Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

An insider's groundbreaking investigation of how the global elite's efforts to "change the world" preserve the status quo and obscure their role in causing the problems they later seek to solve.Former New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas takes us into the inner sanctums of a new gilded age, where the rich and powerful fight for equality and justice any way they can-...

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Title:Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World
Author:Anand Giridharadas
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Edition Language:English

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World Reviews

  • Nils

    Philanthropy exists mainly to enable the super-rich and super-powerful to defer any serious discussion of a serious reordering of power and wealth, argues Giridharadas. Through a series of vignettes both of the super-rich and super-powerful themselves, who prove themselves unable to conceive that righting the world’s wrongs might require that they cede some of the their privileges, and their servants in the philanthropic world, who realize queasily their own compromised position (which Giridhara

    Philanthropy exists mainly to enable the super-rich and super-powerful to defer any serious discussion of a serious reordering of power and wealth, argues Giridharadas. Through a series of vignettes both of the super-rich and super-powerful themselves, who prove themselves unable to conceive that righting the world’s wrongs might require that they cede some of the their privileges, and their servants in the philanthropic world, who realize queasily their own compromised position (which Giridharadas admits, to his credit, includes him), the book suggests that reforms within the frame of what he calls MarketWorld simply are inadequate, and in fact mainly provide ideological and psychological cover for an intolerable state of affairs. Dani Rodrick emerges as the intellectual hero.

  • Mehrsa

    This is an excellent book and a must-read! It's also totally readable and even quite funny at times. And it's the kind of book that you keep bringing up in conversation and then trailing off and saying---you just really have to read this book. The oversimplified thesis is that you can't use the master's tools to break down his house. I hope this book is widely read and circulated.

  • Cesar

    Winners Take All is the hardest book I have ever read. Not because it was inaccessible or esoteric, but because it forced a long overdue look in the mirror.

    Being in the tech industry I’ve been swept up in thought leadership, heroic philanthropy, and the promise of innovation to impact lives at scale. For a moment I was becoming more convinced that maybe the market place was in fact the best place to solve our social ills. Maybe the right combination of philanthropies and technology could fix mo

    Winners Take All is the hardest book I have ever read. Not because it was inaccessible or esoteric, but because it forced a long overdue look in the mirror.

    Being in the tech industry I’ve been swept up in thought leadership, heroic philanthropy, and the promise of innovation to impact lives at scale. For a moment I was becoming more convinced that maybe the market place was in fact the best place to solve our social ills. Maybe the right combination of philanthropies and technology could fix most of our biggest issues. With each page, I slowly realized the lie I was telling myself to justify my newfound privilege in society.

    I saw myself in the story of Hilary Cohen, a young idealistic college grad swept by corporate furor over a desire to change the world and make impact at scale through the marketplace. I rationalized momentarily selling out with the promise of building skills so one day I may be better suited to truly make the impact I desired in the public sector. I could have my cake and eat it too.

    I saw myself in the story of Darren Walker, the philanthropist who against all odds went from poverty to riches. We share the same central questions. How do you reconcile the incompatible identity transition from a poor upbringing to another of riches and opportunity? How do you navigate the new elite social circles life throws you in? Am I too comfortable in my newfound privilege?

    How do you respond to the uncomfortable cooing and admiration? “Look at Cesar… Why can’t they all be like him? He had a single mother. He put himself through school.” Even the most well-meaning, do not understand the selfish ways we contribute to a society where we increasingly make stories like mine and Darren’s impossible to continue to emerge. The largest or most frequent donors to charity won’t change the fact that for my story to emerge again, the stars would need to align yet again, but in a more unlikely way.

    When you join the club of winners in society and you champion causes that ignore the fundamental structures and systems in place that led to your victory, you become complicit in the oppression that makes your success possible. The slaveholder who would rather treat his property with love and care instead of working to live in a free world was every bit as complicit as the most brutal slaveowners. True progress demands a sacrifice of privilege and power.

    Those of us who ride the wave of prosperity have a responsibility to think of the people for whom this change systemically fails. We have a shared moral obligation and commitment to the public good. My promise to the world is to never lose sight of that.

