New article on liberty and representation in Hobbes

Bardin, Andrea (2021): Liberty and representation in Hobbes: a materialist theory of conatus, in: History of European Ideas, https://doi.org/10.1080/01916599.2021.1975150

Description
The concepts of liberty and representation reveal tensions in Hobbes’s political anthropology that only a study of the development of his philosophical materialism can fully elucidate. The first section of this article analyses the contradictory definitions of liberty offered in De cive, and explains them against the background of Hobbes’s elaboration of a deterministic concept of conatus during the 1640s. Variations in the concepts of conatus and void between De motu and De corpore will shed light on ideas of individuality, unity and agency that carry direct political relevance. The second section explains why the concept of representation that Hobbes elaborated at the end of the decade in Leviathan cannot be interpreted within an exclusively political and juridical framework. Rather, I will claim that it should be explained in the light of Hobbes’s materialist theory of the power exerted by the sovereign persona on human imagination.

New article: Hobbes on treason and fundamental law

van Apeldoorn, Laurens (2021): Hobbes on treason and fundamental law, in: Intellectual History Review, https://doi.org/10.1080/17496977.2021.1947597

Description
This article considers Hobbes’ contribution to the development of constitutionalist thought by contextualizing his treatment of the concepts of treason and fundamental law in De cive (1642, 2nd ed. 1647) and Leviathan (1651). While in Leviathan he adopts the controversial conception of treason as a violation of fundamental law that had been employed to convict Charles I of high treason in 1649, he draws on the original meaning of the term “fundamental law”, as outlined in the most influential early analysis of Innocent Gentillet, to deny that fundamental laws can constrain the rights and powers of the sovereign. He bolsters this position by treating fundamental law as natural, not civil, law. While citizens commit treason when they violate the original covenant that establishes the sovereign, citizens cannot appeal to a human court for violations of fundamental law by the sovereign (who must render account for violations of natural law only to God). Hobbes’ ingenious reconceptualization of fundamental law, hence, shows that, when understood correctly, the theory of treason embraced by parliamentarians could never support the violent resistance against, and overthrow of, a monarch like Charles I.

New article on automata in Hobbes

Bhorat, Ziyaad (2021): Automata in Hobbes: Three Heads of Cerberus, in: History of Political Thought, Volume 42, Number 3, pp. 441-463.

Description
Some scholars maintain that the Hobbesian man, commonwealth, or both are analogous – or even identical – to an automaton. Yet automata as a concept remains relatively underexplored in Hobbes’s corpus. This paper aims to address this gap. Standing at the margin between nature and artifice, animate and inanimate, we find three heads of Hobbesian automata emerging from (i) the texts he translated, (ii) the mechanical artifices that surrounded him, and (iii) the physiology he greatly appreciated. These new contributions provide a fuller account of the rich, lively world of Hobbes’s political thought – one that moreover reemphasizes his Aristotelian influences.

Latest issue of Hobbes Studies

Hobbes Studies, Volume 34, Issue 1 (Apr 2021)

Articles

Progress Reports

Book Reviews

New article on Hobbes and the Normativity of Democracy

Holman, Christopher (2021): “That Democratic Ink Must Be Wiped Away”: Hobbes and the Normativity of Democracy, in: The Review of Politics, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0034670521000127

Description
Hobbes’s preference for monarchical sovereign forms and his critique of democratic political organization are well known. In this article I suggest, however, that his opposition to democratic life constitutes the central frame through which we must understand some of the most important theoretical mutations that occur throughout the various stages of his civil science. Key alterations in the Hobbesian political theory from The Elements of Law to Leviathan can be interpreted as efforts to retroactively foreclose the emergence of a substantive democratic normativity that the prior theoretical framework allowed for or suggested. Hobbes’s opposition to democracy is ultimately so significant so as to fundamentally structure various key elements of his political philosophy.

Online Colloquium (5): Reply to critics by Sandra Leonie Field

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 with an introduction to the text, followed by responses from Alissa MacMillan, Christopher Holman and Justin Steinberg. We conclude this week with a reply by Sandra Leonie Field. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.

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It is a great honour to have my book featured by the European Hobbes Society, and to have Alissa MacMillan, Chris Holman, and Justin Steinberg give such detailed attention to the book’s ideas and arguments.

Potentia aspires to make contributions both to studies of Hobbes and Spinoza, and to democratic theory. I hope to have achieved philosophical and philological rigour in my readings of Hobbes’s and Spinoza’s texts. At the same time, my purpose in those readings is to locate ideas which might help reorient us with respect to contemporary systematic questions of political philosophy. I thank my critics for pressing on both of these fronts. I’ll respond to four areas of concern that they raise: (i) Hobbes on power; (ii) Hobbes on democracy; (iii) the Hobbes/Spinoza relation; and (iv) the larger lessons for democratic theory.[1]


i. Hobbes on Power

My interpretation of Hobbes centres on identifying a shift in his conception of human power, both individual and collective, between his early and late political texts. I draw significant political consequences from this shift. I would like to thank MacMillan for her efforts to reconstitute and situate this shift in terms of debates regarding the Hobbesian individual. Her presentation conveys some of the excitement that I myself felt in carrying out this research, excitement which I feared may have been lost in all the finer scholarly details of the chapters. Equally, however, I would like to thank Steinberg for asking whether I have overstated the shift’s political consequences.[2] In particular, Steinberg expresses skepticism that the changing conception of power explains (a) why Hobbes abandons De Cive’s ‘sleeping sovereign’ in Leviathan, or (b) why in his early works Hobbes underestimates the threat of informal collectivities to sovereign power. I’ll address these two challenges in turn.

Steinberg reconstitutes my argument against the sleeping sovereign as follows. The sleeping sovereign does not actively exercise its power most of the time. But the later text Leviathan conceives power (potentia) as efficacy. An inactive power is ineffective, and as such, it is no power at all. So, the sleeping sovereign lacks power and is not viable as a sovereign.

To this argument, Steinberg objects that nothing about efficacy requires continual action. Even once we clear out any residual scholastic commitment to inner essential tendencies, there must be a way of talking about everyday tendencies or dispositions or inactive powers. For instance, surely we can say that a driver has the power to brake even when they don’t exercise that power. Just like the driver ready to brake, surely a sleeping sovereign could be ready to issue directives. Inactivity does not mean lack of power.

In response, I grant that it is possible for Hobbes, in his later non-scholastic conception of power, to speak of dispositions and inactive powers. But under what conditions? For Hobbes, everything has its determinate causes, and possibility relates only to our epistemic limitations. Thus, to say that something is possible is just to say that, for all we know, it may happen in the future. Correspondingly, we can attribute powers (potentiae) or dispositions only to the extent that we anticipate likely future efficacy, as for instance in the case of the car driver’s power to brake (52–53).[3]

Nonetheless, I would suggest that this very standard of likely future efficacy raises problems for the putative power (potentia) of a sleeping sovereign that it does not raise for the driver’s power to brake. Recall what is at stake: a government covers quotidian administration and governance, but from time to time the sleeping sovereign wakes, holding the government to account or redirecting its work through a vote. The sleeping sovereign, qua sovereign (summa potestas), holds the entitlement to everyone’s obedience. Imagine the sovereign makes a ruling which is not to the pleasure of the government. How can it be confident of achieving the concrete obedience of the populace? Hobbes’s answer in his early texts is simple: the sovereign is entitled to obedience, and the sovereign will get that obedience, because it holds the sword. But what is this ‘sword’, how is it constituted? Let us consider this power, not as a matter of entitlement, but as a question of concrete efficacy. It is composed out of the actions of individuals in society, which in turn are shaped by the everyday incentives and pressures that they face within ongoing relationships. And here lies the problem: subjects’ everyday actions follow patterns of obedience to the government. If some portion of the government and/or the populace choose not to comply with the sovereign, they have the ready network of collective power to do so. We end up with divided allegiance and risk of war, and a serious question mark over the likely future efficacy (and hence power) of the sovereign. Under an alternative scenario, the sleeping sovereign, aware of this risk, might take a strategy of appeasement: taking care not to ask controversial questions or allow controversial responses. On this scenario, a sleeping sovereign may avert the risk of civil war, but the scenario is hardly more encouraging for the idea that the sleeping sovereign is the true seat of power (95–98).

