Winners Take All

Winners Take All

The Elite Charade of Changing the World

Anand Giridharadas

Thus many millions of Americans, on the left and right, feel one thing in common: that the game is rigged against people like them. Perhaps this is why we hear constant condemnation of “the system,” for it is the system that people expect to turn fortuitous developments into societal progress. Instead, the system—in America and around the world—has been organized to siphon the gains from innovation upward, such that the fortunes of the world’s billionaires now grow at more than double the pace of everyone else’s, and the top 10 percent of humanity have come to hold 90 percent of the planet’s wealth. It is no wonder that the American voting public—like other publics around the world—has turned more resentful and suspicious in recent years, embracing populist movements on the left and right, bringing socialism and nationalism into the center of political life in a way that once seemed unthinkable, and succumbing to all manner of conspiracy theory and fake news. There is a spreading recognition, on both sides of the ideological divide, that the system is broken and has to change.

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But there is 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 is 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 realised 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 most harm are the people who try to do 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 are 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 do not upset fundamental power equations. The society should be changed in ways that do not change the underlying economic system that has allowed the winners to win and fostered many 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.

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recently compared the prevailing elite posture to that of the fictional Italian aristocrat Tancredi Falconeri, who declared, “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, the OECD leader, Ángel Gurría, wrote, are “rising inequalities 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, Gurría 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.

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The question we confront is whether moneyed elites, who already rule the roost in the economy and exert enormous influence in the corridors of political power, should be allowed to continue their conquest of social change and of the pursuit of greater equality. The only thing better than controlling money and power is to control the efforts to question the distribution of money and power. The only thing better than being a fox is being a fox asked to watch over hens.

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The overwhelming share of McKinsey clients are corporate, but the recruiters, knowing the mentality of young people like her, played up the social-and public-sector projects. Cohen said, only half joking, that it was possible to come away from the information session thinking that if hired, you would spend most of your time helping Haiti with post-earthquake development and advising the Vatican.

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putting the moneyed into a leadership position on public problem-solving, gave them the power to thwart solutions that threatened them. If your preferred way of solving big problems requires my money and gives me a board seat on the initiative, I may not encourage solutions involving inheritance taxes or the breakup of companies like the one from which I have made the money I am giving.

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MarketWorld is an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo. It consists of enlightened businesspeople and their collaborators in the worlds of charity, academia, media, government, and think tanks. It has its own thinkers, whom it calls thought leaders, its own language, and even its own territory—including a constantly shifting archipelago of conferences at which its values are reinforced and disseminated and translated into action. MarketWorld is a network and community, but it is also a culture and state of mind. These elites believe and promote the idea that social change should be pursued principally through the free market and voluntary action, not public life and the law and the reform of the systems that people share in common; that it should be supervised by the winners of capitalism and their allies, and not be antagonistic to their needs; and that the biggest beneficiaries of the status quo should play a leading role in the status quo’s reform.

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Working on client projects, she began to run a parallel exercise in her own mind, ignoring the McKinsey toolkit and just asking herself what she thought the right answer was. “Very rarely, if ever, did the step-by-step, perfectly linear process of ‘here’s how we’re going to conduct this exploration’—very rarely did that actually surface the right answer,” she said. Often, that process—the thing for which McKinsey was famed—was “used primarily for communicating the answer, rather than generating it,” she said. The answers were derived through intelligence and common sense, and then the team would make them look more like trademark McKinsey answers: “We would backfill them into the template,” Cohen said. Given what she felt to be the fallibility of the methods she was learning, she was amazed at the hunger for them outside the precincts of business. In our age, many domains lack confidence in their own methodologies and are often desperate to inject business thinking into their work. So successful is the belief in business as the universal access card for making progress, helping people, and changing the world that even the White House, with its pick of the nation’s talent, under Republicans and Democrats alike, grew dependent on the special talents of consultants and financiers in making decisions about how to run the nation.

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For whoever treats a disease recasts it—with their own diagnosis, prescription, and prognosis. To take on a problem is to make it your own, and to gain the right to decide what it is not and how it doesn’t need to be solved.

