Recently on the World Socialist Forum http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/WSM_Forum/ someone posed a challenge: describe in no more than 12 words the essence of democracy. Some would say impossible, others would rise to the challenge and I would bet that quite a few would at least mull it over in their minds. I spent a few moments wondering whether to bother and remembered something I'd read which had caught my attention about what democracy, or maybe it was socialism, should be – an equality of unequals – or words to that effect, so I composed my reply:
“Democracy - an equality of unequals; equal voices, equal access, equal everything.”
This required a rider because without a serious amount of thought or a few explanatory words the message could be seen as too flippant, too simple, too unfocussed.
However, isn't this what most of our interpersonal lives are about – an equality of unequals? None of us can do everything for ourselves. None of us are experts in everything. None of us would have the time to do all that's required in our lives alone. Life is full of intermingled interdependent entities sharing the experiences of the many tasks we set ourselves in life. Friends and neighbours have no problem in helping each other out with no thought of material reward. Volunteers abound locally, nationally and internationally for all manner of tasks from the mundane to the positively exciting. Why do they do this with no hint of reward? Because the act is reward in itself, the act has a positive influence on the individual, the act is part of our social interactivity.
It's about structure. See how the world's all-encompassing system is structured. We have a system called capitalism which requires money for pretty well every transaction we need to make. Without money or with only a subsistence wage people become surplus to requirements, they can't fit in to the required norms but that doesn't stop them doing things to enable them to carry on living – scavenging, eating, procreating. Within society we find many levels of ability among the people which allow them to be active participants in capitalism. Some may have to spend many more hours every day than others to survive. Intelligence, education, innate ability or talent, individual circumstances, home environment, local conditions, national or international economic conditions, physical or mental ability or impairment are different measures of our 'unequalness' and they also are all factors contributing to the individual's ability to survive and, with good fortune, to thrive within the system. These recent years have been another of the recurring periods in capitalism that have seen huge numbers fall from reasonable comfort to a precarious existence.
So the system as it is structured now reveals the extent to which society is ruptured by a system of inequality – 'unequalness' - by sheer fact that there is no recognition of the innate differences rendering individuals unequal and that it is the structure of global financial organisation that determines the various levels of inequality.
Socialism - and democracy - embraces the equality of all humans whilst recognising the various unequal innate conditions peculiar to each individual. The structure of socialism will depend on the extraordinary talents of all its unequal individuals in communities world wide to contribute according to their ability. In essence an equality of unequals. That's democracy.