Our progressive internationalism – The Nation

On November 25, at a hip “event loft” in Berlin, Yanis Varoufakis announced that he’d be campaigning for office in two countries at once. In the spring, the former Greek finance minister had declared his intention to run for prime minister back home in Athens—and in ordinary times, that might have been enough. Today, though, “discontent, xenophobia, and precariousness are on a triumphant march” around the world, as Varoufakis told his mostly German audience.

Flanked by a dozen members of DiEM25, the pan-European movement launched in 2016 to “democratize” the continent’s institutions, Varoufakis announced that he would run for a seat representing Germany in the European Parliament. He would make his bid as a Greek, a European, and, you might even say, a Berliner—all to drive home a larger point about the necessity of thinking beyond borders. “No European people can be prosperous and free when other European countries are condemned to the permanent depression that eternal austerity creates,” he said.

Persistent unemployment, cuts to welfare, and other suffocating economic policies across the continent help explain why Varoufakis chose Germany—a country he’s best known for antagonizing, precisely over its leaders’ support for austerity, in the fraught negotiations over Greece’s debt in 2015. These circumstances are also the motivating force behind the Progressive International, an initiative that Varoufakis launched five days later in Burlington, Vermont, with DiEM25 and the Sanders Institute.

 Building broad-based coalitions takes time, and for now, the Progressive International is just a website with some inspiring language and a video. Its membership is also very Eurocentric. But Varoufakis hopes it will blossom into a global movement that helps leftists create coherent platforms, policies, and parties to defeat the “nationalist international” masterminded by Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.

It’s a fuzzy plan, of course, and one that Varoufakis’s critics deem implausible. Aren’t ideas like “democratizing” the European Union and making global finance more “progressive” oxymorons? How will a ragtag group of leftists dream up a new monetary system and an ecological New Deal for the whole world when Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil call the shots?Then again, pockets of the left—and even popular officials like potential 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders—are starting to rally behind an internationalism that seeks to displace the right’s authoritarian nationalism with a more egalitarian vision of global politics. “In order to effectively combat the rise of the international authoritarian axis, we need an international progressive movement…that addresses the massive global inequality that exists, not only in wealth but in political power,” Sanders wrote in The Guardian in September.

Along the way, Varoufakis has found that not everyone is taken with his commitment to freedom of movement and his conviction that the European Union should remain. For practical reasons and sometimes philosophical ones, parties like Labour in the United Kingdom, Podemos in Spain, and Die Linke in Germany operate as if social democracy in their own country is more important than a socialism that crosses borders. Varoufakis’s outlook is more expansive; that’s what makes his radical leftist internationalism so challenging, and yet so necessary.

Four days after his speech in Berlin, Varoufakis flew to Vermont, disembarked in Burlington’s tiny international airport, and made his way to a cocktail reception at an aquarium on Lake Champlain. The evening was hosted by the nonprofit Sanders Institute, which is run by Jane O’Meara Sanders (Bernie’s spouse) and her son David Driscoll. The Vermont senator, who was also present, has no formal role in the institute or in the Progressive International; nevertheless, he was the main attraction for the crowd of community organizers, political staffers, progressive politicians, and reporters in attendance. “I’ve never seen so many sensible shoes in my life,” remarked a guest from Los Angeles, scanning the room.

Varoufakis, who turned up wearing Doc Martens and with a leather jacket slung over his shoulder, immediately began making the rounds, exchanging handshakes and bear hugs with friends and colleagues. When the lines of his face settle into a mischievous smirk, you get the sense that Varoufakis is operating on two levels: in the present day, which is full of distractions, cumbersome details, and bothersome personalities; and in the Hegelian zeitgeist, the forward march of history, where his worldview comes into clear, urgent focus in opposition to the dominant reactionary forces. “There’s a clear dilemma,” Varoufakis told me the next morning. “Either we move down that road of toxic politics with the renationalization of authoritarian power, or we move towards an internationalism.”

The challenge, of course, is to connect the two planes and turn everyday activism into something more potent than the sum of its parts. That’s hard for an internationalist left to do when elections themselves are nationally bounded and when right-wing governments hold so much political power.

While traditional activists might start small—organizing a community, a union, or some other manageably sized group—Varoufakis has tried to bridge the gap between theory and practice through clever hacks. He registered as a candidate in Germany thanks to a rarely-used regulation allowing any European with proof of residence within the country to run; to establish it, Varoufakis simply rented an apartment from a German friend. Billionaires shift their tax residence all the time; why shouldn’t leftists?

