Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

November 28, 2020

Following Book Review written by Mark Kramer.

This is an exciting time for social innovation. Billions of dollars are flowing into philanthropy, market-driven solutions and social entrepreneurship are flourishing, and social impact consulting and impact investing have become established professions.Yet, in Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,Anand Giridharadas, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, explains why we should not be so quick to celebrate these advances.

“Business elites are taking over the work of changing the world,” Giridharadas observes. “Many believe they are changing the world when they may instead—or also—be protecting a system that is at the root of the problems they wish to solve.”

Giridharadas uncovers the internal contradictions of those who work for social change from positions of privilege and wealth. He also delves into the shortcomings of strategy consultants who bring McKinsey-style analysis to social issues; the limitations of venture capitalists who fund social solutions; and the problems with thought leaders who give well-paid speeches preaching win-win opportunities for business and society.

“Business elites are taking over the work of changing the world,” Giridharadas observes. “Many believe they are changing the world when they may instead—or also—be protecting a system that is at the root of the problems they wish to solve.”

Giridharadas uncovers the internal contradictions of those who work for social change from positions of privilege and wealth. He also delves into the shortcomings of strategy consultants who bring McKinsey-style analysis to social issues; the limitations of venture capitalists who fund social solutions; and the problems with thought leaders who give well-paid speeches preaching win-win opportunities for business and society.

But Giridharadas understands both sides of these issues. He is a former McKinsey consultant who once embraced the approaches he now rejects. He knows the scene at Davos, Aspen, and the Clinton Global Initiative, and he is friends with many of the philanthropists, foundation presidents, venture capitalists, and social entrepreneurs whom he profiles.

This book, Giridharadas writes in the epilogue, is intended as a personal letter to his well-intentioned friends to wake them up to dangers they may not see. That empathetic tone gives the book its persuasive power to touch the hearts of even those readers, like many of startup ecosystem allies VCs, investors and mentors, who are the targets of its criticism.

Are the winners of our capitalist system—intentionally or not—redefining the world’s problems in ways that avoid questioning their own business practices, power, and wealth?

Quoting the writer Audre Lorde’s dictum “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” 

Giridharadas suggests that we will never achieve social justice through “a system that perpetuates vast differences in privilege and then tasks the privileged with improving the system.” The problem, as he sees it, is not just that those with privilege cannot truly understand the needs of those without, but rather that the mechanisms inherent in creating economic inequality cannot be used to reverse the imbalance.

Even Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, has learned that he must “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.” It is always the victims who are told by the winners that they must change, never the other way around.

Giridharadas, quoting a Baha’i saying, contends that “[s]ocial change is not a project that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another.” Instead, he continues, we must solve problems “together in the public sphere through the tools of government and in the trenches of civil society … that give the people you are helping a say in the solutions [and] offer that say in equal measure to every citizen.”

Giridharadas is right about the dangers of letting the winners shape solutions and the paradox of helping those who suffer from our economic system without changing that system. But not all winners are the same. We must remember that there are winners who act ethically, too—those who acknowledge the need for higher taxes, better labor laws, and environmental protections. Today’s short-term, exploitive, unregulated, and highly inequitable form of capitalism isn’t the only model. The two decades following World War II, for example, produced genuine increases in well-being, at least for a majority of white Americans, supported by strong antitrust and bank regulations, unionization, stable employment, environmental protections, and tax rates as high as 91 percent.

Yet, we must also heed Giridharadas’ warning: If we are blind to the self-interest that delimits their innovations, if we dare not offend these new masters by acknowledging their conflicts of interest and hypocrisies, if we pretend that social justice can be achieved without changing the government corruption or the cruel and exploitive version of capitalism that exists in our country today, then we are deluding ourselves with false hope. We cannot have our cake and give it away too. We must keep the winners engaged, but we must also hold them accountable.

Winners Take All has given me due reason for reflection. I will continue to use the tools I have but with a new appreciation for their inherent biases and limitations. It is too tempting to redefine problems in ways that please the winners and burden the victims. We must be willing to name and oppose the tendencies of business that perpetuate injustice, regardless of how much it costs or who we offend. We must enable the victims to help shape the solutions. We must hold government accountable to serve the public good. And we must be alert to those subtle but crippling compromises that enable us to combine a life of wealth and privilege with the pursuit of social justice.

Mark Kramer is cofounder and managing director of FSG and a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School. He is the author of numerous articles in Stanford Social Innovation Review, including “Collective Impact” in the Winter 2011 issue.


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