Yanis Varoufakis’s Fantasy Politics

The European Union is the enemy of left internationalism, not its friend.

Yanis Varoufakis. Marc Lozano / Flickr

It is not immediately obvious why anyone is still interested in the views of failed Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, but as leader of the transnational “Democracy in Europe” movement (DiEM25), he still seems to influence some on the European left. In his latest article, he reiterates his increasingly contradictory views on why progressive politics is supposedly incompatible with leaving the European Union.

To his credit, Varoufakis at least recognizes that progressives “have no alternative” but a “head-on clash with the EU establishment,” since the European Union simply cannot be reformed to make it more democratic. But, he nonetheless insists, leftists must not support referenda to leave the European Union.

He offers two confused reasons for this. First, since exit referenda are “movements that have been devised and led primarily by the Right,” it is “unlikely” that joining them “will help the Left block their opponents’ political ascendancy.”

This left defeatism is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Left refuses to lead exit referenda campaigns, of course the running will be left to the Right. And since the Left cannot convincingly defend the European Union, that leaves the Right to benefit.

Secondly, Varoufakis suggests that restoring national democracy will mean the end of the free movement of “workers.” “Given that the European Union has established free movement, Lexit involves acquiescence to — if not actual support for — the reestablishment of national border controls, complete with barbed wire and armed guards.”

Leaving aside the fact that left-wing leadership could theoretically persuade an electorate to accept open borders, this defense of the European Union is simply bizarre. The European Union is very far from “borderless” (his word). It has created free movement not for “workers,” but for EU citizens, albeit limited for the citizens from accession countries.

But for non-EU workers, the European Union has established Fortress Europe: “barbed wire and armed guards” surround the continent, resulting in thousands of dead Africans and Asians in the Mediterranean Sea, and hundreds of thousands more languishing in squalid conditions in southeast Europe (including Varoufakis’s own home country, Greece) and Turkey. Moreover, the migration crisis has led to the restoration of “barbed wire and armed guards” across the continent.

The idea that the European Union safeguards some sort of workers’ paradise of open borders against right-wing revanchism is ludicrous.

The destruction of democratic control over migration policy has simultaneously eroded its legitimacy and led political elites to evade winning consent for open borders. Far from fostering cosmopolitan sentiment, therefore, the European Union’s migration regime has fueled a right-wing backlash against open borders. This is why parochial populism is flourishing throughout Europe.

Varoufakis only cites two other EU “programs worth defending”: “climate change policies” and “the Erasmus program.” This is laughable. The European Union’s emissions trading system is widely understood to be a boon for industrial and finance capital while doing nothing to reduce carbon emissions. Meanwhile, Erasmus is not even an EU program; even if it was, a university year-abroad project is hardly a good reason to neutralize national democracy.

Varoufakis’s preferred option is “pan-European movement of civil and governmental disobedience.” He hopes that progressive governments can be elected and then refuse to implement “the EU’s unenforceable rules at the municipal, regional, and national levels while making no move whatsoever to leave.” The European Union will try to fine, threaten, and bully recalcitrant member states, but if the governments resist, the European Union will either be forced to change, or to “dismember” itself.

How exactly this is supposed to work is not specified. The European Union will “blink” and, as if by magic, “be transformed.” This would apparently preserve “the spirit of internationalism,” demand “pan-European action” and differentiate the Left from the “xenophobic right.” Varoufakis invokes Marx, Engels and Gramsci to reject those calling for the restoration of national-popular democracy, arguing for a “transnational republic.”

This is no more than a reheated version of Varoufakis’s disastrous “good EU” strategy, which led Greece’s Syriza government to utter defeat and its supporters to ruination.

Varoufakis continues to indulge the fantasy that progressive governments can arise simultaneously across Europe and come to one another’s aid to change the European Union. Given national variations and the level of mobilization that would be required, this is a ludicrous suggestion. As the experience of Syriza and Spain’s Podemos show, it is hard enough to elect a progressive or populist government in just one EU member-state, let alone enough to resist the combined forces of the eurozone.

The contradiction here is obvious. Varoufakis doubts the ability of left-wing forces to counter right-wingers within their own country if they supported demands for EU exit referendum. But he thinks the European left is sufficiently strong to transcend the institutions of national democracy, smash the European Union, and establish a “transnational republic.”

In this sense, Varoufakis’s ideology mirrors his own biography: having failed utterly to lead an anti-EU revolt among a real demos, he floats up to a lead an imaginary EU one.

Varoufakis also betrays an ignorance of the nature and importance of the contemporary European state. It is foolish to suggest that EU rules are “unenforceable,” such that a government and its people can simply “resist.” Greece’s own experience shows this.

His perspective overlooks the transformation of European states into “member-states,” whereby state apparatuses are thoroughly enmeshed across borders — including courts and law enforcement. Brussels does not need to enforce EU fiat directly; Europe’s “national” legal systems will do it.

Varoufakis also dismisses the fact that the only place that a real “demos” actually exists is at the domestic level, not at the EU level, as Europhiles suggest. He does not disprove this — it would be impossible, since all the evidence suggests that, beyond a thin market cosmopolitanism popular among metropolitan elites, the vast majority of Europeans remain primarily attached to and interested in national democratic politics.

Varoufakis merely rejects this rhetorically, in favor of nineteenth-century leftist internationalism. Yet the mechanism for achieving this international solidarity is struggle at multiple levels so that governments — national governments — are able to resist EU diktat. Varoufakis simultaneously needs and loathes the national state and national publics, and takes refuge in a fantasy of “transnational republicanism.”

Despite Varoufakis’s calls for a historically evolving analysis, his fantasy politics overlooks practically everything that has happened to the Left since the late nineteenth century: its fragmentation from an internationalist movement into a nationally segmented one through two world wars; its co-optation into nationalist-developmentalist projects by the capitalist class after 1945; and its crushing defeat in the class struggles that followed the crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. This has produced the very weakness that Varoufakis fears when he worries that leaving the European Union can only empower the Right.

But rather than confront that weakness squarely, and think about how to resuscitate the Left, he schizophrenically posits a Left powerful enough to unite across borders to revolutionize the European Union.

The sad truth is that the Left cannot revolutionize anything anywhere in Europe. That leaves the only course of action as fighting the forces, institutions, and ideologies that suppress its revival. Chief among those is the European Union itself.