When wealthy elites embrace issues such as inequality, poverty, climate change, women’s empowerment, and LGBTQ rights, are they spurring change—or reinforcing the status quo? In his new book Winners Take All, the writer Anand Giridharadas says it’s the latter. Giridharadas persuasively argues that when they adopt pressing social and economic issues as causes, plutocrats simply reinforce their position atop the hierarchy.
I spoke with Giridharadas by phone about how members of the global elite came to see themselves (and be seen as) the people who could remedy systemic societal problems, and where we go from here. Our conversation has been lightly edited.
How do we get to the point in our society when the elite take it upon themselves to be, and are seen as, the remediators of our social problems?
It’s a testament to just how unequal and angry and, in many ways, decadent the United States is. We have this situation where the extreme inequities of our time, on one hand, inspire elites to step up, do more, solve social problems. But at the same time, those same inequities have an equal and opposite consequence.
In a highly inequitable society, the price of not being on the top grows much higher. When the middle is not a nice place to be, you don’t want to fall from the top. That’s actually a very common culture in developing countries, where there’s this real clinging to privilege and there’s no middle, and either you’re rich or you’re poor. That has started to happen here. It’s that strange dualism of wanting to make a difference and wanting to cling to one’s privileges.
You point to elite gatherings such as Davos, Aspen, South by Southwest, the Clinton Global Initiative. What do you see as the problem with them?
What is particularly worrisome to me is that when elites get together in our time, they don’t just get together because they enjoy hanging out. This is a coming together of elites in a kind of gated way to discuss how to change the world. While that sounds great, it also means the priority-setting of how the world is changed—the discourse of world-changing itself, the theories of how to go about change—become hugely shaped by these confabs, by the people who attend them, and their network. What you end up having is rich people not just joining the effort to change the world, but conquering the effort to change the world.
A lot of what we see around us is an altered discourse about what change is, and that trickles down. Like low-income or middle-class college students who now speak in this kind of billionaire, Aspen-Davos discourse of how to change the world: “It must be a win-win,” et cetera, et cetera.
Wow, what a remarkable payoff: You get together in these confabs, you coordinate and disseminate this language that causes us to think about changing the world in this more winner-friendly way. Then, people around the world start to imbibe these ideas and talk about change in the way that you talk about it. The next thing you know, you’ve neutered a lot of the threat of class resentment and actual popular organizing against you. It’s actually a brilliant move.
You title one of your chapters “Arsonists Make the Best Firefighters.” Why?
One of the things that’s important to understand is that inequality and the erosion of the American Dream is not a naturally occurring phenomenon like the weather. It is an engineered phenomenon. When the wealthy fought for an anti-tax movement to reduce taxation starting in the ’70s, they knew the effect that would have. When they pushed for deregulation and other aspects of their pro-business, pro-wealth agenda, they succeeded, despite knowing that real people would be hurt by underfunded programs and absent regulations.
So the winners of our age have engineered a world in which they, the winners, take all—in which any of the rest of us are more defenseless than before and find it harder to achieve the American Dream.
Those same winners have done an amazing job of rebranding themselves as the solutions to the problem. They are the ones who are going to sit on the boards of foundations and advise on how to reduce inequality. They are the ones who are going to start impact investment funds to solve the issue.
The other day, I saw a webinar trying to teach people about impact investing to address the opioid crisis. The opioid crisis was literally caused by an excess of the profit motive. And now it’s going to be solved by tapping into the profit motive. When the winners get to redress the injustices they helped to create, they gain a veto for any kind of solutions to those problems that would threaten them.
Do you think it’s all a charade?
It’s a mix. There’s a spectrum, from the naive to the shrewd. There’s a version of this that’s Wall Street, that’s totally about making money and greed and understands that a certain amount of structured giving can lubricate the continued taking. I wrote a piece in The New Yorker not long ago about an email where Goldman Sachs was literally talking about, “Ah, terrible stories coming at us about our role in the mortgage crisis. What if we tried to pitch this story of GS Gives, this new program?”
