Markets and global elites can’t fix the world’s problems

Anand Ghiridharas photo (center) by Mackenzie Stroh. Photos of Pope Francis (left) and Pope Benedict XVI (right) by CNS/Paul Haring.

Anand Giridharadas is a popular journalist whose 2018 book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, was a national best seller. His investigation of “elite revolutionaries” was also a diagnosis of inequality, speckled with a history of modern philanthropy and seasoned by intimate interviews with powerful financial figures. So he might seem an unlikely conversation partner for a theological exploration of faith and reason. Yet Giridharadas comes to conclusions that are consonant with the basic principles of Catholic social teaching and strongly correlated to the works of Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI. Implicated here are mainstream economics, structural inequalities, labor conditions and the history of how private charity has interacted with public forms of justice.

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Winners Take Allby Anand Giridharadas

Knopf

304p, $26.95

Giridharadas is not one to provide easy answers. Instead, he investigates the civic routines by which a citizenry genuflects to economic elites while eliding the government’s role in overseeing and protecting public goods. In more than one sense, the book is a critique of what happens when market ideologies and their beneficiaries are treated, like many religious figures and maxims, as beyond reproach.

While “a successful society is a progress machine, America’s machine is broken,” Anand Giridharadas writes.

Extreme Inequality

While “a successful society is a progress machine, America’s machine is broken,” Giridharadas writes. In this he joins a swelling chorus of economists, social scientists, cultural critics and justice workers who are troubled by rampant inequalities in the contemporary United States. Giridharadas’s unique contribution is to demonstrate how such inequalities are perpetuated by an economic and cultural partisanship that, in many respects, transcends political affiliation. This type of partisanship fawns over an economic hyper-elite, then favors “the use of the private sector and its charitable spoils, the market way of looking at things, and the bypassing of government” as mechanisms for remedying social ills. He locates substantial irony in the current, “highly influential view that the winners of an unjust status quo—and the tools and mentalities and values that helped them win—are the secret to redressing the injustices…[and] thereby recast as our saviors from an age of inequality.” Various chapters depict how the conceit operates, from the halls of consulting firms to tech disruptors to the Aspen Institute and the Clinton Global Initiative.

The ethical concern is that “a world marked more and more by private greed and the private provision of public goods is a world that doesn’t trust the people, in their collective capacity, to imagine another kind of society into being.” To this end, Giridharadas depicts how the political sphere is enervated when complex problems are privatized or siphoned into the realm of charity instead of justice, or when the super-wealthy are allowed to wax apophatic about the downstream consequences of the means by which they made their wealth. (The Sackler opioid fortune is an example discussed in some detail.)

Anand Giridharadas’s unique contribution is to demonstrate how such inequalities are perpetuated by an economic and cultural partisanship that, in many respects, transcends political affiliation.

Sacred Scripts

Since Winners Take All is not a theological treatise, it is noteworthy that Giridharadas mentions Pope Francis as a figure who articulates values distinct from the current system of political-economic power. Even more striking is how his thought consistently aligns with Catholic social teaching on the excesses of economic globalization, the dangers of privatization and the concern for how inequality tends to imperil the most vulnerable members of society.

For example, in “Laudato Si’” and elsewhere, Pope Francis develops the notion of “the excluded” to signal how the vast majority of people lack access to the benefits supposedly accruing for global humanity as a result of economic globalization. As Francis states in the first chapter of “Laudato Si’,” “we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair,” with extreme global inequality being one of the key indicators. He elaborates:

Generally speaking, there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people. These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage.

There is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people.

In Catholic social teaching, the aim of economic development is not mere wealth or increased gross domestic product; rather, the goal is the “integral development” of each person and society as a whole, an idea that formally traces back to Pope Paul VI in “Populorum Progressio” (1967) and has been consistently revivified by each pope since. As Benedict XVI wrote in “Caritas in Veritate,” “The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly—not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centered.” In many papal teachings this links to the idea of the common good; again, according to Benedict:

It is the good of “all of us,” made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society. It is a good that is sought not for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it. To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity.

The problem according to Giridharadas is that a market logic that lacks concern for the common good and public participation has been inappropriately empowered “to change the language in which the public sphere thought and acted”—without contributions from other sectors of society that might have different visions of social flourishing, that might resist the reduction of values to market practices, that might name the moral violations at the heart of global inequality, that might seek to gird economics with ethics.

The common good is a good that is sought not for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it.

