Spinoza's defence of democracy
In the Theologico-Political Treatise and the Political Treatise, Spinoza offers a thoroughly original argument in favour of democracy. At the beginning of his discussion of his discussion of an ideal state (although the same applies to all states, including the state of nature, a conceptual time before political communities)1, he says that 'every individual has sovereign right to do all that he can ; in other words, the rights of an individual extend to the utmost of limits of his power as it has been conditioned'. An individual hence has the right to do whatever he both has a desire to do, and holds the power to do; the only forbidden actions are those no-one is inclined to do, as these actions are un-natural. Everyone has the right to act as their nature tells them, so a powerful man has the right to dominate others as a fish has the right to swim.
It follows that the state of nature is a state of fear for even the most powerful man, as a multitude of weaker men could combine to overcome him; hence, men always esteeming the lesser of two evils, states are formed to provide men with their ultimate goal, peace of mind and security. However, by reaching an agreement with the sovereign power, men do not alienate their ultimate right of resistance to it, and they are bound to obey its commands for only so long as its power (by favours or threats) is capable of subduing them. The sovereign power being nothing more than the aggregate natural rights of the component citizens invested in some constitutional arrangement, the strength of this arrangement consists in the allegiance of the subjects to it. They only obey the sovereign power while induced to do so by its threats or promises.
An attempt to act contrary to the laws of the sovereign will result in an individual being declared an enemy of the people, but if the sovereign power can be overthrown by force (presumably by a large multitude of the citizens) and a new arrangement constructed, then the sovereign power passes on.
This is the political background to Spinoza's conception of the state, from which it can be seen that democracy is the form of government which will rule with the greatest fidelity to the wishes of the subjects. Spinoza is keen above all to replicate in civil society the equality that exists in the state of nature, and in a democracy no citizen has any advantages vis-à-vis one another, and all are equal in their submission to the laws of the sovereign.
The crucial point in a democracy is that all who are not criminals, delinquents, children or women also have a direct say in the laws which are established, and hence should theoretically be all the more attached to them. The first obvious question to be raised is what becomes of the excluded, for criminals are a destabilizing force (which the Utopians of More solved by forcing them into slavery); but they are surely anyway enemies of the people and therefore can be engaged by the laws of war, even though Spinoza makes it sound in the Political Treatise as if they are merely excluded from the political process.
As for women, they surely influence their husbands in diverse ways, as Spinoza admits, and they exercise a force and therefore right over him: a wife can poison a hated husband even though she can't overcome him by physical force, or influence him in other diverse and less severe ways. Hence it seems women influence the sovereign through their actions towards husbands in the private sphere.
Spinoza's rejection of both the Platonic and the Aristotelian position on decision-making also seems as if it could end in the ruin of the state (and hence liberty as Spinoza understands it). For all citizens have a say in decisions on peace and war (whereas the Ancients invested these, along with other decisions, in an elite) and all share the same disincentives towards opting for the latter; but if this makes the state timid and unwilling to go on the offensive, it risks subjugation from a militant aristocratic society which does not value the lives of its citizens as highly.
Nor can every citizen be expected to know the public business thoroughly when he must also regard his own private affairs, whereas full-time statesmen can (although admittedly they may prefer to prejudice public business for their private interests) devote their time to the interest of the state. As the preservation of the state is the highest goal for Spinoza, the possible inferiority in prudence of a democratic state is worth considering. Spinoza however dismisses this matter as merely the prejudice of wealth and power, and does not directly address earlier arguments advanced against it by, for instance, Cicero and Aristotle. However, Spinoza's justification of democracy comes from a different logical standpoint, stemming from his understanding of metaphysics and liberty.
The metaphysics of freedom
The definition of a 'fool or madman' complicates things further, for he is defined as one who 'can by no rewards or threats be induced to execute orders' given by the sovereign, and hence is also an enemy of the dominion. This seems to be a situation highly inconsistent with the freedom of the individual until we examine Spinoza's conception of liberty.
First we must look at his metaphysics. To Spinoza, God is synonymous with nature, and the causal actions of objects in the natural world, including human beings – God can hence be understood less as an abstract deity and more as the concept of fate. Man, as a 'speck' in the natural order of things, exercises his own reason to advance his own good, but does so in the face of a natural order which is at best indifferent and possibly actively hostile. Man experiences alienation from the rest of the natural world to the extent that he does not understand the cosmic order of things and hence is not working in harmony with it.
By contrast, joy comes from attuning the mind to have a rational appreciation of the cosmic order of things, and hence to appreciate the nature of God and fate. A complete appreciation, though, can never be reached, as the ultimate nature of God is unknowable; it would involve nothing less than a complete appreciation of every aspect of an interwoven nature. The question remains how man can achieve freedom in a world of blind fate, which is the natural order of things.
Freedom and reason
The answer places Spinoza in the centre of the those thinkers who advocate the rationalist theory of freedom, placing him in sharp distinction to Hobbes who rather believed in negative rights. Freedom for Spinoza consists in an active desire to exercise reason (due to the joy of the love of God, or fate), and so does not consist in being left alone, but in following a rational program of political life on which men would naturally agree, human nature being the same. This is only possible in a state, where each man gains more power with respect to nature so long as he abides by the common law. A combination of people acting together are better able to influence the world than one man acting alone.
Only by combining under a sovereign power, which is greater than each of its individual parts, can a man act rationally and hence achieve his full nature. This diverges sharply from Hobbes, for whom reason is simply the handmaiden of the desires. As a democratic state is the type most likely to act rationally in advancing the good of all its constituent parts, it is most consonant with human liberty and nature, as it is in the nature of man to live rationally, that is to aim for his own good. In a democratic state, it is thought that reason will best prevail in the councils of state, due to the multitude of people meeting and deciding on matters, as it is easier to convince a small group of people that an irrational cause is a good idea than a huge multitude.
Furthermore, as reason counsels that the state needs to be preserved for men to attain peace and security (which all desire), a democratic state is favourable as it has the best chance of incorporating the views of the whole citizenry into the laws and hence increasing the chance of stability. Even the monarchy which Spinoza somewhat sardonically describes in the Political Treatise is essentially a democracy, with the king totally at the mercy of the people, not able to exercise any force on his own; although he is the sovereign power in name, he relies on the tacit consent of a multitude capable of overpowering him. Any state which does not rationally advance the good of all its constituent parts is not consonant with liberty, being rather a state of slavery in which subjects are forced to abide by laws not devised for their own good.
1. Some state of nature theorists posit scenarios which are clearly ahistorical and serve merely as conceptual tools. Thomas Hobbes readily admits that his state of nature never existed. However, it is much easier to imagine Spinoza's state of nature as historical, as it involves a gradual coalescence of power relationships which could have evolved in stages. As with Hegel, it could begin with a master/slave relationship when one man chooses servitude over death after a battle, or in a small band of men forming for their common protection and gradually expanding their influence and power. For an interesting comparison, see the 'Hegel-Kojève' explanation of the origin of states in Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Penguin, 1992).