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If you happened to see the video of the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman confronting a Davos audience with the elephant in the room that is tax avoidance (“It feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water,” he said) and are looking for something that captures the same spirit, Winners Take All is the book for you.
Anand Giridharadas, a former New York Times columnist, takes aim at the modern plutocratic class that gathers at Davos and Aspen with the stated intention of making the world a better place, what Giridharadas calls in his subtitle: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. It’s a charade, he argues, because these philanthropic tech billionaires and bankers are really only concerned with maintaining a system that has provided them with unimaginable wealth, while leaving a vast swath of humanity in need of help. Giridharadas cites one shocking statistic that says just eight billionaires, most from the field of technology, possess as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population.
Yet it is often these very same billionaires, and their supporters, who argue that they are best placed to reform the global system, make it more just and efficient. They do this, Giridharadas suggests, through a psychological trick in which they position themselves as rebels fighting a corrupt establishment. So Travis Kalanick, Uber’s founder, becomes a role model for breaking entrenched privilege – ie licensed cab monopolies – rather than someone who has devised a system in which workers have few rights and are more or less disposable.
In this scenario, governments are seen as at best incompetent, incapable of adapting to changing circumstance, and the private sector becomes the only reliable means of delivering progress. Giridharadas calls this outlook “neoliberalism”, which is a bit of a lazy, catch-all phrase, ubiquitously employed for all that’s wrong in western democratic states.
Certainly, there is a case that self-described “liberal” politicians, most notably, but far from exclusively, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, have made great play of cosying up to global elites, who themselves make a lot of noise about charitable works. In reality, this philanthropy often redistributes a tiny fraction of the vast wealth accrued through strenuous resistance to redistributive taxation.
Clinton, Blair and others started out believing that tapping the power and financial might of big business would help raise standards of living for all and ended up appearing rather more interested in joining the super-rich themselves. Of course, what destroyed the so-called Third Way vision that Clinton and Blair shared was the 2008 economic crisis.
A deregulated financial sector led capitalism to the brink of collapse and then was bailed out by that much-maligned institution: government. Towards the end of the book, we glimpse a character with the Tom Wolfe-like name of Sanford Weill, a former chairman and chief executive of Citigroup who had lobbied for too-big-to-fail banks.
Citigroup was one of the banks saved by billions of dollars of government support paid for by austerity measures. Weill is now a major philanthropist whose belief in the superior wisdom of global elites remains unshaken. He is a symbol for Giridharadas of an elite approach, indulged by governments, in which an unfair system is continually looked upon as the source of solutions to the unfairness that enables that system to thrive.
As he writes: “The entrepreneurs were willing to participate in making the world better if you pursued that goal in a way that exonerated and celebrated and depended upon them. Win-win.”
So much of what Giridharadas writes is almost self-evidently true and urgently in need of addressing, yet his argument is slightly undermined by repetition and a reluctance to acknowledge that big business and technical innovation are sometimes forces for universal good, even if profits are made. The problem comes when a combination of financial clout, global reach and government timidity leads to these businesses and their esteemed leaders gaining undue influence while avoiding taxation.
There are no easy answers, and Giridharadas doesn’t spend much time looking for them, but breaking up monopolies and closing down tax havens would certainly be a start. But that would require worldwide initiative. From a British perspective, leaving the EU and desperately seeking international trade deals does not suggest we will be in a strong position to contemplate effective reform in the near future.
• Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas is published by Allen Lane (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World – review | Economics