Top Quotes: “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” — Anand Giridharadas

Introduction

“Rich American men, who tend to live longer than the average citizens of any other country, now live 15 years longer than poor American men, who endure only as long as men in Sudan and Pakistan.”

“All around us, the winners in our highly inequitable status quo declare themselves partisans of change. They know the problem, and they want to be part of the solution. They believe that their solutions deserve to be at the forefront of social change. They may join or support movements initiated by ordinary people looking to fix aspects of their society. More often, though, these elites start initiatives of their own, taking on social change as though it were just another stock in their portfolio or corporation to restructure. Because they’re in charge of these attempts at social change, the attempts naturally reflect their biases.

The initiatives mostly aren’t democratic, nor do they reflect collective problem-solving or universal solutions. Rather, they favor the use of the private sector and its charitable spoils, the market way of looking at things, and the bypassing of government. They reflect a highly influential view that the winners of an unjust social quo — and the tools and mentalities and values that helped them win — are the secret to redressing the injustices. Those at greatest risk of being resented in an age of inequality are thereby recast as our saviors from an age of inequality.”

“Management consultants and Wall St. brains seek to convince the social sector that they should guide its pursuit of greater equality by assuming board seats and leadership positions. Conferences and idea festivals sponsored by plutocrats and big business host panels on injustice and promote ‘thought leaders’ who are willing to confine their thinking to improving lives within the faulty system rather than tackling the faults. Profitable companies built in questionable ways and employing reckless means engage in corporate social responsibility, and some rich people make a splash by ‘giving back’ — regardless of the fact that they may’ve caused societal problems as they built their fortune. Elite networking forums like the Aspen Institute and the Clinton Global Initiative groom the rich to be self-appointed leaders of social change, taking on the problems people like them have been instrumental in creating or sustaining. A new breed of community-minded so-called B Corp has been born, reflecting a faith that more enlightened corporate self-interest — rather than, say public regulation — is the surest guarantor of the public welfare. A pair of Silicon Valley billionaires fund an initiative to rethink the Democratic Party, and one of them can claim, without a hint of irony, that their goals are simply to amplify the voices of the powerless and reduce the political influence of rich people like them.”

“There’s no denying that today’s elite may be among the most socially concerned elites in history. But it’s also, by the cold logic of numbers, among the more predatory in history. By refusing to risk its way of life, by rejecting the idea that the powerful might have to sacrifice for the common good, it clings to a set of social arrangements that allow it to monopolize progress and then give symbolic scraps to the forsaken — many of whom wouldn’t need the scraps if the society were working right.”

“There’s still another, darker way of judging what goes on when elites put themselves in the vanguard of social change: that it not only fails to make things better, but also serves to keep things as they are. After all, it takes the edge off of some of the public’s anger at being excluded from progress. It improves the image of the winners. With its private and voluntary half-measures, it crowds out public solutions that would solve problems for everyone, and do so with or without the elite’s blessing. There’s no question that the outpouring of elite-led social change in our era does great good and soothes pain and saves lives. But we should also recall Oscar Wilde’s words about such elite helpfulness being ‘not a solution’ but ‘an aggravation of the difficulty.’ More than a century ago, in an age of churn like our own, he wrote, ‘Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do the most harm are the people who try to do the most good.’

Wilde’s formulation may sound extreme to modern ears. How can there be anything wrong with trying to do good? The answer may be: when the good is an accomplice to even greater, if more invisible, harm. In our era that harm is the concentration of money and power among a small few, who reap from that concentration a near monopoly on the benefits of change. And do-gooding pursued by elites tends not only to leave this concentration untouched, but actually to shore it up. For when elites assume leadership of social change, they’re able to reshape what social change is — above all, to present it as something that should never threaten winners. In an age defined by a chasm between those who have power and those who don’t, elites have spread the idea that people must be helped, but only in market-friendly ways that don’t upset fundamental power equations. The society should be changed in ways that don’t change the underlying economic system that has allowed the winners to win and fostered some of the problems they seek to solve. The broad fidelity to this law helps make sense of what we observe all around: the powerful fighting to ‘change the world’ in ways that essentially keep it the same, and ‘giving back’ in ways that sustain an indefensible distribution of influence, resources, and tools. Is there a better way?”

“‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ If this view is correct, then much of the charity and social innovation and give-one-get-one marketing around us may not be reform measures so much as forms of conservative self-defense — measures that protect elites from more menacing change. Among the kinds of issues being sidelined, OECD leader Angel Gurria wrote, are ‘rising in equalities of income, wealth, and opportunities; the growing disconnect between finance and the real economy; mounting divergence in productivity levels between workers, firms and regions; winner-take-most dynamics in many markets; limited progressivity of our tax systems; corruption and capture of politics and institutions by vested interests; lack of transparency and participation by ordinary citizens in decision-making; the soundness of the education and of the values we transmit to future generations.’ Elites, Gurria writes, have found myriad ways to ‘change things on the surface so that in practice nothing changes at all.’ The people with the most to lose from genuine social change have placed themselves in charge of social change, often with the passive assent of those most in need of it.

It’s fitting that an era marked by these tendencies should culminate in the election of T***p. T***p is at once an exposer, an exploiter, and an embodiment of the cult of elite-led social change. He tapped, as few before him successfully had, into a widespread intuition that elites were phonily claiming to be doing what was best for most Americans. He exploited that intuition by whipping it into frenzied anger and then directing most of that anger not at elites but at the most marginalized and vulnerable Americans. And he came to incarnate the very fraud that had fueled his rise and that he’d exploited. He became, like the elites he assailed, the establishment figure who falsely casts himself as renegade. He became the rich, educated man who styles himself as the ablest protector of the poor and uneducated — and who insists, against all evidence, that his interests have nothing to do with the change he seeks. He became the chief salesman for the theory, rife among plutocratic change agents, that what’s best for powerful him is best for the powerless, too. Trump is the reducto ad absurdum of a culture that tasks elites with reforming the very systems that’ve made them and left others in the dust.”

The Government

“Georgetown and the US and the world at large have been taken over by an ascendant ideology of how best to change the world. That ideology is often called neoliberalism, and it is, in the framing of anthropologist David Harvey, ‘a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.’ Where the theory goes, ‘deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision’ tend to follow, Harvey writes. ‘While personal and individual freedom in the marketplace is guaranteed, each individual is held responsible and accountable for their own actions and well-being.’”

“The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation under President Obama, according to its site, was ‘based on a simple idea: we cannot drive lasting change by creating new top-down programs from Washington.’ It was a striking statement from a liberal government — but not an uncommon one in an age dominated by market thinking.”

In a bygone era government was solely responsible for addressing the Nation’s biggest problems, from building the interstate system to the New Deal. However, today’s challenges are more complicated and interconnected than ever before and cannot be solved by a single actor or solution. That is why government has an opportunity to engage with the actors in the Impact Economy from non-profits to businesses.

It was curious to see the US government, arguably the most powerful institution in human history, reduced to being a ‘single actor’ among actors, one inadequate to modern problems. Building a continental highway network or waging a New Deal was easy, according to this view.”

“Social Impact” Careers

“Cohen says she reassured herself: ‘Now that I’ve been trained to structure, break down, and solve business problems, I can apply those same skills to any issue or challenge I choose.’

Then she began to see through that idea. From the outside, she’d been awed by the claim that people trained in business would gain some elusive way of thinking that was vital to helping people. Once inside, though, she realized that while this way of thinking was indeed useful for helping a tire company shave costs or a solar panel maker select a promising market for global expansion, it didn’t deserve its status as a cure-call across domains.”

