Consensus, Sensus Communis, Community

Maddalena Cerrato
Texas A&M University

Volume 10, 2016

Thinking through democracy and its aporias; taking democracy over and beyond the limits of its identification with the representative mechanism of parliamentary regimes; imagining the journey of democracy on the path toward its own democratization, these are the tasks left behind by the irreversible crisis of traditional Marxist categories. What is at stake in such tasks is the thinking of the gap between today’s democratic political forms – or self-identifying as forms – and democracy as a principle of political practice that ultimately aims towards the end of domination tout court, that is, toward the exhaustion of any form of human’s dominion over human.

Due to the considerable fortune of the expression “Washington Consensus”, the use of which extended well beyond the meaning its creator intended to give it, the term “consensus” has generally been linked with the policies associated with neoliberalism and its implementation in the so-called developing countries (in particular, in Latin American and Caribbean countries) led by international financial institutions in the 1990s.[1] From such a link, and by extension, the term “consensus” has also been used to refer to the general acceptance of the neoliberal vulgate as the common-sense way to understand world reality and macroeconomic mechanisms. In this sense, and only in this sense, consensus has been the object of harsh critique from the contemporary left. On the other hand, lately, the reference to consensuality has become a topos for the leftwing political debate on the possibilities of radical forms of democracy. This is in general related to the vexata quaestio about the grounds of political community, but it also needs to be understood with reference to the wide interest in Antonio Gramsci’s writing and, in particular, the interest in the notion of hegemony, crucial for post-Marxist debate and enhanced by the resonance of the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe.

The triad of the title – Consensus, Sensus Communis, Community- seeks to capture the range of implications of the question of consensus within the philosophical and political debate of the contemporary left. In what follows, I argue the need for critical philosophical engagement with the question of consensus to challenge the common assumption of consensuality as the ultimate horizon of thinking for democratic thought, that is, to challenge the ideological overlapping between consensuality and democratic legitimation. The ultimate aim is to take a step forward on the way to an alternative thinking of democracy that moves away from consensus as ultimate source of legitimation and toward a posthegemonic democratization. I will argue that such a thinking of democracy can but start from an infrapolitical stance, from an infrapolitical reflection, beyond any form of political subjectivism and hegemonic conceptualization of the political.

Accepting Max Weber’s premise that “Domination is the probability that a command with a specific content will be obeyed by a given group of persons,” (53) consensus would appear to be a device of domination instead of an alternative to it. In a sinister passage from his Contributions to Philosophy of the Event, Martin Heidegger suggests a notion of double sovereignty, which gives a powerful insight into the query I am pursuing:

Sovereignty over the masses who have become free (i.e., groundless and self-serving) must be erected and sustained with the shackles of “organization.” In this way can what is thereby “organized” grow back in its original ground, so that what is of the masses is not simply controlled but transformed? . . . Still another sovereignty is needed here, one that is concealed and restrained and that for a long time will be sparse and quiet. Here the future ones must be prepared, those who create in being itself new locations out of which a constancy in the strife of earth and world will eventuate again . . . Both forms of sovereignty, though fundamentally different, must be willed and simultaneously affirmed by those who know.


What I am suggesting is that we might understand the device of consensus as “another sovereignty,” the “one that is concealed and restrained and that for a long time will be sparse and quiet,” that according to Heidegger is needed not just to control the masses, but also to transform them. In this sense, far from being able to assume a role as the last bastion of democracy and even less to become its ground for expansion, consensus would rather represent a deeper and more sophisticated means of domination. In this perspective, it would seem clear that the reference to consensus as a principle of legitimation turns out to be counterproductive, if we consider that democracy should constitute the break with the axiomatics of dominion, the suspension of any principle of distinction between those who exercise power and those who are subject to it – as Jacques Rancière, among others, has sustained. Nevertheless, consensus is often argued to represent the minimum common denominator and the common and favored means to directly or indirectly legitimate any program for the democratization of democracy. The reference to consensuality—even though variously framed and nuanced—seems to be what is shared by the most diverse political models offered as more satisfactory alternatives to liberal democracy within the contemporary leftwing debate. I will argue that this is indeed because all the models proposed belong, in one way or another, to the realm of the hegemonic structuring of the political that organizes the political space in oppositional terms, and that ultimately relies on a subjective identification that articulates an interior-exterior distinction on the basis of a nomic principle.

