Winners Take All (full title Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World) is a difficult book. In many ways, it feels like a book that doesn’t want to be read despite the necessity of doing so. It’s bitter, almost acerbic and its writer Anand Giridhadaras is unafraid of speaking his mind. Winners Take All is a book of harsh truths, but it reading it, and thinking about what it has to say feels like taking long needed medicine.
Girihadaras’ subject in Winners Take All can best be described by a recurring phrase from throughout the novel’s early chapters, that a person may “do well by doing good.” The phrase traces its origin back to Benjamin Franklin but in the modern context it summarizes a certain, popular strain of social consciousness. This popular way of looking at social engagement assumes that the best way to affect change is from the private sector, all the while benefiting not just the world but the bottom line. As charted by Giridhadaras, the United States (and to a lesser extent the world at large) has ceded control of the greater movement for social change to the sort of people who follow this philanthrocapitalism and it has created a bizarre scenario wherein the US government is no longer trusted to accomplish the task of fighting social inequality. The unfortunate result of this effort is an entire upper class of society that is extremely cognizant of social inequality and other major social problems but is unwilling to make any radical changes that might upset their position at the top. What’s more, Giridhadaras draws a direct line from this mentality to the election of Donald Trump, here cast as a sort of absurd conclusion to this line of thinking. A President whose origin is entirely from outside of politics or even government service and instead from a realm where “good,” is judged by so-called profits.
Giridhadaras is unrelenting in his skewering of what he calls win-win-ism (the idea that socially conscious business are a “win-win,” since you affect positive change however small while making a tidy profit). In early chapters, he goes after the modern business school mentality wherein the skills taught in MBA programs and financial internships are universal problem solving tools. This is eventually revealed to be only a single thrust of his offensive on social entrepreneurs as a whole. The book takes particular care to dissect the culture surrounding the “Idea Leader,” circuit of TED Talks and similar think tank conferences oriented around making the listeners feel good about themselves while internalizing the trite and airy version of serious academia. But Giridhadaras never blames the individual. He comes off as sympathetic to young college students who get internships at McKinsey and Company as well as the scholars who pivot towards careers giving TED Talks. With the exception of several (very rich) individuals who seem to have bought into these ideas a little too much, Giridhadaras takes aim at the system and not those who buy into it.
In this regard, the largest unspoken theme of Winners Take All is the need for sacrifice. MarketWorld, the term Giridhadaras uses to describe this world of philanthropic corporate elites, is a world that thrives on the idea that we live in a zero-sum world. It becomes necessary to believe that there’s no need to sacrifice anything. You don’t need to sacrifice profits to help the underprivileged. You don’t even need to admit that maybe you aren’t the trailblazer that you think you are. Most importantly perhaps, you never have to admit that you’re wrong. It’s this rigid unwillingness for introspection that Giridhadaras seems to take the most umbrage with. As one of his subjects highlights in the book’s epilogue, these people consider themselves to be provocateurs, agents of change. Adapting their system to better serve the people they claim to help shouldn’t be a problem. It should be embraced as a new challenge for these entrepreneur-types and yet it’s quietly but pointedly ignored in favor of pats on the back and attaboys. Meanwhile, the text never wavers from reinforcing just how badly our levels of inequality continue to grow in the world and the United States in particular.
Perhaps the one piece of criticism that can be most heavily leveled at Winners Take All is that Giridhadaras positions himself as a critic and only rarely deigns to offer insight into an alternative. That isn’t a problem most of the time. In the same chapter where deconstructs to Davos Conference, and TED Talk circuit he draws a distinct line between cultural critics of MarketWorld and thought leaders. Giridhadaras has dutifully taken on the mantle of the former in the writing of this book and that does not necessarily require him to provide alternatives. But I’m sure somebody reading this will have that sort of problem with Giridhadaras’ writing. That said, his willingness to portray the MarketWorld in such a stark light means that Winners Take All plays out like a satire of itself more often than not. Except, this can’t be satire because it’s real and was so honestly reported. Yet, I don’t think I’ve read anything in 2018 as funny as the completely serious phrase of “The Taco Bell Foundation believes that young people need to dream big (Page 208).”
Winners Take All is a challenging book. It literally challenges a number of assumptions that the reader probably has about any number of things about the modern world. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the variety of tangents and digressions contained within what starts out as a fairly direct theme. I may not agree with absolutely everything Giridhadaras has to say but given his own personal investment in this world, it takes a lot of guts to speak out against it. I’m not sure if Winners Take All is an absolute must read, but it’s high quality journalism and we can never have enough of that in our current day and age.