Corrupt system ensures good intentions end up doing the public more harm

Feeling stressed by life? There’s an app for that. Not enough time to stop and smell the roses? There’s an app for that. Concerned about social issues? There’s an app for that too.

Or so goes the propaganda, a myth foisted on the public by the same corporate behemoths that have caused most of the stress and injustice in our world. They do it to make money, of course, and to eviscerate our privacy for personal gain, but more insidiously to insinuate themselves into the fabric of society. Much like the purported do-good-ism of billionaires and some of their businesses, the whole thing is a con to subvert real unrest and ensure change doesn’t really change anything so that they can go on exploiting power and making yet more money.

That much is obvious to those paying attention – that is, very few of us – but the whole sordid affair is dissected with journalistic precision by former New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas in his new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. In it, he documents the con of philanthropy and the co-opting of social movements by those with wealth and power intent on ensuring that the system allows them to accumulate more wealth and power.

“All around us, the winners in our highly inequitable status quo declare themselves partisans of change. They know the problem, and they want to be part of the solution. Actually, they want to lead the search for solutions. They believe that their solutions deserve to be at the forefront of social change. They may join or support movements initiated by ordinary people looking to fix aspects of their society. More often, though, these elites start initiatives of their own, taking on social change as though it were just another stock in their portfolio or corporation to restructure. Because they are in charge of these attempts at social change, the attempts naturally reflect their biases,” he writes.

“The initiatives mostly aren’t democratic, nor do they reflect collective problem-solving or universal solutions. Rather, they favor the use of the private sector and its charitable spoils, the market way of looking at things, and the bypassing of government. They reflect a 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. Those at greatest risk of being resented in an age of inequality are thereby recast as our saviors from an age of inequality.”

In essence, the people with the most to lose from genuine social change have placed themselves in charge of social change, often with the passive assent of those most in need of it.

For the most part, there is a certain inevitability that things will change in the direction of those with the most influence and money.

Are these activities beneficial? Maybe yes, maybe no. Elected officials are supposed to take the long view, but that’s hard – it’s easier to just go along with the “experts.” Or, at the higher levels of government, to go with those pulling the strings. That’s been aided by decades of  attacks on government from not only oligarchs and the schools they’ve corrupted, but from within the government ranks thanks to those who’ve fallen sway to the propaganda efforts.

It’s a tidy system that removes from public hands the levers of control so that the status quo can continue and inequality grow even more pronounced, with the surveillance state and militarized police beefed up to ensure those who try actual change can be controlled or eliminated should the need arise.

In his book, Giridharadas argues some of the people trying to help but in reality making the situation worse are actually well-intentioned. But whether through ignorance or malice, they’re so entrenched in the system that they believe you should hand more water to a drowning man.

In reading Winners Take All, I’m reminded of political theorist Hannah Arendt noting that most of the Nazis weren’t psychopaths and madmen, but simple men who just carried out orders in their little slice of the bureaucracy that evolved. The system was everything, and following it was the road to career advancement. Unspeakable things were done by ordinary people.

In covering the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, Arendt wrote of the normalness of those involved in the horrendous acts.

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, they were, and still are, terrifyingly normal. This new type of criminal commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.”

Unlike the Nazis and a handful of tyrants since, most of those who contribute to the decline of our society today aren’t held accountable. Rather, the real threat comes from politicians and bureaucrats who craft rules to avoid responsibility and to justify their decisions, no matter how poor, wasteful or harmful – there’s no need to chronicle the numerous offences, as you can surely come up with a long list of scandals, crimes and plain stupidity foisted on us by officials, many of them still on the job today.

Giridharadas opens the book with a quote from Leo Tolsto’s Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence:

“I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible … except by getting off his back.”

The system of so-called philanthropy today has no interest in getting off the backs of the oppressed – i.e. most of us – nor in even allowing discussion of that reality.

“[T]he people I write about are essentially interested in helping – in an age of inequality, they want to help those left out of the American Dream in any way they can. Except by getting off their backs. Except by paying them more. Except by paying their fair share of taxes, except by submitting to the kind of regulations that would actually help regular people not live with volatile incomes, and hours that shift week-to-week, and an inability to see kind of a long-time horizon,” Giridharadas says in a recent interview. “I became interested in how many rich people and philanthropists and others were engaged in this well-meaning attempt to make the world better – and often being very decent people themselves, trying to make the world better – but upholding, through their actions, an indecent system.”

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