Thursday, June 1, 2017

My Log 544 May 30, 2017: In a major political memoir, Greek economist Varoufakis bares the details of his tumultuous 160 days as a politician

I have just read a remarkable book that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in the workings of political power. It is called Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment, and has been written by Yanis Varoufakis, who  was Greece’s finance minister for 160  days, less than six months,  but tumultuous months, during the first term of the leftist Syriza party government which took office  on January 26, 2015. The 550 page book is published by the Bodley Head, London.  
Varoufakis had been working as a university professor at the University of Texas  when Syriza, a coalition of the extreme left political parties in Greece, became interested in his undoubted expert knowledge of global financial matters, and a meeting was set up with him and the Syriza leader, Alexis Tsipras, to discuss the situation. For some years he had been refining a paper he called A Modest Proposal for Resolving the Euro Crisis, working in its most recent formulation with the well-known American economist Jamie Galbraith, who happens to be the son of Canada’s own John Kenneth Galbraith, an economist of even greater fame and accomplishment than his son. His foundation argument was that Greece, in spite of the protestations of the idiot politicians who preceded Syriza, was bankrupt, owing hundreds of billions of dollars in the form of bailouts provided by the so-called troika of the European Central Bank, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund. He argued that it would be suicide for Greece to accept any further bailouts without first insisting on a restructuring of the debt, along with the granting of enough liquidity to get them over the hump, until a renegotiation could be worked out that Greece would have some hope of fulfilling. All proposals coming from the troika, for a third bailout, he dismissed as “extend and pretend” --- extend he torture from what he calls Bailoutistan, and pretend that Greece had some chance of fulfilling what it would be undertaking, when any serious economist must have known that there was no chance of doing so. He also argued that it would be catastrophic for the European Union if Greece were to leave the Eurozone, but nevertheless they must enter negotiations with the troika determined to use that ultimate deterrent, so that if such a moment ever arrived, the troika would be forced to concede to their programme.
After his first meeting with Tsipras, his wife, Danae, asked him what he thought and he replied, “He’s not up to it.”  He had the impression that Tsipras was more worried about the impact of any decisions on his party than on the impact on Greece, Europe and the world. But he persisted, when urged, met Tsipras again, and eventually, although not himself ever a member of the party, agreed to become the minister of finance in the new government. He says Tsipras and his party leaders agreed with what he called “our covenant”, which was to be their guideline in all future actions.
But the story is of how he managed, time after time, to get the major players to agree with his programme in private meetings, only to have them renege on their undertakings at the next public occasion. There is hardly a single major figure in European (and many in United States and British) politics,  who is not dissected, analyzed and more often than not found wanting in this book. (Two notable exceptions are Emmanuel Macron, then a minor minister in Hollande’s French government, who offered welcome support at crucial moments, and Bernie Sanders, who at least twice wrote letters urging important political figures to support the Varoufakis remedies.) But he warns the reader on the second page of the book of the general tone he adopts throughout:

Beneath the specific events that I experienced, I recognized a universal story --- the story of what happens when human beings find themselves at the mercy of cruel circumstances that have been generated by an inhuman, mostly unseen, network of power relations. This is why there are no ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’ in this book. Instead, it is populated by people doing their best, as they understand it, under conditions not of their choosing. Each of the persons I encountered and write about in these pages believed they were acting appropriately, but, taken together, their acts produced misfortune on a continental scale. Is this not the stuff of authentic tragedy? Is this not what makes the tragedies of Sophocles and Shakespeare resonate with us today, hundreds of years after the events they relate became old news?..

