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Winners Take All — Book Review

Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. New York: Knopf, 2018. xvi + 288 pages. $26.95.


This book is an engaging, ground-level, journalistic report about a world hidden in plain sight. The author calls it “MarketWorld.”

What is MarketWorld? MarketWorld is hydra-headed monster consisting of a physical space, a cadre of people, and a state of mind.

The geographical aspect of MarketWorld has the form of an archipelago—the “MarketWorld Archipelago,” let us say.

The Marketworld Archipelago consists of a worldwide chain of conferences, seminars, and fellowship programs held at a wide variety of ski-resorts (e.g., Davos, Aspen), cruise ships, college campuses, non-profit foundations (Ford, Clinton, Gates), and hi-tech forums (TED).

The people who inhabit MarketWorld are a wide-ranging collection of financial analysts, business management consultants, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, political campaign activists, international development field operatives, and foreign aid workers.

The state of mind of MarketWorld is the free market ideology, which claims that capitalism is always and everywhere a “non-zero-sum,” or “win-win,” process, in which people may contribute to alleviating global poverty by simply doing more of what they do already.

As the citizens of MarketWorld themselves would put it: They aspire to “do well by doing good”—in other words, both by helping to “save the world” and by getting rich at the same time.

Now, obviously, many (if not most) people have heard of the World Economic Forum, the Aspen Institute, the Clinton Foundation, and TED Talks before reading this book.

Nevertheless, before reading Winners Take All, most people might not suspect that MarketWorld exists. Why? Because to discern MarketWorld requires “connecting the dots,” and that takes a guide. The author, Anand Giridharadas, provides such guidance in Winners Take All.

In his book, Giridharadas helps us (1) to recognize the unity of the global MarketWorld Archipelago; (2) to understand what kinds of people inhabit the Archipelago; and (3) to appreciate the extent to which the MarketWorld ideology dominates the minds of those people.

While the existence and nature of MarketWorld is a vast topic, with enormously important ramifications in many fields, Ghiridharadas is an excellent guide, who makes the learning experience a pleasant one.

The Author

The author was born about 1981 in the tony Cleveland, Ohio, suburb of Shaker Heights to a well-to-do immigrant family originally from Maharashtra State in India. He moved around with his family growing up, living in both Paris, France, and the Washington, DC, area, where he graduated from the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in 1999.

Giridharadas received his higher education in the US, obtaining his bachelor’s degree in history in 2003 from the University of Michigan. He later did three years of work towards a doctoral degree in political philosophy at Harvard University but left without finishing.

Giridharadas worked for a year and a half as a business analyst with McKinsey & Company before leaving to take up a post as South Asian Correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, where he put in near nearly four years.

Since 2011, Giridharadas, who also wrote a regular column for over eight years for the New York Times, has worked as a freelance author. In this capacity, he has written for such prestigious venues as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Time magazine.

Today, the author lives in Brooklyn in New York City.

His first book, India Calling (2011), was a study of the enormous economic and social changes that are wrenching his ancestral homeland. His second book, The True American (2014), took a true crime story from Texas as the occasion for reflecting upon contemporary American society. Winners Take All is Giridharadas’s third book.

The author has said that he found it hard making the transition from being a reporter to being a book author. He has stated that, in order to do so, he studied closely the travel books of the late Nobel laureate, V.S. Naipaul.

The Approach (Inspired by Naipaul)

One can easily detect Naipaul’s influence on our author’s decision to structure his book around a series of reports consisting of reconstructed interviews, rather than assuming either a journalistic, faux-objective God’s-eye-view or an equally factitious novelistic stance from inside another person’s consciousness.

Giridharadas has clearly profited from his study of Naipaul, for, while the business-oriented subject matter does not exactly set one’s pulse racing (or doesn’t mine, anyway), nevertheless, Winners Take All is consistently readable and interesting. Moreover, the reports that he crafts on his protagonists are both vivid in themselves and persuasive as faithful sketches of living-and-breathing people with all their idiosyncrasies.

Which is not quite the same thing as to say that the author’s own thoughts are always transparent. Not unlike his great mentor, when it comes to his own social-policy preferences, Giridharadas plays his cards close to his vest. More on this later.

The Focus

The main emphasisof Winners Take All is on problems involving third-world development. However, the book opens with a nine-page “Prologue,” which provides a recital of the well-known facts regarding wage stagnation and growing income inequality in America over the past two or three decades, which the author interprets primarily as fallout from technological innovation, together with the inevitable outworking of the capitalist free-market process (see, especially, pp. 3–4).

Ghiridharadas rightly deplores this situation. However, he rejects any convergence between his critique and the similar one associated with the America First movement initiated by former President Donald J. Trump, whom he vociferously deplores in familiar terms (p. 9).

After the “Prologue,” Winners Take All proceeds to its main task, which is to construct a group portrait of the MarketWorld Archipelago by means of an extensive compilation of reports on the careers and opinions of some 50 of its citizens.

The book is arranged topically, with the reports in each chapter clustering around a central theme. These themes range from the way in which college graduates get recruited into MarketWorld (Chap. 1), to a consideration of “win-win” rhetoric (Chap. 2), to a thumbnail history of philanthropy (Chap. 6).

To be sure, these topics are somewhat aspirational. It is not always easy to tell apart the unifying themes that notionally underlie the various chapters. Even so, considered as a whole, the book has a pleasingly well-constructed feel.

The Typical Protagonist

In each chapter, Giridharadas’s basic procedure is to focus on several successful citizens of MarketWorld and to tell each one’s life story in his or her own words. Most of the reports, however, are given in the form of paraphrase, not direct citation, as mentioned before.