In the first part of what follows, I offer an analysis of some instances of the two prominent general models at the center of the debate for the democratization of democracy today, namely populism and communitarianism, in order to show how both pertain to a same hegemonic framework and ultimately rely on the notion of consensus as a source of democratic legitimation. In the second part, I trace a genealogy of today’s general acceptance of consensuality as the panacea for democracy back to the erroneous use of a dualistic interpretative matrix to understand Gramsci’s notion of consensus. Then, I present a critical account for an understanding of consensuality as a dual means for domination and government of individuals’ conducts: as heteronomous constitution of a common sense, and as indirect coercion through the blackmail of a lesser evil. In such a critical account, I am engaging with some famous passages from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, with Hannah Arendt’s and Jean François Lyotard’s reading of Kant, with Michel Foucault’s notion of regime of truth, and with Roberto Esposito’s account of the negative kernel of any community. Lastly, combining some suggestions offered by Jacques Derrida’s notion of secret and Reiner Schürmann’s idea of the transgressive withdrawal of the singular, I indicate a possible way out through infrapolitical thought from the totalizing horizon of consensuality.

Populism versus Communitarianism

Populism and communitarianism are two key figures in political thought, and in the Latin-American and world left-wing debates. Broadly, one can affirm that populism and communitarianism represent two fundamental models for contemporary proposals of radical democracy. They are generally presented as radically antithetical models: on the one hand, there is the headed model of populist leadership and, on the other, the headless communitarian dispersing power. Whereas these two paradigms constitute a patent dichotomy when explicitly regarded in an insurgency-oriented perspective (i.e. as forms of organization of the antagonistic potential of the people), their constitutive opposition becomes less clear cut whenever such a potential is turned into constituent potential, to promote new articulations of sovereign power, or to be part of a reorganization of constituted power. Behind the opposition between the vertical and horizontal structure of authority and commands, populism and communitarianism share the fact that they resort to an idea of active and direct consensus as grounds for political legitimation. One can see populism and communitarianism as the extremes of one continuum, namely the continuum of the hegemonic articulation based upon mechanisms of cathectic identification and legitimized through a participative and active consensuality. In this first part of my work, without trying to be exhaustive, I consider these paradigms through an overview of some particularly significant theoretical instances of them.

In Territories in Resistance, Raul Zibechi traces a cartography of new Latin American social movements, focusing on the contrast with the centralized and hierarchical organization of past movements that tended to mirror the state model. According to Zibechi, the key character of the new social movements is the dispersing and horizontal organization of informal networks. Even though it renounces leadership and centralization, this new form of organization should not be confused with a mere decentralization of power established from above and experienced as exterior by those who are actually undertaking the mobilization.

The logic of dispersion is an internal logic in which the sectors involved adjust their way of life by establishing a different relationship to territory. This logic suggests that, in order to survive, the subjects must deploy themselves in the territory on the basis of family/communitarian considerations.


The logic of dispersion would respond to the crisis of political representation understood as a device of articulation, totalization, and domination typical of capitalism and neoliberal democracies. Whereas representation works to substitute for the social bond, to compensate for constitutive capitalist separation, and to grant the constitution of the social body, the logic of dispersion does not need representation as a form of political articulation because it is always already founded on familiar and communal social ties. For his argument, Zibechi turns to the distinction between the logic of representation and the logic of expression as it has been elaborated by the Argentine group Colectivo Situaciones. They “postulate that beneath the relations of representation – the classic ones of political subjectivity – there is an expressive dimension at work” (154). On one hand, the fundamental categories of market societies based on representation – that is, on separation and transcendence – are consensus, articulation, opinion, explicit networks, communication, and agreement. On the other, the categories that correspond to expression grounded in experience and immanence are encounters, composition, disarticulation, resonances, and diffuse webs. According to Zibechi, this expressive dimension should be considered the other face of the logic of dispersion. The passage he quotes from Argentina: Apuntes para un nuevo protagonismo social, in which he emphasizes the convergence of the two perspectives, reads as follows:

Expression thus permits us to explain the production of the world as an “ethic without a subject,” i.e., as the process – unconscious and delocalized – of producing the values of a new sociability, based on a multitude of experiences that participate in the production of vital meanings without any kind of conscious or voluntary coordination.

(Quoted in Zibechi, 156)

However, the communitarian perspective presented by Zibechi that certainly rejects the logic of representation does not seem to overcome the logic of political subjectivation tout court. Rather, it moves toward the headless subjectivation of the community-individual. Although it pretends to be antithetical to the kind of subjectivation constituted through the transcendent identification with the leader, communitarian subjectivation turns out to be rather contiguous to the latter since it still implies a mechanism of social aggregation through the identification with an ideal ego, described by Freud in Group Psychology, and recovered by Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason, in order to describe the hegemonic construction of the people.

