Business leaders no longer content themselves with merely wanting to turn a profit. Chief executives such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk simultaneously offer themselves as agents of social change and moral lodestars.
Having become a fellow at the Aspen Institute, the New York Times journalist and former McKinsey consultant Anand Giridharadas was comfortably ensconced in the world of elite philanthropy. But after sessions on “the good society” in the Koch Building (named after the billionaire Republican donors) and Goldman Sachs-sponsored lunches, he felt a gnawing sense of unease. In 2015, at the Aspen Action Forum, an event that is typically marked by anodyne, feel-good speeches, Giridharadas delivered an unashamed rebuke.
“The Aspen Consensus,” he declared, held that “the winners of our age must be challenged to do more good” but never told “to do less harm”. He likened charity to the papal indulgences of the Middle Ages: “a relatively inexpensive way of getting oneself seemingly on the right of justice, without having to alter the fundamentals of one’s life”.
The speech outraged the organisers (who were caught unawares) but was greeted with a standing ovation and soon went viral online (the influential New York Times columnist David Brooks praised the address as “courageous”).
Giridharadas, whose parents emigrated from India to Ohio in the 1970s, has deepened his critique of philanthro-capitalism in his book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. “This ‘fake change’ is actually part of how we maintain the systems of exclusion and inequality,” he said when we met in central London.
Like Oscar Wilde, the spiky-haired Giridharadas, who is 37, contends that charity is not merely insufficient but sometimes actively harmful (“just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves… the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good,” wrote Wilde in The Soul of Man under Socialism).
Through notionally ethical acts, business leaders aim to shield themselves from scrutiny over low tax rates, inadequate workers’ pay and unjustifiable monopolies. “Just at the moment when you are about to be resented, you turn yourself into a saviour,” Giridharadas told me.
He cited Zuckerberg (“there are serious people who say Facebook may have tipped the presidential election result”) and the Sackler family, the pharmaceutical dynasty accused of making billions from the US opioid crisis, as perhaps the most egregious offenders. “There’s at least 200,000 people dead in America alone from the opioid crisis… And what do they [the Sacklers] do? They fund a bunch of art wings in museums. There’s no way that’s going to add up.”
Yet to some, philanthropists will still appear an odd target for opprobrium. Aren’t good deeds – even if motivated by self-interest – preferable to pure avarice? “Even if you’ve made the money in a clean way, and you’re giving it away in the wisest ways, it’s still too much power for one person in a democratic society that is committed to people having equal power,” Giridharadas said.
Rather than democratically elected governments determining social priorities, unaccountable billionaires increasingly do so. “You may say Bill Gates is a good guy in philanthropy, which I would say is true relative to some others, but he still violates the democracy principle.”
Somewhat counter-intuitively, Winners Take All is adorned with praise from the Microsoft founder: “Thought-provoking… his fresh perspective on solving complex societal problems is admirable.” Giridharadas was surprised by Gates’s response but reflected: “He probably, deep down, knows more than I do about the excesses of power that philanthropy has given him, about how hard it is to change systems… Someone suggested to me that he doesn’t like people who give $1m to their local charter school, and then go run a horrible hedge fund, and get lumped in with him in the press.”
One of Giridharadas’s most original – and disquieting – observations is that philanthropists paved the way for Donald Trump’s election victory. “By falsely claiming to be bringing change, they left to fester a bunch of social problems that obviously gave Trump a tremendous amount of oxygen… And they actually gave him his playbook: the idea that business people are specially qualified to fix everything.” He is dismayed by the suggestion of some that the Democrats should field Michael Bloomberg or Oprah Winfrey against Trump. “We need to stop turning to sugar daddies and sugar mummies as political saviours.”
On the evening of Theresa May’s historic Brexit defeat in the Commons, Giridharadas watched from the House of Commons public gallery, courtesy of the Conservative MP and former Financial Times journalist Jo Johnson.
As our conversation ended, Giridharadas sardonically remarked of the UK: “They’re having a fight about the wall except the wall is the English Channel: half of these people want to turn the English Channel into a wall to keep out their version of the Mexicans.”
This article appears in the 23 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?