Will Meyer | Longreads | October 2018 | 11 minutes (2,846 words)

In July of 2015, writer and ex-McKinsey consultant Anand Giridharadas addressed a room full of elites and their good company in Aspen, Colorado. He was a fellow with The Aspen Institute, a centrist think-tank, which was hosting an “ideas festival.” Giridharadas’ talk took aim at what he dubbed the “Aspen Consensus,” an ideological paradigm in which elites “talk a lot about giving more” and not “about taking less.” He earnestly questioned the social change efforts and “win-win” do-goodery promulgated at the business-friendly get-together. In the speech, Giridharadas walked a thin line: both praising the Aspen community which “meant so much” to him and his wife while also laying into its culture and commandments. He dropped the mic: “We know that enlightened capital didn’t get rid of the slave trade,” and suggested that the “rich fought for policies that helped them stack up, protect and bequeath [their] money: resisting taxes on inheritances and financial transactions, fighting for carried interest to be taxed differently from income, insisting on a sacred right to conceal money in trusts, shell companies and weird islands.”

The talk received a standing ovation, though certainly ruffled some feathers as well. An attendee confided in Giridharadas that he was speaking to their central struggle in life and others gave him icy glares and called him an “asshole” at the bar. The conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about the speech — which had hardly prescribed any policies — and clearly felt so threatened by it that his resulting column was titled “Two Cheers for Capitalism,” and attempted, albeit poorly, to nip any systemic critique of his favored economic system in the bud. But Brooks too realized that there would be a “coming debate about capitalism,” and his column prompted Giridharadas to post his talk online, stirring lots of debate — not quelching it.

Since then the debate has only gotten louder: from Bernie Sanders running as an open socialist on the Democratic ticket to a Gallup poll in August, which found that fewer than half of millennials view capitalism in a favorable light. Meanwhile, the elites whom Giridharadas addressed in Aspen three years ago have seen brutal blows to their centrist, pro-market worldview at the ballot in the form of both Brexit and Donald Trump’s upset victory in 2016. Giridharadas’ talk was prescient in 2015, noting that “history may not be as kind to us as we hope it will,” adding that “in the final analysis our role in the inequities of our age may not be remembered well.” He was right. And the time couldn’t be more apt for a book-length treatment of his skewering critique of liberal-leaning, market-friendly philanthropy and the grand delusions used to justify and promote it.

 All of these various characters find themselves in what Giridharadas dubs ‘MarketWorld,’ a kind of Disneyfied cultural neoliberalism…. that subsists on cheap bromides about ‘changing the world’ peddled by glib ‘thought leaders’ on the monied conference circuit.

In August Giridharadas released Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, which is a journalistic look at a culture of privatized change-making, where un-elected elites — unmarred by the messiness of democracy — try to tinker with problems they likely had a hand in causing. “There is no denying that today’s elite may be among the more socially concerned in history,” Giridharadas writes in the book’s introduction. “But it is also, by the cold logic of the numbers, among the more predatory in history,” noting the profound dissonance that drives his project. He suggests that those peddling what he calls a “false dogma” as confining their thinking within a narrow framework where it’s acceptable to promote “actionable tweaks rather than structural change.”

Although Winners Take All aims at today’s upper-crust in a world where wealth has continued to calcify into stock dividends and plush inheritances of the global one-percent since the 2008 global financial crisis, this critique is hardly new. To the contrary, as Giridharadas points out, pointed rebuttals of philanthropy — and the economic conditions that make it possible — have been a staple of left-wing criticism since Andrew Carnegie penned his infamous “Gospel of Wealth,” the founding text of modern philanthropy (or plutocrat P.R., depending on your perspective). Where Carnegie saw vast inequality as a sign of progress, and maintained the paternalistic belief that him and his ilk were the best stewards of their vast wealth, instead of the toiling masses who would waste it “in the indulgence of appetite,” one critic found his “Gospel” — and worldview — to be “repugnant to the whole idea of democracy.” Martin Luther King Jr., likewise, suggested that “Philanthropy is commendable but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

One of Giridharadas’ subjects, Darren Walker, the head of the Ford Foundation, cited this history in a lengthy essay titled “Toward a new gospel of wealth,” which sought to reconcile both Carnegie and King, challenging philanthropy — which, etymologically, means love of people — to consider the injustices perpetrated in wealth creation with the need to continue giving due to the drastic need in the world. Giridharadas is riding with Walker in a limousine to a private equity firm, where Walker is to address the firm’s employees. Walker tells Giridharadas that he hopes to “meet people where they are” but use his privilege and status to inspire a deeper analysis — and thus approach — to their change making. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, Giridharadas notes that Walker didn’t suggest that private equity might, in fact, be part of the problem or that rich people should pay more taxes during his remarks that day; rather, Walker praised the company’s CEO, whom Giridharadas calls a “corporate raider,” as a “philanthropist.” In the limo Walker openly struggles with the tax-incentives he receives, which he admits he doesn’t need, and then Giridharadas reveals that Walker gets a plum gig on the Pepsi Co. board, increasing his annual income to more than one-million dollars per year — highlighting the contradictions inherent to this milieu.

