It appears as if the French prime minister and poet, Dominique de Villepin, has lost any chance of succeeding president Chirac, who selected him as heir apparent when he appointed him to a senior government position, in preparation for his candidature in the 2007 presidential elections.
The prime minister, who vowed to extricate France from its economic and social woes, when he came to power, has failed to enact his reforms; his policies were opposed by a dejected and rebellious population.
One of the French critics noted, with derision that de Villepin, who was born in Morocco, spoke eloquently but was unable to turn his words into actions.
But what if the fate of poets and other intellectuals was to fail in politics?
The great Greek philosopher Plato, who entrusted philosophers to build his republic, failed miserably in the political game and ended up a slave sold in a public market.
As for Saif al Dawla, renowned for his generosity and appreciation of scientists and writers, he refused to appoint his official poet Al Mutanabbi as ruler over a small part of his domain, recognizing that poets are not fit to govern.
Ibn Khaldoun, who held a number of posts, concluded from his experience in politics that intellectuals should not assume power and rule.
More recently, the first Iranian president after the 1979 revolution, Abu al Hassan Bani Sadr, the academic and intellectual who wrote a number of outstanding books on economics and sociology entered politics and failed. He was unable to comprehend the weight of the responsibilities he had taken on. He ended up having to flee Iran for Paris, dressed as a woman. The former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami might have been luckier, but he also failed to implement the basic tenants of his reform program and remained in people’s imagination the university preacher who speaks eloquently about the dialogue of cultures and globalization instead of dealing with the demands of power and the worries of the people.
Across the Arab world, many have had experiences similar to Bani Sadr. They include Abdul Fatah Ismail, the former president of south Yemen, who was taken by surprise by the revolution brewing around him as he exchanged poems with the poet Adonis. The former Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Mazali, who put aside his responsibilities and focused on producing Al Fikr magazine instead of trying to solve his country’s problems, also fled Tunisia a wanted man.
This does not mean that the successful politician is uncultured. On the contrary, most successful leaders have had a strong educational background.
In any case, the art of ruling is no objective science that can be learned in books, which is why the advice of the kings and sultans of yore and political science curricula of political scientists of today do not produce outstanding politicians or shrewd rulers.
In his philosophical memoirs, Régis Debray, discussed this issue, based on his personal experience as advisor to President Francois Mitterrand, known as very cultured figure. He revealed how the cultured intellectual and Machiavellian politician in Mitterrand co-existed and how the French president used to seek counsel from his advisor and, instead, followed the opinions of administrators and the security services.
Relevant now more than ever, the fate of the intellectual politician is linked to the social and ideological changes currently taking place, which have undermined the concept of the “intellectual” and removed it from the fields of politics and power.
The world no longer needs a man of ideas to elaborate an ideology, implement social structures and mold people’s awareness. This sort of intellectual, which Antonio Gramsci called the “organic intellectual”, has left the political arena and has been replaced by two prominent faces: the expert and the journalist.
The expert is the specialist intellectual entrusted with the lion’s share of government affairs in the economic, social and strategic spheres. His or her actual authority surpasses that of constitutional institutions such as parliament, the judiciary and the executive. His or her exclusive hold on detailed and expert knowledge that is available to a select few ensures he is always present when complex matters require resolution.
As for the journalist, he or she practices his/her great power by controlling images, which no longer reflect reality but shape it; they command people’s awareness, their tastes and ideas, in an age when the culture of books and lectures has rescinded, and where the oral culture has forcefully returned by way of electronic technologies.
At a time when matters of state have changed hands from politicians to experts and journalists, the role of culture and intellectuals in politics is in terminal decline.