  • Trevor

    This is another book recommended to me by Richard. In many ways this is a similar and perhaps an even better book than ‘Small Change: Why business won’t save the world’ by Michael Edwards. Under my review of that book Jan-Maat mentions Andrew Carnegie – and he gets quite a run in this book, although, I wouldn’t be able to say he comes out of that looking particularly good. In fact, he is presented, as Jan-Maat says, as the classic case of what philanthropists are like. Their point is to not pay

    This is another book recommended to me by Richard. In many ways this is a similar and perhaps an even better book than ‘Small Change: Why business won’t save the world’ by Michael Edwards. Under my review of that book Jan-Maat mentions Andrew Carnegie – and he gets quite a run in this book, although, I wouldn’t be able to say he comes out of that looking particularly good. In fact, he is presented, as Jan-Maat says, as the classic case of what philanthropists are like. Their point is to not pay their workers too much, given workers will only likely spend it on wine, women and song – so it is much better to keep most of the money for yourself and then distribute it properly and rationally according to a rational plan involving various tributes named after yourself.

    In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’m not particularly fond of the ‘third economy’ – or philanthropy more generally – and I would ban charities and replace them with government run welfare funded by higher rates of taxation. I’ve never had too much trouble understanding the preferences of my fellow Irishman, Oscar Wilde, around the nature of charity. He made it abundantly clear that charity is more an evil than a virtue – despite the King James Bible’s:

    “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”

    As Wilde says: “Charity they (those in receipt of it) feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives.” As you see, nothing ever changes – charity still remains a ‘gift’ and is distributed according to the ‘morality’ of those giving. It is soul crushing and debasing of our common humanity, for both the giver and receiver.

    Edwards’ book is good since it focuses on the question of the extent to which the skills of business people match those necessary to address social problems such as urban poverty, the achievement gap in schools, drug addiction, and so on. Given that these are mostly social issues requiring community solutions, and the philanthropists are mostly skilled in providing market solutions to all problems, there is a clear disconnect.

    This book is better, because while Edwards does note that those able to act as philanthropists are also those who have made their fortunes benefiting from a system that has played no small part in the creation and existence of social problems in the first place, this book goes further in making the extent of this clear. So that the employment practices of the companies such philanthropists make their money in - that slash wages, eliminate benefits and increase the precarity of employment - are highlighted as causal to many of the problems these charities then seek to ‘fix’.

    The question is raised as to whether or not charities do more harm than good – it is too easy to think, ‘well, charities might not be perfect, but they are better than nothing at all – and anyway, isn’t it better that the rich do something for the poor?’ It isn’t at all clear that philanthropists do more good than harm. In fact, to the extent that charities are used to cover the built-in failings of the system – and are run by people who depend on how the system is currently set up for their wealth, that is, people least likely to want to change those aspects of the system – all that such charity is likely to achieve is to sate the consciences of those who will otherwise fight tooth and nail to perpetuate the injustices of the current world. All of this is extensively documented here.

    Since the end of the 1970s we have seen a shift away from a welfare state – where the poor had rights to assistance, rather than being forced to become mendicants for crumbs, and where social inequality was not at its astronomical levels we are witnessing today. The market has been presented as the sole solution to all problems and this has exacerbated the problems, rather than fixed them. The question raised here is where is this all likely to end? The movement towards greater inequality, with higher levels of precarity for ever larger sections of the population seem increasingly inevitable, given the free market policies pursued by both sides of politics in the US and across the West. A large part of the end of this book focuses on Bill Clinton’s efforts to open more and more of the US economy to market forces, both as president and through his institute after leaving power – this attitude is certainly not limited to the US. However, the election of Trump and the move towards more authoritarian leaders internationally seems to be a consequence of this ‘the market is the answer’ belief system.

    This book is an interesting read – it follows a number of people who want to do good, but are convinced (as is the universal prejudice of our age) that if you are to learn how to do good you must learn your skills in a global accounting firm, because being able to apply the logic and practices of such firms is presented as the only path to addressing all issues. This is also the logic of organisations such as the ‘Teach for’ movement. Again, too often market solutions leave no room for community solutions, that is, these market ‘solutions’ are imposed on communities, rather than with them. As such, they are all too rarely successful.

    I would recommend this book. I feel a storm is coming. To quote another Irishman:

    “And I say to my people’s masters: Beware

    Beware of the thing that is coming, beware of the risen people

    Who shall take what ye would not give.

    Did ye think to conquer the people, or that law is stronger than life,

    And than men’s desire to be free?

    We will try it out with you ye that have harried and held,

    Ye that have bullied and bribed.

    Tyrants… hypocrites… liars!”

    From The Rebel – Patrick Pearse

  • Bill  Kerwin

    Did you watch Zuckerberg testify before the Senate committees about Facebook and the 2018 election? Were you struck by how blithely unrepentant he seemed, how convinced that his titanic, poorly monitored data base—which he habitually describes as “a community”—is an unalloyed benefit to us all? “Facebook was not originally created to be a company,” Zuckerberg claims, “It was built to accomplish a social mission—to make the world more open and connected.”

