"My job is to slay the bullshit"
If the words social enterprise, social impact or doing good mystify you, then you are not alone, loaded catchphrases such as these have become seductive expressions of the elite ruling empire.
Ways that philanthropists, consulting firms and corporations have managed to keep the wool over our eyes firmly. In a society where inequality is so extraordinarily high that just 1% of the global population holds 50% of the world’s wealth, something is clearly rotten but doesn’t want to be found. However former columnist for The New York Times and author Anand Giridharadas might have just uncovered it.
In his recently released book Winners Take All: the Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand pulls his pen like an arrow across a bow, taking aim at a small band of rootless cosmopolitans that have shaped the unjust world we live in.
Hanging out at TED conferences, mingling at Davos, sipping on world-changing ideologies that allow them a comfortable sleep at night. They run around dispersing their charitable wealth to maintain their philanthrocapitalist havens.
Anand’s sociological portrait of a ruling class describes an almost mindless demographic that talk a certain way, dress a certain way, espouse the same beliefs, unfortunately, the only thing they don’t want to change is their tax brackets.
In one of the most articulate searing critiques of a ruling class since Naomi Klein or Thomas Piketty, Anand scorches the earth with an investigative expose that defines a ruling class unable to denounce themselves and anyone within it. It’s the same deluded mission that colonialists were on. Instead, as Anand describes, offering up Christianity, railroads and civilisation, they now offer powerpoints and spreadsheets. How do we break this sinister cycle? Read on.
Since publishing this book how have people responded to it, from the working class sectors of the UK, Europe, or the US, to the elites? Do they agree with your overall sentiment that the elites have much to answer for?
I have travelled non-stop for the last two months to promote this book, and the shocking thing is, how audiences have reacted who are not in the elite bubble.
When I travel to rust belt states or the south, I will talk to working-class people around this country, and they would immediately understand you and find resonance with the thesis much faster than the elites. It was these people in forgotten places who immediately had a connection with the idea that rich people promising to save you is usually how you get screwed. If I look at the people responding to it; they are people who feel screwed over by an out of touch corporate elite whom I think are slowly finding their voice.
Having said that I have also heard from people embedded in these elite worlds, from Susan Buffett to Jack Dorsey, that they are also engaging and grappling with it. I’m just happy that thanks to the power of reporting and not just declaiming my point of view, I think this book became hearable even to the people it indicts.
World Economic Forum, 2016 [Getty Images]
You talk about the rootless cosmopolitan, the ability for our generation, be it the millennials or Generation Y to have no ties or allegiance. Or as you describe, ‘a vision of globalisation in which elites owe nothing to any community, groomed by business schools, they are agnostic.’ Can you explain?
This has been a time over the last 40 years of extraordinary growth and prosperity in many places, but also of substantial gaping inequality in many of those same places. What that means in practice is that the future has not stopped raining on Britain or the US and other areas in the last 30-40 years. There are some places where the future has stopped raining look at Spain perhaps.
But, in other places, new things have happened, new companies have formed, new industries have birthed. However, a small fraction of people have derived most of those benefits of the future and harvested most of the rainwater of progress.
A lot of those people happen to be less tethered to a place, that’s a signature of this prosperous generation. Partly, it’s because they are of the meritocratic elite if you thought of Britain 300 years ago the people with the most means and power were people tied to particular patches of earth.
If you think about it today, the people with the most power on earth are the people with the least connection to a specific patch on earth. They are the people who have moved for an opportunity, who are often immigrants or children of immigrants, they live in London, but they run a company in Burkina Faso which is funded by Chinese investors who bought their fund out by Koreans, that is the new world. Moreover, if you have the education, the luck and the means to take advantage of this new liquid world as many of these rootless cosmopolitans do, this has been a great era for you.
If you’re someone who can hire coders in Sweden and then sell the app to customers in Columbia this has been a great age for you and full of opportunity.
But that is the kind of boon available to the very few because it requires education, skill and capital. People who are wrong on the side of that divide who have limited leverage and stuck in one place have had a raw deal. If your skill is cutting hair, the new liquid world doesn’t increase your opportunities at all.
"Rich people promising to save you is usually how you get screwed."
