Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil?

A forensic critique of the influential liberal explores his opposition to fundamental human rights, the extension of democracy and the pursuit of economic equality.
One of the most influential intellectuals in the English-speaking world, Michael Ignatieff’s story is generally understood to be that of an ambitious, accomplished progressive politician and writer, whose work and thought fit within an enlightened political tradition valuing human rights and diversity. Here, journalist Derrick O’Keefe argues otherwise. In this scrupulous assessment of Ignatieff’s life and politics, he reveals that Ignatieff’s human rights discourse has served to mask his identification with political and economic elites.

Tracing the course of his career over the last thirty years, from his involvement with the battles between Thatcher and the coal miners in the 1980s to the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel’s 2009 invasion of Gaza, O’Keefe proposes that Ignatieff and his political tradition have in fact stood in opposition to the extension of democracy and the pursuit of economic equality. Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? is a timely assessment of the Ignatieff phenomenon, and of what it tells us about the politics of the English-speaking West today.

About the series: Counterblasts is a new Verso series that aims to revive the tradition of polemical writing inaugurated by Puritan and leveller pamphleteers in the seventeenth century, when in the words of one of them, Gerard Winstanley, the old world was “running up like parchment in the fire.” From 1640 to 1663, a leading bookseller and publisher, George Thomason, recorded that his collection alone contained over twenty thousand pamphlets. Such polemics reappeared both before and during the French, Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions of the last century. In a period of conformity where politicians, media barons and their ideological hirelings rarely challenge the basis of existing society, it’s time to revive the tradition. Verso’s Counterblasts will challenge the apologists of Empire and Capital.


  • “Highly readable book...a useful contribution to the public’s understanding of the former Liberal leader...”
  • “This is an important book that anyone who cares about Canada’s political future should own and read.”
  • “[A]n impressive and accessible call for a real alternative to the 'lesser evil'”
  • “A fascinating look at the politics and history of Ignatieff; quite a few surprises with great quotes from the man himself.”
  • “O’Keefe’s intellectual biography...can be read not just as an account of the slippery and self-serving contortions of Ignatieff’s thinking, but of the bankruptcy of both Canada’s political aristocracy and of the strange beast that passes as North American liberalism. Other lesser evils deserve a similar treatment.”


  • Win the complete Counterblasts series and more! - competition now closed


    Win the complete Counterblasts series! 

    HOW TO ENTER: Those in North America, email verso@versobooks.com. For the rest of the world, including the UK, email enquiries@verso.co.uk. Please put COUNTERBLASTS COMPETITION in the subject line or your entry may not be counted. The winners will be announced on Tuesday 10th April.

    Can truth really be stranger than fiction? If anyone can answer that question definitively, it is Thomas Friedman, who occupies pride of place in the Counterblasts series in The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work by Belén Fernández.

    Starting today, to celebrate the publication of Verso's new Counterblasts series, we will be posting three quotations every day relating to each of these three neoliberal defenders of empire and capital. All you need to do is spot the real one from among the fakes.

    The prize is the full set of Counterblasts - Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? by Derrick O'Keefe, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work by Belén Fernández and The Impostor: BHL in Wonderland by Jade Lindgaard and Xavier de la Porte - AND Britain's Empire by Richard Gott and Liberalism: A Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo.

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  • Learning from Ignatieff's #fail

    Recent coverage of Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? by Derrick O'Keefe includes:

    An interview with O'Keefe on Redeye: Vancouver Cooperative Radio

    An interview in The New Left Project

    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.

    And a blog post by O'Keefe on Rabble.ca

    In general, however, there's been too much focus on personality over policy in analyzing Ignatieff's historic failure. We can start with a hat trick of concrete examples where political decisions -- all to varying degrees at odds with previous leader Stephane Dion -- managed to drive the party even lower in the polls.

    Nothing about Ignatieff's spectacular failure in electoral politics seems to have humbled him. Witness his op-ed in the Financial Times last week advising new Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti on how to win the hearts and minds of the victims of looming austerity measures. The FT headline, making reference to Monti's nickname "the professor," is unintentionally hilarious: "One professor to another: listen to the people, or fail."

  • Michael Ignatieff: Intellectual hypocrisy

    Al Jazeera posted an excerpt from Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? on December 31, 2011: 

    As Canada's Liberal leader, the intellectual- turned-politician became an uncritical supporter of Israeli aggression.  

    The case of Michael Ignatieff, who resigned as Liberal leader in May 2011 after a devastating electoral defeat, is exemplary. Ignatieff came to Canadian politics after a long career as a public intellectual in the United Kingdom and the United States. And although he was a high profile supporter of war and empire, prior to returning to Canada his work still featured occasional, but sharp critiques of Israeli occupation.

    As Liberal leader, he became an uncritical supporter of Israel, even joining in the now routine attempts by the Harper government to demonise and criminalise Palestine solidarity activism in Canada.