New book on Hobbes and Spinoza on Power and Popular Politics

Field, Sandra Leonie (2020): Potentia. Hobbes and Spinoza on Power and Popular Politics, OUP.

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.

New piece on Hobbes: “Leviathan against the city”

Hoye, Jonathon Matthew (2020): Leviathan against the city, in: History of Political Thought, 41 (3), 419-449.


Thomas Hobbes tends to be read through the lens of the nation-state. Recently, historians of urban politics have shown that borough politics were essential elements of the British politics, culminating in the civil wars. The purpose of this article is to contextualize the developments in Hobbes’s political theory within that urban history. Against the widespread interpretation that Hobbes’s theory of the state in Leviathan responds only to the ideology of national popular sovereignty, I argue that it also amounts to an assault on the practices of urban republican politics. To make my case, I triangulate the theory of the state in Leviathan using European ideological, local historical and textual coordinates. This perspective affords new insights into Hobbes’s understanding of democracy, republicanism, popular sovereignty and the state.

Article: The Laughing Body Politic: The Counter-Sovereign Politics of Hobbes’s Theory of Laughter

Patrick T. Giamario: ‘The Laughing Body Politic: The Counter-Sovereign Politics of Hobbes’s Theory of Laughter’, Political Research QuarterlyOnline First (2016).

Abstract: This article turns to Hobbes’s theory of laughter to determine the role collective laughter plays in democratic politics. After examining the political themes in Hobbes’s various accounts of laughter as well as the appearances laughter makes in his political philosophy, I argue that the Hobbesian body politic is a laughing body politic at the moment of its foundation. The individuals who contract with one another to establish a commonwealth perform the same sudden, “vainglorious,” and counter-sovereign political enactment as the laughing individual in Hobbes. This notion of a “laughing body politic” illuminates how Hobbes—the philosophical champion of sovereign power—provides resources for theorizing the counter-sovereign, democratic possibilities of collective laughter today.

Chapter: Hobbes and Frank on Why Democracy is Overrated

Steven Michels: ‘Hobbes and Frank on Why Democracy is Overrated’ in J. Edward Hackett (ed.)  House of Cards and Philosophy: Underwood’s Republic (Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series, 2015).

Abstract: Thomas Hobbes envisioned a “state of nature”, the period before the establishment of civil society, where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. As a remedy, Hobbes preferred a hereditary monarchy. Frank Underwood is Hobbesian to the core. He wants to use the harsh and violent reality of political life to satisfy his desire for power and the glory that comes with it. Democracy, as he sees it, is little more than the state of nature with elections. Frank exploits the inherent shortcomings of democracy on his way to the presidency. The petty partisanship in Washington has led to an Underwood administration, which quickly and not unexpectedly flouts the Constitution. But tyranny is just another word for getting things done. As Underwood puts it, “Democracy is so overrated”.

Article: Jacques Rancière, Thomas Hobbes, and a Politics of the Part that Has No Part

Patrick Craig: ‘Jacques Rancière, Thomas Hobbes, and a Politics of the Part that Has No Part’, Theory & Event, 18, 1 (2015)

Abstract: Jacques Rancière’s political theory is well-known for its emphasis on equality, a non-representative form of democracy, and dissensus. I argue that Rancière’s conception of the demos is prefigured in, of all places, the political theory of Thomas Hobbes. I contend that, contrary to Rancière’s treatment of him as a proponent of parapolitics, Hobbes can be seen to provide a radical theory of democracy, one that places his politics much closer to that of Rancière’s, than the orthodox reading of Hobbes would suggest.