But you also have this phenomenon of the naive rather than the shrewd, who I think are genuinely motivated by making the world better. I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg is driven by money. I think Mark Zuckerberg would be much less of a problem if he were driven by money. He’s an idealist who thinks he got lucky and alighted on a set of tools that are truly going to empower humankind, and that anything that you and I and government do to stop him—slow him down, ask questions, regulate him—are basically stopping and slowing the liberation of humanity.
Therefore, you have this mix of people who are cynically trying to use a little bit of doing good to protect the right to do well, but you also have people who are blind to ways in which they might not actually be the humanitarians they think they are.
Billionaires like Jeff Bezos, George Soros, and Mike Bloomberg (who is allegedly considering running for president) position themselves as the antidote to Trump. But you see them and Trump more as flip sides of the same coin. Why is that?
One of the things that became very clear to me as I reported this is: It’s not about billionaires we like versus billionaires we don’t like. This is not about rich people who do the right thing versus rich people who do the wrong thing. This is a fundamental question of, why do rich people have so much power over public life in America?
Donald Trump is an easy villain, but people we are inclined to like, who share [socially liberal] views on women and immigration and fighting to help the DREAMers and who hate Trump, a lot of those people are complicit in why we are in this moment. And we have to have an honest conversation about that.
I think these philanthro-capitalists laid the ground for Trump in two ways. First, for years, they allowed problems to fester—real problems like declining social mobility, what trade was doing to America, issues around cities and gentrification. Every time you say Lean In is going to fix gender equality, or one charter school in Bed-Stuy is going to solve education, or you’re going to have some kind of tote bag that saves the environment—every time we were promulgating phony change, that is not doing real change. It is crowding out real change and redefining change so we cannot do more ambitious change. This has led to a situation where many of our biggest problems are being led to fester instead of being solved.
I don’t think you can understand the rise of Trump without understanding all of the oxygen that that gave him, the oxygen of unsolved problems en masse. The guy got an enormous amount of oxygen from the very real feeling out there that elites didn’t have regular people’s backs. And I think the philanthro-capitalists played a big part in that. While we were distracted by the smokescreen of changing the world, there was real harm being committed.
Second, a lot of the language and intellectual moves that philanthro-capitalists made gave Trump his talking points. When Donald Trump says, “I alone can fix it”—that’s not a move that started with him. The philanthro-capitalists have been saying that all along. Again, that’s the idea: that the arsonists should be the firefighters, that the people who caused the problem are in the best position to solve it. That’s the same notion as Goldman Sachs partners are the best at sitting on anti-poverty organization boards. Donald Trump rode in on the coattails of the philanthro-capitalists, partly by borrowing their intellectual maneuvers, and partly by exploiting the very real problems that they fake-solved.
What do you make of Amazon HQ2—of Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man and head of a trillion-dollar company, asking cities and states to cough up billions of dollars in incentives for his company’s new headquarters?
You have Amazon engaged in a race to the bottom of cities throwing away tax revenue in order to attract it. That is money cities could spend on homelessness or education. Then you have the founder of Amazon giving away $2 billion to solve supposedly the very issues that cities will be less able to solve, because they’re giving money as a tax break. Then you’ve got the employment practices of the company, the amount of pay, the volatility of seasonal employment, its own tax practices.
You end up having this complicated mix where that company and the people who work for it are fighting on both sides of the war. And at one level they’re trying to do good, whether it’s Jeff Bezos giving a lot of money away, or the fact that every time I log into Amazon, there’s some pop-up that asks me to give money to charity. On the other hand, given their employment practices, given the desire for tax breaks, what they’re doing in their workday activities is not only undermining what they’re doing charitably, but overwhelming it.
It’s the same thing with these banks that are doing urban revitalization things right now. They are one of the primary reasons for all the foreclosures across this country, and the harm they cause is on a much vaster scale. We would be much better off with a J.P. Morgan that didn’t help cause a financial crisis and then need to revitalize what they helped to kill. Don’t kill things and then revitalize them. Just avoid killing them. It’s so much more efficient. These people love efficiency, so here I come with news of how to be more efficient.
Wealthy people have always funded pet projects in cities, like museum buildings and symphony halls. Now they have taken to funding city-government positions. One Midwestern city has donors that want to endow local government.
That kind of giving still tends to confer power. The fact that we are moving toward a society in which rich people are reaping these outsized profits because of how little they pay people and how little tax they pay [means] something is broken. Just pay your damn taxes.
