When Barack Obama was nearing the end of his second presidential term, he turned to a group of management consultants at McKinsey & Company for advice on how to spend his retirement “making democracy more vital”. Management consultants, of course, are all about “change”. Unsurprisingly, they advised Obama that his post-presidential life should involve the creation of a charitable foundation. Now up and running, its mission is “to inspire, empower, and connect people to change their world”. It has programs focused on global girls’ empowerment, young leaders, African change-makers and corporate mentorship.
If that sounds an awful lot like the program of another recent Democratic president’s foundation, it is. The Clinton Foundation also has programs for girls, students, Africa and mentorship, in addition to HIV/AIDS, climate change and Haiti. Clinton’s been at it longer, so he’s had time to diversify.
Republican former presidents, strangely, don’t seem to have foundations. Nor do they seem to make much money. Maybe that’s because they were rich to begin with. Bill Clinton, the stepson of a local car dealer, now gets paid (one is reluctant to write: “earns”) a minimum of $250,000 for a one-hour speaking engagement, while wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea charge $200,000 and $75,000 respectively. That’s right: you can make $75,000 an hour just for being the daughter of two famous politicians. It’s a strange form of inheritance.
Barack and Michelle Obama are widely reported to garner $400,000 and $200,000 per engagement, respectively. No word yet on Malia and Sasha. Now twenty and seventeen years old, they’re just at the start of their celebrity speaking careers. Give them time.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the Obamas’ post-presidential career is their decision to start a movie company, Higher Ground Productions. Presumably the Obamas will be executive-executive-producers, not actually making movies à la Orson Welles. Then again, maybe it’s not so strange. Bill Clinton earned (was paid?) $17.6 million over five years for serving as the “honorary chancellor” of a for-profit schools company called Laureate International Universities, owner of Adelaide’s Torrens University. One suspects he didn’t do much teaching.
Champions of the Clintons and Obamas have likened these Democratic ex-presidents’ (and their families’) speaking fees to those of Donald Trump. The obvious difference is that Trump earned these fees before being elected to high office. For the Clintons and Obamas, they have been the rewards of high office. Being president didn’t make Trump a celebrity. Being a celebrity got him elected president.
Anand Giridharadas, the author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, is no fan of Donald Trump. But he is apparently a friend of Bill Clinton. And of the billionaire philanthropist Laurie Tisch, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, New York Times columnist David Brooks, Soros Foundation executive giver Sean Hinton, a bevy of top TED talkers, and many lesser-known social entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, CEOs and just plain rich people. He has rubbed elbows with Madeleine Albright, Matteo Renzi, Sadiq Khan and Dr Oz. And he is ready to spill the beans on all of them.
Giridharadas is a kind of political-economic gossip columnist with a purpose. In Winners Take All, he gives his readers access to a world that most of us only ever see on YouTube (let’s be honest: this stuff is too boring for television). He takes us behind the scenes of the seminars, panels and pow-wows of the liberal elite who have appointed themselves the do-good guardians of the galaxy. What all these people and places have in common is that they share a set of myths about “doing good while doing well” for themselves, and Giridharadas makes good on his promise to “reveal these myths to be exactly that”.
You don’t get a reporter’s pass to pull the veil on the globalist elite, so he concentrates on those events he has attended as a participant: mainly Silicon Valley fundraisers and Clinton Foundation love-fests. Davos, sadly, seems to have been out of his league, and Australia’s pretentious festivals didn’t even warrant a passing reference. This is very much a US-centred book. But then, if you go looking for the world’s political and economic elite, New York is where you’ll find them. Bush-league players like Helen Clark, Kevin Rudd and (presumably) Malcolm Turnbull all tend to gravitate to New York when they graduate from the regional theatres of their home countries.
Winners Take All is written in the now-standard vignette form, but for this book, at least, it works. Giridharadas builds from the story of a do-gooder university student turned McKinsey consultant who got the assignment of a lifetime, working on that Barack Obama post-presidency transition plan, all the way up to an extended interview with Bill Clinton, who (predictably enough) saw no conflicts of interest in his post-presidential roles. In between, Giridharadas shares a cruise ship with a few thousand tech entrepreneurs, a limousine with a private foundation chief, and conference rooms with just about everyone.
But none of these—not even Bill Clinton—are the “elite” of the book’s title. The elite are always someone else. The (African-American) Ford Foundation president with a $789,000 base salary plus corporate board positions that put him over a million a year moans incessantly about the need to cater to the egos of “rich white guys”. Retired private equity managers turned social entrepreneurs regret the influence that the “elite” have over philanthropic funding priorities. Even the billionaire heiress complains about the narrow-mindedness of “the people who get to take advantage of the system”, that is, the rich: “They’ll maybe give more money away, but they don’t want to radically change it.” For Laurie Tisch, “they” are the problem, not her.
Most ironically of all, for Giridharadas, too, the elite are always “they”. He decries the insidious influence of McKinsey & Company and bewails the thought-eroding simple-mindedness of TED talks. He exposes how the rich use seemingly innocuous giveaways like Aspen Institute fellowships to generate inbred alumni networks that perpetuate elite control over American society. Most of all, he excoriates the high-price-speakers’ circuit as a tool for corrupting the morals of academics and politicians while degrading the quality of public discourse, turning formerly profound public intellectuals into flimsy New Age “thought leaders”.
