Prospect magazine was founded in 1995 by David Goodhart. From the beginning the focus was predominantly on politics and social issues, though Goodhart also ensured a high standard of reporting on literature, the arts, popular culture and science. For many years the magazine was essential reading among London intellectuals. Its point of view was center-left, and broadly liberal, like that of most Establishment British journalists and academics. Readers were assumed to be cosmopolitan, internationalist and more or less progressive. Still, they were respectful of institutions, friendly to capitalism and basically tolerant of religion.
Prospect stood out from other major English intellectual journals and general magazines in its familiarity with the social sciences, particularly sociology and economics. The editorial position was never partisan. For the first decade and a half of its existence Prospect was often wrongly thought of as a ‘New Labour’ house organ. True, Gordon Brown wrote for it in 2009 when he was still Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. But contributors included the conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, the Conservative Party MP Rory Stewart, and the Australian writer Clive James, who calls himself a “liberal social democrat” but has been known to take unorthodox positions on various issues, including climate change.
David Goodhart, and his successor as editor Bronwen Maddox (2010-2016), described Prospect as “contrarian,” or “a magazine which gives voice to the argumentative centre ground.” But, in truth, Prospect was, until 2016, the voice of the London-based liberal Establishment. Tolerance for dissent or heterodoxy within its pages was always based on what was broadly thought respectable within this loose network of overlapping groups. All of which has posed a problem for the current editor, Tom Clark, a former leader writer and editorial-page editor for the Guardian.
Threats to Their Position
Clark had the misfortune to take over editing Prospect just after Brexit, and shortly before the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. For the ‘expert class’ in the English-speaking world, these were two of the most shocking and humiliating events in living memory. Virtually every pollster, journalist and political scientist of any stature failed to predict either. Most were profoundly, bitterly opposed to them; they felt like a rebellion against expertise itself.
For a magazine like Prospect all this was particularly disconcerting. Weren’t people supposed to prefer listening to reasonable, moderate, well-educated professionals?
Readers of the Times Literary Supplement will recall the journal’s Brexit “Symposium” (June 1, 2016) in which not a single prominent scholar or literary or cultural figure could be found who explicitly supported Brexit. Remarks by the Cambridge historian Robert Tombs and the travel writer Jan Morris could be interpreted as vaguely Eurosceptic. Otherwise it seemed clear that voting to leave the European Union was simply not a respectable position for an Establishment intellectual. But the TLS’s editorial team did not cherry-pick contributors to this symposium for their pro-EU views: this was a fair cross-section representing what the most influential TLS contributors thought about Brexit.
In 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron had promised to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU if he won the next election. This was not seen as a particularly risky move. Cameron, a smooth and canny politician, despised the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), describing its members in 2006 as “a bunch of…fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists.” His micro-aggressions against the UKIP leader Nigel Farage were exquisite. Even his pronunciation of Farage’s surname dripped gently with contempt. Farage had no university degree, and was not quite a gentleman. There was no way Cameron could lose a political contest against this ruffian, he thought.
In the end, it was as if an enlightened country squire—churchwarden, Chief Magistrate of the district, and Lord Lieutenant of the county—had been dunked into a well by the village drunk, to the delighted applause of just over half the locals. The Brexit vote was seen as an act of hostile defiance against the intelligentsia. The people did not obey their intellectual superiors and do as they were told, despite having been warned repeatedly about what was good for them.
Tom Clark, Prospect’s new editor, has been an economist, civil servant and policy adviser to the ‘New Labour’ government, as well as a journalist. Yet he has always expressed wariness about the clique-ishness of the Establishment to which he belongs. Also, he has had to grapple with internal strife within the Labour Party since Jeremy Corbyn became leader in 2015. Evidently, he has thought hard about where Prospect stands in relation to other journals, as well as what the magazine’s purpose now is, and whom it influences.
All this helps explain the choice of “The World’s Top Fifty Thinkers” in Prospect’s July/August double-issue.
A Brief History of Prospect’s ‘Top Thinkers’ Lists
In July 2004, Prospect commemorated its hundredth issue by publishing a list of the “Top Hundred British Intellectuals.” On the whole this provided an accurate picture of the British intellectual Establishment in the latter part of the ‘New Labour’ era.
Institutionally and regionally, the “Top Hundred British Intellectuals” centred round London, Oxford and Cambridge. The figures named were overwhelmingly white, male, middle-aged and middle-class. But, of course, the intellectual Establishment in England has always been so.