“At that very moment, one of the biggest banks in the world, Standard Chartered, was prepping to go to court in Tanzania to fight charges that it had knowingly bought ‘dirty debt,’ tainted by corruption, from an energy investment, and then petitioned the country’s government to nationalize the project so as to pay the bank back with the money of ordinary Tanzanians. The practice was common — and was, at least theoretically, harmful to the government’s ability to care for the orphans that Asher cared about. The African Development Bank Group has said that so-called vulture funds — of the very kind that Standard Chartered stood accused of creating — routinely buy bad debt at a steep discount and then sue African governments to repay them in full with taxpayer money, threatening their foreign assets if they contest. It’s said that ‘these vulture funds undermine the development of the most vulnerable countries.’”

“A well-meaning person like Asher, knowledgeable about and well connected in high finance, was in a good position to take on an issue like this. Given that vulture funds had extracted nearly $1 billion from debtor countries, according to the development bank, there was great potential to help orphans by beating back this dubious practice and leaving more money for social spending. But this was precisely the kind of undertaking that tended to get overlooked when MarketWorld’s winners took on the problems of others. Such an undertaking would be conflictual; it would name names of offending financial institutions; it would pick fights with people who might one day be useful to you. People like Asher were regularly told, and had come to believe, that there were less hostile ways of solving problems than systemic reform.”

“When your paychecks surge and dive willy-nilly, it’s hard to pay bills, make plans, and create a future. Even came along offering a Silicon Valley-style solution to this problem, in the form, of naturally, an app. It would smooth the spiky incomes of working-class people, for a fee. The initial plan was to sell them a service, costing $260/year, that squirreled away some of their money when they made more than the usual, and then in weeks when their pay fell short supplemented it with some of what was squirreled away. Even would endeavor, with characteristic Silicon Valley ambition, to counteract the effects of a generation’s worth of changes in the lives of working-class Americans, rooted in policy choices and shifts in tech and the world situation — including outsourcing, stagnant wages, erratic hours, defanged unions, deindustrialization, ballooning debt, nonexistent sick leave, dismal schools, predatory lending, and dynamic scheduling — while doing nothing about those underlying problems. The founders of Even wanted very much to help, but thought it best to help in a way that would create some opportunity for them, too.”

“Thought Leaders”

“Here Pishevar was engaging in advocacy that disguised itself as prophecy, which was common among tech barons and one of the ways in which they masked the fact of their power in an age rattled by the growing anxieties of the powerless. VCs and entrepreneurs are considered by many to be thinkers these days, their commercial utterances treated like ideas, and these ideas are often in the future tense: claims about the next world, forged by adding up the theses of their portfolio companies or extrapolating from their own startup’s mission statement. That people listened to these ideas gave them a chance to launder their self-interested hopes into more selfless-sounding predictions about the world. For example, a baron wishing to withhold benefits from workers might reframe that desire as a prediction about the future in which every human is a solo entrepreneur. A social media billionaire keen to profit from the higher ad revenue that video posts draw, compared to text ones, might recast that interest — and his rewriting of the powerful algorithms he owns to get what he wants — as a prediction that ‘I just think that we’re going to be in a world a few years from now where the vast majority of the content that people consume online will be video.’ (New York magazine had skewered Zuckerburg after he issued that prediction at the Mobile World Congress: ‘The Vast Majority of Web Content Will Be Video, Says Man Who Can Ultimately Make Such a Decision’)

In the Valley, prediction has become a popular way of fighting for a particular future while claiming merely to be describing what has yet to occur. Prediction has a useful air of selflessness to it. Predictors aren’t caught in the here and now of their own appetites and interests. It seems like they aren’t choosing how things will be in the future any more than they chose the color of their eyes. Yet selecting one scenario among many possible scenarios and persuading everybody of its inevitability — and of the futility of a society’s exercising its collective choice among these futures — is a deft way to shape the future.

As he predicted the elongation of life and other such ‘things that are coming down the pipe,’ Pishevar was in fact pushing those things down the pipe. He was part of a group of elites who had been very smart and very lucky with startup investments, and who now got to make decisions of enormous social consequence among what to do about the human lifespan. This power gave them great responsibility and exposed them to the possibility of resentment — unless they convinced people that the future they were fighting for would unfold automatically, would be the fruit of forces rather than their choices, of providence rather than power. Hence the cleverness of Pishevar’s passive framing of his own goals: ‘The way things are structured today aren’t going to be relevant to what the reality is going to be.’ Longer lives for rich people were just something that happened to be coming down the pipe. Not so much a better healthcare system for all.

