Equitable Alternatives: An Interview with Ruth Caplan
by Adriene Sere
The Battle of Seattle
was an historic show of opposition to corporate
globalization and its devastating consequences.
Protesters made clear, even if in the simplest terms,
what we are fighting against. What we are fighting for
has been more elusive. Of course, we want fair trade,
fair wages, a clean environment, local control,
democratic governance. But how do we bring about these
ideals? What exactly does "fair trade" look
like? What systems do we need in place to make our goals
Proposals for alternatives have been gradually emerging
within the movement against corporate globalization. As
part of the week-long teach-in and resistance to the WTO
in Seattle, the Alliance for Democracy organized a forum
called Alternatives to Corporate Globalization, a first
of its kind in trying to pull various ideas for
alternative systems into one room.
Ruth Caplan, author of Our Earth, Ourselves, is
a founding co-chair of the Alliance, and current co-chair
of the Alliance's Corporate Globalization/Positive
Alternatives campaign. She has been working since the
early-nineties, in collaboration with other writers and
activists, on a plan for an alternative economic system
that is socially equitable and environmentally
sustainable. The working document, called General
Agreement on a New Economy (GANE), is one among several
new plans, such as Common Agreement on Investment and
Society (CAIS), and Alternatives for the Americas, that
have emerged over the past few years. As the preface in
the Alternatives for the Americas reads: "At this
stage of the struggle, it is not enough to oppose, to
resist and to criticize. We must build a proposal of our
own and fight for it."
GANE puts special emphasis on the conversion of the
economy from our present economic system based on GNP
"growth" and unsustainable consumption, to one
of local empowerment and sustainability, a transition
which would begin with the community "visioning
process," a democratic dialogue at the local level,
and result in a "community federalism" across
Said It: How
did you first get involved in developing a plan for an
alternative to corporate globalization?
Ruth Caplan: I first started looking at
alternatives when I was the executive director of the
Environmental Action back in 1992. At that time we were
focusing on the whole pattern of consumption in
industrialized countries. Also at that time I began doing
a critique of the gross national product in terms of the
fact that it doesn't really measure human welfare. It
simply measures the value of goods and services produced.
I started asking questions like: How does the economy
support families, defined broadly? How does it support
communities? And of course the answer is, that's not the
focus of the economy today.
In 1992, at a women's conference in Miami, I heard people
like Marilyn Waring who wrote If Women Counted.
And this reinforced my feeling that we really need to
reconceptualize the economy in very fundamental ways.
Also around that time, Clinton was running for president,
and was asking the environmental community what kind of
jobs can be created under our agenda. And I found that
our answers weren't very satisfactory. We talked about
jobs from energy conservation, and solar, and from
cleaning up pollution, but we weren't looking at
fundamental questions about how you structure the
SI: So it was the early '90s,
and Marilyn Waring's book was having an impact, and a lot
of ideas and concerns were put out there, but there was
no concrete plan.
RC: That's right. But there were new
conceptualizations. I felt that I needed to focus my own
work on what it means to have an environmentally
sustainable economy. So I resigned from Environmental
Action, and I set up the Economics Working Group
specifically to do this.
I used this organization to create discussion groups with
economists, environmentalists, writers. A number of
people were doing a lot of thinking in this area. And out
of that discussion process came the General Agreement on
the New Economy--"GANE, not GATT."
We were also influenced by a particular movement
advocating community-based health care reform. The
concept here is that rather than just providing health
care to individuals, you really want to have
community-based health care, where you look at the root
cause of illness, and how do you begin as a community to
get at that cause. One community might be particularly
concerned with AIDS. Another might be concerned about
rats. Another might be concerned about getting healthy
food. The community would look at and decide what their
needs were, and then federal funding would be provided to
the community to meet these needs.
The basis of this is "community federalism."
That is, you begin your political structure at the
community level, where there is a conversation between
those who need health care and those who are providing
health care. Then you look at what needs to be done at
the regional level. Do you need to have high tech medical
facilities in every town, or can you share them
throughout a region? And then what kind of functions do
you want at the federal level? What kind of regulations
do you need?
I just thought that this was brilliant. For the next
several months I kept playing with this, and thinking
this could be used for a new concept of the economy
that's really grounded in environmental sustainability,
economic equity, and full employment.