Back when Varoufakis was a finance minister and thinking of contingency plans to keep Greece running should it be forced out of the euro, he considered recruitinga childhood friend to hack into the country’s digital tax infrastructure in order to assign each account credits so that people could continue spending. Then, in February, DiEM25 was part of an effort to convince the European Parliament to hand over the seats that Britain had forfeited through Brexit to transnational parties like theirs. That failed, but interventions like these can push the limits of where we think politics can happen.

Varoufakis appears in the video for only a couple of seconds, but he might as well have written it. “Globalization was all about the freedom of capital and the unfreedom of people,” he told me. “Internationalism should be all about freedom of humans…and restraining the financial genie. Money is a public good that is never privately produced, [so] it has to be publicly controlled.”

Without him saying as much, you get the sense that Varoufakis wants us all to live in the transnational world he’s in. It’s a world where any Greek citizen can not only move to Germany to live and work, but also participate in its political life. It’s a world where international finance is something easy (or at least possible) to understand and to battle; a world where ordinary people end up with a real say in Europe’s—and the world’s—most powerful institutions.

In fact, Varoufakis is currently at work on his fifth mass-market book—“my Utopia,” he called it, referring to the 16th-century political satire by Thomas More. The Shaken Superflux—the book’s working title—seeks to answer, from the vantage point of 2035, questions like: “How could the world be structured differently? How could society function differently?”

The book’s premise is that the 2008 financial crash was so cataclysmic that it split the space-time continuum. This bifurcation created two trajectories: the current course of events, and another in which the left didn’t squander the crisis and instead seized the world’s trading desks to bring down financialized capital. “I’m using science-fiction tools to get glimpses into how this would look,” Varoufakis said. The book’s subtitle: “Dispatches From an Alternative Present.”

Virtually everyone at the Vermont conference agreed that the Progressive International’s basic thrust is laudable. But as Varoufakis has begun to pitch his grand vision—which he insists must be paired with policies and planned actions—more prosaic concerns about elections, alliances, and, well, politics have come into play.

Take his electoral campaigns in Europe. In Germany as in Greece, Varoufakis’s platform consists of an expansive “New Deal” to end austerity across the continent. In both countries, he is running as a member of DiEM25; European Spring, the transnational partnership that DiEM25 has created with like-minded parties, now counts some 100 candidates sharing a platform across the EU.

They’re not in it to win, exactly. After all, Varoufakis is a game theorist; he knows the chances of victory are slim. It’s still early days, but parties under the European Spring umbrella—Benoît Hamon’s Génération.s in France, Alternativet in Denmark, and Razem in Poland, to name just a few—are polling around 3 percent of the vote or less. Even if they somehow prevail, said Michael Broening, a political analyst at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a think tank affiliated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany, the European Spring project is severely limited.

“Varoufakis’s Diem25 is proof that in Europe, personal celebrity status does not automatically translate into political influence,” Broening wrote in an e-mail. “Essentially what we are looking at is another radical-left fringe movement that aims to unite the left but could ultimately further divide it. Its adamant pro-European stance is unlikely to act as a rallying call.”

Indeed: Varoufakis’s run from Germany is a repudiation of Euroskepticism; a middle finger to his fascist, centrist, and leftist critics; and an epic troll, all rolled into one (though he prefers to call it “symbolic”).

This aspect of Varoufakis’s politics is far from mainstream. Nationalism is the default ideology for the extreme right, but the nation is also the framework within which most center and left parties shape tax policy, government services, and everything in between (after all, that’s where they hold power.) Now, debates over immigration are pushing parties on the left to choose sides. DiEM25’s priority is to end “forced” migration—whether the people are migrating as a matter of safety or economic necessity—while preserving freedom of movement as a matter of principle. But others are prepared to take Hillary Clinton’s advice and make concessions on the number of migrants they’re willing to admit in their countries for the sake of winning elections. Die Linke, one Germany’s biggest left parties, is split on this very question; France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon has railed against the downward pressure that immigration exerts on wages, and his party has recently refused to sign an open letter welcoming migrants.

Whether the European Union is worth salvaging is also a divisive question among progressives. UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, with whom Varoufakis has discussed the Progressive International, has hardly been a fierce advocate of Britain’s remaining in the EU, and he’s said that he will not attempt to reverse Brexit if elected prime minister. Corbyn would’ve been welcome in Vermont, but he opted to attend his friend Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s inauguration as the next president of Mexico instead. (“We must never forget the human dimensions—an important part of leftist politics!” Varoufakis rationalized, noting that Corbyn’s wife is Mexican).

