The Concept of the Social: Scepticism, Idleness and Utopia 
by Malcolm Bull.
Verso, 243 pp., £16.99, October 2021, 978 1 84467 293 6
Show More
Show More

You never know​ what Malcolm Bull will come up with next. He is the least predictable of authors, as well as one of the most versatile. What other political theorist can write about Zoroastrianism, the Book of Enoch, medieval prophecy, the perception of colour, animal magnetism and the politics of sleep? There is scarcely a major philosopher from Heraclitus to Martha Nussbaum whose work Bull hasn’t made inventive use of, though Freud is a curious absence. He is formidably erudite, yet writes modest, lucid prose. By trade he is an art historian, though only two of his full-length studies reveal the fact. One is The Mirror of the Gods (2005), a superb account of classical mythology in Renaissance art; the other is Inventing Falsehood, Making Truth (2013), a study of Vico and Neapolitan art in which, unusually, his theoretical and artistic interests converge.

Almost all of Bull’s studies are utopian, in an oblique, offbeat way. In the spirit of Marx, you must see the future as in a glass darkly so as not to make a fetish of it. Even so, Bull combines a keenly analytical mind with a visionary impulse. In Seeing Things Hidden (2000), after a brilliant disquisition on the concept of hiddenness, he redefines the concept of apocalypse as what happens when a social order built on hierarchy and opposition opens itself up to the contradictory and undifferentiated. Chaos, ambiguity and multiple identities surge from the margins of civilisation to the centre. If the modern age is apocalyptic, it is because, in Bull’s view, that’s what is happening right now.

It is a strikingly original move within apocalypse studies, though the idea of inclusiveness is all too familiar. It’s a mantra of postmodernism, and raises as many questions as it answers. Why clamour to be part of a set-up you regard as unjust? Perhaps because it might be made more just by your being part of it; but this is true only of some acts of inclusion, not all. Granting workers the kind of power currently enjoyed by CEOs would be revolutionary, but having a zoophile on every committee won’t bring the New Jerusalem any closer. Assimilating more people may be a way of extending the sway of the system, not of transforming it. Anyway, when it comes to allowing serial child abusers to become schoolteachers, Sam Goldwyn’s legendary cry of ‘Include me out!’ has a point. Who decides who is to be included? And if marginality is a productive as well as painful place to be, why be so eager to abandon it?

Seeing Things Hidden, however, is not just interested in dismantling distinctions, but sees this as laying the ground for a new system. Bull differs in this respect from Derrida, who lurks somewhere behind this book but who finds system and commitment too restrictive. He prefers things to be fuzzy and indeterminate, a view that despite his Rive Gauche glamour he shares with many suburban liberals. For Bull, however, it does not follow from the fuzziness of the world that our commitments should be fuzzy. On the contrary, being true to that ambiguity demands a definite kind of politics. He prefers ignorance to knowledge and the uncertain to the exact, but his mild-mannered arguments culminate in emphatically radical conclusions. His sober, self-effacing prose leads the reader through a series of intricate theoretical inquiries until the trap is suddenly sprung and one is faced with the most provocative claims: chaos and tumult are to be applauded; the more nihilistic the world grows, the better; we need less sense and more nonsense; we should care less about justice and more about mercy; the problem with market societies is not that they are corrupt but that they are not corrupt enough.

Postmodern theory is really a footnote to Nietzsche, who lies behind the conviction that truth is constructed rather than discovered, that the self is a fiction and that the world is no way in particular. His work may not be all the rage in the senior common rooms, but it has managed to permeate an entire culture, most of whose members have never heard of him. Before it could do this, however, it had to be stripped of its obnoxious politics, a project carried out some years ago by leftist Parisian thinkers like Gilles Deleuze. This made it possible to talk about Nietzsche’s epistemology without mentioning his zeal for extermination. Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche (2011) is, among other things, a riposte to this gentrification. It is true that the creator of the Superman was largely opposed to German nationalism, antisemitism and the power of the state, which makes it hard to claim him unequivocally for the Nazi camp. But these reservations, Bull points out, ‘would not necessarily have extended to cataclysmic war, mass extermination, the renewal of slavery and the breeding of a master race’.

How to undo this malevolent influence? Bull’s approach is typically devious. Rather than breaking the news that breeding a master race is a bad idea, he takes issue with Nietzsche’s idea of value – not the most obviously political aspect of his thought. Nietzsche is a scourge of nihilism, defined as whatever strikes him as otherworldly and life-denying. This includes a large slice of history from Christianity to Immanuel Kant. In another sense, however, he is a nihilist himself, convinced that there is no inherent meaning or value in the world. The Superman is the one who can accept this frightful truth with a snarl of defiance, turning the futility of human existence into an opportunity to create his own values.

