Anand Giridharadas: Speaking Truth to Billionaires
The gap between rich and poor is widening at an unsustainable rate. Author Anand Giridharadas says that to really change the world, we need to challenge capitalist power structures.
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NELUFAR HEDAYAT, HOST:
This is “Course Correction” from Doha Debates. I’m Nelufar Hedayat. Each episode, we look at one big global issue… and meet the people who are called to action and are actively working to fix it.
We’re not just a podcast — we make a bunch of thought-provoking digital films, we put on a series of live debates with speakers who have inspiring ideas about how to change the world. That’s to say, we do a lot.
Our recent debate in Doha was all about capitalism, modernity’s dominant economic system. Capitalism wants constant economic growth. It needs constant economic growth. More production, more consumption.
It’s brought us into an era of convenience, global connectivity and incredibly fast technological advancement. For a while, it made a middle class possible in some parts of the world.
But after a few centuries of capitalism, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening again. Wealth is increasingly concentrated in a few families, and in the parts of the world where there is a middle class, it’s shrinking.
Our current system of capitalism, it seems, is at a crossroads. So, do we continue with business as usual? Or do we build a new economic system? At the debate, each of our speakers presented their view of the future.
So we can maintain our mindless devotion to the dusty dogmas of the status quo, sacrificing our future, and our planets, on the altar of capital. Or we can throw off the shackles of this irrational system and build a better, more just, more ecological economy for the 21st century.
There is no doubt that we prosper with growth. Inclusive growth has and will remain key to leaving no one behind and build a prosperous future for the benefit of all.
SECOND MALE SPEAKER:
“Woke” capitalism is everywhere around us. Billionaire philanthropy, impact investing, give-one-get-one products, social enterprises — basically everything Bono is involved with. But woke capitalism is all too often a smokescreen for a manic hypercapitalism that is destroying opportunity and jeopardizing the Earth.
NELUFAR: Before the debate kicked off, I got to sit down with one of the speakers.
[SOUND OF THREE CLAPS]
NELUFAR: Anand Giridharadas.
[SOUND OF ONE CLAP]
I just thought that’s what we were doing.
NELUFAR: You’re just going to clap? Oh no, this is a musical expressionist bit.
ANAND: OK. I like to clap back.
NELUFAR: You do! All right.
NELUFAR: Anand is an editor at “Time” magazine and the author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.” One of my favorite things about Giridharadas is his unique ability to see and expose the truth about everyday reality. In this instance, the story of capitalism.
ANAND: You know, when I wrote “Winners Take All,” I realized that there’s kind of two types of nonfiction books. There’s a type of book you can do where you’re going to some world that most people don’t know about. Right? You’re going to Antarctica, and you’re trying to tell them what’s happening with the ice. You write a book like that, you just need to straight-up describe what you’re seeing, because most people have no idea what that world is. Anything you describe and tell them is new for them. There’s another kind of book, where you are trying to actually describe reality that people see all the time. And you’re trying to make them re-look at what they see every day.
In that second case, simply straight-up describing — the Antarctica one — doesn’t work, because they’re so used to a certain way of looking at it, a certain way of seeing it. And what you have to do is, you have to reconstitute that reality in a new way that makes people say, like, “Huh!” So I coined this term “market world” to describe a group of people, but also an ideology, of essentially leaders of extreme capitalism who have reinvented themselves as the saviors of the victims of extreme capitalism. So the world of billionaires giving money away.
[JAUNTY PIANO MUSIC]
NELUFAR: And this “market world” we live in? Anand traces its roots back to the U.K. and the U.S. in the 1970s, with trickle-down economics. The idea is: We shrink the government, cut social benefits, cut taxes for the wealthy, cut oversight and regulation on banks and financial institutions — just let the rich people and their big corporations have more money. That will encourage them to hire more workers. More jobs means a stronger economy, and eventually, more spending power for everyone. Sounds good, right?
