MarketWorld – Dissecting the Davos Elite

By Heather Mendick

Review: Winners Take All: the elite charade of changing the world, by Anand Giridharadas

Towards the end, the author describes a session at the 2016 Clinton Global Initiative Conference, poised a few months after the UK voted for Brexit and two months before the US elected President Trump. Here a panel are discussing the antiglobalist revolt.  Asked to explain Brexit, London Mayor Sadiq Khan says voters “were led down a path of fear” (p.217). Bill Clinton agrees, “they had no idea what they were doing” (p.218). Khan continues that he’s proud of Londoners’ strong Remain support: “it’s not a zero-sum game. … If London does well, the rest of the country prospers”.

Giridharadas cuts through this cosy third-way consensus: “The idea that what was good for a prosperous, globally networked metropolis full of bankers … and overrun by Saudi, Russian, Nigerian absentee princelings who pushed up rents without contributing much to the economy or the tax base or the communities they live in … was automatically good for all of Britain was part of the conceit that some voters understandably rejected when the Brexit choice came before them” (p.218). Giridharadas dissects the self-congratulatory contradictory logic of MarketWorld, an elite “defined by concurrent drives to do well and to do good” (p.30), who believe solutions to our problems – from poverty to climate disaster – lie in management consultancy and private sector initiatives, not political activism or publicly-accountable government action.

MarketWorld is Mark Zuckerberg and Tony Blair at Davos deciding how to save a world they have destroyed. Rutger Bregman hit the headlines at Davos this year for calling out the “1,500 private jets flown in to hear David Attenborough speak about how we’re wrecking the planet” and the focus on philanthropy over taxation. He described the shocking absence of talk on taxes as like being at “a firefighters’ conference and no-one’s allowed to speak about water”. On the left, we share Bregman’s outrage. What is useful about Giridharadas’ book is that it dissects the conditions of MarketWorld through interviews with its inhabitants: people who live the tensions of believing you can solve problems for which you are responsible, that you can “change the world while also profiting from the status quo” (p.30).

Win-win approaches to social change are central. What is good for London is good for the whole country. The rich can get richer while reducing poverty. Talk of inequality, trade unions and progressive taxation are dismissed as win-lose, as is any analysis of capitalism based on social classes with opposing interests. MarketWorld looks at people whose insecure work is making their lives impossible and looks not to outlaw zero-hour contracts, empower trade unions, extend the social safety net or raise the minimum wage, but to build an app that will even out their too-low unstable wages and charge them for the privilege.

MarketWorld needs intellectual ballast. Win-lose academics who analyse growing inequality have been replaced by a new brand of thought leaders who split their time between well-paid corporate training gigs, delivering TED talks and writing New York Times bestsellers. They are “positive, unthreatening, mute about larger systems and structures, congenial to the rich, big into private problem solving, devoted to win-wins” (p.94). Other voices are excluded and people who want to influence MarketWorld are forced to adapt their ideas, to zoom in on individuals rather than to zoom out to the collective, to find explanations in psychology not sociology. Rather than making the personal political, the political is reduced to the personal.

The protocols of management consultancy with their polished powerpoint presentations reign supreme as do the people wielding them. In a logic that has echoes of both missionary and colonial projects, grassroots knowledge and experience are rendered irrelevant and the accountability of decision makers to the people whose lives they are shaping is viewed as hindering change. This has led to absurd situations where the “bearers of these protocols were … rushing in to shape the solution of problems that their methods were complicit in causing”, from fossil fuel bosses seeking to address climate change to drug company execs using the money they’ve made from pushing opioids to fund programmes for addicts. In MarketWorld, it doesn’t matter how you make your money as long as you give back.

Such an approach to philanthropy requires epic levels of compartmentalisation.  Many of the people Giridharadas writes about are critical of MarketWorld even while they reproduce its ways of working. They struggle (and fail) to find ways to speak to members of this elite in a language they can understand without pandering to their delusions. Giridharadas also walks that tightrope. On the back cover, Bill Gates – perhaps the person who most embodies the perversions of MarketWorld – welcomes the book’s “thought-provoking … fresh perspective”. He is impervious to its win-lose message, reframing it as win-win. Giridharadas wants to speak truth to power but falls victim to the problems he identifies. In particular, he zooms in on individuals rather than zooming out to a critique of capitalism. Nevertheless, for those already equipped with such a critique, he offers fascinating insights into the global elite.