5 Things I Learned From Interviewing Yanis Varoufakis

Last week Greece’s former finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, was interviewed for NovaraTV. Here are five things Aaron Bastani learned from interviewing the man who calls himself an ‘erratic Marxist’:

1. That coat wasn’t his.

The evening before his now famous encounter with George Osborne, Varoufakis flew into Paris. Only there was a problem: somewhere between Athens and the French capital his luggage had been misplaced. While his trademark biker jacket, thankfully, wasn’t among the items that went missing, the Greek finance minister – whose sartorial choices are held, by some, in as high esteem as his work on game theory – only had the clothes on his back.

Fortunately for Yanis, a former Greek ambassador to France (“a very snazzy dresser” as Varoufakis told me) had just the thing to protect his compatriot from the intemperate whims of British weather: a black Barbour jacket. “He said you can’t possibly appear in polite society wearing it…and I said why not? So I did”.

2. His feelings on Syriza are clear: they have betrayed ordinary Greeks.

When I asked Varoufakis if he had let down the people who adoringly mobbed him in Syntagma Square at the final rally before the ‘OXI’ referendum, his response was that he had not but that Syriza had done: “that’s why I didn’t stand with them again” (Varoufakis chose not to contest his seat in September’s elections).

Varoufakis told me his resignation on the evening of the OXI victory was a reaction to the ‘surrender’ the prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his comrades would soon respond to the vote with: “I don’t feel that I have betrayed [the Greek people] because my resignation signalled [my disagreement]”.

3. We now know that leading European politicians, including Schäuble, wanted Greece out of the Euro.

Right at the beginning of the interview Varoufakis confirmed something he had intimated several times over recent months: that the strictness of the conditions imposed on Greece this summer were so severe, in part, because some of those demanding them thought the terms might never be accepted.

The intention then – at least for some – was to push Greece out of the Eurozone and make an example of Syriza: “They feared our success, they feared that if we managed to negotiate a viable agreement and Greece started recovering, that would unleash a number of problems for them, especially in countries which had imposed similar austerity programmes upon their people.”

Varoufakis spoke of how Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, along with his Austrian counterpart – Hans Jörg Schelling – wanted Greece out of the Euro, while their respective heads of state – Chancellors Angela Merkel and Werner Faymann – wanted a compromise that would allow them to stay in: “Dr. Schäuble has been around for yonks, he understands that the Eurozone is not viable as it is; he wants to bring about a degree of political union to support the monetary union. On this I agree with him, except we disagree fiercely and violently regarding what kind of political union we need.”

Ultimately one of two things will have to transpire: the fiscal orthodoxy of the Eurozone will have to change, with eurobonds being issued and guaranteed exclusively by the European Central Bank (as Varoufakis wants) or, more likely after this summer, member states like Greece (but possibly Portugal and Spain too) will have to leave.

“They wanted the Greek government to fail…the most important thing, was to signal to the Spanish, to the Irish, to the French to not vote for parties like [Syriza],” said Varoufakis. The reality, despite the ‘Greek example’ set this summer, is that other anti-austerity governments in these countries are more than likely.

4. Digital technology is the basis of post-capitalism.

Looking at the long sweep of history, Varoufakis talks like a communist. That is to say he views the major technologies of this century – including synthetic biology, the internet of things and 3D printing – as fundamentally undermining the ability of capitalism to reproduce itself as an economic system in the long term:

“What comes after [capitalism] certainly is going to be determined by technological change; that’s Marx. …now we have the second and third machine ages and they are disrupting capitalism big time…so very soon the corporation as we know it will be obsolete, independently of what the left does; the big question is given that we are going to have massive technological changes and…a brilliant increase in productivity, is this going to lead us towards a world in which we humans are masters of the machines we have created or vice versa? That will depend on the class struggle and politics…and until and unless the left manages to combine its ideology of collective action and collective values, with a programme for embracing the disruptive, decentralising new technologies…and bring the two things together, then we have a dystopia facing us. If the left manages to organise itself in order to play a very significant role in fashioning the technological future and the social relations of production, then we have a chance.”

That reminded me of this passage from Marx:

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

5. Yet in the here-and-now, that makes Varoufakis sound like a radical social democrat.

Varoufakis has huge problems with the path of social democracy in recent decades – a political tradition he refers to as ‘lobotomised’. He agrees with widely-made criticisms of social democracy which have gone anabolic since 2008: that its historic parties of the post-war period, such as Pasok, swallowed whole the mythology of free markets and privatisation, and that they deserted their historic social constituencies more than they were deserted by them.

While this is all true, and Varoufakis clearly believes what he is saying, one senses he remains a social democrat – that is to say he views the transition to another mode of production, post-capitalism, as one achieved through gradual reform with the state remaining a major player: “If the left manages to organise itself in order to play a very significant role in fashioning the technological future and the social relations of production, then we have a chance.” This is similar to the thinking of Paul Mason in his recent book Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future.

Varoufakis is the avatar and public thinker par excellence of an interesting space now opening on the left: one which combines the means of strategic pluralism, the ends of technological utopianism, and the values of libertarian communism. In a weird way, it could be the new social democracy.

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Published 30th October 2015

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