But there was a flaw. The rich people didn’t necessarily hire more workers. And when they did, they still paid them as little as possible. Disincentivizing unions, they seriously cut workers’ benefits. Nothing trickled down. Quite the opposite happened: The rich got richer. So what happened to the government in that instance? Who is responsible for setting the rules?
ANAND: The first part we all now know as kind of trickle-down economics, Reagan-Thatcher economics. And that’s been with us for a while, right?
ANAND: Right. But just to recap, like, a kind of ideological and political war on the idea of government started to be waged in the 1970s, and is one of the most successful intellectual revolutions of all time, right? It’s rare that ideas matter this much in history as they did in this case. A small group of people had this idea, pushed this agenda, and it worked. If you look at the United States, what happened is — not only did Reagan say, you know, “Government is the problem,” but that became the common sense of the country.
NELUFAR: This, says Giridharadas, is the story of neoliberal capitalism. And we’ve been gorging on it.
ANAND: What happened because of the success of that story was — government did pull back, government had less money, corporations made a lot more money than they would have made. People at the top made a lot more money than they would have made otherwise. And a bunch of social problems festered, because now you’ve got people not being paid enough, being evicted more, etc. etc., and yet government less and less capable of solving it. Right?
Enter phase two, which is what I write about. The richest and most powerful people in America who have benefited from what I just described — benefited from the neoliberal takeover, benefited from this age of government pullback, private sector unleashing and festering, multiplying social problems. They now step in and say — as if none of that ever happened, as if it’s just day one, this is the situation — “What a shame,” they say. “What a shame. You got these social problems, and you’ve got government over here just not solving them. What a shame and you know what? I have great resources. This country has been very good to me. Allow me to step up and help.”
Now, if you are naive enough to think that the story began that day, you might look at a gesture like that — whether it’s philanthropy or impact — and say, “Wow, how noble!” But if you have the history, what you understand is — the class of people who spent the last generation fighting for this outcome, fighting for an outcome in which more and more profits would go to companies, less and less of that money would go to workers, in which rich people would pull away from the rest of the society — the class that did that is now turning around and bemoaning the world they created the way I bemoan, often, the french fries that I order when it shows up on the table, and, and then, and then saying, ”Let me at least help.” And what they do when they get involved in that way, is that they mislead our cultural conversation.
NELUFAR: Are they spinning, are they spinning the story?
ANAND: It’s a giant-scale spinning of a story.
NELUFAR: Anand says the people who benefit most from this system have been fighting a kind of war of ideas to keep their power. The winners of extreme capitalism have reinvented themselves as the saviors of the victims. Through a bit of philanthropy and a lot of PR, they become known as changemakers. But they never actually challenge the existing power structures that keep them rich. Anand calls it “market world.” And market world stories and ideas thrive at some very popular outlets. Outlets which are supposed to provide fresh ideas, new perspective, real change. But in reality, they do something different.
ANAND: I think what has happened is, in an age of extreme inequality, of resentment, of anger, of social fracture, of democratic breakdown — there has been an increasingly urgent need to diagnose what’s going on. Everybody wants to understand what’s going on. But the flip side of that is, there’s also — among those on the top — there’s a thirst for diagnoses of what’s going on that do not challenge fundamental power equations. Right? If you are powerful, what you do not want is people saying, “We need a wealth tax to deal with this moment.”
ANAND: “We need to fund universal childcare, public education to do it.” ’Cause you don’t want that.
So what rich people have done is invest heavily in a bunch of idea spaces that in an age of declining television viewership, declining newspaper readership, declining, you know, frankly, academic institutions’ support for people wanting to be scholars. A lot of the traditional ways that we used to support and amplify thinkers —
NELUFAR: Independent thoughts.
ANAND: Correct. Right? If you had tenure at a university, you had a newspaper column, you —
NELUFAR: You say what you want.
