The economist Yanis Varoufakis was the finance minister in Greece for six tumultuous months in 2015, before resigning from the Syriza government. Last year he launched the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25). He is also the author of several books. His latest is Talking to My Daughter About the Economy.
Your new book, explaining the history and iniquity of capitalism, is addressed to your 12-year-old daughter, Xenia. What did she think of it?
My daughter is my worst critic, so even if she likes something I do or write she is very averse to complimenting me. In this context her words of encouragement were the best I could have hoped for. Something like: “Not too bad.”
Is she interested in economics?
No she’s not at all interested in economics, but she’s very much interested in politics, even though she wouldn’t call it politics. She’s interested in political issues, which have to do with feminism, racism and inequality. She would never come up with the sentence: “I’m interested in politics.” But it’s the issues that matter, not the labels.
What was it like writing in relatively simple terms? Did it make you reconsider your opinions?
It was simultaneously highly joyous and very demanding. It was a great joy not to have to address an audience with preconceptions, but also very challenging to try to explain capitalism without referring to capitalism. But in the end, unless you can do that, you don’t understand yourself what you’re going on about. Jargon hides incomprehension.
Do you want to moderate capitalism or end it?
Both. Capitalism cannot end by sheer willpower. As we all know, it was a spectacular failure of the left to try to end capitalism. Capitalism has to be moderated and stabilised, because its deep crisis, as we see today, is that it does not encourage humanism. It encourages misanthropy. We must stabilise the situation and have a discussion about how the new technologies can be put to use for humanity.
You describe writing the book at your beautiful island house in Aegina with its extraordinary view of the Saronic Gulf. Would you like to see a world where individuals would not enjoy that kind of material privilege?
No, I would like to live in a world where we’re all privileged, and in a sense we are because I believe beauty abounds, all around us, as long as our social circumstances allow us to enjoy it and not wreck the environment. The most important ingredient for enjoyment and appreciation is to be in control of one’s life and to be able to choose your partners, and if you do that the world looks very beautiful all around you. I think this is a privilege we can all have.
You write that we do not allow ourselves to think that poverty may be the product of the same process that led to our affluence. Is your enjoyment of your privilege undermined by the knowledge that it has come at the cost of others?
First, yes, absolutely right. Privilege comes at the price of exploitation. No one can have millions in the bank – not that I do – and think that they have earned it. But secondly, our next-door neighbour in Aegina is a farmer who lives a fairly subsistence kind of life and has exactly the same view. I think he’s privileged too, but in a different kind of way. Happiness is rarely a function of privilege.
On DiEM25’s advisory panel is Julian Assange, an Australian who fled European law by entering the Ecuadorian embassy. Is he a fit person to advise on Europe?
I’m very proud to count Julian as one of my friends. You will have noticed that the Swedish prosecutor has dropped any intention of charging him. It seems absurd that someone is deemed guilty even though no charge have been laid upon him. Julian Assange is being persecuted for a very simple reason: he embarrassed the US and the surveillance establishment. Wikileaks is a brilliant attempt to turn the mirror on Big Brother. This is why Julian is effectively incarcerated in the Ecuadorian embassy.
Are we to believe his accusers were part of a conspiracy to extradite him to the US?
I have no interest in speculation. What I do know is that the Swedish prosecutor never charged Julian with anything. Now the US government has explicitly stated that there is a grand jury convening in secret, all ready to request his extradition on charges of espionage. The court case will be a sham. His lawyers will not be given the charges or evidence. It will be held behind closed doors and he will disappear into a supermax prison for ever. No liberal can support this process.
Do you have any relations now with your former friend, the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras?
No, because I don’t think there is anything he would have to say to me. In order to carry on doing what he does he has to keep telling himself a story that he knows deep down is baseless. So the conversation between us would be extremely brief and pointless.
Do you think in his heart Jeremy Corbyn was a Remainer?
I believe he was persuaded by the arguments of those like John McDonnell and myself. There is no incongruity between not wanting to enter the EU and saying that once you’re in, getting out is not a good idea. The criticism that he was not passionate about the EU is ludicrous. No one can be passionate about the EU. We criticise Europe fiercely but we’re not proposing to exit it. I think that’s the position Jeremy Corbyn converted to in the end.
What else are you doing at the moment, aside from writing and DiEM25?
I give some lectures for financial reasons – partly to have an income for my family, and partly to support DiEM25. It’s an amazing experience to go to Hamburg and give two lectures in one day – in the morning to 500 German bankers, and then in the evening to 1,000 DiEM25 activists. I give the same speech, more or less. When I get a fantastic reception from both these audiences I realise what a deep crisis Europe is in.
It is the 100th anniversary of the Russian October Revolution. When you look at its legacy, do you think it’s worthy of celebration?
Absolutely. But, of course, like every other revolution in the end it went badly wrong. The celebrations must be nuanced. It’s a dialectical process in which we celebrate and mourn at the same time. Yet again, this is the stuff of all good drama.
Talking to My Daughter About the Economy by Yanis Varoufakis is published by Bodley Head (£14.99). To order a copy for £10.49 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99