Politics in a time of pandemic are grim. In the face of such global catastrophe, one that has only exacerbated the extractive, sclerotic nature of our existing economy, those on the left are burdened with the question: is there an alternative? And, if there is, how can we get there? These are the very questions that rogue, heterodox economist Yanis Varoufakis attempts to answer in his latest book, Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present, part speculative fiction and part post-capitalist textbook.
No stranger to metaphor, much of Varoufakis’s appeal can be found in his intuitive and fable-like articulation of economic theory. In past work (such as 2017’s Talking to My Daughter About the Economy and 2011’s The Global Minotaur), he has written in detail on the “magical power” of bankers, who transport interest-infested money from our future to the present. And, in his writing about the human “ghost” in the capitalist “machine”, Varoufakis has shown how our unpredictable nature can haunt the supposedly infallible mechanisms of the free market.
Having risen to prominence during his short time as Greece’s finance minister in 2015, Varoufakis’s tale of the “tumbling mountaineers” is perhaps closest to home: a collective of rock climbers are bound together by a single rope, each falling one after the other in the wake of an earthquake (this being an illustration of the slow, inevitable crash that gradually made its way throughout the European Union post-2008). Rather than simplify the many complex, hard-to-grasp contradictions of our late-capitalist economy, these stories instead work to clarify them.
And so, in a body of work teeming with allusions to both ancient myth and modern legend, it only makes sense that when laying out his blueprint for an egalitarian, post-capitalist economy, Varoufakis would take his storytelling method to its logical conclusion: a genuine work of fiction. Taking place in the year 2025, the narrative of Another Now follows Costa, Iris and Eva, a trio of clashing ideologues (techno-futurist, revolutionary feminist and free-market fundamentalist respectively) who find themselves in communication with their counterparts in what they come to call the “Other Now”.
This Other Now takes the form of an alternate future where, after the global financial crisis of 2008, the world began a slow process of readjustment, a process through which a new, post-capitalist economy came into being. How did this Other Now come about? Through targeted, grassroots action initiated by a collective of intersecting movements that attacked our existing economy’s most unstable handmaidens: the stock market and private investment. Like all good science fiction, the mechanics of exactly how Costa, Iris and Eva come to discover this Other Now are not particularly scientific; instead, they are merely a framework whereby Varoufakis can mount this bold, neo-Socratic thought experiment.
Despite being Socratic in method, the many dialogues between Costa, Iris and Eva never read as schematic. Although the three characters are clearly stand-ins for their respective ideologies – jointly acting as a kind of fictional sounding-board through which Varoufakis can test his proposed vision of a democratic-socialist utopia – there remains a very human, very real sense of history between the three.
Each of the them had, “in their different ways, been lured in and then defeated by modernity”. Costa, a former “tech evangelical”, is haunted by his “badly misplaced faith in the digital revolution’s emancipatory powers”. Iris, a revolutionary Marxist incensed by a “long string of dispiriting leftist calamities”, is sceptical of the idea that any future “revolution” will not simply re-enforce the oppressions of old (“Mark my words. The moment our comrades get a whiff of power they’ll sacrifice every principle they ever held,” she states defiantly). And Eva, a former Wall Street banker, is unable to shake the guilt of peddling “the weapons of mass financial destruction” that tanked the global economy in 2008.
Through Varoufakis’s portrayal of these individuals, one senses a push-and-pull present within the author himself: the tech-utopian, the revolutionary leftist and the rational economist. “Writing this as a manual would have been unbearable,” Varoufakis explained. “It would have forced me to pretend that I have taken sides in arguments that remain unresolved in my head – often in my heart.” At best, the back-and-forth between these three characters reminds one of the effortless, post-dinner to early-morning conversations one has with close friends: a slow unfurling where any idea – however bizarre, ridiculous or tangential – remains up for discussion.
But if this is the framework through which Varoufakis can explore his vision of a potential future, the question still remains: what does this Other Now look like? After stumbling upon his first dispatches from the Other Now, Costa is similarly perplexed. “What had Kosti [the name given to Costa’s alternate-universe twin] meant when he mentioned that the corporation he worked for had no boss? What did he mean when he said there were no longer any banks? That no one owned land or paid taxes?”
