Bethany McLean is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of “Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It’s Changing the World.”

More than a century ago, Oscar Wilde outlined the danger posed by those trying hard to improve society. “Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it,” Wilde wrote, “so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.”

In his impassioned new book, “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” journalist Anand Giridharadas argues that the equivalent of today’s slaveholders are the elite citizens of the world, who are philanthropic more often than not — but in ways that ultimately serve only to protect and further their interests and cement the status quo. “For when elites assume leadership of social change, they are able to reshape what social change is — above all, to present it as something that should never threaten winners,” he writes.


(Knopf)

Giridharadas knows this firsthand. In the summer of 2011, he was named a Henry Crown fellow of the Aspen Institute. That’s a coveted title, and the anointed are supposed to serve as a “new breed of leaders” who can help solve the “world’s most intractable problems.” But when Giridharadas, who has a gift for phrases that resonate, saw peers with day jobs at firms like Facebook and Goldman Sachs, he began to question the system that allows people to make money in predatory ways and compensate for that through philanthropy. “Instead of asking them to make their firms less monopolistic, greedy or harmful to children, it urged them to create side hustles to ‘change the world,’ ” he writes. “I began to feel like a casual participant in — and timid accomplice to, as well as a cowardly beneficiary of — a giant, sweet-lipped lie.”

In his telling, the roots of the problem go all the way back to Andrew Carnegie, the famed American industrialist, who advocated that people be as aggressive as possible in their pursuit of wealth and then give it back through private philanthropy. It was “an extreme idea of the right to make money in any which way, and an extreme idea of the obligation to give back,” writes Giridharadas, who accuses Carnegie of “dripping with paternalism” for never considering that “the poor might not need so much help had they been better paid.”

Carnegie-ism has grown into what Giridharadas calls “MarketWorld.” In essence, this is the cultlike belief that intractable social problems can be solved in market-friendly ways that result in “win-wins” for everyone involved, and that those who have succeeded under the status quo are also those best equipped to fix the world’s problems. It is “defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo,” he writes. This notion extends its tentacles in all sorts of ways, such as the idea that big, powerful firms like McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, because of their business success, can also teach some “elusive way of thinking that was vital to helping people.” It’s an idea so powerful that even President Barack Obama decided to seek help from McKinsey as he sought to figure out where to employ his skills post-presidency.

Among the denizens of MarketWorld are so-called “thought leaders,” the speakers who populate the conference circuit, like TED, PopTech and, of course, the Clinton Global Initiative. (When you pause to think about it, “thought leader” is appallingly Orwellian.) Giridharadas argues that the rise of thought leaders, whose views are sanctioned and sanitized by their patrons — the big corporations that support conferences — has come at the expense of public intellectuals, who are willing to voice controversial arguments that shake up the system and don’t have easy solutions. Thought leaders, on the other hand, always offer a small but actionable “tweak,” one that makes conference-goers feel like they’ve learned something but that doesn’t actually threaten anyone.

“Winners Take All” is so readable because it is told through characters, among them Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School who, Giridharadas writes, “had spent more than a decade publishing papers on the workings of prejudice, discrimination, and systems of power.” Her work is substantive and deeply challenging — but when she was given the opportunity to speak at PopTech, a stop on the MarketWorld circuit, and then at TED, she spoke not about the embedded systems that marginalize women but rather how women can strike “power poses” to feel more confident. “Without necessarily intending to, she was giving MarketWorld what it craved in a thinker: a way of framing a problem that made it about giving bits of power to those who lack it without taking power away from those who hold it,” Giridharadas writes.

In his view, there is not much moral difference between the Sacklers, the enormously wealthy, extremely philanthropic family who made their money getting people addicted to OxyContin; Bill Clinton, who adopted MarketWorld’s beliefs during his presidency and in his work afterward; and others who have done nothing so obviously huge or harmful, but who aren’t willing to go radical, either. Another compelling character is Andrew Kassoy, who after a long career in finance decided he could help improve the world by creating a legal safe harbor for companies to be dedicated to something more than the bottom line. So was born the B Corporation, a new corporate form in which companies can commit themselves to using “business as a force for good.”

That doesn’t make Kassoy a hero, in Giridharadas’s view, but rather a villain — because although Kassoy wrestles with other options, he ultimately chooses a relatively safe, small “solution.” “Had Kassoy pursued his thought of making it harder for companies to do bad things, involving himself with politics and the law and the system itself, success might have meant the loss of opportunity for the Kassoys of the future, and could even have come at a cost to his own earnings from his old life,” Giridharadas writes. In a nod to Wilde, he argues that the person who “seeks to ‘change the world’ by doing what can be done within a bad system, but who is relatively silent about that system” is “putting himself in the difficult moral position of the kindhearted slave master.”

That Giridharadas questions an idea that has become part of the air we breathe is alone worth the price of the book, and his delicious skewering of the many who exalt their own goodness while making money from dubious business practices makes for entertaining reading. (“Sharing is caring,” one particularly hypocritical venture capitalist actually says in a speech aboard Summit at Sea, a premier MarketWorld event for those who view themselves as leaders of the world.)

But Giridharadas isn’t just raising questions. He’s come to big conclusions: that MarketWorld, along with its philosophical antecedents, like Carnegie-ism and neoliberalism (which anthropologist David Harvey defines as the idea that “human well being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong property rights, free markets and free trade”), has been an abject failure. To prove his point, he doesn’t engage in any specific analysis. In fact, he doesn’t even mention, let alone examine, what is arguably MarketWorld’s most powerful and influential actor: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

As big-picture proof of the failure of the status quo, Giridharadas cites his indebtedness to Thomas Piketty’s “masterpiece” on the growth of inequality, “Capital in the Twenty First Century.” He argues that any thesis that the world has actually improved over the course of human history is simply a form of brainwashing, a “socially acceptable way to tell people seething over the inequities of the age to drop their complaining.” So whether you accept his complete condemnation depends on whether you think there’s even a debate left to be had.

Giridharadas is able to indict the Kassoys of the world so wholeheartedly because he believes it is obvious that there is a better way, that those who purport to want to do good could actually do good if they could only put their self-interest aside. His key idea is to reinvigorate governments, which he believes could fix the world’s problems if they just had enough power and money. For readers who are cynical about the private sector but also versed enough in history to be cynical about governments, the book would have been more powerful if Giridharadas had stayed within his definition of an old-school public intellectual: someone who is willing to throw bombs at the current state of affairs, but lacks the arrogance and self-righteousness that comes with believing you have the solution.

Winners
Take All
The Elite Charade of Changing the World

By Anand Giridharadas

Knopf. 288 pp. $26.95