Book Review | Winners Take All: the Elite Charade of Changing the World

publication date: Dec 18, 2019
author/source: Anand Giridharadas reviewed by Gail Picco

In the best-selling book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, New York Times reporter and former consultant for McKinsey & Company Anand Giridharadas undertakes a sweeping re-framing of philanthropy.

As Giridharadas and others suggest, we live in a world where eight billionaires own as much wealth as the bottom half of the entire population of the United States. The resulting inequity means the wealth generated by a strong economy is benefiting people who are already wealthy, and that those benefits are coming out of the pockets of poor and middle class people in the form of wage stagnation, contract and part-time work, and the diminishment of the social safety net.

In the wake of this growing inequity, says Giridharadas, the rich are “groomed to be self-appointed leaders of social change” even as their behaviour creates the inequity, disruption and uncertainty that has caused the societal disruption in the first place.

“Business language [has] … conquered the language of social change [and] pushed out an older language of power, justice and rights,” he says.

“Socially minded financiers at Goldman Sachs seek to change the world through win-win situations like “green bonds” and “impact investing.” Tech companies like Uber and Airbnb cast themselves as empowering the poor by allowing them to chauffeur people around or rent out spare rooms …

In a world conquered by market thinking, Giridharadas writes that we’ve come to a point where philanthropy has to be a “win-win” for the donor and the recipient.

Following that line of thinking, what “once might have been advocated purely on compassionate grounds [helping refugees created by the war in Syria] … one of the great humanitarian disasters since the Second World War needed to be marketed as an opportunity for the helpers too.”

He profiles one former Facebook employee who wanted to help people attempting to grapple with the effects of part time or contract work on the predictability of income. (Fifty percent of new jobs fall into this category.)

Her start-up “wanted very much to help but thought it best to help in a way that would create some opportunity for them too.” They developed a phone app called Even that, for $260 a year, would hold back a percentage of a worker’s bank deposit so it would be available the week when she received less pay.

The app’s creators interviewed prospective users such as a single mother trying to manage her job and education, and felt bad about her parents having to pay for her child’s diapers, a Nike store employee who says her bosses kept her hours just shy of full time so they didn’t have to pay benefits, a grocery store stocker working hours that fluctuated weekly who couldn’t afford the gas to pick up her grandchildren and who spoke of the depression that gripped her.

Or the trained massage therapist who worked at a corporate massage chain and who, like so many modern workers “bore much of what was once properly considered a company’s risk.” If the company didn’t get bookings, her pay was cut. Some weeks, she made $700, other weeks, she made $90. “I don’t deal well with a lot of stress,” she said. “… I go immediately straight to full stress, and then I have a panic attack … So I have to try to get medication, but the medication is $60 a month.”

“If you wanted to feel like you have a safety net for the first time in your life, Even is the answer,” the company website said.

“It was an answer that existed entirely separately from the public and government,” writes Giridharadas.

The idea of the win-win economy doesn’t exist in a vacuum, Giridharadas suggests. It is supported by a whole industry of “thought leaders” who attend Ted talks, conferences and “idea festivals” on world problems that are sponsored by the wealthy and big business, and who are willing to confine their thinking to “improving lives within the faulty system rather than tackling the faults.” These thought leaders have replaced “critics”, who are looking at system-wide problems that need multi-layer and often politically-based solutions.

According to Giridhadaras, being a thought leader, as opposed to a critic, takes three steps:

Focusing on the victim, not the perpetrator (“Instead of trying to punish people who’ve caused harm, you’ll be more likely to be able to help people who are harmed.”)

Personalize the political. (“If you want to be seen as a thought leader instead of a critic, your job is to help the public see problems as personal and individual dramas as opposed to collective and systemic ones.”)

Be constructively actionable. (A thought leader, as opposed to a critic, suggests possible solutions—an app, meditative practice or a “scalable” model.)

Bruno Giussani, who Giridharadas profiles in the book, is one of a small handful of people who curate Ted talks, a mainstage for today’s thought leaders. He told Giridharadas, “a critic in the traditional mold is often a loser figure—a thorn, an outside agitator, a rumpled cynic … People like winners, and we don’t like losers, and this is the reality … If I put losers on stage, I become one of them because nobody comes to my conference.”

As part of his case that ultra-wealthy philanthropists often “win” through their largesse, Giridharadas uses the example of the Sackler family (worth about $13 billion according to Forbes), who made their fortune through ownership of Purdue Pharma and, in particular, from selling OxyContin, a drug that has been designated as the cause, with other opioids, of more than 200,000 deaths in the U.S. since 1999. Purdue settled a law suit with the state of West Virginia for $635 million in 2007.

Around the world, there are dozens of art institutions with wings named after the Sacklers. Giridharadas suggests their high profile philanthropy helped their business escape public scrutiny.

Modern philanthropists, he writes, behave like “after-the-fact benevolence justifies anything-goes capitalism.” And the reality of the “arsonist as firefighter” has contributed, in Giridharadas’ estimation, to the populist uprising against the “elites.”

In Winners Take All, Giridharadas says taxes that support the public good have more benefit than philanthropy that’s specifically focused on the philanthropist’s definition of a problem.

And the ideas contained in the book, which Giridharadas is supporting with appearances on cable news and on a book tour, appear to be resonating in the public consciousness.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Guggenheim Museum in New York have stopped accepting donations from the Sackler family. They are joined, among others, by the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Gallery and the Serpentine Gallery in London.

Then, on April 18 2019, when the world was stunned by the images of the extensive damage at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and businesses such as Apple and luxe magnates who own L’Oreal, Chanel and Dior, pledged $1 billion in one day, there were gushes of praise throughout the world. But the praise was almost immediately followed by some critics, especially in France, who said, “the mega-donations prove social problems could be quickly addressed if the wealthy were motivated to do so.”

On May 18, 2019, when billionaire Robert Smith said he was going to pay the student debt of 450 students at Morehouse College, The New York Times also penned an editorial, Charity Won’t Solve the Student Debt.

For people who work in the non-profit sector and who are interested in being “disruptive,” this well-written and comprehensive book is a tough, but necessary, read and, perhaps, augers a backlash that has yet to see its crest.

Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Knopf, August 2018, Hardcover

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Gail Picco, CSP Book Blog Editor is an award-winning charity strategist widely recognized as one of Canada’s foremost experts on how to carve a path through the increasingly complex dynamics of the charitable sector. Civil Sector Press published her latest book, Cap in Hand: How Charities are Failing the People of Canada and the World in 2017. Her novel, What The Enemy Thinks was published in 2015 and she is a regular commentator on the charity sector. 

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