Confessions of a Mouthpiece for an Elite Charade

30 Dec

In 2011…Georgetown found itself with a $1.5 million pot of money intended for student activities that the administration no longer wished to administer. It allowed students to vote on how to use the money. Out of several proposals, they chose one to create a “student-run endowment that invested in student and alumni innovative ideas that do good in the world.”…It was a perfectly laudable and well-meaning initiative, and it spoke to how many young people had been trained to think about change in an age dominated by a market consensus: as a thing that could be pursued by investment committee as much as by social and political action.

–Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

For the first time I’m in my life, I’ve received an indirect mention in a highly acclaimed work of non-fiction. As the public relations director for the Georgetown student government that helped push through the Social Innovation and Public Service (SIPS) fund mentioned in the above quote, I’ll be updating my résumé with a line that reads “Mouthpiece for the Elite Charade to Change the World.”

All joking aside, Anand Giridharadas’s new book came to me at a vital time as I re-think my role as a person on a road to a reasonably comfortable career that seeks to create positive change in one little corner of the world. Winners Take All opens with a chapter that follows a Georgetown student two years behind me (no acquaintance) who, while groomed for a by her financier of a father, also developed a strong urge to do good in the world, in part thanks to Georgetown’s devotion to Jesuit ideals and an Aristotelian philosophical tradition. (The book name-drops two Jesuit priests, Frs. Matthew Carnes and Kevin O’Brien, who I’d cite as mild influences on my life, and major influences on a few friends who did a better job of getting to know them.) As a result, she was drawn to a career at McKinsey, the elite management consulting firm that pitched her on a chance to be a change agent. As she settled in, however, her doubts began to grow: her clients were mostly wealthy corporations, and any public benefit to her work was often tangential at best. Is this really the best way to effect positive change in the 21st century? Or is that claim just a convenient ruse for people who want money and prestige to claim some broader benefit for their work?

Winners Take All takes no prisoners as it examines these do-gooding elites. Giridharadas’ primary targets are not the greed-is-good purveyors of unrestrained capitalism who led the neoliberal rise, but instead the liberals who quietly accept its premises (wittingly or unwittingly) and try to soften the edges. It blasts Silicon Valley in particular for its unctuous claims about changing the world while operating in ways that are blithely indifferent to, if not actively destructive of, the human lives on the other end of the screen. Giridharadas sits down with some philanthropists and social impact investors, who struggle to varying degrees to justify their work and the system that makes their wealth possible. He spends some time with the “thought leaders” from TED talks and Davos lectures who claim to have simple answers as opposed to the old ideal of the public intellectual who sees complexity and pokes holes. No one who tries to “do well by doing good” gets off unscathed, though some certainly emerge as more admirable than others.

Giridharadas concludes with Bill Clinton, the Georgetown alumnus who started his political career as an Arkansas populist before becoming the Third Way triangulator-in-chief as President and the founder for the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), an echo chamber for wannabe world-changing elites who get together to network with one another. (In one of the book’s high points, Giridharadas skewers several CGI panels designed to reflect on rising opposition to high-minded globalists and their seeming loss of touch with the masses that consist only of high-minded globalists.) Giridharadas lingers on Clinton’s closing address at a CGI conference: “All that worked in the modern world was private, donor-financed world-saving, full of good intentions, unaccountable to the public, based on win-win partnerships initiated by companies and philanthropists and other private actors, blessed (sometimes) by public officials…The only problem-solving approach that worked in the modern world, according to Clinton, was one that made the people an afterthought, to be helped but not truly heard.”

While Winners Take All effectively highlights the mixed motives and questionable efficacy of world-changing elites, the quote on Clinton illustrates a perhaps a more serious threat of market-focused theories of social change: the way in which it undermines democratic norms, and indeed the entire public realm as a sphere of human activity. The recent populist turn in American politics will likely make some elites even more comfortable with the idea of some aristocracy operating above the supposed dirty work of day-to-day politicking, which feeds a cycle of bitterness and division. The book makes little effort to offer up an alternative save a return to a more redistributive system, which one senses is insufficient to counteract the market-based thinking that has suffused so much of the dialogue. Perhaps simple recognition is an adequate start.

On a more personal level, I’ve been wrestling with questions like this since my DC days. I went to a few recruitment and orientation-type events for a McKinsey competitor, but decided I’d rather spend my first two years out of Georgetown failing to write novels instead. It would be a stretch to say my decision was a noble rebellion against the elite charade, but I was certainly skeptical of any claims about the overarching good that work could achieve, a sense cultivated in part by my critical tutors in academia and back home in Duluth and in part probably just based in my temperament. If I was going to end up in a career with pretensions of world-changing, it would look very different.

Even so, it’s fascinating to see how some things come full circle: I now work for a consulting firm with a stated social mission. My firm has little else in common with the McKinsey machine; it is a nonprofit, it does not drape itself in overwrought claims of influence, and its efforts are largely grounded in service to a place and its people instead of a vague ethos of excellence. Even so, I now get the sense that I could have thrived in that high-end consulting world, to say nothing of what it would mean for my wallet and sense of prestige. I’ve taken an odd path to where I am now, with an eclectic writing life and an idiosyncratic urban planning master’s degree, and while I’ve wondered some over the past two years if I wouldn’t have been better off with a gaudy MBA as a credential of broader expertise, I am also independent enough that I will always relish a chance to view my chosen field from some distance and play the loyal opposition, if not an unabashed critic.

As for my own complicity, I will make no apologies for the SIPS program: there were limits on what we could do with it, and it has gone on to do some very laudable work, including funding for low-income Georgetown students to spend their summers in DC. I also take pains to emphasize the blurriness of class distinctions, and that sometimes those who have seen the belly of the beast are the most qualified to critique it. (Giridharadas, for example, is a McKinsey alumnus, and many of his interview subjects are contacts from his days in that world.) Those of us who brush into these circles at certain points in our lives must acknowledge our place within these larger debates, and be able to step out and reflect on our roles. The dynamics of power and class and democracy will always be fluid, but a commitment to self-examination and transparency need not be.

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