At the end of the third chapter of On Populist Reason, Laclau shows how the Freudian interpretation of the dynamics of social aggregation, which is grounded in the identification forged between people as the result of an equivalential attachment to the same object posited in the place of the ideal ego, opens up not to the leader but to society itself as a cathartic object located in the position of the ideal ego. In this perspective, we can characterize the communitarian model as a model of political aggregation constituted through the identification with a kind of social organization that Zibechi describes as “natural,” non-Taylorist, familiar yet not patriarchal, thus autonomous and non hierarchical. In this way, communitarian aggregation constitutes itself as political subjectivity through libidinal identification with the community itself as a form of social organization. As such, communitarian order is fully and integrally immanent. In reference to Freud, Laclau emphasizes how such an order represents an extreme, even “imaginary (reductio ad absurdum) case in which the breach between ego and ego ideal was entirely bridged” (Laclau 62). It is a situation that Freud’s theory considers as a limit case: “the total transference –through organization – of the functions of the individual to the community. The various myths of the totally reconciled society – which invariably presuppose the absence of leadership, that is the withering away of the political – share this last type of vision” (Laclau 63).

At the other extreme of the Freudian model of collective identification we find the articulation of social ties based on the libidinal bond with the narcissistic leader: “In my view”, Laclau writes, “the fully organized group and the purely narcissistic leader are simply the reductio ad absurdum – that is, impossible – extremes of a continuum in which the two social logics are articulated in various ways” (58). This means that communitarianism and populism – or at least populism understood as a hegemonic articulation based on the cathartic tie with the leader – belong to the same continuum of different forms of hegemonic articulation of the people. In such a continuum, the community form (i.e., the “community-individual”) would be a form of forging the people that is sustained by an identification that is essentialized and naturalized through a more or less mythical representation of the community itself and of its organization. The people are ontologized into an ethnic substance with which the members of the community can/must identify. In the terms of Laclau’s analysis of the hegemonic construction of the people, the two fundamental mechanisms are the constitution of an equivalential chain and the establishment of an antagonistic frontier, both of which are crucial to maintaining the tension of identity and heterogeneity that is constitutive of the social bond. The hegemonic articulation of a popular identity implies the libidinal identification of the heterogeneous with a particular signifier that, in order to assume the representation of totality (which is always impossible), has to be conceptually empty. This empty signifier, which plays the role of the Freudian ideal ego insofar as it is empty, is also floating, and this means that the antagonistic frontier that can never be established once and for all is also floating. In the case of the community, what happens is that the emptiness of the signifier that represents totality is filled with an ethnic and/or cultural content that allows the hegemonic articulation to overcome the impasse of its own arbitrariness and escape its possibly destructive consequences. In this sense, communitarianism somehow coincides with what Laclau called ‘ethno-populism’:

All the cases to which I have referred concerned the construction of an internal frontier in a given society. In the case of ‘ethno-populism’ we have an attempt to establish, rather, the limits of the community. This involves a series of consequences. The first is that the emptiness of the signifiers constituting ‘the people’ is drastically limited from the very beginning. The signifiers unifying the communitarian space are rigidly attached to precise signifieds.


Accepting that communitarianism can maintain its headless configuration (which is impossible for Laclau), such a configuration would allow it to avoid turning toward the mechanisms of political representation; nevertheless, this does not mean doing away with representation tout court. Instead of the classical transcendent mechanism of political participation mediated through the representative function of the leader, communitarianism opts for an immanent, and at least apparently direct, mechanism of political participation. The hegemonic construction of the people is grounded in the direct identification with the representation of the community as an already posited totality, instead of being a mechanism of mediated identification propped up by the empty signifier representing an equivalential chain of heterogeneous instances. Such a identification with the community is presupposed whereas Laclau’s populist model implies the constant internal re-articulation of the people and the expansion of the chain of equivalences. Zibechi returns repeatedly to the example of a non-authoritarian family organization in order to explain how a communitarian organization can get rid of the mechanisms of political representation thanks to preexisting social ties. And one can argue, indeed, that such a family works by virtue of a previous self-identification of its members with a certain acceptance of their different roles as naturally determined. This means that behind the logic of expression based on experience and immanence, behind the encounters, the composition, and disarticulation that uphold the logic of dispersion that is able to produce “vital meanings without any kind of conscious or voluntary coordination” (Colectivo Situaciones, quoted in Zibechi, 79), there is a mechanism of subjective identification that guarantees a certain degree of consensus.