The book amounts to a collection of vignettes that follow people, like both Giridharadas and Walker, who landed in this elite bubble — either by luck or circumstance — and had doubts about its worldview. A recent-college-grad-turned-McKinsey-consultant-turned-Obama-Foundation-staffer who questioned the market’s ability to create social justice; a billionaire heiress who felt guilty about her inheritance but wouldn’t take a position on whether the wealthy should be taxed more; a social psychologist from Harvard Business School who gave a Ted Talk in conflict with her more systems-driven feminist beliefs — suggesting that women should alter their body language to achieve power instead of challenging it; the guy who booked her on the Ted stage grappled with his organization’s role in the rise of authoritarianism, and on and on. All of these various characters find themselves in what Giridharadas dubs “MarketWorld,” a kind of Disneyfied cultural neoliberalism — an assessment gained by looking through the prism of how elites see themselves, rather than how left-leaning academics and millenial socialists see them — that subsists on cheap bromides about “changing the world” peddled by glib “thought leaders” on the monied conference circuit.

FDR is the precisely the type of figure — a class traitor — that Giridharadas [thinks] we need more of.

Giridharadas, fittingly a former New York Times op-ed columnist and two-time Ted Talker, is very fascinated by the intellectual climate that midwives the MarketWorld ideology. In the book’s acknowledgements he cites a passage by French economist Thomas Piketty that inspired Winners. “Whether such extreme inequality is or is not sustainable depends not only on the effectiveness of the repressive apparatus but also, and perhaps primarily, on the effectiveness of the apparatus of justification.” This apparatus of justification is undoubtedly, and admittedly, the book’s subject, casting a very large net on everything from Silicon Valley and consulting to “thought leadership” and philanthropy.

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Giridharadas spends a chapter fixating on the rise of “thought leaders” alongside the simultaneous decline of “public intellectuals.” He cites Daniel Drezner, the author of the book The Ideas industry, which positions thought leaders as sympathetic to big business and public intellectuals as critical foes of power. While Giridharadas points out that institutions like academia, media, and publishing no longer boast the resources they once did to fund critical thought and now rely on patronage from the types of sources he deplores, it’s still hard to decipher how today’s thought leaders are all that different from the authors and hacks who melded bootstrap style capitalism with self-help nearly a century ago. Take Dale Carnegie’s (no relation to Andrew) 1936 How to Win Friends and Influence People, which played a large role in pioneering the self-help genre. He was no critic, and was rewarded with lavish gigs giving talks and corporate trainings like today’s “thought leaders.” His legacy lives on in a firm that still offers “professional trainings” and Warren Buffet keeps a diploma in his office from a Dale Carnegie training he earned when he was twenty years old. Or Napoleon Hill, also an early self-help author, who was greatly influenced by Andrew Carnegie — who had encouraged him to write about the sage advice from the business magnates of the time. Hill spent his time coddling the powerful, writing books like “The Laws of Success” (1928) and “The Master Key to Riches” (1945).

Of course as Giridharadas and others like Barbara Ehrenreich (in her 2009 book Bright-Sided) show, such thinking is still alive and well. Today’s tech-boosters and capitalism apologists are still pitching self-improvement and individual success over ideas that are critical of power. One such conference organizer interviewed in the book says that we won’t be able to stop entrenched problems like poverty and global warming and we must learn to live with them. “We have to acknowledge that the holy war against the boogeyman hasn’t worked and isn’t likely to anytime soon. In its place, we need approaches that are both more pragmatic and politically inclusive — rolling with the waves, instead of trying to stop the ocean.” In the same chapter, another such thinker (who, we learn, doesn’t like to read books) carrying on Hill and Carnegie’s self-help legacy makes up a theory about how people can find their “why” — an animating purpose to organize life around. But Giridharadas is quick to point out that such thinking contains “a certain comfort from any kind of intellectual tradition.” He likewise chides these self-helpey savants for the varied omissions that allow for their rosey-eyed theories. But Winners, too, is marred by a lack of intellectual tradition and a few gaping omissions.

Although the book is sprinkled with punchy aphorisms that are laced with a seething critique of capitalism, then and now, these tidbits often come as quick references sometimes lacking context and depth. One example is how the book doesn’t mention FDR — who one would think to be Giridharadas’ hero — even once and the only mention of the Great Depression comes in the book’s final five pages in passing. As the history of Carnegie’s “Gospel” makes clear, our predicament of extreme inequality isn’t a historical anomaly. We have seen elites cut their own taxes and crash the entire economy before and the United States has also made significant steps to ameliorate and repair such damage as well. For one, during the ‘20s, before the crash, taxes on the rich were negligible thanks to the handiwork of a wealthy (and perhaps self-interested) cabinet member; a 24% income tax and a 20% tax on inheritances, according to Paul Krugman. During the first Roosevelt administration, income taxes rose to 63% and then 79% in the second. Taxes on the rich grew as high as 91% by the fifties. We don’t learn this in the book. We don’t learn about how FDR worked to rein in the financial sector or increase social spending. The only place the New Deal is mentioned is in a pull quote by a capitalist trying to discredit it. All of this is odd, given that FDR is the precisely the type of figure — a class traitor — that Giridharadas told Vox’s Ezra Klein in an interview we need more of. In another Q+A with Giridharadas, one interviewer brings up FDR three separate times — almost spending more time on his legacy than the book.