Nearly all these protagonists are young, many still in their 20’s. A typical story goes something like this:

Born into an affluent family whose paterfamilias usually makes his living in the financial or the business management sector (interestingly, few of the MarketWorld citizens interviewed come from non-traditional families), Junior is packed off to prep school and the Ivy League, where he or she excels academically.

However, Junior has unfulfilled spiritual longings vaguely articulated (nearly all our protagonists are unchurched, though one young woman does consider studying to become a rabbi).

Nearly all the MarketWorld citizens reported on in Winners Take All are seeking a higher purpose in life than merely making money. The whole interest of the book lies in this inner struggle going on within almost every protagonist examined.

For each of them, sooner or later, this inchoate longing for a higher, more spiritually rewarding kind of life gets projected through the prism of contemporary “progressive” rhetoric about “inequality” and “social justice.”

However, given who these youngsters are—their family background, the kind of education they have had, and the limited horizon of their expectations—they inevitably experience this temptation towards leftwing social activism as potentially dangerous, forbidden fruit.

It is easy to imagine, then, with what relief these callow youth greet the idea that they need not feel guilty about getting filthy rich because that is the only way they can make a meaningful personal contribution to promoting social justice, ending global poverty and inequality, reversing climate change, and generally saving the world.

With only a handful of exceptions, all the reports in Winners Take All follow this upward, redemptive story arc. The drama in each story lies in the many different ways in which the various protagonists encounter MarketWorld, are seduced by its vision. and end up signing on with a firm not unlike Daddy’s.

Disillusionment and Entrapment

If Giridharadas ended these reports there, the book would be a piece of propaganda in support of MarketWorld. To his credit, he does not do this.

Rather, he goes on to show how, in the majority of cases, his protagonists begin to see through the MarketWorld hype and to realize that they are not really not doing anything to change the world for the better in a permanent way—indeed, that they are scarcely helping anyone at all.

By then, however, it is usually too late. The young person is already well ensconced in MarketWorld and is being extremely well compensated for his or her contributions to it. In the final act of each report Giridharadas brings to the fore each protagonist’s feelings of disillusionment and entrapment.

In some cases, an older-but-wiser individual reconciles himself to his situation, chalking up his lost innocence to the inevitability of growing up and assuming adult responsibilities.

In many case, however, disillusionment with the hollow promises of MarketWorld leads neither to acceptance of the world as it is, nor to the anger and rebellion of the true activist, but rather to the cynicism of someone who remains comfortably positioned within the system while affecting a pose of moral superiority to it.

In the end, readers comes to realize that the medicine they have been absorbing while reading Winners Take All—which has had such a sweet coating and gone down so smoothly—contains a bitter moral lesson at its core, namely, that many or most of the young people he reports on will eventually find the scales falling from their eyes.

Insinuations and Bias

Giridharadas also draws other lessons, but in doing so refuses to speak forthrightly in his own name. Rather, he employs a method of planting uninflected yet effective insinuations at multiple points throughout the book.

For example, he has this to say about the social stigma formerly associated with abortion (pp. 99–100):

The shame one felt in getting an abortion wasn’t a feeling cooked up by the feeler; it was engineered and constructed through public policy and the artful use of religious authority. The feminists helped us to see problems in this way.

For Ghiridharadas, this is the indisputable truth, handed down, if not from Mt. Sinai, then from the “radiant future” where the vision of Karl Marx is fully realized, and joined in blissful harmony with those of Simone de Beauvoir, Herbert Marcuse, and Michel Foucault.

Apparently, Ghiridharadas feels himself under no obligation to acknowledge that anyone might differ with him on this point for legitimate, publicly available reasons. Moreover, he appears unable to imagine that shame can be a moral good—even necessity—which prevents us from doing wrong, and that the feminist “deconstruction” of the shame traditionally attached to abortion might itself be an “artful use” of political authority to obfuscate the moral seriousness of the question.

Here is another example of Ghiridharadas’s surreptitious way of slipping in bias. In a discussion of the ways in which MarketWorld financial support may cause potential critics like Thomas Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell to pull their punches, the author makes the following perfectly reasonable observation (p. 103):

[I]t is hard to accept the conclusion that the plutocratic funding of ideas has no effect on the marketplace of ideas as a whole.

Fair enough.

But Giridharadas goes on to paint a glowing portrait of George Soross skepticism towards MarketWorld (pp. 129ff), while characterizing with a straight face the Citizens United Supreme Court decision—which gave a green light to political spending on right-wing causes by the Koch Brothers and others—as an “unfortunate disaster” (p. 194).

In other words, in Giridharadas’s mind, activists are only corrupted by money from right-wing billionaires like the Koch Brothers, never by funding from left-wing plutocrats like Soros.

Capitalism vs. MarketWorld?

This is Giridharadas’s modus operandi throughout the book:

Always be explicit and empirical about the sordid self-delusions of the inhabitants of the MarketWorld Archipelago. Never openly state—much less back up with evidence—but only assume that the sole alternative is to overthrow the capitalist system in toto.

He comes closest to saying all this out loud in the book’s “Epilogue,” which features the Italian-born political philosopher Chiara Cordelli, who compares capitalism to slavery (p. 259) and writes that private charity is degrading, while a government handout is ennobling (p. 262)—thus standing all commonsense understanding of justice and moral responsibility on its head.

Although he never quite comes right out and says so, the author left me with the definite impression that he agrees with Cordelli: the heart of our problem is not the MarketWorld Archipelago, so much as it is capitalism—i.e., the free market—itself.

I would be very much interested in reading a book in which Giridharadas openly expounds his political philosophy and explains in detail how he envisions a replacement for the capitalist system.

Winners Take All is not that book.