The world's top 50 thinkers 2020: the winner

The votes have been counted and the results are in. Our top 10 is full of practical-minded thinkers for the Covid-19 age—and the victor is the most practical of them all
September 2, 2020

It’s a disease of the body, but it has redefined the requirements for a great mind. In the last issue, we renewed a Prospect tradition and identified 50 top world thinkers. It was an all-new list for the Covid-19 age, since the mood called for thinking of a different sort—less chin-stroking, more hands on. Then 20,000-odd votes were cast and counted in a public ballot. The results are in, and represent a landslide win for the practical minds party.

The top spot was overwhelmingly secured by a figure who—on first blush—is as far from a caricature intellectual of the Jean-Paul Sartre variety as you can get. That’s not quite right since, like Sartre, KK Shailaja is a communist, albeit from a party created to keep its distance from Soviet Moscow. It helps run the state of Kerala in south India, where Shailaja or “Teacher,” as she is fondly nicknamed due to a previous occupation, is the indefatigable health minister.

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So deft was her handling of a 2018 outbreak of the deadly Nipah disease that it was commemorated in a film, Virus. In 2020, she was the right woman in the right place. When Covid-19 was still “a China story” in January, she not only accurately foresaw its inevitable arrival, but also fully grasped the implications. 

She rapidly got the WHO’s full “test, trace and isolate” drill implemented in the state, and bought crucial time by getting a grip of the airports, and containing the first cases to arrive on Chinese flights. Of course the virus returned, but there was rigorous surveillance and quarantine—sometimes in makeshift structures. The public messages have been consistent, and Shailaja follows them to the letter, with social distancing in all official meetings (which can go on until 10pm) and restricting herself to a Zoom-only relationship with her grandchildren.

Cases and deaths were kept remarkably low into the summer, although as it drew to a close they began to grow fast—just as Shailaja had warned they would. Still, as we go to press, confirmed Covid-19 deaths in the state—which has average incomes an order of magnitude lower than Britain’s, and just over half the population—were not yet 1 per cent of ours. And hopefully Shailaja’s masterclass in public administration will boost the odds in the next and more difficult phase. 

The second spot, earned in a similar way, went to Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, whose governing “ethos of kindness” was drawing interest as a refreshing (if hazy) alternative to neo-liberalism even before it showed practical results in keeping a lid on the crisis. Just behind her is the Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum, another woman applying her mind to a pressing practical challenge, although in her case it is climate change: she designs houses on stilts to keep families safe from rising waters.

Beyond here, the list gets more eclectic, with intellectuals of a more traditional stripe being represented by the African-American philosopher Cornel West (4th), the historian of slavery at Bristol Olivette Otele (6th) and the Belgian polymath Philippe Van Parijs (8th). But these thinkers, too, drew support for practical engagement with the world—Van Parijs, for example, for his decades of advocacy for a universal basic income, and West for his recent interventions on Black Lives Matter. Related concern about state brutality also propels two expert advocates up the list: Ilona Szabó de Carvalho (5th), who set up the internationally-influential Igarapé Institute, which champions citizen-led security, and the American prison abolitionist, Ruth Wilson Gilmore (7th). Scientists fill out the rest of the top 10—Dutch pharmacologist Mark Post (9th) and Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz (10th), who respectively work on lab-grown meat and lab-grown embryos, crucial endeavours for emissions and for medicine.

Several “all-purpose” public intellectuals—like Jared Diamond, say, and Jürgen Habermas—were on our list, but did not get far in the voting this year. That may or may not be connected to an extraordinary picture on gender. Fifteen years ago, Prospect was reasonably criticised when its top 100 Global Thinkers featured just 10 women; today seven of the top 10 are female. Only a minority of them are white, with not one “Anglo-Saxon,” despite there being several in the top 50. We’d like to think people vote on ideas rather than demographics, but in the mood of 2020 the male and pale do—whether fairly or not—seem to be rated as stale. 

Who we missed

Boiling down the best thinkers in the world to just 50 is an invidious task: many deserving names just missed out, or perhaps didn’t occur to us at all. So we asked anyone who voted to tell us who warranted a place. 

Looking through the hundreds of suggested names, a few stood out. Susan Neiman, whose bookLearning from the Germans investigates how some nations atone for their historical sins and others do not, is a timely choice. So is Anthony Fauci, the leading member of the US’s Covid-19 task force, who has become an emblem of scientific rationality and is unafraid to challenge the current White House occupant. Also mentioned was Christian Drosten, a German virologist praised for leading his country’s response to the virus, who has said that Chancellor Angela Merkel did well because “she’s a scientist and can handle numbers.” Nobody, as it happens, thought to suggest any of the equivalent scientists in the UK. 

Few politicians were suggested this year—apart from disturbingly odd choices. There was little chance we would have picked Kim Jong-un or Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman. India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is certainly driven by ideas—though Hindu nationalism isn’t one we rate very highly here at Prospect. 

On the arts front, Michaela Coel, the writer and star of the BBC’s recent hit show about sex, consent and creativity, I May Destroy You, would have been a strong contender if we’d been compiling the list just a few weeks later. Someone else we missed was Rana Ayyub, the Indian investigative journalist, who has written fearlessly about the government’s crackdown in Kashmir. 

Being a liberal magazine—in the broadest sense—doesn’t mean we can ignore critics of liberalism. US writer Patrick Deneen has written trenchantly about how highly individualistic, free-market capitalism has destroyed the west’s cultural unity and the possibility of political solidarity. Oxford’s Faisal Devji, not an ideological bedfellow of Deneen to say the least, works on the way western colonialism has shaped our ideas about religion. I was pleased to see Charles Taylor suggested: the Canadian philosopher’s short book The Ethics of Authenticity was published in 1992 but it is strikingly relevant today, as it argues that while liberalism at its most excessive can be damaging, we shouldn’t forget its admirable achievements. 

Finally, a mention to the bizarre outriders. I can’t tell you why someone might choose Lester Piggott or Terence Trent D’Arby as their thinkers of 2020. But since it’s allowed me to put them in the same sentence, I’m glad they did.