In fact, this communitarian model is often held to be the best possible instance of what Gramsci called “active and direct consensus,” in contrast to the passive and indirect consensus that most of the time underlies representative articulation. However, this kind of consent in Gramsci does not imply an absence of leadership, but a real interchange between rulers and ruled, together with the exclusion of any bureaucratic repressive relation between leaders and led, which could be linked easily to the Zapatista motto “Command by obeying” (Mandar obedeciendo). Moreover, this kind of consent implies “the participation of all, even if it provokes a disintegration or an apparent tumult,” (Gramsci, Quaderni, 1771) and an un-renounceable dimension of consensual expansiveness. However, communitarian consensus presents itself as the integral consensus of the identity of the self with itself, as the self-identification of the I with the ideal I of the community itself, with no margin for expansion and, as such, with no margin for dissensus either. Thus, it should surprise no one that in the interview with Michael Hardt and Alvaro Reyes (which serves as the epilogue of Territories in Resistance) Zibechi, when asked about the main benefits of the horizontal, autonomous, and democratic mode of organizing that characterized the new social movements analyzed in his book, answers:

I wouldn’t call this type of organization democratic. I think it is something more complex. Felix Patzi says that the Andean community is not a democratic but rather a form of “consensual authoritarianism.” To be honest, I do not advocate democratic forms as if they were superior. The family cannot work democratically, because not all members have the same responsibilities and duties or the same abilities to contribute to the collective. I think that what we call democracy is a mode of domination created by the West, but this is an altogether different question.


In his response Zibechi once again turns to family relationships as the matrix for new socio-political communitarian organization. In the family/community he finds, in the role of the woman/mother, the core for an alternative to the ‘masculine’ model of society based on capitalism, polarization, and “institutions regulated by binary relations of order and obedience” (261). This ruptures the binary opposition of order and obedience, breaking with the idea of leadership as the headed structure of command. However, this does not mean renouncing the order/obedience binomial. Rather, order/command and obedience end up collapsing into the figure of consensus. In such a collapse, in fact, what emerge are two levels that constitute a mechanism of domination by consent: a level of interiorized heteronomy, and one of katechontic coercion. I will discuss these two levels more in detail in the next section, but it seems important to start to anticipate my argument. On one hand, consensus is established in relation to the hegemonic principle that organizes the constitution of the political community. It is instituted and guaranteed by the common sense that represents the normative order of the community, which is objectified in the tradition, and which guides the heteronomous subjectivation of the individuals as its members and the constitution of its interiorized form, their so-called identity. On the other hand, consensus is granted by the threat of the possible dissolution of the political community represented as ultimate katechon against the risk of a metaphorical return to the state of nature; that is, the implicit blackmail of the idea that a subtraction of consensus could bring about a conflict with unpredictable and fearsome outcomes.

Of course the collapse of the order/obedience binomial brings us back to the Zapatista motto “Command by obeying,” and renders opportune a reference to Luis Villoro’s reflections on neo-Zapatista communitarian democracy. Villoro considers neo-Zapatista communitarian democracy through the idea of consensual democracy discussed by the Ghanaian Kwasi Wiredu, and tries to articulate it in conjunction with the model of contemporary republicanism. The key to communitarian democracy, on both sides of the ocean, is that decisions are made by consensus through an assembly that requires everybody’s participation. Here, reasoned consensus is opposed to the principle of a quantifiable majority; the agreement on the common good overcomes individual rights, and public leaders command by obeying: “Decisions made are oriented by a regulative objective; let everybody express their opinion, get as close as possible to consensus” (Villoro, 10). “Consensus manifests solidarity among all” (Villoro, 10). This system does not foresee or allow the exclusion of anyone, but neither does it foresee or allow any space for dissent. What actually bears this full consensuality is the total acceptance of tradition, that is, the heteronomy of common sense. Villoro writes:

Communitarian democratic forms are justified by tradition; they call on an inherited wisdom, embodied in actual social morality and often expressed through myths and legends. They are part of established usages and customs that, even though they are not unalterable, tend to resist innovations. Any dissent from the traditionally accepted is frowned upon. Indeed, individual autonomy is subordinated to the self-government of the community.