Let me turn now to the second respect in which Steinberg is skeptical about the political impact of Hobbes’s changing philosophical conception of power: concerning the political salience of informal groupings. Steinberg reconstitutes my argument as follows. On Hobbes’s early view, power potentia is conceived in a scholastic manner as grounded in essences, and only genuine individuals–not mere aggregates–can bear essences. This means that informal groupings, lacking potestas and formal structure, cannot bear essences or have power. This in turn leads Hobbes to underestimate their capacity to destabilize the sovereign.

To this argument, Steinberg objects that Hobbes is in fact critical of essences. For instance, Hobbes’s early discussion of human nature as a sum of various powers amounts to an antischolastic and antiessentialising reduction of the concept of human nature. So, even for early Hobbes, ‘we don’t need a theory of essences and their bearers in order to determine what sorts of things have powers’.

In response, I concede that Hobbes is attempting an antischolastic polemic on multiple conceptual fronts, right from his early works. But my point is that, regardless of the vigour with which Hobbes may depart from scholasticism in many respects, there are conceptual features remaining in his early view of powers which are illuminatingly viewed as scholastic legacies. For Hobbes in his early works, collective power (potestas) is conceived of as the sum of the powers (potentiae) of the individual members of the collective, the full use of which the collective is entitled by (actual or rationally imputed) contract; the power potentia of the collective is equated to its potestas. Correspondingly, in these early works, Hobbes vigorously refuses to attribute to informal collectivities any power (certainly not potestas, but also not potentia) of their own (57–73). To me, this seems to show, contra Steinberg, that Hobbes does in fact ‘rely on a theory of essences and their bearers in order to determine what sorts of things have power.’ It is this reliance that (I argue) contributes to Hobbes’s early blind spot about the threat of informal collectivities. To be sure, Hobbes is aware and concerned about the threat of insurrection throughout his entire oeuvre. But it is striking to me that Hobbes, in his early works, attempts to conceive seditious groupings as illicit formal collectivities, leading (I argue) to a straitened and inadequate grasp of the dynamics of popular unrest (73–77, 100–104).

ii. Hobbes on Democracy

Following its analysis of Hobbesian concepts of power, Potentia articulates a certain understanding of Hobbesian democracy. As already discussed above, I think that the ‘sleeping sovereign’ model of democracy is deeply flawed, and that it is Hobbes’s own recognition of these flaws that leads him to abandon the model in his later writings. In its place, I offer my model of ‘repressive egalitarianism’, which draws both on my own conceptual and exegetical analyses of power in Hobbes’s later writings, and also on more historically informed studies of Collins and Zagorin. According to this model, the key to democratic sovereignty is maximal suppression of sub-state power blocs, such that individuals are rendered equal in power to one another, and unable to band together to disrupt the sovereign democratic decision (127–139). To be clear, in my discussions of repressive egalitarianism, it is not my purpose to defend repressive egalitarianism as an optimal model of popular power, but merely to defend the exegetical claim that it is Hobbes’s model. In the arc of the book’s argument, the value in Hobbesian repressive egalitarianism is its withering intolerance towards the oligarchic informal forces in the social body which so often masquerade as bearers of popular power. For now, I’ll consider three objections to my interpretation of Hobbes on democracy, two from Holman and one from MacMillan.

Holman’s first objection is that repressive egalitarianism is far from the most interesting or salient model of democracy that we might glean from Hobbes’s texts. My model of repressive egalitarianism appears implicitly committed to electoral democracy. But in Holman’s view, Hobbes’s model of democracy is neither plebiscitary (as per Tuck), nor electoral/representative, but direct participatory democracy. Holman constructs this Rousseauvian reading of Hobbes by drawing on De Cive’s definition of democracy as an assembly of all citizens.[4] On Holman’s reading, this democracy requires ‘concrete institutional spaces’ for shared deliberation that are ‘universally accessible and must meet at determinate–as opposed to merely occasional–times and places’. In this light, my book should be faulted for missing what is both the true Hobbesian model of democracy, and also a more useful model for us today, instead wilfully promoting a less meaningfully democratic model.

For now, my response will focus on Holman’s claims regarding Hobbes’s texts, leaving the contemporary application to be considered in my following section. I confess I am skeptical regarding the Hobbesian credentials of Holman’s model. Within De Cive, a democratic assembly, an assembly of all citizens, is an assembly in which ‘everyone has a right’ to vote and participate in debates. But there is no indication that he views a small (relative to population) assembly like a parliament as being in principle disqualified from meeting this requirement. Indeed, as sovereignty is vested in a single assembly, actual participation must be limited to a small number by logistical necessity. Certainly, as Holman points out, Hobbes argues that England of the Rump Parliament was an oligarchy and not a democracy. But what makes this the case is not (contra Holman) the general fact that parliaments are relatively small and inaccessible bodies, but the much more specific fact that this parliament had permanently and formally excluded some people on the basis of their political views (in the course of the 1648–9 transition between Long and Rump Parliaments).[5]

If I am right, De Cive offers a model of democracy which is content with only very limited actual participation. Holman and Tuck both, in different ways, try to resist this conclusion, and Holman’s proposal strikes me as just as creative as Tuck’s. Tuck’s plebiscitary democratic sovereignty achieves universality by dropping the requirement for holding an actual assembly. Holman’s alternative envisages multiple deliberative assemblies jointly covering the entire commonwealth. But in its creativity, Holman’s proposal seems to me to stray further away from anything Hobbes could endorse: for what better way to commit the cardinal Hobbesian sin of inviting conflict through ambiguity of authority than by sanctioning multiple mutually insubordinate regional assemblies.

In my account of Hobbes’s late models of political order, repressive egalitarianism is a general feature of all forms of sovereignty. Whether democracy, aristocracy, or monarchy, the important thing is that there should be as little as possible by way of counter-powers which could challenge sovereign commands. Rather, the commonwealth should aggregate isolated individuals who have little choice but compliance with sovereign command. But repressive egalitarianism would take a particular manifestation in democratic orders. One key risk to be addressed is that democratic assemblies themselves might be sites for the formation of informal oligarchic power blocs and oligarchic allegiance. I argue that Hobbes’s analysis of counsel shows a simultaneous commitment to widespread consultation across the whole population along with a strong hostility to collective deliberation within political assembly (especially democratic assembly) (124–127).

Holman’s second objection is that I have underplayed Hobbes’s account of the possibilities of non-antagonistic sociality, found for instance in Leviathan Chapter 22’s discussion of collective activities. In response, I grant that my presentation has focussed more heavily on informal oligarchic power blocs, such as may accumulate around rich or charismatic figures. These are not antagonistic–their complex structure eludes any simple binary of horizontal mutual association versus vertical domination–but nor are they very appealing. I focus on these because they are (I argue) both underrecognized in the literature, and of great systematic importance in understanding Hobbes’s later political philosophy.

Despite this focus, I do not mean to deny that Hobbes grants there can also be more productive and collaborative sociality. But to me, the key questions are, what are the concrete conditions under which such sociality arises and is sustained? and what is its relation to politics? Answering these questions reveals that in Hobbes’s philosophy, the human possibility of productive sociality can neither serve as a model nor as a foundation for democratic politics. In Leviathan’s Chapter 22, on ‘systemes’, Holman’s exemplars of sociable association occur within, and presuppose, the security provided by sovereign rule. As such, they cannot serve as a model for that rule. Furthermore, I don’t see in Hobbes any trace of the idea that these associations could, even when internally sociable, play a useful role in shaping or constraining sovereign power. (That idea, which I endorse, I associate with Spinoza, not Hobbes (260–261).) To the contrary, on my reading, all associations constitute threats to sovereign rule, because they constitute points of incipient resistance to that rule. In laying out idea of ‘repressive egalitarianism’, my point is to trace as best I can Hobbes’s own late account of the conditions of possibility of overcoming the political problem, which is to constitute a unified commonwealth without internal power blocs. As it is impossible to eliminate internal power blocs entirely, I read Chapter 22 as an attempt to taxonomize and triage the threat posed by those groupings that remain.

