Michael Ignatieff has not learned much from his spectacular political failureby Stefan Collini / November 14, 2013 / Leave a comment
In late 2005, Michael Ignatieff was a 58-year-old professor at Harvard. His career up to that point had been spent in academia and journalism, largely in Britain and the United States. Though Canadian by birth, he had spent all but two of his adult years living abroad and he had no first-hand experience of politics at any level. And yet, within little more than a year he had become, extraordinarily, a member of the Canadian parliament and deputy leader of the Liberal Party. Some two years later, he became the party’s leader. In Spring 2011 he precipitated a general election, in an attempt to unseat the ruling Conservative Party. The outcome was catastrophic for the Liberals, who were reduced to third place and a rump of only 34 seats. It was the worst result in the history of the Liberal Party, the worst result in Canadian history for an incumbent official opposition party, and the first time since Confederation in 1867 that the Liberals had failed to finish first or second. Ignatieff lost his own seat, and immediately resigned as leader. Since then he has resumed his academic career in Harvard and Toronto.
These bare facts suggest a remarkable story that might be interpreted in several ways. Ignatieff has chosen to write a personal memoir of the experience which aspires to double as a set of reflections about the nature of politics. The model of Machiavelli, dismissed from office but still donning his robes to turn his experience into the knowing maxims of The Prince, is never far from the well-stocked mind of this long-time teacher of political theory. Fire and Ashes is scarcely longer than Machiavelli’s classic, and its subtitle indicates a similar aspiration to use the ashes of defeat to fertilise some evergreen thoughts about the timeless nature of politics itself. The book is stylishly written, as one would expect of an author who is a novelist and journalist as well as a widely-published academic. The phenomenology of the experience, what it felt like to be there in the middle of things, is engagingly rendered. But as it moves into more general reflections we start to have the unnerving feeling that the author may not, even now, have gauged the true significance of the remarkable story he has to tell.
Before his political adventure began, Ignatieff was already a well-known public figure, principally on the basis of his writing and speaking about human rights and international relations, but also because of an earlier career presenting ideas programmes on British television in the 1980s and 90s. He was, in addition, exceptionally well-connected within the previous generation of the Canadian political elite: his father had been a senior diplomat, only one step away from becoming Governor-General, and Ignatieff himself had been on close terms with the former Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, and his circle. Ignatieff’s educational journey had taken him to Oxford and Cambridge, as well as Harvard; he cultivated friendships with figures such as Isaiah Berlin, whose biography he wrote. But with this background and education, not to mention his very considerable confidence and charm, he was bound to give off what many voters saw as an offensive sense of entitlement and opportunism.
There are moments in Fire and Ashes where Ignatieff seems to grasp the centrality of this theme, but these are undercut by the book’s more settled disposition to lament a form of politics in which such accidents of background and perceived identity could be decisive. Academic teacher of political theory that he is, Ignatieff cannot resist invoking the shades of those other unsuccessful or disappointed politicians who attempted to distil some universal political wisdom from the bitter experience of failure—not just Machiavelli but Cicero, Burke, Tocqueville, Mill, Weber. But although he couches his own observations in a form that aspires to timelessness—“great politicians have to be masters of the local,” “self-dramatisation is of the essence of politics,” “there are no techniques in politics”—his account is in practice structured by an implicit assumption of decline. Ignatieff constantly uses phrases which reveal that he really feels that although politics used to be a properly-conducted process in which arguments were put before citizens by eloquent spokesmen and judged accordingly, the whole thing has now gone to pot. He laments that “nowadays, partisanship has degenerated from the rough-and-tumble jousting of former days to really venomous character assassination,” and complains that “political allegiance is no longer a tradition, it’s just a preference”; he refers in passing to “the degraded politics we are enduring,” and fondly calls the kind of campaigning he enjoyed “politics, old style.”
Quite when this change is supposed to have happened is not clear. But the structuring presence of this assumption makes his otherwise wry and engaging reflections not just obliquely self-justifying—he clearly thinks his talents would have been better suited to the politics of the day before yesterday, which may well be right—but also of questionable relevance. If politics (politics in Canada? politics everywhere?) has become (in the last 10? 20? 30? years) little more than a kind of unscrupulous, money-driven advertising campaign which works mainly by subliminal association, then do his more high-toned injunctions to the next generation to pursue the “noble” art still apply?
