeability of the human nature: Since ancient times and up to the present, human nature has exemplified a unique combination of egoism and immorality (Rathbum 2009). Machiavelli (1998) was correct in that “it must be taken for granted that all men are wicked and that they will always give vent to the malignity that is in their minds when it is only offered by opportunity” (p. 22). Materialism positions human nature as something that cannot be trusted but resembles a disastrous heresy (Cozette 2008; Donnelly 2000). Egoism and the urge for power turn the striving for continuous political dominance into the principal driver of the society relations.

In light of the power of egoism and self-interest, materialism reduces the relevance and significance of the moral principles in the society. Many scholars associate materialism with the evil and confirm that this evil is ineradicable (Donnelly 2000; Morgenthau 1952). Evil and the absence of the moral principles in any society results, on the one hand, in a social conflict and, on the other hand, proves this conflict inevitable (Donnelly 2000). Therefore, materialism reflects and elaborates on a complex network of impulses and motives in the social politics, which are based on the human egoism, conflict, self-interest, and a necessity to control and manage these vices.

Anarchy and the absence of social government present a different aspect of materialism. The laws of the jungle define the course of the society’s development in the world in those cases where social organizations and governments are irrelevant, ineffective, and virtually absent (Donnelly 2000; Gleason et al 2008). Materialism creates a controversial picture of the public relations, in which the world lacks a civilized angle and is inherently barbarian (Donnelly 2000). Political power and hierarchical authority within the states do not always suffice to tame the selfish nature of humans. In this situation, social relations, and the way materialism treats them, create and sustain the conditions that favor the expression of the worst human features (Donnelly 2000). This combination of self-centeredness, self-interest, and anarchy turns power into an extraordinarily significant ingredient of IR (Donnelly 2000). A scholarly analysis of materialism in the society places the fight for political power into the center of the modern system of social relations. In its turn, the fight for political power contributes to the growing skepticism over the ethical and moral principles in social relations, and subordinates ethical concerns to the needs of the state (Donnelly 2000). Briefly stated, materialism necessitates and further justifies purely individualistic policies and claims that universal moral principles can never work for the benefit of social policies (Donnelly 2000).

Realistic Materialism: Egoism, Self-interest, and the Balance of Power. It is undeniable that materialism reflects the principal conventions of the international relations’ practice in the modern and postmodern world. Materialism is realistic to the extent, which positions egoism, self-interest, the search for power and dominance as the principal drivers of decision-making. Throughout the history of state development, countries sought to re-establish themselves as the key carriers of the political ideas, influence, and decisions in the world. The 20th century marked the turning point in the development of the realist thinking, when two world wars and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union confirmed the relevance of the self-interest and balance of power in the contemporary system of international relations. To prove this thesis, one should take a close look at how the United States, currently the leading political power in the system of international relations, promoted its interests, treated other participants of international relations, and was able to reach and sustain an unchangeably leading position. Modern American society is an example of materialistic society where money-making is of the top priority. The success of American people representing fully developed social order makes it serve as an example for other societies. However, negative sides of such materialistic views are obvious. Many scholars are afraid that such success of materialistic society will not last for far too long in case if materialistic values greatly prevail over idealistic. Pure materialism can only harm any society and prevent people from normal relations. So, blind following of American example can be harmful for developing countries. In order to build materialistic society and make it successful, every state should thoroughly access the values it has in its own society not to lose cultural identity and idealistic values that are very important for any country in the world.

Materialism and Failure of Social Institutions. Failure of social institutions to affect the course and development of social relations in the modern world is rightly considered as the principal argument in defense of the realist traditions in public diplomacy. It may be clearly evident in the following quotation “Prominent realists always argued that the emergence of social organizations had not changed the unipolarity of the power distribution in the modern world” (Grieco 1999; Waltz 2000). Although the 20th century witnessed the rapid emergence of numerous social institutions and their political and diplomatic expansion, their role was limited, to say the least, and none of the social organizations was ever able to reduce the dominant role of materialism.

The current state of the theory of social relations treats societal organizations as one of the principal forms of institutionalism. Societal organizations include a variety of interstate formations and forms, non-governmental arrangements, and solutions of transnational organizations (Thompson & Snidal 1999). Despite the fact that the concept of “social organization” is increasingly broad, the realist traditions in IR persistently denied their role and significance in IR, irrespective of their form, obligations, and goals. The first attempt to create a formal social institution occurred during the Congress of Vienna in 1814 when, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Europe had to create new diplomatic foundations for the stability and security in its territory (Thompson & Snidal 1999). Apparently, the new Congress system systematized and institutionalized sporadic decisions in regards to security issues in Europe. However, with time, the balance within the social organization shifted toward the states that held stronger political position and exhibited more power compared with other European states (Thompson & Snidal 1999). Those were the first signs of materialism in the evolving system of IR.

