In the summer of 2015, I stood anxiously at a podium in Aspen, Colorado, wondering what happens when you tell a roomful of rich and powerful people that they are not the saviors they think they are.
Four years earlier, I had been named a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute. You may recall it from these pages as the program that seeks to deploy a “new breed of leaders” against “the world’s most intractable problems.” I was a strange pick. The fellowship says of its prospective leaders that “all are proven entrepreneurs, mostly from the world of business.” I was not, nor have I ever been, an entrepreneur, and writing, if it is a business, isn’t a very good one. But I don’t make a habit of turning down trips to Aspen, and the fellowship sounded pleasant—four one-week sessions with a group of twenty or so classmates, spread over two years, in which we would read important texts and debate them and discuss our lives and woes in secrecy, while pondering how to “make a difference.”
At first, my experience of the fellowship was defined by this small group. I bonded with my classmates and exchanged my struggles with theirs and ended up being the officiant at one of their weddings. As I nestled into the Aspen Institute’s universe, there were other, more dubious pleasures. I began to have friends with private jets; sometimes I flew in them. I mingled with the ultra-rich in antler-decorated mansions overlooking the Roaring Fork Valley. I brought my mother to the Aspen Ideas Festival, where we shared a hotel room and could not stop laughing about who would get the tiger-print bathrobe and who the leopard-themed one.
Even as I savored these luxuries and connections, I found something amiss about the Aspen Institute. Here were all these rich and powerful people coming together and speaking about giving back, and yet the people who seemed to reap most of the benefits of this coming-together were the helpers, not the helped. I began to wonder what was actually going on when the most fortunate don’t merely seek to make a difference but also effectively claim ownership of “changing the world.”
It was peculiar that many of our conversations at the Aspen Institute about democracy and the “good society” occurred in the Koch Building, named after a family that had done so much to undermine democracy and the e orts of ordinary people to “change the world.” It was off-putting when the organizers of our fellowship reunion sprang a Goldman Sachs– sponsored lunch on us, in which the company’s do-gooding was trumpeted and its role in causing the financial crisis went unexamined. It bothered me that the fellowship asked fellows to do virtuous side projects instead of doing their day jobs more honorably. The institute brought together people from powerful institutions like Facebook, the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, and PepsiCo. 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.”
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. Who exactly were we leaders of? What had given us the right to solve the world’s problems as we saw t? What interests and blind spots were we bringing to that problem-solving, given the criteria by which we had been selected? Why were we coming to Aspen? To change the system, or to be changed by it? To speak truth to power, like the writers we read in our seminars, or to help to make an unjust, unpalatable system go down a little more easily? Could the intractable problems we proposed to solve be solved in the way that we silently insisted—at minimal cost to elites, with minimal redistribution of power?
In my fifth year in the program, I was asked to give a talk to a few hundred of my fellow fellows at our summer reunion. This wasn’t unusual. A mantra of the fellowship is to learn from one another rather than y in outside speakers. At a given reunion, dozens of the fellows will speak in one way or another. As summer dawned and the gathering approached, the complicated feelings of the last few years swirled within me. My guilt and discomfort churned, until at last, half certain, I decided to write and deliver the speech that was the seed of this book.
“I want to suggest,” I said that day from the podium, “that we may not always be the leaders we think we are.” I described what I called the Aspen Consensus: “The winners of our age must be challenged to do more good. But never, ever tell them to do less harm.”
Public speaking doesn’t usually scare me, but that day it did. I didn’t know what happens when you tell a group of people who consider themselves your friends that they are living a lie. But there I was. I finished the speech. People stood and roared, to my enduring surprise. Soon afterward, though, Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. secretary of state, came onstage and gently disparaged my speech. “Que cojones,” another woman whispered to me. Her husband, though, started speaking ill of me behind my back. A billionaire came up and thanked me for voicing what has been the struggle of her life. Some in the leadership of the Aspen Institute began frantically asking who had allowed this outrage to occur. That evening at the bar, some cheered me, others glared at me icily, and a private-equity man told me I was an “asshole.”
Later that evening, beside a fireplace, David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, asked if he could write about my talk. I hadn’t planned for my words to leave the room, but I agreed. He wrote his column. People began demanding to see the speech. I posted it online. It stirred many pots and conversations. I hadn’t planned to write a book on this topic, but the topic chose me. Thus I spent the next two years talking to and writing about people living this paradox of elite change-making that somehow seems to keep things the same.
Excerpted from WINNERS TAKE ALL by Anand Giridharadas. Copyright © 2018 by Anand Giridharadas. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.