Mavericks - Yanis Varoufakis

‘Accidental economist’, Yannis Varoufakis, studied at Essex University; his father had previously been arrested, his uncle imprisoned and the family felt it was probably not safe for him to continue his studies in Greece. Essex University was, most recently, ranked the 35th best university in the UK in both the Complete University Guide and the Times/Sunday Times guide, 47th best in the Guardian rankings. These are relatively humble beginnings in academic terms and, even then, Varoufakis did not enjoy the economics course he had enrolled upon and transferred to studying mathematical economics instead. His Twitter page describes him as “Economics professor, quietly writing obscure academic texts for years, until thrust onto the public scene by Europe’s inane handling of an inevitable crisis.”[1]  This reveals a lot about our subject: he is evidently acutely aware that he is being watched, he wished to be regarded as self deprecating and not the chief agent of his rise to notoriety: ‘thrust’ does not imply volition.


And the thrust is this: thirty years after his time as a student Varoufakis spent the majority of 2015 under the blinking flashlights of every element of the world’s media attempting to play David to the Goliath of global capitalism, calling it out for the rapacious beast that it is. More than anyone else in recent years, Varoufakis has publicly stood up and attempted to tell truth to power in a public arena. And all the while journalists transcribed his every word. Once his stance was recognized as subversive, those same journalists’ editors chose to take the reliable old tools from their brief resting place and subjected him to a tidal wave of derisive satire. (If the orthodoxy is really a little shaken up by the constituency your stance is drawing, then the best indicator of this will be the witheringly contemptuous outpourings of newspaper columnists in the employ of Jerry Hall’s new husband).


Varoufakis’ book, ‘The Global Minotaur’ suggests that, at the very least, he is an able analyst and a lucid communicator. “Capitalism’s secret is its penchant for contradiction – its capacity to produce at once massive wealth and unbearable poverty, magnificent new freedoms and the worst forms of slavery, gleaming mechanical slaves and depraved human labour.”[2] It is the word ‘depraved’ here that hits home most heavily. Varoufakis has studied Neitszche and concluded, along similar lines, that “All the things we believe in, at any given time, reflect not the truth but someone else’s power over us.”[3] He is analytical and convincing about the ways in which orthodoxies assert themselves against those they exploit: suggesting that they do not employ brute force as anything other than a last resort; instead, they employ tactics that “make compliance seem individually inescapable (indeed, attractive)”[4] along with “ingenious divide-and-rule tactics, moral enthusiasm for the maintenance of the status quo (especially among the underprivileged) and the promise of a pre-eminent role in the afterlife.”[5] And he is capable to a tellingly poetic phrase, coining the term “corporate oligopoly capitalism” and writing, “One thing is certain: just like love, poetry, porn and beauty, one knows value when one sees it, even if one finds it difficult to define analytically.”[6]


His writing reveals him to be at a clear distance from being a fool, but it is a Marxist analysis and therefore not in keeping with the editorial policy of most newspapers. While The Guardian could, to a largely embarrassing extent, scarcely conceal its fan worship of this shaven headed, motorbike riding economic heartthrob, other right-wing newspapers were notably less impressed by his demeanour. The Irish News section of The Times, the very existence of which provides an overripe reminder of British colonial power, describe him as being “colourful”[7], as “completely out of his depth”[8] and lastly as “comedic”[9]. The normally readable Oliver Kamm has him as a “glib conspiracy theorist for whom evidence is optional”[10] and he is, according to a business presenter for Sky News, one Ian King, “narcissistic”[11], “strutting” and part of a democratically elected government who are summed up rather pejoratively as being “a naive preening rabble”.