ANAND: You could say a lot of things whether or not billionaires liked it. That stuff has been declining. And, and instead you have had rising the TED Talk circuit, as well as all of these, like, what I call “market world gatherings,” where, you know, journalists like me will be invited to come and give a talk.
NELUFAR: Anand is asking us to question the motives behind the story of billionaire philanthropists and the institutions that made them rich to begin with. It’s not only history that winners get to write — they write the present story too.
ANAND: If you’re writing about sexism and patriarchy, it’s pretty hard to do that in a way that doesn’t indict men. And the culture men are part of. You’re writing about racism, it’s pretty hard to do that in a way that doesn’t indict white people. You’re writing about inequality and plutocracy, it’s pretty hard to do that in a way that doesn’t indict rich people. But — there’s been this pressure in the market world idea circuit to be a thinker who doesn’t do that, who doesn’t indict, who doesn’t challenge power, who talks about how to do right by women or minorities or everybody in an age of plutocracy in a way that does not blame the powerful. And those people are thought leaders. Thought leaders are thinkers who do not challenge power. They’re thinkers who become congenial to the Aspen, Davos, TED circuit.
NELUFAR: To be clear, Anand does these circuits. He’s given TED Talks. This is why I wanted to talk to Anand — because he’s practicing what he preaches.
NELUFAR: About a year ago you did a talk at Google and it wasn’t put online immediately, like all the talks previously. In fact, you, there had to be a bit of a petition to get it to be put online. I watched the talk, and you speak very honestly and openly about Google — at Google. You, in a sense, practice what you preached. How hard is it to get those difficult ideas out there personally, for you? And why did you think it was important to use that Google talk to talk to those employees, to ask them to action change the way that you did?
ANAND: I mean, that day — I remember, I was, my book had just come out. Maybe one or two weeks out — I think it was mid September, two weeks out. And I was on my way from, from New York. I think I took the train to Boston to give this Google, this talk at Google. It’s like an authors at Google series. It’s like a, usually a small, you know, few dozen people in a room and they put it on YouTube, which is the real, the real idea. And they have a lot of authors. I was surprised, right? My book’s called “The Elite Charade of Changing the World.” “Winners Take All” is the title, but the, you know, the subtitle is like even more pungent, right? “The Elite Charade of Changing the World.” And I was surprised they invited me. But, you know, a lot of people who invite me have not read my book — which is perfect. This is like the one place where I benefit from the fact that most people just like don’t actually read things these days.
NELUFAR: I think you said that to their faces.
ANAND: I did.
ANAND: But that was actually not true. The guy was like, “No, I read it.” Is that, that was like — he was like a mole. He was reassigned from that authors at Google program right after my talk.
NELUFAR: Are you serious?
ANAND: Yep. That was one of the things that went down. So, so, so I get invited, and, and I was just, I had, you know, my bullet-point stump speech from my book that I was doing at different events on the book tour. And in the last half an hour, hour, of the train as we approached Boston, it occurred to me — you know, book tour’s a little bit like, wait, where am I going next, right? — I had not thought about it. And suddenly I’m like, “Why am I giving the standard talk at Google?” I should talk about Google at Google. And because I knew that it was the video — you can do that in a way that’s, you know, they can’t really do anything about. So I thought. So I just made some notes. I didn’t really have something in depth, but I made some notes. And I basically called for the breakup of Google.
NELUFAR: At Google.
ANAND: Where else would you call for the breakup?
NELUFAR: No, I think you specifically called them a monopoly —
NELUFAR: — that hinders the development of other businesses. And then someone said, “Oh, but look, we do so much good.” And you were like, “But there’s no competition.”
NELUFAR: “And so you are a monopoly.”
ANAND: If you’ve ever — I mean, if you have never — as I suspect you may have not — if you’ve never seen a room full of male engineers feel emotions, you should do what I did.
NELUFAR: No, thank you.
ANAND: Yeah, it’s not a pretty sight.