“No bosses, no wages, no problem”. This is the subheading that introduces us to what Kosti calls “corpo-syndicalism” (a riff on the term “anarcho-syndicalism”, a method of worker self-governance practised most famously by the Spanish anarchists during the Spanish Civil War). In the Other Now, each worker in their respective corporation or business is given an equal share within the company: “One person, one share, one vote”.
What does this mean? Each worker, regardless of their role, is paid a flat wage, resulting in net-higher wages for everyone without the self-perpetuating hierarchies of upper management. The workers themselves are not forced into specific roles, but are free to leave or switch positions at any given time. Lest anyone talk about a lack of incentive, there remains in the Other Now democratically decided bonuses, which are distributed at the end of each month (this is done in a transparent manner in order to avoid potential bonus-stacking).
Because each individual owns a share within their respective business, this achieves three things. First, each worker within any given company has an equal say over the direction of the profits that they have collectively earned. Second, a system of “one person, one share, one vote” disincentivises the mega-monopolies of our present day, for if each worker has a say about the direction of the business, then the larger a company grows, the more inefficient it is bound to become. And third, if one must work for a company in order to own a share in it, and this share is non-tradeable and non-negotiable, then, in one fell swoop, the stock market has effectively been abolished. No longer can the wealthy profit via speculation, the trading of exorbitantly priced shares being a risky practise that routinely crashes capitalist economies. But workplace democracy is not all that’s on Varoufakis’s agenda here.
What do we do to fight poverty? A universal basic “dividend” is deposited into one’s account at regular intervals, enough money for a person to survive comfortably without being forced into work, paid for with a blanket 5% revenue tax on each and every business.
Can we ensure housing is a human right? Socialised housing is a key feature of the Other Now, the construction and upkeep of which is financed through rent collected within “commercial zones” (land which can be privately rented out by both businesses and the individuals who are willing to pay for it).
How do we begin to reckon with the damage wrought by Western imperialism? Through a worldwide, cooperative currency union, trade levies are paid for by those who profit most from the imbalances of global trade. These levies are then funnelled into free development funds for the countries and regions most in need.
There is something exciting, even invigorating, about envisioning this world alongside Varoufakis. It is a vision that not only inspires, but also works to strengthen one’s critique, for if you can begin to see the world in which you’re fighting for, then it can help to clarify exactly what you’re fighting against.
But not content to merely describe economic utopia, Varoufakis instead makes the very human impact of this potential future his main concern. In foregrounding this impact through the conversations of Costa, Iris and Eva, he wrestles with the many questions that typically fall outside the domain of economics. Of all these questions, the ones raised by Iris and her Other Now counterpart, Siris, are the thorniest.
“Mountains move, banking becomes extinct, even capitalism dies, but patriarchy lives on like a hard-to-kill cockroach,” announces Siris late in the book. For although the Other Now may have done away with economic inequality, true liberation – one that allows us to transcend the toxic grasp of racism, sexism, homophobia and hierarchy – is not a purely economic matter.
There is tragedy in Iris’s realisation that the future she fights for – one where kindness is a “sovereign good” and mutual aid is unconditional – has not yet come to be. This is a tragedy that all radicals must eventually face, and it speaks to Varoufakis’s intellectual humility that in the excitement of envisioning his Other Now he does not fall victim to vulgar economic determinism. Here is a post-capitalist textbook that also asks us: is transcending capitalism enough?
Like all good post-dinner conversations, one finishes Another Now buzzing with a sense of possibility. Varoufakis, having moved past the incisive critique of his previous work, now offers us a workable and articulate blueprint for real-world change. Alongside this buzzing sense of possibility, there is also a sadness, the dawning realisation that these shared moments of inspiration and possibility must inevitably come to an end. Leaving this Other Now, a world that only accentuates the many problems of our own, one cannot help but feel a sense of loss. And yet, by sketching out so clearly what could be, Varoufakis makes our drive to get there grow only greater. Thinking about the future scares me sometimes. Reading Another Now, I am reminded that it doesn’t have to.