Necessity for Modern Definitions

Modern definitions of democracy, elaborating and defining issues like the people, equality, membership in the polity, mechanisms of empowerment and accountability are needed more than ever at this time to block efforts by ruling elites in the United States and countries like Canada to impose old arrangements which are no longer functioning or suitable to the conditions today.

Modern definitions of democracy also make clear that it is not a matter of ideals, but of structures of equality and of constituting society in such a way that guaranteeing the rights of all is central in both content and form. It is not happenstance that U.S. President Joe Biden began his "Summit for Democracy" by saying democracy is a matter of ideals, not actual reality. He said U.S. "democracy is an ongoing struggle to live up to our highest ideals and to heal our divisions; to recommit ourselves to the founding idea of our nation," that "all women and men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Biden said this in conditions where human rights and the right to live and be are under brutal attack as governments at all levels refuse to guarantee basic human rights to health care, housing, education, a livelihood and safe living and working conditions, let alone affirm them on a modern basis which is not based on considerations which favour the ownership of private property and furthering the wealth of narrow private interests.

This phrasing that "all are created equal," is promoted worldwide. As with "we the people," a main problem with its use is that the reference point is the rulers' conception of equality. Their equality has to do with owners of private property, today the private global oligarchs, having the equal right to pursue their ownership, their profits, their enslavement of others. To ensure that right for owners of private property, the U.S. Constitution enshrines a structure of inequality, including keeping the people out of power and the rich in power, evident from the days of the system of slave labour to this day.

In taking up the work of modern definitions, the concepts of equality needed for today require elaboration on the part of the people. This involves recognizing and providing structures for two kinds of equality. One is equality of membership, whether it be equal members of the polity, or of an organization or collective. Equality involves membership in a given collective. It is not separate from that. Further, being an equal member involves taking responsibility for both rights and duties. For example, when the people speak of the importance of speaking in their own name, they are referring to an important part of empowering themselves as individuals and collectives today. It is the right of all human beings to speak, to join in discussion, to decide matters of concern to their lives, participate in implementing their decisions and being accountable for the results. It is also a duty if members are going to affirm their rights.

Rights are not an abstraction as delineated in the U.S. foundational documents. They are not aspirations. Rights exist in their affirmation. They exist in the form of making claims on society for what belongs to people by right. These claims are both individual and collective ones, on the society on which people depend for their living, on organizations and collectives of which they are a part and lead others to do the same.

There is also equality on the path, that path being the forward march of history. It is a path of recognizing and taking up the necessity for change. This is the equality of transition, of the path, of membership on the path, of seizing the openings which the clash between Authority and Conditions reveal exist to bring the New into being by settling scores with the old conscience of society. Modern definitions provide an opening for the New which harmonizes the individual and collective interests and the individual and collective interests with the general interest of society as identified by the forces bringing the New into being. That opening exists in the here and now today and is one that history is calling on the peoples to utilize for problems to be resolved in their favour and to avert the disasters which the rich and powerful are overseeing.

When it comes to defining the people, the category being dealt with is people (individuals and collectives) changing circumstances. In other words, the people are the agents of changing circumstances. A people are historically constituted and exist within definite time and space, definite conditions with definite human relations. Human beings are not things. They exist in relations, social relations and, more broadly, in human relations. We have fidelity not to a cause per se, but to the whole ensemble of human relations and what they reveal, which is the need for the peoples to empower themselves to turn things around in their favour. This is the path to progress today.

In arguing for modern definitions human beings today are arguing out how to sort out the interests of individual, collective and general -- those of society and humanity. They are arguing that interests come from society, out of the ensemble of human relations and these relations should define constitutions which create modern nation-states. Unlike the rulers who claim that society, citizenship, who is legitimate and who is not are defined by the state and constitutions adopted by those who constituted society in their image in days gone by, those seeking to humanize the social and natural environment on a modern basis say society is the basis for the state, not that the state is the basis for society.

A modern definition also recognizes that individuals are not abstract persons, with their single brains, with individual consciousness in which everyone is greedy or altruistic or whatever characteristic is seen to be good or evil and who fend for themselves on this basis. Individuals exist as individuals and collectives. Each person carries within them individual and collective and general interests.

