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Winners Take All , Anand Giridharadas (2018)

Subtitled The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas eloquently explores the belief system and myths the elite class uses to justify the status quo; through reporting, anecdote, surveying what others have written, and personal experience, he argues that the path forward lies in fixing our democracy and strengthening our political institutions. This was a favorite read last year on a topic I hadn’t thought about much before, and it helped crystallize and shape into words the vague unease I’d had about the genre of self-improvement and pop-psych books, TED talks, and other things of a similar nature; brief chapter highlights follow.

A very much-related but broader cultural take is Daniel Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap.

But How is the World Changed?

It often seems that the only way to change the world is to become part of the system that the rich and powerful have built, and employ the problem-solving techniques that the system espouses, which drive its worldview: measure, analyze, optimize, solve. Giridharadas calls this MarketWorld, a prized new phrase of mine: the “enlightened” elite that aims to do good while still profiting from the status quo and free market, and includes the network and community of so-called thought leaders, the Goldman Sachs, McKinsey-ites and others of their ilk.

Rebel-Kings in Worrisome Berets

Win-win is the business model of making money and turning a profit, alongside a stated goal to change the world; as Giridharadas puts it, entrepreneurship-as-humanitarianism, while not actually changing anything. In Silicon Valley, social justice has become a dirty word because of its inherent win-lose thinking. Technology, instead of leveling the playing field, has concentrated wealth inequality even more; social progress does not necessarily or naturally follow innovation.

The Critic and the Thought Leader

Daniel Drezner, in The Ideas Industry, defines two types of thinkers: thought leaders reason inductively from personal experience and emphasize hopeful stories and solutions over systemic change, they are congenial and unthreatening to plutocrats; public intellectuals are domain experts, critics and debaters, and generally unfriendly to the elite. Rising inequality and tribalism has contributed to the rise of the thought leader, and they count themselves among MarketWorld’s network of winners – TED talks and their like. A public intellectual can eventually be seduced by the rewards and validation of the MarketWorld circuit; excuses, once begun, are difficult to stop.

Arsonists Make the Best Firefighters

Those complicit in creating the very conditions for social problems, should not be the ones who get to decide how to solve them: the shareholder focus in the world of business is the cause of wide-ranging pain. MarketWorld’s PowerPoint approach to problem solving is not a panacea for solving the social issues surrounding us.

Generosity and Justice

After surveying the essays of Andrew Carnegie, Giradharadas writes: 

“Here lay the almost constitutional principles that one day would govern MarketWorld giving: the idea that after-the-fact-benevolence justifies anything-goes capitalism; that callousness and injustice in the cutthroat souk are excused by later philanthropy; that giving should not only help the underdogs but also, and more important, serve to keep them out of the top dogs’ hair – and, above all, that generosity is a substitute for and a means of avoiding the necessity of a more just and equitable system and a fairer distribution of power.”

All that Works in the Modern World

2016 was the pushback against the globalists: MarketWorld’s winners, the OneWorlders, the proponents of open borders and an international economy. Dani Rodrik: “The new model of globalization stood priorities on their head, effectively putting democracy to work for the global economy, instead of the other way around.” Jonathan Haidt: “The new cosmopolitan elite acts and talks in ways that insult, alienate, and energize many of their fellow citizens…” 

Finally, Giridharadas himself: “What people were rejecting… was, in their view, rule by global elites who put the pursuit of profit above the needs of their neighbors and fellow citizens… What they did not appreciate was the world being changed without them.”

“Other People are Not Your Children”

The final pages are devoted to a conversation with Chiara Cordelli. We need to move past fatalism, that the unfair system we’ve inherited and perhaps even had a hand in shaping, is too difficult to truly change. Change driven by the individuals and private citizens of MarketWorld is illegitimate; instead, redemption is found only by seeking and supporting solutions that are achieved politically and democratically: only our institutions “can act and speak on behalf of everyone… Let’s start working to create the conditions to make those institutions better.”