Winners take all: the elite charade of changing the world

by Anand Giridharadas

Posted on
politics economics

This book was a good one for quotable critique of modern capitalism. Here are some good ones:

These 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.

In an age defined by a chasm between those who have power and those who don’t, elites have spread the idea that people must be helped, but only in market-friendly ways that do not upset fundamental power equations. The society should be changed in ways that do not change the underlying economic system that has allowed the winners to win and fostered many of the problems they seek to solve. The broad fidelity to this law helps make sense of what we observe all around: the powerful fighting to “change the world” in ways that essentially keep it the same, and “giving back” in ways that sustain an indefensible distribution of influence, resources, and tools.

When a society helps people through its shared democratic institutions, it does so on behalf of all, and in a context of equality. Those institutions, representing those free and equal citizens, are making a collective choice of whom to help and how. Those who receive help are not only objects of the transaction, but also subjects of it—citizens with agency. When help is moved into the private sphere, no matter how efficient we are told it is, the context of the helping is a relationship of inequality: the giver and the taker, the helper and the helped, the donor and the recipient.

tech permalink

As he surveyed the world being remade by Silicon Valley, and especially what was once called the sharing economy, he began to see through the fantasy-speak. Here were a handful of companies thriving by serving as middlemen between people who wanted rides and people who offered them, people who wanted their Ikea furniture assembled and people who came over to install it, people who defrayed their costs by renting out a room and people who stayed there. It was no accident, Scholz believed, that these services had taken off at the historical moment that they had. An epic meltdown of the world financial system had cost millions of people their homes, jobs, and health insurance. And as the fallout from the crash spread, many of those cut loose had been drafted into joining a new American servant class. The precariousness at the bottom, which had shown few signs of improving several years after the meltdown, had become the fodder for a bounty of services for the affluent—and, Scholz noted, for the “channeling of wealth in fewer and fewer hands.” Somehow, the technologies celebrated by the Valley as leveling playing fields and emancipating people had fostered a slick new digitally enabled upstairs-downstairs line in American social life.

I need to check out platform cooperatives.

The tech and business world likes to completely ignore the history of analysis of a particular subject and instead apply their own technical/business language to figure it out, without thinking they could be wrong.

thought leaders permalink

Thought leaders are asked to limit their ideas to those that maintain the status quo. They focus on the victims, zooming in on solving symptoms instead of critiquing the system. They productize their ideas into something that can be packaged neatly in a TED talk. Ideas that give hope, challenging nothing.

Thought leaders make far more money from their corporate speaking than from their books or anything else, distorting their opinions. (Upton Sinclair quote on salary) They also get stronger feedback and love, both from the winners and from the normal people. It doesn’t need to be backed up by a body of scholarly work, it just needs to sell well and corporate elites love it.

There is tremendous pressure to turn thoughts into commodities—into tiny, usable takeaways, into Monday morning insights for the CEO, into ideas that are profitable rather than compelling for their own sake.

People get tired of politics because of the culture war distraction, and then agree with the “depoliticized” solutions proffered and supported by corporate winners.

corporations permalink

Porter from Harvard: Companies have been fundamentally de-aligned with their communities by globalization and optimization. Toward a new gospel of wealth.

The original “Gospel of Wealth” by Carnegie argues that inequality is inevitable in progress, but the rich person is socially responsible to give it all away to do the most good. After the fact benevolence justifies anything goes capitalism.

rich guilt permalink

The giving she does is not institutional change or systemic change. “I’m gonna leave that to my kids,” she said. But if she was being honest, the guilt also gives her something she is reluctant to part with: a sense of superiority over rich people less guilty and more indulgent than she is.

globalism permalink

There’s a deep conflict between the globalizing interests of corporations (who feel their responsibility is to expand at the expense of being tied to place), and the reality that we live in a world where we belong to places and nations. The desire by globalists to solve problems at the world level is fundamentally undemocratic because there is no global democratic structure. “When private actors move into the solution of public problems, it becomes less and less of the public’s business.”

“Today,” she said, “too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass on the street. But if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.”

There were also some good quotes about Clinton’s post-presidential activism versus what democratic action looks like:

For people to question this view is not to deny the good it is capable of doing, any more than to question monarchy is to say that kings always botch up the economy. It is to say that it does not matter what kind of job the king is doing. It is to say that even the best he can do is not good enough, because of how it is done: the insulation, the chancing of everything on the king’s continued beneficence, the capacity of royal mistakes to alter lives they should not be touching.

I need to read from Chiara Cordelli.