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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 possible?

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 the country.

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 economy.

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 economic plan.

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 undercut?

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 alternatives?

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 another?

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.

SI: And certainly communities have been sexist as well.

RC: 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.

SI: So the federal system would enforce a bottom-line justice--racial justice, gender justice, and so forth...

RC: Yes.

SI: And communities would be able to create their own visions and develop sustainable, localized economies, but with that bottom line.

RC: 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.

SI: So it isn't truly sustainable.

RC: 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.

Another regional 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.

SI: Do you see this system as compatible with our basic governmental structure--the Presidency, Congress, and so forth?

RC: 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.

SI: Corporations could still exist in this...?

RC: Yes, in this scheme. I would see their function fading away as you begin to have more cooperative enterprises.

SI: So the system would be transitional?

RC: 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.

SI: 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?

RC: 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.

SI: Tell me how the CAIS fits in with GANE.

RC: 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?"

SI: 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.

RC: 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.

SI: 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.

RC: 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 very liberating.

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.

SI: How can people plug into this process?

RC: Well, first of all, they should go and look at my website at (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 keep evolving.


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