Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas

The Blurb On The Back:

What explains the spreading backlash against the global elite?  In this revelatory investigation Anand Giridharadas takes us into the inner sanctums of a new gilded age, showing how the elite follow a ‘win-win’ logic, fighting for equality and justice any way they can – except ways that threaten their position at the top.

But why should our gravest problems be solved by consultancies, technology companies and corporate-sponsored charities instead of public institutions and elected officials?  Why should we rely on scraps from the winners?  Trenchant and gripping, this is an indispensable guide and call to action for elites and citizens alike. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Anand Giridharadas is a former McKinsey consultant, a political analyst for MSNBC and a writer and in this topical book that bristles with anger and frustration but is very repetitive, he sets out how the global elite attempt to use neo-liberal, market-based win-win solutions to fight inequality but fail to realise that their refusal to allow discussion or solutions that threaten their own interests only serve to increase resentment.

This is a timely book in that its focus is on how the elites that engage in much-publicised campaigns to tackle global problems are the same people who don’t want to entertain discussion of structural solutions that would challenge their own wealth and position and potentially leave them with less (even though less for them would still put them well above what most other people have).  Reading it brought to mine Rutger Bregman’s appearance at Davos earlier this year when he called the other panellists on this exact issue with his comments about firefighters not talking about water because he was on an inequality panel where no one spoke about tax avoidance.

In fact one of the criticisms I have about the book is that with the exception of an interview with Bill Clinton in one of the later chapters and Giridharadas’s encounter with Laurie Tisch (a philanthropist whose father made the family fortune with Loews Corporation), there’s little evidence that Giridharadas has directly confronted the members of the elite about their own hypocrisy in order to get their reaction and view of it and yet he doesn’t hesitate to criticise them or their thinking within the pages of the book after the fact.  For me that gave the book a bit of an angry back-biting, sneering vibe to it with Giridharadas ascribing thoughts and views that fit in with his themes (this is most notable in the first chapter with Amy Cohen, a bright graduate who wanted to do good but caught up in the system of management consultancy and bought into the promises of making a difference while making money).  Also, while Giridharadas admits at the end of the book that he came from the MarketWorld culture, having been a McKinsey consultant himself, I kinda wanted to see that come up earlier on in his interviews as he offered some of his own insights as he discusses some of the interviewee’s experiences and thoughts.

This aside, Giridharadas is strong on setting out how this system came about and while he does use his own jargon (notably he comes up with the term MarketWorld to describe “an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo) he clearly sets out his ideas in an easy to follow manner.  The one issue I had with the writing is that Giridharadas tends to repeat his points a lot, which is necessary to reinforce the arguments but at times – for me – was overegged.

He takes the reader through how consultancies such as McKinsey tempt in bright graduates urged on by the promise that they can do well by doing good and pushed on by their educational institutions that work hand-in-glove with business.  As an ex-McKinsey consultant himself, he’s strong on setting out what consultancies do and how they analyse problems and uses this to set up the win-win philosophy that drives the elite as they take on social issues but try to turn a profit at the same time.  Particularly good is his point about how elite members act individually rather than looking to bolster or support other initiatives and how there’s a fundamental belief in the ability of entrepreneurship to lift people out of poverty (a point that Giridharadas neatly takes apart).

Also good is how Giridharadas takes apart the psychology of the elites and their reluctance to be challenged and I enjoyed how he looks at the experiences of Amy Cuddy and other “thought leaders” who find themselves toning down the rhetoric and focus on their expertise and research to make it more palatable to TED audiences and the lucrative talk circuit. I also enjoyed his take-down of philanthropy and the thinking and justification behind it, together with his look at families such as the Sacklers (another timely reference) and the difference between what they do with their money and how they earned it.

I did find myself engrossed by the book and I think that it really plugs into looking at why there is so much anger and frustration against the elite while explaining their powerlessness in addressing it.  I also think that Giridharadas gets into the psychology of why the elite are so reluctant to see themselves as part of the problem because they don’t think of themselves as the bad guy and equally don’t want to lose what they believe they have ‘earned’ because they view themselves as doing good and making a difference (especially those engaged with technology).  However, you get more from this book if you already buy into the underlying arguments and if you’re not already plugged into these issues then I think the tone may be a challenge.

WINNERS TAKE ALL was released in the United Kingdom on 24th January 2019.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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