Book Review: “Winners Take All” pinpoints elites’ “helping and hoarding” while abetting unjust status quo

Review by Robert R. Thomas

The recent successful Genesee County millage for-the-arts vote, which starting in January and for the next ten years will bring in $8.7 million/year of taxpayers’ money to a dozen nonprofit arts organizations, got me thinking about the mingling of private and public monies and how that business/governance hybrid works, especially the accountability factor.

For some insight, if not answers, I turned to my go-to research source: books.

Anand Giridharadas, foreign correspondent and columnist for the New York Times from 2005 to 2016, offers a solid guidebook in Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.

“There is no denying that today’s elites may be among the more socially concerned elites in history,” Giridharadas writes.   “But it is also, by the cold logic of numbers, among the more predatory in history…This book is an attempt to understand the connection between these elites’ social concern and predation, between the extraordinary helping and the extraordinary hoarding, between the milking–and perhaps abetting–of an unjust status quo… It is also an attempt to offer a view of how the elite see the world, so that we might better assess the merits and the limitations of their world changing campaigns.”

To connect dots with a human brush, Giridharadas offers several portraits of “this elite-led, market-friendly, winner-safe social change.” They are “people who ardently believe in this form of change and people who are beginning to question it.” They are thought leaders and critics.

Ranging from Darren Walker, the CEO of the prestigious Ford Foundation, to Bill Clinton and his Global Initiatives Foundation, the fascinating cast of characters and their narratives drive Giridharadas’ examination of the intertwining of money, power, philanthropy, and governance. The mingling of private and public monies and attendant foggy accountabilities and consequences play a central role in this book.

The portrait Giridharadas paints of Hilary Cohen, a 2014 graduate of Georgetown University, is a contemporary journey of ethics and economics in a search for how best to change the world. Steeped in Aristotle’s Ethics where “The only truly ultimate good is human flourishing,” Cohen’s quest became how best to do that. Should she become a rabbi or a financializer? This was an especially challenging quest under the current economics of how to change the world, an ascendant economic ideology often called neoliberalism.


According to anthropologist David Harvey, this is a “theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong property rights, free markets, and free trade.” Harvey adds that “deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision” tend to follow.

The ascendant value of the marketplace is pervasive throughout Cohen’s quest to change the world. When she joins McKinsey & Company, one of the top three consulting firms dedicated to changing the world via the marketplace model of doing good by doing well, her story opens the reader to the MarketWorld problem-solvers, and their “Win-Win” economic ideology verging on the philosophy of the Gospel of Wealth.

MarketWorld is defined by Giridharadas as “an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do good by doing well, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo. It consists of enlightened businesspeople and their collaborators in the worlds of charity, academia, media, government, and think tanks.

“It has its own thinkers, whom it calls thought leaders, its own language, and even its own territory—including a constantly shifting archipelago of conferences at which its values are reinforced, disseminated and translated into action. MarketWorld is a network and community, it is also a culture and state of mind,”  he writes.

The portraits of Stacy Archer’s “Portfolios with Purpose” helping poor people using the power of fantasy sports and Justin Rosenstein’s “doing good by doing well” in Silicon Valley via his Asuna philanthropic endeavors, introduce the reader to the “win-win” approach to social change of MarketWorld do-gooders.

For Giridharadas, their views describe “MarketWorld values perfectly: You could change things without having to change a thing.” The claims by the elite that the biggest beneficiaries of the status quo should play a leading role in the status quo’s reform is a recurrent theme in Winners Take All.

Sean Hinton, another Ford Foundation executive populating this book, refers to this problem as “The-Trying-to-Solve-the-Problem-with-the-tools That Caused-It.”

The ideas of MarketWorld, the author demonstrates, are a new twist on an old idea about the beneficence of self-interest, the selfish pursuit of a prosperity that floats all boats, which is an essential oil of all the trickle-down theories from economics to power pyramid schemes.

“Under the new theory,” Giridharadas writes, “entrepreneurship can become synonymous with humanitarianism—a humanitarianism that greases the wheels of entrepreneurship.” Nowhere, notes Giridharadas, is this more prevalent than the Silicon Valley with its revolutionary technologies and attendant massive wealth growth and heavy investments in doing good by doing well.

