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These Citadels of Power

When superrich elites pretend to save the world

Anand Giridharadas’s new book Winners Take All is a bracing account of how the forces of wealth have turned social reform into another sham exercise in elite-administered market disruption. Giridharadas chronicles the mobilization of a new model of philanthropic activism he calls “MarketWorld”—a network of big-money funders stretching from Davos to Aspen to Silicon Valley, all agitating for neoliberal, tech-driven panaceas to social ills, like microloans and charter schools. (You can read my review of the book here.) Giridharadas knows the mindset and social mores of MarketWorld firsthand; he’s a former analyst for the corporate social consultancy McKinsey & Company, a onetime fellow for the Aspen Institute, and a veteran of the TED Talk circuit. I spoke with him last week, after he gave a distinctly non-TED-style talk about the book at Washington’s Politics and Prose bookstore.

Chris Lehmann: I was thinking of your perfect-world thought experiment from last night, when you invited the crowd to imagine Mark Zuckerberg as a genuine class traitor. Basically, our last great class traitor was FDR, who created the New Deal infrastructure that our political elites have been dismantling over the past forty years. And most of his biographers agree that what sparked his class treason was getting polio. He traveled to Georgia to take water treatments, and there for the first time he encountered deep rural poverty—and did so in a context when his illness brought him down on the same plane of suffering as the poor polio patients he encountered. Now, by contrast, you have Mark Zuckerberg mounting last year a fake trial-balloon version of a presidential run, where he looked utterly lost in a cow pasture or in a rural Iowa diner. Class treason is a potentially powerful force, but how do you get today’s billionaires out of their self-imposed bubbles, shy of reintroducing the polio virus?

Anand Giridharadas: I didn’t know this going into reporting the book, but I now look back on the different people I wrote about, and there’s an interesting thing where people who are inside these citadels of power but who as a matter of personal identity have also known the wrong end of a power equation—whether it’s because they’re black or gay or a woman or whatever—have a double consciousness about the system. Darren Walker [head of the Ford Foundation] is a good example. He’s in the space he’s in because he absolutely believes in what he’s doing. Darren believes at some level, if you get Robert Rubin in a room, you get [investment banker] Roger Altman in a room, you make the world better. I think he believes that. And I think he also believes that the rooms that are full of those kind of people are full of shit and never change anything. And I think that he’s actually able to hold both those things, because he’s seen both be true. And both are true in certain ways.

CL: However, one of those things pays his salary.

AG: Yes, but the other is responsible for his existence on Earth. And Darren is one of these people, as I write about in the book, who is still getting text messages from his incarcerated cousins in jumpsuits. So Darren’s never been able to forget the pretensions, and the bullshit, of the people he’s in the room with every day. That’s not quite class treason, but one of the places this may come from, if there were to be a wave of this—and whether there will be the kind of age of reform that I’m arguing for—it will take a certain measure of this. It may not even take that many people. I mean, a few big people doing this would make a big difference. I think one place to look is people who have this double consciousness. So it may not be the white guy. It may not be Zuck or Bezos. But there are women who’ve made a lot of money in this space, there are people of color who’ve made a lot of money in this space, and I think that’s one place to look. Just talking about my own experience, I’ve talked with a lot of people privately—and this is not in the book—but the most interesting person at Facebook is the person who sits at that meeting every day with eight other people, so the other seven are sitting there thinking that Facebook is absolutely liberating humanity, and it’s the eighth person, who half believes that, because they’ve seen the power of those tools to actually help vulnerable people, and who sits there thinking, “Oh my God, these people are insane.”

CL: Yes, but how do you go about reining something like Facebook in? As you said in your talk last night, senators don’t know how to define the task of regulating it—it’s become something like a monopoly version of a freestanding city state.

AG: I think the radical hope of the book is, which I only realized as I got further along, that it’s a lot easier to say “That’s kind of interesting” than to say, “Hey, boss, I think everything about our organization is fraudulent.” That’s hard as a twenty-five-year-old [to say], “This enterprise is kind of bullshit.” But you can say, a lot more easily, “Hey boss, there’s this article from the Times this weekend, I don’t agree with most of it, but it’s kind of interesting. We should probably respond to it.” And I think that’s what a book, or these different kinds of cultural intervention can do, to hook the people within those spaces to think differently about what they do and connect them to each other.

CL: I do see some cause for hope—even though I’m not temperamentally inclined to be hopeful about the future—in the explosion of interest around these issues in the younger generation. I also think that within the D.C. bubble, people do not understand the level of the disenchantment with Obama among young reform-minded people. The Sanders movement spoke directly to that disenchantment by making inequality a central theme.

