Editorial: World thinkers

April 24, 2014

It’s striking that those who have come top of Prospect’s poll to pick the World Thinker of 2014 have devoted their lives to questions of development. We don’t, I should say at the start, make claims for this poll beyond what it straightforwardly is: a canvassing of public opinion, conducted online and internationally, about who has generated the ideas that have had—and should have had—the most influence on debate about how to solve the world’s problems. The poll has always reflected the passions of the day—and of some countries; this year’s results have been shaped, among other factors, by the enthusiasm with which India’s lively media embraced our award. The top three places in our list are held by Indians—Amartya Sen, the economist; Raghuram Rajan, the new Governor of the Reserve Bank of India; and novelist Arundhati Roy. The fourth is Chinese, while the fifth is the Pope.

That said, India is an excellent berth for thinkers who have the intellectual breadth and authority to take on the world’s problems. A highly verbal country, it has always put words well to its problems—and it has many of those; it has embraced the best of the modern world, such as democracy and technology, while failing to overcome historic, deeply embedded cruelty in relations between different parts of its society. Sen, in his cover story for us, asks why we tolerate poverty, and rightly dwells on his own country, but arguably makes too little of the consequences of the caste system. Or of religious differences—as the election campaign and the likely victory of the divisive Narendra Modi is showing.

What counts as a world thinker? Rodin’s image is unhelpful; it suggests someone observing from the wings of the world stage even in extravagantly interesting times. Those who voted in our poll, however, or contributed names for the longlist of 50, have broadly stuck to the spirit that has always characterised our poll—and articles in Prospect: that these should be public intellectuals, with influence, dedicated to trying to devise answers to current problems which stretch beyond one country’s politics. While the top of the list is dominated by questions of development and emerging economies, other entries—and much of this issue of Prospect—show that questions of how to run a developed country are still live. Linda Colley’s excellent history of British ambivalence towards a written constitution shows that national pride in this strand of identity is becoming costly. Adair Turner argues that financial regulation is moving slowly. Gisela Stuart says Britain’s second city may go bust.

You could, though, take a different tack and include as world thinkers those with values opposite to these, but who still have influence and a coherence of vision. In that case, for all the gallery of action man poses which he has compiled, Vladimir Putin would top the list. His view of how to reclaim Russia’s lost might has been entirely consistent, and as Dieter Helm writes, pursued with impeccable strategy for more than a decade. In contrast, the EU’s response has been a mess of diffidence and division. As our article spells out, it could do a lot better.