Varoufakis side of the story

It was a pleasure and an honour to host John Allen for a seminar series in Mexico. During two weeks in the spring of 2016, we found time to discuss many issues beyond science or academic slavery in British universities: in a typical Sanborns café in Coyoacan we also discussed the upcoming referendum that would recommend on whether the United Kingdom (UK) should severe ties with the European Union (EU). Sharing internationalist values, but also valuing sovereignity, democracy, social justice, education, the call was not obvious. John had recently read a Guardian article by Yanis Varoufakis and was keen to hear my views on him. So I tried to summarize the turbulent first half of 2015…

When Adults in the Room was published, John was quick to read and recommend the book. At first, I was not convinced it would be a good use of my limited reading time; after all, “recognising the nation’s debt” prior to the election had crossed another red line to support the Syriza political coalition; the first being that the ruling class would concede power permitting redistribution of wealth & decision-making capacity, without the constant pressure and organized mobilization of the people committed to the hardships of a workable political programme. Alexis Tsipras and his party were promising to tear apart the previous ‘memoranda of understanding‘, to bring out of poverty the Greek working classes, while abiding with all the constraints of the EU; so why waste time on unsustainable positions offered plainly to deceive the electorate?

When we met again with John in London earlier this year, he convinced me to buy the book, by then a best-seller, which was nevertheless not to be found at the bookstores of the Heathrow terminals. Eventually, John had a copy sent to me, which I have only just consumed. Happily, as the book begins, Yanis is under none of the illusions of the party with which he laboured, of what changes may have been possible ‘within the system’, in order to save it and improve it, perhaps, through reform. Yanis writes eloquently, the plot is deeply painful, about events most Greeks followed closely. The scenes he describes are still clearly imprinted in our collective memory; the consequences of the Syriza governance are omnipresent and to bear for years to come, if no revolution is prepared. And yet, first I would like to express my sincere thanks from this space for sharing his account, his interpretation of the mandate he operated under and how he tried to carry it out as the Minister of Finances of Greece. A much bigger thank you goes to him at the personal level, for the efforts he put, almost incessantly, working throughout the clock to reduce the country’s foreign dept.

I have not yet read what others have had to say about his book. As I was moving through, page after page, multiple thoughts were springing out. Highly stimulating, I recommend it whether one wishes to read a novel by Victor Hugo (but if you haven’t read these, pick them up first) or is concerned about Europe (past, present and/or future). Should I reply in some way? What should I emphasize if I did? And for whom was I writing? In his epilogue, Yanis regrets not having “enough people willing to hear me out critically before either agreeing or disagreeing.” I consider myself willing to have heard him out critically and yet, according to his writing, he might not be prepared to engage in a dialogue that challenges fundamentally the capitalist state, to which he lends support & admiration, next to his criticisms and proposed reforms. Having received his education outside one of the few remaining countries where the rulers failed to disrupt the communist movement’s continuity, he has never learned the history of the visionaries during the first half of the previous century to build a better world. Hence, he dismisses any discussion with the thousands of Greeks that have been at the heart of the people’s resistance during the past one hundred years, in this corner of Earth. One could object: but the ‘communist cadres’ would not take someone with the ideas of Yanis seriously, would they? It is my general thesis that severance of these type of dialogues is one of the most important tasks of the ruling class to preserve its rule — a highly invested form of the “divide and rule” that Yanis refers to when explaining how the EU institutions and Washington came to control the Syriza government from within.

One person who will read these lines, and for whom they are certainly written, is my good friend John. I would say he has in me the place perhaps people like Jamie Galbraith or Jeff Sachs or Nicholas Theocharakis or Lord Norman Lamont have in Yanis’ heart. But should I also consider a wider audience? Is what I write here of interest to the world? Yanis got me energised with the very episode he starts his book: he was asked by Larry Summers whether he was an outsider or an insider politician. Yanis explains how the former are never to be heard by the latter, reducing them, almost, to historical insignificance. “That’s where I stand“, I felt, “those making important decisions in this world can simply afford to ignore anything I do or say…” and yet, I am convinced Yanis believes in the power of an outsider.