NELUFAR: No, I’m, I’m happy to just watch you do it.
ANAND: It is not — it is not a pretty sight.
NELUFAR: But back to the point, it’s just a remarkable thing to have witnessed in this, in this moment, where you did the thing that you told people to do. Most of us don’t do the things we tell people to do. We tell people to do them.
ANAND: Well, I think what’s interesting is like — I, to me, like — that feels like an easy thing for me to do — and I think —
NELUFAR: There were repercussions. There were repercussions for you.
ANAND: Well, like, they didn’t put the talk online.
ANAND: And we wondered what was going on. Then they’re like, “The guy who did it, you know, he’s been reassigned. He’s not there anymore.” Meanwhile, I made the mistake of mentioning this to a friend of mine who works in one of the more benign corners of Google. And I had actually gone in and met with that group. And, and I think my friend went to some of his colleagues, and was like, “This guy’s going to make a much bigger problem for you if you don’t publish this talk. And if you do publish this talk, you should publish the talk.” And by the end of the day or the next day, the talk was up.
NELUFAR: The moral of this will-they/won’t-they put the video online saga is one about courage. It took guts to invite Anand, a critic of capitalism, to Google in the first place. It then took more courage for Anand to call out the clear shortcomings of one of capitalism’s biggest successes: Google. And it took even more courage for Google employees to make sure it went online for everyone to see. These people — all of them — could do something. And they did do it.
NELUFAR: One of the most powerful ideas in your journalism and in your writing is this idea that to action change within a system like capitalism, you need those who are powerful to accept and risk losing power. And that is such a powerful idea I don’t really hear very often. The idea that if you are willing to action change, you have to risk lose or you have to give up a certain amount of your power. Can you give me some examples of when in reality that’s happened, or when you’ve noticed that it’s worked effectively?
ANAND: Well, to clarify, I think real change in many, many situations in history has involved the loss of power. I do not think it necessarily involves the powerful accepting that. I think that’s a choice that powerful people have. And usually in history, a minority of powerful people actually recognize that. And in some cases, ally with the liquidation of some of their own power. I do not think that’s the dominant tendency. I don’t think we should wait for it.
But to talk about examples. You look at the #MeToo movement. What vision of actually responding to that would be able to propose change without costing men power, right? The any at — all men, not just the men who do terrible things, right? Like, for there to be the kind of world of empowered spaces for women that I think most sensible people are calling for — it involves a loss of power. If — particularly the power of impunity. The power of knowing you can do whatever you want in all kinds of spaces in your life and nothing will happen. Think about the factory owners in the early 20th century who depended on those really little fingers that children have to make things, right? So productive, so cheap.
Obviously we had to get rid of that. I don’t think there was a way to get rid of it that would not have involved costing factory owners. And so, so many of the real changes in history have involved people in power giving up power. Not because of vengeance, but because problems of power are often problems, metaphorically, of someone’s standing on someone else’s neck.
NELUFAR: Whether or not the haves are willing to give up a little power to the have-nots — what is the government’s role in all this? Most people believe governments should build roads and manage trade with other countries. But how much power should a government have over a big corporation? How much should a government provide services and care for its people?
NELUFAR: Around the world, governments are failing their people by not providing basic things: Roads to be able to drive on. Healthcare to be able to depend on. Access to education so that you can better yourself and get better jobs. This is happening in the global north and the global south. What is broken here? Is this a global narrative? Has capitalism failed?
ANAND: Well, I don’t know that governments not functioning well is capitalism failing. It’s capitalism often capturing. But you know, I can’t speak of the whole world, because each situation is different. I’ll tell you what I know from reporting on the United States, which is, first of all, the premise that government doesn’t work is false. It’s false. Does government mess things up? Is it slow and inefficient at certain things? Sure.
So I actually think we need to reject the premise, first of all, that government is ineffective. Because millions of seniors in America get social security checks every month, reliably, that keeps them out of poverty. We have a public school system that virtually, you know, 90 percent of kids in the country go to, that is not as successful as it should be, but is an alternative to countries that do not have that at all.
