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.