The origin of the word interest is inter esse which means, among beings, social beings. The ensemble of human relations is the basis of interest. Individual interest is defined by that ensemble of relations, as is the collective interest. It is a higher order than the way which defines persons who, to form a collective, are added up in an irrational way which dismisses the relations they enter into as a matter of course, independent of their will.

A democratic constitution establishes what rules are to be followed. It is called rule by the people but the arguments required to judge that constitution involve the determination of whether it is suitable for the people and establishing the criteria to make that determination. Today people like Biden, Trudeau and others on both the official left and right of the spectrum talk about democracy by relating to how close to or how far it is from authoritarianism, autocracy, totalitarianism or fascism and such things. They are not giving arguments as to whether the rules they are establishing or the definitions or the constitutions and liberal democratic institutions they claim to defend are suitable to the people.

A modern definition recognizes that to be suitable to the people, the means to sort out the conflicts is to put individual and collective interests on a par, not one over the other. To put them on a par means there is an equivalence. Putting them on a par provides a means to harmonize the interests of all individuals and collectives and of both with the general interests of society and humanity. What is needed is the work to provide the means to harmonize interests by using the ensemble of human relations as the reference point, as the source of these interests. Getting to the interests involved, identifying them, harmonizing them is at the heart of providing democracy with a modern definition.

For the representatives of the ruling class who occupy positions usurped through control of power and privilege, such as Biden or Trudeau or any other occupants of such positions, the category that it is people who change circumstances, that the people are the force for change, is dismissed as are their interests. This is why the various contending forces speak of the "death spiral" of U.S. democracy and all claim in one way or another that "democracy is presently under threat and, for 15 years, has been on the decline," as Biden put it at his Democracy Summit.

Evidently, the broad mass movements in the U.S. for equality and rights and against the racist government and police killings are not considered part of a rise of a people's democracy and so too the movements in other countries and of entire nations fighting for their right to be are dismissed. The broad and growing resistance among Indigenous peoples, among immigrants and refugees, among other workers and farmers, is also not considered a part of the battle of democracy, a battle waged by the peoples to advance the quality and structure of democracy so it is to their advantage.

The question on the minds of millions worldwide when it comes to democracy is Who Decides? all matters of concern related to peace, war, the economy, politics, culture. Any attempts to ask that question, answer that question or discuss matters of concern are to be blocked. This is what the peoples are dealing with when they wage the resistance movement to anti-democratic measures which constitute the fight for democracy which today is an integral part of the battle of democracy itself, of heeding the call of history to move on and bring the authority into conformity with what the conditions are demanding and giving rise to.

The U.S. Constitution and the democracy it enshrines is not in any way a model for democracy in these modern times. For the Canadian ruling class to use it as a reference point in everything it does will not save it from being the superfluous force it has become any more than it saves the U.S. ruling class from being the superfluous force it has become. Indeed, imposing the phrase "of, by and for the people" on the world is being used by the U.S. imperialist and reactionary forces to block the advance of democracy, of the creation of structures, institutions and constitutions that provide for equality and accountability and affirm that the people are the decision-makers and no force exists above them.

Biden's definition of what constitutes democratic renewal amounts to nothing. It is akin to renewing a magazine subscription; it seeks to preserve and extend that which already exists. Biden and his courtiers have adopted the language of the forces fighting for people's empowerment in an effort to dismiss and sabotage the rise of the New against the Old which gives rise to modern definitions as required by the conditions today.

Modern definitions of democracy recognize the need to put individual and collective interests on a par and both in relation to the general interests of society and humanity in such a way that these many interests are harmonized -- are sorted out in a manner that benefits each and all. It is this constant and continuous work for modern definitions which includes discussing the needs of democracy today, that contributes to the advance of the battle of democracy. The many battles peoples are waging for control over the decisions which affect their lives, for their right to make claims on society by putting their rights front and center, reflect the urgent necessity for this advance -- for fashioning a democracy where the people, the vast majority of those who have brought into being the advance of the productive powers beyond anything previously conceived, have the power to govern and decide.

This article was published in

Volume 52 Number 1 - January 9, 2022

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