“The next dose was the next loan tranche. We don’t want the next dose. We don’t care about the next loan tranche when our debt is unsustainable. We want to get rid of the addiction.” So said Yanis Varoufakis, following last week’s controversial deal to extend Greece’s bailout loan. Speaking to CNN in this interview, Varoufakis vows to use the bought time to make moves in relieving the serious issues of poverty affecting the Greek people. The renegotiated deal means the Syriza government can now reconfigure the austerity strategy imposed on Greece – so long as the net repayments remain the same. For a government elected on the promise of rejecting such Troika demands, the political effect has surely been controversial and damaging. Last week Varoufakis took to a number of platforms to explain his political and economic background, shedding light on possible reasons for this turnaround.
Writing for the Guardian’s Long Read section, the Greek Finance Minister and author of The Global Minotaur explained the development and roots of his political and economic outlook:
Karl Marx was responsible for framing my perspective of the world we live in, from my childhood to this day. This is not something that I often volunteer to talk about in “polite society” because the very mention of the M-word switches audiences off. But I never deny it either. After a few years of addressing audiences with whom I do not share an ideology, a need has crept up on me to talk about Marx’s imprint on my thinking. To explain why, while an unapologetic Marxist, I think it is important to resist him passionately in a variety of ways. To be, in other words, erratic in one’s Marxism.
It wasn’t just Marx, of course. The “erratic Marxist” learn much from “Thatcher’s neo-liberal trap”, and is steadfast in his desire not to fall into it, or the idea that old-fashioned socialist demands can repudiate Thatcherite politics. So a new radical position is needed; economically fluent, forward-thinking and optimistic. Nonetheless, Marx remains a lodestone of any critique of capitalism, he says:
At a time when neoliberals have ensnared the majority in their theoretical tentacles, incessantly regurgitating the ideology of enhancing labour productivity in an effort to enhance competitiveness with a view to creating growth etc, Marx’s analysis offers a powerful antidote. Capital can never win in its struggle to turn labour into an infinitely elastic, mechanised input, without destroying itself. That is what neither the neoliberals nor the Keynesians will ever grasp.
It’s not just his background in Marxist economics that Varoufakis has been espousing recently. It’s also his background in Game Theory. It seems this, as much as theoretical economic models, that is pertinent to last week’s negotiations. Writing in the New York Times, Varoufakis says “my game-theory background convinced me that it would be pure folly to think of the current deliberations between Greece and our partners as a bargaining game to be won or lost via bluffs and tactical subterfuge.”
The trouble with game theory, as I used to tell my students, is that it takes for granted the players’ motives. In poker or blackjack this assumption is unproblematic. But in the current deliberations between our European partners and Greece’s new government, the whole point is to forge new motives. To fashion a fresh mind-set that transcends national divides, dissolves the creditor-debtor distinction in favor of a pan-European perspective, and places the common European good above petty politics, dogma that proves toxic if universalized, and an us-versus-them mind-set.
His flight from Game Theory, he claims, is not based upon a radical political strategy. Instead, he is motivated by a Kantian desire to “escape the empire of expediency by doing what is right.” How does that square with what many have perceived to be a reneging on the promises Syriza made to the Greek people to reject austerity by taking a tough, no-nonsense approach to the Troika? Writing for Channel 4 News, Paul Mason suggests that angry Syriza voters may be appeased by a new tax regime against Greece’s oligarch class, or the disbanding of the hated DELTA riot squad, notorious for their violence and neo-fascist sympathies. However, according to Mason, there could also be a long-term upshot regarding the symbolic terms of the (potential) Grexit:
The shock in Syriza’s upper echelons, symbolised by the expression on Alexis Tsipras’ face as he addressed the nation on Saturday, was real. It was the shock of realisation that, Germany was stronger than Italy and France combined, and that there really is no space inside the euro for a radical left government.
Since this realisation, many ordinary Greeks, and some previously pro-euro politicians and advisers, have come to the conclusion that Syriza should prepare Greece for a “controlled exit”. Instead of “we were kicked out”, it would be sold as “we escaped” – and I think however positively today’s deal is spun, the push for Grexit will grow stronger as constraints become obvious.