Coming To Terms With ‘Winners Take All’

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It’s a very recent trend in my reading life that I move through some books with pencil or pen in hand. For a long time, it felt taboo to mark up a book with my own notes and underscoring. Of the many books on my shelves, only very few have marks in them. Instead there may be a few dog ears in the pages or natural breaks in the spine which reveal where I’ve returned to a particular passage often. Maybe something about getting older or acknowledging my books as my books finally allowed me to change my habits and underline at will.

Another aspect of marking up a text has to do with plans I have to use what I’ve read. In just a few days I’ve worked my way through Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas. It was a swift read chock full of compelling portraits of movers and shakers in 21st Century philanthropy and social entrepreneurship. Everyone loves winners, right? And Giridharadas appears to have remarkable access to the highest levels of the American elite — both old and new money holders. As he portrays the quandary of the very wealthy wanting to “do good” without having to change the status quo, he demonstrates both a certain sympathy for these elites but refuses to give them a pass based on their professed positive intentions. As I read, it became clear that these stories had more to teach me than at first glance.

Winners Take All provides refreshingly clear-eyed and critical read in a non-punitive way. Giridharadas calls out his moneyed friends and associates for employing the methods and rhetoric of business thinking to craft, promote and implement their selected versions of social change that sprinkles bits of good onto the dumpster fire of accelerating inequality. He tells their stories while tying in the necessary theoretical and historical background such as the rise of consultancy protocols championed by firms like McKinsey applied in contexts far removed from the business world. He suggests that as these atomizing protocols “had grown out of corporate problem-solving, … increasingly MarketWorlders were employing them to elbow into the solution of social problems traditionally considered in other ways, by more public-spirited actors.” (p. 139)

I also had a chance to read up on the origins of large scale American philanthropy through the Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford family foundations. These specific connections were new to me. In relating the story of Ford Foundation’s widely acclaimed African-American president, Darren Walker, the author offers us the taboos of major American philanthropy:

Inspire the rich to do more good, but never, ever tell them to do less harm; inspire them to give back, but never, ever tell them to take less; inspire them to join the solution, never, ever accuse them of being part of the problem. (Winners Take All, p. 155)

These absolutely make sense. Part of the package of belonging to the elite class relies on being insulated from various forms of unpleasantness including dissenting opinions or direct protest. In Darren Walker’s case, his 2015 message, “Toward A New Gospel of Wealth,” to the wider world of Western philanthropy sent a few shockwaves, inviting both praise and criticism. He asked:

Why, in too many parts of the world have we failed to provide employment, education and health care, decent nutrition and sanitation? What underlying forces drive the very inequality whose manifestations we seek to ameliorate?

Walker then offered 3 steps that the donor class should take to address this tension:

First, we need to open ourselves up to more critical, honest discussions about deeply rooted cultural norms and structures, including racial, gender, ethnic, and class biases…

Second, we foundations need to reject inherited, assumed, paternalist instincts — an impulse to put grantmaking rather than change making at the center of our worldview…

Third, we need to interrogate the fundamental root causes of inequality, even, and especially, when it means that we ourselves will be implicated.

In the margins of the pages where Walker’s post is detailed I wrote: “spilled all the tea.” Which is what it felt like knowing that here’s this well appointed Black man who has made it to the top of the philanthropy world suddenly deciding to tell folks about themselves! What?!

Me and my pencil had a field day responding to this episode!

Throughout Winners Take All Giridharadas presents us with multiple case studies of well-intentioned people who have attempted in various ways to come clear with their steady wealth accumulation and balance it with ‘change-the-world’ initiatives that offer (in many cases) business oriented solutions to make little dents in the universe of social and economic uplift. He uses the term “MarketWorld” as a stand in for all the would-be social value creators who seek to apply their business-think and -speak to the world’s stubbornest, wicked problems.

One chapter which captured my attention revolved around the distinction between thought leaders and critics. It describes the rise of TED Talk stars such as Amy Cuddy (Power Poses), Brene Brown (Vulnerability) and Simon Sinek (Find Your Why), as well as author Malcolm Gladwell who have become fabled thought leaders, well liked in MarketWorld settings. According to Giridharadas, in order to reach the widest audience, thought leaders follow three basic steps: to focus on the victim rather than the perpetrator; to personalize the political and to deliver constructively actionable steps. (p. 98–100) All three of his primary examples display these steps in various forms. And it’s no surprise or secret that the goal becomes commoditization. By making “social problems … unintimidating, bite-sized, digestible,” widely circulated thought leader ideas sell books, talks, seminars and may offer a kind of distanced absolution of audience members. The overriding slogan might read: “Change yourself instead of the system; power is not part of this equation.”

In a tongue-in-cheek blog post, Barry Hawkins presents a stinging critique of this commoditization process:

“Commoditizing the excellence is rather straightforward. You simply begin saying yes to all the questions about what benefits it provides and no to all the questions about limitations of The Thing. The Thing is for everyone, it provides great benefits, and it does not come at a significant cost.

You have now employed The Myth of Commoditized Excellence. Brace yourself, for an inevitable next phase lies before you at some point in the future.”

It would be hard to find more fitting examples of this process than those provided by Giridharadas in his chapter on thought leaders.

In contrast, critics are the folks who introduce listeners to uncomfortable truths about themselves, their habits, the impact of their actions. Critics fit a lot less smoothly into MarketWorld’s circles of conversation but Anand Giridharadas explains that his own criticism was born of having been a part of that status group. One of the things I kept asking myself while reading was: How can he be so intimate with so many of these elites and not buy into that mindset of eternal justification, which is to say not corrupted? He addresses it directly in the acknowledgements:

This book is the work of a critic but it is also the work of an insider-outsider to that which it takes on. There is almost no problem probed in this book, no myth, no cloud of self-serving justification that I haven’t found a way of being a part of, whether because of naivite, cynicism, rationalization, ignorance, or the necessity to make a living…I cannot separate myself from what I criticize. This is a critique of a system of which I am absolutely, undeniably a part. (p. 267)

The clarity of this acknowledgement goes a long way with me. It’s frustrating to spend time, nose-pressed-to-window, attempting to make sense of the behaviors of elites and wonder who is there to check their power. I appreciate the author’s recognition of the need to be clear in this statement. What I’m still wondering though, is the when and how of the accountability for the behaviors and habits he describes. I see that over time I have become less patient with sponsoring thought leadership when I really want to see us take the critics’ words to heart and move towards collective action.

Thought leadership surrounds us because it’s marketable, it sounds good, it leaves us feeling capable but not overwhelmed. As consumers of ideas we eat that stuff up. Critics, on the other hand, let us feel the weight of our inaction. They illustrate the steps we missed, the decay we let slide and they literally have to shout to get our attention. It behooves us then to pay attention to whose songs are on our heavy rotation — whose voices are we privileging? Which messages appeal to us and why is that?

It’s easy to cast Giridharadas’s elite do-gooders in a disparaging light. It’s also illusory to believe that I as a consumer, citizen, global hand-wringer am so much less complicit in contributing in my own way to all sorts of economic and social divides over time. I may not be one of the book’s famed “Winners” but my levels of access place me in closer to their interests, tastes and cultures than I might easily admit. The challenge as reader and would-be critic then becomes to peel back those layers of privilege I enjoy and listen. Listen to those who will hold me accountable. Listen to anyone who asks me for a hand. Listen for opportunities to build communities of care.

images via Pixabay.com CC0

Leadership Coach, Educator, Workshop presenter & facilitator, avid reader & writer @ home on the edge of the alps. Publisher of "Identity, Education and Power"

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