Not only can’t the rich save the world, but philanthrocapitalism is a ruse to keep the rest of us in our place says former New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas in Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (2019). The Amazon book blurb calls it “the New York Times bestselling, groundbreaking investigation of how the global elite’s efforts to ‘change the world’ preserve the status quo and obscure their role in causing the problems they later seek to solve.”
This edited extract from the book begins with a recitation of the same economic trends we’ve been following for the past two years in this blog — essentially how the equitable, “floats all boats” neoliberal years melted down in the past four decades of runaway economic inequality. After that, the book’s argument sorts itself into two main points: however praiseworthy “doing well by doing good” may be, (1) it perpetuates inequality, and (2) it’s taking place off the government ledger, and that’s not how democracy is supposed to work:
“In recent years a great many fortunate Americans have also tried … something both laudable and self-serving: they have tried to help by taking ownership of the problem. All around us, the winners in our highly inequitable 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. They believe their solutions deserve to be at the forefront of social change. They may join or support movements initiated by ordinary people looking to fix aspects of their society. More often, though, these elites start initiatives of their own, taking on social change as though it were just another stock in their portfolio or corporation to restructure.
“For the most part, these initiatives are not democratic, nor do they reflect collective problem-solving or universal solutions. Rather, they favour the use of the private sector and its charitable spoils, the market way of looking at things, and the bypassing of government. They reflect a highly influential view that the winners of an unjust status quo – and the tools and mentalities and values that helped them win – are the secret to redressing the injustices. Those at greatest risk of being resented in an age of inequality are thereby recast as our saviours….
“This genre of elites believes and promotes 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.
“This is what I call MarketWorld – an ascendant power elite defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo.
“The elites of MarketWorld often speak in a language of ‘changing the world’ and ‘making the world a better place’ – language more typically associated with protest barricades than ski resorts. Yet we are left with the inescapable fact that even as these elites have done much to help, they have continued to hoard the overwhelming share of progress, the average American’s life has scarcely improved.”
The New Elites’ Phoney Crusade to Save the World Without Changing Anything, The Guardian (Jan. 22, 2019).
MarketWorld is about putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop; or, as Giridharadas says it, “ the people who broke the progress machine are trying to sell us their services as repairmen.” That’s exactly the point is the rejoinder of the philanthrocapitalist movement, and thus we have yet one more case of polarized assumptions and opinions talking past each other. There’s plenty more where that came from — for example:
The Prosperity Movie’s website declares “It’s not just a movie. It’s a movement.”
“The businesses we showcased in the film are only a handful of the thousands of new and existing companies who are actively trying to make changes in the world around us.
“The challenge we face is simple. We can’t predict the future, but we can help make choices that turn us in the right direction.
“We could feature something cool a company is doing today and, tomorrow they can go off the rails and do something bad.
“Our goal is not to endorse specific companies, but rather reward ANY company making an effort and showing good behavior. Let’s come together and encourage them to continue doing good things… and reward them for that.”
There’s a lot of “good” and “right” and “bad” in that blurb. Says who? On the other side, the title of this op-ed piece tells you all you need to know about its bias: Tech Capitalists Won’t Fix The World’s Problems — Their Unionised Workforce Might.
So, one more time with feeling: Can the rich save the world?
It depends who you ask.
Photo: Bill Clinton and Richard Branson at a Clinton Global Initiative event in New York in 2006. Photograph: Tina Fineberg/AP