A rebel, who takes no responsibility for the whole, is free to pursue his singular truth. That’s the whole point of being a rebel. It’s not in the rebel’s job description to worry about others who might have needs that are different from his. By Pishevar’s lights, when a company like Uber challenged regulations and unions, there weren’t rival interests at play so much as a singular truth vying with opposition, and insurgent rebels going up against a corrupt establishment. This became even clearer with his answer to the following question:

‘How do you find the balance between morality and ambition and having to compete?’

Because Pishevar didn’t think himself powerful, because he refused to see the companies he invested in as powerful, he seemed not to understand the question. It takes a certain acceptance of one’s power to see oneself as facing moral choices. If instead what you see in the mirror is a rebel outgunned by the Man, besieged, fighting for your life, you might be tempted to misinterpret the question in the way that Pishevar now did. He interpreted it as being about how he, a moral man, representing a moral company–again, he chose the example of Uber–stood up against immoral forces.

‘My biggest thing is existing structures and monopolies-one example is the taxi cartels–that’s a very real thing,’ he said. ‘I’ve been in meetings where I’ve been threatened by those types of characters from that world. I’ve seen them beating drivers in Italy. You see the riots in France, and flipping over cars and throwing stones. I took my daughter to Disney. We were in the middle of that. We had to drive our Uber away from basically the war zone that was happening.

So from a moral perspective, anything that’s fighting against morally corrupt, ingrained systems that are based on decades and decades of graft within cities, within city councils, with mayors, etc. — all those things, they’re real, actual things that are threatened by new tech and innovations like Uber and other companies in that space. So from that perspective, bring it on. That’s something we should be fighting. And from a moral perspective, we have a responsibility to fight those types of pockets of control. And they exist at all levels–in the city level to the state, and even at the national and global.’

Pishevar wasn’t only casting venture capitalists and billionaire company founders as rebels against the establishment, fighting the powers that be on behalf of ordinary people. He was also maligning the very institutions that are meant to care for ordinary people and promote equality. He referred to unions as ‘cartels.’ He cast protests, which were a fairly standard feature of labor movements, as a ‘war zone.’ He spoke of taxi drivers and their reps in the language of the corrupt, manifoso Other: ‘those types of characters from that world.’ Here was a leading investor in a company, Uber, that had sought to shatter democratically enacted regulations and evade the unions that have a record of actually, and not just rhetorically, fighting for the little guy, and he was proudly portraying himself as the one who was truly fighting for the people against the corrupt power structure.”

“She was continuing to work with a team on a long-term project to study how men’s hegemony, that most global of phenomena, adapts to local conditions so as to enroot itself. In America, where being independent and self-oriented are the leading ‘cultural ideals,’ she and her colleagues wrote, the society tends to cast men as independent and self-oriented. In S. Korea, where being interdependent and others-oriented are more prized, the society tends to cast men as interdependent and others-oriented. As a working paper put it, ‘Men in general are seen as possessing more of whatever characteristic is most culturally valued.’”

“The shame one felt in getting an abortion wasn’t a feeling cooked up by the feeler; it was engineered and constructed through public policy and the artful use of religious authority. The feminists helped us see problems in that way.

In our own time, the thought leaders have often been deployed to help us see problems in precisely the opposite way. They’re taking on issues that can easily be regarded as political and systematic–injustice, layoffs, unaccountable leadership, inequality, the abdication of community, the engineered precariousness of ever more human lives–but using the power of their thoughts to cause us to zoom in and think smaller. The feminists wanted us to look at a vagina and zoom out to see Congress. The thought leaders want us to look at a laid-off employee and zoom in to see the beauty of his feeling his vulnerability because at least he’s alive. They want us to focus on his vulnerability, not his wage.”