What does it mean when the media is dependent on wealthy people?
Should billionaires really own our means of discovering the truth? (Hi Laurene, nice to have you reading this article!) This is part of a loop. First, business interests over the last 30 to 40 years have waged a war on government, stripping down taxes, stripping down regulations, and they built a winners-take-all economy. Then, after bludgeoning government and shrinking it, they waged a war to control political power and to make sure they’re the ones who write bills.
What I write about in my book is third-stage, where you’ve got the conquest of the economy by the winners, you’ve got the conquest of political life by the winners, and you have the privatization of social change. What you’re getting at is a fourth stage.
What is the best prospect even if the first three institutions fall to moneyed interests? If you have a press that’s free and investigates, you still have some hope of exposing the other three and keeping them relatively honest. When the winners, a small handful of them, basically own all of the major publications of quality and Facebook, Google, and Twitter, which are responsible for whether that journalism is visible to people, you’ve closed the loop.
I’m not sure what other institutional valves there are to fix the situation we are in. We have to get over our temptation to ask whether the billionaire who owns The Atlantic is a better or worse billionaire than the billionaire who owns The Washington Post or the billionaire who sold TIME magazine to another billionaire. We have to ask why so much of our society is owned by billionaires.
Are there any alternative ways we can avoid relying on billionaires’ leftovers? Or if not, are there mechanisms to better use their philanthropic funds?
There’s an opportunity in this era for rich people to become traitors to their class and to give in ways that actually pull up the ladder, so no one can become rich in the way they did—to actually break down the system atop which they stand. There is the opportunity to do the kind of giving that would not aggrandize them and their power, that would actually level the playing field in ways that threaten their fellow plutocrats. It’s important that they’re not gaining power over these movements, but supporting others.
What does the future of labor solidarity look like? If you were to give $1 billion to that, you would not be acting in your own self-interest. How come we don’t have plutocrats donating money to those who are cracking down on hidden, offshore money? That’d be a great philanthropic cause: going after your own privilege and the privilege of people like you.
Another thing rich people can do is they can learn from what was done 100 years ago, when people like [Andrew] Carnegie required states to take over the maintenance of a library he created privately and agree to fund it through taxpayer dollars. Not because he couldn’t afford it, but because he wanted to use donations to develop a public habit.
The more important thing that needs to happen is not from rich people—it’s from the rest of us, who need to learn to take change back. That means as an individual, asking, “What can I do?” My simple answer is, next time you see a problem, don’t start a cupcake company that gives back—just solve it. When you see a problem, think of a solution that is public, democratic, institutional, and universal. Think of a solution that solves the problem for everybody at the root. And then build movements.
We are not a country of movements anymore. Even in the anguish that President Trump has caused, how many billionaires have Democrats considered as the salvation? Howard Schultz, Zuckerberg, Bloomberg, Oprah, Tom Steyer. Look at ourselves for a second. Why is it that we keep turning to billionaire sugar daddies and sugar mommies to rescue us from a phony billionaire sugar daddy?
There is something in our culture that doesn’t trust ourselves in our collective capacity as people to organize and build movements, and we need to learn how to do that again. People at events ask, “How do I change the world?” No. How do we change the world? Stop asking what you can do as an individual. If we could actually reacquire the habit of joining things, not tweeting and liking and poking but actually being part of movements—sustained communities of people that fight for things together—I think we can rebalance where power is in our society.
The irony is, the tools of our time make it easier than ever for regular people to organize. Yet those tools have so far produced the opposite outcome, which is more power concentration than we’ve had in 100 years. It’s time to reverse that.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic that this will happen?
I think Donald Trump has done us the enormous favor of discrediting the billionaire change agent now and forever. There is a chance that we will actually have one of those inflection points, just as the Gilded Age gave way to an age of reform 100 years ago. We are overdue for an age of reform in America, an age that will have a public-spirited nature rather than a private-spirited nature, an age whose emphasis will be building and rebuilding what we share in common.
Who better to flamboyantly discredit the idea of rich people saying they were fighting for us while enriching themselves than Donald J. Trump?
CityLab editorial fellow Nicole Javorsky contributed editorial assistance to this article.