As things turned out—though was it really so difficult to foresee that something like this would be the case?—one advertisement by his Conservative opponents, endlessly repeated, outweighed all Ignatieff’s arguments and eloquence: it simply said “Michael Ignatieff. Just visiting.” And the trouble is that, however much one may admire his courage and respect the seriousness of his own sense of commitment, one can see that there was an irreducible element of truth in that hostile ad. He had played no part in Canadian politics or even Canadian life before being parachuted into his seat, and he does look to have returned for good to academia following his defeat. He was “just visiting,” even though he genuinely aspired to be Prime Minister of his country. It is not obvious that we learn any new truths about politics as a result of having seen this improbable meteor rise and, predictably, fall.
Indeed—and this is what makes his book more poignant than he intends—it is not obvious that Ignatieff himself has learned that much about politics from this experience. Of course, he can now write about and teach the subject with both the benefit of first-hand anecdotes and the authority of the battle-scarred veteran. But he repeatedly uses the verb “learn” when referring to things he either must have been fully aware of beforehand or else not really have understood since. He writes, for example: “I learned that you can’t take refuge in moral purity if you want to achieve anything,” but did the close student of Machiavelli really have to wreck the fortunes of the Canadian Liberal Party to learn that? He declares that, “I took a long time to understand what politics should be about,” but his book leaves one with the suspicion that he has the same normative ideas about what politics “should” be about as he had at the outset. There is also the suggestion of mock-humility about some of this: I submitted myself to the judgement of my fellow citizens and I was found wanting, but in the process I learned to respect their judgement. But actually he doesn’t respect it. He can’t conceal his disdain for the low animal cunning of Stephen Harper, his victorious Conservative opponent (“a transactional opportunist with no fixed compass other than the pursuit of power”), yet he somehow wants to endorse the process by which Harper was preferred by the voters. Fire and Ashes may seem to be yet another case study of “the intellectual in politics,” but if so, what it illustrates is nothing to do with the traditional themes of innocence or a lack of capacity for business: Ignatieff was evidently a fast learner who became quite a skilful political operator in some respects. It illustrates, rather, the way that an intellectual who is driven by a compelling need to turn experience into prose is always likely to exhibit a kind of double consciousness about popular politics: he professes to believe that the process by which “the people” choose their leaders is, at bottom, a noble and right one, and at the same time he cannot conceal his conviction that the majority of his fellow citizens make their choice not just for bad reasons but on grounds that he would not recognise as reasons at all.
“Eggheads of the world unite,” as Adlai Stevenson famously quipped, “you have nothing to lose but your yolks.” Perhaps Ignatieff is a bit more hard-boiled now, or at least would like us to think he is. But surely in this case something else was lost, and lost by all those Canadian citizens who stood to gain from having a more successful Liberal leader defeat a Conservative Party bent on the kind of market-driven policies that blight the lives of the vulnerable everywhere. Ignatieff may show admirable resilience in coming to terms with his own personal defeat, but that does little for the millions whose lives may be somewhat worse for the failure of his experiment, and this points to an irreducibly egotistical element in this testament. Fire and Ashes is at some level a “how to” book, but it is not about how to do politics. It is more like a piece of existential moral exhortation about how to live a life. Its true teaching is that one should embrace experience, stretch oneself, go for it. “A defensive life is not a life fully lived,” he writes, with all the authority of the brave man who tried something hugely ambitious and risky. The ethical worth of this disposition not to shirk experience is ultimately what underwrites this Apologia Pro Vita Sua: I gave it my best shot. Fine, but urging others to do this in Scout-leader tones (“In politics, as in life, the challenge is how you learn from your mistakes”) doesn’t really help recommend the disposition. Like the authors of countless self-help books, he insists that we should “strive for success and don’t allow any excuses for failure, but above all learn equanimity.” Unfortunately, hearing the echo of Polonius only a few syllables away does not help one to treat this with the seriousness it clearly craves.