“There remains, Daniel Drezner observes, ‘a middle class of intellectuals housed in the academy, think tanks, and private firms.’ But they have few of the opportunities of the thought leaders shooting past them into the stratosphere of fame and public recognition. ‘To stay in the superstar rank, intellectuals need to be able to speak fluently to the plutocratic class,’ Drezner writes, adding, ‘If they want to make potential benefactors happy, they cannot necessarily afford to speak truth to money.”

Corporate Giving

“Corporate types from the energy and financial industries were drafted into charitable projects to protect the world from climate change, even if their way of thinking about profit, as practiced in their day jobs, was a big part of why climate change was happening. Business leaders were drafted into strategizing for women’s rights, even if their tools were to blame for the always-on work culture that made it harder for so many women to claim their rights and for the tax avoidance that made women-friendly policies like universal daycare more elusive. And, as at the Soros event, they were viewed as essential to increasing equality, even if their analytical frameworks and their atomizing of the realities of workers and communities had helped to increase inequality.”

“Kavita Ramdas, a longtime nonprofit exec, wrote sharply of the conquest of social change by the ‘fix-the-problem’ mentality that allowed business people to succeed as hedge-fund managers, capital-market investors, or software developers. It’s an approach, she wrote, ‘designed to yield measurable and fairly quick solutions.’ The problem is the often humbler methods that the protocols displace:

The nuance and inherent humanity of the social sciences–the realization that development has to do with people, with human and social complexity, with cultural and traditional realities, and their willingness to struggle with the messy and multifaceted aspects of a problem–have no cachet in this metrics-driven, efficiency-seeking, tech-focused approach to social change.

Even though Hinton could seem to be an archetype of what Ramdas was condemning, he would come to criticize the great business conquest that he acknowledged being part of and at the same time wanted to escape. He called it ‘the Trying-to-Solve-the-Problem-with-the-Tools-That-Caused-It issue.’ The spread of these protocols was, he said, ‘a continuation of the colonial, imperial arrogance of the enlightened white man with money and science, and noble and benevolent intentions, who will solve these problems.’ The situation was no longer British colonizers helping themselves to your country. It was well-suited people with laptops offering to solve social problems, often pro bono, without needing to know much.”

B Corps

“[He] alighted on the vision of creating a parallel capitalist infrastructure, next to the traditional one, in which companies could be more responsible and conscious, and nonetheless raise money from capital markets and comply with the law. Thus was born the B Corporation, or benefit corporation, as it’s also known. The 3 men started a nonprofit called B Lab, which gives better-behaved businesses a certification based on a rigorous analysis of their social and environmental practices.”

“Kickstarter and Ben & Jerry’s are B corps.

Kassoy and his cofounders wanted to make the world a better place, and they found a way of doing so in line with MarketWorld values. They made it easier for companies that were willing to do good, while all but ignoring the companies that wanted to do harm. ‘The basic theory was ‘make good easy,’ Kassoy said. ‘Make it easy to identify what’s a good business, codify that with a brand that people will understand, and then get the leaders to adopt that brand and speak loudly about their values. And, somehow or other, in doing that we’ll create a new sector of the economy. And, eventually, everybody else will see that that’s a really successful sector of the economy and do the same thing.’”

“One of B Lab’s great victories had been the creation of a parallel corporate law, first enacted in MD and then adopted in other states, that allowed companies to embed a social mission into their work without fear of legal trouble such as shareholder complaints.”

Conclusion

“To do a modest bit of good while doing nothing about the larger system is to keep the painting. You’re chewing on the fruit of an injustice. You may be working on a prison education program, but you’re choosing not to prioritize the pursuit of wage and labor laws that would make people’s lives more stable and perhaps keep some of them out of jail. You may be sponsoring a loan forgiveness initiative for law school students, but you’re choosing not to prioritize seeking a tax code that would take more from you and cut their debts. Your management consulting firm may be writing reports about unlocking trillions of dollars worth of women’s potential, but it’s choosing not to advise its clients to stop lobbying against the social programs that have been shown in other societies to help women achieve the equality fantasized about in consultants’ reports.”

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