Winners, Thought Leaders, and System Change

I just finished reading Anand Giridharadas’ 2018 book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. This isn’t a book review – I don’t do book reviews here – but rather a thought exchange which, according to him, is what public intellectuals do (as opposed to “thought leaders” who don’t exchange ideas with others but rather just expound on them from the TED stage*). His book is both a prompt for and an affirmation of the approach I am taking in Creative Infrastructures: Artists, Money, and Entrepreneurial Action. That approach is to admit my complicity with and disentangle myself from what Giridharadas calls “marketworld” and what I and others (such as the brilliant Wendy Brown) call “the neoliberal regime.”

Giridharadas decries the “win-win” approach of social enterprise, impact investing, and big philanthropy because it maintains rather than corrects global economic inequity. Such endeavors treat symptoms rather than change systems. Arts entrepeneurship is itself a way to work through, around, or with this system. While I was happy to be called arts entrepreneurship’s “national exponent” by Bill Deresciwicz in his book Death of the Artist, I was relieved to not have been called its national “proponent,” which would have been quite inaccurate. I now find myself explaining arts entrepreneurship in much the same way Giridharadas explains win-win consulting, thought leadership, and globalism: as trying to relieve the symptoms of an economic and social system inhospitable to artists rather than as a way to change the underlying system.

A young person in my life, much like the person profiled in the first chapter of the book, stopped reading in the middle of chapter two when it became clear to him that the book indicted the perpetrators but didn’t offer any alternatives or solutions. “Where do we go from here?” Giridharadas asks rhetorically in his epilogue. “Somewhere other than where we have been going led by people other than the people who have been leading us,” isn’t much of an answer. I am not a revolutionary – I don’t think we can knock down a system that has been built up over the last 130 years. I am, like many profiled in the book, a pragmatist. How can we make lives better now in ways that don’t further strengthen marketworld systemically or contravene values personally? Giridharadas alludes to a few answers and states one explicitly. The two that jumped out at me (both from Chapter 3, I think) are those that I discuss in my own book: listening and participation. In the end, we all have to commit to the one he makes clear at the very end: “do less harm.”

I write this just 36 hours before the inauguration of the 46th president of the US, Joe Biden. At the very least, Biden appears intent on undoing some of the greatest harms perpetrated in the last four years against the planet (by re-engaging in the Paris Climate Accord) and to immigrants (through executive actions reversing some of his predecessor’s executive actions.) I would prefer he make the kind of system changes Giridharadas (and I) believe are needed, but ten days after an armed insurrection and with close to 400,000 dead in the US from Covid, sticking his finger into the dyke of suffering seems like the right and reasonable action. We can work on the system next month.

* Giridharadas discloses in the acknowledgements that he has been an associate with McKinsey Consulting and spoken from the TED stage not once, but twice. (I have done so from an early TEDx stage myself.)

Image: Systems Thinking clip art, designer unknown, but likely developed for a corporate meeting; used here with irony.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
This entry was posted in Arts entrepreneurship, Arts funding, arts infrastructure, Arts policy, Culture and democracy, Institutional Infrastructure and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Winners, Thought Leaders, and System Change

  1. Samuel Brown says:

    I live in another part of the world and we follow the events in America with great interest. I wish that your hopes come true with the election of a new president.

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