Some might complain that the 2004 list was dominated by liberals. Yet controversial iconoclasts like Sir V. S. Naipaul were included, as was the novelist Martin Amis and the journalist Christopher Hitchens. It is fairer to claim that literature and the humanities might have been over-represented. Still, there were scientists in there, including the biologist and ‘New Atheist’ Richard Dawkins; the pharmacologist Susan Greenfield; the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees; the surgeon and Professor of Gynaecology Robert Winston; and the writer and geriatrician Raymond Tallis.
The following year, Prospect collaborated with Foreign Policy to produce a list of the world’s top hundred public intellectuals, and asked readers to vote on who was the single most influential. With more than 20,000 votes cast, the top five candidates were: the linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky (4,827 votes); the novelist Umberto Eco (2,464 votes); Richard Dawkins (2,188 votes); Vaclav Havel, playwright, dissident and President of the Czech Republic (1,990 votes); and Christopher Hitchens (1,884 votes).
The 2005 list featured numerous novelists, essayists and critics. Most were regular contributors to the major intellectual periodicals of the period, including the TLS, the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly and Foreign Affairs. Rare exceptions included Pope Benedict XVI (no. 17, 1,046 votes) and his arch-enemy, the Swiss theologian Hans Küng (no. 61; 344 votes).
Many of the intellectuals included in 2005 remain influential: the economist Paul Krugman (no. 6; 1,746 votes); the historian and popular scientist Jared Diamond (no. 9; 1,499 votes); and the psychologist Steven Pinker (no. 26; 812 votes). Others, such as Gao Xinjian (no. 69; 277 votes), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, have disappeared from public consciousness in the intervening years. Still, there is little sense that this list was assembled in accordance with fashions or intellectual trends.
In 2008, Prospect and Foreign Policy produced another list of the world’s top hundred public intellectuals and the half-million voters who participated in the subsequent poll produced unexpected results. At the top of the list was the Pennsylvania-based Turkish political leader Fethullah Gülen, followed closely by the Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, and (in third place) the Egyptian theologian Yusuf al-Qaradiwi. The highest-ranking ‘Western’ intellectual was Noam Chomsky, in eleventh place. Prospect published an article attempting to explain voters’ decisions.
From 2009, Foreign Policy took over the “Global Thinkers” list from Prospect. Thus it was slightly confusing to see Prospect come out with a new “World Thinkers” poll of its own in April 2013. More than 10,000 people voted—half the number to have participated in the 2005 poll. Richard Dawkins came in first, Steven Pinker third and Paul Krugman fifth. The second spot was awarded to Ashraf Ghani, current president of Afghanistan; in fourth place was Ali Allawi, whose books include the standard biography of King Faisal I of Iraq. Prospect’s list seemed slightly behind the times: the only Silicon Valley figure included was Elon Musk (no. 20).
As David Wolf sheepishly noted in his introduction to the poll results, there were relatively few women in the 2013 list. The highest-ranked was Arundhati Roy (no. 15), who won the Booker Prize for her novel The God of Small Things in 1997.
There was no obvious reason for Prospect to produce yet another “World Thinkers” list in 2015. Fewer than 3,000 voters participated this time. Within less than half a decade the 2015 list has dated. In first place was the bestselling left-wing economist Thomas Piketty, followed by the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, the activist writer Naomi Klein, the comedian Russell Brand, and (again) Paul Krugman. Arundhati Roy came in sixth.
Russell Brand was the most interesting figure in the top five. Early in 2014 he began a political YouTube series, The Trews: True News With Russell Brand, which surpassed a million subscribers in March 2015, and was briefly so popular that British Labour leader Ed Miliband agreed to appear on it in April 2015, shortly before he lost the UK general election to David Cameron. Brand’s continuing influence on the political culture in England, at least, is often underestimated. He may have been instrumental in making a militantly hard-left stance fashionable again among young intellectuals for the first time in a generation.
Other than Brand, the 2015 list was dominated by university-based progressives. There were a few right-wing or reactionary writers (no. 18, Henry Kissinger; no. 20, Mario Vargas Llosa; no. 24, Michel Houellebecq), and the self-described conservative Andrew Sullivan (no. 35). Beyond these, Prospect appeared to have lurched distinctly leftwards in its choice of thinkers, with writers like Rebecca Solnit (no. 14, who invented the concept of “mansplaining”) and Pankaj Mishra (no. 33, latterly renowned for his 2017 study of right-wing populism, Age of Anger) setting the tone. The novelists Hilary Mantel (no. 12) and Marilynne Robinson (no. 27) deserved inclusion here, though their bestselling peer Jonathan Franzen is conspicuously absent.
