Interview conducted by Ian Sinclair New Left Project UK January 9, 2012
MICHAEL IGNATIEFF AND LIBERAL FAILURE
An established public intellectual and key liberal supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when Michael Ignatieff became the leader of the Canadian Liberal Party in 2008, it seemed only a matter of time before he would become prime minister.
Derrick O’Keefe, a Vancouver-based social justice activist and the co-author of Malalai Joya’s autobiography, spoke to Ian Sinclair about his new book Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? (Verso) and the state of progressive politics in Canada today.
While Michael Ignatieff was a well-known public intellectual in the UK during the 1980s and 1990s, I suspect, like me, many younger people will not be familiar with him or his work. Who is he and why did you decide to write a book about him?
Well, fortunately I guess for your political generation in the UK, he came back across the pond in 2000 to take a post at Harvard’s Carr Centre for Human Rights. It was while he was there in the United States that Ignatieff first came to my attention, around 2003-2004, when he was writing prolifically in defence of the Iraq War and the larger War on Terror.
Ignatieff was a key figure in rallying liberal support for that disastrous, immoral war. In fact, on the night that the ‘Shock and Awe’ invasion of Iraq began, Ignatieff was out with his Harvard colleague Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi ex-Trotskyite turned war hawk and key source for the neo-conservatives in Washington, D.C. Each in their own way, Ignatieff and Makiya were ~ to borrow the late Tony Judt’s description of liberal war boosters ~ “useful idiots” for the Bush administration.
This alone would have qualified Ignatieff for inclusion in Verso’s Counterblasts, a series of polemical books aimed at key apologists for Empire and Capital. But I also wanted to examine the full arc of his career as a public intellectual; it seemed to contain lessons about the political retreat of the past 30 years and about the real nature of liberalism today.
Another factor in wanting to write about him was just good old fashioned indignation that Canada’s establishment liberals would be so foolish as to think that someone with Ignatieff’s record should come back to lead the country.
I feel that this reflects the “self-loathing”, as author John Ralston Saul calls it, of this country’s elite and also their low level of intellectual vigour and discussion.
Early on during his time in the UK he fell in with a group of intellectuals, including Raphael Samuel, who worked on the Marxist-informed History Workshop Journal. However, little over a decade later he had become a keen advocate of aggressive US foreign policy. What happened? Was it simply the age old story of the young radical becoming more conservative as they got older?
His trajectory mirrors that of much of the liberal class and even a section of the nominal ‘Left’ over the past three decades of neo-liberalism – a gradual drift to the right, with sharp bursts of warmongering.
Even as liberal and in some cases social democratic intellectuals became less convinced of the state's ability to intervene effectively to redistribute wealth at home, they simultaneously become convinced of the state's revolutionary power to spread democracy, women’s rights and apple pie through bombing, invading and military occupying foreign societies.
For them, to imagine raising corporate taxes was to flirt with totalitarianism, but to advocate for massive bombing and invasion of others countries was presented as the highest stage of humanitarianism.
Taking his distance from the left so publicly and over such a crucial issue in the UK certainly did not harm his career prospects. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he published widely and produced television programmes on a range of subjects.
His was not a steady progression from left to right politically; rather, his key intellectual output followed the geography of imperialism.