Potentia: Hobbes and Spinoza on Power and Popular Politics

New York, NY, USA: Oxford University Press (2020)
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This book offers a detailed study of the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza, focussing on their concept of power as potentia, concrete power, rather than power as potestas, authorised power. The focus on power as potentia generates a new conception of popular power. Radical democrats–whether drawing on Hobbes's 'sleeping sovereign' or on Spinoza's 'multitude'–understand popular power as something that transcends ordinary institutional politics, as for instance popular plebsites or mass movements. However, the book argues that these understandings reflect a residual scholasticism which Hobbes and Spinoza ultimately repudiate. Instead, on the book's revisionist conception, a political phenomenon should be said to express popular power when it is both popular (it eliminates oligarchy and encompasses the whole polity), and also powerful (it robustly determines political and social outcomes). Two possible institutional forms that this popular power might take are distinguished: Hobbesian repressive egalitarianism, or Spinozist civic strengthening. But despite divergent institutional proposals, the book argues that both Hobbes and Spinoza share the conviction that there is nothing spontaneously egalitarian or good about human collective existence. From this point of view, the book accuses radical democrats of pernicious romanticism; the slow, meticulous work of organizational design and maintenance is the true centre of popular power. Three minute video summary available via HPBin3. Extended discussion on The Political Theory Review podcast. First chapter open access available via Oxford Scholarship Online. Videos of book talks at National University of Singapore (Centre for Legal Theory) and Universidad de Buenos Aires (Instituto de Investigaciones Gino Germani) available via YouTube. (See links below.)

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Sandra Leonie Field
Monash University


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