Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Yanis Varoufakis: cometh the man?

A look at Yanis Varoufakis's journey from maverick economist to Greece's finance minister - as told through his contributions to openDemocracy.

Yanis Varoufakis, the maverick economist and self-described "erratic Marxist", was recently elected as a Syriza MP and appointed as Minister of Finance in the Greek government.

He has already distinguished himself with his distinctive dress sense (channelling Shaun Ryder, says the Guardian) , idiosyncratic rhetoric (quoting everything from Shakespeare to The Eagles) and iconoclastic behaviour (such as turning up to his first day of work on a Yamaha motorcycle).

Since 2012, we have been proud to feature Varoufakis' work on openDemocracy. A distinctive and intelligent voice - his calm, articulate and yet quite radical ideas had won him many admirers long before he was appointed as a Greek government minister.

Varoufakis’ first article that appeared on openDemocracy was a far-sighted analysis of the June 2012 election that brought New Democracy into power, and which ended with this beautifully prophetic paragraph:

“Of course, starting the ball rolling in the right direction requires a government in Athens that is capable of looking our German partners in the eye and not blinking for a few minutes. Tragically, the New Democracy lot, and their PASOK minions, won the day on a promise to blink from the outset. Europe may have got its wish this weekend. Soon, however, it will be reminded, yet again, that the most vengeful god is the one who grants such wishes.”

His second article, just a few days later, was an open letter to his good friend Yannis Stournaras, who had just been made finance minister in the new Greek government. The letter is worth reading because its “mission statement” is indicative of what Varoufakis is now trying to achieve.

In it, he suggests that serious reform would be impossible due to the self-preserving nature of the Greek “ancien regime”. Sure enough, Stournaras did little if anything to challenge the Troika and merely carried on with the disastrous bailout therapy that dug Greece into a deeper hole.

In his personal blog post, “Why I am running for a parliamentary seat on Syriza’s ticket”, he expanded his concerns to include the fact that,

“Such proposals have no chance, I have now understood, until and unless they are tabled at the Eurogroup, in Econfin at the EU summit.

 

This is the reason that when Alexis Tsipras honoured me with the offer to run for an Athens parliamentary seat, and with a view to play a role in Greece’s negotiation with Berlin, Frankfurt and Brussels, I could not but accept.”

In an interview first published in English on openDemocracy, Varoufakis reveals why he waited for a Syriza government to challenge the establishment, and why he agreed to run as a candidate:

"The reason I accepted the challenge was that I did not have the right to turn it down. When the leader of a political party about to win government offers you the opportunity to implement policies you have been advocating for years, it is pure cowardice to shirk the task. Will I succeed? I shall only know if I try.”

It would also be remiss not to mentioned the debate that openDemocracy hosted between him, James Galbraith, Simon Wren-Lewis and Frances Coppola on austerity politics in European institutions. It is not often that the murky and slightly incestuous world of academia ends up producing any real political change, but make sure to read this debate, which is all the more exciting now that Varoufakis finds himself in the miraculous position of possessing the political power to carry out the programme he has been writing about for years.

To end with, here is an inspiring speech by the man himself. When asked at a lecture why it was worth anyone with radical political beliefs studying economics, he said the following:

What is the purpose of economics in a radical intellectual agenda? I’ll give you two answers.

 

The first one is by Joan Robinson, the great economics professor from Cambridge and a student of Keynes. When students used to ask after hearing very similar critiques of economics to the ones that I put forward: ‘So professor, why should we bother with economics when you’re saying it’s such rubbish?’ And the answer was, a kind of Voltairian answer: So that economists can’t fool you.

Let’s face it, if you go to any library at any university and you pick out a copy of the American Economic Review, any copy of the American Economic Review, and you don’t understand economics, and you don’t understand mathematics, you will not be able to understand a single sentence.

When you don’t understand it’s very easy to be convinced that you don’t understand because you are inadequate, and it is impossible to engage with people who claim to have proven theorems which prove that privatisation is ‘welfare enhancing’.

So we need to study the Bible in order to attack the theists; and if this is the Bible at the moment, it needs to be studied.

The tragedy is that unlike the Bible, which you can read in a few months, I find it very hard when an eighteen-year-old student comes to me and says ‘should I study economics? I’m a radical political activist.’ I just don’t think I have the moral authority to say to her or him: ‘do it’, because it’s a very arid existence. 

It’s like being recruited for the intelligence services. You have to go behind enemy lines, you have to dissemble, for years you have to pretend to be interested in something that you’re not really interested in, that you’re simply trying to subvert. You have to be immersed in a foreign language, you have to hide your own predisposition if you’re going to get a good master’s position, and be admitted at a PhD level and get a lectureship.

I didn’t so much hide it but I was economical with the truth. In interviews I would never claim to be a Marxist, if somebody asked me I would say… well, nobody would even imagine asking if I was a Marxist! So it is a life of loneliness. But it is important.

Once upon a time in the economics departments where I was there was always some eccentric. Not always a left-winger, sometimes a left-winger, sometimes eccentric in a humanist manner, that was an oasis for students of economics and allowed them a human contact to the member of faculty that was important.

Thatcherism, the Research Assesment Exercise in Britain, the metrics which ensure that only those who publish in the journals that have the maximum number of brownie points in economic departments have eradicated all eccentrics. I wouldn’t do today what I did back in the ‘70s because there would be firstly... well, back then I was imagining that neoliberalism was a passing phase and very soon we would storm the citadels of academic economics again. It’s not happening: all intellectual life is dying, Marxist economists have something to do with that because of the scholasticism that I mentioned. 

Why not just read some good books instead of getting immersed in these equations so that the bastards don’t confuse you? 

So here is to Yanis Varoufakis: an inspiring economist and friend of openDemocracy who may one day share the same page as Keynes and Friedman in the economics books he pored over in youthful trepidation that he might some day lead the revolution.

About the author

Alex Sakalis is associate editor of openDemocracy. He edits the Can Europe Make It? debate and tweets @alexsakalis.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.