In ‘Winner Takes All’, Anand Giridharadas takes down philanthropy’s ‘MarketWorld’: Book Review

June 13, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

If you’ve ever been irked by the combination of arrogance, platitude, complacency and dismissiveness that often characterizes the private sector-aid complex (philanthropists, management consultants, foundations, impact investors and their groupies across the aid business), then this is the book for you. In Winner Takes All, Anand Giridharadas hangs out at their motivational talks and high end dinners, and spends time listening carefully to some of their more agonized, soul-searching members. He then deploys his journalistic skills to write a page turner of a take down.

His starting point is that we have been here before. In 19th Century US (this is an entirely US-centric book) the robber barons of predatory capitalism set up private foundations (Carnegie, Rockefeller) to recycle their money into mopping up some of the social and environmental damage that they had caused, and in the process launder their reputations. Now, the recent surge of inequality has triggered a similar surge.

The rise of private philanthropy has a variety of negative consequences: ‘Because they are in charge of these attempts at social change, the attempts naturally reflect their biases… 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 the hens.’ That works both at the level of solutions and policies (market good, state bad) and language itself – ‘business language has conquered the sphere of social change and pushed out an older language of power, justice and rights.’

He coins the term ‘MarketWorld’ to describe the philanthropic complex. MarketWorld is a ‘culture and state of mind’ in which:

‘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.’

MarketWorld permits only talk of ‘win wins’ – doing good by doing well in assorted social businesses. Making Good Easier is in; Making Bad Harder is a taboo topic (not least because a lot of the money on the table came from doing bad, according to Giridharadas).

He reserves his greatest scorn for ‘California capitalism’, where tech plutocrats still see themselves as scrappy insurgents who can ignore issues of accountability, and IT just happens to be the source of all win wins (funny, that). One Silicon Valley philanthropist tells him he has stopped using the term ‘social justice’ and now says ‘fairness’ because ‘people say social justice is giving to people who didn’t earn something.’

There’s an excellent chapter on the role of intellectuals: Giridharadas contrasts the declining fortunes of independent critics, and the rise of ‘thought leaders’ who earn sumptuous speaker fees by sticking to a standard three step mantra: focus on the victim, not the perpetrator; see problems as personal dramas rather than collective and systemic ones; wrap up with digestible tips on how to fix things.’ Stick to the script and your reward is a TED talk and a million hits, and lots more speaker invitations.

He also gives the management consultants a good kicking (he’s ex McKinseys), finding the source of their influence in ‘the protocols’ – an ‘essential toolkit for solving anything’. Follow these and 20 something newbies can rock up and dazzle a company board by ‘spitting out a preternaturally confident answer to something they know nothing about’. They do this by ‘bringing to bear and championing the religion of facts – incontrovertible, scientific, unemotional, unencumbered-by-people facts.’

As the quotes hopefully demonstrate, Giridharadas writes like a dream (over 10 years at the NY Times), and like any good journalist, he is an excellent listener. The best chapters, in the middle of the book, are built around interviews with members of MarketWorld. Meet Amy Cuddy who left academic nuance behind when she became a TED sensation (41m views) with her talk about how ‘Power Pose’ body language can transform personal power. Or Sean Hinton, who wrestles brilliantly with his role at the Soros Foundation. Both are perceptive, agonized and full of doubt about where they have ended up and the book gives a fair, nuanced account of their ambiguities – reform v revolution; short term v long term; how much can you achieve if you are outside the tent?

But Giridharadas is not so nuanced when he is alone on the page, when he seems to take a cruder, polemical line: the individuals may be honourable but the enterprise stinks; this is all about self preservation; what is needed is a much greater role for the state. He portrays MarketWorld as a monolith, showing no interest in teasing it apart to see if its various manifestations (social enterprises, impact investors, social impact bonds, management consultants) have different strengths and weaknesses. Nor does he ever discuss where the boundaries between state and market should lie. He seems torn between conspiracy theories (they are only doing this to save their skins) and a more nuanced understanding of ‘paradigm maintenance.’

The book ends with a bemused Bill Clinton, who announced the end of his Clinton Global Initiative (an archetypal MarketWorld affair) weeks before Donald Trump was elected. A few months later and he still doesn’t get what went wrong. But beyond arguing that the public rejection of MarketWorld partly led to Trump’s victory, the book is frustratingly silent on more recent events. To what extent is Trump its latest incarnation, or is he the harbinger of something new? It needs another chapter there.

All in all, a great polemic and exercise in framing the role and assumptions of Davos Man (and Woman) but a bit thin on the detail.

June 13, 2019
Duncan Green