(11, my translation)

Subjection to tradition and the presumed incompatibility between the mechanism of communitarian democracy and the size of modern political communities push Villoro to try to outline the model of a new republicanism that addresses the crisis of nation-states, the autonomies of the people that constitute them, and globalization. Such a new republicanism, though not renouncing the forms of representative democracy needed to manage larger and more complex spaces, recognizes the community as its base and aims to implement mechanisms of diffusion of political power and direct democracy procedures. In this case, dictating the common good demanding consensuality will not be the tradition, “but the autonomous choice of the citizens of a plural and fair state” (Villoro, 18).

The consensuality to which Villoro’s new republicanism appeals is closer to the one that binds the unstable members of the chain of equivalences to the empty signifier that identifies them as a people in Laclau’s populist model, than it is to the consensual authoritarianism of Zibechi’s communitarianism. Also, it is in line with the kind of consensuality required by the model of agonistic pluralism that Chantal Mouffe proposed in Agonistics, in which diverse contingent hegemonic articulations, which are always expressions of particular configurations of power relations, emerge from a pluralist order based on a consensus that is always conflictive. This model presupposes consensus as the framework for conflict, as the framework that allows for sublimation rather than the eradication of conflict as an agonistic confrontation between adversaries rather than enemies (as in antagonism). Here, consent legitimizes conflict between opposing hegemonic projects that can never be reconciled rationally, and the dominance of articulation is capable of imposing as hegemonic its interpretation of the shared democratic principles to which all the opponents must give allegiance.

“Active and Direct Consensus”?

The general acceptance of consensuality as the horizon of democratization proceeds from a double deceit that is produced by a dichotomous interpretative schema stemming from two of Antonio Gramsci’s pivotal analyses of consensus. The first deceit—strongly criticized by Peter Thomas—arises from the dualistic interpretation of Machiavelli’s famous figure of the Centaur, as well as in general terms from the dualistic interpretation of Gramsci’s distinction between coercion and consensus. Indeed, by dualistically opposing coercion and consensus, one creates the illusion that only the first one belongs to the realm of domination, against which the latter stands up as restraint and counterbalance. In his notes on Machiavelli, Gramsci actually talks about a “‘dual perspective’ in political action and in national life” that:

can present itself on various levels from the most elementary to the most complex; but these can all theoretically be reduced to two fundamental levels, corresponding to the dual nature of Machiavelli’s Centaur – half-animal and half-human. They are the levels of force and of consent, authority and hegemony, violence and civilization…

(Gramsci, 1999, 388)

However, as Peter Thomas emphasizes in his critical reading of Perry Anderson’s reading of Gramsci, beyond Gramsci’s reference to the two bodies of the Centaur we need to understand that:

Coercion is not eclipsed here by consent (…); nor is their ‘combination’ conceived as merely external relation, a sum of distinct parts (…). Rather, they ‘counterbalance’ each other in a unity that depends upon the maintenance of a precise, ‘unbalanced’ equilibrium between its two poles: force must not appear to predominate too much over consent, but the ‘proper relationship [giusto rapporto]’ between them involves more weight on the side of the former.

(Gramsci, 1999, 165)

Not only are both coercion and consent part of the normal function of hegemony in a parliamentary regime, they are each also reciprocal conditions for the exercise of the other, with one depending on the other. The hegemonic exercise of the dominant class implies that at the same time that it is dominant it is also leading, since it is able to guide the masses’ ideological consent. If one of the elements is missing, a so-called ‘crisis of authority’ occurs.

The second deceit arises from the opposition between “active and direct consensus” and “passive and indirect consensus”, appearing in an extract from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks of 1933, which can be traced back easily to the classical dichotomy between activity and passivity. In this opposition what is underlying is the deceit that the problematic aspect, that is, the kernel of domination, does not belong to consensus, but rather to the element of passivity and to the representative mediation typical of neoliberal representative democracies. Here the dualisms between representative democracy and direct democracy, between formal democracy and real democracy, as well as between transcendence and immanence of command, arise.

