This online colloquium has been established to discuss Sandra Leonie Field’s recent book, Potentia: Hobbes and Spinoza on Power and Popular Politics. We began last week with an introduction to the text. We now have a response from Alissa MacMillan, which will be followed by responses from Christopher Holman and Justin Steinberg, and finally a reply by Sandra Leonie Field. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.
those of us who struggle to make sense of the Hobbesian individual, whether the
individual fits what S. A. Lloyd calls the “standard philosophical
interpretation” of an autonomous, rational, possessive, relatively unchanging individualist,
or whether we can identify the ways in which the individual is socially formed
or made in his or her society, Sandra Field has an answer: yes.
Potentia, her rich, layered book,
Field uses the lens of power to make the case that, to some degree, everyone is
right. Two very different individuals exist in Hobbes’s texts, evolving from
his earlier work (Elements of Law and
De Cive) to his later (Leviathan), and leading, for Field, to a
complex story about how Hobbes proposes the sovereign control individuals and their
expression of power.
in Hobbes’s early text, still mired in remnants of Scholastic thought, that we
get MacPherson’s standard picture of the individual living generally in line
with natural law (71), conforming to normative standards (70), all of us with
an alignment and equality of wills and goals (48, 81). The early individual,
also the one Tuck appeals to, is easy for the sovereign to control, as we all
generally desire the same thing (58). Informal collectivities might emerge, but
they are fragile and nothing much for the sovereign to worry about because
individuals come together only as a “heap” or “aggregation.” Associations are
then “inherently weak” (76); there is no moment where individuals might
transform or empower one another because it’s just not how individuals are.
socially formed self, meanwhile, defended by the likes of Samantha Frost and
Philip Pettit through materialism and language respectively, is found in the
later Leviathan. Power is now
relational and individuals exist in states of interdependence, where
“capacities and behaviours need to be understood not through individual
endowments, but through interpersonal structures of dependence” (169). It’s in
the late texts that the sovereign needs to worry because individuals will have
all sorts of conflicting desires, including the desire for power itself. This
comes from mutual engagement and “social allegiance and support” (82), all of
which can increase individual concrete power or potentia.
this analysis of shifting conceptions of power, and from, among other things, what
late Hobbes identifies as the niggling problem of our tendency, when
collectives form, for hierarchy or inner oligarchy to form as well (perhaps a
positive only for the formation of the commonwealth itself), Field makes the
case that Hobbes’s late solution is “repressive egalitarianism,” a making equal
of citizens through “a state that aggressively manages the informal power
dynamics of the social body” (138) and “commits itself to crushing informal
power structures in the polity” (108).
oddest outcome of all—one I’m still trying to wrap my
head around—is how the sovereign of the late Hobbes longs for the
individual of the early texts (133, 139). What was once a manageable “fragmented
equality” among people, is now unruly, malleable individuals, finding power only
in relation with others, who together might form powerful collectives with a
hierarchical structure. Because of this, the risk to the sovereign, the very
“political problem” Hobbes rightly identifies, is intensified: there is a mismatch
between sovereign potentia and citizen potentia—if
the social order itself has more concrete power, the sovereign’s power, for
Hobbes, is diminished. What the sovereign wants instead are autonomous,
atomistic individuals, possessing their potentia, but unable to form
together; in other words, the individual of his early texts.
Field, this is just the beginning and really only one strand of the story. Potentia turns to Spinoza in the second
half, the clear hero, even if Hobbes correctly identifies the problems, and to
the broader task of the book, figuring out how we get to a democracy that properly
expresses popular power. If I march for and with fellow women, my pink knit hat
in hand, is this popular power? If I join a protest or sign a petition against tree
felling, is this popular power? Field’s answer is, not really. It’s too
transient altogether, too reactive, too external to institutions. A social
movement might have “a causal role” in “bringing a popular regime into
existence” and “keeping the regime honest and non-corrupt” (242), but it’s not
itself what we’re looking for.
to whether popular power is better expressed through something like grassroots
activism or through institutions, Field’s answer is institutions, where “the
basic structure of a state must feature and sustain equality and participation”
(236). This claim comes out of her analysis of Spinoza and, in particular, her
reaction to the radical democratic Spinoza of Negri, who is perhaps her real
conversation partner. The radical, “romanticized view of non-institutional
politics” (147) is one she sees as too optimistic (202), too naïve, putting too
much trust in human beings getting things right naturally (244), and, oddly
enough, as Field reads it, holding fast to a conception of the individual that
looks more like the one out of Hobbes’s early texts, atomistic and possessing
an essence or faculty of power (169).