Anti-Nietzsche seeks to extend nihilism, not to argue against it. The best strategy is to outflank your political adversary, appropriating his terms and pushing them to a point where they can be turned against him. Nietzsche sees the Will to Power as filling the world with value, but always at the expense of the losers. All value is rooted in exploitation, a process Nietzsche is eager to see intensified. All documents of civilisation are also records of barbarism. Bull’s response is to sabotage what Nietzsche sees as precious by spreading nihilism as far as it will go. If Nietzsche celebrates the superhuman, then we must affirm the subhuman, which from Nietzsche’s viewpoint includes poverty, equality, democracy and socialism. This is a revolution which knows no limit, since it continually incorporates all those judged inferior. We are speaking of a ‘politics of failure’, whereby the wretched of the earth embrace the negative value their rulers assign them, finding in it a new form of identity. And just as value is for the most part the creation of our rulers, so is meaning. This, too, must be diminished, letting some of the sense seep out of the world so that what is currently judged to be nonsense may take its place.

In his next work, On Mercy (2019), Bull looks more closely at the way ruling power is maintained, and in his idiosyncratic way finds the answer in the concept of mercy. Power survives not by an appeal to rights, justice or age-old principles but by leniency – by not exercising its force as brutally as it could. Without such forbearance there would be constant violence and rebellion. Mercy is the condition of doing politics at all, which is the reason it would be unwise of the government to detonate a nuclear weapon over Leeds. ‘The acceptability of power,’ Bull writes, ‘derives not from any agreement or explanation or argument or myth, but from the simple fact that it is not exercised to the full.’ One thinks of Shakespeare’s 94th sonnet, which opens with the line: ‘They that have power to hurt and will do none’. As the poem unfolds, this turns out to be less admirable than one might have imagined, since Shakespeare’s praise of his friend’s reticence is really a cunning ploy to keep him out of trouble. Neither is power to be congratulated on its self-restraint. Mercy is not a moral virtue, simply part of the way dominion operates.

But what secures sovereignty, as Bull sees it, is also its potential undoing. If power works simply by letting us off the hook, there is no reason its victims should not try to overthrow it, since there are no deep-seated principles or metaphysical sanctions to make them hesitate. In any case, the powerful need to show mercy, but the powerless do not. They are merciless because they are in no position to show mercy. And since acts of clemency lessen the force of authority, they strengthen the position of the weak. In this sense, power shows an inherent bias towards the interests of those it governs, and mercy can be seen as a potentially revolutionary force.

It is an ingenious case, though some of it is fairly hard to credit. Bull does not mean that people accept state power because they are grateful not to be hanged for stealing a bar of soap. He means that you need look no further for the reason nations are not plunged into ceaseless internal warfare than the fact that those who govern do less harm than they might. In a quietly dramatic move, the usual leftist case about hegemony, ideology, the securing of legitimacy and so on is swept aside. Yet if mercy is simply the precondition of politics, and its opposite is warfare, there remains a space between the two in which people’s day-by-day consent to be governed must be won; and the reason citizens collude in their own oppression go further than the knowledge that their masters don’t habitually roll out the tanks. We need also to take account of David Hume, who writes rather surprisingly that ‘force is always on the side of the governed,’ meaning that governments stay in power on the back of public opinion. For Bull, by contrast, the survival of the state is not a question of opinion, or even perhaps of thought, on the part of its citizens. Consciousness doesn’t really come into it. People don’t have to know that they could be wiped out overnight by their own rulers; they just have to live their lives in the peaceable condition that results from this not happening. What also seems suspect about Bull’s case is the claim that power tends ultimately to benefit the powerless, a belief he arrives at through the Aristotelian concept of equity. Equity means adjusting the principles of justice to fit the peculiar facts of a case, and this, Aristotle believes, inclines the law to lenience. Since the law will incorporate this act as a precedent, it will become more and more merciful as it evolves, until in Bull’s view the distinction between justice and mercy will be abolished and the latter will take over from the former.

One wonders how mercy is not to make a mockery of justice. Paradise Lost wrestles with this problem in its portrayal of God, whose apparently harsh decrees must not be invalidated by the merciful action of his son. Portia in The Merchant of Venice appeals to mercy in order to defend a clubbish ruling class against the just demands of an odious outsider. Lowly figures like Shylock need legal contracts because they would be foolish to rely on the whimsical largesse of their superiors. The Christians in the play see this as heartless, but they can afford to. In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare puts the equity-as-leniency case into the mouth of Isabella, but in a way that may be intended to discredit it.