AG: Right, addressing all the things Obama wasn’t able to solve despite all the hope and change.

CL: And what’s striking is that in 2008, the Democrats managed to embrace the youth movement in their ranks, understanding that it was giving them this huge wave of motivated voters to put them over the top, and in 2016, they made a point of smoking them out.

People in the nicer precincts of Washington D.C. are shocked to hear that their hedge fund that is giving back to Africa is not actually making the world a better place.

AG: Yeah, I’ve got to tell you, my experience with this book has been very surprising in seeing who requires a one-minute explanation of it, and who requires a seven-second explanation of it. And it’s a little backwards from usual, in my experience. When I’m in eastern Ohio, there I’ll say, “It’s about rich people pretending to save the world,” and they’ll cut in and say, “Oh yeah, Mark Zuckerberg.” They get it. Because they’ve been on the wrong end of fake change for thirty to forty years. People who are nineteen and twenty also take seven seconds to understand it. Whereas people in the nicer precincts of Washington D.C. are shocked to hear that their hedge fund that is giving back to Africa is not actually making the world a better place.

CL: That’s right—I agree that the younger recent college grads who’ve fallen into soul-crushing debt, and the neglected eastern Ohio working class know they’ve been screwed. But the institutions remain mostly in the grip of the forces you describe as “MarketWorld,” or the people who may be well-meaning but are unwitting enablers of that world.

AG: Yes, but to go back to the class traitor thing, a couple of things could happen that could be an optimistic scenario. [Facebook co-founder] Chris Hughes is an example of someone in MarketWorld who has an interesting perspective. You know, I think Chris Hughes would be happy to live in a society that would be tougher on people like Chris Hughes. So, one thing is, can you have some of these big givers shift how they do giving? I think that, for example, [Bill] Gates, for all the money he’s giving to education—and this is something he can do tomorrow morning after he reads The Baffler interview—so Gates could give like a billion dollars . . . there’s this Supreme Court case [San Antonio ISD v. Rodriguez] that ruled [in 1973] that equally funded public schools are not a right, that class discrimination is not [barred by] the constitution. And the class part of that is not going to change—if you want to flip that case, you’ve got to do it through race. It’s complicated, but there are probably few cases that are more important to reverse.

CL: Well, Citizens United. . .

AG: Right, there are a handful. But that [San Antonio v. Rodriguez] is a case where there’s a clear case of right and wrong. I don’t think even right-wing conservatives based on their own principles can defend the idea of a six-year-old getting a worse education because of mommy and daddy’s home price.

CL: They do, though—that is actually the status quo.

AG: But it’s never a loud defense. The Citizens United defense is a fervent sincere conviction that the government should not control speech. I disagree with it, but I think it’s sincerely held. I never heard a rich person [explain] why a six-year-old is entitled to a worse education because of home values. It’s always “Well, it’s tough, it’s complicated. . .”

CL: But they will claim, “Well, there’s family pathology, a culture of poverty that creates these disparate outcomes, and the state can’t constructively intervene there.”

AG: But, still, it’s not a loud, first principles “this is the best world” sort of defense. The New York Times just did a piece on some of these lawsuits winding through the courts trying to flip that case. You put a billion dollars toward farming that Supreme Court case, it’s still an exertion of power that’s probably too much from one person, but it would have to work through real plaintiffs, it’d have to work through the rule of law, it’d have to work through a real court. And if you win that case, the system is altered in America, overnight.

CL: Right, but the cynical side of me thinks that won’t happen because it does nothing for Bill Gates’s vanity. That’s, as you’ve argued, what largely fuels the big money behind the charter school movement—an objectively nugatory school reform that nevertheless mimics the model by which this new class of donors have won their fortunes, a market-driven disruption or innovation. They get to believe that their own path to market monopoly isn’t just efficacious for them—it’s morally superior.

AG: That’s generally true, and that’s why I wrote the book. But there are a handful of people who are so rich that they can afford to spend the last ten or twenty years of their life, and be like “fuck it.” And they’re weird people—they think that’s how they were able to build these fortunes. I mean, Amazon’s business model is a totally weird business model that hasn’t delivered profits until very recently. So to go back to “how do you have the polio experience,” what’s interesting about a lot of these people anthropologically is that they’re into having these weird experiences. They have nice houses and whatever, but they’re different from finance people. In my experience, these people do weird things; they have these big events for artists—the vanity’s still there, but a lot of these people are collectors, of weirdness, and experiences, and they want to be challenged.