From these two deceits, what emerges is the misleading idea that consensus actually represents the opposite of coercion. If consensus becomes an instrument of domination in liberal

democracy, this is on account of its totalization, that is, of the passive and indirect modality that depends on mediation by the mechanisms of political representation. Therefore, what also proceeds from here is the implicit assumption of participatory consensuality (i.e. active and direct) as the horizon of acceptability for every form of hegemonic articulation, whether grounded in immanent (as in communitarianism) or transcendent (as in populism) mechanisms of identification. These two deceits conceal the intrinsic component of domination that belongs to consensus, or consensus as a device of domination that, as anticipated, operates through two main conduits, or levels; interiorized heteronomy and “katechontic” coercion. Turning once more to Gramsci, one could say that not only does hegemony imply a combination of coercion and consent with respect to which the dominant class is both dominant and leading, but that at the same time building consent implicitly requires a combination of heteronomy and coercion. These two levels are in a chiasmic relation, which is how we could define the relation between consensus and coercion that upholds hegemonic practice. Ultimately, this is the same chiasmic relation that Foucault shows as key to the government of the individual as revealed in the dual meaning of the term ‘subject’: “There are two meanings of the word ‘subject’: subject to someone else by control and dependence, and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power that subjugates and makes subject to” (331). The specificity of domination by consensus, one can say, is that it is a form of heteronomy that operates on the individual, both from without and from within, in ways that give it the illusion of autonomy.

First of all, there is the kind of domination that works through the always-heteronomous constitution of a common sense, in the broadest possible sense of the term, on which any possible consensus is founded. According to Jacques Rancière: “What consensus means, in effect, is not people’s agreement amongst themselves but the matching of sense with sense: the accord made between a sensory regime of presentation of things and a mode of interpretation of their meaning. The consensus governing us is a machine of power insofar as it is a machine of vision” (viii). Second, there is the kind of indirect domination that works through fear, in which one’s consent represents the choice for the lesser of two evils, the sacrifice needed in order to keep the hegemonic game running, the illusion of identity safe and the enemy outside. It is the domination through blackmail that I have also called katechontic coercion.

The accord made between a sensory regime of presentation of things and a mode of interpretation of their meaning, to which Rancière is referring in the quotation above, is what we should consider here as ‘common sense.’ In fact, I would like to take a step back from the understanding of the expression “common sense” as merely a common cultural frame of references and system of beliefs that characterize a particular historical society by virtue of longstanding practices of socialization rooted in national and local traditions. This is, for instance, even with some important internal shifts, the way Gramsci uses this expression in the Notebooks.[2] Taking the expression in a more radical sense, I am interested in trying to look at common sense as existential, rather than as a historical ground for consent, that is, I am interested in trying to inquire into the existential, rather than the historical, conditions for the heteronomous constitution of a common sense. In order to understand what this notion of common sense implies, I deem it crucial to refer to a well-known passage from Kant’s Critique of Judgment and its pivotal interpretation in political terms by Hannah Arendt, in her famous lectures at the New School during the fall of 1970. Here, to mark the difference with respect to the ordinary significance of the expression ‘common sense,’ which generally refers to a common understanding, Kant turns to the Latin:

Instead, we must [here] take sensus communis to mean the idea of a sense shared [by all of us], i.e. a power to judge that in reflecting takes account (a priori), in our thought, of everyone else’s way of presenting [something], in order as it were to compare our own judgment with human reason in general and thus escape the illusion that arises from the ease of mistaking subjective and private conditions for objective ones, an illusion that would have a prejudicial influence on judgment. Now we do it as follows: we compare our judgment not so much with the actual as rather with the merely possible judgments of the others, and [thus] put ourselves in the position of everyone else, merely by abstracting from the limitations that [may] happen to attach to our own judgment.


However, immediately after what would seem to be an unmistakable declaration of a dangerous heteronomy in the faculty of judgment that does not match up with the autonomy of Enlightened Reason, Kant tries to correct his trajectory, stating the three maxims of “common human understanding,” that is, the three maxims of enlightened reason, in order to elucidate the Judgment’s principles. These are: 1. think for oneself; 2. think from the standpoint of everyone else; and 3. think always consistently. The first is the most interesting since it takes us back to the paradox that I have tried to emphasize in the title of this section, opposing the question mark to the expression “active and direct consensus.” It is the maxim of an unprejudiced thinking and, Kant says, it “is the maxim of a reason that is never passive. A propensity to a passive reason, and hence to a heteronomy of reason, is called prejudice” (161). With such precaution, and specifying that the judgments of others to which we have to compare our own are not actual but merely possible judgments, Kant intends to stress that he is not appealing to mere compliance with doxa, common opinion, and that the horizon of the common sense is always contingent and mobile. According to Kant the fact that sensus communis, as the principle of the faculty of judgment, has to be understood as hypothetical and subjective, goes in the same direction. Nevertheless, Kant’s account of sensus communis as the principle of the faculty of judgment also ends up being particularly relevant here because it points to the link between the implicit heteronomy of the idea of consensus and the wider question of the constitution of a community, while, at the same time, allowing for an understanding of the reciprocal implication and integration of interiorized heteronomy and “katechontical” coercion in relation to the two levels on which consensus operates as a means for domination.

Kant’s sensus communis is hypothetical, subjective, undetermined, and can be exhibited exemplarily in singular judgments. Yet it also can, and ought to, claim universal necessity: “It would still be assumed as subjectively universal (an idea necessary for everyone); and so it could, like an objective principle, demand universal assent insofar as agreement among different judging persons is concerned” (89 §22). The possibility of experience is ultimately based on the possibility of universal agreement on singular judgments grounded in a particular feeling, that is, an agreement founded upon the hypothesis that something like a ‘common sense’ (Gemeinsinn) exists. The ultimate hypothesis that enables a claim to universal assent on a judgment of taste, is the hypothesis that there may be something like a community of judgment upon which the very same humanity of the human being depends. Arendt, in her lectures, emphasizes that we should understand Kant’s sensus communis as “community sense,” the sense that allows one to judge as a member of a community.

The term is changed. The term “common sense” meant a sense like our other senses — the same for everyone in his very privacy. By using the Latin term, Kant indicates that here he means something different: an extra sense — like an extra mental capability (German: Menschenverstand) — that fits us into a community.


In fact, as Arendt remarks upon quoting a passage from Kant’s Anthropology, madness is the loss of that common sense that enables us to judge as members of a community; it is a loss of communicability and isolation in a sensus privatus, a ‘private sense.’ Turning this perspective around, one can say that the stigma of madness and exclusion is the price one risks having to pay if he does not assume as true the performative hypothesis of the community that shares a common feeling – and the implicit assumption of a heteronomy that comes from it. Sensus communis is not by itself either a conceptual or a legislative instance. As Lyotard points out, “the common of this sensus will not have been a matter of a project. This feeling creates no chronology, nor even a simple diachrony” (5). It is a feeling that operates preliminarily with respect to the universal principles of both the intellect’s knowledge and practical reason. It produces an obligation, in the form of the as if, that is transcendental and anthropological at the same time. Indeed, it constitutes the first step for the performative constitution of the community as such, together with its nomic order, i.e. its principial heteronormativity. The individuals who make up the community are called toward the responsibility of responding on the basis of an adhesion to the common sense through which the community constitutes itself performatively, assuming in advance the hypothesis of its own existence. Once the community is constituted through the preliminary assumption of the “as if,” its members find themselves bound to a particular normative order, a common sense in the ordinary meaning of a common understanding. I believe one can say that Kant’s sensus communis, appealing to the very humanity of human beings, works as the principle of a general equivalence among them that subsequently enables the institution of communities as specific historically determined entities tied to hegemonic principles that organize their normative orders. In this respect, it seems relevant to note that the exhibition of such a hypothetical and subjective principle—which produces the individual as communitarian being, that is, as subjects insofar as they recognize their identity as members of the community and insofar as they become subjects to communitarian normativity—is inseparable from a dimension of productivity which is the productivity of the work of art. In this perspective, consensus is the call for subjects to respond to the responsibility of always keeping themselves within the framework of the historically determined common sense of their community, of what Michel Foucault called the “regime of truth,” in telling the truth, their truth. First of all this means recognizing themselves as members of the community, that is, accepting a certain identity that ties them to the community as a principle of their acting. In this sense even though, as Foucault says, consent (like violence) does not constitute the principle or the basic nature of power, understanding that “the exercise of power is a ‘conduct of conducts’ and a management of possibilities” (Foucault 341), i.e., government, it is clearly both an instrument and a result of power relations. If the members of a community refuse to consent to responding as expected to the responsibility of acting according to the established regime of truth of the community, they have to face the fear of exposure that comes with the exclusion from the community as well as with its disruption. Here, what emerges is the other side of “domination by consensus.” This is the coercion based on the implicit threat of the failure of the political community as the last katechon, the last protection and resort against a metaphorical return to the state of nature. This is the blackmail implicit in the idea that a refusal to assume and interiorize the heteronomy of the community, a withdrawal of consensus, could generate a conflict of fearful and unpredictable outcomes, which is ultimately the Hobbesian pattern of fear as a means of political unification. As Roberto Esposito underlined in Communitas:

But here lies the point: for Hobbes fear is not bounded by the universe of tyranny or despotism. It is the place in which law and ethics of the best regime are founded. At least potentially, fear doesn’t only have a destructive charge, but also a constructive one. It doesn’t only cause flight and isolation, but it also causes relation and union. It isn’t limited to blocking and immobilizing, but, on the contrary, it pushes to reflect and neutralize the danger. It doesn’t reside on the side of the irrational, but on the side of the rational. It is a productive power.

