Malcolm Bull has written an engaging and refreshing book, ostensibly addressing the work of Nietzsche, but in reality doing much more: using an inverted reading of Nietzsche to shed light on connections and unrealized possibilities in the history of European political thought. In the final chapter of Anti-Nietzsche, Bull applies his negative reading to ‘politics’ in the term’s narrower sense, specifically by endorsing aspects of the Nietzschean understanding of political equality. Theorists of liberal egalitarianism and bourgeois private law claimed to rest their thinking on this doctrine; but Bull, following Nietzsche, points out how limited their understanding actually was. To found politics on the premise that all human beings are equal is to commit to a limitless process of levelling, he writes; the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution would have required elimination of all substantive social advantages, generating equality beyond the merely formal conferral of rights achieved during the anti-aristocratic campaigns of the Jacobins and codification under Napoleon.footnote1 In fact, where even a revolutionary like Babeuf clung to the position of ‘equal shares’ for all, Bull follows Marx in embracing ‘negative community,’ a regime in which ‘each individual, without exclusion or exception, will have equal access to property, but no property rights, either individual or collective, because property, as such, will not exist.’footnote2
Bull celebrates Nietzsche’s conceptual grasp of egalitarianism, but inverts the sense of the Nietzschean critique. Where Nietzsche unequivocally rejected a fundamental and universal equality of human beings, Bull declares himself a fully self-conscious ‘leveller and preacher of equality’. And his egalitarianism is not merely an ethical position, encouraging private charitable dispensations to the needful. For Bull as for Babeuf, any inequality necessarily entails a ‘crime’—an injustice that the political collectivity must expunge. A politics of equality must universalize itself, seeking ‘a shared deprivation for all’. That is, to be a fully self-conscious egalitarian is to be a negative communitarian, who, turning Nietzsche’s words of warning into a positive commitment, ‘makes revolutions and will continue to make them’.footnote3
Bull’s discussion of political equality, with its reasoning by way of Nietzsche, allows a very clear delineation of the contrast between the ‘equality’ of ‘permanent revolution’ and that embedded in a system of private rights and the liberal state that realizes it. Indeed, he claims that the difference is fundamentally one of kind, and not merely of degree. However, at two points he seems to mischaracterize the conceptual borders that separate his negative communitarianism from existing liberal political theory. First, he defines his position against theories of ‘distributive justice’ in general, overriding the thought that negative community might best be treated as one variant of that general category. Second, he claims that negative communitarianism is not a theory of rights—even though, however greatly it may differ in substantive terms from other such theories, it shares their conceptual structure. These moves repay close attention, leading to important—and unresolved—issues in Bull’s negative communitarianism.
Unlike Marx, Bull does not postpone the realization of negative community to a period of post-revolutionary superabundance; and prior to the days of Edenic bounty, society necessarily confronts the ‘economic question’: what individual claims to goods will society recognize and enforce? Negative communitarianism directly answers this question: society will enable each individual to access goods when and as they are needed.footnote4 Bull’s doctrine proposes a standard by which transactions will be deemed just or unjust, and then, presumably, enforced or prohibited by some institution—if not by a state, then by the spontaneous acts of citizen-vigilantes. This theory is at root an account of how individuals can make claims, and of the duties of others to recognize these claims: ‘negative community and permanent revolution offer to the unequal (unproductive individuals, undeveloped classes and peoples alike) access to that on which they might otherwise have no claim.’footnote5 In Bull’s negative community, under pervasive, collectively enforced norms, all members of society observe the duty to honour claims by the needful in their moments of apprehension and consumption of a good. Thus, the theory is centrally concerned with distributive justice.
It seems strange that Bull should oppose his theory to that of ‘distributive justice’ in general.footnote6 It is not, as Bull claims, the absence of ‘exclusivity’ that distinguishes his theory from more conventional egalitarian theories of distributive justice.footnote7 As philosophers have pointed out, the very act of negating a good by consumption necessarily involves making an exclusive claim on it.footnote8 For example, even if a foodstuff can be divided to accommodate the caloric needs of several people, each consumed portion will have been rendered exclusively the use-thing of its consumer once it has been chewed, digested and excreted. Use negates it as a foodstuff, and thus as a good to be shared, claimed or used. Use is exclusive, and insofar as use is sanctioned under a shared system of norms—as one would expect to be the case in any community—the consumer’s collectively sanctioned use is necessarily an exclusive claim made upon a good. Rather than saying that negative community sanctions no exclusive claims on goods, Bull more correctly could have stated that unlike in other regimes of distributive justice—for example, regimes of bourgeois private law—exclusive claims on goods are sanctioned only when effected by the act of negating the good in needful consumption.
The existence of such exclusive claims contradicts Bull’s statement that negative community acknowledges ‘equal access to property but no property rights . . . because property as such will not exist.’footnote9 There is a prima facie contradiction in this pronouncement: how can there be ‘equal access to property’ when ‘property as such’ does not exist? The statement turns on the contrast of ‘property’ and ‘property as such’, the former referring to goods that an active and social human being apprehends, uses or consumes, the latter referring to the institution that enforces exclusionary claims of an individual to the ownership of a good, under the aegis of which individuals in bourgeois societies appropriate, use or consume, and alienate ‘their’ goods. With the abolition of the institution of property, Bull seems to imply, individuals will be universally unable to appropriate goods. The negative community will recognize no proprietary claim to use or exclude others from a good on the basis of anything other than need.
But while negative community is vastly different from the property regimes with which we might be familiar, it is a property regime nonetheless. The banishment of ‘property rights’ and ‘property as such’ from the negative community is conceptually suspect. According to the canonical theorization of legal conceptual categories, where one individual is encumbered with a duty to observe the claim of a second, the second’s claim is by definition a claim of right: the second is said to bear a ‘right’ correlative to the duty on the first.footnote10 Bull’s doctrine of ‘equal access’ or ‘each according to need’ differs radically from the classical doctrines of property right—whether in common law in England and America, or as developed in the post-Enlightenment codes in continental Europe—in the way it locates rightful claims and duties. But for all his resistance to the label, it is a theory of rights, and insofar as it concerns claims to the use of inanimate goods, like land and chattels, it is an alternative theory of property rights.