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Adults in the Room, by Yanis Varoufakis (London: The Bodley Head, 2017)

A lot, maybe the future of Europe, depends on how you read the opening conversation with Larry Summers in ‘one of the greatest political memoirs of all time.’ Theological review.

lead Greeks in Syntagma Square to celebrate the win of the 'Oxi' (Greek for no) side of the austerity referendum, July 5,2015. The no side won with over 60% of the votes. Michael Debets/ Press Association. All rights reserved. “ ‘There are two kinds of politicians,’ he said: ‘insiders and outsiders. The outsiders prioritize their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions. The insiders, for their part, follow a sacrosanct rule: never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders say or do. Their reward? Access to inside information and a chance, though no guarantee, of influencing powerful people and outcomes.’ With that Summers arrived at his question. ‘So, Yanis,’ he said, ‘which of the two are you?’ ”

This is a very engaging and unusual book. It is unusual in that it is not simply a political biography but a reflection on the nature and meaning of power in our times. No doubt its detractors will think of it as vanity publishing that is only about Yanis. But this kind of tack has been a standard method of not listening to what Varoufakis is actually saying and tells us more about the egoistic bankruptcy of those driving the attack.

The fact is, the tumultuous days that ended in the dying of the first Syriza government are the canary in the mine for the Eurozone and global high finance. Whatever Varoufakis’ views of himself may be, what he has seen and heard and attempted to do is profoundly revealing of the inner workings of power in our times. The pathologies of power in our times will unleash catastrophic destruction on us if we do not understand and address them: so this really is an important book.

I am not going to say much about the history of 2015 that Varoufakis outlines other than you should read it. The events described are tragic and chilling. But I am going to take an unusual line in evaluating this book here, because the book itself is so unusual in its reflectiveness on the relationship between power, ideas and personalities in our times. You (and probably the author) may find the hermeneutic key set I am going to bring to this short essay startling, even inappropriate, but if you come along for the ride with me, I think you will find it illuminating.

I am a philosophical theologian, so I am going to respond to this astonishing political biography in the terms of my expertise. Adults in the room is firstly a prophetic text. I am thinking of ‘the prophetic’ in Socratic terms here, which I will unpack below. Secondly, this is a text that refuses conspiracy theories and moralizing entirely, and yet it is uncannily astute in discerning the dynamics of dark power and the manner in which people are tragically caught up in those dynamics. Adults in the Room is thus a striking exposé of the “principalities and powers” that are the “rulers of the darkness of this world… in high places” that largely define the meta-conditions of our daily lives.

Prophecy and speaking truth to power

Stuart Weierter, a brilliant scholar of classical antiquity, points out that Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro is best read in partnership with Aristophanes’ Clouds as a reflection on the relationship of prophecy to philosophy. Plato humorously poses the question: Can human thought discern the difference between divine revelation and bullshit? If it cannot, then every pronouncement the religious status quo makes had better be respected. Attacking philosophy, Aristophanes powerfully argues that the presumptuous upstart, Socrates, is offending those in charge with his smart-sounding yet offensively simple questions. Socratic questioning should not be dignified by answers from those who hold our prevailing way of life together.

Socrates believes in divine truth even though he is respectful of the limitations of all human knowledge claims. Eschewing the mysteries and dignities of the status quo, Socrates acts as if all he needs is humane and careful reasoning to discern and pursue the Good. Socrates does not need occult knowledge, he does not need to join the priest-guild, pay his dues and pledge fealty to its special secrets. Socrates is deeply pious, yet he refuses to be an insider to the cultic guardians of power and stability within Athenian society. Socrates must follow his own inwardly heard divine voice – his daemon – and fearlessly ask the obvious questions, seeking transparent deliberative mutual respect in his interlocutors. As The Apology notes, Socrates is under no illusion that power has any interest in being addressed by truth. Even so, Socrates has no freedom to deny his divine vocation; he must live and speak truth as best as he is able. Socrates is a philosophical prophet.

Varoufakis, too, is a philosophical prophet. There is a priest guild running high power in our times, and the central logic of that guild is the preservation of high power. The doctrines and morals it requires us to believe in and enact, it does not believe in and enact itself, but it will not take kindly to anyone who officially points that out. We the people are expected to trust those who run high power and who uphold the order and possibilities of the reality in which we live. People like Varoufakis make us uncomfortable because they are impious and dangerous underminers of the status quo on which we all depend. Whatever he says – no matter how obviously true it might appear to be – if the priest-guild says he is wrong, then pious upholders of the reality in which we live will turn their backs on him. With Aristophanes, the prevailing logos of the established order does not believe in the philosophical discernment of divine truth. Right doctrine and right practise are defined by our rulers, and anyone who questions those truths undermines good order itself and must be rejected.

What is going on?

Yanis’ short stint as Finance Minister chronicles what happens when an able theologian of modern political economics points out that our priests are heretics in the terms of their own doctrines. For if austerity is meant to heal the Greek economy then 1 + 1 = 17; but if austerity is not about healing the Greek economy, then what is really going on in the Eurozone? In response, our priest guild simply asserts that 1 + 1 obviously = 17, and they see no reason why they should tell anyone what is really going on. Who can know divine truth but the priest guild? Trust and obey, for there is no other way.

