State socialism has failed because of its authoritarian excesses, but the idea of socialism still offers the only alternative for a viable future – says Yanis Varoufakis. In 2015, in the midst of the Greek sovereign debt crisis, he became finance minister under Alexis Tsipras until he resigned after the referendum. In the meantime, he has founded the pan-European movement DiEM25, which has set itself the goal of using democratization to keep the EU from collapsing. Since last year he has returned to politics and is represented in the Greek parliament, as head of MeRA25, the party offshoot of DiEM25.
Varoufakis is still one of the loudest critics of European financial policy and with his latest book Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present presents a speculative alternative to our capitalist present. In the fictional world of Varoufaki’s SciFi novel, the economy functions according to the principles of »libertarian socialism«: no stock exchange, no banks, no bosses and instead democratic self-administration by the employees. In an interview he explains how this could be organized and why the democratization of the financial sector is so central.
Let’s talk about your new book Another Now . There you design a post-capitalist alternative to our present. In this fictional world there are no private banks or stock exchanges and the companies are owned by the employees. What made you decide to write a science fiction novel?
Science fiction gives you the opportunity to speculate about another now. Like most leftists, I have long avoided thinking about what the alternative to capitalism might look like. Because the Soviet Union is not an alternative. And I see no future for social democracy. I wanted to write down my vision of another society and think about what market socialism might look like today.
But when I tried to develop a utopia of it, I wanted to give up immediately. I just didn’t feel like writing a book like this. That’s because I have many different perspectives on these issues and sometimes contradict myself.
The form of the novel allowed me to get into the heads of different characters and to shed light on different points of view that I believe to be correct – even if they are sometimes not always compatible.
In your book you not only describe an alternative to our financialized capitalism, but also an alternative to authoritarian socialism. I would describe this as a kind of libertarian socialism. What are the most important economic differences between our present and the present that you describe in your novel?
Before I go into the main differences, I would like to note that I have long considered myself a libertarian Marxist. This causes laughter and outrage from both Marxists and libertarians because they accuse me of being a hypocrite. If you are libertarian you cannot be a Marxist and if you are a Marxist you cannot be libertarian, they say. I see it differently.
I don’t think you’re in favor of freedom if you don’t mind Google or Amazon owning the world. And I don’t think you can be a Marxist if you don’t abhor power, no matter whose hands it is in. This also applies to the political commissars of the Communist Party and the state.
But now to the differences between the present, which I describe in the book, and our present day. Let me name the most important ones.
First, every employee in a company automatically receives a company share and thus also a voting right. You can imagine it as if you as a student at the beginning of your studies automatically receive a library card from the university. You can’t sell it, you can’t transfer it to someone else, and you can’t have more than one library card. And it would be the same with voting rights in the company. You can’t sell it, you can only use it for collective decision-making. If companies worked like this, we would have created some form of economic democracy within the company. However, this does not mean that everyone would be paid equally, there could even be very large wage differences, however, these would be democratically agreed by the members. I call this “corpo syndicalism”. If you did that, there would be no more stock markets, which is why I also refer to the other now as post-capitalism.
The second difference is that central banks would open accounts for each and every one of us. At the moment only private banks can do that, but you and I can’t. But if everyone had an account with the ECB, then suddenly there would no longer be a need to open an account with a private bank. The stock markets and private banks would not be banned in this scenario, they would just no longer play a major role, and so the enormous market power concentrated in the hands of a very few would dissolve. And so we would have markets without capitalism.
How would wages be set in such a company? It seems to me that you are describing the great dream of abolishing wage labor through the democratization of companies.
That’s right, the democratization of companies would mean the abolition of profits and wages.
Assuming you, me and fifty other people started a company and each of us had a stake in the company, that wouldn’t mean we all got equal pay. If we collectively conclude that some are more valuable to our collectives than others, we would be paying them higher wages than the rest of us. Otherwise there is a risk that we will lose these people to another company. The difference to our current capitalism is that we would have decided the pay difference democratically.
In my book, the Korpo Syndicalism model, I propose the following. First: Everyone decides together what percentage of the income will be spent on research. The more we invest in research and development, the less we collect as income. We decide collectively what the minimum wage is in a company and what bonuses are left over.
Then of course it has to be decided how these bonuses will be distributed, which is not that easy. I propose a solution that is similar to the voting principle in the Eurovision Song Contest. If you ignore the horrible music, the voting mechanism is very interesting. Each country receives a certain number of points that can be freely awarded, except for yourself. This is how it would work in our company. Each and every one would receive 100 points, which he or she could distribute to the others, depending on how important their contribution is to the company. At the end of the day, these points would then be allocated and the sum of the bonus paid out in proportion to the individual’s points.
What would happen to people like Jeff Bezos? In this scenario, would he have the same influence on who gets how much and what is done in the company as a caretaker?
