Looking for the Logos of Lucre III: a new gospel of wealth?

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas. Knopf, 2018.

A timely book, especially in light of the recent announcement by Jeff Bezos of Amazon that he plans to raise wages for his lowest paid workers. It is a modern critique of the modern version of the Gospel of Wealth, enunciated by Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate, in the 1890s. He argued that the rich could best disperse their large fortunes by philanthropy. In his case this included endowing Carnegie Libraries in many cities, along with Carnegie Hall, museums, universities, etc.

Today, we see many high tech and hedge fund billionaires and others among the super rich proposing to tackle poverty, disease, oppression and the like through philanthropic foundations. Giridharadas focuses his book on the people who operate this world of large scale largesse, many of whom come from the financial firms that enable the accumulation of these vast fortunes to begin with. People like Bill Clinton and his Clinton Global Initiative, the president of the Ford Foundation and a young woman from an elite university starting her career with a financial firm that emphasizes “doing well by doing good.” They form what Giridharadas calls “MarketWorld,” an elite network of global activities, ranging from Davos World Economic Forumto TED talks that bring the rich and powerful together with “Thought Leaders.” Together these people push market friendly solutions to global challenges, “win-win” solutions that are intended to substitute for political action.

Giridharadas questions the motivations of these people and in interviews that make up much of the book, shows that many of them have their own doubts. The big question is the same one asked of Carnegie: given that you made your fortune through ruthless business practices, holding wages at near starvation levels, and so on, why not give it back to the people you took advantage of? What good is a library to a man who has to work fourteen hours a day, six days a week to feed his family? Thus as one editorial asked Jeff Bezos: if you want to fight problems like poverty, why not start by paying Amazon workers a living wage? Maybe he got the message.

The problem is, it’s mostly about power. As Thomas Hobbes says in Levithan, Chapter XI, “I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” Wealth is power, and the desire to have the exercise of that power must be nearly irresistible. Carnegie was sure he knew better than his workers what would improve their lives. Likewise, the modern philanthropists of MarketWorld believe that they can do better than governments solving national or global problems. Given our present political situation, they may appear to be right. But consider: the present weakness, indecisiveness and corruption of government is in large part a product of the success of the wealthy in weakening government by starving it of revenue and shifting policy in favor of finance and the rich. They accomplished this by pouring some of their wealth in campaign coffers and lobbying. Reduced social welfare, crumbling infrastructure, unequal and costly education, stagnant minimum wage – all brought about at the behest of the rich and their tax cutting political friends in office. Along with the weakening of organized labor, it’s no wonder there are lots of social problems for MarketWorlders to propose win-win solutions for.

The privatization of education is a dream of the market types, and they are using their influence in government to make it come true. Because young people will be better off, or because it is a gigantic stream of revenue they can capture? What will this do to the democratic idea of public education, the transmission of not just basic skills but of a core of common values deemed essential to good citizenship in a republic? And what about the larger loss of democratic control of the policies and practices that affect our lives? Should plutocrats and their Thought Leader minions decide what the choices will be? Are solutions that are not marketable to be excluded? Look at the problems of delivering goods like healthcare in a for profit environment. Giridharadasand the people he talks to are clearly made uneasy by these questions.

Giridharadas has interesting thoughts on the people we used to call Public Intellectuals versus contemporary Thought Leaders: Public intellectuals, he says tended to focus on those who created the problems they discussed, the looked at issue from a political viewpoint and they often defined problems without speculating on solutions. Many could be described as gadflies or a kind of public conscience. They were generally found in academia, the public press or publishing.

Thought Leaders, Giridharadassays, don’t look at perpetrators, they see problems as personal, arising from individual shortcomings or disabilities, not as a result of public policies. They are expected to have a very big idea and to focus on “actionable solutions,” meaning those that can be incorporated in a business plan. They offer their proposals at TED talks, elite conferences or on the high paid speaker circuit. Their appeal is not to the socially and politically aware public, but to the elite, to whom they offer plans of action that they promise will have large effects and generate profit for the bottom line.

While I still think there are public intellectuals around, I agree that their influence, such as it was, has been overshadowed by these new thinkers, who serve MarketWorld. Political leaders now gravitate in the same direction, and the neglect of the concerns of those who live their lives in the everyday world has led us to the increasingly bitter political situation we find ourselves in.

People want leaders who are accountable to them, even if they don’t always do a good job of holding them to account. Elites who stand above politics, which they can influence with their money and the revolving door jobs they control, have failed to grasp this this. Philanthropy is fine, but when my concerns, interests and dignity are being taken away and I begin to feel more and more powerless, I am not going to feel happier for it. It’s time to reassert the basic notion that we are all in this together. It isn’t “your money,” when it took all of us working to make your success possible. And if your success is founded on decades of change in favor of the fortunate few, it’s even worse that you alone get to decide how to use it. As Giridharadas puts it at the end, “Where do we go from here?…somewhere other than where we have been going, led by people other than the people who have been leading us.”

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