If I can push back on that just a bit, I see characters in your book like Bill Clinton and the renowned investor Sherwin Pishevar chomping at the bits to make the argument:
‘For the last two or three decades we have experienced market forces that you just cannot stop, like globalisation they will continue – yes, there has been pushback from the lower socioeconomic groups, and that will continue but the reality is whether we move into this new conservative paradigm full of protectionism and isolationism, the truth is we are going to transition into what Parag Khanna calls national-less states over time, nothing you can say will change that.’
It’s bullshit, I don’t understand the idea that there are these forces in history that society can’t control. Trade is optional. You can have a 99% tax rate or have a 1% tax rate, and you will end up with vastly different societies. You can incentivise job creation, or not. The idea that whatever happens will happen is part of this neoliberal con, that frankly, people in this neoliberal conference arena have spread. The reality is that globalisation, trade, automation and tech have happened to all the western companies and countries equally.
Germany has lived in the same era that we have all lived in and they have had entirely different outcomes because they have changed public policies. Look these forces that you’re talking about, if you have a minimum wage of USD 20 per hour is going to have a very different effect on your if you earn a minimum wage of USD 7 an hour which is what we have in the US.
Saying these forces are forces, no! You can set a law that says no on one in this country is paid so little that they are not allowed to eat. Those forces are not just going to have their way with you, those forces submit ultimately to government and law. This is one of the biggest misunderstandings; these business people talk about forces acting as autonomous, this is the Thomas Friedman discourse.
Moreover, I want to say, when you talk about these forces, what you’re trying to avoid is talking about public choices, and the truth is the public has an enormous amount of choice in shaping what kind of society we get, and we have reached the type we have chosen.
I’m not an expert on Brexit by any means – from my point of view, there is no question that in the Trump vote and the Leave vote in Brexit, there was an unconscionable degree of intolerance, xenophobia, racism and all of that.
That said, I think there was also within those two movements, a deep-rooted intuition, that the rootless cosmopolitan elite class in both countries didn’t actually give a shit about regular people and weren’t attached to actual places and there is some truth in that, its not the whole truth, but there is some truth in that. When you see Mark Zuckerberg put the growth of Facebook ahead of the electoral integrity of the US, you understand those people are maybe intuiting something correctly.
"If you think about it today, the people with the most power on earth or means are the people with the least connection to any particular patch on earth."
It would seem from your book that the elites you describe are so imbued with their world values, do you think they are deluded?
The philanthrocapitalist worldview is that the people who have created wealth and fortunes in this era are somewhat brilliant, talented and able to solve problems, particularly in the interdependent world.
Therefore they should be deployed against all our problems, and the problem with this view is that when you put winners in charge of change they change change, they defang change, they veto the kinds of changes that would actually make social reform arrangements in the first place, instead they focus on milk toast solutions that keep them on top and help the public just enough to take the edge of its anger.
So perhaps colonialism never died, it just became blurred or muted it turned into soft power, could this be construed as a new type of soft colonialism?
Yes, well one of my characters Sean Hinton in my book talks about that, he says the McKinsey, Goldman Sachs spreadsheet and powerpoint wielding philanthropists are in some way a derivative of the old colonialists, except now instead of spreading Christianity, railroads, civilisation what they bring are spreadsheets and powerpoints. I think that’s a powerful thought; there is a new book called Decolonising Wealth by Edgar Villanueva which takes this idea even further.
One of the best quotes in the book is “The biggest risk of putting corporate consulting firms in charge of designing fixes for societal problems is that it may sideline certain fundamental questions about power.” Can you explain that for us?
One of the ideas that have taken hold is that there is a specific protocol for people who work in finance and consulting. That protocol is essential to not just making businesses more efficient, but in solving any problems, so those kinds of people have now flooded into philanthropy foundations, CSR departments and the like.
Those same skills and mentalities and protocols become part of how we fight poverty and equality, what happens is that those mentalities can unwittingly rule out a whole category of solutions. When you have clusters of people with primarily consulting and finance training in leadership positions, certain kinds of ideas like ‘let’s do a philanthropic drive to crack down on tax havens’, falls by the wayside. Those are not the kind of views that people at McKinsey and Goldman Sachs gravitate towards. Ideas like ‘let’s donate towards a charter school’ rise because these are winner helpful ideas.