Giridharadas chronicles how today’s elites are no longer accountable to the structures of democracy; they fancy themselves ‘global citizens’ — unbound by place, laws, or any other pesky roadblocks.

Another such example is we don’t really learn much about the real roots of market hegemony, something Giridharadas concedes briefly. He notes how Third-Way Democrats like Clinton and Obama capitulated rightward to the ascendant plutocrat-led movements hellbent on destroying public institutions, but leaves it at that. Milton Friedman also gets a passing shout-out, but no credit for fundamentally changing how capitalism was perceived in American popular culture. Anne Elizabeth Moore explains this shift in her review of Friedman’s 1980 television series Free to Choose for the Baffler magazine: “The reach of Friedman’s television show marked, among other things, the triumph of market Orwellianism. Once Free to Choose aired, freedom meant economic license. Choice meant market competition. And people meant consumers. The basic metaphors governing the world shifted, with value now conferred in accordance with the new terminology.” But the rise of neoliberalism — and the unmaking of FDR’s America — goes back even further to Frederick Hayek, the right-wing ideologue who wrote books like The Road to Serfdom and The Constitution of Liberty (which inspired politicians like Margaret Thatcher), and who was bankrolled by multi-millionaires determined to fend off democracy as early as the ‘40s. Or if you go back further, the slaveholding Senator John Calhoun, whom historian Richard Hofstadter dubbed “The Marx of the masterclass,” wrote books that greatly influenced the economist James Buchanan whose economic theories are the blueprint for the Koch Brothers’ America according to historian Nancy MacLean.

The contempt for democracy in order to preserve elite power is the through line for today’s capitalist order. “This stemmed in part,” according to a reviewer of MacLean’s book, “from Calhoun onward, from a conviction that the polity could be cleft between ‘makers and takers,’ and that it was the ‘takers’ who, by employing state power to tax wealth and income, were doing the exploiting.” Such naked disdain for “takers” exists well within the bounds of MarketWorld today. Giridharadas interviews tech journalist Greg Ferenstein, who has given the old-hat pro-market, anti-poor people ideology a software update: calling it “Optimism.” The idea that government should be accountable to business and that people who are “unintelligent, poor, indigent, unmotivated…will be left behind” is hardly breaking any ground, though a striking example of the ideologies being espoused in Silicon Valley. But perhaps the greatest indication of this through line might be in how elites have eschewed the local in favor of “globalism.” Giridharadas chronicles how today’s elites are no longer accountable to the structures of democracy; they fancy themselves “global citizens” — unbound by place, laws, or any other pesky roadblocks, and thus no longer part of the demos. While this might seem a minor cultural shift, these changing allegiances are what allow MarkerWorlders to escape society — and remake it from above in their image.

Giridharadas pines for more democracy and less elite-driven top-down change; this much is clear in the book’s final pages that feature a political philosopher, Chiara Cordelli, who suggests that today’s wealthy change makers and deal brokers are “directly complicit” in our tattered state of affairs; and that we must return to “our shared democratic institutions” — such as laws, regulations, courts and police, among others, “on behalf of all” and in “the context of equality.” (It’s hard to conceive of our Supreme Court or police departments as bastions of democracy or equality these days, but I digress.) Of course laws and regulations haven’t insulated us from a full-brown assault on democracy from the one-percent and their various enablers. Giridharadas stops short of any specific policy prescriptions — no reining in Wall St. or taxing capital; no green New Deal or social wealth funds; no prison abolition or decreased military spending; no calls to Occupy The Hamptons.

Instead we’re left with a feisty and well-timed polemic written by someone who has carefully and thoughtfully challenged the Aspen Consensus. Giridharadas’ reflection on these issues has proven contagious. Mark Kramer, a lecturer at Harvard Business School, former venture capitalist, and the business partner of one of the book’s subjects reviewed the book, writing: “Giridharadas raises thought-provoking questions that have made me think long and hard about my life’s work.” Giridharadas’ background as a former consultant and Ted Talker position him to reach an audience that other similar books and thinkers probably wouldn’t reach. And this is both the book’s strength and weakness: it, on the one hand, sometimes lacks necessary depth and nuance, making it very accessible and easy to digest (like a Ted Talk); but on the other, a power to reach people, like Kramer, who are open to confronting these ideas so long as they don’t call for overthrowing capitalism. But who knows, maybe they’ll join us.

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Will Meyer is a writer and musician. He is editor of The Shoestring, a local online publication in Western Massachusetts.

Editor: Dana Snitzky