Given these kinds of disagreements, what Varoufakis wants is to push an alternative narrative to “left populism,” which advocates a fortress-like conception of social democracy. He characterizes any kind of populism as an outright capitulation to the far right. “And that’s why we’re not with them,” he said, explaining why DiEM25 had opted to form its own faction instead of joining the existing leftist coalitions in Europe.

“I feel bad that they have not come to discuss a common program so that we can run together,” Varoufakis continued. “I do not feel bad that we’re taking away votes from them, because they will lose. They will keep becoming irrelevant as long as they stick to lowest-common-denominator programs.”

Winnie Wong, the co-founder of People for Bernie who now advises Die Linke and Podemos, sees this tactic as alienating and impractical. “Yanis wanted other parties to adopt his platform,” she said. “But [Podemos leader] Pablo Iglesias didn’t want to be part of it. He didn’t think it would help him win more seats.”

Wong and other Bernie-adjacent organizers travel frequently to Europe to participate in workshops about getting out the vote and canvassing, and she told me that she’s noticed a resurgence of internationalist thought—and praxis—in the past two years. Still, she added, “we don’t believe in parachuting in as Americans”—implying that Varoufakis is doing something similar, making unwelcome interventions into national elections. “We think the best way is not to interfere with what they’re doing.”

Varoufakis, Wong contends, has not done the boring, everyday legwork at the local level to build popular support. Since his political trajectory took him straight from an economics department to Brussels (and, just as quickly, back again), she sees his lack of buy-in from Europe’s established parties as a major shortcoming.

“Yanis is a very talented troll,” Wong said, noting that his skills might be better suited to running the European Central Bank, not fighting for votes in two national political races. (Varoufakis might agree, but there’s the rub: The top job at the ECB isn’t a democratically elected position.) “He has a great platform that no one disagrees with—and if this is a narrative intervention, that’s great. But he’s in the tower. He’s creating strategies in the tower.”

“Of course we need progressive internationalism,” said Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of the socialist magazine Jacobin, which has reading groups and sister publications in several countries. “But it’s not clear to me how [the Progressive International] relates to the existing—and, at times, quite effective—networks of international cooperation on the left.

“We have a party of the European left; we have think tanks and institutes; parties share experiences and strategies,” Sunkara continued. Varoufakis’s new effort “will make a media splash, but I’m just not sure what the value is of having something else.”

Bernie Sanders, for his part, is noticeably cautious when discussing Varoufakis’s initiative in institutional terms. “We’re talking about it,” he said during a break at the Vermont conference. Still, he added, “the demagogues and authoritarians are coming together, and it’s important that we do, too.”

A Sanders staffer explained that it was important to separate the Sanders Institute from the senator’s legislative work, and that while Sanders is supportive of all the ideas that Varoufakis is pushing, the Progressive International remains the former Greek finance minister’s project, not his. It’s also hard not to wonder how an alliance with the Progressive International would look to the Washington establishment if Sanders were someday president, given that Varoufakis has spoken at various times of “nationalizing and internationalizing” profits from social-media platforms, rebuilding the world’s monetary system, banning trading on the stock market—period—and other decidedly radical initiatives.

Still, while Sanders might not be buying in as a US senator, it doesn’t change the fact that the language of the Progressive International and his own rhetoric in recent months align almost perfectly. There’s the same focus on wealth inequality, oligarchy, and power; it’s just that one of them is much more inclined to quote Karl Marx.

On the final public appearance of his US tour, Varoufakis spoke on a panel at Mayday, a community center in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. His wife, Danae, had accompanied him, and they both seemed at ease in the run-down building, making small talk and drinking cheap wine out of plastic cups in the “green room”—a shabby corner of an office on the second floor. “You travel thousands of miles and you still end up in Exarchaia,” joked David Adler, an American who works closely with Varoufakis on the Progressive International, referring to an anarchist neighborhood in Athens.

Soon, they were joined by state Senator-elect Julia Salazar, a democratic socialist, and New York City public-advocate candidate Nomiki Konst, a former journalist who’d visited the couple at their vacation home on a Greek island last summer.

The evening prior, Varoufakis had appeared at the New School with Haddad, the leader of the Workers Party, the largest left party in Brazil. Earlier in the day, he’d met with a group of progressives in Manhattan to start fleshing out what, exactly, the Progressive International would try to achieve. Just days before that, he’d been schmoozing with Sanders and the actors John Cusack and Danny Glover. In contrast, the panel with Salazar and Konst was small potatoes, but Varoufakis seemed every bit as enthusiastic there as he was in Vermont, or at the New School, or in any other arena. Whether that’s a function of his vanity or of his genuine conviction that he can make a change in people’s thinking by sheer force of will, it still counts for a lot. Varoufakis is showing up. And there’s a word for that: solidarity.