Talking Europe & Greece – VICE interview

15/05/2016 by

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The interview with Yohann Koshy (April 21, 2016) can be read on VICE’s site here. Otherwise…

Like most of you, I have dreamt about Yanis Varoufakis. Greece’s Syriza government represented the first challenge to neoliberalism, within the established political field, in European history. It was elected in January 2015 with a mandate to confront the Troika – the IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank – which had imposed five years of income-depleting austerity and debt-inflating ‘bailouts’ on the bankrupt nation. It was empowered by social movements and organised labour. It was made up of intellectuals, dynamiting the gap between theory and practice. And Yanis Varoufakis, the minister of finance, was its spectacular emissary.

That purring voice! That collar raised artfully around the neck! That face – the lines from nose to mouth so profound they could be etched in granite! (Does Greece have a Mount Rushmore?) An economics professor and political blogger, Varoufakis found himself in charge of Greece’s ministry of finance, having said he would “never, never” become a politician, when Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras appealed to his sense of moral duty. After a few weeks in office he published an essay in the Guardian, ‘How I Became An Erratic Marxist’. Okay, it was qualified, but still – a Marxist! It was a dream-come-true for much of Europe’s beleaguered left.

Varoufakis engaged the Troika in negotiation. He sought debt relief; an admission that Greece’s debt was symptomatic of structural problems within the Eurozone; a measure of dignity for a “proud nation” reduced to the status of a colony; anything, really. But the Troika’s intransigence was pathological. Tensions between Varoufakis and the rest of Syriza’s cabinet, especially Prime Minister Tsipras, simmered – “I could see the Troika was effectively stalling in order to weaken us,” he tells me. The hope that Syriza’s gains would be more than symbolic faded before disappearing on 6 July 2015: despite a referendum on the Troika’s third memorandum to which 61 percent – predominantly the working class and destitute, “those without money in the bank” – responded with a resounding ‘No’ (OXI!), Tsipras capitulated, accepting the memorandum with austerity and privatisation measures more punitive than ever before. Over night Syriza’s anti-austerity politics were revealed to be nothing more than a posture; it was a cruel and absurd coda to six months of struggle. The flamboyant minister of finance resigned, but images of him – riding a motorbike, wearing a leather jacket, looking and sounding like a Bond villain – continued to prowl our subconscious.

Like all rock stars, Varoufakis is tired. I meet him in his hotel after an exhausting week. He has appeared on morning radio, Channel 4 News, in conversation with Owen Jones and in every other medium to promote his new book, And The Weak Suffer What They Must? I’m nervous but not as nervous as the young woman who asks him for an autograph after we sit down. She is Spanish, polite and transfixed by the sight of him. He signs a piece of paper. “Does that happen a lot?” I ask after she has left. He nods faintly. He is embarrassed – but not too embarrassed. “Especially in Spain. And Portugal,” he adds.

I take him back to the day Syriza’s dangerous example to the indebted nations of Spain and Portugal was at its height, the OXI rally in Athens two days before the referendum. “It was the most significant day of my political life,” he says. “When it came to the crunch and we called upon the Greek people to energise themselves in view of the referendum, they responded magnificently. And that Friday evening was the culmination. I was expecting no more than 100,000 people. There were almost half a million. It was just unbelievable”, he says. According to reports from the time, Varoufakis was literally kissed by passers-by as he walked through the “pulsating crowd” in Syntagma Square.

But behind this utopic radicalisation of the Greek people was some “much less heroic” politicking. Varoufakis illuminates Prime Minister Tsipras’s mind, revealing far from radical motives: “From the end of April [two months before he called the referendum], there was a clear mood by Tsipras to capitulate to the Troika, going against the basic logic that drew me into the government.” So was the referendum an empty gesture? “It was, in my estimation, a way-out for Tsipras. He was going to recommend to the Greek people to vote ‘No’, as he did, hoping they would vote ‘Yes’ and this would be his escape route. This is my own explanation as to why he was so despondent on the night of the referendum.” You can see it in Paul Mason’s documentary #ThisIsACoup, which follows Syriza during those crucial months: Tsipras’s jubilation after the OXI victory appears strained. “He was upset. He told me as much,” Varoufakis says. “The only good thing about having been immersed in all these developments is for the first time in my life I don’t have to theorise: I know, I was there!”

Now time has passed since the great betrayal – Syriza remains in government but as a petulant servant to capital – Varoufakis’s strategy has been scrutinised too. He has been accused of tactical naiveté, believing permanent negotiations with the Troika would lead to meaningful concessions. He has expressed surprise that Eurozone ministers did not want to discuss macroeconomics with him – about, say, how a currency union without democratic fiscal institutions behind it, like the Euro, was doomed to indebt its weaker participants. For some this betrayed a lack of realism. Varoufakis, when I put this to him, counters. “I never believed that simply by speaking ‘truth to power’ we would win. We had no illusions when we walked in there. You had to have weapons to respond to their attempts to asphyxiate us [by threatening to close Greece’s banks].” He had weapons, which involved seizing the Greek central bank from European hands, but they “were not used because the community [within Syriza’s cabinet] had broken down”.