Was the intellectual world in 2015 really so dominated by celebrity revolutionaries, semi-famous literary figures and no-name economists? The bottom 15 are completely obscure; it is hard to judge their impact and originality when only their colleagues have any idea who they are. If the 2004 Prospect list of British intellectuals was too chummily Oxbridge, the 2015 poll was more like a conference program, marred by too many academics and activists with the same blandly bureaucratic ideas. What was the point of this exercise?
‘Top Thinkers’ of 2019
Tom Clark’s introduction to Prospect’s newest list of “The World’s Top Fifty Thinkers” describes it as a means “simply to honour the minds engaging most fruitfully with the questions of the moment.” The editorial team claims to have given weight to intellectuals’ “originality, impact and communication”; also: “to keep things current we’ve focussed on work done since the last list in 2015.” For the first time, compilation of the list has been driven by a sense of urgency: Clark emphasises this at some length:
These are anti-intellectual times—and not only because of the proud ignoramus in the White House. No, the roots of current disdain for educated “liberal elites” go much deeper, dating back to well before the financial crisis [of 2008] and the ensuing populist backlash. The seeds were planted in the 1970s by the New Right’s Irving Kristol, who saw reactionary potential in rallying mass opposition to the “new class” of university graduates, who had the sort of fancy ideas that would go down badly with those Nigel Farage defines as “real people.” Over the decades since, Rupert Murdoch and the popular press preferred reflex reactions to rationality, and called them “common sense.” They have derided intellectuals, who rarely rank among the economic elite, as a class apart in ivory towers. Today we have reached the Trumpian point where, for perhaps the first time in free societies since the French Revolution, reason has to be defended as a value.
As intellectual history this may well be defensible; though the snarling, self-pitying tone is unfortunate.
Despite the rhetorical weakness of Clark’s introduction, Prospect’s 2019 list represents a major improvement on its predecessor. Controversial figures of undoubted influence are present (not least the financier George Soros). Among the most important are Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose 2014 Atlantic article ‘The Case for Reparations’ continues to provoke discussion; Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the lawyer and professor who coined the term “intersectionality” three decades ago; and Claudia Goldin, the most prominent economist to have worked on the “gender pay gap.” These figures have shaped recent political debates as few other intellectuals have.
Less polarising innovators here include: the distinguished Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2018); the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, co-founder in 2015 of Heterodox Academy; Eliot Higgins, the investigative journalist who founded the news website Bellingcat in 2014; and Katie Bouman, the computer scientist behind the first conceptualised rendering of a black hole.
The Prospect list accurately reflects the near-disappearance of traditional literature from our intellectual culture. Other than Arundhati Roy and the Ghanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi, there are no ‘serious’ novelists here. At this point in history, historical narratives and memoirs have completely overtaken this once-dominant form.
In a related phenomenon, book reviewers are nowhere to be found on this list. A decade ago, the New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani and the New Yorker’s James Wood (formerly of the London Review of Books and the New Republic) could make a book into an international bestseller with a single review. Now, no literary writer has this power. The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2018 chair of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, is on this list; none of the 2018 Booker nominees are. There is only one critic here, the feminist writer Jacqueline Rose (Birkbeck College, University of London).
On the other hand, Prospect’s editors have included Naomi Alderman, whose bestselling feminist sci-fi fantasy The Power won the Women’s Prize in 2017. There may be reasons to dispute this particular choice—authors of genre fiction aren’t usually included on lists of this type—though the principle of selecting a writer whom people have actually read is a sound one.
Historians (Niall Ferguson, Peter Frankopan, Adam Tooze; the jurist, judge and mediaevalist Jonathan Sumption; the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich) currently enjoy the influence and sales that ‘highbrow’ fiction writers once did. The Prospect list is not wrong to include them. The best-known memoirist on the list, the venture capitalist J. D. Vance (author of Hillbilly Elegy), certainly deserves a place as well. He has sold millions of copies of his book since 2016 and sparked often heated discussions about the relationship between culture, social problems and poverty.
But just how authoritative is this list? Closer examination reveals that Prospect’s editorial team has not consistently applied any obvious set of principles to their selection. Tom Clark claims:
There is probably an emphasis on disruptive voices—minds that want to change the world, rather than merely explain why the world is as it is. In fields like post-crash economics the justification for that switch is plain; more generally, it fits with a mercurial world.
This sounds plausible, but does not describe most of the historians, economists, journalists, mathematicians, science writers, jurists, or political scientists who make up much of this list. What does it have to do with Robert Alter, scholarly translator of the Hebrew Bible? It would be more honest simply to describe these intellectuals as either progressive, or acceptable to progressives.