The book’s dive into the messy meat of democracy colliding with the button-down theoreticals of neoliberal ideology where private decisions of the few override the governance of the many is artfully nuanced in the book’s examination of the conundrum between public and private, the individual and the commons, the efficiency and effectiveness of private companies versus the messier, less-efficient continuations of our democratic experiment in government.

Entrepreneurship is a current hot-button item in the MarketWorld of win-win-ism.

Giridharadas deftly draws the back story of how entrepreneurship went from “an incidental booster of the common good into a unique figure specially capable of tending to it. Business goes from being a sector with positive social benefits to being the principal vessel for human betterment.”

Hailed as a fresh factor in this front-loaded MarketWorld version of late-capitalism, things come to a screaming halt in the interior rigging of a neoliberal win-win-ism trickle-down economic system that has made the rich wealthier at the expense of the rest of us. Since the 10% own 90% of the planet’s wealth, it further implies a hierarchical pyramid of money and power. The friction of this widening inequality gap continues apace with the book’s further examinations of the elite and their system and its rationalizations.

Blurring of the line between self-service and the common good, the individual and the community, is the same blurring between business and government. This book clarifies that an experiment in democracy is not an experiment in business, nor should it be.

The efficiency of the MarketWorld business protocols prevail even when generosity meets justice, as Giridharadas illuminates with an examination of the prominent philanthropic Sackler family and their Purdue Pharma pharmaceutical company.

The key to their amassed wealth was making OxyContin. In 2007 the company settled for $635 million in fines and other outlays for claiming “OxyContin was not what Purdue claimed it was.” Despite the “inconvenience” of this historically large fine, OxyContin continued to grow Purdue to a net worth of $14 billion, the 16th-largest fortune in the country in 2015.

When it comes to bumping heads with justice, as Giridharadas writes, “generosity is not a substitute for justice, but here, as so often in MarketWorld, it was allowed to stand in.” He underscores that “despite readily available knowledge about OxyContin and the Sacklers, MarketWorld embraced the family’s do-gooding and kept mum about the harm.”

Expanding his examination to the global MarketWorld circuit, Giridharadaras reviews the Clinton Global Initiatives (CGI) Foundation, which made Bill Clinton an icon of global philanthropy. Clinton’s partnerships and commitments approach included private and public entities. The Foundation also increased Clinton’s personal wealth and helped the committed investor to build its brand. Bill Clinton and his partnerships have done well by doing global good.

But the CGI model eventually drew mounting criticism for “the blurring of public good and private desire,” writes Giridharadaras. The criticism also lit up the fearful elephant in the mansions of wealthy world: swelling populist anger fueled by massive inequality. “What they did not appreciate,” writes Giridharadaras about the populist anger, “was the world being changed without them.”

The place of politics in the MarketWorld equation is a key issue in globalism’s anti-democratic streak “of solving problems above, beyond, and outside politics.” Toning down political talk while amping up business jargon is but one aspect of selling global win-win-ism. Clinton described his global model extrademocratic partnership as “living proof that good people, committed to creative cooperation, have almost unlimited positive impact to help people today and give our kids better tomorrows.” Then he added: “This is all that does work in the modern world.”

Giridharadas comments: “Clinton, believing in the power of politics to improve lives, having shown the possibilities of politics with his own life, had accepted the shift. He had accepted that businesses must make their returns, and that children must at times have their interests balanced against the imperatives of those returns.

Columnist Robert Thomas

He had in his post-presidency done more real good and saved more lives than perhaps any of his predecessors; and at the same time he had accepted certain limitations on how good is done nowadays. MarketWorld had so triumphed that even a man who once led the most powerful machinery of state in the history of civilization could now say of private, plutocratic, social change, ‘This is all that does work in the modern world.’”

Fully formed in its reportage from the realms of the elite, Winners Take All  is an equally fine critical analysis. The author states he wanted this book to be “an inquiry into the apparatus of justification.” It is indeed that and much more as it lights up serious accountability and foundational issues in the MarketWorld vision of governance.

EVM board member and book reviewer Robert R. Thomas can be reached at

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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