Winners Take All

Most of us consider philanthropy to be a good thing. The idea of wealthy elites giving away their money to charitable causes often sparks a sense of admiration and gives us hope that the imminent and pressing problems in the world may be solved. So when I first came across articles arguing against philanthropy, I was more than a little perplexed. The authors questioned the underlying motives of giving and examined the systemic forces which allowed for such wealth to be amassed in the hands of a few. At the same time, they also considered the harms of social inequality borne from these endeavours, which might have otherwise been avoided. Winners Take All is a book that casts a spotlight on all these concerns, drawing on real accounts from individuals deeply involved in market systems and financial institutions. Written in a clear and incisive prose, it is both accessible and pertinent. As we grapple with looming global issues and a loss of trust in public institutions, this book warns us against putting blind faith in corporations and markets to serve our common interests.

To be clear, I do not believe that we should discredit the efforts of those who have devoted a significant amount of their time and resources to tackling the pressing issues of our time. I truly respect the work that Bill Gates has done in alleviating poverty, improving education and funding nascent technologies to combat climate change. But the fact remains that his is one case among many magnates who wield the same level of power and influence, and who are not necessarily accountable to public interests. It is equally possible that these individuals might use private philanthropy to further their own interests and agendas. At the same time, we must also look at the other side of the coin and consider the inequality that arises from such imbalances in wealth. Is it fair to sacrifice accountability, shared responsibility and an equitable society for the spoils of charity? Or should we work to build reliable institutions that are guided by public interests, that respond to the needs of all stakeholders, such that we do not need donations and relief in the first place? I believe that ultimately, ownership and responsibility in the commons is a mantle that we all must wear, and we must exercise it not only to affect change, but also to maintain a healthy civic society.

Outline

Many of the examples outlined in this book are derived from the US and its market-driven ethos, and I am aware that these do not necessarily reflect the cultures and socio-political climate of other countries. Nonetheless, given the pervasive influence of western culture and the growing adoption of free markets, I believe that there are still parallels to draw and key arguments that can be distilled. Here are some points that the book touches on:

  • Income inequality has grown to an all-time high over the past 50 decades. The top 10% of humanity hold 90% of overall wealth. While this has sparked backlash and outrage, many elites have now come forward to propose solutions and give back their wealth through philanthropy. Instead of working closely in tandem with communities that they seek to serve, they often conceive of their own initiatives, believing that they are more qualified to solve problems because of the success and wealth that they have garnered.
  • The private sector continues to leverage on this notion of championing social causes through business. It not only argues that companies can “do well by doing good”, but goes further to argue that markets are the best means by which change can be affected. This faith in the free market, capitalist system in turn crowds out other perspectives and means by which we could hope to achieve social justice. Already we see, public initiatives such as labour unions being abandoned in the wake of these developments. Universities and institutes of higher education are also being increasingly driven by this idea of market forces as the most effective agents for change. There is a shift towards encouraging social enterprise and start-ups rather than clubs and communities, and jobs in consulting and finance being about “changemaking”.
  • Within this realm of thinking, any given solution can be easily scaled, in much the same manner as a factory production line. It is possible to create solutions that can change millions of lives for the better, and that this is what meaningful change should truly look like. Instead of taking into account the nuances of different cultures and politics, people have been taught to believe that there can exist a single app or product that can change the lives of millions around the world. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the field of technology, with companies such as Google and Facebook being perceived to benefit both the owners and the users of software. Yet, is it truly fair to say that technology has been a great leveller for the people as whole? Has it not entrenched certain biases, divided public opinion, excluded certain demographics and disproportionately benefited a few?
  • The market-oriented approach places a strong emphasis on win-win solutions – the idea that the process of doing social good is one where both parties can stand to be better off in economic terms. This ideology can be seen in campaigns which promise to donate portions of profits to charity, or giving one product to those in need for every one bought. In this way, business focus on social initiatives that align with their own interests. But what about those interests that do not overlap, where improving social outcomes may involve compromising productivity or profits? If shareholders and boards of directors are the sole decision-makers, how will these conflicting interests be represented?
  • Wealthy people who launch and invest in new enterprises like to think of themselves as rebels and disruptive agents – those who are unafraid to question conventional norms. By advocating such a philosophy, these plutocrats paint themselves as underdogs going up against unjust systems and regulations, working for the betterment of society as whole. This narrative cleverly sidesteps the idea that these individuals already wield a massive amount of power and influence and that they are ones who should be kept in check, and in so doing, absolves them of the responsibility and blame for the social ills that they have wrought. Worse still, they continue to push for more freedom, more deregulation and more exemptions, undoing the very systems put in place to safeguard the interests of workers.
  • Within the market-oriented credo, new ideas are often curated to align with the vested interests of those in power. There is rarely any room for critics with nuanced arguments, who speak of systemic injustices and structural reform. Instead, speeches and talks are “watered-down theories of change that are personal, individual, depoliticised, respectful of the status quo, undisruptive“. Any revolutionary idea can be packaged within a short TED talk; forget about the reasoned debate of opposing views. Those who are willing to speak within this sphere are branded as “thought leaders”, and their voices ring loud across the various channels of media. All the while, the critics and academics who often rely on public funding are becoming more obscure and having less influence on public opinion.
  • Increasingly, business-oriented analysis is being perceived as an essential set of tools for solving problems in different realms such as the public sphere and non-profit domains. Yet, it often has a tendency to focus on singular details and metrics while being oblivious to other factors. It purports that problems can be dissected into separate factors and micromanaged independently, and that solutions can be neatly captured in the language of charts, numbers and presentation slides. Rather than a constructive, ground-up approach, solutions are backfilled to fit templates and models. Might there be some level of hubris in using the very same tools to solve the problems that they were responsible for creating?
  • Where in the past, philanthropy was chiefly an endeavour led by associations of individuals with common interests, it is now being redefined in the context of private foundations at a much larger scale, acting primarily to fund initiatives and led by selected committees, who have begun to rival public institutions in their level of influence. Against criticisms that such foundations might be threat to democracy, there has been an argument made to justify the means by which the bearers of wealth behind such foundations amassed their resources. Firstly, that wealth inequality is a necessary result of economic growth – that the rich deserve the benefits they reap from capitalism. Secondly, that the use of such concentrated wealth in the hands of a few is a much greater force for good than if it were distributed to the masses. These core ideas continue to drive the forces of philanthropy today.
  • In the final chapter, the book touches on present issues of populism and anger towards the wealthy occurring in developed countries such as the UK and US. Many believe that such feelings stem from the people having a poor understanding of globalisation and being easily swayed by inflammatory rhetoric. Yet, it is a reality that benefits of globalisation have largely eluded the working-class majority, and while many elites speak of improving the world as a whole, their behaviours signal that they are alienating themselves from their local communities and forming a new class on their own. On the one hand, international collaboration can be both desirable and beneficial, but we cannot abandon our commitments and relations at the national level. Ultimately, we are bound by place to our local communities, and we should not forget the duties and obligations we owe to those around us.

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