Helfrich’s Common Cause: But No Consensus on Consensus

Silke Helfrich talks on the Commons at SEES, 21 March 2013

On 21 March 2013, I attended a talk at SEES by Silke Helfrich, entitled “A world that works for everyone”, coorganised by the School of Commoning and the Green Party.

I found the evening intellectually stimulating, but not, alas, intellectually rewarding. For sure, the ideal of a common ownership, both as a critique of individual property rights-talk and as a counterculture in German communes, was sketched; but the ideas lacked rigorous underpinning. Perhaps this was partly a consequence of the stated expectation of the speaker that the audience was already familiar with the emerging canons of “commoning” literature. Yet when I sought to rectify my own deficit in comprehension during the discussion period I was left more troubled by inconsistency in key notions used by Helfrich.

I had a particular problem with Helfrich’s articulation of the ideal of “consensus”, which was a recurring theme in her talk. Consensus was characterised by Helfrich as “the finding of a solution which everybody accepts”. As such, consensus was prioritised as an end or goal to which persons in ideal communal spaces should aim, in particular, when making or seeking to make decisions. I also put it to Helfrich, and she concurred, that “to accept” did not mean “to agree”. In what then did such supposed “consensus” consist? It would hardly do to say, on some important matter of principled disagreement, for example, ”Let’s just agree to disagree,” as a way of confecting consensus. However, nor would it do to say, “If you don’t agree with us, please think again, until you reach the desired conclusion.” Such pretences at consensus-seeking were quite consistent with either a tryranny of the majority or with an oppressive power-relation. Think, at the limit, of a scenario, all too infamous, of a UK intelligence bureau being told by SPADs, on behalf of ministers hell-bent on war, to “go back to the drawing board with your intelligence information”. Until you reach the desired conclusion.

No, I think Helfrich’s championing of consensus, as if at all costs, was fatally wanting as a regulative ideal. My desire to uncover this conceptual problem, and to help us to collectively answer it, was also frustrated by an interlocutor or two who seemed assured that I was obviously missing the point. “She doesn’t mean by everybody what you mean by everybody!” one disciple retorted. Well, I certainly did mean, everybody, not just people that it is easy to seek agreement with, but with those one might choose to want to persuade or to be persuaded by.

Another interloctor railed that she had expertise in consenus-building and so was a better authority on the subject. Yet, I had deliberately not appealed to such ad hominem argument from authority.

Another interlocutor confirmed my own incredulity when Helfrich answered that the consensus-building framework was not a moral one. “But how can that be, you posited a system of fairness. What is fairness if not moral?”

A closer examination of the ideal of consensus was required, and needs to be attempted, before characterising it as a model of communal decision-making. By my lights, it’s nothing short of wishful to suppose that consensus always accords with collectively right; and incoherent, if not potentially dangerous, to suppose that there’s no right to be had in the first place.

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