Winners take all: The elite charade of changing the world

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - March 7, 2019 - 12:00am

In a recent economic briefing to the Management Association of the Philippines, Dr. Rong Qian of the World Bank made an observation that, to me, was  very disturbing. She observed that in the Philippines, the high economic growth rate had not resulted in any meaningful reduction in the poverty rate. She was saying in layman’s terms that while the Philippines had one of the world’s highest GDP growth rate, the beneficiaries were predominantly the wealthy elite. In other words “the rich are getting richer while the poor remain poor.” 

 In the Philippines and all over the world, income inequality had become worst. This phenomenon has given rise to the number of populists who had grabbed political power in countries like the United States, Russia, Hungary, Brazil and many others. It seems to me that in many countries there has been a revolt against the elite and elitism.  When the very rich begin to earn in the millions and even billions of dollars and then refuse to support any attempt to guarantee a living wage or even just an increase in the minimum wage, how can anyone blame the poor or even the middle class? In some countries, there have been actual revolutions. Unfortunately, in the Philippines the answer has been large scale migration, principally of the working class and the middle class. There are more than ten million Filipinos living abroad equivalent to ten percent of the population. 

In a way, the elite are lucky because if that ten percent were here, there would be millions demonstrating in the street against the rising inequality in this country. 

Less than a decade ago, 67 individuals in the world had as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion of the world’s population. Today, less than 30 individuals own as much wealth as half of the world’s population. How does one explain this terrible situation? Is the elite going to change or will we succumb to global violence as some authors have said. 

For those who want to try and understand, I suggest a book to read: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas, published in 2018 by Alfred A. Knopf. I first read about this book surprisingly from the book review section of The Economist magazine, one of the publications that has become synonymous with capitalism. I have noticed, however, that there has been an increasing number of articles and books whose theme centers on how to save capitalism. Even the prologue of this book, Winners Take All, sounds revolutionary. Here is an excerpt:

“Thus many millions...on the left and the right, feel one thing in common: that the game is rigged against people like them. Perhaps that is why we hear condemnation of “the system”, for it is the system that people expect to turn fortuitous developments into societal progress. Instead, the system – in America and around the world – has been organized to siphon the gains from innovation upward such that the fortunes of the world’s billionaires now grow at more than double the pace of everyone else’s, and the top ten percent of humanity have come to hold 90 percent of the planet’s wealth. It s no wonder that the American voting public – like other publics around the world (including the Philippines) – has turned more resentful and suspicious in recent years, embracing populist movements on the left and the right, bringing socialism and nationalism into the center of political life in a way that once seemed unthinkable and succumbing to all manner of conspiracy theory and fake news. There is a spreading recognition on both sides of the ideological divide, that the system is broken and has to change.”

I have often heard people from the lower socio economic classes and even the lower middle class constantly say that no matter who wins the elections, life will remain the same for them. Giridharadas made an observation again applicable to the Philippines: “Some elites faced with this kind of gathering anger have hidden behind walls and gates and on landed estates, emerging only to try to seize even greater political power to protect themselves against the mob.”

There are members of the elite, however, who know the problem and actually want to lead the search for solutions. In fact, many of the elites have even started initiatives of their own. But the author says: “There is no denying that today’s elite may be among the more socially concerned elites in history. But it is also by cold logic of numbers, among the most predatory in history. By refusing to risk its way of life, by rejecting the idea that the powerful might have to sacrifice for the common good, it clings to a set of social arrangements that allow it to monopolize progress and then give symbolic scraps to the forsaken – many of whom would not need the scraps if society were working right.”

Angel Gurria, secretary general of the OECD recently wrote that the elites have found myriad ways to “...change things on the surface so that in practice nothing changes at all.” Giridharadas adds: “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 ( i.e. social change).”

Winners Take All concludes that we need a change in how we seek change – a change in our power structure. Instead of solutions from the top down relying on scraps from the winners, the work of truly changing the world must be from the bottom up.

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on March 16 (1:30 pm-3pm; stand-alone sessions) and an Adult Series session on Creative Nonfiction on March 30 (1:30-4:30 pm)  with Susan Lara at Fully Booked BGC.  For details and registration,  email writethingsph@gmail.com.

 Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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