“共识”成为中国社会的一个热词，大概始于孙立平2005年的一个判断“改革的共识已经破裂”。2006年3月初，应凯迪网老总牧沐的邀请，打算与网友进行“两会”相关话题进行互动，所以预先就把要与网友互动的内容写入《两会旁白： 从夫妻的共识看＂体制改革＂》一文，然而这个互动预告一出，就被当局叫停，于是就把这篇文章上传了事。时隔六年有关“共识”的话题一直未绝，周志兴先生办的网站的名称就是“共识网”而且颇受学界关注，由是看来 “共识”之于天朝的确是个颇有生命力的概念。
1. If there is no freedom of association, consensus is meaningless;
2. Absolute prerequisite to consensus – if any person refuses to be ‘in consensus’ with you, you must preserve their right to disagree;
3. Among people whose interests align, it is easy to form consensus; but when there is no consensus among people, cooperation is still possible;
4. The norm is that there is no consensus, ‘one-sided cooperation’ is the general rule in contemporary society;
5. To be seeking consensus among all of society, society must be facing a major crisis;
6. Commonsense and consensus
‘Consensus’ has become a trendy word in Chinese society. This trend might have begun with a statement from Mr Sun Liping in 2005: ‘The consensus around reform has been broken’. In early March 2006, on invitation of Cadillac Network’s CEO Mu Mu, he planned to conduct an interactive online discussion on the topic of the ‘Two Meetings’, and so in advance of the session, he wrote a text presenting the contents of what he planned to discuss, ‘Two session chorus: understanding ‘systemic reform’ with consensus between husband and wife in the background’. However, when this interactive session was announced, it was stopped by the authorities, and so he decided to post this article online. Six years on, interest for ‘consensus’ has not disappeared, and the website set up by Mr Zhou Zhixing, actually named ‘Consensus Network’, has received solid academic attention, from which we can judge that the concept of ‘consensus’ has actually retained quite a lot of vitality.
Because Mr Sun Liping and others often talk about this topic on weibo, I put a ‘summary’ at the front of my otherwise ‘unstructured’ thinking.
1 – If there is no freedom of association, consensus is meaningless
In his book ‘Democracy in America’, Toqueville has repeatedly praised a unique characteristic and advantage of American society, that is, freedom of association, and Americans’ habit of continuously forming associations. If an American wants to do something, but one person alone can’t do it, they’ll immediately look for partners – and form an association, so that they can make this thing happen.
An obviously realistic and logical way of reasoning is the following: if you and I don’t intend to do anything, it doesn’t matter whether we are in ‘consensus’ with other people. And an implicit part of ‘consensus’, which is not self-evident, is that consensus is about ‘collaborating to do stuff’ And ‘collaborating to do stuff’ has to do with ‘forming an organisation’ and ‘forming an association’, so that the question of freedom of association is a problem you cannot avoid. Before the age of the internet, even to just exchange the experience of reading and set up a book club, you bumped into the problem of freedom of association, and I’m afraid that what I will say will cause great surprise to people of the internet era, but in China in the 90s, for something as down-to-earth as that, here is what happened: people in Beijing organised a book club, and several of its members were arrested, and sentenced to ten years in prison!
2 – Consensus and dissent
We seek consensus in order to do things.
In seeking consensus, we cannot use force or violence. When force or violence apply, there is only submission or brainwash, there cannot be what we call consensus. Authoritarian societies do not need “consensus”, neither do rivers and lakes, the former just want “unified thinking”, the latter want collaboration rules. This is not unfamiliar to us.
Those who talk about or seek consensus must be clear that everyone has the right to maintain and express dissent. Only in such a society does consensus make sense.
Let’s take an example, for instance, how to deal with the Mao Left on the internet.
I think that, based on the concept of freedom of speech and freedom of belief, even if it is Utopian, this Mao left should be present on the net. I don’t believe the people who cheer at an authoritarian power shutting down Utopian thinking are real liberals and constitutionalists, and even when asking whether fascist speech is or isn’t legal, we should turn to the constitution. Actually, public decisions to shut down Utopian thinking or shut down discussions about elections and political discussion networks, this is all the same thing.
The Mao convert says: “The Cultural Revolution is good is good is good”, and I think that’s not a problem. But the Mao convert also says: “Whoever says it’s not good, let’s smash his head like a dog”: putting these words into action, then that is a problem.
That the right-wing faction should start to clap after the other camp were suddenly put down, that is very normal; but what should we think of the Mao Left then suddenly thinking they should appeal to procedural justice? I think this is a good thing. Although the right-wing laughed at them, since they’d never talked of procedural justice before – and this is understandable – yet you cannot but encourage them to talk about procedural justice. Is this not a form of ‘consensus’ we should aspire to?
I think that when talking about consensus, ‘denominator’ (约数) is a very useful concept. What kind of society are we living in? This question must be related to the “smallest common denominator”.
For instance “no taxation without representation”, this is a general consensus in the United States, or you can say that this is a “common denominator” for the bast majority of people in this society. But can this denominator become a universal common denominator? Another example is the first amendment of the American constitution: “The Congress shall make no law on the following points: establishing a national religion, or prohibiting the freedom of religious belief; deprive people of the freedom of speech or freedom of the press; reduce the rights of the people to form peaceful associations or petition the government to redress a grievance.” – Can this become a universal consensus, or common denominator? At present, obviously not.
In an absolute monarchy, only the expression ‘Under Heaven, can a Monarch be crude; and on Earth, can a Monarch not rule’ can serve as ‘consensus’
Indeed, as I’ve often said half-joking, half-seriously: for inferior people, being alive is the smallest common denominator. In today’s world, all doctrines, including authoritarianism, are facing the same dilemma: apart from allowing much more flexibility to the realm of speech (though not conceding ‘freedom of speech’ in the constitutional sense), there seems to be no other way of promoting political change. 于是坐待“革命”爆发，还是奋起改良与“革命”赛跑，似乎就成了一个“真问题”。于是另一些似是而非，因果本末倒置、左右互搏的理论沉渣四起。For instance those who ‘oppose radical rhetoric’ will generally say that radical rhetoric does not contribute to political reform, but will only lead to revolution and so on. 这种说法与“一言幸邦”或“一言丧邦”有多大区别呢？从因果关系上讲，难道那些激进的言论不正是现实的产物么？难道事实的逻辑不正是对激进言论的打压只能是迟早导致更大的激进么？难道让当局认清这种形势，这种逻辑不是更有益处吗？跑题了，言归正传——即使是最危险的激进言论，它也是“异见”的一种吧。And if it is necessary to limit the dissent, shouldn’t we consider the regulations from a constitutional perspective?
3 – Interests and consensus
Marx has a sentence that sums it up nicely: The thinker that leaves interest behind can only make a fool of themselves.
Interests here can’t be narrowly interpreted as ‘material interests’ only, but should also include spiritual interests.
We know that among people who share the same interests, it is easy to form consensus, but we easily overlook the fact that absence of consensus does not mean cooperation is impossible. To take a popular example, in reality, many husbands and wives have no tastes in common, and no common language, and for the children and other reasons 一直凑各着过，“维持会”一直维持到白头。
This example leads us to a concept which is as important as consenus: compromise. What we call compromise is not about determining how much benefit you and I will get to share, but asking, when both parties are confronting multiple problems, ‘how can we minimize losses on both sides’?
“For the children, I won’t divorce!”. This is compromise, but can’t we say that this is also reaching a consensus? And is this or is this not a very different thing from what today’s people understand as consensus?
In the real world, 博弈双方或多方，基于利损益分析达成的妥协——也可以说是“阶段性的共识”，它远比我们谈论的抽象共识有实际意义得多。展开来说就是，我们对一个社会的性质判断是否准确——比如这是不是个专制社会，固然重要，但改变它的过程却必然是从可以博弈的地方入手，而且这种博弈应该是可以普遍进行，持续不断的。对此我曾过这样概括：远大目标，有限诉求，日掘一铲，终移泰山。
Twenty four years ago, 那个叫袁牧的老混蛋对学生“对话”的要求在CCTV上公开大加讥讽：what are your qualifications to have a dialogue with so and so? Although this was seen as terrifying by the public, there was logic behind it, what he said was not without reason.
The complexity of the relationship between consensus and interests also lies in the fact that, about the same thing, various people may have completely different value judgements. 在维持死亡婚姻的当事人看来有重大价值的妥协，在持“不自由，毋宁死”者的眼里可能毫无价值，反之亦然。
Knowing the close relation between consensus and interests is very important; knowing that “cooperation” is still possible when there is not consensus among people – compromise – is also very important. But this is still not enough, and knowing that there may be huge differences between people’s value systems is even more pressing. In my opinion, there are three critical points:
1. The first has to do with whether we can fully understand the complexity and the wealth of “consensus”
2. The second has to do with whether you recognize the diversity of value judgements. Everyone has the right to defend their own interest, including their spiritual interest. But what I particularly want to say is that value judgements often involve widely diverging “spiritual interests” that can’t be measured by money. For instance, some people like to take risks, and some people are mad about Chinese chess. You profession may be strongly aligned with the public interest, be very important or noble, but does it give you the right to despise those who don’t want to do anything outside Chinese chess? 人要各安其位，做你想做、能做，该做的事，而不是动不动就“捞过界”。
3. Seeking consensus is not an end in itself. If we hope to organise cooperation, then our goal should be to clearly state a down-to-earth objective. And depending on the goal, we will be able to assess who is a suitable collaborator, and what problem needs to be seriously considered. Let’s take an example: the Chinese internet often shows the following scene, everyone wants to help those with the most followers, for instance stars and celebrities, to spread their ‘noble aspirations’, and if you ignore the wave, then resentment might arise. But does echoing cheers count as action? It’s nothing but theatricals and play-acting. For instance, to rescue abducted children, a ‘shake your phone’ movement was launched on weibo. We can’t say that the motivation was wrong, nor that it didn’t gain momentum, but let’s try and assess if effect. Did it have any actual positive effect? No trace of it. 那些在此有“共识”也“合伙”喧哗甚久的人，又有哪个敢出来承认自己“演砸了”？没有，倒是有个薛蛮子大言不惭地宣称随手拍拯救了数万被拐儿童！如果中国互联网上多是这样的“共识”表演，那共识很快也就会像小姐一词被糟踏完了。