Anand Giridharadas discusses the moral calculus by which we trust the market to save us and challenges the narrative that the wealthy need to do more good as opposed to doing less harm. “You can have your cake and eat it, too” is wishful thinking.
“The winners of our age must be challenged to do more good. But never, ever, tell them to do less harm. Capitalism’s rough edges must be sanded and its surplus fruit shared, but the underlying system must never be questioned.” – Anand Giridharadas
I spent one year living in San Francisco. By the end of it, I emerged with the ability to speak tech startup lingo, I’d attended my fair share of hackathons (“let’s revolutionize the supply chain of tofu!”), I’d invested in cryptocurrencies, and I was well acquainted with the brogrammers and burners who are changing the world one click at a time. I had experienced the life-changing process of Silicon-Valley-ization (if it’s not a word, it should be).
During the summer of my freshman year, I interned at a cryptocurrency exchange in Tokyo. At the rooftop parties of blockchain conferences and in the boardrooms of “disruptive” companies, I listened to people distill lofty goals into a single business deal. In South Korea, the level of technological integration I witnessed inculcated a sense of truly “living in the future”. Now I am in Hyderabad, India, for my third semester with Minerva. I am only twenty years old, yet, frankly speaking, I sometimes feel that the experiences I have had surpass what many can only imagine for a lifetime.
After two years of travelling and living in six countries, I’m starting to wonder how I’ll come out of it all. Do I question my frame of reference often enough? What are the gross assumptions I’m beginning to make about the world around me? How can I align my lifestyle with the values I purport to hold?
A few months ago, I listened to a podcast interview between Krista Tippett and Anand Giridharadas. As soon as I’d finished it, I dragged my thumb over the scroller and hit “play” one more time. Then I forwarded the link to just about everyone I know. For one whole hour, I listened to someone who sounded a lot like me — in older, male, more accomplished form — tell people in no uncertain terms that the path we’re on might be horribly, horribly wrong.
“I love this community and I fear for all of us, myself first and foremost, that we may not be as virtuous as we think we are; that history may not be as kind to us as we hope it will, that in the final analysis our role in the inequities of our age may not be remembered well.” – Anand Giridharadas
The savior complex
Giridharadas critiques “enlightened” capitalism. He speaks to the educated, globalized millennials who grew up despising inequality and oppression in all its forms. We’re the ones who have been so brainwashed by the “you will change the world” narrative that we genuinely believe that’s exactly what we’re doing, all the time. What we forget, he argues, is that we’re still operating within the system we’re intent on changing — which means that we’re all complicit in whatever byproducts that system produces. Call it capitalism, privilege, masculinity — it’s the prevailing power dynamic that guides every aspect of our lives. It’s our comfort zone, our home, our nurturing source — and it’s slowly poisoning us.
I thought I had escaped most of these problems when I joined the multicultural, uber-diverse community of my unconventional college. We travel the world and get professional exposure that may be unparalleled by that of any other undergraduate institution. We’re exposed to constant inspiration and stimulation and — like so many young, brilliant minds — we’re refining our lives into a neat little package that says “do good; be great”. It’s an admirable narrative that has become deeply ingrained in our collective identity — but how reflective is it of where we really are on the spectrum of empathy, justice, and action?
I recently wrote an article for my university which discussed issues around economic disparity within our community. I lamented that being nurtured into privilege is almost unavoidable when you live this lifestyle. Yet for many of us, the lifestyle is at odds with where we come from. Identity crisis takes on a whole new meaning when your material surroundings contradict the long-held views you’ve had about how your life ought to look. Furthermore, what you want to believe lies in a constant shadow of doubt when the examples around you of what is “good”, “successful” and desirable not only fall miserably short, but sometimes also appear completely fraudulent.
Have you hung out with any of the world-changers, lately? In my world-changing college community, we’ve had an explosion of conversations around finances and how our lack of empathy has resulted in gaps and silences that need to be addressed. Far too often in other spaces, I am surrounded by brilliant people whose professed vision is belied by the disappointing carelessness with which they conduct their own lives. What I’ve learned coming from South Africa — where we suffer from a shocking leadership vacuum — is that packaging can be deceiving, and sometimes, I wonder whether the bright millennial agenda isn’t just another deceptive marketing tactic of the 21st century.