Secular Saviors

“MarketWorld” is Giridharadas’s term for, first, the view that private enterprise and charity can address the most pressing social problems; and, second, for the cultural cachet that performances of entrepreneurship and skills aimed at the market and treated as commodities seem to glean in the public sphere in an era of TED Talks and social-good entrepreneurship. One type of MarketWorld expert has made billions from the global economy and now offers, in various forms, smooth proposals for solving less glamorous social issues. These leaders, says Giridharadas, tend to act as though they are “above and apart from fearful, conflictual politics,” often offering technocratic solutions to social problems. (The rise of populism in its several homegrown forms as a response to such elitism gives emphasis to this point.)

A second type of MarketWorlder operates in the privatized culture of thought leadership—exemplified on but not exhausted by the TED Talk stage, and often populated by people who are not plutocrats. The commodified, social-media-spawned structure of thought leadership in the present day facilitates the promulgation of “facsimiles of change” that have “largely exempted the role of markets and their winners from scrutiny.” A profile of Malcolm Gladwell, among others, drives these points home. How does one retain intellectual freedom and integrity in a world where “there is tremendous pressure to turn thoughts into commodities”?

Of course, Giridharadas avers, many elite MarketWorlders may be well-intentioned. They may not set out to profit from societal ills or structures of inequality. Many would like to understand themselves as making the world a better place, perhaps by donating millions of dollars to Newark’s public schools or setting up a nonprofit foundation to “disrupt” defunct systems or “solve” global ills. But when social problems are removed from the political sphere and placed in the purview of a thoughtful plutocrat or a well-paid public intellectual with a microphone and a slide deck, the theories of change are “watered-down…personal, individual, depoliticized, respectful of the status quo and the system, and not in the least disruptive” to the systems most deserving of social critique and civic reform.

How does one retain intellectual freedom and integrity in a world where “there is tremendous pressure to turn thoughts into commodities”?

“Markets Leave Their Mark”

The Catholic Church respects the efficacy of markets in certain circumstances but remains resolute in its view that some public goods require government oversight and robust civic participation. The ethical concern arises when key services and foundations of human well-being are shunted into private ownership and control. But hovering behind the idea of public goods are deeper questions of value.

There are some things that lie beyond the ability of the market, or other forms of efficiency logic, to provide. As the political philosopher Michael Sandel has written, “markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about.” As Benedict XVI notes in “Caritas in Veritate,” quoting John Paul II:

A society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized.

Structural sin is an important reality in the contemporary world. It is a more complicated notion than individual moral evil. Direct violation of another person, while never pleasant, has the advantage of being fairly obvious and thus blameworthy. We live in a time that, while not devoid of individual moral evil, is also replete with indirect, structural forms of evil that are enshrined in the everyday institutions that govern economic and social relationships. For many individuals, the problem is one of moral complicity: that is, benefiting from structures that rely upon the extraction of goods, labor and capital in a relentless flow that generates disproportionate privilege for the few along with persistent marginalization and oppression of many individuals and communities.

The Catholic Church respects the efficacy of markets in certain circumstances but remains resolute in its view that some public goods require government oversight and robust civic participation.

What matters in this frame of analysis—where an unjust system generates distorted outcomes—is not just whether you violate someone directly through an act of individual moral evil. What matters is the system upon which your wealth is predicated, and what—beyond the straightforward and essential acts of charity—you did to improve upon that reality, to change the systems that enrich the few but marginalize the many.

There is no need for this conversation to devolve into tired, simplistic binaries like capitalism versus socialism—a dualism with which all serious thinkers and several popes have dispensed for decades, but which remains influential in culture wars. The better question is how particular formations of the private sector have redefined what the proper sphere of “the political” is, and who has access to it, with what outcomes. Giriharadas, like other authors, finds precursors of our neo-Gilded Age in the heritage of the robber barons—namely, the idea “that generosity is a substitute for and a means of avoiding the necessity of a more just and equitable system and a fairer distribution of power.”

As a result, Giriharadas argues that fetishized global elites cannot stand in for moral, civic forms of leadership. Nor should public problems be privatized or relegated to the domain of philanthropy. Decisions about how to structure society and solve pervasive problems are not best left to the few at the expense of the many.

Humanity Between God and Mammon

The obliquely theological question that shimmers through Winners Take All is: What is it to which contemporary society expresses fealty? As Luther observed, “whatever your heart clings to…is really your God.” Harvey Cox, in The Market as God, published in 2016, noted many U.S. Christians functionally genuflect to the deification of the market. While worshiping false idols is a longstanding proscription in Christianity, the danger lurks in the manifold, alchemized and alluring forms that idols take in the present day.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for reducing inequality and striving toward the common good, there is a universal first step: Beware the temptation to lionize a market or an individual who promises salvation without attending to the least among us and without addressing the conditions that facilitated their domination in the first place.

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