Now I turn to MacMillan, who objects that I soft-pedal the educational dimension of both Hobbes’s and Spinoza’s political philosophies. MacMillan suggests that repressive egalitarianism is achieved through rational education, and not through any ‘strange and impossible engineering of individuals’. Drawing on Pettit’s work, she suggests that subjects can come to internalize and act upon their duty in good part through achieving a true understanding of the grounds of politics, and not merely through indoctrination.

In response, the book does attempt a discussion of Hobbes’s views on education. But perhaps this is unsatisfying to MacMillan, because the upshot of that discussion is a fairly deep ambivalence regarding the promise of education to solve the political problem. In Hobbes’s early works, I argue that neither education nor indoctrination are particularly important. For he is confident peace can be secured simply by establishing the appropriate juridical regime of rights, with subjects’ compliance achieved by the threat of the sovereign’s sword, not by their understanding (73–77, 108–112). In the later works, Hobbes is more attentive to the insufficiency of the threat of punishment to shape behaviour, leading to a much greater interest in persuading and teaching people how they ought to behave (98–106, 112–118). But on my interpretation, the real underlying problem is that subjects can have hope of success in resisting sovereign commands, if they ally themselves with informal oligarchic power blocs beneath the sovereign. Hobbesian repressive egalitarianism seeks to break up or constrain potential counterpowers in the social body. For Hobbes, intellectual strategies of education or indoctrination, while not without some value, cannot succeed unless they are paired with this more structural approach to political stability (140–141).

iii.  The Hobbes/Spinoza Relation

One ambition of the book is to reconfigure our understanding of the relation between the political philosophies of Hobbes and Spinoza, which I think has been greatly muddied by the absence of a clear account of their various conceptions of power. Potentia claims to establish a reading which shows their political philosophies have more in common than usually recognized. In particular, I draw out the similarities between (late) Hobbesian potentia and Spinoza’s potentia operandi, and their shared focus on the concrete conditions the durability of the state.

Steinberg raises the concern that I have overdrawn the similarities between the two thinkers, and unduly minimized breaks of real significance between them. Specifically, even if we grant the similarity between late Hobbes’s potentia and Spinoza’s potentia operandi, they ‘each have an additional conception of power that the other would have rejected (or did reject)’. First, Spinoza rejects appeals to de jure authority and obligation, whereas such concepts are the foundation of Hobbesian philosophy. Second, Hobbes offers no counterpart to the Spinozist potentia agendi, power of producing effects understood through the thing’s own nature alone.

In response, I very much like Steinberg’s neat characterization of what I concede is a deep difference between the thinkers. Nonetheless, I wonder whether that deep difference needs somehow to be accommodated more in the book than it already is, given the book’s goals.

The observation that Hobbes has a strongly juridical conception of power, and that Spinoza critiques Hobbes for this conception, is central to the book. A major challenge for the book is to determine what this difference amounts to. The view that a Spinozist attention to the question of potentia as efficacy is sufficient to undermine Hobbes’s supposedly hard-headed civil science is a staple of the literature. According to this view (encouraged by Spinoza’s own Letter 50 and by Chapter 17 of his Theological-Political Treatise), Hobbes’s juridical focus on questions of right and authority comes at the expense of any serious consideration of the concrete grounds of exercise of this right. But in fact (still according to this view), Hobbesian absolute sovereignty cannot achieve requisite potentia to match its authority. Thus  Hobbes’s political philosophy is a failure (151–156).

The first half of the book strives to show that this view is false. I show that Hobbes in his later works very clearly does have an account of the potentia requisite to sovereign potestas. In particular, adequate potentia can be achieved in the regime, so ambivalent to contemporary sensibilities, that I have characterized as ‘repressive egalitarian’. In reconstructing the late Hobbesian theory of potentia, and giving it such relative prominence in the book, I am fighting against a tide of literature which (from the Hobbes side) pays too little attention to Hobbes’s nonjuridical analysis of power, and which (correspondingly, from the Spinoza side) critiques Hobbes for his neglect of such an analysis.

Thus, despite the book’s focus on Hobbes’s potentia, in no way do I mean thereby to deny the obvious fact that that Hobbes is overwhelmingly, from start to finish, a juridical thinker of power, focussed on questions of right and potestas. At the same time, I confess I am rather more interested in Hobbes’s concrete theory of power than in his juridical theory. I agree with Hoekstra’s suggestion that juridically conceived absolute sovereignty ultimately ‘becomes a kind of hidden God, largely irrelevant to our ongoing thinking about politics’.[6] And if the goal is obtaining a solid grasp of concrete political power and its possible configurations, Spinoza’s own picture is sometimes naive and simplistic (notably the Theological-Political Treatise’s discussions of democracy, Chapters 5 and 16). On this point, our understanding is richly enhanced by Hobbes’s theory of potentia.

I turn now to consider Spinoza’s potentia agendi. In his own work, Steinberg convincingly shows that the Spinozist goal of politics is freedom in a metaphysical sense, that is, the increasing rational self-determination of citizens, understood in terms of an increase of their individual potentiae agendi. By contrast, Hobbes is remarkable amongst philosophers for his total lack of interest in specifying ethical virtues, or indeed in any ethical conception of happiness beyond political salience, and also for his vehemently antimetaphysical disinterest in question of natures.

I already do recognize Spinoza’s potentia agendi has some role in core political theses of the book which would not have been possible from Hobbes alone. I already grant that the model of popular power that I end up championing is neo-Spinozist insofar as it is interested in specifying a political order’s own power (its potentia agendi), and not merely its efficacy (237–238). I also criticize Hobbes for his failure to consider that the seditious character of sub-state groups may be a product of certain conditions rather than a constant of human nature, and this failure on Hobbes’s part is conceivably linked to his general lack of interest in philosophically investigating human nature (260–261). What more exactly, salient to the goals of the book, should I have acknowledged?[7]

iv. Larger Lessons for Democratic Theory

In this final section of reply, I address some concerns raised regarding Potentia’s contributions to contemporary democratic theory. Holman and MacMillan both defend the honour of democratic radicalism and of grassroots power, which they suggest is insufficiently respected in my book.

The question, ‘what does popular power even mean?’, can be met with two quite different kinds of answer. One kind of answer analyzes the conceptual structure of popular power. A different kind of answer specifies the implementation of power so conceived. Potentia is primarily concerned to defend an answer of the first, conceptual, type. I propose to reconceive popular power, such that a political phenomenon counts as a manifestation of popular power when it is popular (it eliminates oligarchy and encompasses the whole polity) and powerful (it robustly determines political and social outcomes). Let me draw out two notable features of this conception. First, popular power is judged at the level of the overall functioning of society, rather than at the level of specific events, processes, or institutions. Second, popular power is judged at the level of durably achieved effects, not at the level of will or intention. If we want popular power worthy of the name, this is what I take it to consist in. If this conceptual move is granted, then the second type of question does become pressing: what specific political phenomena, events, and processes might tend to be found in a society meeting this standard of popular power? However, Potentia does not offer a fully formed answer to this second question, instead just offering some schematic suggestions (252–262).

Thus, it is a misconception that Potentia is importantly opposed to various democratic phenomena of a more radical flavour (plebiscites, social movements, or even participatory democracy); it is a misconception that I think it is a mistake for social movements, mass plebiscites, or other mass participation to be central to popular politics. The conceptual frame that I advance simply denies that any particular phenomenon, including plebiscites or social movements, is the definitive bearer or gauge of popular power. In principle, I am quite open about whether in fact a society of popular power will feature extensive plebiscites and/or social movements.

In fact, I am sympathetic to the idea that some significant presence of social movements would be required for meaningful popular power to be achieved (258–262). As Machiavelli argues, peaceful republics tend to be aristocratic (like Venice); to achieve a less hierarchical polity, contentious politics is necessary (like the tumults of the Roman plebs).[8] It is true that I am more skeptical about plebiscites: historical examples both from my native Australia and from my current residence of Singapore show how readily plebiscites can be engineered to serve purposes of authorities who establish them; in other cases, the results of the vote have been captured by the deep pockets of partisan advertising (137, n61–62). At the same time, sometimes plebiscites have been established in more meaningful ways. One of the better examples is the Irish Abortion Referendum. The Irish Citizen’s Assembly looms large in the book because of its role in setting up that referendum, not because some such assembly is necessarily the keystone of popular power (256).

