The Capitalist Anti-Capitalism of Yanis Varoufakis

Varoufakis on Downing Street
Varoufakis on Downing Street

A month or so ago, anti-austerity party SYRIZA won the Greek general election. In the intervening time, the British media has seemed far more interested in the character of the country’s new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, than that of his boss, Prime Minister Alex Tsipras.

Partly, this is because Greece’s biggest problems are financial, and Varoufakis is the man leading attempts to deal with the country’s colossal, unrepayable amount of public debt.

But it’s also because while Tsipras is fairly boring, Varoufakis has style. Admittedly, there was something pettily thrilling about the way he casually strolled up Downing Street to meet automaton plutocrat George Osborne like he’d just got off a bus during a recent visit to London.

Unflashy irreverence is all very nice, but as far as the old reliable unbending ideologue bit of the Left is concerned, he’s a filthy sell-out.

Because there are really two political spectrums – the objective, ‘classical’ one with communism at one end and balls-to-the-wall capitalism on the other, and the corporate media-peddled, politically motivated, ‘relative’ one where ‘left’ means Ed Miliband and ‘sensible’ means Nigel Farage and Pinochet – papers and TV pundits can repeatedly call SYRIZA radically left-wing.  

Subscribe to the latter view of the world, and they’re unconscionably extreme. Subscribe to the former, nicely capturing the staggering breadth and scale of the solutions the species can apply to the problems it faces, and you’ll see they’re far from it.

Tsipras, Varoufakis, SYRIZA are certainly radically left in the ideals department – give them a magic neoliberalism-defying magic wand and we’d be in a socialist utopia by tea time.

But as for what they’re actually doing in power? It’s mild social democracy – trying to stabilise capitalism, curb its worst excesses. About slap bang in the centre of the classical spectrum, and far less ‘radical’ than the Labour government of ’45-’51, for example. Hence the vitriol piled on Varoufakis and friends by some sections of the political Left – the real political Left as opposed to the left-most bit of the centre-right.

When SYRIZA first got in, we laid out a fairly pessimistic prediction about what, if anything, they would realistically be able to achieve with the full weight of institutionalised neoliberalism thrown against them.

Modern governments, modern politics, the machinery of the modern state, we argued, are essentially centre-right. You can’t just vote someone different into the same control room and immediately expect radical upheaval. To get something different out of the political system, that political system has to be comprehensively rebuilt. Expectation management, in our irrelevant opinion, is probably the area SYRIZA has fallen shortest.

Since then, the Guardian has reposted an article written by Varoufakis in his pre-politico days, in which he talks about the development of his own political outlook. It’s interesting because it allows us to hear the rationale behind SYRIZA’s political approach from one of its most prominent figures. It’s far more nuanced than his left-wing critics give him credit for. We agree with some of it, we don’t agree with some it, but it’s intriguing nonetheless – and more importantly, offers a clear, insider’s perspective on what SYRIZA is, and what it is and isn’t trying to achieve.

Describing himself as an “erratic Marxist” – one who, a bit like us, is all for the radical emancipatory egalitarianism, less enamoured by the economic determinism and the blind faith in mathematical models – Varoufakis articulates a pragmatic radical outlook most obviously and decisively shaped by his own experiences of Thatcherism (having first moved to the UK in 1978 and studied and taught at several British universities throughout the 1980s).

In the most interesting excerpt, he elaborates:

“Even as unemployment doubled and then trebled, under Thatcher’s radical neoliberal interventions, I continued to harbour hope that Lenin was right: “Things have to get worse before they get better.” As life became nastier, more brutish and, for many, shorter, it occurred to me that I was tragically in error: things could get worse in perpetuity, without ever getting better. The hope that the deterioration of public goods, the diminution of the lives of the majority, the spread of deprivation to every corner of the land would, automatically, lead to a renaissance of the left was just that: hope.”

“The reality was, however, painfully different. With every turn of the recession’s screw, the left became more introverted, less capable of producing a convincing progressive agenda and, meanwhile, the working class was being divided between those who dropped out of society and those co-opted into the neoliberal mind set. My hope that Thatcher would inadvertently bring about a new political revolution was well and truly bogus. All that sprang out of Thatcherism were extreme financialisation, the triumph of the shopping mall over the corner store, the fetishisation of housing and Tony Blair.”

