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Παρασκευή, 9 Φεβρουαρίου 2018

Remarks occasioned by the Greek translation of Adults in the Room (Ανίκητοι Ηττημένοι)

Yanis Varoufakis’ case is a singular one. There is no other example of such a glaringly unjust mismatch between international esteem and domestic vilification. That said, I believe that the opposite of vilification is not praise but rather rational, rigorous critique.



This is a matter of life and death for the Greek Left today. Victory does not demand much thought, but defeat does: only through reflection can the defeated come to understand what has happened and begin to change the situation. The Greek Left has suffered a devastating defeat; we are literally gazing at the debris all around us. It is important, then, that we try to understand just what has happened and what we must do next.
The Greek Left has suffered a devastating defeat; we are literally gazing at the debris all around us.
Yanis Varoufakis’ position on the negotiations was that you cannot negotiate if you are more afraid of Grexit than of austerity. The difference between him and the “drachma purists” was that he believed that we had to seek a solution that would keep us in the eurozone, but that if the other side drove negotiations to an impasse then at least the blame would be on them. If and when we reached that point, we should not be afraid of an exit.
His new book is, in a sense, an account of how his expectations were disappointed, as much by his own party as by Greece’s creditors. In it we encounter a long series of Europeans and Americans who at first said “yes” but later admitted they meant “no”. We meet allies who proved not to be allies at all: individuals who concealed communications with European officials from Varoufakis; who submitted to him documents they passed off as their own but which had actually been composed by the Troika; who claimed that if they were fired they would start working for the Bank of Greece—Syriza’s sworn enemy at the time.
So when the crisis erupted and the creditors made clear that they had no interest in the logical proposals put forth by the Greek government, we had reached the point at which a Grexit was no more frightening than continued austerity. I do have a question, though: did Varoufakis’ public presence, from the outset of the crisis, lead to increased or diminished public fear of a Grexit? Because if it led to increased fear, as I believe that it did, then Varoufakis has de facto, regardless of what he intended, contributed to the country’s entrapment in the coercive dilemma posed by Schäuble, the man who said “The memorandum, the memorandum just as it is, without changes. Or the drachma.”
Tsipras meets Christine Lagarde ahead of their meeting at IMF Headquarters in Washington, October 2017. IMF/Flickr. Some rights reserved
When, at the end of the book, the moment of truth arrives, Varoufakis gives the Prime Minister his exit plan and adds “Read it and weep”. He elaborates that the plan was in fact preferable to a continuation of what he calls “Bailoutistan”. And yet, if his plan really was preferable, why should Tsipras have wept? Because, I think, at the heart of Varoufakis’ thinking was a deep conviction that there was no real chance of an exit. Even after Schäuble’s proposal, after the 17 hours of negotiations, Varoufakis continued to believe that Greece’s expulsion would be disadvantageous to Europe and so was fundamentally inconceivable. Now we will never know if that was the case, but to my mind it certainly explains why the “preparedness” of the general public did not figure significantly into his own thinking and action.
The manner in which Varoufakis describes the potential rupture is ambivalent, if not plainly contradictory at certain points. Multiple layers of thought and analysis are generally indicative of intellectual integrity and dynamism, but there are two kinds of situations in which those kinds of qualities prove misleading: when you break up with someone and when you run for public office. In those two cases, the other person hears only what they want to hear. The Greek people heard that there was no chance the creditors would not retreat, and Varoufakis, as ironic as it might now sound, was the ideal Minister of Finance for Syriza. He had a deep understanding and strong critique of austerity politics, which at the same time did not expose Syriza to criticism of being the anti-European drachma party. The result was that, in the end, the very thing that led Varoufakis to his role in the public discourse wound up strengthening the creditors’ position. He increased the public’s fear of a rupture, as for years he had been arguing in favor of the view that a return to the drachma would mark a return to the Paleolithic Era, that it had been a mistake to join the eurozone but it would be a mistake leave, and so on.
Varoufakis, as ironic as it might now sound, was the ideal Minister of Finance for Syriza. He had a deep understanding and strong critique of austerity politics, which at the same time did not expose Syriza to criticism of being the anti-European drachma party.
Varoufakis maintains that it is impossible to enter into battle if you are already speaking of defeat. And yet, it turned out that we entered into a battle in which the soldiers never thought they would have to fight. There is no use in dwelling on old statements that bore these kinds of warnings. It is certain that they exist. But it is equally certain that Syriza, in order to win the election, had to distance itself from the drachma supporters and so to keep on repeating that an exit from the euro was out of bounds. When the moment of rupture came, nobody prevented Tsipras from reversing the result of the referendum. If the point of OXI was that the people desired to leave, then there would have been someone to fight for it instead of Syriza being re-elected under the Thatcherite banner of “TINA”.
Political disagreements aside, the value of this book is fundamental. It is an account of events of massive political importance for all of Europe, whose hopes rose and fell along with ours. Those events are recounted by one of their protagonists, an individual who has every element of personal integrity and honesty and is also a remarkable writer. The book’s international success has been ridiculed by Varoufakis’ political opponents in terms that oscillate between slander and jealousy. But if public dialogue is impossible via the debased channels of political parties and television, then those most in need of the conversation should at the very least be promoting it.
*Note: This essay represents an elaboration of the basic argument I briefly outlined when I moderated the conversation at Varoufakis’ book presentation in Athens on October 9.

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