‘I’m a rich man, and wanted to give something back. Not the money, but something.’
The Simpsons Movie (2007)
From McKinsey analyst to honoured author, New York Times correspondent, familiar face on MSNBC. Awarded a prestigious Henry Crown Fellowship at Aspen, invited onto private planes amid discussion of drinking-water projects in Kenya and improved farm supply chains in India. Not one but two TED talks. Yet all the time, a gnawing sense of something profoundly wrong.
Anand Giridharadas, in Winners Take All: The elite charade of changing the world, turns on those who fêted him. At Aspen, he was drawn into a place he calls ‘marketworld’, a distinctive domain of business, philanthropy, and consulting, with celebrity motivational speakers and promises to use market mechanisms for social change. It felt good at first but in time became a ‘giant, sweet-lipped lie’. In 2015 Giridharadas took to the stage at Aspen, not to say thanks but to go on the attack. Some cheered. A private equity guy swore at him. Winners Take All, an extended version of that speech, denounces a world Giridharadas briefly inhabited.
Anger his forte, Giridharadas is withering about the conceit that business knows best. Inevitably, vitriol also undermines the text. There is too much repetition of the thesis that corporate ‘do-gooding’ is about entrenching the status quo, not changing the world.
In America’s gilded age, huge fortunes were amassed by business tycoons and then turned in part to public benefit. Andrew Carnegie busted unions and suppressed wages in his rail and steel enterprises, before building public libraries and museums. Other magnates endowed hospitals and universities. This, argues Giridharadas, proved to be an enduring American modus operandi: let me get rich now, using whatever means it takes, and I will be generous when I’m sufficiently wealthy. For Giridharadas, this philosophy – one that holds that philanthropy, not labour laws, will best help the poor – institutionalises an avaricious capitalism and undermines social provision through government.
Winners Take All argues that this approach dominates our new gilded age of tech firms. Immensely wealthy individuals build their fortunes then use their business acumen to dabble in policy problems that interest them. Around them spins a penumbra of consultants and ‘thought leaders’, former politicians and heads of corporations who praise the founders and repeat the mantra – a fabled land of invitation-only events, meetings with Bill Clinton, celebrity donors, and their ilk.
Marketworld has distinctive values – a preference for global trade with minimum regulation, distrust of government, boundless confidence in the ingenuity of business thinking, dislike of language that implies a political agenda. ‘Poverty’ is an acceptable term, since it connotes the deserving poor. ‘Inequality’ is not, because it signals winners and losers and, therefore, the potential for a political response.
It is marketworld’s hostility to government that rankles most with Giridharadas. Some of his finest passages ask why marketworld participants seem puzzled by populism and by the election of bombastic leaders. Do they not see their own hand in the problems they now deplore? This blindness, asserts Giridharadas, results from a closed and unchallenged logic: if we allow the rich to accumulate more wealth, they will invest back in the community. How dare people struggling on minimum wages with poor public services beg to differ.
Giridharadas believes that a more active democracy should demand alternatives. Philanthropy seems necessary only because social provision is lacking and becomes unimaginable; a state that eliminates estate duties and allows the wealthy to escape taxation while living no longer has the capacity to help.
The idea that collective political action has no place in a modern world, suggests Giridharadas, is the lived assumption of marketworld. Instead, techniques and values from private finance recast traditional philanthropy according to the ‘market way of looking at things, and the bypassing of government’. This brings its own preferred instruments: it relies on the analytical techniques employed by consultants to break problems into small manageable increments, new social bonds and impact investing rather than traditional gifting, and new entities called B Corporations that mix charity with attractive financial returns for their owners. Philanthropy has been refashioned by ‘one of the reigning ideas of the age: that if you really want to change the world, you must rely on the techniques, resources, and personnel of capitalism’.
This shift has its dedicated champions, people who ‘groom the rich to be self-appointed leaders of social change’. Thought leaders make policy problems ‘unintimidating, bite-sized, digestible’. Opportunities to preach are endless: the Aspen Ideas Festival, Bilderberg, Burning Man, the Consumer Electronics Show, Davos, Dialog, South by Southwest, Sun Valley, TechCrunch Disrupt, and TED. Giridharadas even describes Summit at Sea, a cruise ship of entrepreneurs keen to do good by doing well.