More significantly, critics from Syriza’s left have accused Varoufakis of leading a performative tenure – or, to put it another way, have accused Tsipras of exploiting Varoufakis for his theatrical belligerence. I take out a recent issue of the New Left Review in which former Syriza member Stathis Kouvelakis makes this claim. Varoufakis hasn’t read it before and looks at it, unimpressed. “[Kouvelakis] wasn’t there so I don’t care what he has to say,” he says. I’m not sure if he’s joking or not so I read an extract anyway: “Tsipras sensed that, even if it was pure theatre, [Varoufakis’s confrontational attitude] was necessary if only for the purposes of legitimation, or possibly for getting some concessions…[that’s partly why Tsipras chose him].” Varoufakis is doubly unimpressed. Although he told me earlier that “Tsipras was played by [Angela] Merkel and still is [to this day]”, he is less comfortable considering whether the same was true of him. “I’ve heard this view from very many people, including my wife”, he says. “But I’m going to refuse, not just for this interview but until I die, to project upon Tsipras motives and stratagems when I don’t know. This is all speculation. I’m painfully aware of the left’s history – of turning against each other and ascribing all sorts of pernicious intenationalities – so I’m not going to do that.” Although he admits later, ambiguously, that he was “too naïve in taking for granted that certain political and personal friendships were genuine”, his refusal to respond on the grounds of fostering factionalism is fair – and revealing. I return to matters on which he can speak.

And The Weak Suffer What They Must? is not an account of Varoufakis’s days in office but an economic history of Europe after the Second World War. Running counter to the foundational myth of the European Union, the idealist narrative of enlightened nations coming together, it explains how the EU was conceived as an industrial cartel. This is a history of monetary struggle, as French bureaucrats and German central bankers compete for the role of Europe’s protagonist. I ask Varoufakis about one of capitalism’s contradictions that he outlines in the book – that it attacks the very people, the “weak”, whose labour reproduces its power—and he gives a lyrical answer that touches on commodification, exploitation and concludes with Marx’s observation that “capitalism is like Dr Frankenstein” – it creates the conditions for its own demise. We have moved from the hotel bar, where the muzak had become unbearably loud, into a vast conference hall with only two chairs. It’s a delight to receive this one-on-one lecture, even if the lecturer is visibly tired and checking his phone for the time.

Despite his experience with the EU’s dogmatism, Varoufakis concludes the book not with a call to abandon it with the illusive rupture of ‘Brexit’ – British voters will face a referendum on EU membership this June – but to democratise it from within. Why, I ask, when he writes that “it’s not in the EU’s DNA to evolve into a [democratic] federation”? “Because we need conflict with Brussels and the European Union’s institutions,” he says. “The solution is not to get out but to have that conflictual confrontation with them.” He hopes the auspices under which this confrontation takes places will be Diem25 – a political movement he launched that aims to rally Europe’s progressive citizens for a democratic Europe Union. Diem25 has already made progress, he tells me, with a petition on transparency demanding Eurogroup meetings to be live-streamed, taking their anti-democratic intrigue out of the dark. The President of the Eurogroup has already said he’s going to publish some of its documents in response. “We need to show Europeans that even the first few steps can make a tiny difference in the right direction,” he says.

One of the book’s most interesting observations is about the character of politicians: the creation of a monetary union in Europe over the last thirty years placed political decisions, about welfare and taxation, in the hands of “unelected second-rate technocrats” and accelerated the depoliticisation of political life, putting off “gifted men and woman” from entering politics. Syriza, I suggest, induced hope, briefly, because it signalled that politicians could be political. Varoufakis’s eyes light up; he agrees. “We were political animals, yes, but also our technical skills were also better than the Troika’s. We did not believe in the models of standard economic analysis even though we understood them.” Has this moment, the glimmer of possibility, gone forever? “There is no doubt that we betrayed the people. But the idea that something like this is possible is now firmly implanted in the people’s minds, not just in Greece but outside. I believe this was the major contribution of the Athens’ Spring.”

And with that, Yanis Varoufakis – the man who wrestled the forces of capital, made a spectacle of it, and failed – gets up to leave. He apologises for leaving abruptly but he’s late for a Skype call. I’m suddenly alone in the conference hall, the silence broken by the second hand of a clock. I look down at his book, the back cover laced with praise: “The emerging rock star of the anti-austerity movement…the most interesting man in the world…a global celebrity.” I forgot to ask for an autograph.

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