The sinking ship of self-interested super rich
Credit: Getty Images / Gino Maccanti   

MarketWorld is a power elite defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world. It consists of enlightened businesspeople and their collaborators in the worlds of charity, academia, media, government and think tanks. One recent November, they found themselves aboard a 145,655-register-ton Norwegian cruise ship bound for the Bahamas. Summit at Sea was a four-day-long maritime bacchanal honouring the credo of using business to change the world—and perhaps of using “changing the world” to prosper in business.

Summit, being one of the hotter MarketWorld tickets, had drawn to this cruise ship the founders or representatives of such venerable institutions as AOL, Apple, the Bitcoin Foundation, Change.org, Dropbox, Google, Modernist Cuisine, MTV, Paypal, SoulCycle, Toms Shoes, Uber, Vine, Virgin Galactic, Warby Parker, and Zappos. There were some billionaires and many millionaires on board, and lots of others who had paid a typical American’s monthly salary to attend.

And yet the stubborn facts of an age of stark inequality clouded this vision of the pocketbook-impacting approach to social justice and the use of business to unlock potential and birth transformational things. The more these entrepreneurs waxed about changing the world, the more those facts got in their way, mocking their grandiose and self-serving claims. And this was most acutely true for a subtribe hailing from Silicon Valley and the world of technology, with its audacious claims that what was good for business was great for mankind.

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Yet there was no denying that as they chewed away, these technologists were also partly responsible for prying inequality as unsustainably wide as it had gotten. How did these new barons relieve the cognitive dissonance they might have felt from claiming to improve others’ lives while noticing that their own were perhaps the only ones getting better? One day a high priest of this technology world, a leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Shervin Pishevar, had the crowd listening in rapt, reverent silence.

What they heard was a powerful man who seemed at pains to explain his power away and to cast himself as a man in pursuit of things nobler than money. “At the end of the day, it’s not about the money,” he said. “It’s about the love and those moments of character.” The Summit people clapped hard and whooped in recognition.

Pishevar turned to the topic of life-extending technology, which was a major focus of his work now. “Our life spans and the health of our lives are going to be longer, and it’s going to challenge the very basis of our current civilization,” Pishevar said. He was engaging in advocacy that disguised itself as prophecy, which was common among technology barons and one of the ways in which they masked the fact of their power in an age rattled by the growing anxieties of the powerless. VCs and entrepreneurs are considered by many to be thinkers these days. That people listened to their ideas gave them a chance to launder their self-interested hopes into more selfless-sounding predictions about the world.

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In the Valley, prediction has become a popular way of fighting for a particular future while claiming merely to be describing what has yet to occur. Prediction has a useful air of selflessness to it. Selecting one scenario among many possible scenarios and persuading everybody of its inevitability—and of the futility of a society’s exercising its collective choice among these futures—is a deft way to shape the future.

As he predicted the elongation of life and other such “things that are coming down the pipe,” Pishevar was in fact pushing those things down the pipe. He was part of a group of elites who had been very smart and very lucky with start-up investments, and who now got to make decisions of enormous social consequence about what to do about the human life span.

This power gave them great responsibility and exposed them to the possibility of resentment— unless they convinced people that the future they were fighting for would unfold automatically, would be the fruit of forces rather than their choices, of providence rather than power. Hence the cleverness of Pishevar’s passive framing of his own goals: “The way things are structured today are not going to be relevant to what the reality is going to be.” Longer lives for rich people were just something that happened to be coming down the pipe. Not so much a better health care system for all.

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The next question – “What are the characteristics of people who are able to do world-changing ideas?” – set Pishevar up well to present himself—and his fellow elites—as rebels up against the powerful, and not as power itself. The characteristic that world-changers have in common, Pishevar said, is a willingness to fight for the truth. It had nothing to do with their being more luckily born than you, unburdened by racial and gender discrimination and with greater access to seed capital from family and friends. It was that they were braver, bolder than you—some might say ruthless—willing to take on power, no matter the cost. “People like that who make big ideas happen don’t run away from those conflicts. They actually embrace it.”

This idea of the start-up pursuing its singular truth in this fashion was part of Pishevar’s rebellious self-conception. It is not in the rebel’s job description to worry about others who might have needs that are different from his. By Pishevar’s lights, when a company like Uber challenged regulators and unions, there were not rival interests at play so much as a singular truth vying with opposition, and insurgent rebels going up against a corrupt establishment. This became even clearer with his answer to the following question:

“How do you find the balance between morality and ambition and having to compete?”

Because Pishevar did not think himself powerful, because he refused to see the companies he invested in as powerful, he seemed not to understand the question. It takes a certain acceptance of one’s own power to see oneself as facing moral choices. If instead what you see in the mirror is a rebel outgunned by the Man, besieged, fighting for your life, you might be tempted to misinterpret the question in the way that Pishevar now did. He interpreted it as being about how he, a moral man, representing a moral company—again, he chose the example of Uber—stood up against immoral forces.

“My biggest thing is existing structures and monopolies—one example is the taxi cartels—that is a very real thing,” he said. “I’ve been in meetings where I’ve been threatened by those types of characters from that world. I’ve seen them beating drivers in Italy. You see the riots in France, and flipping over cars and throwing stones. I took my daughter to Disney. We were in the middle of that. We had to drive our Uber away from basically the war zone that was happening.

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“So from a moral perspective, anything that’s fighting against morally corrupt, ingrained systems that are based on decades and decades of graft within cities, within city councils, with mayors, etcetera—all those things, they are real, actual things that are threatened by new technologies and innovations like Uber and other companies in that space. So from that perspective, bring it on. That is something we should be fighting. And from a moral perspective, we have a responsibility to fight those types of pockets of control. And they exist at all levels—in the city level to the state, and even at the national and global.”

Pishevar was not only casting venture capitalists and billionaire company founders as rebels against the establishment, fighting the powers that be on behalf of ordinary people. He was also maligning the very institutions that are meant to care for ordinary people and promote equality. He referred to unions as “cartels.” He cast protests, which were a fairly standard feature of labour movements, as a “war zone.” He spoke of taxi drivers and their representatives in the language of the corrupt, mafioso Other: “those types of characters from that world.”

Here was a leading investor in a company, Uber, that had sought to shatter democratically enacted regulations and evade the unions that have a record of actually, and not just rhetorically, fighting for the little guy, and he was proudly portraying himself as the one who was truly fighting for the people against the corrupt power structure. “In the era when political power corrupts, social and crowdsourced power cleanses,” Pishevar once wrote. “We must stir the hornet’s nest to build immunity to the sting of corruption.”

Speaking of the regulations he didn’t like and unions he didn’t like, Pishevar said, “Finding companies that can disrupt those is one way of having some kind of ethical philosophy of saying, ‘We are going to use our capacity and our knowledge to improve our world by getting rid of some of those points of control.’” In short, technological disruption was the venture capitalist’s way of making the world a better place for everyone’s benefit.

An edited extract from Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas