The Philanthropy Racket or: How The People Destroying the World Anoint Themselves Its Saviors

How the global elite cast themselves as do-gooders.

Chris Lehmann August 22, 2018

Illustration by Koko Lee

As Anand Girid­haradas argues in his indis­pens­able new book, Win­ners Take All, There is no deny­ing that today’s elite may be among the more social­ly con­cerned elites in his­to­ry. But it is also, by the cold log­ic of num­bers, among the most predatory.”

Social change should be pursued through the free market and voluntary action, not public life and the law.

As wages stag­nate and decline, and income and hous­ing sup­ports are vicious­ly win­nowed away, a new brand of phil­an­thropic do-good­ism aims to trans­form social relief into entre­pre­neur­ial oppor­tu­ni­ty. In big-name cor­po­rate con­sul­tan­cies like McK­in­sey, at glob­al meet­ing grounds like Davos, Aspen and Doha, with­in the warm self-admir­ing glow of the Clin­ton Glob­al Ini­tia­tives (CGI), the very class prof­it­ing from glob­al inequal­i­ty con­venes in search of ways to ame­lio­rate its symp­toms — prof­itably, of course, via a sta­ble of dis­rup­tive” mar­ket-dri­ven inter­ven­tions in health­care, trans­porta­tion, hous­ing and oth­er spheres that are sold to investors as inge­nious ways of hack­ing society.

The per­verse dog­ma behind such ini­tia­tives is the mantra win-win” — the notion that social reform need nev­er entail any cost to cor­po­rate bot­tom lines. As one of its chief the­o­rists, for­mer TechCrunch reporter Greg Fer­en­stein explains, if you assume the pub­lic sec­tor is fun­da­men­tal­ly at odds with the market:

You wor­ry about dis­par­i­ties in wealth. You want labor unions to pro­tect work­ers from cor­po­ra­tions. You want a small­er gov­ern­ment to get out of the way of busi­ness. If you don’t make that assump­tion, and you believe that every insti­tu­tion needs to do well, and they all work with each oth­er, you don’t want unions or reg­u­la­tion or sov­er­eign­ty or any of the oth­er things that pro­tect peo­ple from each other.

He sums up this gov­ern­ment-mar­ket syn­er­gy, daft­ly, as Opti­mism.” After all, the neolib­er­al elite has found a rem­e­dy for the sav­age inequal­i­ties of the mar­ket — a suite of cos­met­ic social fix­es that abide by mar­ket log­ic, such as micro-loans and school vouchers.

Girid­haradas sup­plies a lac­er­at­ing cri­tique of this quis­ling ratio­nale by virtue of know­ing it first­hand; he’s a for­mer McK­in­sey con­sul­tant and Aspen Insti­tute fel­low who’s done the rounds of TED talks. His insid­er access allows him to tease out the intel­lec­tu­al and moral fail­ures of our Opti­mist over­lords in a dev­as­tat­ing por­trait of the net­work and com­mu­ni­ty” and cul­ture and state of mind” he calls Mar­ket­World”:

These elites believe and pro­mote the idea that social change should be pur­sued prin­ci­pal­ly through the free mar­ket and vol­un­tary action, not pub­lic life and the law and the reform of the sys­tems that peo­ple share in com­mon; that it should be super­vised by the win­ners of cap­i­tal­ism and their allies, and not be antag­o­nis­tic to their needs; and that the biggest ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the sta­tus quo should play a lead­ing role in the sta­tus quo’s reform.

As Girid­haradas notes, defend­ing Mar­ket­World requires no end of dis­tor­tions and diminu­tions of social thought. The social psy­chol­o­gist Amy Cud­dy, for instance, deliv­ered one of the most suc­cess­ful TED talks in his­to­ry by pre­sent­ing fem­i­nist activism large­ly as a mat­ter of adopt­ing tweaks to per­son­al com­port­ment in the work­place, such as pow­er pos­tures.” Such gloss­es on social con­flict, Girid­haradas writes, have giv­en rise to watered-down the­o­ries of change that are per­son­al, indi­vid­ual, depoliti­cized, respect­ful of the sta­tus quo and the sys­tem, and not in the least bit dis­rup­tive.” Bruno Gius­sani, the TED offi­cial who host­ed Cuddy’s talk, con­cedes as much, not­ing he’d even coined a term for the elite eva­sion of social con­flict: Pinker­ing,” after the Har­vard lin­guist Steven Pinker’s argu­ment that the arc of his­to­ry is bend­ing ineluctably toward world peace.

Report­ing from the last con­vo­ca­tion of the CGI, Girid­haradas quotes for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clinton’s vale­dic­to­ry address to this High Church of Mar­ket­World. Good peo­ple, com­mit­ted to cre­ative coop­er­a­tion, have almost unlim­it­ed pos­i­tive impact to help peo­ple today and give our kids bet­ter tomor­rows,” Clin­ton intoned. This is all that does work in the mod­ern world.” Girid­haradas right­ly dubs this lat­ter claim aston­ish­ing” — it’s redo­lent of Mar­garet Thatcher’s insis­tence that there was sim­ply no alter­na­tive” to untram­meled cap­i­tal­ist rule.

Gius­sani sug­gests that such Olympian nar­ra­tives of elite reas­sur­ance serve to dis­miss any crit­i­cal per­spec­tive as back­ward and unen­light­ened: Your prob­lems don’t real­ly mat­ter com­pared to the past’s, and your prob­lems are not real­ly prob­lems, because things are get­ting better.”

Asked whether all this fla­grant Pinker­ing had con­tributed to the back­lash of pseu­do-pop­ulist anger now roil­ing the West, Gius­sani avers, Of course that dis­tor­tion con­tributed. I believe even that it is one of the biggest engines of it.” Nev­er­the­less, the lead the­o­rists of Mar­ket­World hope to ride out the present cri­sis by cleav­ing to their pet shib­bo­leths more firm­ly than ever. The sur­prise yes” vote on Brex­it, for instance, prompt­ed Clin­ton to observe that Brex­it sup­port­ers sim­ply had no idea what they were doing.” As Girid­haradas dri­ly notes, The peo­ple set­ting them­selves the task of under­stand­ing the anger around them were pre­com­mit­ted to the idea that the anger had no pos­si­ble basis in rea­son or con­scious choice.”

And that, by and large, is the dis­cur­sive world we con­tin­ue to inhab­it since the elec­tion of Trump. MarketWorld’s hireling polit­i­cal mouth­pieces stolid­ly insist that all is fun­da­men­tal­ly well in the world — that Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­ers are being tar­get­ed by the Trumpian forces of dark­ness because they’re effec­tive,” as Pelosi out­landish­ly claimed in a recent Rolling Stone inter­view. In point of fact, of course, the neolib­er­al dream of gov­er­nance has been a grotesque bust, with Pelosi’s Democ­rats fac­ing the low­est ebb of polit­i­cal influ­ence in Amer­i­ca since 1924. But that’s a bit­ter truth that will nev­er pen­e­trate the high-priced pageants of neolib­er­al self-congratulation.

Chris Lehmann, is edi­tor-in-chief at The Baf­fler and a for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of In These Times. He is the author of The Mon­ey Cult: Cap­i­tal­ism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and the Unmak­ing of the Amer­i­can Dream (Melville House, 2016).
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