CL: So Bill Gates himself blurbed your book, as came up in the Q. and A. last night. Have other people in the orbit of the Aspen Institute or the TED world responded so far? And if so, have those responses surprised you in any way?

AG: The biggest surprise has been the lack of a sharp response. I expected a wall of defensiveness.

CL: So you haven’t lost any friends over it?

AG: Well I don’t know if I have. I’d say there’s a couple of things. There are angry emails that I thought I’d get, that I haven’t actually gotten. There are surprisingly gushy emails that say, “You’re making me look at myself in a way that I never thought I would” which I’ve gotten a lot of. And then there’s a lot of silence and I don’t know how to interpret that yet. And I think that the book has a prominence now, so that it’s probably not convenient to send an angry email right now. So I don’t know, frankly, where everybody is on it. What I will say is I have been blown away by the extent to which—I mean, I’m getting many, many messages a day from all kinds of people saying, “We want to be something better.”

The Trump election was “eighteen parallel uncoordinated system failures that all happened at the same time.”

And the spirit of this was captured in something public. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the Stanford Social Innovation Review; they had this guy Mark Kramer review the book, this venture capitalist who co-invented that shared value framework with Michael Porter that I wrote about in the book. So when I heard he was reviewing it I was like, “He’s gonna kill me.” But it’s this thoughtful, amazing review; this is an older guy who’s saying, “This is basically making me look at my life’s work. Did I actually help people in my career? Am I the person who I think I am?” I’ve just been amazed by the extent to which people are willing to ask that—I’m not sure I’m willing to do that much when I’m challenged by a book. And I’ve been heartened by that—though I don’t think that’s because of me or the book. I think that’s largely because of Trump. I’ve felt this very strongly ever since Trump won. I don’t think you get Trump unless we all fucked up.

CL: Right, and that’s why, whatever comes of the Mueller investigation—I’m sure there was Russian meddling at some level, but it wasn’t a wholesale espionage takeover—we need a more fundamental reckoning with the failures of neoliberalism.

AG: This is eighteen parallel uncoordinated system failures that all happened at the same time.

CL: Right, and at a simple level of political symbolism, again going back to FDR: one of the first things he did was to convene the Pecora Commission to produce an authoritative account of the ’29 crash and to put bad actors in jail. Eric Holder prosecuted, what, one banker in the wake of the 2008 meltdown? What image of Democratic governance does that create?

In my hometown in Iowa which, like eastern Ohio, was part of the upper-Midwest movement of voters that put Trump over the top, people looked at that failure, and their own declining fortunes—this was the former farm-implement manufacturing capital of the world, leveled by the ’80s farm crisis, suffering from the meth and opioids crisis, etc.—and while the people I grew up with are not bone-deep racists, along comes this demagogue who says they need to start blaming immigrants, people of color, anyone other than the bankers and monopolists who’ve benefited from their misery.

AG: And even if they’re scapegoating, that reaction still doesn’t explain how they got there. And that’s why this whole debate over whether it’s the economic anxiety or the scapegoating that’s responsible is dumb—it’s the interaction that’s dangerous. Racist people with good jobs are just less of a threat to us than racist people who are hungry. And people who are economically left behind who are racist are much more dangerous than people who are racist and not economically left behind. We need to solve both things.

CL: And the lesson of Trump, of course, is that rich people who are racist are super dangerous.

AG: But the hopeful thing here is that Trump deprives you of the excuse—I think Trump has melted some of the defensiveness that I would have expected, because some of these people are like, “Well, you’re telling me I did something wrong. I can see that.” The presumption is now in favor of guilt rather than innocence.

CL: I was thinking though of a comment you made last night that Trump has helped taint, if not entirely discredit, the credibility of the superrich wading into social reform, and I’m not sure I’m seeing that. Zuckerberg and Bezos are still very much viewed as masters of the universe within the wider culture. Look at Tom Steyer, the billionaire who took $40 million and instead of using it to flip districts, has funded this campaign to publicize the case for impeachment, which seems very much like a woke version of the same fucked-up dynamic you describe.

AG: Yes, and look at the kind of funders the Democrats have cultivated—Oprah, Howard Schultz, Michael Bloomberg.

