The Power of Democracy: Spinoza on Collective Action
15 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 2 Oct 2009
Date Written: 2009
In recent years a new (or refound) interest in Spinoza as a classical philosophical thinker has emerged that might lead to a re-evaluation of his role in the history of Western thought. It has also become clear that this “New Spinoza” is an important and fascinating figure for contemporary political theory. Among the most relevant features of Spinoza’s writing for political theory is his fundamental or ontological theory of power on the one hand and his highly original (and in the context of early modernity definitely rather radical) perspective on democracy on the other hand. The timeliest motive might lie in the point of intersection of the two, i.e. in Spinoza’s thinking of democracy and democratic politics through power.
My aim in this paper is to sketch out some of Spinoza’s views on politics and to offer some reflections on the lessons contemporary political theory might draw from “political Spinozism”. I will, first, give an overview of Spinoza’s theory of power and try to make plausible why such a line of thinking has proven attractive for 20th century political or social philosophy. I will then, second, comment on the most important contemporary (and mainly Neo-Marxist) political interpretation of Spinoza. I will, third, give a short overview of Spinoza’s controversial discussion of democracy, and fourth, try to argue that this historical episode might provide important suggestions for current debates on democratic governance, political change and forms of self-government. Spinoza’s thinking of the multitude presents an alternative vision of democratic agency that can be easily linked to current debates about democratic legitimacy and “radical democracy”.
Keywords: Spinoza, power, democracy, multitude
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