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Resurrecting Democracy an interview with Ernst Ulrich von Weizsaecker

An interview with Ernst Ulrich von Weizsaecker - Why is “inclusive capitalism” on its way out and what can civil society do to resurrect democracy and economic justice? A member of the German parliment reflects on the possibilities

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsaecker is a member of the German Bundestag (parliament), founding president of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, and Energy, and co-author with Amory and Hunter Lovins of Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use. He is also a member of the International Labor Organization's World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, whose report will be presented in London on February 24, 2004. YES!editor Sarah Ruth van Gelder interviewed him in October in the Reichstag Building in Berlin.

Sarah Ruth van Gelder: You were recently chair of the Bundestag Select Committee on Globalization. What was the purpose of that committee and what were the main findings?

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsaecker: Since 1990, we can see a drastic change of the global economy in two types of countries. One, of course, is the former communist countries, which have now introduced capitalism. Less obvious is the other group, made up of those countries that were particularly influenced by the east/west tension, notably West Germany but also Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, France, Italy, but then also Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, and many Latin American countries. During the Cold War, these countries had a comfortable bargaining position against international capital markets because it was of the highest importance to international capital to keep those countries away from communism.

In the 1960s, in times of the Vietnam War, the so-called Domino Theory was the prevalent political theory, and to fend off that bacillus of communism, “inclusive” capitalism was invented and became a reality in those countries.

SvG: By inclusive capitalism, do you mean capitalism with a strong safety net?

EvW: Yes, a strong safety net and progressive taxation, so the rich contribute more as a percentage of income to the state functions of infrastructure, education, police, and the social safety net. That was the reality in West Germany and in Sweden and in all of those other countries until 1990. But as the specter of communism disappeared, for international capital markets it suddenly became tempting to force countries to reduce taxes on corporations, on millionaires, and on inheritances. So we have seen a relentless, cutthroat competition throughout the world making lives especially uncomfortable for chief executive officers. They then had to pass on the pressure they were feeling to their national governments, saying: Look, you have to relieve us of taxes, otherwise our competitors in other countries will destroy our profits and our companies and our jobs.

These days, in Germany, we are working on extremely painful reforms—so-called—that reduce our safety net, all in the service of international competitiveness. The electorate wants something quite different, but we are being blackmailed.

This spiral of destructive competition has become the name of the game in all countries—and this is what we call globalization. Globalization has uprooted the fundamentals of national democracies, for better or worse. Democracy has always been slow, while globalization rewards speed. We need to resurrect democracy worthy of its name, where people and not capital markets determine the fate of a country.

SvG: Do you see signs of that happening?

EvW: Yes. There are two different roads to be pursued. One is global governance concerning financial stability, human rights, climate, and drug traffic. It has to be admitted, however, that ordinary citizens have few opportunities to be part of that global governance game.

So we need a second road to democracy, and this has to do with civil society. Civil society has inter-national reach and should strengthen its international muscles.

If Nike has been shown to be involved in child slavery in their production chain somewhere in Asia, then U.S., Asian, and European customers can say: We don't like products from a company that is involved in such dirty business. They can join hands worldwide with the children in Vietnam, or wherever they see these practices, and help establish core labor standards—which are essentially human rights. In other cases, they can join in defending the local environment against destruction by the operations of international companies. Or they can protest violations of human rights by central governments.

Civil society, with the help of the Internet, is able to join hands electronically, and in a matter of a few hours, an issue campaign can be born. That gives ordinary citizens an opportunity to have a global reach.

What I, as a parliamentarian, find fascinating is the possibility that these civil society movements will join with national parliaments, so that we can help establish the rules in a way that facilitates honest campaigning. For instance, transparency rules on the supply chains of companies—that is something that parliaments can address. Or we can join hands with the environmental movement in moving towards international ecological tax reform. Or we can take steps to preserve peace through social equity so that not so many American soldiers have to lose their lives in Iraq as an indirect result of horrendous economic inequities. All those indirect effects of blatant injustice have to be—and could be—prevented through local campaigners with an international backing from civil society. This is my vision for a better world.

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