So here I am and I will restrain myself to four, hastily written, contibutions. After all it is my last day of vacation and I return tomorrow to a small laboratory in Mexico’s prestigious Cinvestav to continue my studies of the ‘tiny’ fruit fly. I did put this to my father three weeks ago in Samos: “I sometimes wonder whether plunging so deep into trying to understand how Drosophila works or even how metals bring about life’s existence and properties in being able to reorganize the bonding of lighter elements, might in some ways be a life’s excuse to stay away from power and politics, which I deeply dislike in their present form and violence.” (Another reason to read Varoufakis, is to realize how little the establishment cares about the realities of life of normal people.) The 4 comments relate to i) what is known as a ‘national debt’ in the case of Greece; ii) a discussion on whether political parties should be organized in an open or closed manner (the insider vs outsider argument in political organization);  iii) a few statements on the role of EU institutions and the dominant Greek political class, to which Syriza has been welcomed; and finally, iv) a couple of questions to Yanis, in the form of an academic exercise, on how he might have done things, in retrospect. In this last part, I no longer keep the hat of the sympathizer to revolutionary solutions, I concede for the argument’s shake Yanis’ worldview and his strategy to change the world from within a national government operating inside the established institutions. Given he now invests his time on generating an international movement, the questions may have been already answered quite differently in his mind, but for me an exercise of “could things have gone differently?” would also reveal a great deal to the sincere student of the present time.

ON GREECE’S NATIONAL DEBT

Nikos Beloyannis exposed that the Greek national debt initiated as loans given by UK banks to a Bavarian Prince in order for the latter to accept to reign in the revolutionaries, imprison and murder their leaders and subject the people who had previously taken the arms against the Othoman occupation. Beloyannis paid with his life for exposing this and subsequent economical knowledge, together with others who were preparing to industrialize the country after its initially successful resistance movement that defeated the Nazi occupation. The British army then came to Athens in December 1944 as a peculiar ally with orders to treat the population as “occupied territory”, causing unimaginable and unreported bloodshed in the streets of Athens for a whole month. This bloody December was only two months after Athens had celebrated its liberation. A strong communist-led movement calling for laokratia had to be crashed. For this purpose, money was offered to maintain foreign armies and missionaries (first British and then from the United States fearful of USSR access to the Mediterranean sea) to exterminate the people who had previously liberated the country and reinstate the old rulers along with disgraced Nazi collaborators (common torturers and traitors). Such sound investment for the rulers of Great Britain and the USA was duped a continuation of our National “debts”. The German rulers, on the other hand, had made sure to remove all the gold from the Greek banks (never to be returned), a point never touched by Varoufakis, despite him mentioning briefly Zoe Konstantopoulou, who tried to push Germany on this issue. Without offering any of this as background, Yanis nevertheless shows how the 3 dramatic increases in our national “debt” were engineered (with the 2008 financial crisis being used as an excuse) to serve French and German financial interests passing the associated costs on the backs of the Greek people, initially, and later on the shoulders of the whole of the EU taxpayer (to be used as a divide and rule instrument.)

If the last sentence is not obvious to you, reader, do read the book. But with respect to the so-called national debt, my political position is that we prepare to explain to the international community why the people should not be paying for their (foreign or local) oppressors to rule them — in all countries — while working out economic systems that are not primarily based on extortion. Do we lack economic theory on how to organize a just and equitable society? Arguing for democracy is fine, but requires political knowledge and insitutions that we still need to generate. I sometimes also debate what should come first — the theory and vision of the revolutionary change or the revolutionary burst and then (while on fire) the discovery of the new ways. But there we are. This debt is not to be recognized by the Greek people, beacause they never borrowed from anyone. It has always been money given by others — mostly foreigners, although the capital has no borders — in order to control the country’s natural resources or geostrategic position. From this starting point, let’s try to connect to present complexities.