There could be a transition period. I don’t mind if Jeff Bezos keeps his billions first. What bothers me more is that he is making even more profits every day by exploiting the market, employing workers on unworthy terms and having to close small bookstores and small businesses.
If Bezos wanted to work in a company like ours and we thought he was a smart and innovative person, we could assign our points in such a way that in the end he would still get a higher salary than you and me, only in this case we would decided on it together. That’s what it’s about me. I want wage differentials to be approved by all members of a company.
Where would the money come from with which companies could invest in new technologies if there were no more commercial banks, no stock exchanges and no more investment companies?
As I grew up, free market advocates, defenders of liberal capitalism, insisted time and again that capitalism was based on investment. And I’m sure that this is what the young people at the universities are still being told today. It is then asserted that families, individuals and households are saving and that companies then borrow these savings to make investments.
By now people should know that this is not the case. The money the banks lend is not anyone’s savings. This money is conjured up from nowhere. The banks can simply invent amounts and then lend this money to whoever – usually people who neither need the money nor want to do something good with it. For this very reason, the level of investment relative to available savings is lower today than it has ever been in the history of capitalism. This applies to both European and global capitalism. So the system no longer works as it should, even if capitalist propaganda is believed.
So where would the money come from if there was no longer an exchange? Well, in my book, I suggest that every baby be given not only a birth certificate at birth, but also an account with the central bank and a trust fund of around $ 100,000. You can only have this paid out as soon as you are of legal age and can present a convincing business or education plan. That would be a bit like when scientists submit research proposals to universities in order to receive funding. Let’s say you decide at some point to get into a company, then you would have 100,000 euros that you could bring in and invest in the company, but not in the form of shares. You’d just lend this money to the company, it doesn’t even have to be the company you work for
So in the socialist-democratic world of Another Now we would still borrow and lend money and do so via a very efficient digitized mechanism. The investments come from savings, as it should be in capitalism, but has not happened for a long time.
And then maybe there would be a few small banking cooperatives that investors and lenders would support. So the market for money would become much more efficient once you got rid of the stock exchanges and private banks.
Your book reads like a big proposal for the democratization of our coexistence, in addition to companies and finance, you also write about the areas of land, housing, migration and digitization. But you are also delivering a plan to democratize democracy.
Exactly, because in the book I also suggest that companies should be subject to social control. What I have in mind are citizens’ assemblies for every sector, in every district, in every region, one third of which would be occupied by elected representatives, but two thirds with randomly selected representatives from the entire population, who rotate every six months to revise the companies monitor. Because even democratized companies could do some damage to society. So my endeavors towards democratization do not end at the corporate gates, but also extend to the area of political democracy.
Market socialism has a long tradition, even if it is not very well known. How feasible are economic democracy and self-administration by the employees?
Capitalism is a terrible system in my eyes, but not because it is unfair and produces social inequality. The left made a big mistake, especially the SPD in Germany. The social democratic movement across Europe at some point in the 1930s accepted the premise that capitalism was ultimately an efficient machine for generating wealth but leading to inequality. So social democratic governments must intervene and redistribute wealth. I think differently.
The problem with capitalism is that it is inefficient. It creates one crisis after another. He’s destroying the planet. He’s wasting human potential. At the same time, I don’t want to have to work in a company that is just as hierarchically structured as Google, but that belongs to the state. The state socialism of the Soviet Union would be a nightmare for me. So there remains only market socialism.
This form of self-government has only been tried out in one country in the history of the last century, namely in Yugoslavia. There were many reasons for the collapse of this market socialism, but it had nothing to do with self-government and the democratization of companies. The failure is more likely to be blamed on the authoritarian Yugoslav government. And it is due to the fatal decision to take large loans from Western bankers in the early 1970s, which became extremely expensive in 1975 due to the huge surge in interest rates. But the system has been very successful for twenty years, so it can work.
I find it interesting that in your book the transition to corpo syndicalism is not initiated by social movements or trade unions, but by hackers who use the weapons of financial capitalism against banks and the stock markets. Are trade unions and social movements like Diem25 no longer up to the problems of our time?
No, I wouldn’t say that. Rather, I believe that social movements, trade unions, political parties are no longer enough today and that we should use the enemy’s weapons. We must bring financial management to its knees just as it did the working class, the young people, who brought people in the developing world to their knees with its financial engineering tools.
When I read your book, I asked myself how libertarian socialism or market socialism would deal with the corona crisis.
Well, we as humanity are more exposed to the threat of viruses, as our economy is dominated by large corporations that exploit natural resources in a certain way, that commercialize animals. At the same time, public health is suffering from the privatization of our hospitals and medical services. Finally, the public money that is printed in the central banks is extremely lavishly distributed to bankers and CEOs. And they don’t invest this money in anything that would be of value to society, but go public with this money to buy back their own shares.
None of these things would happen like this. In large conglomerates we would decide together how we use our resources. The companies would be much smaller and they would all be under democratic control. In addition, public health care would not be constantly threatened by privatization. And thirdly, the economic energy would not be wasted, but used for what is important to the people.