Non-mathematicians will be unable to judge whether the Cambridge professor Caucher Birkar deserves a place. But he did win the Fields Medal for mathematics in 2018, which provides reasonable assurance of his high standing among his peers. All the same, one wonders whether Prospect selected him for his intellect or his life story: he entered the UK from Tehran as a refugee in 2000. It demeans a scholar of Birkar’s achievements to focus on his personal sufferings rather than what he has accomplished in a short career. Why does his Prospect biography not discuss mathematics more?
Other figures in Prospect’s list have not done much of note since 2015. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum remains influential, but only because of work she produced a decade or more ago. The same is true of Arundhati Roy, Jacqueline Rose, and the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde.
Then there are thinkers of promise who have accomplished relatively little so far. The philosopher and former Rhodes Scholar Amia Srinivasan boasts an extraordinary academic CV, and has published widely in prestigious journals; but her work has not yet had much demonstrable impact. As for the American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, despite having been in Congress for less than a year she has already managed to win an incredible degree of influence within the Democratic Party. But this has not translated into any concrete achievements as yet. The youngest member of this list, the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, may have also been included prematurely.
Prospect’s editorial team has blurred the distinction between ‘thinkers’ and activists. The charismatic political scientist Katharine Hayhoe has been included, but less for her scientific work than for her efforts to convince fellow Evangelical Christians that climate change is not a hoax. But why is she on this list instead of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Chief of Staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, the architect of the Green New Deal?
Many of the figures on this list appear to sympathise with the Democratic Socialists of America, if they are not (like Ocasio-Cortez) actual members. That being the case, where is Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor and publisher of Jacobin magazine, who is arguably more responsible than any other single intellectual for energising Marxist thought among American intellectuals over the past decade? Where are the political theorists and political scientists whose work has visibly had an effect on the direction of conversations?
Tom Clark’s distaste for figures involved with Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and ‘populist’ movements generally, is no doubt widely shared by Prospect’s readers, who would be repelled to see (for example) Trump’s campaign manager and strategist Steve Bannon on a list of “Top Fifty Thinkers.” Anti-liberal thinkers would also likely be beyond the pale (for example, Patrick Deneen, author of the provocative bestseller Why Liberalism Failed). The British writer Douglas Murray, whose 2017 study The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam was an international success, has also been left out. But of course his inclusion here might have led to cancelled subscriptions and social media mobbing.
Is there a single intellectual allied with various ‘populist’ movements whom the Prospect editorial team would regard as worthy of inclusion? The experiences of 2016 would seem to demonstrate how unwise it would be simply to ignore them, or refuse to consider them ‘thinkers.’
In the current climate, political comedians may deserve some place among the world’s “Top Fifty Thinkers.” The popular Chapo Trap House podcast might be beyond the scope of Prospect’s list, but John Oliver assuredly is not. HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver regularly features investigative reports on political issues, and boasts a wide international viewership. The 2015 list featured Russell Brand; has the Prospect editorial team suddenly forgotten about YouTube personalities? The interviewer and stand-up comic Joe Rogan (for example) reaches over 5.8 million subscribers on his YouTube channel. Discussions on The Joe Rogan Experience frequently range around complex issues in current affairs and philosophy. Why has Rogan been left off Prospect’s list?
Other television personalities also surely merit consideration. In America, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, a hyper-articulate former Rhodes Scholar, has helped form Democrat voters’ perceptions of Donald Trump more than any other political commentator. Her rival broadcaster, the conservative Tucker Carlson, might be even more influential: in June 2019 President Trump hastily cancelled a series of retaliatory military strikes against Iran after watching Carlson’s show on Fox News. Why aren’t either of them included?
It can be argued that book sales and audience figures are no more reliable than numbers of Twitter followers in terms of gauging an intellectual’s importance. The Californian gender theorist Judith Butler (who is not on this list) may be one of the most influential intellectuals of the past half-century; this is not necessarily reflected in her royalty cheques for Gender Trouble (1990). The book has sold a 100,000 copies internationally in 20 years. By academic standards this is an unheard-of success; compared to the New York Times bestseller lists, it’s nothing. Still, the Prospect “Top Fifty Thinkers” list does not betray obvious signs of coherent criteria for judging an author’s influence.
Tom Clark could easily argue that writers such as Steven Pinker have been on Prospect’s lists before, and not done anything significantly new since 2015 (although Enlightenment Now caused quite a stir). But the popular scientist and historian Yuval Noah Harari has written three ambitious, highly-regarded international bestsellers: Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind (2011; translated into English 2014); Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015; 2017) and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). He is excluded, while the primatologist who influenced him, Frans de Waal, is not. Why is this the case when de Waal’s most important book, Chimpanzee Politics, came out over a dozen years ago?