    So how is it that a billionaire like Zuck

    Did you watch Zuckerberg testify before the Senate committees about Facebook and the 2018 election? Were you struck by how blithely unrepentant he seemed, how convinced that his titanic, poorly monitored data base—which he habitually describes as “a community”—is an unalloyed benefit to us all? “Facebook was not originally created to be a company,” Zuckerberg claims, “It was built to accomplish a social mission—to make the world more open and connected.”

    So how is it that a billionaire like Zuckerberg can presume to appear so smugly virtuous? Although a few reasons come immediately to my mind—a poorly chosen defense strategy, the habitual arrogance of wealth, some personality or character defect—I believe the truer explanation is more universal. It lies in the philosophical attitude toward wealth and social change of all the Silicon Valley billionaires, which is shared in large part by the Wall Street/Clinton Foundation crowd too. Such people inhabit a distinct intellectual universe, and an excellent way to learn about their world is to read

    by Anand Giridhardas.

    Giridhardas calls this universe “MarketWorld”, and he encountered it up close and personal when, in 2011, he was chosen as a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute, an “’organization of leaders’ that seeks to deploy a “new breed of leaders’ against ‘the world’s most intractable problems.’” It involved an inspiring series of one-week seminars, held in luxurious places, where he “mingled with the ultra-rich in decorated mansions.” Still something made Anand uneasy about the whole thing:

    Giridharadas continued to think about these matters, and five years later, at his Aspen Institute summer reunion, he delivered a speech in which he summed up what he called the Aspen Consensus: “The winners of our age must be challenged to do more good. But never, ever tell them to do less harm.”

    This, essentially, is the philosophy of “MarketWorld.” We can all—especially the rich--”do good by doing well.” Apply market solutions, empower a few, attempt to solve a few isolated social problems, and—guess what?—we can make ourselves even more money and feel better about ourselves while we do it. We’ll work with governments, sure, but only if necessary (for democracy is messy and difficult to control), but please don’t speak to us about increasing corporate regulations, or raising marginal tax rates, or increasing estate taxes, and—while you’re at it—leave that deduction for the purchase of private jets alone too.

    Giridharadas attends and takes notes on many MarketWorld events, conducts interviews with a few of the ultra-rich and many of their minions (an interview near the end of the book with Bill Clinton is particularly illuminating), and in addition he speaks with a number of aspiring entrepreneurs who adopt the MarketWorld philosophy.

    But he speaks with critics of MarketWorld too, one of the most incisive being Chiara Cordelli, professor of political philosophy at the university of Chicago. She argues that one of the most dangerous things about the MarketWorld method is that it not only routinely marginalizes government institutions but also insists on benefits (tax breaks, elimination of regulations) which damage and hamper its mechanisms, and that as a result these institutions are becoming more and more ineffective. And after all, Cordelli says, “The government is us.”

  • BlackOxford

    ‘Making a difference’ could be the idealistic theme of my generation’s collective ethos - at least among those of us who survived the drug-culture of the 60’s and 70’s with intact minds. The world had been opened to us by cheap access to good education, a long post-war economic boom, a range of radical new philosophies and more or less guaranteed employment. We had choices. And the right people appeared to be demonstrating how to exercise power around the w

    ‘Making a difference’ could be the idealistic theme of my generation’s collective ethos - at least among those of us who survived the drug-culture of the 60’s and 70’s with intact minds. The world had been opened to us by cheap access to good education, a long post-war economic boom, a range of radical new philosophies and more or less guaranteed employment. We had choices. And the right people appeared to be demonstrating how to exercise power around the world - environmental improvement (Jane Goodall), human rights (Martin Luther King), the status of women (Betty Friedan), the Church (Pope John XXIII). This was concretely personal not abstractly intellectual inspiration. Anything was possible for individuals with the courage to put themselves on the line; or at least for those with the determination to get others to put themselves on the line they had laid out.

    So we had an obvious moral duty: to improve the world. Our parents worked at corporate jobs in order to earn a living. Not us. We had corporate careers in order to make the world a better place. Ours was an enlightened self-interest which took the old-fashioned idea of vocation seriously. Our lives had to mean something. By which we meant we had to dedicate ourselves to a cause, something beyond ourselves as the gurus of the time phrased it. And that we did with diverse passion - in business, politics, and academia.

    For example, we simply presumed we would always have enough to eat. The question was how to make sure others did as well. Hence the popularity of things like the Hunger Project (which seriously aimed to eliminate global food deprivation entirely within 20 years) and Monsanto’s GM research. The world remained corporate, but it was no longer exploiting us; now we were exploiting it for the betterment of humanity. And, by the way, we made good money at it. But we were ‘adding value’ not just being avaricious, self-justifying social drones.

    Such smug bastards have always existed but perhaps never before or after in such naive density which made our conceits part of the air we breathed. We could afford these conceits because we were buoyed up, sustained, and insured by a social and economic system that wanted us to act based precisely on the basis of this ideology of ‘making a difference.’ We were an elite - the beneficiaries of a system we neither understood nor created. But our conversations and associations were almost solely with other members of the elite who spoke the same language of ‘vision,’ and ‘commitment,’ and ‘human potential.’ ‘Making a difference’ became the late 20th century’s post-industrial version of the 19th century’s technological Progress, a sort of moral neo-liberalism of the soul.

    Not until decades later did the real consequences of our visions, and commitments, and potentials, show themselves - a more economically divided, a less environmentally sustainable, a more intensely politically fragmented and militarily hostile world than we could have ever imagined. The point of Anand Giridharadas’s book is

    ‘Making a difference’ remains an abiding meme among today’s cultural elite. Giridharadas quotes a recent McKinsey & Co. recruiting brochure, soliciting candidates who desire to:

    This is a more laconic but still an accurate replica of the pitch I received to join ‘The Firm’ in 1976. It is also a paraphrase of similar documents produced by companies like Goldman Sachs and hundreds of others from Silicon Valley to Wall Street. And it is in one form or another what every applicant to Harvard, or Stanford, or for that matter Oxford or Cambridge will be urged to consider. ‘If you are the best, you’ll want to be among the best’ is the bait that is hard to resist (See:

    and

    ).

    ‘Making a difference’ is a subtle and destructive ideology, a spiritual rather than social or economic ideology and therefore far more convincing. Giridharada through his personal case studies shows how and why. ‘Making a difference’ is an insidious ideology because it taps into the best human impulses: empathy, charity, mercy. It then uses these to justify the acquisition of personal power - political, intellectual, organisational power. And since the first rule of power is the necessity to maintain power, it, not the virtues which motivated its acquisition, is the essential ideological thread. ‘Feed the world’ becomes indistinguishable from ‘Eliminate political resistance to the commercial bonanza of genetically modified crops.’

    Giridharada‘s kind of journalistic and academic melange is intriguing and produces some eye-opening observations about the paradoxes of power-seeking, especially among those with a social conscience. He certainly establishes the credibility of his thesis that:

    Nonetheless, I find it lacking. It doesn’t get to the core of our arrogance about the world on our affect on it. Our presumption that good intentions, backed by appropriate intellectual and practical skills will result in improved flourishing for humanity (or the planet) isn’t just ill-advised, it is evil.

    Sometimes the extent of this evil can only be captured in religious terms. ‘Making a difference’ is, at it turns out, a rather ancient Christian heresy not just a mistake in judgment. It’s called Pelagianism, the belief that it is possible to contribute to salvation - of oneself or of the world - unaided by something called grace. Whatever grace is and where it comes from - divine gift, genetic legacy, intellectual insight, or even cosmic luck - it can never be presumed upon.

    Pelagius, the eponymous monk whom Augustine targeted as arch-heretic, suffered from neither intellectual vision, nor lack of passionate conviction. His fatal flaw was a lack of humility, a lack we don’t normally associate today with grave sin. And yet, as Giridharadas notes, we have such an obvious example in our midst that hubris is indeed evil:

    ‘Making a difference’ is code for an ambition to power no matter who it comes from.

    To make the distinction between the good (my) and bad (his) use of power is nonsensical. Power is itself corrupt as as well as corrupting just as Lord Acton suggested. The human compulsion to power is the authentic Original Sin - can’t live with it, can’t do without it. But recognising it for what it is when it pops up among us is essential for healthy living. ‘Making a difference’ means ‘I want to make a grab for power’ when spoken by a young person. By the time he or she has said it, it’s probably too late to do anything about it. They’re doomed. Just as Augustine claimed, it appears that Original Sin gets passed along in mother’s milk.

    Postscript: I consider myself a social liberal. But I have a sensitive nose when it comes to many apparently liberal causes because they not infrequently stink of power-grabbing. This suspicion I share with the French conservative thinker, Bertrand de Jouvenel, who mistrusted all idealists as a matter of course. See:

    .