So, with these general comments in place, let me turn to my critics. MacMillan accepts my critique of any radical democratic appeal to a popular power standing outside the processes of social formation. But in her critical comments, she suggests that I go too far in the institutional direction. In the web of mutual causation between institutions and the individuals who interact with them, if it’s a choice where to locate popular power, MacMillan interprets my book as identifying popular power on the side of the institutions. On her reading, I grant that social movements have a causal impact on the institutions of popular power, but deny that these movements are themselves part of popular power. MacMillan proposes that we should resist this such a stark choice, and instead we should view popular power as a ‘symbiosis’ between grassroots action and institutions.

In response, the view I want to defend is in fact aligned rather closely with MacMillan’s. Perhaps I introduced confusion by a carelessly equivocal use of the notion of ‘institutional’. Sometimes the term contrasts with ‘extrainstitutional’ forces such as social movements and informal collective actions, but other times ‘institutional’ is understood more expansively, to include the full array of social practices and processes which together constitute the polity. On my view, popular power should be identified at the second, broader, level, and this sounds very much like MacMillan’s ‘symbiosis’.

Now I turn to Holman’s comments on the book’s contemporary claims. Holman agrees that it is not worth defending a radical democracy founded (as per Tuck and Negri) on the unmediated will of the people. But in Holman’s view, I am too quick to offer parliamentary democracy as an alternative. Instead, Holman defends another radical tradition, for which the core commitment is a critique of the elitism of representative democracy.

In response, I am happy to acknowledge the countless perversities of representative democracy, not merely its aristocratic/oligarchic tendencies, but also its systematic distortion by electoral objectives (254–258). At the same time, I wonder whether there remains a role for representative systems, to help balance out some potential hidden exclusions and difficulties that face strong interpretations of direct participatory democracy. For instance, the extreme time-poverty of carers constitutes an obstacle to their participation in formally open participatory assemblies. For another example, a privilege to the autonomy of local participatory assembles can provide cover for antidistributive policies between rich and poor regions.

Again, most important to Potentia is the conceptual criterion of popular power. My point is not to be either for or against particular practices or institutions, such as electoral versus participatory democracy. What needs to be identified is the combination of elements which best achieves a society of equality and participation over time. In my own sketch, I imagine many factors interacting with and counteracting electoral politics: a mix of participatory fora, lottocracy, social movements, as well as expert bodies. But if an overall political order which eliminates electoral representation and replaces it with extensive participatory democracy in fact meets the standards of popular power that I have described, I am happy to endorse it.

However, I recognize that my conceptual claim is controversial. In particular, I suspect that Holman may not grant it. Holman’s own discussion of democracy, both in this review and in his other work, appears to identify popular power with a specific political location–namely, a network of participatory deliberative fora–and not at the level of overall social effects. This feature of Holman’s scholarship helps to make vivid the hard choice that lies at the foundation of Potentia’s engagement with democratic theory. The book starts by facing up to the disappointments that afflict all particular institutions and sites of democracy–not merely electoral democracy but equally plebiscites and mass movements, and also even participatory democracy. From time to time, in greater or lesser degree, these institutions and sites all find themselves going wrong. They may be captured by moneyed interests, eroded by zerosum conflict, confidently tyrannizing their internal minorities, wracked by an inability translate ideas into durable outcomes. In light of these disappointments, what should we think of popular power and democracy? Holman’s response is that popular power is highly ambivalent and can be self-destructive: that’s just the tragedy of democracy. The response of my book is different. Rather than hold onto a tragic vision of democracy, and correspondingly oscillate between hope and despair about its value, instead Potentia proposes the very meaning of popular power needs to be rethought. On this new conceptualization, a self-destructive, oligarchic, or otherwise failing democracy is not a case of misused popular power. Rather, it is a case where popular power worthy of the name has not yet been achieved.

Sandra Leonie Field (Yale-NUS College)


[1]  This research was supported by Yale-NUS College (through grant number IG17-SR101).

[2]  I also owe broader thanks to Steinberg. Steinberg’s own writings on Spinoza have been very important in my research. But on reflection, I realise that my book gives quite an unfair characterization of his views. I look forward to setting the record straight at some point in the future.

[3] All in-text references are to Field, Potentia.

[4] Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen, edited and translated by Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 7.1.

[5] Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth, or the Long Parliament, edited by Paul Seaward (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010), reading 319 in light of 317.

[6]  Kinch Hoekstra, ‘Early Modern Absolutism and Constitutionalism’, Cardozo Law Review, 34 (3), 2013: 1097.

[7] I think that sometimes comparisons of the two authors can be too quick in appealing to Spinoza’s potentia agendi to illuminate his differences from Hobbes. For instance, I am skeptical how much difference there is between Hobbes and Spinoza on the appropriate balance of hope and fear in their respective best regimes.

[8] Sandra Leonie Field, ‘Contentious politics: Hobbes, Machiavelli, and corporate power’, Democracy Futures series, The Conversation, 20 November 2015.

Online Colloquium (4): Steinberg on Potentia

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 with an introduction to the text, followed by responses from Alissa MacMillan and Christopher Holman. We now have a response from Justin Steinberg and will finish next week with a reply by Sandra Leonie Field. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.

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Many among the mob of Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. capitol on January 6, 2021, the day on which the results of the 2020 election were to be certified by congress, conceived of themselves as representing ‘the people,’ reclaiming government from the tentacles of a ‘deep state’ elite. Of course, this self-conception was preposterous, not only because the mob manifestly represent only a minority of Americans who were seeking to overthrow the will of the majority of voters, but also because it is not clear in what sense a mass movement like this one can really be said to be popular. Wealthy elites, large corporations—including powerful media entities—and even foreign agents often play crucial roles in materially supporting such putatively ‘populist movements’ and in managing and manipulating the beliefs and affects of participants. Moreover, in the case of the capitol mob, ‘the people’ took their instructions from, and sought to do the bidding of, an egomaniacal wannabe autocrat. This raises the crucial question: what, exactly, constitutes popular power.

This is the driving question behind Sandra Leonie Field’s book Potentia. Field turns to two 17th century political theorists, Thomas Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza, to try to extract a conception of popular power that might avoid Joseph Schumpeter’s dismal conclusion that we should abandon all pretenses to popular power. In the process, Field exposes problems with recent radical populist interpretations of Hobbes and Spinoza, showing that both of these figures better appreciated the problems with identifying populist movements and plebiscites with popular power than their ‘radical’ interpreters. The result is a rich and stimulating work on a topic—namely, power—that, while glibly bandied about in everyday political discourse, is somewhat undertheorized in contemporary political philosophy.

Since this is the European Hobbes Society, and since I have commented on the Spinoza portion of the text in another forum, I will focus here on Field’s analysis of Hobbes. Field traces Hobbes’s conception of power as it evolved over the course of his writings. She maintains that while in the early writings (e.g., Elements of Law, De Cive) Hobbes puts forth a kind of neo-scholastic conception of power [potentia] as an internal capacity, in the late works (e.g., Leviathan) he adopts a much more radical, mechanistic conception of power as concrete efficacy. There is a corresponding shift in his notion of collective power. In the early writing, only formal collectives, or those groups in which members have joined wills to form a juridical union, have authority [potestas] or power [potentia]. Informal collectives are relatively fragile, possessing no authority or power of their own. But by the time he wrote Leviathan, Hobbes came to appreciate the gap between juridical authority [potestas] and efficacy [potentia], leading him to take seriously the ways in which informal collectives can threaten theright of the sovereign, which he comes to think requires both authority [potestas]and efficacy [potentia].

While much of this account strikes me as original and compelling, I have some reservations about whether Hobbes’s changing conception of power explains as much as Field suggests. Let’s consider her case against Tuck’s “sleeping sovereign” interpretation, according to which Hobbes takes the true and ultimate sovereign to be the people, who ‘awaken’ in crucial moments to wrest power from the everyday governors and to reassert their supreme authority. Field’s response is that, in virtue of the fact that in the later writings right requires efficacy, the people cannot be said to hold sovereign right since they do not actively exercise power. But it is not obvious to me that by conceiving of potentia as causal activity Hobbes has really forsaken the notion of power as capacity. Even one who thinks that power is an activity can make meaningful, true claims about dispositions or capacities (e.g., the bomb would have destroyed the building, if it had been detonated). And Field herself notes that the later Hobbes himself allows for dispositional properties (52). That being the case, it is not evident that by adopting a conception of power as efficacy Hobbes conceptually excludes the possibility of the people possessing such dispositional power.