SI: So there were a lot of
different progressive ideas that were coming together,
that you were bringing together, and stirring into one
RC: Well, there were ideas that were
coming from different places. This was still really at
the conceptual level. And it was specifically a model
just for transforming the US economy. We felt the US was
exporting a very dysfunctional model. And that we had a
responsibility to look at ourselves, look at the
overconsumption that was going on in the US, and start
talking about a different kind of model. I took these
ideas around to many different conferences and did
workshops and had discussions about it.
And then along came the Alliance for Democracy. I was
elected as the first national co-chair with Ronnie
Dugger. I was building this new organization when the
movement to stop the Multilateral Agreement on Investment
emerged. When I learned about it, I realized that
everything that I was trying to promote through
alternative economics would be undercut by the MAI. And
that I really had to stop the alternative economics work
I was doing and work to stop the MAI.
SI: How would it have been
RC: For instance, there were specific
things in the MAI that said you must treat foreign
corporations the same way you treat your local
businesses. And that you cannot require a certain amount
of local products to be used in manufacturing. You can't
require local labor to be used. If you are looking at a
kind of bottom up economics that is rooted in the
community, you do want to look at ways to hire local
people. You do want to look at what kinds of goods and
services the community needs and how you are going to
provide them and how you are going to finance this.
SI: You were drawn into the
fight against corporate globalization through trying to
set up an alternative?
RC: Yes, that's correct.
SI: It seems to me that the
movement against corporate globalization has been slow to
get around to presenting alternatives. Do you see Seattle
as a turning point in integrating visions for
RC: I do feel that Seattle can be a
turning point. It's something that I've been wanting to
see and I've been frustrated at some earlier meetings
that it didn't happen. People really do want to start
focusing on the alternatives. We need to see where there
are common ideas, where there are divergent ideas, and
whether we can begin to build more of common vision.
SI: Let's talk about the GANE
plan. I found it to be a real eclectic mix of
decentralized and centralized structures. I don't know if
you call them ruling bodies, or coordinating bodies. But
it isn't limited to decentralization. Do you see the
inclusion of regional and national organizations as
necessary for transition? Or do you think that
decentralization isn't the be all end all--that we still
need power checks and broader interaction with one
RC: I do think you need more than
decentralization. When I started working on GANE, there
were already people who were looking at issues of
globalization. And there were a lot of people working on
local alternatives--on community supported agriculture,
on local currency, on community sustainability, on local
community measures, all these kinds of efforts. And there
was nothing in between.
The local people were acting as if you didn't have to
worry about what was going on globally, you could just
sort of do your own thing. And sometimes I sort of felt
like it was polishing a board on the Titanic. You know,
globalization was going to take it all down, and they
were busy polishing a board. I don't mean to degrade what
they were doing--it is very, very important. I'm just
saying, you have to look at the big ship. And you have to
look at what the rules are.
Now the people working on globalization weren't really
talking about the local alternatives. So one of the
things that I was trying to do was to bring these two
together. Although with GANE, I was only going up as far
as the federal level.
You need federal regulations as a floor. You can't just
depend on the local community. When I presented the plan
of the community-visioning process to various audiences,
the response of African Americans was, "We'll never
be at the table for the visioning process." I have a
lot of confidence in people, that when people get
together and share honestly with one another, that very
good things come out of that process. But at the same
time I'm aware that communities have kept Blacks out.
And certainly communities have been sexist as well.
Yes. I was at a global dialogues meeting in Helsinki,
Finland. It was on preserving local space in the global
economy. And all the people speaking for India were male.
I was sitting next to an Indian woman, and she pointed
out the situation, saying, "Look at this." She
was saying that a certain kind of globalization--in the
sense of social movements becoming global--has really
helped them. That the local community is very sexist, and
that it's been in the global community that they've begun
to promote their rights as women.
So the federal system would enforce a bottom-line
justice--racial justice, gender justice, and so forth...
And communities would be able to create their own visions
and develop sustainable, localized economies, but with
that bottom line.
Yes. We also need regional and national systems to see
that all communities are becoming sustainable. There
could be a community of millionaires with a lot of money
that can buy expensive systems for their own
sustainability. They could build a wall around their
community, and have a guard at the gate, and keep
everyone else out. And they could feel they are
sustainable. But what they are doing is externalizing the
environmental and social costs to other places.
So it isn't truly sustainable.