Nevertheless, the Congress of Vienna reflected the growing interdependence of states and their willingness to contribute to one another’s security. Waltz (2000) has a point in that in a multipolar world, the states of similar size would perceive their alliances as crucial for their future stability and peace. Major allies were militarily interdependent, and they understood that “the defection of one would necessarily make its partners vulnerable to the emerging security threats” (Waltz 2000). It was not before the beginning of the Second World War that the world finally understood the fragility and irrelevance of the social institutions in the modern world. The League of Nations and its subsequent failure to avert the Second World War exemplified one of the most tragic mistakes and the most effective proofs to the continuous dominance of the realist tradition.

The League of Nations and its failure to prevent the Second World War is, probably, the brightest proof to the assumption that materialism was and still remains realistic in the contemporary world. The First World War changed the position and attitudes of the European countries towards their safety, security, and politics. As a result, the proliferation of social institutions became the distinctive feature of the post-World War I period (Thompson & Snidal 1999). All member states were obligated to help a member that had become the victim of military violence and aggression (Thompson & Snidal 1999). The United States did not join the organization, although Woodrow Wilson was its chief supporter (Thompson & Snidal 1999). It was mostly due to the non-participation of the United States that the League of Nations did not survive as it failed to prevent the expansion of violence in Europe. The reason behind the U.S. refusal to join the League of Nations further contributed to the picture of materialism in IR.

Grieco (1999) claims relative capabilities are the principal objects of trade in the scene of social relations: Naturally, a state seeks to raise its relative political, diplomatic security capabilities and, simultaneously, prevent any increase in other states’ correlative capabilities. To meet these purposes, states must regularly reassess their performance, compared with the performance of other states (Grieco 1999). This idea is represented in the citation: “States fear that their partners will achieve relatively greater gains; as a result, the partners will surge ahead of them in relative capabilities” (Grieco 1999, p.23). Apparently, the United States realized the increase in other states’ relative gains it would cause, and joined the League of Nations. Its goals of the dominant social position went against the principles of collective security, which the organization sought to promote. The position of the United States in the pre-war world engendered the problem of relative gains to the point when America grew increasingly reluctant to join the European block (Mearsheimer 1994). Nevertheless, it did not worry the United States that such reluctance would threaten the stability and security in Europe: All it wanted to do was to preserve its political leadership and IR superiority over European countries. Such states would decline an offer to join social organization even if they are confident that other members would adhere to the terms and conditions of their association and keep their commitments to collective security (Grieco 1999). Surprisingly or not, but even two world wars did not change the situation. Today, the United States continues pursuing the politics of non-compliance with the social organizations’ requirements, and follows the principles and norms of social politics which it establishes for itself. The more powerful the United States is becoming, the more willing it is to use the existing and emerging social institutions to pursue its diplomatic aims. Profound transformations in the system of social relations over the past decade reflect the shifts in the American attitudes towards social institutions. While organizations are losing their functions, they become a convenient instrument of controlling, monitoring, and managing the military and foreign policies of the European and non-European states.

The fact that America is no longer reluctant to participate in the social organizations does not mean that materialism is no longer realistic. On the contrary, the U.S. membership in the social organizations reflects the growing scope of the realistic trends in IR. The example of the NATO confirms that, while society organizations are losing their major functions, America gradually starts to view them as the instrument of lengthening its grip of the European military and foreign policies (Waltz 2000). The NATO is just one of numerous examples of how the American vision of power is applied to establish a definite security order in Europe (Waltz 2000). American invasion to Iraq and Afghanistan against the will of the European collective majority was a bold move aimed to reinforce the sense of American dominance. In the postmodern reality, social organizations do not function as multilateral entities (Waltz 2000). They rather demonstrate how the strongest states create and maintain such organizations to meet their misperceived interests (Waltz 2000). Given the complexity of the IR situation, the coming years will hardly change the situation. The current state of the IR development implies that America is likely to retain its dominant position in the next decade. Materialism will continue to travel around the planet, with power, political dominance, and reduced role of social institutions in collective decision-making as the principal criteria of IR. Most of the negative changes currently happening in the international relations reflect the failure of social organizations and separate states to raise the significance and balance of their societies against the U.S. After so many years of undeniable leadership, the United States is unlikely to give up its position easily and without fight. Without sufficient resources, society organizations and states will remain reluctant to resist American expansion to the East. Weak European states will experience serious problems in creation of social organizations that can help them to pursue their needs (Waltz 2000). Social organizations and IR decisions will continue serving the interests of the strongest nations, namely, the United States, in short- and long-term perspective.


The past decades were marked with a profound change in the balance of forces. However, like many years before, materialism continues dominating the current system of social relations. Materialism in the modern society is realistic to the extent, which treats self-interest and egoism as the principal drivers of social decision-making, denies the relevance of social institutions, and abolishes their influence on the contemporary world. The United States is rightly considered as the principal source of influence in the unipolar world. Since the earliest years of its history, the U.S. sought to expand and sustain its dominant position in the world. The coming decades will hardly shift the balance away from the U.S. towards other emerging political powers like China and Russia. It appears that materialism will continue serving the interest of the most powerful countries and most powerful societies. Therefore, the developing countries should evaluate their own principles and understand their needs before following somebody’s example. Materialism can be good but only to some extent, thus, different countries, societies and people should reconsider their positions in order to prevent military and family conflicts, and many other things that can ruin their lives.

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