For many years, I have felt vaguely uncomfortable about the range of solutions and types of change that seem to be acceptable to talk about in many ostensibly social-change-oriented settings. Winners Take All explains what I was seeing and gave me better language to use to talk about it.
Giridharadas, a once-insider in the world of elite change makers who grew increasingly uncomfortable with the assumptions around him, has compiled a detailed field guide to what he calls “MarketWorld.” MarketWorld, as Giridharadas describes it, is somewhere between a belief system and a far-flung social circle whose members interact at invitation-only conferences and in the halls of power. It’s populated mostly by the wealthy and highly educated, those who are trying to support social change in ways that don’t threaten their own power and wealth—foundations, billionaire philanthropists, and the consultants and “thought leaders” who work for them. MarketWorld participants follow a certain set of rules and beliefs when they approach the question of tackling major social problems, such as poverty or sexism. These rules and beliefs, according to Giridharadas, start with the idea that you need experience in the business world to best know how to achieve social change and therefore the people with the most money are the ones who should be in charge of it. Other cardinal tenets include the idea that you can do well by doing good, framing everything as win-win, and ignoring solutions that aren’t win-win. The focus is always on getting rich people to do something good, not stopping people in power from doing harm. Those two categories of people, needless to say, overlap dramatically.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has spent years watching corporations lauded for their philanthropy but not called to account for their harmful business practices. I’m not the only one who has been in countless conference roundtables and breakout sessions discussing how to reduce poverty and improve people’s lives in which suggestions about collective action, regulation, or good government somehow gets sidetracked by promotion of private-sector-friendly “solutions” that focus more on finance, apps, training, or entrepreneurship.
Winners Take All is not a hopeful book, but it can be a tremendous relief to read because it shows you’re not imagining it. You and the people you serve are being left out of the proverbial “room where it happens,” be it the World Economic Forum where elites convene at Davos, or the Clinton Global Initiative. And therefore, the speakers and attendees at those huge forums, the solutions their consultants recommend, and the foundations they support, almost never challenge how the fortunes that are being wooed to fund private-sector social change got made. They almost never mention redistribution or otherwise get into the messy business of democratic decision-making and “politics.”
While I imagine Winners Take All would be challenging (but also essential) reading for someone operating in the thick of the MarketWorld framework, it is fascinating even for a reader for whom the distinction between that kind of world-changing, and bottom-up, political, systems-challenging is not hard to grasp, because it takes a close look at how this parallel world is set up and how it has come to perpetuate itself.
Darren Walker, director of the Ford Foundation, features prominently in the book as an insider-outsider as he tries valiantly to get those in power—big philanthropists, hedge funds—to look squarely at the issue of inequality even though they are implicated in it. It was actually noteworthy to me to hear just how challenging and controversial Walker’s 2015 essay “Toward a New Gospel of Wealth” was within the upper echelons of MarketWorld. Everyone at Shelterforce certainly read and appreciated Walker’s essay, but to us it seemed the points he made were practically self-evident. I, at least, didn’t realize until Winners Take All that the essay had freaked out his peers, and even caused some to complain of “harassment.” Talking about inequality instead of poverty apparently commits the MarketWorld sin of actually calling out those who are causing or benefiting from the harm and suggesting they should change it, even if that doesn’t involve a “win-win” for them.
Winners Take All concludes with a rousing call to recommit to the idea of democratic government as the appropriate and accountable locus for making these decisions, instead of invite-only meetings of the global elite (who have a role, just not the leading role). Given the state of our democracy at the moment, that’s not an easy thing to contemplate, but Giridharadas says that’s part of the problem—by retreating to private-sector world-changing, we’ve tacitly accepted the idea that government is bad and allowed our investment in good, fair, accountable government to deteriorate until the accusation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anyone who cares about social change probably has to interact with the MarketWorld in some way these days, whether as participant, grantee, or adversary (or all three at once), and so this book should be required reading for all of us.
Reading Utopia for Realists alongside Winners Take All is a fascinating thought experiment. On one hand, throughout Utopia for Realists, author Rutger Bregman hits nearly all the hallmarks of a MarketWorld thought leader that Giridharadas describes in Winners Take All: He rarely criticizes the status quo. He emphasizes just how much better the world has gotten for everyone since very long ago, with standards of living rising dramatically for even people we now consider the poor. He credits capitalism enthusiastically for that advance. He holds up a small, persistent cabal of economists who led us down the road of neoliberalism as a model of how change can be made. He focuses on victims, not perpetrators, doesn’t cast blame, and actively frames his solutions as win-win. Shorter workweeks improve productivity and reduce carbon footprint! Universal basic income saves money in the long run and inspires innovation! Open borders will actually grow the global economy!
Bregman offers no analysis of structural issues like racism and gives no sense that anyone has ever acted in bad faith in creating the conditions he describes, let alone maliciously. Even his reasoning for why we should commit to the ambitious vision he lays out is startlingly mild and unconfrontational—it’s not because people are suffering or because others are hoarding all the benefits of prosperity for themselves or that we’re losing ground on democracy. No, we should do it, he argues, because we’ve lost a sense of meaning or purpose without having a vision of an even-better-than-this-pretty-great world to strive for.
He lays this on pretty thick, and it becomes frankly hard to read at moments. But in one crucial way he breaks, hard, with the rules of MarketWorld—the solutions he proposes absolutely must involve collective action of people, through government, usually funded by taxation. In fact, the reason I picked up Utopia for Realists in the first place was having watched the video of Bregman being the skunk in the garden party at Davos last year. He was invited to promote this book, but in person he got far more confrontational than the book ever does. Fed up with a group of billionaires who flew on their private jets to talk about how philanthropy could solve climate change, Bregman said he felt like he was at a firefighters’ conference where no one was allowed to talk about water. “This is not rocket science,” he said. “We need to be talking about taxes. Taxes, taxes, taxes! All the rest is bullshit.” It was an electrifyingly powerful statement. And when you look at the amount of corporate profits being hidden in tax havens or canceled out by corporate welfare, compared to even the most generous social change philanthropy, it was an undeniably true statement as well.
That kind of fire doesn’t quite come through in Utopia for Realists, for better or worse. But that does makes it the kind of book you can hand to a thoughtful, market-oriented centrist to convince them, for example, that open borders or universal basic income are not ridiculously extreme lefty proposals. And we need those too.
This review appears in the Fall 2019 edition of Shelterforce magazine.