Help separate truth from motivated error: My acceptance speech at Sussex University on the occasion of an honourary doctorate conferment

On 20th July 2017, the University of Sussex conferred upon me the degree of Doctor of the University Honoris Causa. Professor Andrea Cornwall, who kindly presented me to the Chancellor and the Congregation, explained the rationale of the award: “[F]or his contribution to our understanding of the global economy, for his advocacy of an authentic internationalism, for his intellectual bravery and his passion for making a difference.” (For Professor’s full speech, click here.] I wish to thank Professor Cornwall, Chancellor Sanjeev Bhaskar, and everyone at Sussex for that remarkable honour.

 

 

 

 

Pictured with Professor Andrea Cornwall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my acceptance speech, I said the following:

Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen, I am deeply grateful for the honorary doctorate so kindly conferred upon me by such a fine university.

The University of Sussex harks back to a, sadly, bygone era when a more confident society, convinced that no price system, no cost-benefit analysis, could ever capture the value of educating the many, and unwilling to indebt its poorer children as a price for their education, built new universities with a mission to re-think the purpose of higher education.

As a young lecturer, I remember taking that mantra a little too far.

After delivering a talk on the civilising power of university education, an elegant, elderly woman approached me. Before uttering a single word, she lifted her sleeve to show me her Auschwitz tattoo. “Our killers were well educated”, she told me. “They were engineers who read Goethe and listened to Beethoven after a day spent exterminating us. You are over-valuing education’s civilising capacities my son”, she said before walking away, leaving me stranded, ashamed.

She was right: An education is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a person to be good. But it is a necessary condition for a society to be civilised. And it can become sufficient as long as the young are encouraged to digest education critically; never to internalise a lecture, a textbook, a theory without intense scrutiny; always to be guided by the Royal Society’s motto: Take no one’s word for it. Nullius in verba!

Perhaps the most infuriating experience I had in politics was when proposals were ignored without serious criticism just because they inconvenienced those setting the agenda. The same happens in the corporate world. No democracy, indeed no company, can flourish when good ideas are crushed by the brute force of those served well by the status quo.

Today, you may be tempted to think that you are trading the ‘ivory towers’ for the ‘real world’. Resist that thought! Sussex University is no less real than the world you are about to enter. Indeed, your duty is to infect the ‘real world’ with the method of dispassionate criticism that you were taught here. Your responsibility is to make the world more real, and worthier, by bringing to bear upon it the academic method of separating truth from motivated error.

For too long we have allowed the quantification practices, that devalue everything, to migrate from markets and government to academia. The culture of incessant measurement damaged our universities and, by extension, our societies – from the NHS to the way financial products are priced and macroeconomic policy designed. It is up to you to reverse this.

You will, of course, encounter fierce opposition. But mark Oscar Wilde’s wise counsel: “…to disagree with three-fourths of the British public is one of the first requisites of sanity”.

The secret is never to fear being in a minority. It is to be simultaneously constructive in your proposals and disobedient in the face of inanity – critical of everything but ready to cooperate with everyone.

To succeed, a rational plan is key, as is a capacity never to forget Mike Tyson’s unforgettable line: “They all have a plan, until I punch them in the nose!”

Chancellor, I shall do all I can to maintain my relationship with the University and to promote to the best of my ability your necessary and worthy endeavours.

 

 

 

With the Chancellor, author and actor Sanjeev Bhaskar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Following the Ceremony, I gave several interviews to the Sussex University media. Here is one with Jacqui Bealing, of SU News

Academics bring rational scrutiny to politics, says Yanis Varoufakis

Yanis Varoufakis, Professor of Political Economy and Economic Theory at the University of Athens University, is to be awarded the honorary doctorate, Doctor of the University, at the University of Sussex’s summer graduation ceremony on 20 July.

Professor Varoufakis served as Greek Finance Minister in 2015. He is the author of several books on political and economic topics, his most recent, Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment (2017), charts his experience of his country’s financial crisis.

You were hailed as a hero, albeit a doomed one, when you were Greek finance minister in 2015. You said this was a moment when history changed. What made it so momentous – both for Europe and for you?

The only heroes of 2015 where the Greek voters who voted to reject yet another predatory ‘bailout’ loan from the EU. I was merely their messenger.