Another problem is that equity does not always lead to mercy. Understanding someone’s action in all its unique complexity may result in judging them more severely. It is true that the moral judgments of a liberal like George Eliot tend to be generous-hearted, even though she sees the realist novel as exemplifying this form of understanding. But the more acerbic Jane Austen writes in Persuasion that the death of Dick Musgrove was a stroke of good fortune for his parents. It is the same with empathy: why should knowing how someone feels be a reason for compassion rather than condemnation? Bull briefly considers the possibility that equity may not always result in soft-heartedness, but passes over it without argument.

There is more to mercy, however, than maintaining social order. In Bull’s view, there is a sense in which it actually constitutes society. Sociability is the capacity for mercy. Measure for Measure considers this possibility too: if justice is simply an endless tit for tat in which everyone is in principle both accuser and condemned, why not flip this sterile circuit over into one of mercy and mutual forgiveness? (One implicit answer in the play is: because there are people around like the cynical Lucio, who need to be kept firmly in line.) You then have an improvised form of sociable anarchy that works without contract or convention, and seems truer to the shapeless, indeterminate nature of society than conventions are.

It is this topic that Bull takes up at the start of his new collection of essays, The Concept of the Social. In his usual perverse style, he begins by making a case for scepticism – not in the sense of doubting whether we can know anything, but in the political sense of challenging the apparent inevitability of the forces that control our lives. Political scepticism refuses to acknowledge the givenness of the social world, rather as an individual sceptic doubts the solidity of reality. Because the social world is constructed, this sceptical stance can be transformative. You can ‘make less’ of society, in the sense of questioning its apparently inexorable laws; and if enough people do this it can make a difference, in a way that questioning the existence of marmalade doesn’t. You need to loosen things up, weaken their force, inject more uncertainty into our knowledge, so as to bring the world into line with our experience of it as ambiguous and contingent.

Bull draws here on Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, which distinguishes between the public realm of laws and institutions and ‘the social’, by which she means social relations in modern mass society. In Arendt’s opinion, the public realm has collapsed, leaving social relations adrift and unfounded. External obligations exert less pressure on the alienated men and women of our time than they traditionally did. Bull, as one might expect, turns this logic on its head. Arendt’s ‘social’ – a state as free as possible from strict conventions and external powers – is exactly what we should aim for. We need to make more of an allowance for the contingency of things. The world is always one way or another, but there may be some way for it to be that better reflects the fact that there is no special way for it to be. As in the case of mercy, we should try to make up social life as we go along, appealing less and less to laws and principles.

In another essay here, Bull shows that Machiavelli regards corruption as sometimes leading to tumults which can mobilise the common people and renew political institutions. The power of the rulers is ‘softened up’, and a transition to a more inclusive politics becomes possible. Critics of the market state see it as corrupt, but Bull predictably takes the opposite view: if Machiavelli is right, it is not corrupt enough. Idleness, for Machiavelli, is a major cause of corruption in premodern societies, and Bull wants to see more of it in non-stop modern capitalism, which has reduced sleeping time from ten to six and a half hours in little more than a century. ‘Sleep,’ he writes, ‘has emerged as the last remaining obstacle to the triumph of capitalism.’ We need a social order in which everyone could be asleep at the same time without its making any difference. The reason we can’t all live together is that we are awake.

Despite their diversity, it is possible to discern a figure in the carpet of Bull’s books. They are all about what one might call lessness: the emancipatory power of weakness, failure, diminishment, devaluing and loosening up. They are thought experiments whose aim is to leave the world poorer but more honest. We should embrace contradictions, turn from general principles to ad hoc procedures and cast a sceptical eye on external social powers. In cathartic spirit, we must reduce the inflated amount of meaning in the world and let in a whiff of nonsense. All this involves the recurrent device of plucking the positive from the negative, or turning an unpromising situation to one’s own advantage. Seeing Things Hidden seeks to dismantle binary oppositions in order to release what they suppress as inferior, while Anti-Nietzsche pits a democratic form of nihilism against Nietzsche’s haughtily exclusive one. On Mercy sees mercy as a negation or withholding at the core of political power, but also as the ground of a transformed politics. In a similar way, The Concept of the Social converts Arendt’s gloomy vision of a world shorn of traditional obligations into a more positive kind of politics. Even Bull the art historian puts in a word for such shifts of outlook: The Mirror of the Gods contrasts the emotionally demanding business of Christian art with classical mythologies which ‘were easy on the eye and allowed you to relax’. Bull’s prose style is easy enough on the eye, but this is not a book to take to the beach. Like the rest of his output, its clarity is deceptive, concealing arguments which are either hard to digest or difficult to swallow. He is not interested in growth, in most senses of the word, and the way he writes reflects this asceticism. It is a style for our times.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences