Winners Take All: Modern philanthropy means that giving some away is more important than how you got it

Anand Giridharadas was a former McKinsey consultant turned “thought leader,” invited to the stages of the best “ideas festivals” and to TED (twice), the author of some very good and successful books, and as a kind of capstone to this career, he was named a fellow to the Aspen Institute, an elite corps of entrepreneurs who are given institutional support and advice as they formulate “win-win” solutions to the world’s greatest problems, harnessing the power of markets to lift people out of poverty and oppression.

But the deeper Giridharadas got into this new role, the more uncomfortable he became with it. On the night he was to give a valedictory address to an audience of business leaders, finance leaders, and other members of the ruling class, he abandoned the “Aspen consensus” and instead give a scorching and excoriating talk about the structural failure of “win-win” as a way of thinking about the world’s problems.

Giridharadas’s point was that the business elites who were gathered to “give back” and “solve the big problems” were some of the most egregious contributors to those problems. They had looted the world’s treasuries, shut down businesses and shipped jobs to low-wage, low-regulation free trade zones, gutted public services and replaced them with low-bidder private sector contractors, and had done so while formulating and promulgating the philosophy that business leaders’ individual judgment about the provision of public services were always to be preferred to those policies set by democratically elected politicians.

The speech was — obviously — divisive. Giridharadas had expected to be pilloried for his views, and he was, to an extent. A hedge-fund millionaire sought him out later to call him an asshole, people glared at him from across the Institute’s bar. But there were also people who applauded vigorously, billionaires who thanked him for finally articulating the doubt that had lurked in their hearts.

It was the start of a project that culminated in the publication of last summer’s Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, a beautifully written “argument with Giridharadas’s friends” about the problems with their worldview. As Giridharadas says, being inside the system gives you special insight when it comes to criticizing it, and Giridharadas is deep inside the system.

Winners Take All moves all the way up and down the stack of today’s plutocratic philanthropy industry, talking to NGO managers, billionaire donors, critics, cheerleaders, superstars (Bill Clinton granted Giridharadas a wide-ranging interview about his extraordinary transition for a man who led the most powerful nation on Earth to someone committed to bypassing nations in favor of private philanthropy enacted by multinational corporations and hereditary billionaires), and, of course, critics.

The result is a comprehensive and devastating critique of elite giving, and a sharp articulation of its core philosophy: that it doesn’t matter how you made your money, provided that you do some good with it once it’s in your anonymous, offshore, tax-free bank-account. Giridharadas’s shows how this belief gives the rich cover to continue actions that are worsening the problems that they are nominally concerned with solving, and to still think of themselves (and be publicly recognized) as do-gooders rather than the source of our problems.

The private philanthropy model has both ideological and methodological blinkers. Practicioners of “marketworld” philanthropy approach every problem like a McKinsey consultant, bringing the management consultant’s toolkit and specialized, jargony vocabulary with them. When “the protocol” of the management consultants are the only tool at your disposal, parts of problems that the protocol can’t solve are downranked to oblivion, as are the methods that might tackle them.

I live on the periphery of the world Giridharadas describes: I, too, get invited to “ideas” festivals, and while I generally use my time there to decry corruption and to make explicit connections between bad policy and plutocratic wealth, I’ve also seen enough of the people Giridharadas is talking about to agree with him when he says that many of these people are kind, kind-hearted, and also secretly worried that the “market-world” approach to solving problems will never solve a problem that challenges market-world, or its beneficiaries (like them).

Giridharadas doesn’t speculate about whether market-world’s givers have their hearts in the right place because he wants to know whether they can be forgiven for their participation in the system — but rather, whether they can be convinced to do something about it.

All through Giridharadas’s book, he meets people high and low, rich and powerful or poor and scrappy, who understand that we’re at a breaking point. Donald Trump campaigned on the idea that elite do-goodism was just cover for perpetuation of the system (nevermind that he also planned on perpetuating the system), and he resonated with people. Ever since late nineties, when Reagan-era deregulation had pervaded deeply into the system and wages started to stagnate, organized labor started to crumble, and policies like the WTO were consummated to the benefit of capital and the cost of the world, its climate and its people, there’s been a mounting sense that we are on a collision course with disaster.

As inequality mounts, our weakened governments are unable to enact policies that upset plutocrats’ apple carts. American health care, education, infrastructure, and (of course) its climate are unravelling so fast we can actually see it happen. People are turning to far-right movements and falling prey to charlatans as they seek a way out, or at least an explanation.

Giridharadas’s book comes at a timely moment, when the problem is being named: winner-take-all capitalism, untethered by democratic controls, where how you make your money isn’t as important as how you give some of it back. Giridharadas identifies a moment when we have to stop talking about “lack of opportunity” and start talking about oppression and inequality. To stop talking merely about solutions and start asking ourselves about causes.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World [Anand Giridharadas/Knopf]