Despite the threats that the banks would never open again, and under a barrage of media scaremongering that Greece would be thrown to the wolves if they dared insist on saying NO to more loans, 62% turned down the loans and their backs on the threats.

It was an historic moment because it was the first time that a bankrupt nation found the courage to turn down loans that would have allowed it to pretend we were solvent at the expense of pushing the majority of the people into permanent debt-bondage. It was also historic because it exposed the illiberality of Europe’s leading politicians – e.g. the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, who confessed to believing that “elections should not be allowed to change economic policy”.

It was doubly historic because the eventual crushing of that Greek Spring of 2015 gave a major impetus to Brexit which, in turn, blew fresh wind into Donald Trump’s sails.

 

What can and should academics bring to the world of politics – do they make good politicians?

Academics can bring one ingredient into politics that is sorely missing: a concern for the unalloyed truth and for subjecting proposals and new ideas to rational scrutiny. Professional politicians are, unfortunately, trained to do the opposite: to express professionally views they either disagree with or misunderstand in a bid to debase their opponent’s argument independently of its merits! Politics would be much improved if infused with a more scholarly attitude toward the merit of views, rather than on who has uttered them. Do academics make for good politicians? I hope not, if by “good politician” you mean an expert in obfuscation…

You studied mathematics and economics for your undergraduate degree. What led to that interest?

Mathematics is aesthetically fascinating. It is also greatly intriguing to a political animal, like myself, for one reason: It is the only realm in which truths can be proven right or wrong, independently of opinion or perspective. As for studying economics, in our days it is that which Bible studies was in the Middle Ages: essential vocabulary for anyone interested in participating in public debates about how society should be organised.

Economics had a reputation for being dry and incomprehensible to the vast majority. What changed that – and how much of it was down to you?

It still has this reputation, rightly I believe. The reason is not that it is too mathematical or too hard. The reason is that, in order to solve the mathematics seeking to capture the essence of really-existing capitalism, one needs to introduce axioms (some of them hidden) that rule out… capitalism’s most essential aspects (e.g. the labour process, money, debt). Understandably, the smarter students realise this and lose interest in models of capitalism engineered to be irrelevant to anyone with an interest in… capitalism.

In my work, especially in several textbooks on economic theory, game theory and political economy that I have published, I have tried to re-energise the students’ imagination by pinpointing the fascinating politics hiding behind the economists’ basic axioms and by illustrating the analytical limits of the theories at hand.

What do you consider to be the major challenges for young people entering the global workforce?

The main challenge remains a time-invariant one: To find a job that you would love to do for free, and still get paid a decent salary to do!

The new challenge, presented by changes in the labour process and market, is how to use technology smartly, without ending up its servant, and remain at liberty to choose one’s partners at work – and, of course, in life more broadly.

What do you see as the future for Britain in Europe after Brexit, and for the future of Europe?

I refuse to issue predictions, if only because they will in all likelihood turn out to be gloomy. Instead, I would like to emphasise the importance of working together at ensuring that, Brexit or not, democracy, decency, and economic cooperation become a pan-European force for good that counters in Europe and in Britain the toxic powers of nationalism, nativism as well as the establishment’s incompetent authoritarianism.

You recently wrote that the answer to globalism and isolationism is an authentic internationalism – an “International New Deal” that would involve a pooling of global savings. How would you convince nations that this is all in their best interest? 

Convincing the majority of people in a majority of countries that an International New Deal is in their interests is not intrinsically hard. Logic and common sense are on our side. Think about it: We live in a world that generates the highest level of savings and the lowest level of investment since the 2nd World War (as a proportion of planetary income). Market forces have failed spectacularly to energise these idle savings and to turn them into investment into the green technologies that humanity craves. One only needs to state this fact to realise that we need a New Deal approach at a planetary level: a political mechanism, guided by an accord at the G20 level, that soaks up the excess savings and funds the planet’s innovators as well as our communities’ maintainers (e.g. the good women and men that look after the elderly, educate the young, service the sewers, etc.)

The true difficulty, therefore, is not to convince the people. The momentous task is to push aside the vicious obstructionism of the tiny minority whose petty interests are served by the current, unsustainable status quo.

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