treatment of Spinoza is intense and exciting, her own view more in line with a “constitutionalist”
interpretation of power, akin to late Hobbes, pointing, as Hobbes does, to the
importance of context and effects, not origins. Her reading of Spinoza’s account
takes her to what she sees as the best expression of popular power, where potentia
operandi, or the power of producing effects, needs to be integrated and
harnessed instead of supressed. Her answer then lies not with direct
democracies, with power expressed by the people, but with representative
assemblies, where informal power blocs aren’t destroyed, as Hobbes suggests, or
even left alone, but where they are really broken up by being integrated or
made a formal part of assemblies (254), with some ideas for how to do this
found in his proposals for counsellor selection and syndics and, in our own
time, in, for example, Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly (255).
while Hobbes gets the late individual right, in the face of this potential expression
of popular power by the people, his reaction is all wrong. His repressive
egalitarianism, on Field’s reading, calls for an ongoing levelling out of
powers by the sovereign (103), getting rid of the “informal oligarchic
structure of the social body” (108), and an internalization of duties on the
part of the populace “through a program of political rhetoric and education”
(109), of “political pedagogy and persuasion in duty” (127).
in chapter 30 of Leviathan, as Field
points out, we get some glimpse of these ideas for what the people need to know,
and she describes some of these strategies, and some of Hobbes’s worries (115-118).
But now that the individual is seen as formed in and through society, power
relations shaping desires, a program of repressive indoctrination begins to sound
like a strange and impossible engineering of individuals. It becomes one where
we can “pursue individual goals and individual ethical and intellectual
development” but “these are not to be pursued collectively” (229), yet power is
found and desires are shaped through these very collective dependencies. The
sovereign now needs to pursue an “ambitious control of speech and teaching” (155),
even controlling the very “power of thought and speech” (155), a form of
repression only deemed necessary because of the kinds of individuals we are,
but one that, precisely because we are the social individuals we are, seems a
tall, even too-tall, Orwellian task.
Hobbes does see the individual this way, could the education he’s talking about
not be, dare I say, a bit more in the spirit of Spinoza, where individuals are
not, as Spinoza puts it, “led like sheep, and know only how to be slaves” (TP,
5.4), but are educated into rationality—a rationality which,
Pettit argues, is itself a skill taught in society, through language
acquisition—and where the sovereign’s duty, as Hobbes says in the
opening of chapter 30, is to not “let the people be ignorant, or mis-informed
of the grounds, and reasons of those his essentiall Rights” and these grounds
are what need to be “diligently, and truly taught.” Where citizens, even with
the help of Leviathan, might
internalize their duty but are also taught to know why they are obeying. Perhaps
even the too-believing citizenry, the masses who need it most, are taught a
materialism which can free them from the grip of religious superstition.
question of education for Hobbes, of whether it’s a deeper education in and
through our social lives or a flatter indoctrination—or perhaps a bit of both—also
seems like a live question for Field’s Spinozistic vision, which includes the Hobbesian
recognition that people are made in society along with an awareness of its
limits, an awareness that you can’t make citizens into something they’re not (224).
Even if a Citizens’ Assembly harnesses some popular power, even if these kinds
of institutions do express true popular power, we have to get there somehow.
Institutions are still made of citizens who are formed in their society, through
a system of education, one that might do a better or worse job of teaching them
what the state is for, and through the multiple experiences and interactions,
political and otherwise, that might shape them.
is so much more to discuss about Potentia.
This question about popular power—does it lie with the
people in more grassroots expression or is it found with institutions—is
one of the more pressing questions of our moment. Field seems absolutely right
that popular power lies with stable and equality-supporting institutions, but,
just as important is educating the people who make and maintain those
institutions, an education that, as both Hobbes and Spinoza know, happens in a
complex, changing social context. Perhaps one need not see it as a hierarchy,
with institutions on top, but a symbiosis. In recognizing the socially formed
individual, something like a Citizens’ Assembly can’t work without the citizens
who engage in the social movements that form them.
Alissa MacMillan (University of