No, it's not truly sustainable. It's sustainable within
those walls in certain ways. But you have to look at
whether the whole region is becoming sustainable. That's
one of the regional functions.
function is to look at how successes in different
communities can be shared--sharing technical information,
for instance. Sharing organizing skills.
And, you know, every
locality can't produce everything it needs. So how do you
begin to trade within the region? How do you trade
sustainable products? Then there are the same questions
at the national level.
Another issue that
needs to be looked at is economic equity. Rich
communities can get investment funds to do what they want
to do, but how do poor communities get that? One of the
ideas in GANE is that you have federal funds provided on
a per capita basis to local communities. Once they've
gone through the visioning process and determined what
their needs are, and once they've shown that they have
really had people across race and class at the
table--there needs to be some way to show that the
community has done this in a fair and equitable way--then
you provide federal funds. It's a way of beginning to
redistribute capital a little bit.
Do you see this system as compatible with our basic
governmental structure--the Presidency, Congress, and so
That's a really good question. I think at this point I
wouldn't want to muck with that. I think that the balance
of power that has been written into the Constitution is
pretty important in this country. I think that the
Congress and the Presidency have been taken over by the
corporations. But that's not a matter of the fundamental
structure. That's a matter of power relationships, and
how they've been allowed to get out of hand, in terms of
the power of corporations. The idea of how to hold
corporations accountable is addressed in GANE.
Corporations could still exist in this...?
Yes, in this scheme. I would see their function fading
away as you begin to have more cooperative enterprises.
So the system would be transitional?
Yes, in that sense it would be transitional. But in terms
of needing regional and federal functions, I don't see
that as transitional. I think you'll always need those
functions, and I think you probably need international
functions as well.
When you talk about functions, I assume that there would
be enforcement involved. What kind of powers of enforcement
would there be? Would we still have police? Military?
I haven't dealt with that directly. I think when there's
more economic equity, there's less need to protect the
resources of the wealthy. But I think that sometimes
there's just evil in the world. And there needs to be a
way to keep that evil from spreading. I happen to be a
pacifist, so I would hope that that would be able to be
done without weapons. But that's a whole other area. I
didn't address that area directly in GANE.
Tell me how the CAIS fits in with GANE.
The basic idea with the CAIS is to answer the question,
first of all, "If not the MAI, what?" "If
not the WTO, what?" But also to answer the question,
"What kind of institutions do you want to support
the local community?" It's taking GANE one step
further. Although it had its independent genesis. At a
certain point, we began to say, "How can these two
ideas weave together?"
It seems to me that both visions depend an enormous
amount on human good will and willingness to move toward
structures which most people are completely unfamiliar
with. I was struck by the optimism in the CAIS. They want
to do it in 20 years. Which would be great. But we're in
a real conservative climate right now.
I actually think that some of these ideas would appeal to
a lot of conservatives. I think of the conservatives who
are more small town people. A lot of them came in with
Gingrich into Congress for instance. I've lobbied those
folks a lot. And the thing we have in common--myself
being a progressive, on the radical side of
progressive--and these conservatives, is that we both
agree that there are other values that are important that
are not economic values. And we feel very strongly about
that. We don't agree on those values. But we do agree
that there are other values. That's a democratic
conversation that we need to have in our own communities.
When it's done at the community level it's not so
politicized. We need to really listen to each other. In a
good visioning process, there's real listening.
I'm wondering if we're going to need a crisis in this
country before we begin to move toward an alternative. Do
you think that we can all move toward an alternative--not
just the 5% or so of the population that is progressive,
but the population in general? Especially considering the
fact that the corporations are controlling the media, and
we can't get the message out that easily.
If you know where you'd like to end up, you can begin to
look at what kind of steps you might take. If you have a
picture, then you can begin to ask, "What kinds of
pieces can we start to put into place?" Having an
alternative vision also gives you credibility in making a
critique of the current system. Part of the idea of GANE
is to stimulate discussion, and to help people realize
that they don't need to accept what is, that they can
begin to talk about what might be. And I think that is
With all of that
said, I think you are still right. A lot of this would
not begin to be put into place until there is more of a
sense of crisis. But there's a lot of groundwork that
needs to be laid.
How can people plug into this process?
Well, first of all, they should go and look at my website
at http://www.greenecon.org (where the GANE document is
posted) and they can give feedback on it. If they want me
to come speak on it, I'd be happy to do that. We'll be
working on more versions. This is a document that should