“Instead of radicalising British society, the recession that Thatcher’s government so carefully engineered, as part of its class war against organised labour and against the public institutions of social security and redistribution that had been established after the war, permanently destroyed the very possibility of radical, progressive politics in Britain. Indeed, it rendered impossible the very notion of values that transcended what the market determined as the “right” price.”

“The lesson Thatcher taught me about the capacity of a long‑lasting recession to undermine progressive politics, is one that I carry with me into today’s European crisis. It is, indeed, the most important determinant of my stance in relation to the crisis. It is the reason I am happy to confess to the sin I am accused of by some of my critics on the left: the sin of choosing not to propose radical political programs that seek to exploit the crisis as an opportunity to overthrow European capitalism, to dismantle the awful eurozone, and to undermine the European Union of the cartels and the bankrupt bankers.”

“Yes, I would love to put forward such a radical agenda. But, no, I am not prepared to commit the same error twice. What good did we achieve in Britain in the early 1980s by promoting an agenda of socialist change that British society scorned while falling headlong into Thatcher’s neoliberal trap? Precisely none. What good will it do today to call for a dismantling of the eurozone, of the European Union itself, when European capitalism is doing its utmost to undermine the eurozone, the European Union, indeed itself?”

“A Greek or a Portuguese or an Italian exit from the eurozone would soon lead to a fragmentation of European capitalism, yielding a seriously recessionary surplus region east of the Rhine and north of the Alps, while the rest of Europe is would be in the grip of vicious stagflation. Who do you think would benefit from this development? A progressive left, that will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of Europe’s public institutions? Or the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neofascists, the xenophobes and the spivs? I have absolutely no doubt as to which of the two will do best from a disintegration of the eurozone.”

In short, then, he wants to save European capitalism from itself, even while identifying as an anti-capitalist, to avoid the suffering that economic depression would inflict on ordinary people, and the sort of neo-fascism he fears would emerge out of the resulting social chaos.

We definitely agree that mass suffering doesn’t lead to glorious uprisings. We struggle to muster any enthusiasm whatsoever for the spectacle of radical left-wingers doing all they can to prop up capitalism, but know in his position we’d probably do the same for the same reasons, albeit while simultaneously doing our utmost to lay the groundwork for a long-term radical, egalitarian, ecological political alternative.

But we’d challenge the idea that the Left in its entirety was an inward-looking failure in the 1980s. Some of it undeniably was, and some of it always has been. But the Bennites were articulating a radical, pragmatic, democratic socialist alternative to the rapidly approaching neoliberal dystopia in a language that ordinary people could understand. We passionately believe that that legacy provides us with an excellent basis for the kind of Modern Socialism we keep banging on about elsewhere on this blog.

When Varoufakis talks about the “agenda of socialist change” that society “scorned” in the early ‘80s, we presume he’s talking about the general election of 1983. Labour, running on a left-wing manifesto that rightists have since immortalised as “the longest suicide note in history”, suffered a fairly crushing defeat.

But why did it lose? Here, the erratic Marxist buys into the neoliberal narrative – implying that proposing radical change will always lead to electoral defeat.

In fact, Mrs Thatcher surfed into the election on a wave of xenophobic jingoism, victory in the Falklands War conveniently distracting from the three million people now unemployed thanks to her evisceration of British industry. Led by the so-called Gang of Four, a chunk of the Labour right seceded and formed the Social Democratic Party, splitting the left-leaning vote and fatally undermining Labour wherever it stood throughout the decade. And all this occurred against the backdrop of the corporate press’s sustained, obsessive demonisation of the political Left – this a time when major papers paid psychologists to claim Tony Benn was insane.

They’re the same kind of obstacles any kind of genuinely socialist politics will have to surmount if it’s ever going to get anywhere – but if we believed that the “very possibility of radical, progressive politics” had been “permanently destroyed”, we’d have long since jumped in the sea. Achieving our objectives any year soon might be woefully unlikely, our ultimate goals might be laughably far off, but that doesn’t mean left-wingers should just give up.