INSIDERS vs OUTSIDERS

The Greek Communist Party has been built on the principle that all members’ views are expressed internally, while all members argue in society according to the party’s line. It is undeniable that such a policy enables people to know what the party’s position is on various issues, should they get in contact with its members or papers. (In one hundred years there are hardly a handful of examples where the party’s arguments have been properly presented by independent media, another sad reality for the way our present society is organized.) The second advantage of training members to follow a party line and have confidence to its leadership is that it empowers the oppressed by building their collective interest into a solid line of confrontation against the dominance of their rulers. However, this way of organizing a party presents a serious obstactle to critical engagement with sympathetic outsiders that make valid points discussed and turned down internally. Furthermore, there is an ever-present danger that critical engagement drops even for insiders given that during the constant struggle it is not always helpful to be moaning about whether x, y or z should be done or perceived differently and therefore an easy solution is to put an end to arguments considered ‘settled’. The two largest splits of the Greek Communist Party were in 1968 and in 1991 and in both occasions those who left its ranks formed new parties (that eventually joined forces to become the hard core of Syriza). These new parties were build on an “openess of debate” principle. Thus, as I was becoming myself politicised I could follow a multitude of arguments on one side of the “left” and it was abundantly clear that position A was inconsistent to position B; position C was incompatible with position D and so on, except that all positions (A, B, C, D) were being endorsed by the same party. I used to joke as to which position would prevail if they ever got to power? At the time, it was obvious to me that A and C would prevail, instead of an alternative B, while D was a utopia, so I questioned the value of allowing for a few Bs and Ds to be openly expressed, creating confusion and alleniating people from their difficult task to put forward a united and effective political struggle against their oppressors to generate a society where every citizen would be an active participant in the decision making that matters. The economical basis of such a society being socialism-communism was initially not under dispute during the schisms (it is, of course, a related fundamental question in politics).

Although the events that took place in January 2015 are very painful, they have a comical side. Yanis describes an incredible level of amateurism and a government where each ministry is following their own political line, almost independently of each other. So it was possible to rule with contradictory politics? As his book shows, this polyphony was not to last.

Turning to the more serious issue on how debate should be organized in political movements, a workable way to combine a sense of common direction in social decision-making with the liberty of individual thinkers to debate, criticise and suggest different courses of action, that go against the direction collectively agreed, is still to be described and a very hard conundrum to break. (When Lenin proposed the rules upon which a communist party should be organized, he also advocated for all opinions to be amply debated in the party’s newspaper — as the press was something relatively new at the turn of the century, it was still uncorrupted and serving the purpose of debate. This way, all views/arguments were studied prior to settling to a particular line of action and this was reiterative.)

Note, finally, that had Varoufakis’ line prevailed within Syriza, we wouldn’t have known, at least not yet, about all he encountered in his battle… (he accepted to operate as an insider while delivering his function.)

WHY READ VAROUFAKIS’ BATTLE WITH EUROPE’S DEEP ESTABLISHMENT

Varoufakis is worth reading because of the specific and detailed way in which he exposes the lack of democratic legitimacy in the European Union. European Commissioners are unelected but have great powers over most parliaments; the European Parliament is mostly an advisory body and there is not a single mention of it in the book, such is its irrelevance. The extent to which, on the basis of an economic dispute, political representatives (be it Commissioners or Ministers) are simply coerced to act against their informed opinions, is alarming. The immediate and obvious consequence of the present dictatorship of the ruling class is that its political servants are at the same time intimidated and powerless, but also full of hypocrisy, their words not to be trusted. Politicians have come to find such hypocrisy acceptable and their duplicity has become institutionalized. I had heard previously Varoufakis complain that there was no discussion on points of essence in the Eurogroups (a non-official gathering, by the way) but it was truly pitiful to observe how low the standards are in political exchange at the highest levels or our society. Varoufakis finds many excuses for the behaviour of functionaries that seemed to understand his arguments, but, again, I cannot see how these functionaries could ever stand any chance of respect against the spite of the millions they have commited to slavery with their policies, a slavery of the most disgusting type. Call me unforgiving, or, if you prefer, unable to appreciate neither the constraints in which these functionaries operate nor the importance of retaining the symbolism of a democratic legitimacy, instead of the pure acknowledgment that we live under the rule of unelected tyrants serving the rich.