NELUFAR: Are you telling us — then, are you saying to us then, just deal with what we have, make good, make do with with this ailing, failing, crickety government system support —
NELUFAR: — and try your best to make it better, but this is the system that we live in. It’s working for some, maybe not all, but if you fall through cracks, well, that’s just you? What is it —
ANAND: You really think that’s what I’m saying?
My point is there is a rhetoric in our time that government is somehow more of a failure than the business world. I think that is false.
Coca-Cola doing like 2 percent of its profit in some market for some clean water initiative, even though it probably poisoned that water? That’s OK? That’s something that’s a success? So look, I would, I would broaden it to say: All institutions have successes and failures, right? So, yes, is the government involved? Sure. But I’m just trying to push back against the rhetoric that government is inefficient. It’s not factual, and it’s not based on an understanding of how society actually works. I think what has happened is the biggest winners of our age are heavily invested in the idea of a government that does as little as possible. And they have fought for a government that does as little as possible, that has no resources, that does not regulate properly, etc. etc. And we need to push back against them by pushing for a government that does more.
One way to think about this philosophically is, the power of government needs to be commensurate with the power of big outside forces, in any given age, to mess with people’s lives in a way that they can’t fight back. OK? In the horse-and-buggy days, there were simply less of those big forces. Today, you can have your government making a decision to trade with China. You can have climate change. That is a force that no individual is strong enough to act on alone.
[SLOW JAZZY MUSIC]
NELUFAR: On the broadest shoulders falls the greatest burden for actioning the monumental change we need to save humanity from these collective problems. But democracy dictates that each one of us has an equal voice with our vote to make these changes. Billionaire or bus driver, you shouldn’t get to decide what’s best for humanity because of your bank balance. But currently, you do.
And here’s the thing: The government — the government is us! Well, the democratically elected ones, at least. Anand is making the case that by reducing government budgets, limiting its oversight of powerful institutions and making them the villains of the story of capitalistic growth? Well, that’s akin to shrinking our collective budgets and limiting our oversight into powerful and greedy institutions that often overstep the line. The government is our voice against extreme capitalism.
ANAND: I often find these conversations about capitalism to be very stilted and very binary. Like, we’ve come to this weird place in 2019 where our understanding of gender is now fluid and our understanding of capitalism is binary, right? You either do gulags or you do American manic hypercapitalism, which is a form that now many people around the world are copying. People like their cars, you know. People, me included, like their steaks. And you’re asking people — rightly — to give things up, which is what you have to do. But I think we need to avoid telling people that we, that you know, they need to stop living if we’re going to have a planet. I think, I think there’s better ways to live. I think we actually — those of us who believe in climate change and believe in fighting it have failed to do what is the most important political work here, which is make people more excited about the new world that they’re walking into than the old world they’re giving up.
Whether it’s the transition to a gender-equal world, whether it’s the transition out of plutocracy, whether it’s climate, you have to sell people on the new world and make it as exciting, as thrilling. You have to show people what their life will be like in the new world. And I think it’s incumbent on those of us who want those changes to happen, to, to, to paint people the picture.
NELUFAR: Thank you, Anand Giridharadas, for talking to Doha Debates.
ANAND: Thank you so much.
NELUFAR: That’s all for the show today. To watch the full live debate, go to YouTube and search for “Doha Debates Capitalism.” You can see all of the speakers’ proposed solutions, and tell us what you think.
I want to hear from you. Tweet us at @DohaDebates. Or get in touch with me at @nelufar.
“Course Correction” is written and hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. The show is produced by Doha Debates and Transmitter Media. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation. Special thanks to our team at Doha Debates — Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. If you like what you hear, rate and review the show. It helps other people find us. Join us for the next episode of “Course Correction” wherever you get your podcasts.