Alberto Mingardi  

Yanis Varoufakis as a media star

Does the Market Underprovide S... Is the rise of utilitarianism ...

I suspect that one of the most enduring legacies of the Greek crisis may be the making of Yanis Varoufakis into a global opinion leader.

It is a curious phenomenon. Varoufakis was the leading Greek negotiator in a round of talks with the European Union that can euphemistically be considered not a great success - from the Greeks' own perspective.

Varoufakis and the Syriza government came to power after the general elections in late January. Insofar as the Greek economy is concerned, before they won the election forecasters expected positive growth: instead, they reduced the economy to shambles. They bet on their capacity to twist the wrists of European leaders, over "austerity". They failed.

It doesn't seem to matter at all.

I actually had a moment of sympathy for Varoufakis, after listening to this excellent EconTalk. I've since read a Varoufakis' text that is supposed to be both personal and theoretical, these "Confessions of an erratic Marxist in the midst of a repugnant European crisis". This is basically a talk that Varoufakis gave in 2013.
Here Varoufakis fashions himself as a new Keynes, convinced that "the Left's historical duty, at this particular juncture, is to stabilise capitalism; to save European capitalism from itself and from the inane handlers of the Eurozone's inevitable crisis".

Varoufakis quotes a lot of science fiction, from Star Trek Voyager (I thought nobody really liked that!), to The Matrix, a movie he considered "overshadowed" by Karl Marx:

...the machines were soon to discover that humans do not last long when their spirit is broken and their freedom utterly deprived. (...) So, the machines obliged us with what Marx would have called a 'false consciousness'. They forced not only nutrients into our bodies but also illusions that our spirit craved into our minds. Ingeniously, they attached electrodes to our skulls with which they fed, directly into our brain, a virtual, yet utterly realistic, life that, as humans, we could cope with. While our bodies were still brutally plugged into their power generators, feeding them with electricity sourced from our body heat, the machines' computer program known as The Matrix filled our minds with an imaginary, illusory yet very 'real' 'normal' life. That way our bodies, oblivious to reality, could live for decades, to the great utility of the machines responsible for generating enough power to sustain their new world.
(...) The Matrix is no futurology. It has been part of our reality for a while now! It is a top-notch documentary of our era or, to be more precise, of the tendency of our era to bleach out of human labour all those characteristics that prevent it from becoming fully flexible, perfectly quantified, infinitely divisible. As for Marx, his role was to provide us with the option of the 'red pill'; a chance to stare in the face, without the soothing illusions of bourgeois ideology, the ugly reality of a system that produces crises and deprivation as a matter of course, by design, and certainly not by accident.

You can read the whole thing. Varoufakis makes a good point on the European Union's group thinking ("Both Soviet and EU apparatchiks share a Christian sects' determination to acknowledge facts only if they are congruent with prophesy and their sacred texts.") and says plenty of rather bizarre things: from Thatcher having "carefully engineered" recessions to Marx not having been dialectic enough because he did not predict "the possibility that the creation of a workers' state would force capitalism to become more civilised".

All in all, the Varoufakis essay seems to be one of those cases in which confusion can be mistaken for profundity by superficial readers. This would not hurt him. Plus, he is considered an enemy of some people lots of newspapers' readers love to loathe: Mrs Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.

In his "Confessions", Varoufakis (who seems to be quite a patrician himself) wrote that "we must avoid becoming like the socialists who failed to change the world but succeeded in improve... their private circumstances".

And yet, good for him, this is exactly the outcome of his short time in Greek government. As a Minister, he has nothing to exhibit as success. But an intense countenance, an elaborately casual look, and his colourful prose makes him a perfect fit for the world of celebrities. I suppose this is another proof of the immense powers of "commodification" of global capitalism.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Eurozone crisis

COMMENTS (2 to date)
Hazel Meade writes:

I think the Varoufakis thing goes back to a puff piece last January describing how he studied the economies of online games, which is sort of a sexy topic. It also makes him fascinating that he seems to be kind of a nerd/gamer and makes reference to science fiction movies. The thing is that it makes him an interesting personality, and has nothing to do with the quality of his economics, which I'm sure is similar to the way many other people have become celebrities. What captures the imaginations of the public (even small slices of the public like people who read economics), often has more to do with charisma or originality than it does with substance.

Pajser writes:

I have to agree with Hazel about style of the text; bold ideas are presented in rough sketches with unjustified easiness. And metaphors are too populist - for special populus - geeky intellectuals.

Varoufakis believes that Marxists should insist less (or not at all) on equality and justice, and more (or exclusively) on freedom and rationality of the socialism. I do not see the reason to chose between these.

I agree about "first Marx's error" also; it is obvious that Marx didn't predicted Lenin and that capitalism will adapt with compromise - welfare state. I agree less about "second Marx's error:" Varoufakis's thesis that capitalism cannot be explained with mathematical model because "capitalist dynamics spring from the unquantifiable part of human labour; i.e. from a variable that can never be well-defined mathematically" is radical, but I don't see why it would be true.

Finally, he claims that Marxists should support "better capitalism" rather than "worse capitalism" - because deterioration of the quality of life doesn't necessarily lead to socialism. I agree; if European workers have to work for 50 euros monthly, they would eventually develop socialist consciousness - but I'm sure that the capitalists will not push them that far. Furthermore, if majority wants only some correction of the capitalism - it is matter of benevolence and honesty to be on their side, not against them in hope to manipulate them to revolution.

Overall, worth reading.

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