Online Colloquium (2): MacMillan 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 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.


For 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.

In 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.

It’s 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.

The 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.

From 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).

The 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.

For 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.

As 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).

Her 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).

So, 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).

Indeed, 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.

If 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.

This 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.

There 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 Antwerp)