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Winners Take All

January 16, 2020 by

Arsonists are perceived as the best firefighters and foxes are asked to watch over the hens. That is the way the world works, according to Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All. The Elite Charade of Changing the World. In his book he is criticizing a system in which the rich and powerful decide what is best for the world. They shouldn’t, Giridharadas says. “The people that got us into this mess are not the ones to get us out of it.” The world is a mess in his view because of its inequality. “Those at greatest risk of being resented in an age of inequality are thereby recast as our saviors from an age of inequality.”

Business leaders design solutions for world problems at high-profile meetings in Davos or Aspen and in foundations ran by Bill and Melinda Gates or Bill Clinton. “The winners in our highly inquitable status quo declare themselves partisans of change. They know the problem and they want to be part of the solution. Actually, they want to lead the search for solutions.”(…) Their ideas “favor the use of the private sector and its charitable spoils, the market way of looking at things, and the bypassing of government”.

This is the third book of Anand Ghiridharadas, a former foreign correspondent and columnist for the New York Times. It is a well-written and elaborately argued complaint against the elites that have prospered in an unequal world and now are defining how the world should change without questioning their own privileges.

The approach which has become dominant in the world is based on the assumption that people trained in business have a way of thinking that is vital to helping others. “Protocols have evolved from being a specialized way of solving particular business problems to being the essential toolkit of solving anything.” There is an unspoken consensus: “progressive views are preferable to conservative ones; globalization, though choppy, is ultimately a win-win-win-win; most long-term trends are positive for humanity, making many supposed short-term problems ultimately inconsequential; diversity and cosmopolitanism and the free flow of human beings are always better than the alternatives; markets are the most realistic way to get things done.” There is also a general preference for things to be constructive, uplifting and given to hope and for ideas that are useful, results-oriented, profitable. “Ideas that give hope while challenging nothing.”

The shortcomings of this approach are severe, according to the author. The most important is that the system remains as it is because the powerful will never undermine their own positions. “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. (…) 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.”

A second problem is the myopia that is inherent of the market-based approach. Einstein said that we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them. “It is an era in which capitalism has no ideological opponent of similar stature and influence, and in which it is hard to escape the market’s vocabulary, values, and assumptions, even when pondering a topic such as social change. (…) if you really want to change the world, you must rely on the techniques, resources, and personnel of capitalism”, the thinking of the winners goes. According to Ghiridharadas market types can never be the ideal world-changers. They not only fail to make things better, but also serve to keep things as they are.

The third problem is that the elite-led way of improving the world is at odds with liberal democracy.  “What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests.” Moreover, the victims are rarely enabled to define the kind of help they want. “The money will be spent more wisely on you than it would be by you. You will have your chance to enjoy our wealth, in the way we think you should enjoy it.” People are helped, not heard.

It seems to me that Ghiridharadas is right in most of his criticism. Also his analysis of the ubiquity of business-based solutions is hard to deny. But even after reading the book I find it hard to swallow that business leaders shouldn’t contribute to solving societal problems. They have the clout to change things, because they are heading powerful institutions. Some of them also have honest intentions to do the right thing. I read the book mainly as a warning to be aware of some of my biases: that business is not by definition superior to politics; that good ideas are not by definition constructive, uplifting and useful; that private solutions might not be accountable by democratic standards. Read this book and become aware of your own biases.