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Like many MarketWorld do-gooders, she was more interested in starting something new than in examining how she and those around her—and the institutions they belonged to—might change their existing ways. She asked herself what she could do, but not what people in her universe might already have done. (It goes without saying, for example, that if hedge funders hadn’t been enormously creative in dodging taxes, the income available for foreign aid would have been greater.)

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a baron wishing to withhold benefits from workers might reframe that desire as a prediction about a future in which every human being is a solo entrepreneur. A social media billionaire keen to profit from the higher advertising 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 Mark Zuckerberg after he issued that prediction at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona: “The Vast Majority of Web Content Will Be Video, Says Man Who Can Unilaterally 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.

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In a remarkable passage, Judge Chen compared Uber’s power to that of the guards at the center of the Panopticon, which Foucault famously analyzed in Discipline and Punish. The Panopticon was a design for a circular prison building dreamed up in the eighteenth century by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The idea was to empower a solitary guard in the center of the building to watch over a large number of inmates, not because he was actually able to see them all at once, but because the design kept any prisoner from knowing who was being observed at any given moment. Foucault analyzed the nature and working of power in the Panopticon, and the judge found it analogous to Uber’s. He quoted a line about the “state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” The judge was suggesting that the various ways in which Uber monitored, tracked, controlled, and gave feedback on the service of its drivers amounted to the “functioning of power,” even if the familiar trappings of power—ownership of assets, control over an employee’s time—were missing. The drivers weren’t like factory workers employed and regimented by a plant, yet they weren’t independent contractors who could do whatever they pleased. They could be fired for small infractions. That is power.

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Ramo is arguing that the Ubers and Airbnbs and Facebooks and Googles of the world are at once radically democratic and dangerously oligarchic. Facebook emancipates people in Algerian basements to write whatever they want, for all the world to see. Airbnb allows anyone to rent out their home. Uber allows anyone going through financial hardship to download the app and, without much hassle, get started making money. These platforms are pushing power out to the edges—power once controlled by media companies, hotel chains, and taxi unions. But networks tend toward extreme concentration as well. It is no fun if half of your high school friends are on the other social network, so Facebook becomes a de facto monopoly. A core tenet of network theory is that the bigger the network, the more juice it will be able to squeeze from every new connection. Networks, then, are those rare beasts that get healthier, tougher, and faster the fatter they become. This simultaneous concentrating and diffusing of power has real consequences for the distribution of societal power. “Tech people like to picture their industry as a roiling sea of disruption, in which every winner is vulnerable to surprise attack from some novel, as-yet-unimagined foe,” writes Farhad Manjoo, who covers the sector for the New York Times. In fact, he notes, the industry is more concentrated than most, with Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft controlling much of everything.

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Drezner starts out by defining two distinct kinds of thinkers, who share in common a desire to develop important ideas and at the same time reach a broad audience. One of these types, the dying one, is the public intellectual, whom Drezner describes as a wide-ranging “critic” and a foe of power; she perhaps stays “aloof from the market, society, or the state,” and she proudly bears a duty “to point out when an emperor has no clothes.” The ascendant type is the thought leader, who is more congenial to the plutocrats who sponsor so much intellectual production today. Thought leaders tend, Drezner says, to “know one big thing and believe that their important idea will change the world”; they are not skeptics but “true believers”; they are optimists, telling uplifting stories; they reason inductively from their own experiences more than deductively from authority. They go easy on the powerful.

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Carol Hanisch: “Personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.” It was an important and fruitful idea in February 1969. It helped people to see that things that happened in the quiet of personal life, and yet happened over and over again at the scale of the system, and happened because of forces that no individual was powerful enough to counteract alone—that these things had to be seen as and acted on politically, grandly, holistically, and, above all, in the places where the power was. A man beating a woman wasn’t just one man beating one woman; he was part of a system of male supremacy and laws and a culture of looking away that put the problem beyond solution by the woman in question. 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 to see problems in this way.

