When I decided to read Anand Giridharadas’s book “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” I was looking for answers to my questions on changing the world through business. I finally ended up with even more questions! I read the book a second time, the list of questions kept getting longer, and many of my “mental models” were strongly challenged. Lastly, “Winners Take All” helped me conduct a deep introspection to reframe assumptions to make the world a better place. May be that was the author’s intention after all!

The book is an in-depth critique of many accepted “truths” today, such as:

  • The market is the most powerful vehicle for addressing the world’s problems;
  • The ideal market solutions blend social/environmental benefits and financial profits;
  • Technological innovation has the potential to solve most problems;
  • Governments and bureaucrats are obstacles for real change. Hence, solutions have to designed avoiding the public sector as much as possible.

The limits of changing the world within the “system” boundaries

 “Winners Take All” is a strong critique of rich elites self-appointed as leaders of social change.  The author argues that these elites, all in all, do more harm than good and contribute to or sustained the problems they are wanting to change.

Giridharadas claims that “elites believe and promote the idea that social change should be pursued principally through the free market and voluntary action, not public life and the law and the reform of the systems that people share in common; that it should be supervised by the winners of capitalism and their allies, and not be antagonistic to their needs; and that the biggest beneficiaries of the status quo should play a leading role in the status quo’s reform”.  As a result, rather than fundamentally questioning the rules of the game, looking at the big picture and shaking up the system, business saviors prefer focusing on impact investing, entrepreneurship, corporate sustainability, social responsibility, philanthropy and tech-driven solutions to save the world. According to the author, the do-gooders failure stems from the fact that they are “trying to solve the problem with the tools that caused it” in the first place without challenging mainstream assumptions, addressing systemic and questioning root problems because of conflicting interests. “Those who propose to solve problems in other ways—especially by looking at power and resources and other things unsettling to winners—are sidelined” Giridharadas says.

How to take it from there?

I feel that the book’s main recommendations are as follows:

  • Supporting and improving public institutions to be a central driver of change for the good of all.
  • Yes, it is good to make doing good easier but what is more effective is to make doing bad harder (through public institutions)
  • Real and sustainable solutions to our world’s problems require daring to ask “tough” questions and address root causes not the symptoms

Selected quotes from the book

“The only thing better than controlling money and power is to control the efforts to question the distribution of money and power. The only thing better than being a fox is being a fox asked to watch over hens.”

“There is no denying that today’s elite may be among the more socially concerned elites in history. But it is also, by the cold logic of numbers, among the more predatory in history.”

“For when elites assume leadership of social change, they are able to reshape what social change is — above all, to present it as something that should never threaten winners,”

“To fight inequality means to change the system. For a privileged person, it means to look into one’s own privilege”

“Inequality is built on antecedents—preexisting conditions ranging from ingrained prejudice and historical racial, gender, and ethnic biases to regressive tax policies that cumulatively define the systems and structures that enable inequality to fester.”

“Elite networking forums (…) groom the rich to be self-appointed leaders of social change, taking on the problems people like them have been instrumental in creating or sustaining.”

“More often, though, these elites start initiatives of their own, taking on social change as though it were just another stock in their portfolio or corporation to restructure. Because they are in charge of these attempts at social change, the attempts naturally reflect their biases.”

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it. —UPTON SINCLAIR”

“Stories promoted by MarketWorld that tell us that change is easy, is a win-win, and doesn’t require sacrifice.”

“Those who propose to solve problems in other ways—especially by looking at power and resources and other things unsettling to winners—are sidelined”

“MarketWorld had shown itself willing and able to engage in the arena of politics—to “change the system”—when it came to seeking lower taxes, freer trade, the repeal of laws like Glass-Steagall, debt reduction, scaled-back regulation (…). Yet the reversal of some of the very things it had fought for was deemed too hard, too political, too vast to take on.”

“Generosity is not a substitute for justice”

“Businesspersons calling themselves “leaders” and naming themselves solvers of the most intractable social problems represent a worrisome way of erasing their role in causing them.”

 “If you want to be a thought leader and not dismissed as a critic, your job is to help the public see problems as personal and individual dramas rather than collective and systemic ones.”

“It is hard to get a man to understand something he is being paid not to understand.”

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