Prophecy has always been a tough gig. Ask Jeremiah. Power wants and always forms a compliant priesthood to uphold its dignity and unassailable legitimacy before the people. So someone who really discerns the truth is always a problem for power. Theologians are necessary for power, but they are always a bit of a risk. What if one of them actually expects power to be subject to divine truth rather than the other way around?

Since the rise of political ‘realism’ (the triumph of Aristophanean constructivism over Socratic dialectics) prophetic voices have been remarkably hard to hear in our public places. Truth is simply irrelevant to power under the conditions of hard constructivism. So those of us hoping for change have been waiting for a gutsy theologian like Varoufakis to get inside the Temple of Power and cause some trouble. Yanis got in, he had a few glory moments in the outer courtyard overturning money-changer tables, and then power regrouped and his removal from politics was swiftly organized.

But what we can learn from those short months is a few simple truths about money, politics, publics and élite power. Whether those truths make a difference is not yet known, but there can be no change to a destruction-bent trajectory for the global economy, and for humanity itself, if truth fails to matter. All the prophets are actually a sign of hope – even when they speak their darkest messages of judgement. For it is only the truth that sets us free. If power does not listen to truth, power will reap its own destruction.

Enough of prophecy. Now, very briefly, let us turn to the principalities and powers.

Principalities and powers

Yanis has a fascinating perspective on the structures of power and the freedoms of individual actors. In a similar trajectory to Max Weber’s sociology of institutions, Varoufakis notices that organizations with power take on a cultural life-form all of their own.

Individuals can allow themselves to be determined by the grain of the culture of institutional power – which is moral and rational if you believe that grain to be towards a good end – or they can fight against that grain if they believe in the institution but think its aims are wrong. In reality, the only people who usually get near the top of power institutions are those who have shown fealty to the goals of that institution as it already is. That is, power preserves itself via human actors who seek power.

Yanis is not a determinist, and yet he sees the denial of freedom as a staple ingredient of dark power. People act tragically when they resign themselves to what is possible within the norms of power institutions, as governed by the principle of the preservation of power. When this happens a kind of collective ‘animal spirit’ (to borrow from Keynes) comes to govern the limits of choice and action, and people find themselves acting not on the free basis of reason or humanity, but out of a sense of necessary service to sub-rational and inhumane power.

At this point things are not only tragic, but, in the biblical sense, they become demonic. Yanis had no success as an exorcist when he was Finance Minister, but he was in the Temple of Power, he was courted by the Dark Side, and he made no Faustian pact. This means he has seen the ‘spiritual’ dynamic of power in its institutionalized forms, and he does not attribute evil or conspiracy to the individual actors who become the pawns of dark power when they lay reason and humanity down for the sake of power-preserving necessity. And yet, they are not innocent either, for they have chosen to be the powerless servants of power. In doing so they have denied a human face to politics.

Which of the two are you?

And this is where Paul Mason’s review of Adults in the Room gets Varoufakis profoundly wrong. Here is Mason’s neat précis of that opening paragraph, already leaning in a certain direction:

He’s in Washington for a meeting with Larry Summers, the former US treasury secretary and Obama confidant. Summers asks him point blank: do you want to be on the inside or the outside? “Outsiders prioritise their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions,” Summers warns.

Mason thinks Varoufakis does not understand political activism. Actually, Varoufakis understands political activism all too well, but he does not trust the animal spirits of party politics and he refuses the telos of mere electoral pragmatism. He wants a politics of free citizens transparently seeking truth and humane reason together, and that is not going to help him within the bowels of Eurozone high politics, nor in the old left party loyalty ideal that Mason seems to cherish.

Thus Mason thinks Tsipras’ abandonment of the will of the people to the demonic necessities of Eurozone high power was politically unavoidable. No; it was the negation of free and reasoned politics itself, for it was a capitulation to inhumane and irrational (that is, demonic) power. If Tsipras had had the courage to pursue what the people had asked over what would ensure his political survival with the prevailing principalities of power, if he had stood with humanity and reason and not given in to brute irrational power, perhaps Greece would have triumphed over dark power, to the great benefit of Europe. But we will never know if that perhaps would have worked, for that door was not tried.

Finally, Adults in the Room is a book offering a theological virtue: hope. Yanis shows us that though it is very hard, it is possible to maintain reason and a commitment to humane ends as a significant political actor in our times. But it is also a book of judgement, for – so Yanis discerns – hope cannot arise from within the structures of demonic power that are now entrenched in the dynamic of irrational and inhumane self-preservation, almost beyond redemption.

The impetus for reform must rise up from the people governed, it will not rise from our leaders. There is no more urgent task than the reform of power in our times, yet whilst there is life, wherever the human spirit refuses to cower to the demonic, then life can be breathed back into power. This book could be a game changer if it shakes we the people from our compliant slumber as passengers within the sinking ship of contemporary high power.

About the author

Paul Tyson is Director of the Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion and Society, Emmanuel College, University of Queensland.

Read On

Adults in the Room: my battle with Europe's Deep Establishment,  by Yanis Varoufakis.

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