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The ability of a powerful group to reward those who agree with it and punish those who don’t also distorts the marketplace of ideas. This isn’t about corruption—beliefs naturally shift in accord with interests. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.” The result can be an entire society twisted to serve the interests of its most powerful group.

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Strangely, one of the things that makes it easier to accept the system is that when you do, you will find yourself being told more often that you are changing things. Many genuine agents of change must make peace with never being seen as such, at least within their own lifetimes.

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As Deborah Small and George Loewenstein, scholars at Carnegie Mellon University, write in a major paper: People react differently toward identifiable victims than to statistical victims who have not yet been identified. Specific victims of misfortune often draw extraordinary attention and resources. But, it is often difficult to draw attention to, or raise money for, interventions that would prevent people from becoming victims in the first place. Small and Loewenstein’s research confirms what many budding thought leaders intuit by reading the faces in the crowd: that people feel and care more when you help people to see a problem in terms of individuals. In Cuddy’s case, she experienced this whenever she spoke about young girls, rather than adult women, shrinking physically. A light would go off in the heads of men with daughters. “A sixty-year-old man would come up to me and go, ‘Oh my God, thank you so much. This is so important for my daughter and for her kids.’ They were open to it. Suddenly, the audience that I could never capture when I talk about, ‘You need to change as a leader; you need to say that this is not okay; you need to do this and that’—those people who completely turned off to me were suddenly open when I was talking about their daughters and the opportunities their daughters would have.”

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The kinds of changes favored by the public in an age of inequality, as reflected from time to time in some electoral platforms, are usually unacceptable to elites. Simple rejection of those types of changes can only invite greater hostility toward the elites. It is more useful for the elites to be seen as favoring change—their kind of change, of course. Take, for example, the question of educating poor children in a time of declining social mobility. A true critic might call for an end to funding schools by local property taxes and the creation, as in many advanced countries, of a common national pool that funds schools more or less equally. What a thought leader might offer MarketWorld and its winners is a kind of intellectual counteroffer—the idea, say, of using Big Data to better compensate star teachers and weed out bad ones.

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Giussani observed, ideas framed as being about “poverty” are more acceptable than ideas framed as being about “inequality.” The two ideas are related. But poverty is a material fact of deprivation that does not point fingers, and inequality is something more worrying: It speaks of what some have and others lack; it flirts with the idea of injustice and wrongdoing; it is relational. “Poverty is essentially a question that you can address via charity,” he said. A person of means, seeing poverty, can write a check and reduce that poverty. “But inequality,” Giussani said, “you can’t, because inequality is not about giving back. Inequality is about how you make the money that you’re giving back in the first place.” Inequality, he said, is about the nature of the system. To fight inequality means to change the system. For a privileged person, it means to look into one’s own privilege. And, he said, “you cannot change it by yourself. You can change the system only together. With charity, essentially, if you have money, you can do a lot of things alone.”

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Giussani had heard rich men do this kind of thing so often that he had invented a verb for the act: They were “Pinkering”—using the long-run direction of human history to minimize, to delegitimize the concerns of those without power.

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These protocol-equipped figures pressed companies to embrace a new philosophy: Do each of your activities where it can be best done, wherever that might be. You raised money from Korean investors, sourced from Mexico, sold in France, paid taxes in the Caribbean, and, when growth hit, chose a Swiss bank or ethereal Bitcoins to store the proceeds—or reinvested them in whatever venture on earth promised you the most attractive returns. It was an expansion of commercial freedom. Porter suggested, however, that it had disrupted an older pattern of companies behaving with a sense of citizenship. “There is somehow a detachment because of this notion of globalization—that we’re no longer an American company,” he said. “And the odds are that if you’re operating all around the world, then you don’t have any special requirement to worry about Milwaukee.” Somewhere on the road to globalization, Porter said, the self-image of business as a pillar of community had yielded to a self-image of “We’re global now, and that’s no longer our problem.” He added, “They started not accepting any responsibility for that community because they didn’t think it was their job, and they could always move somewhere else if that community didn’t want to do its thing.” This was a win-lose: The companies had flourished because of their freedom to escape and the community’s lack of leverage.