How is the situation in Greece right now?
In Greece, where the first lockdown was rather mild compared to Central Europe, Great Britain, the United States and Germany, as Covid-19 did not spread so much across Greece or the Balkans, the government did not respond to the second wave prepared. Given the exponential increase in deaths and infections, the government has now lost control and is panicking. And in order to divert attention from its own mistakes in the public debate, it is increasingly approaching authoritarianism. For example, the police are investigating me and two other politicians from parliament, the chairman of Syriza and that of the Communist Party, because we dared to criticize the state. We held a symbolic demonstration with four other MPs with a sufficient safety margin to draw attention to the government’s poor crisis management – which has failed to hire more doctors and nurses. Greece is slowly becoming the third illiberal democracy in the European Union, alongside Hungary and Poland. It is barely reported on the news, but I can assure you that the government is actively working to “orbanize” Greece. I say this with deep regret. But we are in Parliament and we will continue to fight against it. Greece is slowly becoming the third illiberal democracy in the European Union, alongside Hungary and Poland. It is barely reported on the news, but I can assure you that the government is actively working to “orbanize” Greece. I say this with deep regret. But we are in Parliament and we will continue to fight against it. Greece is slowly becoming the third illiberal democracy in the European Union, alongside Hungary and Poland. It is barely reported on the news, but I can assure you that the government is actively working to “orbanize” Greece. I say this with deep regret. But we are in Parliament and we will continue to fight against it.
You stand up against the collapse of Europe and for more solidarity. How do you assess the reaction of the European Union during the Corona crisis?
There is a considerable difference between 2020 and 2010 when the euro crisis erupted. In the meantime, the propaganda from Brussels, Berlin, Paris and our governments has become much more effective. Because most people in Europe and especially the commentators – including those who have criticized EU policy over the last ten years – are now of the opinion that the EU has responded adequately to the crisis and that the rescue funds are a sign of the Solidarity. It was said to be Europe’s Hamilton moment.
I think this is propaganda and I believe, rather, that the European Union and the political leadership have not lived up to their duties, in many ways.
First, the economic fund is way too small and way too late. It amounts to just 0.7 percent of GDP over a period of four years. We are calling for support of 7 percent, especially for the poorer classes and for small businesses. This difference is absolutely substantial, especially when you consider that a severe recession is falling over us.
The second aspect concerns the symbolic and political level and, in my opinion, is even more fatal. Because this fund was decided in the name of solidarity. This upset a lot of people in the Netherlands and Germany who are against tax transfers from the north. They said: Why should the Germans pay for the Greeks? And in a way, they’re right. Because this rescue fund is structured in such a way that the poorer German workers will subsidize the Greek and Italian oligarchs. Because the money from the fund will not go to the poor Greek population. Small farmers will see nothing of this money, the unemployed will see nothing of this money. It will go to the oligarchs. It will even go to German companies which our airports have taken over in the last ten years as a result of the bankruptcy of the Greek state. And now they will get the money from the German workers to invest in their airports in Mykonos and Santorini for free.
That’s a scandal. Then there is the process in which a decision is made about the distribution of this money. You sit down at a table and decide how much money should flow from the Netherlands and Germany to Greece. The advantage of a fiscal union lies precisely in the fact that the rich countries do not subsidize the poor countries, but rather the rich areas could support the poorer areas. What I would like to see would be that taxes from the rich north of Athens, from the rich parts of Stuttgart, from the rich part of Lombardy would flow to the low-income citizens of Germany, Greece and Italy. But that doesn’t happen. And I think,
That sounds pretty depressing. Now it is also said that one should not let a crisis pass unused. With this in mind: What lessons should the European and global left learn from the corona shock?
What we should have learned in 2008 and before that is that we cannot solve climate change, poverty, national debt and the banking crisis at the national level. We need a Green New Deal for Europe and the whole world. DiEM25 and the Progressive Internationale have been calling for this for a long time. We need such a project behind which the progressives worldwide unite.
Unfortunately, the fascists know only too well how to do it. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, the AfD – they’re all militaristic internationalists. They act as a unit. But we on the left don’t do that, we think in terms of the national state and look at the politics of the LEFT, the Greens, the SPD and so on. So the lesson is: the left must internationalize the struggle with a common program for the world.
Interview with Yanis Varoufakis conducted by Lukas Ondreka, Translation by Astrid Zimmermann
For Jacobin’s site, click here
Dissens verlost ein Exemplar “Another Now. Dispatches from an Alternative Present” unter allen Fördermitgliedern und denen, die es bis zur nächsten Folge werden Infos zum Buch hier
Lukas Ondreka @ondreka
Yanis Varoufakis @yanisvaroufakis
Progressive International @ProgIntl
Musik DOS-88 – City Lights: https://youtu.be/egKdVELkKVI
Dissens Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-SA