Nor need one be the immediate efficient cause of effects in order to exercise causal power. I can exercise power over my car even when I am not operating the gas, brake, or steering wheel (imagine that it is rolling downhill at precisely the desired speed or is on cruise control), provided that I could press the gas or brake, or move the steering wheel, if the velocity or direction were not to my liking. I see no reason, then, simply on account of his view of potentia, that the later Hobbes could not allow that the people possess ultimate sovereign right in a similar counterfactual sense: if the immediate executors were governing in deeply undesirable ways, the people could assert their power. This is not to defend Tuck’s interpretation; it is simply to suggest that the shift in Hobbes’s conception of potentia is not sufficient to rule it out. 

Similarly, I am not sure how far the mature conception of potentia goes towards explaining Hobbes’s newfound appreciation of the ways in which rebel groups challenge authority. According to Field, in the earlier writings, Hobbes thought that groups have potentia only insofar as they have potestas—that is, only insofar as they are a formal collective—while in the later writings, where potentia is understood as efficacy, informal collectives can be said to exert potentia. I gather that the reason why, on Field’s account, the early Hobbes is supposed to have thought that groups cannot have potentia without having potestas is because he remains committed to a scholastic conception of powers as grounded in essences; and only genuine individuals—not mere aggregations—can be the bearers of essences. But I’m inclined to think that Hobbes was actually criticizing the scholastic conception of essences as the ground of powers when he reduces man’s nature to its powers in the Elements of Law (EL 1.4).By treating natures as nothing but powers, I take it that Hobbes is precluding the priority of essence-bearing individuals. Otherwise put, we don’t need a theory of essences and their bearers in order to determine what sorts of things have powers. 

Moreover, questions of political ontology seem somewhat orthogonal to an analysis of the threat posed by informal collectives. Field herself seems to recognize this, as she puts forth another reason why the later Hobbes might have come to better appreciate the ways in which sovereignty can be challenged from below: his experience of living through the English Civil War. But even if this experience revealed the urgency of the problem, surely Hobbes’s knowledge of ancient history, not to mention his awareness of a successful revolt in the United Provinces, would have positioned him to recognize the threat even in his early works.

Finally, I want to discuss Field’s assessment of the relationship between Hobbes and Spinoza. In her introduction to this colloquium, she writes that “Spinozists tend confidently to position Hobbes as the ‘bad guy’ versus Spinoza as the ‘good guy’, or in more scholarly terms, they tend to criticize Hobbes as excessively ‘juridical’, to be saved by Spinoza’s ‘power’ approach. But in my book, I believe they are revealed to have more in common in their conception of politics than is usually granted.” At the risk of conforming to the Spinozist stereotype, I want to suggest—without presenting things in terms of heroes and villains—that there is something significant about Spinoza’s break with Hobbes that is downplayed in Field’s presentation.

It is certainly true that Spinoza has a conception of potentia—namely, potentia operandi—that is rather like the later Hobbes’s conception of power [potentia] as efficacy. But what differentiates the two political thinkers, as Spinoza makes explicit in a letter to Jarig Jelles (Ep. 50), is that Hobbes embraced a scheme of rights and obligations distinct from potentia, while Spinoza always treats right as coextensive with power. While Field herself acknowledges this (154), she treats it as relatively inconsequential. But Spinoza’s insistence that one’s natural right cannot be alienated and that the right and law of Nature “prohibits nothing except what no one desires and no one can do” (TP 2/8) is fundamental to his normative political philosophy, as it sweeps away what he sees as specious appeals to de jure authority and duty, and puts the onus on the sovereign to govern in stable and compelling ways. Hobbes, on the other hand, is fundamentally committed to the alienability of right and to a conception of natural law that obligates (at least in foro interno)outside of the state and grounds obligation within the state. This is no small difference.

Furthermore, it must be stressed that, as Field astutely observes, in addition to thenotion of potentia that Spinoza takes to be coextensive with right [potentia operandi], Spinoza has another conception of potentia [potentia agendi] that has no counterpart in Hobbes’s philosophy. It is this notion of potentia that is of particular normative import for Spinoza: humans and states alike strive to maximize their power of acting [potentia agendi], with “acting” here being taken in Spinoza’s technical sense of producing effects that can be understood through one’s nature alone.

While Field acknowledges the importance of potentia agendi, she does not explore just how distinct it is from anything in Hobbes. There are at least three respects in which the account of action or causation (what Spinoza calls “adequate causation”) on which the potentia agendi is based differs from anything that one finds in Hobbes: it depends on the explanatory role of natures, which Hobbes rejects (for more, see Steinberg, “Striving, Happiness, and the Good: Spinoza as Follower and Critic of Hobbes,” in Marcus Adams, Blackwell Companion to Hobbes [forthcoming]); it treats causation as a form of rendering intelligible, rather than regarding it in purely mechanistic, physical terms; and it is in some sense modelled on divine conception of immanent causation, a notion of which Hobbes is quite critical (see EW V.372–373). Since the striving for power in this sense of being capable of producing effects from one’s nature is the very ground of normativity in Spinoza, one cannot appreciate Spinoza’s ethical or political aims without making heavy use of this notion. Such a high-metaphysical conception of power would surely have elicited an eye roll, if not a savage critique, from Hobbes.

This, then, in the score, as I see it: while the later Hobbes and Spinoza seem to adopt a somewhat similar conception of power (potentia, for Hobbes; potentia operandi for Spinoza), they each have an additional conception of power that the other would have rejected (or did reject): Hobbes’s juridical conception of potestas; and Spinoza’s conception of potentia agendi. By all appearances, these are important and ineliminable concepts for their respective systems that have significant downstream consequences for their normative political thought. For all of their similarities, then, Hobbes and Spinoza remain critically distinct theorists of political power.

Justin Steinberg (Brooklyn College, CUNY)

Online Colloquium (3): Holman on Potentia

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 with an introduction to the text and then a response from Alissa MacMillan. We now have a response from Christopher Holman, which will be followed by a response from Justin Steinberg and finally a reply by Sandra Leonie Field. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.

***

Sandra Leonie Field’s Potentia: Hobbes and Spinoza on Power and Popular Politics is an exceptional piece of scholarship that I cannot recommend highly enough to the members of the European Hobbes Society. It provides not only rigorous and innovative new interpretations of Hobbes and Spinoza, but is exemplary in its demonstration of the extent to which the study of the history of political thought is capable of intervening in and enriching debates in contemporary political theory, in this case contemporary democratic theory particularly. It is the relation of the text to the latter—and in particular to the tradition of radical democratic political theory—upon which my brief comments will focus.

Field explicitly frames her analysis of the conception of popular power that can be constructed via engagement with Hobbes and Spinoza as a rebuke to those she calls the latter’s radical democratic interpreters. Her criticism of such readers—and in particular their recourse to thinking popular politics in terms of the voluntaristic expression of some homogenous and self-identical “true will of the people” (1), directly expressed via social movements, plebiscites, and referenda independently of institutional mediation—is fully convincing. My suggestion, however, is that Field’s identification of such conceptions with radical democracy itself somewhat circumscribes the analysis, and occults the possibility of thinking additional ways in which Hobbes in particular is capable of contributing to democratic thought. To take one notable example of such an operation, Field, using Antonio Negri as her source, isolates three features of direct, participatory democracy: it is opposed to political representation, it is opposed to institutional delegation, and it is opposed to formal constitutions (245). Such may indeed accurately reflect Negri’s position, but most radical democratic theorists would only accept the first of these criteria, to the extent that elective representative government continues to affirm an aristocratic “principle of distinction.”[1] Delegation and constitutionalism, however, may be perfectly consistent with radical democracy, insofar as the former refers us only to the fact of a division of political tasks irreducible to a division of political competency, and insofar as the latter is not taken as reflecting some fundamentally pre-political law of laws, and retains some practical means for popular amendment and re-constitution.