(23 translation revised)

The dual device of domination that supports consensus is where, according to Roberto Esposito, one can find the negativity, the munus, that is, the sacrifice that constitutes the community. From what we have seen up to this point, the main sacrifice on the basis of which the community constitutes itself is the sacrifice by one and all of the right to shirk the duty of being in agreement with common sense, more than just maintaining the right to keep a private sense (something like a right to privacy) of the right to ‘not have one’; to not make sense and offer no sense; to offer a nonresponse. This is to say that the sacrifice propping up the community is the sacrifice of the secret, of what Jacques Derrida in “Passions: An Oblique Offering” calls “a right to absolute nonresponse,” which should be instead understood as the “hyperbolic condition of democracy.” Derrida writes:

This nonresponse is more original and more secret than the modality of power and duty because it is fundamentally heterogeneous to them. We find there a hyperbolic condition of democracy which seems to contradict a certain determined and historically limited concept of such a democracy, a concept which links it to the concept of a subject that is calculable, accountable, imputable, and responsible, a subject having-to-respond [devant-repondre], having-to-tell [devant-dire] the truth, having to testify according to the sworn word (“the whole truth, nothing but the truth”), before the law, having to reveal the secret, with the exception of certain situations that are determinable and regulated by law (confession, the professional secret of the doctor, the psychoanalyst, or the lawyer, secrets of national defense or state secrets in general, manufacturing secrets, etc.). This contradiction also indicates the task (task of thought, also theoretico-practical task) for any democracy to come.


What is at stake here is the idea that it is possible to move toward a thinking of democracy as an infinite task of democratization only by moving from a deconstruction of consensuality as the horizon of a totalization of the political, as a virtual totality to which metonymically every contingent hegemonic articulation refers, and as a principle of legitimation, or as the ultimate horizon of legitimation for every politics of subjectivity. Of course, it is not a matter of getting rid of consensuality once for all tout court. Rather, it is a matter of anchoring the thinking of democratization not to the horizon of totalizing subjectivization of the community but to a perspective of singularization, or, as Reiner Schürmann would phrase it, of the transgressive withdrawal of the singular.

As we have seen, the thought of community is always the thought of the institution of a hegemonic principle, of the norm that governs the representation of reality and the subsumption of the singular phenomena, which is the transformation of the singular into the particular subsumed under the common universal. The hegemonic principle is the posited referent that institutes a process of equalization among beings. It is always the principle of a general equivalence. It is the norm that institutes the isomorphic, namely the normal. It organizes the manifoldness of being in a calculative relation that is at once always a process of normalization that violently conceals the transgressive withdrawal of the singular. Consensus depends on the institution of common sense, the koinon, which constitutes the norm and legitimizes theoretical and practical rules as the bond that binds a community. Community is born from the illusion of a logic of subsumption without remainder that denies the thetic undercurrents that allow for the installation of the common normative order, thereby responding to the need for community’s self assurance, security and safety.

Therefore, what is at stake is the recognition of the co-pertinence of the institution and dissolution of violence, or of the constitutive normative-transgressive double bind that shatters thought itself, which is the original legislative-transgressive fracture that always-already traverses every hegemonic regime. It is the recognition that what dismisses conflict and enables the universal institution of the law, and therefore consensus, is the denial of the singular and its right to non-response; its right to withdraw from communitarian subjectivation, to bear a secret that always exceeds the common sense of the community. As such, it is a matter of thinking about what exceeds and undermines consensus as a necessary condition to think the possibility of a post-hegemonic democratization of democracy. It is a matter of thinking the possibility of a post-hegemonic democracy capable of thinking through what Schürmann referred to as “the tragic condition,” or, the conflict between the thetic violence that imposes the subsumptive hegemony of the universal and the violent undertow of the singular that withdraws itself from the submission to any normative representation. Such a singular is what makes of any communitarian constitution an imposition, and any consensus the effect and the premise of a form of domination that we can call domination by consent. Ultimately, thinking through the tragic condition that would enable thought for a thorough post-hegemonic democratization of democracy is what one calls infrapolitical thought.


01. The expression “Washington Consensus” was formulated in 1989 by John Williamson. For his account of what he meant by it, see his “Did the Consensus Fail?” (2002).

02. For discussion of Gramsci’s use of the expression ‘senso comune’, see Peter Thomas (16, n.61).

Works Cited

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