Yanis Varoufakis. Demotix/spirofoto. All rights reserved.Over the past few months the world has witnessed the short career of a Greek government vainly endeavouring to uphold an anti-austerity platform against the implacable power of the Eurozone’s financial institutions. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Minister for Finance, was a central player in this drama. Interestingly, this political maverick did not play his part to the standard script. The distinctive characteristics of Varoufakis’ mode and purpose in politics are both troubling as regards what they tells us about the norms of contemporary politics, and fascinating as a possible paradigm for a new type of politics in the age of twitter and the blog.
Strangely, one of the most disturbing aspects of Varoufakis’ stint as a Finance Minister concerns the fact that he is an economist. One thing we now readily assume is that economics is the language of power. This gives academic economists a status somewhat like a theologian in relation to the practical priestcraft of public office. However, there are very few professors of economics that actually get into office as politicians, just as you seldom get institutionally savvy bishops or mega-church leaders who are serious theologians. When an economist becomes a politician, this is going to be interesting.
In a few short months, Varoufakis completely exploded the idea that economics is the language of power. What we saw when an actual economist landed in the middle of the Eurozone crisis is that the most basic truths about economic reality have nothing to do with power. The idea that asphyxiating Greek banks and killing the Greek state is good for its economy makes no economic sense at all. The idea that continuing to pursue a savagely contractionary austerity agenda will make it possible to generate sustained state surpluses large enough to repay impossible debt burdens, defies any sort of economic rationality. The conviction that it is somehow both moral and necessary to fiscally execute the Greek polity or eject Greece in order to preserve the financial integrity of the Eurozone, is not a stance grounded in economic science.
Yet these agenda commitments are, obviously, immovable Eurogroup dogmas. When Varoufakis patiently, logically and persuasively sought to point out the economic problems with the sacred Eurozone dogmas, this got him into trouble for “lecturing” his peers. Somehow, the economic irrationality of what the Eurogroup must do was obvious to the Eurogroup, and they could not for the life of them see why Varoufakis didn’t understand this. So Varoufakis became branded as “combative” and “recalcitrant” due to his refusal to be on the same page as all the other European finance ministers, when all along it was the Eurogroup who would not talk about obvious economic realities with Varoufakis.
Varoufakis’ failed attempt to negotiate even a modicum of constructive economic and political sanity with Brussels strongly suggests that the governing principles of financial power in Europe are not grounded in economic science or democratic politics. Indeed, it seems all too likely that the ‘logic’ of Eurozone finance is a function of Thucydides description of primal human barbarity. Here the strong do as they will and the weak suffer as they must.
The complete lack of impact which Varoufakis’ economic arguments achieved leads one to fear that when it comes to economics and politics, we are being conned: the main purpose of economic speak in politics is obfuscation. If that is indeed the case, then having someone point out the obvious elephant in the room – the economic impossibility of the prevailing dogmas governing high finance and domestic politics – is just too much. It looks like our ruling elites do not want a real economist meddling with power.
Another thing Varoufakis points out is that financial power is now dangerously politically and socially unaccountable. That is, we have political institutions, parties and politicians that are meant to govern by representing the political choices of citizens, thus making power accountable to the people. However, in reality the typical manner in which political power is internally disciplined and externally controlled is a sad mockery of keeping power accountable to the people. Varoufakis is an exception to the norm precisely because he really believes in representative democracy.
In order to represent the people, Varoufakis put a clear policy agenda to the electorate that elected him, and stuck to it through thick and thin. In order to maintain the integrity of his initial policy contract with his electorate, Varoufakis was careful to maintain appropriate autonomy from the power of non-representative internal political ‘discipline’ in the form of mute conformity to the expectations of Dijsselbloem’s Eurogroup, and in the form of blind party loyalty in the face of Syriza’s policy backflip after June 5.
Varoufakis also maintained appropriate autonomy from the external anti-democratic game of carefully massaged but meaningless PR (more on this below). In escaping these ‘disciplines’ Varoufakis points out that politics by the people and for the people is now, sadly, anomalous to the dominant norms of power. This is a very bad thing if we are concerned about Western representative democracy as a serious approach to governing power. But the picture is grimmer yet.
We now do politics within a single global system of trade dominated by multi-national corporate powers where giant international financial players have much more power over the conditions under which most ordinary citizens live than do their elected national governments. Citizens have, in fact, lost control of power within their own states.
This means that most of our politicians are now servants of international necessities they cannot control. A politician who is ‘realistic’ must simple comply with the extra-state non-democratic dictates of high power if their own position within the tree of power is to be preserved. Here even big players, such as Chancellor Merkel, are pawns. Varoufakis is an anomalous politician in today’s context of power because he upholds a principled deviation from this non-representative power norm. If there is to be any disciplining of global corporate and financial power by citizens, we will need to see more politicians like Varoufakis arise.
Finally, there is transparency and participation. One of the most fascinating features of Varoufakis’ time as Finance Minister was his openness about what he was doing and what obstacles he was encountering. In contrast to the closed door ‘business in confidence’ norms of high powered negotiations, Varoufakis was frank and transparent about how things were going via his own blog site. Whilst Varoufakis is, for an academic, remarkably competent in managing his own media presence, his blog is not a carefully managed Public Relations tool.
Actually, his blog has been no different over these past six months to how it was before he became a politician. Varoufakis’ blog is an open forum where big picture questions are framed about global finance and political economics, and serious alternative interpretations can energetically dialogue with each other. This is something I have never seen before on a politician’s web site. Nor does anything like intelligent citizen engagement happen within any rank and file political party meeting that I have attended. In such meetings collective conformity, guided by the imperative of electoral victory, gives the average citizen exactly no contact with policy debate.
So what Varoufakis is doing here is harnessing the capacities of communication technologies to support transparency and genuinely intelligent policy debate, and thus empower the polity. Alas, the opposite of both of those trends is the dominant norm in the political use of the mass media and communication technologies.
Varoufakis is experimenting with open and representative politics which seeks to advance the economic and social wellbeing of those he is elected to represent. Surprisingly, such an enterprise seems ‘new’ because the ‘realist’ norms of power governing high finance view the very idea of that sort of politician as an impossibility. If we have any serious commitment to the West’s democratic vision of power, let us hope there are more impossible politicians out there.