  • Meredith

    I ADORED this book. It was not without its flaws, including being super biased, one sided and judgmental, but I LOVED it. I’ve been a total MarketWorlder, assuming business was the best vehicle for making change and business school was the most effective way to learn now. And this book helped me see an alternate way. Which released over a decade of cognitive dissonance I didn’t fully realize I was wrestling with. I don’t have all the answers yet about what this means for how I want to live my li

    I ADORED this book. It was not without its flaws, including being super biased, one sided and judgmental, but I LOVED it. I’ve been a total MarketWorlder, assuming business was the best vehicle for making change and business school was the most effective way to learn now. And this book helped me see an alternate way. Which released over a decade of cognitive dissonance I didn’t fully realize I was wrestling with. I don’t have all the answers yet about what this means for how I want to live my life and create the biggest impact I can using participatory methods and wise discernment rather than judgment, but it gave me sooo much to think about and to start processing. This book opened my eyes to why Hillary lost and how much and why elites have lost the trust of the vast majority of people by monopolizing changing the system that made them/us so powerful, and not actually making that change as inequality grows and the system excludes more and more people. I also understand that one of the reasons I love it is that it feels super vindicating with where I am in my life having just left running sustainability at a social enterprise to start a much more participatory nonprofit approach to rural primary education reform. Lots to digest and think about.

    The reason it loses a star is because it takes a ‘marketworld’ approach to calling out the ‘marketworlders.’ The author quotes and uses case studies from countless marketworld inner circles, but does not once interview or include the voices of the disenfranchised people he’s defending. Which I found very disappointing since actions speak so much louder than words. Don’t just tell us this way is wrong because it is exclusive; write an inclusive narrative that shows us the power of participation and giving microphones to people who marketworld has silenced, but remain deafeningly silent once again throughout this book.

  • Peter Mcloughlin

    Very much in the tradition of Thomas Frank and the Baffler Magazine. This lampoons the TED talking Thought leaders and Elon Musks hanging around Davos and Martha's Vineyard. You know the plutocrats on a mission to save us all. I don't know if they do it the avoid scrutiny or salve their conscience I am not a shrink and I certainly don't hang out in their circles but its a dog and pony show which makes billionaires look good and deflect attention from the glaring problems of inequality and dimini

    Very much in the tradition of Thomas Frank and the Baffler Magazine. This lampoons the TED talking Thought leaders and Elon Musks hanging around Davos and Martha's Vineyard. You know the plutocrats on a mission to save us all. I don't know if they do it the avoid scrutiny or salve their conscience I am not a shrink and I certainly don't hang out in their circles but its a dog and pony show which makes billionaires look good and deflect attention from the glaring problems of inequality and diminished democratic debate over issues that affect the majority of people. By focusing on can-do, non-threatening, Win-Win fixes that substitute private philanthropy for public debate. It concentrates power and action to the billionaires and leaves the vast majority distracted and with less power which is driving much of the social and political pathology in the first place and is the heart of the problem which won't be addressed at an Aspen Forum. I suppose the rich with biggest megaphone are going to tell everyone a story about how whatever they are planning will be for best for all concerned but don't believe them.

  • Linh

    As someone who has dithered on the edges of "elites changing the world", much of this rings true and I believe (and grapple) with the tension between the sometimes necessary power/influence/fortune needed, as we strive for justice and equity. An article that I always refer back to is Noam Chomsky's dissection of justice vs power. That and thoughts about how social movements and protest no matter how "ineffectual" will always be more powerful levers to create systemic change than social enterpris

    As someone who has dithered on the edges of "elites changing the world", much of this rings true and I believe (and grapple) with the tension between the sometimes necessary power/influence/fortune needed, as we strive for justice and equity. An article that I always refer back to is Noam Chomsky's dissection of justice vs power. That and thoughts about how social movements and protest no matter how "ineffectual" will always be more powerful levers to create systemic change than social enterprises. That's a whole other issue area though.

    I wanted this book to be more and found it was too long for what it had to say. I believe governments too should be larger actors than businesses, but the book drawing this conclusion seemed to be based on needing to propose something else rather than a genuine endorsement. I also would have hoped for greater analysis or critique of this "elite charade".

    I'd recommend all articles that are snippets of this book to everyone. The book itself, I'd primarily recommend to people who are part of these communities and have yet to realise everytime they use the word "movement" or "activist", it's an active form of co-option.

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