Conversations that shape today’s world

B Baskar | Updated on April 25, 2021

Title: Thought Economics — conversations with the remarkable people shaping our century Author: Vikas Shah Publisher: Hachette India Price: ₹550

This collection of interviews with public figures holds a mirror to our world

It is incredibly hard to review a book like Thought Economics. Firstly, the title itself can be misleading as this book is not particularly about economics. The book is, as the sub-title suggests, about ‘Conversations with the remarkable people shaping our century’. There are so many interesting ideas that one reading of the book will not suffice. Reading the book a second time (at least sections the reader finds interesting) and reflecting deeply on the ideas and views presented can be a fruitful exercise.

The author, Vikas Shah, a British-Indian entrepreneur, bitten by the writing bug early in his career, created a blog called ‘thoughteconomics’. As he says in the introduction, “The name Thought Economics was born of the fact that it was thinking, ideas, concepts — the products of thought — that create our world, and so my blog could explore that.”

Instead of editorialising, Shah started posting the interviews he did with interesting people and found that there was a big readership for that. This book is a collection of interviews Shah has done with public figures over the years. The people interviewed are all from diverse fields including intellectuals, writers, poets, journalists, scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs, football coaches, actors, army generals, economists and others.

The book is divided into seven topics that include identity; culture; entrepreneurship; leadership; discrimination and injustice; war, peace and justice; and democracy.

On identity politics, we have London-based Turkish writer Elif Shafak who’s suspicious of it but says, “identity politics can be a good starting point to raise awareness, but it cannot be our destination, it cannot be where we end up.” Academic Kwame Anthony Appiah says, “You cannot get rid of identities, but you can reform them”.

Perhaps the most interesting comment in this section comes from the controversial Jordan Peterson, who says, “Making happiness the key pursuit in life is just hopeless.” He says impulsive gratification and ‘happiness’ are never going to ‘rectify’ life’s problems, so it’s little wonder that “life is just a constant disappointment for people”.

Yuval Noah Harari, who has almost a rock star status among current day intellectuals, says that it was only after settled agriculture came into being that humans believed that they were different from animals. Perhaps humans’ urge to dominate and attain power sprang from that moment.

The section on culture talks about the role of storytelling in our culture, whether the written word can bring about social change, and other related topics. On what is truly a great piece of writing, writer Yann Martel has this to say, “A great piece of writing contains a suitcase that can be opened at every age and affect us.” On whether writing must have an ethical or moral responsibility, late poet Maya Angelou says not just writers, everyone in society has a moral responsibility. But Martel has a contrarian view where, “Art is witness. It witnesses everything, the good and the bad.”

Leadership mantra

On leadership, most people interviewed here agree that it is all about creating the right environment for people to flourish and do their best. Economist Robert Reich, who served the administrations of several US Presidents, quite pertinently brings out the connection between inequality and corruption and the need for leaders who understand this.

But leadership can be a double-edged sword. As Shah points out towards the end of this section, it is under the right leadership that major scientific and cultural advancements were made, but “it is also under leadership that millions exist under brutal regimes”.

On entrepreneurship, Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, of Grameen Bank fame, comes up with the most insightful observations. He distinguishes between entrepreneurship — which is “personal profit-driven business” and “social business entrepreneurship”, which is essentially selfless entrepreneurship leading to “social, economic and environmental sustainability”.

However, many others in this section argue that “making money” and doing good are not separate and call for an ethical foundation for business. Yunus also finds philanthropy as a separate act constricting and says the concept of social business combines entrepreneurship and sustainability with philanthropy. This section also features Indian entrepreneurs such as NR Narayana Murthy and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw.

In the section ‘Discrimination and injustice’, the link between colonialism and the production of race is brought out sharply. Dexter Dias says colonialism, “is a project that fundamentally depended on the production of race as a form of knowledge to justify the exploitation of people in other lands”. Issues such as sexism, patriarchy, persecution of LGBT-plus people, impact of social media, and women’s empowerment too figure in this section. Comedian David Baddiel presciently remarks, “Everything terrible in this world is done by people who think they are on the right side of angels.”

On conflict, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein says, it is always linked to the denial of rights and fundamental freedoms. Can war or conflict ever be justified? Martti Ahtisaari, politician and veteran diplomat, says the Second World War was perhaps the last “justifiable” war. On peace building and the ‘act of forgiveness’, the most interesting comments come from British journalist Marina Cantacuzino, who says, “Forgiveness is an act of self-healing and empowerment... forgiveness can be used as a form of powerful revenge.”

The absence of egalitarian policies in fomenting conflict is brought out by Ahtisaari, who strongly advocates the Scandinavian social model for a ‘conflict-free’ society. On the role of the future generations in bringing about a peaceful world, Ben Ferencz, the US prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, says, “war should be treated with the contempt it deserves and not glorified” and exhorts the future generation to “never give up” in fighting for a peaceful world.

The 20th century alone has seen 200 million deaths through war and oppression, it has also seen “50 per cent of the world’s wealth into the hands of just one per cent of the world’s population”. The section on democracy has some interesting and intriguing insights on its definition and nature. Here the views of Bassem Youssef, Egyptian comedian, writer and surgeon, are pertinent. He says, “Democracy, is first and foremost, about protection of minorities and those people in society who need help.”

A Swedish think-tank recently called India an ‘electoral autocracy’ which led to much teeth-gnashing, hand-wringing and righteous indignation among the political class, media, commentariat and common citizens. They all would do well to pay heed to Youssef’s views.

The last word can perhaps go to economist and former Greek Finance Minister Yannis Varoufakis. “Democracy is not an aggregation, it’s dialectical — it’s a dialogue.”

There are innumerable such insights strewn all over the book which cannot be savoured in one reading. This book may have spread itself too thin on the subjects it tackles. You may not always agree with the views presented, but they make you ponder over the state of today’s world and for that Shah must be complimented.

Published on April 25, 2021

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