So part of what I want to push back on is that consulting and finance are these universal gateways to be smart because I think that idea has come with an extraordinary amount of baggage.
"These business people talk about forces acting as autonomous, this is the Thomas Friedman discourse."
Anand Giridharadas discuses the con of market forces
So elites are inherently afraid of the word regulation, they don’t want their way of life to be compromised, in one way they want to change in the world, but they want to protect their way of life as well?
Yes, I think a lot of this is about eating your cake and getting it back too, this is all about doing well by doing good. It sounds great, but It’s the opposite of sacrifice, and the reality is, elites often need to give up something for others to have a better life.
Slave owners had to give up slaves to get to a more just America, factory workers in the early 20th Century had to give up employing children to get to a more just country, white people needed to give up poor immigration policies for a more just country, men were required to give up a monopoly on the vote in order to have a more just America. Equally, people with money needed to give up their tax money to pay for public schools to have a more just country.
Over and over again, people whom society had been most generous to tend to give something up. And in many cases stepping off their privilege is how change has happened throughout history. However, we now live in the grips of this religion where it is possible for elites to do well by doing good.
Let’s talk about the thought leadership roadshow, the Aspen Ideas Festival, TED, the Clinton Global Initiative, SXSW to name a few, what do you make of their popularity?
I think the Neoliberal conference arena is a fascinating phenomenon of our age. People like myself, thinkers, writers, artists hang out at these conferences which become a place where the Neo-liberal gospel of changing the world is evangelised and re-evangelised.
Part of what I argue in the book is that I believe there is something psychologically quite difficult for these elites to grasp which is that society is just so unequal and manifestly cruel in so many ways. One of the ways that cognitive dissonance is relieved is by spending time at these conferences where your world-changing faith is restored, refuelled and lubricated.
In my reporting of the rich and powerful, I have not found them to be bad people; I believe in many cases they are very decent people upholding a profoundly indecent system. And so the question then becomes how do decent people uphold an indecent system?
Some support education policies or create one or two charter schools but will not fix the system. Some support lean-in feminism instead of real feminism that would empower actual women, at significant scale.
That frankly requires you to be tutored by thinkers who make you falsely believe that you’re fighting for real change, so there has arisen a demand for thought leaders who are thinkers who don’t challenge power, which allows decent power to feel like they are being kind and maintaining an indecent system. However, there are real thinkers everywhere, who challenge authority and talk about real stuff.
Reading the book, you clarify a lot of the problems for us in a frankly profound way, but I don’t get to see too many solutions offered up, what would your ideas be around fixing these systemic problems?
I mean what do you think are the solutions for white supremacy? Do you want a book detailing white supremacy with a list of solutions at the end? What are the solutions to patriarchy and male supremacy? What are the solutions to the effects of colonialism on half the world?
A lot of these things are problems that have to be named first, identified and parsed and examined. I think part of what I wanted to fight in the book is the need for people in this Neo-liberal era to have insta-solutions, it doesn’t work like that. A lot of these problems are political problems, what I am describing is a meta-problem with a very simple meta-solution which is that the wrong people are in charge, the wrong people are in power.
"What I am describing is a meta-problem with a very simple meta-solution which is that the wrong people are in charge, the wrong people are in power."
They need to have less power. The corporate philanthropic leadership complex needs to have less power.
I think it’s pretty clear if you read the book that we need to tax rich people more, we need to regulate more, we need to protect workers more, we need to do a bunch of things that I think emerge clearly from the pages of the book.
This is about the tyrannical reign of sweet-smelling bullshit, and I deeply believe that if you get rid of the bullshit, if you discredit it and stop people believing it and clear it out of the way there are plenty of ideas and policies and solutions and leaders who will be able to fill that void. My job was not to tell you what the marginal tax rates should be, some people have been offering that up for years, but you’re not listening to them because you’re smelling the sweet-smelling bullshit.
My job is to slay the bullshit.
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World is out now through Penguin
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity purposes.
Feature image by Mackenzie Stroh.