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 expression 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.
Potentia argues that the very meaning of popular power needs to be rethought. It 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 potentia as a capacity that is dynamically constituted in a web of actual human relations. This means that a group’s potentia reflects any hostility or hierarchy present in the relations between its members. There is nothing spontaneously egalitarian or good about human collective existence; a group’s power deserves to be called popular only if it avoids oligarchy and instead durably establishes its members’ equality. Where radical democrats interpret Hobbes’ “sleeping sovereign” or Spinoza’s “multitude” as the classic formulations of unmediated popular power, Sandra Leonie Field argues that for both Hobbes and Spinoza, conscious institutional design is required in order for true popular power to be achieved. Between Hobbes’ commitment to repressing private power and Spinoza’s exploration of civic strengthening, Field draws on early modern understandings of popular power to provide a new lens for thinking about the risks and promise of democracy.