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Growing up in Indiana my whole life, I’ve seen the worst effects of deindustrialization and neoliberalism up close and personal. Towns like Elwood, Indiana once had major industries with decent manufacturing jobs, but they have since shipped overseas. The town has never recovered.
Terre Haute, where I went to school and spent several years, struggles as well, despite being a college town. Thus far, the only solution has been an influx of low-paying jobs and plans for a hair-brained casino.
These communities exist all across the state, region, and nation. Poverty is on the rise as wages stagnate. Drug overdoses and suicide continue to rise with the cost of rent, healthcare, and other necessities for life.
Yet, when you turn on the television, everything seems fine. The stock market continues to break records, unemployment is at a historic low, and billionaires have dedicated massive sums of money to improving the world around them.
So why doesn’t everything seem better?
That, in essence, is the primary question in Anand Giridharadas’s book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. In this quaint and introspective book, Anand dissects the worldview of the new generation of elites, and the mental gymnastics they put themselves through to justify their fortunes.
I don’t want to spoil everything the book covers, because I think this is a must read book for everyone. It truly is a book that transcends partisan rhetoric and instead tackles the most base issue that affects nearly every American.
However, I will highlight some of the key points of the book, as they are too important not to share.
How Billionaires Appropriated Social Change
The people with the most to lose from genuine social change have placed themselves in charge of social change, often with the passive assent of those most in need of it.Winners Take All – Anand Giridharadas
If there is one thing to take away from this book, it’s the understanding that MarketWorld – Anand’s term for the socially conscious but market driven elitist circles – have taken absolute control of the conversation surrounding social change.
The book details how a concerted corporate effort – beginning with Ronald Reagan – sowed doubt about the capability of government to improve the lives of its constituents. Rather, society must rely on the free market, free from the constraints of taxation and the accountability of regulation, to make the world a better place. A rising tide lifts all boats, as the saying goes.
This began a decades long process that saw the erosion of government influence as corporations (and the elites who run them) made off with massive profits, followed by record-breaking stock numbers, major technological innovations, and (most notably), a significant rise in billionaires.
However, these major economic booms were met with worsening conditions for workers. Despite year over year growth for corporations marked by ever-increasing productivity, average worker wages have stagnated. The cost of rent and education have sky-rocketed.
In short, the quality of life has dramatically fallen for the average American.
After the financial crash of 2008, there has been a shift in the language being used by these companies that have siphoned wealth from the working class this past generation. Now there is talk of giving back, of making the world a better place.
How do these corporations and elites plan to solve it? Well, themselves of course. With their market genius, data gumption, and their own self-branding as problem-solvers.
Anand spends a large portion of the book discussing how modern elites ride on the coattails of Reagan’s anti-government legacy, believing that the market is the best way to solve America and the larger world’s major woes.
More importantly, he covers the win-win mentality that forms in these circles. This notion that yes, we can make the better place and turn a profit. He covers the union-busting mentality of Uber in the name of giving workers freedom and control of their work schedule. This and other examples show how elites’ views of improving the world often does far more damage than they are willing to accept or admit.
The Marketplace of Acceptable Ideas
Some of the most revealing moments of Anand’s book revolve around the mindset of MarketWorld, and their tendency to remove themselves as perpetrators from situations.
Within this elite, socially conscious space, it is taboo to suggest that these elites and corporations are somehow responsible for the issues facing the world. They want to create funds that tackle poverty in developing countries, but ignore the corporate practices that create those conditions.
The same is true of cultural issues, as evidenced in Anand’s recounting of Amy Cuddy’s infamous power pose Ted Talk. MarketWorld is only interested in quick fixes that place responsibility on those victimized by the system. The idea that women have structural obstacles in the workplace that are often reinforced by the men in charge is not only absurd in their eyes – but offensive.
As Anand beautifully illustrates in the book, MarketWorld does not have a truly progressive vision for improving the world. Rather, they have milquetoast tweak around the edges approach that leaves themselves out as perpetrators.
A Bribe Called Philanthropy
Of any moment in the book, this is the one that is easily the most enraging. As more mass fortunes have been gathered, we have entered an unprecedented time for philanthropic giving.
So why do things never seem to improve?
As you can likely guess, many of these foundations and philanthropic efforts only reinforce the MarketWorld mentality, and often only aim to remedy problems rather than create lasting solutions.
What’s more telling, as the book shows, is the way our culture has become enamored by the giving of billionaires and corporations. You see it in corporate news when they invite on CEOs and hedge fund billionaires. They faun over their efforts to give back and continually paint them as heroes.
The reality, though, is that these massive amounts of money they give every year makes up an insignificant amount of their fortunes – far less than they would pay under a fair tax system. It also removes the most important factor from these all too important efforts.
When we allow elites to collect massive fortunes and invest or donate it as they seem fit, we are setting them up as benign rulers. The issues that are most pressing are no longer determined by American people, but rather by the wealthy elites who manufacture them.
At that point, we no longer live in a functioning republic but a plutocracy that allows the ruling class to run rampant, and then celebrate them for feigning concern. As Anand references several times, this makes them the modern benevolent slave owners.
Winners Take All is a fascinating and eye-opening book. It pulls back the curtain to show the mindset of MarketWorld from someone who is intimately familiar with them. It shows a history of decay in our social systems, and how the market simultaneously gaslighted the American people into relying on it. Lastly, it reminds us that a democracy that does not rely on public institutions is a democracy only in name.
The only criticism I have is – while we can all guess Anand’s opinions – he never states what real, tangible solutions are available to the reader and American public. One could argue that the book is not about solutions but rather the questions. However, with how wonderfully Anand reveals the problem, a robust argument for the solution would only improve this otherwise great read.