It is perhaps not surprising that Varoufakis had a problem being taken seriously and trusted by so many people whose trust he needed. After all, although admittedly a man of the left, he numbered among his friends people like the former Tory Chancellor of the British Exchequer, Norman Lamont, and Larry Summers, the Obama eminence-grise who was one of those responsible for the economic meltdown of 2008, and many others who were looked on with suspicion by his political colleagues. Also, in negotiation, to gain his points, he was sometimes prepared to make extraordinary compromises. For example, on one occasion when various players were lined up to support one of his major  forthcoming presentations, they nevertheless argued that his paper should be re-written in the language of the troika itself, so as to make the message more acceptable to them: when this paper was leaked --- he suffered throughout his  term from a veritable tsunami of leaks designed to undercut his arguments, and himself personally --- the impression was given that he was recommending Greece follow their prescription, although he could not have been further from doing so.
But for me, perhaps the most amazing person to emerge from this book is the author himself. Portrayed in the press during his tenancy in office as a swashbuckling, free-wheeling, polished, accomplished but almost devil-may-care sort of fellow on his motor-cycle, he emerges as a man of real principle, and of intellectual brilliance such as almost to take one’s breath away. He peppers his text with classical illusions that always seem to be appropriate to their use, but what astonished me above everything was his perfect command of his second language, English, in which apparently no nuance, no vernacular expression, was beyond his reach.  He had, of course, been educated in English as well as Greek, having completed his secondary schooling in England, taken his University degrees there, become a professor in Britain universities before going off to work for an American company as an expert on games theory, and then emigrating to Australia where, at the University of Sydney, he settled in so well as to take out Australian citizenship before becoming disgusted with the right wing politics of the country.
He was, he says, perfectly happy in Austin, Texas, pouring out scholarly papers on the global situation ,when he was persuaded by Jamie Galbraith among others, that his talents were needed in the crisis in which Greece had found itself.
If there is a bete noire in the story it is  Wolfgang Schauble, Angela Merkel’s minister of finance, who seemed to have everyone else in the European financial world scared of him, and under his thumb.  He appeared determined to force Greece out of the Eurozone, if not right out of the European Union, and it was not until fairly well along in the drama that Varoufakis obtained an admission from him that his primary interest was to impose his authority over France and to prevent the weaker economies of the European south from exiting. According to the author he was not even interested in the fate of Greece, which --- as events so correctly confirmed --- he appeared to have under complete control. Let alone was he the slightest bit concerned about  the destruction of the lives of millions of impoverished Greeks.
But the story shows that these babies do not play around: at an early stage, telephone threats were made against the son of Varoufakis’s second wife if the economist with his bizarre arguments didn't make himself scarce,  which caused him to go into exile, from which he only reluctantly returned. Later on one memorable evening, he was dining with some friends when he was attacked by a gang wielding broken bottles. When they were persuaded to desist he followed them outside and insisted they talk to him.   The attack took place in an area of Athens he had grown up in and to which he had returned; this gang, leaning more to the left than the right,  was demanding he clear out of this neighbourhood, and when he appealed to their commonsense, they dropped their  hostility.
Another amazing thing about the book is the number of direct quotes, from speeches, conversations, documents, that he uses to tell the story. Except that most of these were, during the process, published in one way or another, and that Varoufakis himself was in the habit of recording, apparently clandestinely, many of the conversations he had with other actors, one might have had some uneasiness about this. He explains that in addition to these sources, “I have relied on memory and where possible the corroboration of other witnesses.” He appears to be an indefatigable worker. If one paper might be rejected, he would set to work on  a replacement, attempting to deal with the objections, compromising while never surrendering the fundamentals of his programme.
The title comes from Christine Lagarde, director of the IMF, who emerged from a meeting one day to say it would help the negotiations “if there were adults in the room,” a reference that was interpreted by the press to be directed at Varoufakis personally. I remember his denying that, in a BBC interview, because, if I remember corrctly, he was not even in the room from which she had emerged. He writes in his preface:

She was right. There was a dearth of adults in many of the rooms where this drama unfolded. As characters, though, they fell into two categories: the banal and the fascinating. The banal went about their business ticking boxes on sheets of instructions handed down to them by their masters. In many cases though, their masters --- politicians such as Wolfgang Schauble and functionaries like Christine Lagarde and Mario Draghi --- were different. They had the ability to reflect on themselves and their role in the drama, and this ability to enter into dialogues with themselves made them fascinatingly susceptible to the trap of self-fulfilling prophecy.
It struck me as I was transcribing this passage how beautifully written it is and how precisely it catches the essence of Varoufakis’s own posture  as not only a  participant in, but an observer of, a major political drama. The result is that we get a unique view of the political process, told by an outsider from the privileged position of an insider: which makes the book, as The Guardian reviewer Paul Mason claimed for it, “one of the greatest political memoirs of all time.”


1 comment:

  1. Looking forward to an analysis of the recent Uk election.