Marketworld thrives because it has ‘collaborators in the worlds of charity, academia, media, government, and think tanks’. Messages are shaped by speakers with one big idea to sell. Always optimistic and tech-savvy, they crowd out an earlier generation of public intellectuals who questioned society. ‘Susan Sontag, William F. Buckley Jr., and Gore Vidal were public intellectuals,’ says Giridharas. ‘Thomas L. Friedman, Niall Ferguson, and Parag Khanna are thought leaders.’ They talk about empowerment but never about the powerful.
Such is the message of marketworld – social change is best pursued through business. Technology will make the world better. We no longer need institutions such as unions, social movements, and political parties, nor categories such as class. Marketworld favours individuals, not communities and organisations that seek to mediate the economy through political activity. Workers want better apps, not secure jobs or a rising standard of living.
The villains in Winners Take All change shape during the book. Sometimes they appear naïve and idealistic, the college graduates who spend time in finance or consultancy before dedicating themselves to social causes (thus producing a strange uniformity across the philanthropic sector.) Others are portrayed as cynical, gesturing to change-making while removing from the agenda anything distressing to sponsors.
At times Giridharadas struggles to sustain a stable account of interests and ideology. He has no doubt that American philanthropy is driven, largely, by self-interest. Donors buy respectability. They also exhibit hubris, an assumption that whatever made them successful in commercial life offers immediately answers to social problems that elude government and established charities. Here, there are some wonderful vignettes, such as a description of a charity ball in New York, where everyone understands the trade involved:
The organization raising money helps troubled, vulnerable, and poor New Yorkers find work, housing, skills, companionship, and safety. The whole night is divided into two types of performances from the stage. The young and the helped, mostly black and brown, repeatedly dance for their donors. Then, between performances, older white men are brought up to praise them and to talk about, and be applauded for, their generosity to the program. Most of the men work in finance.
It is a finely wrought picture, yet herein resides a concern. The book is a product of its origin in jeremiad, a burst of moral indignity that demands tough-minded conclusions. Yet, as this quote half-acknowledges, there are hundreds of charities in New York that do important work for the disadvantaged, honest people who give up more lucrative careers for something with purpose, donors who recognise an obligation to share their good fortune. To be angry, to pick targets with such a fine eye, may risk missing the wider picture.
Thus many of the business techniques that Giridharadas abhors can be used for good or bad. The best US foundations find out what works through systematic trial and error. They are happy to use new financial instruments if they achieve the end, to view problems through a quantitative lens, to apply commercial incentives or political lobbying depending on circumstances.
Thus the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in Palo Alto uses sophisticated data analysis to reduce erroneous diagnosis, and thus improve patient care in hospitals. The Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington has for a decade invested in penal reform, working systematically with local politicians to advocate for more humane prison systems and prisoner access to proper medical care. The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York has long funded programs that provide economically disadvantaged children and youth with better child care and schooling. Each of these foundations has its origins in a commercial fortune – from Intel, oil, and Avon products respectively. All can be dismissed as mere camouflage, ignoring the bigger questions about capitalism. Still, these efforts matter, employing innovative techniques to help others. Long before Giridharadas experienced revelation, there have been Americans working hard to ameliorate suffering and to push for social change. They recall the injunction of Martin Luther King Jr. to practise charity but not ignore ‘the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary’.
To suggest that Anand Giridharadas should temper his findings would miss the point. Winners Take All does not claim to be objective analysis. It lacks the scholarship that underpins Rob Reich’s Just Giving (Princeton, 2018), a study that offers qualified support for foundations and their charitable work. Rather, Winners Take All is a passionate statement, a song of renouncement. It is provocative, bracing, sweeping in its verdicts. Giridharadas raises uncomfortable questions about a society where Donald Trump can seem plausible to nearly half the population, a plutocrat to chasten all those smug, liberal plutocrats. A more carefully qualified book would lose its rhetorical power. This is anger with style.