With respect to the analysis of Hobbes, it is Field’s engagement not with Negri but with Richard Tuck that is central, the latter emerging as the first half of the text’s primary interlocutor.[2] Both Tuck and Field recognize Hobbes’s critique of the distorting effects of deliberative activity in assembly contexts, and identify it as the source of Hobbes’s distaste for popular participatory rule. It is this recognition that motivates Tuck’s attempt to construct an alternative model of Hobbesian democracy that takes off from the account of the “sleeping sovereign” in De cive.[3] On Tuck’s reading, Hobbes allows us to think about the possibility of sharply distinguishing sovereignty from government, of understanding how the people as a whole may retain sovereign power while practical command over legislation and administration is exercised by a separate political apparatus. This passive, or sleeping people, however, may periodically awaken in order to assert its will via mass non-deliberative vote. Drawing on her distinction between Hobbes’s early and late conceptions of potentia, Field rejects Tuck’s reading to the degree that it is incapable of addressing what she identifies as “the political problem”: the possibility of a gap emerging between the concrete power potentia of the sovereign and its authorized juridical entitlement(79). A sovereign that only occasionally awakens in order to express itself can only have a very limited and weak potentia, considered in terms of the capacity to durably produce social and political effects. And furthermore, such a conception of popular intervention via immediate voting procedure may very well reproduce oligarchy, expressing pre-existing inequalities between private power blocs within society (16).

Field starts her impressive fifth chapter on “Repressive Egalitarianism” by asking: “How should popular power be understood? One straightforward way is to focus on power as formal juridical authority, then to judge its popularity by asking whether the designated holder of that authority formally includes everyone” (107). She concedes that such an understanding “can reasonably claim Hobbesian filiation,” although an alternative approach emerges in light of the distinction between potentia and potestas. My suggestion is that the productivity of the former undertaking is too quickly dismissed as a consequence of the one-sided identification of a possible Hobbesian radical democracy with the plebiscitary model of Tuck, which by Hobbes’s own political standards does not fulfil the criteria of democratic sovereignty. The latter category I think remains somewhat underspecified in Field’s work, which leads to some conceptual vagueness. Democracy, for example, is sometimes identified with deliberative major assembly activity, and yet we are also referred to, not just the democratic assembly as sovereign representative of the commonwealth, but “Hobbes’s own democracy via representative assembly” (160). Indeed, in contrast to “radical democracy,” Field sometimes seems to straightforwardly identify “institutionalized forms of politics” with “the deliberations of parliaments,” or the “standard operations of parliamentary democracy” (1). The very conjunction of parliamentarianism and democracy, however, is foreign to Hobbes. As he points out in Behemoth, for example, parliaments are fundamentally oligarchic political spaces, to the degree that entry to the assembly forum is restricted to a minority of elite citizens.[4] Contrary to Tuck, for Hobbes the idea of a democracy without a (non-representative) democratic assembly is non-sensical, the members of the sovereign people requiring concrete institutional spaces that facilitate their shared deliberation regarding political matters. Such spaces must be universally accessible and must meet at determinate—as opposed to merely occasional—times and places, so as to be properly durable and properly popular. As Hobbes puts it in De cive, democracy is the regime “in which of course everyone manages public business.”[5]

Although Field acknowledges that there is more of it in a commonwealth represented by a democratic as opposed to non-democratic sovereign, she nevertheless concludes that on Hobbes’s model of repressive egalitarianism—defined largely in terms of the effort to eliminate informal power collectivities within society that threaten sovereign potentia (108) — “there is not robust political participation” (228). Such seems really true of only two of the modalities of sovereign rule, however, and indeed, in The Elements of Law Hobbes characterizes the transition from democracy to aristocracy precisely in terms of the development of a popular disinterest in such participation, which might occur for a wide variety of reasons.[6] Hobbes’s discussion here implicitly raises the question of the social and political dynamics that condition popular commitment to democratic life. Democratic sentiment, far from emerging spontaneously as a natural expression of some definite will of the multitude—as theorized by various of those Spinozist radical democrats that Field rightfully criticizes—must be cultivated via exposure to socializing institutional forms and relations. This being the case, Hobbes is needless to say extremely sceptical about the possibility of democratic orders enduring in the long term as a result of the mechanics of assembly deliberation. The perpetual confrontation between distinct individuals with distinct normative conceptions in major council contexts is bound to be conflictual.[7] In critically calling attention to this feature of democracy Hobbes confronts what too many democratic theorists, both consensual and populist, attempt to cover up, through presuming that the political relation is or should be constituted in assemblage and identity, an impossibility given the diversity of human being.

Field’s book does an exemplary job of clarifying Hobbes’s recognition that inequality might emerge in both formal assembly and informal associational contexts. I think that she is absolutely right that ultimately the expression of a truly popular power must be committed to equality and participation, and that this depends upon institutional design that looks to explicitly counter oligarchy, the emergence of which is inevitable in unmoderated social environments. And indeed, within the context of her discussion of Spinozist civic strengthening, Field suggestively points to some contemporary political experiments that might be rethought according to this imperative (258). My suggestion is simply that, despite his quite obvious antipathy to democracy, Hobbes himself can assist us in thinking democratic institutional necessity to a greater degree than Field acknowledges. This might have been revealed, firstly, through further interrogation of Hobbes’s description of the constitutional physiognomy of the democratic regime, somewhat obscured in Potentia by the focus on Tuck’s non-assembly and non-deliberative plebiscitary model. Secondly, Hobbes also provides an account of the productive socializing power of instituted forms of human co-relation. Such includes not only his account of the degeneration of democracy via cultural disinvestment, but also his account of the possible facilitation of a form of non-antagonistic human sociality—a sociality, for example, enabling the type of participatory and deliberative activity characteristic of bodies politic as discussed in Leviathan’s important 22nd chapter.[8] Ultimately, I would propose, such analyses may reveal a Hobbesian contribution to theorizing popular power beyond repressive egalitarianism, one consistent with principles of radical democracy other than those of the depoliticizing paradigms rejected in Potentia.

Christopher Holman (Nanyang Technological University)


[1]  On the notion of the principle of distinction and the aristocratic residues of representative government, see Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[2]  For Tuck’s reading of Hobbes and democracy see Richard Tuck, “Hobbes and Democracy,” in Rethinking the Foundations of Modern Political Thought, ed. Annabel Brett, James Tully, and Holly Hamilton-Bleakley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 171–90; Richard Tuck, The Sleeping Sovereign: The Invention of Modern Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Richard Tuck, “Democratic Sovereignty and Democratic Government: The Sleeping Sovereign,” in Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective, ed. Richard Bourke and Quentin Skinner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 115–41.

[3]  Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen, ed. and trans. Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 7.16.

[4]  Thomas Hobbes, Behemoth, or the Long Parliament, ed. Paul Seaward (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010), 319.

[5]  Hobbes, On the Citizen, 10.9. Emphasis added.

[6]  Thomas Hobbes, The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, ed. Ferdinand Tönnies (London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., 1889), 2.2.9.

[7]  For further discussion on this point see Christopher Holman, “Hobbes and the Tragedy of Democracy,” History of Political Thought 40, no. 4 (2019): 649–75.

[8] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Volume Two: The English and Latin Texts (i), ed. Noel Malcolm (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2012), 22, 348–62. For a discussion of the participatory democratic significance of this chapter, see Giuseppe Sorgi, “Hobbes on ‘Bodies Politic,’” Hobbes Studies 9, no. 1 (1996): 71–87.

New article on the case of the Virginia Company and Thomas Hobbes

Fitzmaurice, Andrew (2021): The early modern corporation as nursery of democratic thought: the case of the Virginia Company and Thomas Hobbes, in: History of European Ideas, https://doi.org/10.1080/01916599.2021.1925901

Description
This paper examines early modern discussions of democracy in the context of a chartered company: namely, the Virginia Company. It examines descriptions of the Company’s constitution and politics as democratic. It focuses, in particular, upon a petition that William Cavendish (later the Second Earl of Devonshire) presented to the Virginia Company assembly defending the democratic constitution of the Company. Cavendish’s secretary, Thomas Hobbes, may or may not have assisted with drafting that petition, but he was closely involved in the debates to which it contributed. The discussion, therefore, provides a broader context for debates about the role of democratic ideas in Hobbes’ works. More importantly, however, it shows that sub-state bodies politic in early modern England, such as chartered companies, provided an environment in which political thought, including democracy, could flourish removed from the dangers of national politics.