CL: One of the moments when I thought Hillary was possibly going to lose was when the Democrats had that big rally with Springsteen in Philadelphia, and Beyoncé in Cleveland—places with real long-term poverty and deindustrialization, and here’s this mustering of rich celebrities as the face of the party. By contrast, the psychodynamics of the Trump rally made you feel, if you’re old and white and full of cultural grievances, empowered and included. You felt like, “This is my guy, this is my movement, he’s going after the elites.”

AG: This is a little bit of a tangent, but one of my frustrations with the Democratic Party is I think that there’s a conflation of tactics and strategy. I love the idea of the Democratic Party, in its strategy, in its substance, of being kind and generous and inclusive, of being for people and not evil and not angry. I love that.

But as a matter of tactics—which I think needs to be fully separated from the substance, for me, in a politics where you have some amount of anger, fear, or scapegoating, in addition to hope—you do name villains, you do go after people who are causing problems, you do name names. Fighting for an inclusive policy doesn’t mean your tone always has to be inclusive.

CL: Again, not to keep recurring back to FDR, but in his ’36 nomination speech. . .

AG: Yes—“I welcome their hatred!” Which Democrat would say that today?

CL: None of them, are you kidding?

You need to be yelling, and you know it can’t just all be about Trump either. The Democratic Party needs to be a party that is willing to be mean in politics in order to be nice in policy.

AG: Today the Democratic Party is literally the last thing standing between various groups in America and their annihilation, one way or another, through policy or deportation. If you have that responsibility, and you’re not willing to scream a little bit, you’re actually not serving those people. You need to be yelling, and you know it can’t just all be about Trump either. The Democratic Party needs to be a party that is willing to be mean in politics in order to be nice in policy.

CL: The slogan the DCCC has adopted for the midterms is “For the People,” but the thing is the party needs to be the people.

AG: Does anybody feel represented—this is party of what, 125 million people? What algorithm has given us Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer as the leaders?

CL: I’ll tell you what algorithm—the political fundraising one.

AG: Correct. And by contrast, look at someone like Tim Ryan who I met just the other day. He’s someone who can speak—his heart is in the right place on every issue of equality and justice and inclusion. But he can also go toe to toe with the kind of people whom Trump won. But he’s absolutely not going to give them any quarter on immigration or the culture war stuff. And then you’ve got people like [Andrew] Gillum in Florida, and [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez. No algorithm would have predicted this either. I think things are happening. And I think, say, Cynthia Nixon is redefining what a celebrity candidacy could be. She’s a class traitor as well—it’s a way of using celebrity to say, well, “I can afford to be against my people” instead of using it to say “well, I can afford to run for office.”

CL: And you are, in a smaller way, a class traitor yourself—a second-generation McKinsey consultant, an Aspen Institute fellow, a TED talk giver.

AG: Both my TED talks were sort of build-ups to this book. One was based on my last book, and ended with this now sort-of famous list of challengers to privileged listeners: “If you get paid by the year and not by the hour, if you don’t know anyone who’s been on meth, you may not actually know what’s going on in this country.” And the second one was right after Brexit happened, an impromptu thing right before Trump. It was called “A Letter to All Who Have Lost in this Era.” It was a weird literary device—it was a letter but it wasn’t from me; it was a letter that was sort of ghostwritten for the plutocrats to the people who they’ve left out for the past thirty-to-forty years. And it’s a letter in some ways both apologizing and atoning for the neglect of regular people in this era, and passionately saying demagogic strongmen and racism are not the answer to the pain you legitimately feel because of these changes.

That’s part of why I think a healthy angry politics serves a very useful purpose right now, as opposed to the noble-looking politics of getting billionaires around a table. That leaves a big opening for the bad guys who will go on to exploit it for the wrong reasons.

CL: That’s the fallacy of “When they go low, we go high.”

AG: Yes, though I also have to say I’m deeply sympathetic as to why the first African-American president, and actually his wife, in talking about ugly attacks on their family . . . I’m deeply sympathetic to the personal imperative here. That was the right thing for them. And they weren’t even yet in the Trump era.

CL: Yes, there’s also the problem for Obama that, as the first African-American president, the last thing he could afford politically was to be made to seem like an Angry Black Man.

AG: Right, but I think you know we’re not in that era now. And if there’s a certain desire out there for people to have their anger reflected back to them, to be elevated and channeled into constructive things, are you going to leave that hunger for anger unserved, so that it gets catered to by evil nincompoop demagogues?

CL: I’m curious what you think, since what the book is describing is a stealth moneyed takeover not just of the philanthropic sector, but the university sector, the media ecosystem. . . But I think one powerful institution that can answer all this is the union movement. As low as union representation is right now, when you’re talking about core questions of political power, unions are a way for people to feel the experience both of exercising power in their own lives, and seeing the immediate returns from that.