HAD IT BEEN POSSIBLE FOR A LONELY OUTSIDER TO PREVAIL?

I miss a few important details in the story of Yanis. For example, there is an implication that Pappas had been corrupted early on, but this is inconcistent with his positions during the first couple of months in Government and the change in his case is left unexplained. Another question unanswered is whether the first time Varoufakis was confronted with Institutional lies he exposed these lies in front of his fellow ministers at the Eurogroup. I do not say it would necessarily matter (the Swedish national anthem argument), but it would give him a credibility that perhaps already started to wayne at the onset of negotiations (he was, after all, one of them). After his first acknowledged error (a typical virtue of a communist cadre, that has always been ridiculed by the Western caricature depiction, is their ability to self-reflect and be self-critical, openly; so well done for the admission) that he should have reacted differently to the realization that the man Dragasakis (who held the power within government) had placed next to him was undermining his work, but was nevertheless being supported by Alexis, Yanis speaks of a second and larger error, but does not clearly come back to define which one he meant. He offers various — to me unconvincing — reasons of why he postponed his resignation immediately upon discovering that his covenant with Alexis had been proven shaky, although I do not doubt his considerations were valid points to be taken into account and I respect the fact that the pressure and responsibility were immense and historical and that he acted in good faith.

I submit two views:

  1. Had Yanis stuck to his covenant with Alexis and explained that he (Yanis) could no longer proceed with his (Yanis) side of the deal, being undermined from within, then he would have helped Alexis establish his own position at a time Alexis was fresher and less corrupt. Although it is unlikely that Alexis with Yanis could win over Dragasakis and all other fractions of the upper echelons of Syriza (which do not really appear in the story, but were active and with true influence) it is unpredictable how things would carry out should an early rupture pull the rug under the hypocrisy in Brussels. If we would have seen a Grexit, which according to Yanis was better to recapitulation, he would have achieved an overall better outcome.
  2. Yanis has failed to engage or understand whole strands of the Syriza left-wing fraction (the 1991 deserters of the Communist Party had less time to fully denounce their past, in contrast to the 1968 folk that had come to peace with their new place in the never-ending class war lending a hand to the rulers previously), now reduced to its former “true strength” in the Greek society, but in the first months of 2015 they became a real political force with an opportunity to influence. There will be many discussions on why such an opportunity was wasted in the tragic manner it did (the Communist party had given plenty of warning, but here are my views at the time in poetic prose), and Yanis owes to consider that his actions re: privatization of the national infrastructure, the extent of compromise (see: measures against the working people) he was willing to take in order to restructure the debt, etc. were not in line with the full mandate his government had from people; he as an outsider represented only one interpretation of a realistic solution of the confused and unearnest/deceiptful promise Syriza gave to the electorate to better their lives in multiple ways and through a leftist programme within the EU. Economic policy is at the heart of any political reform and with the – unknown to the electorate – covenant  between Yanis and Alexis, the former carried responsibility for a fundamental aspect of the Syriza government: how a solvent Greek state could have found its lost place within the Eurozone. Lets call that E, which had to work in parallel with A, B, C and D. Would the combination ever be possible? No. Did it matter? I submit that it did.

THE REFERENDUM

Yanis opens his book referring to Theseus, so I close with Theseus, as well. Two months after he resigned, Yanis attempted his re-election to parliament with the Left-Alliance he had so much despised. Will/should that tactical move be a problem for his present credibility?

I will continue to follow his views and I will be thankful to him, if he manages to continue his life uncorrupted while maintaining an open channel to the World’s citizenry. Although, as hopefully I made clear here, the problems of confidentiality in politics, are a subject matter unsolved and, more importantly, it is probably a larger utopia to believe that capitalism will be reformed and not overturned in the years to come.

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