To austerity and beyond by Yanis the menace

Published by The Observer (24th April, 2016)

And The Weak Suffer What They Must? by Yanis Varoufakis (Bodley Head)

It is easy to forget that Yanis Varoufakis spent two years as economic adviser and speechwriter to George Papandreou, the dismal socialist politician who inherited a party from his father and then, as prime minister, took Greece down the road towards its current crippled status. For the self-adoring, shaven-headed economist is far better known for his own five months of failure as finance minister, which alienated friends and foes alike yet catapulted him into heroic status on the anti-austerity left.

There are, sadly, all too few nuggets about his explosive time in office strewn around the pages of this book. Instead, ‘the most interesting man in the world’ – according to one fawning quote on the back – has delivered a rather dull volume. It is meant to be a dazzling takedown of Europe’s fiscal crisis and its flawed monetary system by a brilliant rebel economist; instead, we get turgid analysis that would have benefited from tighter editing.

The tone is set from the start: Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, is ‘legendary’ while even his wheelchair is ‘famous’. A failure to shake hands when he met the mighty Varoufakis on his first official meeting is seen as ‘the shunned hand [that] symbolised a great deal that was wrong with Europe’. After the 2008 financial implosion ‘nothing would be the same again’ – although many would argue too little has changed, not least when bankers still seem as greedy and untouchable despite the crisis they caused.

Before going to Berlin on that first visit, Varoufakis said his party might be ‘leftwing riff-raff’ but promised he would be charming. Instead, he praised his Syriza party leader for the crude gesture politics of laying a wreath at a memorial to Greek patriots executed by the Nazis, words that inevitably provoked anger in the German press. He still claims to be surprised by the reaction, which seems either disingenuous or remarkably naive, although at least he admits ‘this didn’t help my job of making friends in Berlin’. During his inglorious few months in office he went on, of course, to annoy pretty much everyone in European politics.

Yet while this book reflects a giant ego, and will not win prizes for its ponderous style, it is not entirely without merit for those with strength to plough through the pages. He argues that by contrast to the emergence of democracies in Britain and the United States, the evolution of the European Union began with a protective cartel of coal and steel producers, leading to the creation of a borderless cartelised economy designed to shore up elites. ‘As always happens when a technocracy harbouring a deep Platonic contempt for democracy attains inordinate power, we end up with an antisocial, dispirited, mindless autocracy.’

Such language is often wearily extreme, with overblown depictions of elites and European politicians seeking to crush ‘sans-culottes’ in places such as France, Spain and Greece. Countries are ‘beaten to a pulp’, economies are ‘carpet-bombed’, Greece subjected to ‘fiscal waterboarding’. The author seems to largely absolve the corruption and political incompetence that led to the problems facing his own country – some of which, such as tax collection, are being tackled to an extent post-crisis. And he has the usual misty-eyed conservatism of the far left in much analysis of recent economic history.

Yet he is right to point out that valid questions of sovereignty lie at the heart of Europe. And to argue that the euro was flawed by failing to unite politics and fiscal policy with monetary strategy, that German intransigence on debt has damaged the wider project and, above all, that Greece is being crushed by its rigid and ever-tightening financial straitjacket. Varoufakis – an admirer of John Maynard Keynes – sees the euro as the gold standard reborn, designed to unify nations but driving them apart by widening living standards in different parts of the continent. Britain, he argues, had a lucky escape.

Curiously, one of the few politicians to win his approval is Margaret Thatcher for ‘her prescient critique of the euro’s built-in democratic deficit’ and for seeing ‘the fantasy of apolitical money’. Once he joined protests against her government; today he enjoys clips of her final parliamentary performance. Thatcher feared a European federation being sneaked in through the back door. ‘If only she had been right,’ says the author, who sees it instead as a Trojan horse for ‘a clueless, inefficient bureaucracy… working tirelessly for politicians with an infinite capacity to recite unenforceable rules’.

Thatcher was, however, also a woman who understood that politics involved compromise. Clearly Varoufakis prefers the certainties of protest and comfort of the podium, allowing him to sneer at those who must take tough decisions amid the turbulence of crisis. As he discovered, modern politics is a messy game. Far easier to sit back, pour a jumble of impassioned words on the page and rage against the machine.

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