FT Alphachat 28 MAR 2019: On Democracy, Europe, the UK and Greece

05/04/2019 by

Alphaville’s Jemima Kelly and Izabella Kaminska sat down with Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece and current organiser of a trans-European group, DiEM25, of what he calls “radical Europeanists” — in favour of union, without deflation or austerity. Mr Varoufakis answers criticism from the left, pointing out that even if the euro or the EU were poorly conceived, leaving them now would have catastrophic consequences for the poor. He gives a brief history of economic thought, connecting Joseph Schumpeter back to Karl Marx, saying it’s not so clear that leftists know what Marx, a globalist, would be saying today. Oh, and also: Pamela Anderson.

Alphachat is the conversational podcast about business and economics produced by the Financial Times in New York. Each week, FT hosts and guests delve into a new theme, with more wonkiness, humour and irreverence than you’ll find anywhere else


Varoufakis, as an academic and economist first and foremost, is a reluctant politician. He recently told The Economist, when asked if he considers himself as such: “No. The moment I do, shoot me.” And yet, we speak to him just a few days after the launch of European Spring, the electoral branch of his new Democracy in Europe Movement, or DiEM25, which he says is the first transnational democratic movement in Europe.

He’s running for European Spring in the upcoming European Parliament elections. But he’s running in Germany, not Greece. “We decided to disrupt politics, so we have a German running in Greece, I am running in Germany, we have an Italian running in France, we have a French person running in Italy. Because if you’re going to do transnational politics, you have to do transnational politics,” he says.

This, Varoufakis tells us, is “radical Europeanism”. That’s about opposing the current European régime of austerity and deflation, but without opposing Europe and Europeanism itself. It’s an interesting title — Varoufakis, who calls himself an “erratic Marxist”, has been criticised for not being radical or Marxist enough, and not advocating all-out socialism or a leftwing exit from the European Union. But he suggests that the Left is wrong to assume they know what Marx’s message would have been if he were around today, and argues that Marxism has influenced liberal thinkers, like Joseph Schumpeter, just as it has Leftist thought.

As well as being a somewhat unwilling politician, Varoufakis is a reluctant celebrity. He tells us his posing with his wife for that Paris Match photo shootin the midst of the crisis was “an awful decision” that he “very much” regrets. He also says the labelling of him as a “global celebrity” in the cover of his 2016 book, And the Weak Suffer What They Must? was not endorsed by him. (Neither, he says, was the subtitle for his 2017 account of the six months he spent as Greek finance minister, Adults in the Room. The subtitle, translated into German, is something like Mein Kampf mit Europas tiefem Establishment. You can see why he didn’t like it.)

But this reluctance doesn’t mean he shies away from spending time with other celebrities. Pamela Anderson, of Baywatch and Playboy fame, is an ambassador for DiEM25, and appeared on stage with him last week in Brussels for the European Spring’s “Citizen Takeover of the EU Institutions”.Varoufakis calls her reasons for wanting to be involved “absolutely disarming and charming and wonderful”

Anderson, who is now a resident of France, has also spoken out in defence of the gilets jaunes, who Varoufakis calls the “unruly children of austerity”. He characterises France “the barometer of Europe”, arguing that when there is discontent in Europe, protests erupt in the country before anywhere else, and criticises Emmanuel Macron for his fruitless Germanisation of the French labour market.

We also talk a bit, inevitably, about Brexit. Varoufakis compares Britain to Greece, arguing that both countries suffer from a deluded sense of grandeur thanks to glories past, and now have a sense of weakness and helplessness. But he says that the current political crisis in Britain should provide an opportunity to have a serious rethink about the British business model, constitutional arrangements, and the relationship with the rest of the world.

Before the tape started rolling, we had a quick chat about Goldman Sachs’s role in the run-up to the Greek debt crisis, with the bank having made a reported $500m from helping Greece to conceal its debts. But Varoufakis said this was immaterial in the grand scheme of things:

It didn’t break Greece. Goldman was marginal. Insignificant. It was symbolically important but not in terms of the volume of debt — they covered up 5 billion. We had 320 billion (euros of debt). What’s 5?

After our chat, Varoufakis threw on a waxed jacket (sorry yes, we hoped it would be leather too), we hailed a cab for him, and the FT video team interviewed him in the back of a London cab. You can watch that here if you’re interested.

But most importantly, do have a listen, and let us know what you want to hear next, on alphachat at ft dotcom.

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