The numbers game
Do I sound jaded? In many ways, I am. Giridharadas explains that people nowadays are “agnostic and cynical” about where the locus of power lies. Rapid economic development, globalization and egalitarian-inspired social mobilization have meant that our metrics of value and worth have also shifted. Nowadays, an Ivy League education may be great, but if you’ve sold a million dollar startup by the age of 25, that says a lot more. Titles are pretty much redundant, too (everyone is an “advisor” on LinkedIn), but if your posts can reach thousands of people — that tells me something about your reputation and credibility. These metrics are not always rigourous, but they’re universal. Quantitative measures of worth have decreased ascriptive barriers and opened up “success” to a whole new demographic. Here’s the downside, though: we’re applying these standards beyond external credibility. Increasingly, they’ve become the internal metric by which we evaluate our own lives. “We don’t have a vocabulary for morality, worth or value other than through wealth,” says Giridharadas.
Giridharadas criticizes the prevalent “do good” agenda. CSR campaigns, “conscious consumerism”, funds, fellowships — they’re all targeted, quantified bandaids that corporates use to make up for the more indirect consequences of operating within a capitalist, unequal system. Just as the corporates do, we as individuals exploit the numbers to feel better about our actions. As a writer, I know I feel better when I see more likes and shares — but that isn’t necessarily indicative of the value, or integrity, of my message.
I see this phenomenon so often in the realm of fintech. Everyone wants to revolutionize the future of finances and use money as a medium to uplift and empower communities. I believe in this, too. However, I also think that changing the front end of economic interactions is vastly insufficient. So what if we all carry crypto wallets instead of hard cash? Inequality persists even under the guise of a much cooler UI. This is the danger for designers and entrepreneurs: changing how something looks, or the words we use to describe it, doesn’t change how it fundamentally operates.
“Sometimes I wonder whether these various forms of giving back have become to our era what the papal indulgence was in the middle ages, a relatively inexpensive way of getting oneself seemingly in the right side of justice without having to alter the fundamental of a long life.” – Anand Giridharadas
“We don’t acknowledge the complexity of our darkness,” says Giridharadas. How painful to discover the truth of this! Just because I travel the world and gain a global perspective on the world’s problems does not lessen the hurt I inflict on my environment.
I am slowly awakening to the risk of too much positivity and self-belief. I find it ironic that my generation suffers a great deal from mental health issues, yet at the same time, at every turn, we’re suffocated with affirmation that we’re the answer to the world’s problems. In the circles that I operate in, the sentiment is almost nauseating. As long as you fit a certain type (young, educated, privileged), you gain an automatic exemption from more rigorous scrutiny. My biggest disappointment with my circumstances is that I don’t get morally challenged nearly enough, and because I am constrained by moving from place to place on a constant basis, I’m never called to any long-term action towards justice.
We cannot rely on economic language as a useful guide for how we should live together. It will leave us morally bankrupt. Giridharadas points out that “one of the surest ways to allow even well-meaning people to uphold an unjust system is through culture and vocabulary.” The language of money has become the guide we use to shape the kind of world we want to live in. At a macro level, the emphasis on job creation and real growth is shadowed by interest rates, the debt-to-GDP ratio and economic output. At an individual and community level, we measure our state of wellbeing by how much money we have in our bank account and our ability to accumulate — and express — material wealth. Our entire relationship with money is narrow, unhealthy, and fear-based. Perhaps if we shifted our focus from giving more to taking less, we’d relinquish the need to hoard, keep score and check our moral balance.
It’s time that we were brutally honest about our relationship to inequality. This isn’t a lofty crusade against the powers of the system. It’s an attitude; a conscious choice to be guided by a new sense of urgency that acknowledges our role in shaping the world around us. Let us not confuse generosity with justice. Are we here to change to system, or are we slowly being changed by it?