Yet as the dust jacket brags:
Anand Giridharadas … is an Aspen Institute fellow, an on-air political analyst for MSNBC, and a former McKinsey analyst. He … has spoken on the main stage of TED. Anand Giridharadas is available for select speaking engagements. To inquire about possible appearances, please contact …
Yes, there is actually a speaker advertisement for Anand Giridharadas on the inside flap of the book, right under the stylish black-and-white photo of Giridharadas stroking his chin in deep thought, as if the typical reader of a $20 book were likely to engage the author to speak at a graduation or birthday party.
For Giridharadas, Aspen fellows, McKinsey analysts and TED talkers are always “they”, not “we”. He tells a bit of his Aspen origin story in an extended acknowledgments section at the end of the book, and offers a standard disclaimer that he “never wanted the book to be about me”, but still he never seems to count himself among the elite. Just like the friends he interviews, he admits to being part of the “system”, but the problem with the system is always someone else. The “elite” should up their game. We non-elite are already doing all we can.
At the heart of Giridharadas’s story is the suggestion that national democracy might offer a better way of making collective decisions than elite consensus. One hesitates to call it his thesis, because he never endorses it directly. Like most of the other members of the elite he holds up to ridicule (but never actually ridicules), he scorns Brexit and Trump even while criticising Sadiq Khan and Hillary Clinton for being out of touch. For Giridharadas, Brexit and Trump benefited from “the immense amount of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, male chauvinism, and slandering of immigrants undammed and even stoked by the populists”. Populists are clearly not Giridharadas’s kind of people.
Yet Giridharadas seems to want elites to work with, not against, national democracies. He approvingly quotes prominent Harvard academics like Michael Porter, Larry Summers and Dani Rodrik, who criticise globalists for ignoring national well-being, even as he labels them part of the out-of-touch elite that lost the election to Trump. Giridharadas also quotes the conservative former Harvard professor Niall Ferguson (now at Stanford’s Hoover Institution), who blames “rootless cosmopolitans” like himself for the success of the populist wave. At the time, Ferguson was also at Harvard, where he was the Laurence Tisch Professor of History. Laurence Tisch was the uncle of Laurie Tisch, the billionaire heiress who disapproves of the complacency of the rich. It’s a small world.
Ferguson’s speaker’s fee, for the record, is given in the book as “between $50,000 and $75,000 per speech”. Public records show that he was also paid $293,145 in 2017 for sitting on the board of Affiliated Managers Group, a New York hedge fund. He is the managing director of his own consulting firm, Greenmantle, on top of which he earns a star professor’s salary for being affiliated with an institution where he doesn’t actually have to teach. But at least Ferguson seems to understand that he is a member of the elite, an understanding Giridharadas and his other commentators consistently elude.
Giridharadas wants to pin the blame for the world’s problems on a (super?) elite that he calls “MarketWorld”. Every trade book has to have a trademark, and MarketWorld is his. It is populated by unnamed rich people who entice well-meaning globalists like him into focusing their energies on helping unfortunate individuals instead of changing “the system” to make the world better for everyone. The insidious MarketWorld worldview is summarised in three principles: “focus on the victim, not the perpetrator”, “personalise the political” and “be constructively actionable”. Applying this magic formula, you can “change things without having to change a thing”. Thought leaders who stay inside this circle are rewarded with book contracts, speaking engagements and TED talks. Public intellectuals who stray outside it are relegated to (teaching) universities and think-tanks.
Giridharadas, with a book contract, speaking engagements and two TED talks safely tucked under his belt, challenges these MarketWorld assumptions. In a postscript, he tells the story of how he courageously stood up before a reunion of Aspen Institute fellows to suggest that “we may not always be the leaders we think we are”—perhaps the only use of the inclusive “we” in the book. In his speech, he criticised the Aspen credo as the idea that “the winners of our age must be challenged to do more good” but you should “never, ever tell them to do less harm”. He was followed onstage by Madeleine Albright, who “gently disparaged” his speech. Some fellow Aspen alumni called him nasty names. Giridharadas went on to write this book.
Admitting his closeness to (if not his complicity in) the globalist program of elite-led social change, Giridharadas responds that “the best way to know about a problem is to be part of it”. That’s funny, since he also believes that “Trump is the reductio ad absurdum of a culture that tasks elites with reforming the very systems that have made them and left others in the dust”. Trump certainly is a reductio ad absurdum. But then, perhaps Giridharadas is, too.
For what Giridharadas seems to want is for elites to police themselves. He wants elites “to do less harm”. He does not seem to want to see them harmed themselves. He roundly ridicules the “win-win” language of globalist conclaves, but he doesn’t seem able to endorse any kind of “win-lose” by which, for example, improved public services are funded by higher taxes on anyone except “the rich”, who are always people richer than him and his friends. In many places he seems to imply that wealth should be taxed, finance should be regulated, public schools should be improved, and immigration should be controlled. But he never actually says so.