Even more curious is Prospect’s inclusion of the behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin, who is on this list for the controversial 2018 volume Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are. This is not a bad book, but the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate at its heart is not a new one. On the other hand, the sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis has written a similarly-titled study, Blueprint: the Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society (2019), which is considerably more original and wide-ranging than Plomin’s. It has also reached a larger audience. Why is Plomin considered a “Top Fifty Thinker” when Christakis is not?
The most provocative selection in this list is Kate Manne, a former postdoctoral fellow at Harvard who is now an associate professor at Cornell University. Manne, a feminist philosopher, has won acclaim from fellow scholars for her 2018 study Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Yet she is perhaps best known outside academic circles for a highly critical 2018 review in the TLS of Jordan Peterson’s book, Twelve Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which has sold over 3.7 million copies in a year and a half.
Peterson would seem to meet all of Prospect’s stated criteria for inclusion: he was unknown outside the University of Toronto until autumn 2016, when his popularity exploded; he has enjoyed unparalleled impact with his lectures, YouTube videos and books; in a short time he has become the most famous public intellectual in the world. A decade ago, when David Goodhart was editor, he would have easily fit in as a writer for Prospect. In the current intellectual climate he seems like a dangerous iconoclast, if only to journalists and professional academics.
Prospect’s editorial team don’t bother to explain Peterson’s omission. To mention him in passing as they do, only in Kate Manne’s biography, is not merely passive-aggressive cowardice; it also does Manne a disservice. Readers will assume that she was included on this list purely as a slap at Peterson, rather than on her own merits.
It’s Not Irrelevant. It’s a Hippopotamus
What is most revealing about Prospect’s list is how the British (or London-based) intellectual establishment has changed since 2004. The magazine’s hundredth-issue list appeared to consist mainly of people who had been invited to lunch at the Garrick Club at some point. Yet within that homogeneous-seeming group there was a real range and diversity of opinion, talent and achievement. There is nobody whose presence on that list cannot easily be justified.
The 2005 and 2008 lists were weakened by a slight tokenism. After 2013, Prospect’s lists were pulled in too many contrary directions. The editorial teams responsible wanted to be fair and accurate in their choices, but they also wanted to do favours for their friends and allies, while also showing the requisite generosity to various groups that they felt obliged to recognise but did not always understand (economists, for example).
The 2019 list is an improvement on 2015’s, but it seems to have been put together for a world in which the Trumpocalypse never happened, the major universities have held on to their prestige, and the general public still defers to the intelligentsia. If artists and literary novelists are tacitly acknowledged to be irrelevant now, at least journalists, social scientists and philosophers have retained their importance in Prospect’s intellectual world. But how important is that intellectual world now?
Prospect’s editorial team, like so many educated Londoners, desperately want to believe that Barack Obama is still President of the United States, the British Conservative government is restrained by Liberal-Democrat coalition partners, and the EU is under no serious internal or external threat. The 2019 list of thinkers is merely a better version of the 2015 one, and no more relevant.
The editors have made other lapses in judgment. Log-rolling and mutual back-scratching is inevitable in human institutions, and should never be censured too severely. All the same, Prospect has erred too far on the side of cosiness with its contributors and allies. This tendency affects more than just the magazine’s “Top Fifty Thinkers” list.
Since 2001, Prospect has organised the ‘Think Tank of the Year’ awards. This year’s winner was the Institute for Government, which happens to be headed by Prospect’s former editor Bronwen Maddox. No doubt there is nothing dishonourable about the award’s nomination or judging processes. But what were they thinking? Hasn’t anybody at Prospect or the Institute of Government realised how this looks?
The British intellectual Establishment, far from becoming more open, tolerant or inclusive over the past two decades, is more insular and entitled than ever. What is worse, it is in denial about how little power and influence it has outside of a few institutions, whose reputations suffer as they grow increasingly narrow-minded and mediocre. Can these people listen to anybody who is not immediately recognised as a colleague, ally or accredited peer?
Next year, Tom Clark and his team need to hammer out a list of consistent, coherent criteria clearly defining what a ‘top thinker’ is, who deserves to be included on their 2020 list, and who must be excluded, and why. Then they must rigorously apply these without exception. Otherwise the list will look again like an arbitrary exercise based on whim, personal taste, and whoever gets invited to parties with the editors, contributors and their friends.
Prospect cannot take its own importance for granted. Exercises like this only serve to damage the credibility of a distinguished intellectual institution, and hasten its slide into decline.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.