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Social scientists speak of “idiosyncrasy credits,” a kind of resource that a leader earns, which allows him or her from time to time to innovate on, or even defy, group norms. Walker had been working hard at racking up credits. “As you’re working your way up, you have to be nuanced, and you have to pick those battles,” he said.

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Walker looked at America today and saw his rich friends building their metaphorical buildings with gates on the outside and discos indoors. Gated communities. Home theaters. Private schools. Private jets. Privately run public parks. Private world-saving behind the backs of those to be saved. “Life goes more and more behind the gate,” he said. “More and more of our civic activities and public activities become private activities.” Inequality gave some the resources to build their own discos and sequester themselves indoors. But it took the further ingredient of culture to make this way of life desirable. People chose to live in this way when they lacked faith in what lay beyond their gates—in the public. They felt this way when “public” had been allowed to tumble to lower status than “private” in our imaginations, in a reversal of their historic rankings: There was a time, as the legal scholar Jedediah Purdy has observed, when we loved “public” enough to place our most elevated hopes in republics, and when “private” reminded us of its cousins “privation” and “deprived.” An achievement of modernity has been its gradual persuasion of citizens to expand the circle of their concern beyond family and tribe, to encompass the fellow citizen. Inequality was reversing that, eating away at Walker’s beloved country.

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When private actors move into the solution of public problems, it becomes less and less of the public’s business.

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What people were rejecting in the United States, Britain, Hungary, and elsewhere was, in their view, rule by global elites who put the pursuit of profit above the needs of their neighbors and fellow citizens. These were elites who seemed more loyal to one another than to their own communities; elites who often showed greater interest in distant humanitarian causes than in the pain of people ten miles to the east or west. Frustrated citizens felt they possessed no power over the spreadsheet-and PowerPoint-wielding elites commensurate with the power these elites had gained over them—whether in switching around their hours or automating their plant or quietly slipping into law a new billionaire-made curriculum for their children’s school. What they did not appreciate was the world being changed without them.

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it isn’t just that solving things at the global level (which, in the absence of world government, often means privately, which often means plutocratically) lacks legitimacy. Pushing things up into that realm gives globalists “moral cover or ethical cover for escaping their domestic obligations as citizens in their own national setting.” It is a way of doing good that allows them to ignore the fact that their democracies aren’t working well. Or, even more simply, it allows them to avoid the duty they might otherwise feel to interact with their fellow citizens across divides, to learn about the problems facing their own communities, which might implicate them, their choices, and their privileges—as opposed to universal challenges like climate change or the woes of faraway places like Rwandan coffee plantations. In such cases, diffuseness or distance can spare one the feeling of having a finger jabbed in one’s face.

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How can private hotel ballroom hangouts have their way with democracies in possession of their own standing armies? The seasoned and astute private world-changer seeks to alter “the public conversation about which social issues matter, sets an agenda for how they matter, and specifies who is the preferred provider of services to address these issues without any engagement with the deliberative processes of civil society.”

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If the logic of our time had applied to the facts of an earlier age, someone would have put out a report suggesting that ending slavery was great for reducing the trade deficit. “Of course, you should do it because it’s the right thing to do, but there’s a strong business case,” Collymore, of Safaricom, now said. In other words, of course you should do it because morality is enough, but since we all know that morality isn’t actually enough, you should know that the business case is fantastic.

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Clinton proposed a test for do-gooders to judge whether their help is actually improving things: “When you get done, will it be sustainable, and will the people be governed by more effective, more responsive, more honest government?”

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citizens of a democracy are collectively responsible for what their society foreseeably and persistently allows; that they have a special duty toward those it systematically fails; and that this burden falls most heavily on those most amply rewarded by the same, ultimately arbitrary set of arrangements.

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“It seems to me that these days everyone wants to change the world by themselves,” she said. “It’s about them; it’s about what they do. But there are other people around you, and you owe it to them to support institutions that can, in the name of everyone, including in their own name, secure certain conditions for a more decent life.”

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