By Sandra Leonie Field
Author: Sandra Leonie Field (Assistant Professor of Humanities, Yale-NUS College, Singapore)
Reference: Potentia: Hobbes and Spinoza on Power and Popular Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. 336pp. ISBN: 9780197528242
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. 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. Where radical democrats interpret Hobbes’ “sleeping sovereign” or Spinoza’s “multitude” as the classic formulations of unmediated popular power, I argue 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, I draw on early modern understandings of popular power to provide a new lens for thinking about the risks and promise of democracy.