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  • Potentia: Hobbes and Spinoza on Power and Popular Politics by Sandra Leonie Field
  • Justin Steinberg
Sandra Leonie Field. Potentia: Hobbes and Spinoza on Power and Popular Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 336. Paperback, $29.95.

The driving question behind Sandra Leonie Field's exciting new book, Potentia, is: what, exactly, constitutes popular power? Field turns to two seventeenth-century political theorists, Thomas Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza, to try to extract an account that might avoid Joseph Schumpeter's dismal conclusion that we should abandon all pretenses to popular power. In the process, she exposes problems with recent populist interpretations of Hobbes and Spinoza, showing that both of these figures appreciated the problems with identifying plebiscites with popular power better than their "radical" interpreters. The result is a rich and stimulating work on a topic—namely, power—that remains somewhat undertheorized, at least in mainstream Anglophone political philosophy.

The first part of the book advances a reading of Hobbes's evolving conception of power. Chapter 2 traces the changes in Hobbes's conception of power (as potentia) from his earlier works (e.g. Elements of Law, De Cive), where he takes it to be an internal capacity, to his later conception (e.g. in Leviathan), where he conceives of it as efficacy. Chapter 3 deals with Hobbes's juridical conception of power, or potestas. Here too Field discerns a shift in Hobbes's analysis. In the earlier writings, only formal collectives—that is, those in which the wills of many have combined into a juridical union—have potestas and, in turn, potentia; consequently, informal collectives do not threaten sovereign authority. But by the time he wrote Leviathan, Hobbes came to appreciate the gap between juridical authority [potestas] and efficacy [potentia], leading him to worry about the ways in which informal collectives can threaten sovereign right, which requires both authority and efficacy (see chapter 4). [End Page 343] Chapter 5 explores Hobbes's mature solution to the threat posed by a disunited multitude, adopting a system of "repressive egalitarianism" whereby the sovereign seeks to quash spontaneous associations and prevent the ascension of excessively influential individuals.

While much of this account strikes me as original and compelling, I have some reservations about whether Hobbes's changing conception of power explains as much as Field suggests. Consider her case against Richard Tuck's "sleeping sovereign" interpretation (in The Sleeping Sovereign: The Invention of Modern Democracy [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016]), according to which Hobbes takes the true and ultimate sovereign to be the people, who "awaken" in crucial moments to wrest power from the everyday governors and to reassert their supreme authority. Field's response is that, in virtue of the fact that in the later writings right requires efficacy, the people cannot be said to hold sovereign right since they do not actively exercise power. However, it is not obvious to me that by conceiving of potentia as efficacy Hobbes has really forsaken the notion of power as capacity. Even one who thinks that power is an activity can meaningfully speak about dispositions or capacities (e.g. the bomb would have destroyed the building, had it been detonated). Moreover, Field herself notes that the later Hobbes himself allows for dispositional properties (52). That being the case, it is not evident that by conceiving of power as efficacy Hobbes excludes the possibility of the people possessing dispositional power.

Nor need one be the immediate efficient cause of effects in order to exercise causal power. I can exercise power over my car even when I am not operating the gas, brake, or steering wheel (imagine that it is rolling downhill at precisely the desired speed or is on cruise control), provided that I could change things if the velocity or direction were not to my liking. I see no reason, then, simply on account of his view of potentia, that the later Hobbes could not allow that the people possess ultimate sovereign right in a similar counterfactual sense: if the immediate executors were governing in deeply undesirable ways, the people could assert their power. This is not to defend Tuck's interpretation; it is simply to note that the...


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