AG: And I think on that issue, we’ve got to acknowledge two things. One is there’s been an unprecedented war on unions, organized by big money and achieved through politics, and I also think it’s true that there’s been a failure to innovate and adapt unions to the reality of the way we live now.

CL: Yes, there’s a reason why, in the popular mind, when you envision unions, one of the first images that comes to mind is a fat, corrupt, old white labor boss.

AG: Right, and in some ways, you know, if you’re an organizing force, it’s your job to make yourself salient to people. And I don’t think they speak to Uber drivers—I mean, yes, they make an effort, but I don’t think they speak to their hearts. And I don’t think they’ve done a great job of recreating the sense of community for people that they used to give. I think they were very good in speaking to people in Flint, and in rallies and barbeques. But that’s not the world we live in. They haven’t figured out, you know, without being flip, what’s their social media game? They need to own memes, they need to be a cultural force. Like the same way, fifty years ago when you graduated from high school and were proud to have a union job—it needs to be cool. They need to play the game, get celebrity endorsements, etc.—play the game, but use it for a subversive ends. And there are people who’re doing it—the workers Lab; I have a friend who works there. At the SEIU they’re trying to figure out what the twenty-first century union movement looks like. I think that’s another place where if you find a class traitor is looking for a cause to support, actually putting money into helping unions reinvent themselves is actually the kind of cause, where you know it’s going to take some money to do. But solving that problem would create system change in a way that other programs wouldn’t.

CL: That’d be a hard sell for Jeff Bezos, who’s casualized this massive workforce with Task Rabbit.

AG: Maybe. Or maybe, you know, that’s the perfect thing for him. Imagine if Jeff Bezos devoted the rest of his life to figuring out the future of labor protection.

CL: In reality he wants to colonize the moon. I think you’d have better odds with Bill Gates, who essentially made his billions off a patent monopoly as opposed to Bezos who wakes up every day thinking “how can I extract more surplus value from my workers?” But the larger point is suggestive that there’s already an organic movement toward greater solidarity among workers—that’s why I think the membership of DSA has probably gone up something like thirty-fold over the last couple of years.

There’s an emergent coalition of people who feel mocked by the future.

AG: When I look at what’s happening with DSA, or what’s happening with non-DSA people like Gillum, and frankly even when I look at Trump and the heterodoxy on trade, there’s an emergent coalition that has not been coalesced. It’s 60-65 percent of the country, and my personal frame for this is that these are people who feel mocked by the future. There’s a subset of people who feel mocked by the future in all the ways, you know, identity, race—you know, being a white guy is not what it used to be; there are some people who get it because they haven’t had a job in ten years. There are some people who get to that place because they have suffocating debt at twenty-three, there are people for whom all of those things are happening, there are people for whom some of those things are happening. There are those who are minorities or women who feel like change is not happening fast enough. There’s a very broad collation of people who feel like “fuck the future,” and “I don’t feel like I have one.” I think there’s space right now for creative politicians to learn one thing from Trump: weird coalitions are possible. You can go quite a way beyond party orthodoxy, and in this system, the party will just go with it. We’re living in an age in which people have their own followings and that gives you a lot of power. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m guessing that Trump has more Twitter followers than the Republican Party, I’m guessing that Barack Obama has more Twitter followers than the Democratic Party. And I’m guessing that will be true of the next nominees. So we’re living in an age where individuals can afford to spark these new coalitions.

CL: Yes, I felt the Sanders candidacy also showed that—particularly since back in the ’90s, when I was at In These Times, Bernie Sanders wrote for us, since he was then the only socialist member of Congress, and had these kind of sad-sack dispatches about his doomed efforts to nudge the Clinton administration to the left. The thought that he’d ever one day be a credible candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination—I never would have believed that in a million years back then.

AG: And look, if Bernie had been twenty years younger, a person of color, or—from what I hear—a kinder man at an interpersonal level, if he’d treated his workers the way his policies indicated he should have—I think that could have ended very differently. It just tells you that there’s fertile ground right now for an age of reform. And you can’t just look at the people who are there right now. I think there’s plenty of evidence that the seeds of that are waiting to be harvested. But it takes some harvesting.

CL: Yes, and it takes patience and time. I think you were right in your talk last night to suggest a fifty-year window for meaningful reform to kick in.

AG: And it’s fifty years’ worth of work.