Online Colloquium (1): Introduction to Potentia

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Sandra Leonie Field’s recent book, Potentia: Hobbes and Spinoza on Power and Popular Politics. We begin with an introduction to the text by the author, which will be followed by weekly responses from Alissa MacMillan, Christopher Holman, Justin Steinberg, and finally a reply by Sandra Leonie Field. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.

***

We live in an age of growing dissatisfaction with the standard operations of representative democracy. The solution, according to a long radical democratic tradition, is the unmediated power of the people. Mass plebiscites and mass protest movements are celebrated as the quintessential expressions of popular power, and this power promises to transcend ordinary institutional politics. But the outcomes of mass political phenomena can be just as disappointing as the ordinary politics they sought to overcome, breeding skepticism about democratic politics in all its forms.

In my new book Potentia, I argue that the very meaning of popular power needs to be rethought.[1] The book offers a detailed study of the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza, focusing on their concept of power as potentia, concrete power, rather than power as potestas, authorized power. Specifically, the book’s argument turns on a new interpretation of Hobbesian/Spinozist collective potentia as a capacity that is dynamically constituted in a web of actual human relations. The measure of a collectivity’s potentia will be its actual characteristic effects and outcomes over time. But this means that far from popular power being the inherently egalitarian substrate of human collective existence, on this Hobbesian/Spinozist view popular power is a difficult achievement. Collective power is not necessarily popular, for there may be hostility or hierarchy in the relations between a group’s members. Nor is collective power necessarily particularly powerful, for collective action may only have wavering or evanescent effects. Thus I propose a revisionist characterization of popular power: a political phenomenon can to be said to express popular power when it is both popular (it eliminates oligarchy and encompasses the whole polity), and also powerful (it robustly determines political and social outcomes). Where radical democrats interpret Hobbes’s ‘sleeping sovereign’ or Spinoza’s ‘multitude’ as foundational instances of unmediated popular power, I argue that for both Hobbes and Spinoza, true popular power is achieved through the slow, meticulous work of organizational design and maintenance. Between Hobbes’s commitment to repressing private power and Spinoza’s exploration of civic strengthening, I draw on early modern understandings of popular power to provide a new lens for thinking about the risks and promise of democracy.

Let me say a little more about (i) the motivating problem of the book; (ii) its core textual and conceptual claims; and (iii) its upshot, for early modern political philosophy and for democratic theory.

(i) The motivating problem

I establish my new conception of popular power against the alternatives posed by two broad radical traditions that celebrate popular power: the American public law tradition, and the European post-Marxist tradition.

First, standing as a representative of the American public law tradition, Richard Tuck’s The Sleeping Sovereign revives Hobbesian absolute democracy as a model worthy of our attention in the present.[2] He grants that Hobbes may have disliked democratic government, but Tuck focuses instead on Hobbes’s notion of democracy as a form of absolute sovereignty, with the whole populace speaking its voice through pure non-deliberative plebiscitary voting. Parliaments and congresses can carry out quotidian governance, but from time to time the ‘sleeping sovereign’ should wake up and express the will of ‘we the people’.

Second, standing as a representative of the European post-Marxist tradition, Antonio Negri’s immensely influential EmpireMultitudeCommonwealth series (with Hardt) has popularized a conception of neo-Spinozist radical insurgent democracy.[3] Negri draws on Spinoza’s notion of the ‘multitude’, as the pre- or extra-institutional collective mass of society, as the source of all political power (the ‘potentia multitudinis’). When social movements or protest movements press claims, they actualize a form of democracy more authentic than any authorized representative or institution.

Taking plebiscites and social movements as canonical instances of popular power seems to me to raise many difficulties. I worry about their popularity. Schumpeter gives a sharp characterization of what is wrong, especially with plebiscites: he argues that the people’s will is the product rather than the driver of the political process (consider the famously emotive and misleading advertising in the leadup to the Brexit referendum).[4] Popular movements commonly compete amongst themselves in the public sphere: how can a single side really justify its claim to speak for the demos?

I also worry about the power of canonical instances of popular power. How much influence do plebiscites and social movements have on the day-to-day operation of governance? Furthermore, isn’t it paradoxical to count a polity which is basically oligarchic but occasionally convulsed by popular plebiscitary decision or by mass protest as better expressing the power of the people than a well-ordered polity where the common good is served in a more systematic if more boring way?

In public life, it is common to credit plebiscites and social movements as manifesting the power of the people. When these plebiscites and movements lead to unjust, irrational, or evanescent political outcomes, people may struggle to accommodate their intuitive normative commitments to democracy with the disappointing reality. In my book, I take Schumpeter’s worries seriously, but my response is fundamentally anti-Schumpeterian. Rather than abandoning the very idea of popular power, I put forward a new and better conception.

(ii) The core textual and conceptual claims

The book proceeds by way of a detailed study of the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza: in particular, their respective concepts of power potentia, concrete power, rather than power potestas, authorized power. I agree with radical democrats that these early modern thinkers are relevant for thinking about popular power: but in my argument, this is not because of their support for the radical view, but because of the resources they offer to critique it.

I start by contextualizing the concept of potentia within its overwhelmingly dominant frame of reference in the early modern period: scholasticism. On the scholastic view, a thing’s power identifies its own proper nature. At least in natural entities where free will does not intervene, this nature tends to be expressed for the most part. It offers an explanation of phenomena that is simultaneously descriptive and normative: the natural world is understood as a domain of proper entities endowed with natural and proper tendencies.

In the first half of the book, Chapters 2 through 5, I discuss Hobbes. I argue that Hobbes’s understanding of potentia undergoes a striking development between his early and late works, with significant ramifications for his science of politics. Undeniably, the tumultuous political events of the period during which he was writing would have provided external impetus for shifts in his political analysis; but this book’s contribution is to trace the conceptual transformations within which the shifting political analysis finds its voice. On the early scholastic-influenced view, individual human power potentia is understood as human faculties, which are more or less equal in all adults. Individual humans can properly combine their powers together only as a formal union, because any informal association lacks a unifying principle. This neatly meshes with Hobbes’s juridical theory of state authority potestas, which receives a potentia commensurate to its potestas in virtue of the covenantal combination of individual potentiae. But on the later view, reflecting the new mechanistic science that seeks to eliminate the explanatory appeal to inherent dispositional powers, individual human potentia is understood as whatever means a person may have to pursue their ends, including the assistance or deference of other people. As such, human potentia is relational and actual, and subject to great inequalities. Furthermore, individual human powers can accumulate into relatively stable informal allegiances and social groupings, endowed with their own power, even without any formal union. These private power blocs may sometimes be appealing, but more likely they will be oligarchic and objectionable. The new conception of potentia sits uncomfortably with the juridical theory of absolute state potestas, because in the face of competition from private informal powers in the political domain, the state may not have potentia commensurate to its potestas: call this mismatch ‘the political problem’. The political problem can be solved only by looking beneath the juridical order of potestas to consider the concrete determinants of a stable collective power potentia of the populace.

In the light of Hobbes’s changing understanding of potentia, it becomes easy to see why Tuck’s preferred plebiscitary model of sleeping sovereignty only features in Hobbes’s earlier text, De Cive, and is dropped in Leviathan. First, sovereignty separate from government is likely to have very little power potentia. The real seat of power potentia is the dense circuits of allegiance and deference that structure the quotidian functioning of the society. A sovereign standing separate from this structure but occasionally rising up to issue a ruling can make only a minor impact on the everyday production of effects in society, even if its ruling is respected; but even worse, such a sovereign gravely risks encountering the political problem, as it may find that much of the society has stronger allegiance to the government. Second, the claim of plebiscitary voting to give radical expression to the popular voice is weak: for without addressing the private powers in society, a vote tends to relay those unequal background conditions.