Another of the favoured tactics of the orthodoxy when presented with a character with a public profile who will use that profile to share their analysis of how the orthodoxy works, is to set up some honey trap for the ego in the form of a ‘fragrant’ female journalist (in this instance, Janice Turner) and for them to wax lyrical about the subject’s sex appeal. The German newspaper Die Welt published an article under the banner “He rides a motorbike, wears leather jackets and no tie and rarely tucks in his shirt. “What makes Yanis Varoufakis a sex icon?”” The technique here is to trivialise the subject, and consequently the ideas they raise, by suggesting that they have become the object of study merely because they are charismatic. The accusation of charisma is the ultimate in double edged swords: it feels like it might be a quality one would wish to have (as it suggests sexual success after all), but, in reality, it is a further tool to suggest lack of substance: that people are merely temporarily besotted with the deliverer of a message that makes erudite challenge of orthodoxies as the messenger has a pleasingly brooding aspect. In a piece under the cartoonish headline ‘Hello, it’s Yanis. We have a Problem’ we are treated to journalistic subtexts at their most insidiously undermining. His eyes are “bright” and “he thumps the arms of his magenta sofa” at the “surprisingly ritzy” hotel in which he takes calls in “his private bathroom”. Turner exclaims with not a little feigned surprise, “Frankly, I’m amazed the Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, can meet me at all.” Here the propaganda powers of the orthodoxy are seen in their full, florid unsubtlety. Anyone who might stand up to the way things are currently organized will be painted a vain hypocrite, a champagne socialist, a clueless ‘charismatic’ obsessed with their own reflection and a profligate waster of the funds they seek[12]. His sofa is “magenta” (a middle class colour); he thumps its arm (he has no respect for the property of others); the hotel he stays at is not a two-star flophouse (he is a hypocrite); he has a bathroom (most hotel rooms do, but even acknowledging the ridiculous nature of this satire, he is a hypocrite for having one); he is not too busy with matters of state to publicise himself (he is a self serving hypocrite). Ultimately, though it is his appearance that makes him unacceptably lightweight: “His vulpine, shaved-headed, sexy mien, the leather jacket he wore during his inaugural tour of European leaders and the motorbike he always rides, picked him out as a rock star among bland suits.”


The phrase ‘rock star’ has rarely been used so witheringly. There is a moral dimension here. The rock star is obsessed with self-promotion, image, cheap and tawdry versions of culture, money and with sex. The suit is stable, concerned with balance sheets, part of an approved hierarchy and properly informed. The technique here, which is similar to the subtext in the obituary of Hitchens, is to laugh at those who come from or stand outside of mainstream organizations: the world is structured in the right way, with the right people at the top. All societies, including the global society, are, to a greater or lesser extent, meritocracies and those who are in charge are there because they are the right people to be in charge. No human has a right to stand outside of these hierarchies and criticize the way that things are organized. If you do so from outside of the office, then you are insincere and will be belittled: painted as a self interested, money grubbing hypocrite. The headlines: ‘Greek outrage at $60,000 Varoufakis speeches’, ‘I’m a celebrity and this was my year’, ‘Varoufakis ‘funnels thousands to offshore bank account’.’ ‘Varoufakis faces charges over secret hacking of accounts’, ‘Varoufakis facing treason charge for hacking accounts’.


The last two of these were invented. There was no possibility of Varoufakis facing such charges. A finance minister looks at tax records. How awful is this? But the profoundly medieval charge of treason, which was acting against the monarch, or as Wikipedia has it “the murder of social superiors” or the murder of a master by his servant.[13]


The portrayal of Varoufakis as being maverick achieved its desired intent. Here, at the beginning of 2016 he is no longer finance minister of Greece, his removal from the negotiations having been insisted upon by the troika (or as they are now known by the Prime Minister of Greece, ‘The institutions’) of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. You cannot peacefully impose more austerity on a people when their representative is publicly saying things such as, “There is precisely zero chance of austerity working. It is the same as thinking you can escape from gravity by waving your arms up and down.” And so Varoufakis was “Made aware of a certain preference by some Eurogroup participants, and assorted “partners”, for my … “absence” from its meetings; an idea that the prime minister judged to be potentially helpful to him in reaching an agreement.”


His departing shot may have been unhelpful; alternatively, it may have been the most profound expression of contempt and rebellion any political figure has expressed this decade. “I shall wear the creditors’ loathing with pride.”



[2] Varoufakis, Yannis – The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy Zed Books P18

[3] Varoufakis, Yannis – The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy Zed Books P19

[4] Varoufakis, Yannis – The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy Zed Books P30

[5] Varoufakis, Yannis – The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy Zed Books P30

[6] Varoufakis, Yannis – The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy Zed Books P51






[12] Whether these things are true of Varoufakis I do not know, but the fact that this footnote exists seems to suggest that these techniques are inordinately effective.

[13] ‘Treason’ in Britain is also defined as "if a man do violate the King's companion, or the King's eldest daughter unmarried, or the wife of the King's eldest son and heir." The moral reverberations of this word are as medieval as the hierarchies their agencies seek to enforce and protect.

Added Sat, 6 Feb 2016 19:12

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