Ideas

How elite do-gooders 'fixing' the world are part of the problem: Anand Giridharadas

Should the world’s problems be solved by unelected elites? Surely these are decisions we all need to be part of. Anand Giridharadas argues if we don’t trust the institutions we have for fixing the world, then let's build better institutions — this time, from the bottom up.

'I think we can end this age of capital,' says the author of Winner Takes All

In his book, Winner Takes All, former New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas investigates how the global elite’s efforts to 'change the world' also obscure their role in causing the problem. (Alfred Knopf Publishing/Mackenzie Stroh)
Listen to the full episode53:59

* Originally published on January 27, 2020.

"We've got about 400 people in this room.... Imagine if dinner was carted into this room, and four people got half the food. The night would end in violence," Anand Giridharadas told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed at a public event hosted by the Samara Centre for Democracy.

"But somehow you scale it up to the level of the society  — millions and millions of people — and you make it money instead of food, and people are like, 'Yeah I guess that's okay,'" Giridharadas added.

The journalist and author has been investigating how global elites in the U.S. have been "changing the world" and dominating the news with their efforts. In his book Winner Takes All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Giridharadas lays out how the the rich and powerful have been fighting for equality and injustice, branding themselves as socially engaged agents of change and pouring millions — if not trillions — of tax-avoided dollars into social causes. 

But, he warns, in all of this good, their role in causing the problems they later seek to solve is obscured.

"If all these people on the top are doing all this nice stuff, but year by year they are increasing their concentration of wealth and power, their monopolies are getting more monopolistic, their tech companies are becoming more abusive of privacy and democracy — not less — if their influence over politics is increasing, not decreasing, then what is all this do-gooding doing?" 

'If only' solutions

The New York University professor argues that the conventional wisdom out there to solve the world's problems stems from an "if only" approach, suggesting maybe there needs to be more than just one Mark Zuckerberg to fix this.

"If only we had an effective altruism movement, so that when you give money away you could be guided to give it more rationally. If you give it to this NGO, it will have more impact than if you give it to that one. If only Chinese billionaires could be persuaded to donate philanthropically at the same percentage that American billionaires do," he explained.

"If only, if only, if only."

This "if only" solution got Giridharadas thinking about an equal and opposite possibility.

"Maybe all this extraordinary elite helping in our time is how we maintain a system — an architecture of extraordinary elite hoarding," he told Ayed.

'While you don't have individually the power to dethrone a Mark Zuckerberg, what you do have the power to do ... is to start joining things. Click less, join more,' says Anand Giridharadas. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

He suggests real change involves the loss of power for global elites. Why should the decisions be left to permitting the rich to decide what's important — a hospital wing, a legal aid centre, a new well in the village? These are decisions that should involve everyone, including elected representatives and governments, Giridharadas argues.

When the rich and powerful not only get involved in change but get into the front row of social change, "they change 'change,'" said the former McKinsey analyst.

"They change what kinds of change are acceptable. They change the discourse we have about change."

Make democracy

If the institutions that are set up aren't to be trusted, Giridharadas proposes it's time to build better institutions — this time, from the bottom up.

He sees a possibility to make democracy better by organizing the world differently.

"While you don't have individually the power to dethrone a Mark Zuckerberg, what you do have the power to do — today, tomorrow and the next day — is to start joining things," he told Ayed.

Giridharadas calls on people to join organizations, membership lists and movements that work toward building cross-racial, cross-class coalitions of people — with a goal to create a future that benefits most people. 

"If we build movements to that effect, I think we can end this age of capital. I think we can usher in the age of reform and I think we can resume the idea of democracy as the place we go to change the world."


* This episode was produced by Philip Coulter.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.