The State: Spinoza's Institutional Turn

In Andre Santos Campos (ed.), Spinoza: Basic Concepts. Imprint Academic. pp. 142-154 (2015)
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The concept of imperium is central to Spinoza's political philosophy. Imperium denotes authority to rule, or sovereignty. By extension, it also denotes the political order structured by that sovereignty, or in other words, the state. Spinoza argues that reason recommends that we live in a state, and indeed, humans are hardly ever outside a state. But what is the source and scope of the sovereignty under which we live? In some sense, it is linked to popular power, but how precisely, and how is this popular grounding to be reconciled with the absolutist elements in Spinoza's texts? Against prominent liberal and radical democratic interpretations, I argue that Spinoza's insistence on linking imperium to the power of the people amounts to a normative attitude towards politics in which the formal features of a political system are less significant than the concrete everyday functioning of that system. Furthermore, I argue that its good functioning is importantly a product of an institutional order which does not simply defer to human individuality or to the primordial multitude, but instead, actively shapes them. While it may be worthwhile railing against monarchy and aristocracy and demanding liberal or radical democracy, the prior and more important challenge is to increase the robustness and resilience of the multitude within whatever form of state presents itself, through boring, meticulous, and incremental institutional design. For Spinoza, it is a robust and resilient political order that truly merits being called absolute.

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Sandra Leonie Field
Monash University


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