All of which leads to the strangest thing about this book: the conclusion. Giridharadas devotes the final nine pages to a discussion with Chiara Cordelli, a relatively obscure untenured political science professor at the University of Chicago. One look at her university website shows that Cordelli is a hard-working and highly accomplished junior scholar who is well on her way to a successful academic career. She is best known for co-editing a book with the celebrity economist Robert Reich, which is presumably how she found herself speaking on a panel sponsored by a Silicon Valley technology hedge fund, which is apparently how she came to the attention of Giridharadas.
Thus the longest (and concluding) vignette of the book is devoted to seeing the world of social policy “through Cordelli’s lens”. Cordelli’s views, as quoted by Giridharadas, reflect the orthodox views of academic social science. Individuals are “nothing without society” and depend on “common institutions” for their very lives, to say nothing of the protection of their property. Those common institutions, government chief among them, are “things that we own together”, not the property of an unelected elite. And, Cordelli says, in the final words of Giridharadas’s book, we should “start working to create the conditions to make those institutions better”.
The dust jacket of Winners Take All promises “a call to action for elites and everyday citizens alike”. It doesn’t mention that the call to action would come from a young Italian political scientist, not from Giridharadas himself. Was this an editorial oversight, or a sly way to establish deniability? Throughout the book, Giridharadas harps on the idea that everyone associated with the globalist world must self-censor or face social exclusion—and consequent career ruin. All thinking must be positive, all propositions win-win-win, nothing complicated or difficult or compromising. Is Giridharadas hedging his bets by putting his reluctant endorsement of national democratic institutions into other people’s mouths?
It is perhaps telling that Giridharadas’s own, owned-up positions ask his millionaire and billionaire friends and colleagues merely to refrain from doing harm. And his most aggressive criticism is reserved not for them, but for a member of the “elite” who got her start as a seventeen-year-old waitress at Hooters, the tacky, breast-obsessed American burger chain. Kat Cole broke into management, got a night-school MBA, made the jump to private equity, and rose to become president of Cinnabon, the international purveyor of sickly-sweet cinnamon buns. So far, so inspiring.
Giridharadas seems able to accept—reluctantly—the rationalisations that Cole had to make to succeed as a female top manager at a burger chain whose distinctive selling point is the objectification of women’s sexuality. After all, she was young, uneducated and perhaps naive (though he doesn’t say so explicitly). But he can’t accept her more “audacious rationalisation” that it’s OK for her to sell people cinnamon buns. Giridharadas roundly disapproves of Cole’s position that “in a free market society there will be demand, whether it’s for sugary products or alcohol or scantily clad waitresses”, and what matters is that this demand be met responsibly.
Cole’s sin, in Giridharadas’s eyes, is that she “did not open herself to questions about her company’s negative contributions to a larger system that was abstract and hard to make sense of”. Giridharadas seems to believe that Cole should stop selling cinnamon buns. Cole’s plain-spoken morality—in her own words, “we tell you it’s made of sugar and fat”—is lost on Giridharadas. For him, her elite responsibility is to stop selling people buns, and sell something like carrots instead.
Seemingly as a result of her unwillingness to go along with the globalist creed, Cole is one of the few people who actually makes it onto Giridharadas’s elite list. Giridharadas names Cole, the Jacksonville Hooters girl made good, alongside the Sackler family, the Tisch family, and KKR (the “barbarians at the gate” private equity firm) as the kinds of people who are destroying the world by upholding “the system”. The Sacklers are pharmaceutical billionaires who sparked a national opioid crisis by fighting tooth and nail to keep their star drug, OxyContin, free from state regulation. The Tisches are billionaire heirs of the Lorillard Tobacco Company who fought to prevent the placement of health warnings on tobacco products. And KKR put untold numbers of people out of work through corporate restructurings, and owned a tobacco company, to boot. Cole sells cinnamon buns.
It clearly is not the role of the state to prohibit the sale of cinnamon buns. But it would be perfectly legitimate, in a democratic society, for people to come together to demand that their elected representatives regulate the sugar and fat content of cinnamon buns or even to outlaw them entirely. Only hardcore followers of John Stuart Mill and the lunatics on the anarchist fringe deny the power of government to regulate what can and can’t be sold in the interest of the common good. But Giridharadas seems to want the globalist elite to exercise that power—or as he might put it, to take on that responsibility. He gives good play to Cordelli’s argument for democratic decision-making, but in the end he portrays it as Cordelli’s argument, not his.
For in the end, Giridharadas’s argument is not that the people should seize control of their national democracies back from the elites of MarketWorld. His argument is that the elites of MarketWorld should offer their workers health benefits and more stable employment, stop moving to Manhattan (so that poor people won’t be forced out by gentrification), pay New York City taxes instead of registering their residencies in low-tax Florida jurisdictions, and give up the “legacy” perks that put their children at the head of the queue for admission to competitive Ivy League schools. Giridharadas only wants to substitute “do some good” with “do less bad”.
And that doesn’t threaten Giridharadas’s much-maligned “system” in the least.
Salvatore Babones is the author of The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts, recently published by Polity and reviewed in this issue.