Tom MacWright

tom@macwright.org

I read Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas on

Review

This is the review I want to write about this book. It’s not entirely about the book, and it’s not going to match the style of my previous reviews. Anyway, let’s start.

The approach from proximity

The first problem I have with ‘Winners Take All’ is that I’m too close to it. I work in the technology industry, live in San Francisco, and know of nearly every reference made in the book. The fact that gig economy companies defer risk to employees and tend to lower pay and benefits across the board wasn’t new. The ‘win-win’ ideology wasn’t either. I already knew that Peter Thiel wants a floating island country. I’m already on Twitter.

This same principle affected my read of New Dark Age, but unlike Bridle’s book, I didn’t first encounter the topics in Winner Take All via Giridharadas. They’re kind of well -known, for some possibly cliquey value of known.

Which makes some of my critique extremely personal. There’s undoubtedly a huge segment of the population for which this book will be revelatory and new, and I don’t want to shrug off the importance of informing those people. But in the same light, I’m not sure that it’s the book I’d recommend to a 52-year old Middle-American father – or whoever is your stand-in for someone who is radically not on Twitter. Is this a suitably comprehensive account?

The approach from hypocrisy

Now, hypocrisy is overplayed, as Mr. Gotcha beautifully summarizes. It just doesn’t work, practically, to convert people, and consistency isn’t achievable in any substantial form – and consistency doesn’t really matter a lot of the time.

But Winners Take All is a book that really cares about hypocrisy. It’s a common element in all its stories, about how thought leaders eventually end up fighting against their beliefs. About how tech CEOs want a particular vision of the world but their actions create the opposite. About thought leaders who water down their material to appeal to plutocrats.

So, when it starts talking about how dialogue around inequality and the future is oversimplified and dominated by thought leaders, I have to take a little pause. It’s one thing that Anand has a massive social media following. That he’s becoming a regular on network television. That he’s a fellow of the Aspen Institute (that he criticizes in the book). That he started his career at McKinsey – a strategy that he criticizes in the book, but by using another person as an example.

But beyond these potentially strategic decisions, Winners Take All is, through, and through, a work of popular idea nonfiction. I’m not sure that’s the proper name for it, but, well – it’s not Malcolm Gladwell, but it’s not unlike The Shock Doctrine or The Complacent Class or The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. It’s a book that’s anecdote-forward and that declares and drills the same few catchwords: you’ll hear ‘win-win’ and ‘MarketWorld’ repeated every few pages, necessary or not, to remind you of what you’re reading.

Now, this could be the editor’s input. That’s what I expect happened with The Shock Doctrine. But another kind of book is possible. I just read Women, Race, and Class, which brutally and brilliantly delivered its message without resorting to these tropes – but it was published in 1983, presumably before the formula for producing a New York Times Bestseller was finalized.

This sort of hypocrisy-folding-in-on-itself is familiar to Black Mirror fans, and is a worthwhile topic, but Winners Take All doesn’t ever treat it as a topic in itself: the condition of Anand being the critique and a part of the problem, and the same with the Georgetown grad, and the well-meaning tech industry CEO, and nearly everyone else deemed a winner by the book is not really ever taken out as a theme and properly dissected.

The approach from the narcissism of small differences

Let’s be real: I basically agree with Anand. On almost every single point. I don’t feel any commonality with the bad parts of the tech industry, and am often an outlier in my statements about it. So when I review something like this, overwhelmingly I do, yes, want other people to read it. I might not recommend it to my very online friends, but for other friends and family, sure - it’s a good onramp.

I guess in this way, it’s kind of like White Rage, a book that I have no particular disagreement with, but taught me so much less than Settlers. My ratings are not proxies for agreement, anyway.

But some of my differences with Giridharadas are a little, well, more substantial. For example, he comes to the defense of Stephen Pinker, whose latest book, Enlightenment Now, argues that nearly every component of life today is better than it was in the past. The critics have strawmanned Pinker’s book by saying he’s making a broad statement when he’s really making a narrower point, Giridharadas contends. I saw Pinker’s talk on the book, and I beg to differ: Enlightenment Now really does make a hugely broad claim.

Similarly, by Chapter 7, the book starts confronting globalism as opposed to an unspecified left nationalism. Here he gives a favorable interview with Dani Rodrik, one of the ‘more incisive critics of globalism’. Reacting to a Theresa May quote about how people shouldn’t feel like ‘citizens of the world’ and instead they have more in common with those near them, and should understand the meaning of ‘citizenship.’ Here, May’s talk is called “problematic”, one of my least favorite words, and the xenophobia is hand-waved away, focusing instead of the local political process. Left anti-globalism is something I need to explore further, but it’s concerning, especially in this instance, that there’s no real attempt to pick apart economic nationalism and old-fashioned nationalism.

Anyway, zooming in on this problem of small differences, the book itself obsesses over the Clinton Global Initiative and only after nearly a chapter’s worth of neoliberal globalism critique, makes this note:

Still, his political opposition as president does not tell the full story of why recent decades have been so grueling for millions of Americans. Clinton, like Obama after him, was up against militant libertarians and conservatives backed by plutocratic donors who loathed the very idea of public governmental problem-solving. To be clear, that is the movement chiefly responsible for market supremacy’s takeover of America and the bleak prospects of millions of Americans.

Indeed. He goes on to mention that Republicans were a minority of Americans and yet Democrats weren’t able to put through aggressive measures, certainly nothing strong enough to truly challenge MarketWorld.

Which, well, yeah – but, given that liberals aren’t dong enough to counter evil whilst conservatives are actively malignant, why is this framing only provided once we’ve heard about the evils of CGI? And where is the interest in, say, the Cato Institute? I don’t mean to suggest this in the hopelessly-cursed sense of “balance”, but more in terms of “focus”: if we’re writing about MarketWorld and saying that militant libertarians and conservatives are the ones doing the most work to hasten its arrival, why are we spending so much time on everyone but them?

The approach from the represented

This is a book about exclusive conferences where, again and again, the author points out that “people affected by this change would not be attending.” Again and again the empty chair is mentioned, but… couldn’t this book do more to actually talk to the people who should have been there, instead of spending so much time talking to big names like Bill Clinton and Kat Cole?

The approach from analysis

Expecting this kind of book to ‘offer solutions’ is obviously a mistake. It’s all about how easy solutions don’t work, and how TED talks are simplistic and mostly serve to elevate the thought-leaders. But I don’t really see this as even defining the problem thoroughly, let alone the solution. We read anecdote after anecdote about self-interested do-gooders, we hear judgment, and irony, repeatedly with mostly the same punchline, over and over. And yet there’s little synthesis of these points, little analysis.

This applies when there’s a “missing voice in the room” but the book doesn’t talk to them. When, despite assigning blame to ‘elites’ it nevertheless asks everyone to “reclaim world-changing from those who have co-opted it.” When it dances around the point that “capitalism corrupts” and never really engages with whether moral purity is worthwhile and never attaches to a particular alternative besides radical change.

Instead of analysis, we just have the same old story-then-moral-then-story-then-buzzword formula you’ll find in so much popular nonfiction, and it’s a formula that inflates a 50 page point into a 250 page book.

I think this book will continue to be popular because it makes people angry. But that just isn’t enough. This tells stories but doesn’t give the larger narrative enough attention.

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