What might solve the political problem? I characterize Hobbes’s proposal as repressive egalitarianism: the common good is achieved by trying to improve the political and moral judgement of the sovereign, and at the same time protecting the sovereign from the distorting pressure of formal and informal power blocs within society. In the face of private power, the appropriate response is to crush it, to break collective formations within the populace in favour of a fragmented equality of all subjects. Hobbes argues that governance will better promote the common good when it takes a less participatory form; he worries that democracy may undermine the common good and lead to division. But if there must be popular political participation, if there must be a democratic assembly as sovereign, then it is especially important to repress informal powers that might seek to capture the democratic process. I characterize Hobbes’s democratic repressive egalitarianism as a certain minimal expression of popular power: it is a durable institutional form that strives to eliminate unequal influence.

In the second half of the book, Chapters 6 through 9, I turn to Spinoza. Spinoza’s concept of power potentia is central to his philosophical system, yet it remains elusive and difficult to characterize. In his magnum opus, the Ethics, the power potentia of any thing is linked to its essence and virtue; in particular, for humans, potentia is linked to ethics. At the same time, potentia appears to relate to a more ordinary meaning of power as efficacy or causality. This combination of normative and descriptive elements is apparently similar to that of scholastic natural science. But applied to human affairs, the combination yields implausible results. The power of the multitude is supposed both to tend towards virtue and also to be efficacious, but surely there are cases where efficacy does not align with virtue. What of the sorry history of human oppression and injustice? Interpreters—whether radical democrats, or equally the more mainstream interpreters whom I will label ‘constitutionalists’—tend to square this circle by echoing Seneca’s dictum that tyrants never last long. They presume that unappealing political regimes will be transient, and claim that democracy is the inner truth of every successful regime.

Rather than defending the alleged rapprochement of efficacy and ethics in Spinoza’s conception of power, to the contrary I explore their divergence. In the face of the democratic complacency of standard interpretations of Spinoza, I press Spinoza’s philosophy for a response to three Hobbesian worries: first, the problem of the multitude’s inner oligarchy; second, the problem of nonideal endurance; and third, the problem of democracy’s perverse effects. Determining Spinoza’s response demands a systematic reconstruction of his concept of power. In fact, I argue that Spinoza has two clearly distinct senses of potentia. On the one hand, there is the power to produce effects (potentia operandi); on the other hand there is the power of acting (potentia agendi): the difference is between an individual producing effects in general, versus an individual producing effects that can be understood through the individual’s own nature. Individuals can have a high degree of potentia operandi despite a low degree of potentia agendi: as, for example, a state under colonial rule, or an irascible individual whose partner calms the other’s outbursts.

Building on this distinction, I offer a systematic reconstruction of Spinoza’s politics that acknowledges its deep antinomianism. An individual’s right and a state’s right are coextensive with their potentia operandi, which is their power of producing effects of whatever sort, for better or for worse. Granted, only in those cases where they act from their own proper power (potentia agendi) alone are they in control of their own right (sui juris). This consideration of being sui juris (both the state itself being sui juris, and individuals within the state being sui juris) constitutes the ethical element of Spinoza’s political philosophy, and it is undeniably important. But my analysis emphasizes that the ethical element is only one component of a larger analysis of political power.

This reconstruction of Spinoza’s politics enables me to argue that Spinoza can and must accept my three Hobbesian problems. I argue that Spinoza accepts the first Hobbesian problem, the problem of the multitude’s inner oligarchy. Potentia operandi is very similar to the late Hobbesian potentia; thus, the Spinozist multitude tends to feature Hobbesian oligarchic informal power blocs. I paint radical democratic Spinozists as neo-scholastics: for they understand the multitude’s active power as a normatively appealing disposition that tends increasingly to express itself through history. But for Spinoza, unlike the scholastics, all power is fully actualized, and a multitude has precisely the degree of power that it expresses at any given time. If a multitude is not horizontal and equal, then it lacks the power to be so. Nor even does the existence of egalitarian and inclusive social movements establish the underlying goodness of the multitude. I argue that an entity’s action is determined by its own active power alone (it is sui juris) when it maintains itself homeostatically. Thus, a multitude’s power sui juris cannot be established by appeal to behaviour shaped by its opposition to the state. A multitude sui juris must have established the forms of self-regulation to maintain itself over time, and this will mean establishing an institutional structure. The multitude sui juris amounts to a Hobbesian state that has solved the political problem: a state that has established a configuration of individual potentiae that can hold itself together over time.

Next, I argue that Spinoza accepts the second Hobbesian problem: the problem of nonideal endurance. Allegedly Spinoza shows that the only durable independent states (the only states that have solved the Hobbesian political problem) are those that have good institutions, fitting with the intuitive desiderata of a normatively appealing democracy. Radical and constitutionalist interpretations alike insist that, for Spinoza as for Seneca, tyrannies never last long: great political power presupposes a deep ethical structure to the political order. To the contrary, I argue that a state can be durable in non-democratic ways, whether due to the stabilizing pressure of external forces, or due to well-crafted internal structures of dependency: the challenge for politics is not only for a state to achieve durability and address the Hobbesian political problem, but to do so in a way that more robustly expresses popular power.

In Chapter 9, I draw together the various argumentative threads of the book to propose a neo-Spinozist criterion of popular power. First, as to power: I propose that a collectivity expresses its power to the degree it is sui juris, or in other words, to the degree it homeostatically maintains itself and produces characteristic effects. Effects that either are produced sporadically or erratically or are produced durably but only due to pressure from an external force (for instance, under the tutelage of a colonial power) attest less to the collective’s own power. Next, as to popularity: I propose that a collectivity’s power counts as popular if it effectively self-regulates itself in accord with a fundamental principle of equality and participation. A collectivity producing hierarchized dependency amongst its members counts to that extent as less popular. What regime might meet this two-part criterion of popular power? I argue that Spinoza takes very seriously the problem of democracy’s perverse effects (the third Hobbesian problem); but whereas the Hobbesian solution is repressive egalitarianism, I characterize Spinoza’s solution as civic strengthening. Hobbes views all collective organization as a force of oligarchy and therefore seeks to individualize the multitude and fragment its collectivities as much as possible. By contrast, Spinoza seeks to encourage sociable and civic collective forms, and diminish the passions that entrench problematic oligarchies. Once the use of egalitarian organizational mechanisms such as sortition breaks the perverse incentives for oligarchic consolidation, the possibility emerges for formal and informal counterpowers to be welcomed as a beneficial part of a political system’s self-regulation.

(iii) The upshot for early modern philosophy and for democratic theory

The book poses a challenge to certain commonplaces in the Hobbes literature. First, the book defends the systemic significance and philosophical appeal of Hobbes’s theory of power (potentia), in contrast to the conventional focus on his theories of rights, duties, authority (potestas), and rational action. Second, the book makes a novel contribution to the lively debate about Hobbes’s relation to democracy, in particular arguing against taking the ‘sleeping sovereign’ as the key to Hobbesian democracy. Third, the book advances a novel characterization of Hobbes’s theoretical development, centring on the gradual elimination of scholastic remnants in his conception of political power.

Beyond the Hobbes literature, the book attempts to dislodge the persistent and often reductive presentation of the relation between Hobbes and Spinoza. Spinozists tend confidently to position Hobbes as the ‘bad guy’ versus Spinoza as the ‘good guy’, or in more scholarly terms, they tend to criticize Hobbes as excessively ‘juridical’, to be saved by Spinoza’s ‘power’ approach. But in my book, I believe they are revealed to have more in common in their conception of politics than is usually granted.

Furthermore, I hope that the substantial view that I develop from Hobbesian and Spinozist resources is valuable for democratic theory. I believe that my new criterion for a political phenomenon to count as an expression of political power provides a solution to my starting puzzle, and promises a way out of disturbing oscillations between faith in and disappointment with democracy. For on the view that the book develops, a formal system of democracy may or may not express popular power; nor do plebiscites or social movements automatically do so. Rather, the degree of popular power in a system depends on its concrete production of egalitarian effects durably over time. Plebiscites and social movements are no longer conceived as definitive or privileged expressions of popular power. Rather, they are viewed as potentially valuable elements within a broader vision of democracy.

Sandra Leonie Field (Yale-NUS College)


[1]  This research was supported by Yale-NUS College (through grant number IG17-SR101).

[2]  Richard Tuck, The Sleeping Sovereign: The Invention of Modern Democracy (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2015), 121–142.

[3]  Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin Press, 2004); Commonwealth (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009).

[4]  Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 3rd ed. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008), 256–328.