Book review: Why benevolent oligarchs are no substitute for democracy

A critical look at the modern trend for philanthropic capitalism, which says co-operation is a more 'thrillingly democratic' option

Winner Takes All, Anand Giridharadas (Vintage, 2019, £12.99)

The rise of ethical consumption, growing concerns for the environment and the need to appeal to an issue-led young generation have all prompted capitalist organisations to adopt a more socially responsible stance.

With the rise of ethical business models like the BCorp or efforts by corporate retail chains like Asda and Tesco to fund local community initiatives, this has seen capitalist models encroach on the co-op movement’s ethical turf. But how meaningful is this – especially when it takes the form of billionaire philanthropy from the likes of Bill Gates?

Related: Governance and the co-operative difference

In his new book, Winners Take All, US journalist Anand Giridharadas takes a sceptical look at this kinder face of corporatism, which he says reflects “a faith that more enlightened corporate self-interest – rather than, say, public regulation – is the surest guarantor of public welfare.

“A pair of Silicon Valley billionaires fund an initiative to rethink the Democratic Party, and one of them can claim, without a hint of irony, that their goals are to amplify the voices of the powerless and reduce the influence of rich people.”

Meanwhile, income inequality grows and and the philanthropic new elite is also “among the more predatory in history”.

Mr Giridharadas argues that this philanthropy allows the elites to “shirk the duty of more meaningful reform” and “serves to keep things as they are”.

And he draws parallels between the modern venture capitalists behind the dominant tech platforms of the 21st century – powerful monopolies like Amazon and Apple, gig platforms like Uber and Airbnb, social media giants like Facebook – and the tech barons of the late 19th century, like John D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.

These new oligarchs preach philanthropy and cast themselves as anti-establishment figures taking on the established order, he argues, while amassing wealth and driving inequality.

And these ideas have percolated into the modern liberal politics of Blair and Clinton, he says – a cake-and-eat-it philosophy which has failed to deliver benefits to ordinary workers and allowed Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign to take advantage of a populist backlash.

Mr Giridharadas discussed his book this month at Who Owns the World, a conference in New York for the world’s platform co-op movement, which is seeking to build worker and member owned alternatives to online giants like Uber and Deliveroo (see report, page 26-28). In the book he discusses a previous platform co-op event, arguing that it offered “a conversation about making the world better that eschewed the win-win commandment that the powerful should benefit from any change for that change to be worth doing”.

Platform co-ops – grassroots-led, offering opportunities to connect people without a profiteering middle man – are a “thrillingly democratic” alternative, adds Mr Giridharadas. This is a vital antidote, he says, to the alienating effects of an online gig economy which has “obscured the messy human reality of the working people behind it, who now had less bargaining power”.

Others speaking at Who Owns the World took up Mr Giridharadas’s baton. In a special session, academic Nathan Schneider and policy thinker Sandeep Vaheesan also drew parallels between the new tech giants and the Carnegies of old – and argued that new trust-busting measures, similar to the Sherman Act of 1890 which broke up the monopolies of the day and paved the way for electric co-ops, credit unions and farmer organisations, are needed to level the playing field for workers in the 21st century.

This would offer a solution to what Mr Giridharadas describes as the “globalist, cosmopolitan, technocratic, win-win consensus” that has come to dominate the economy.

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