Closed Rooms and Class War

Yanis Varoufakis presents himself as a heroic Prometheus in his new memoir, but he comes off looking more like a Narcissus.

Yanis Varoufakis El Desperttador / YouTube

Striding the world stage from January to July 2015, Yanis Varoufakis became the world’s most celebrified finance minister ever. His every pronouncement and lifestyle choice was floodlit in the international media.

He shunned suits and limos, instead wearing leather jackets and riding a motorbike. He showcased his gym-enhanced biceps, artsy wife, and Acropolis-view apartment. He was dazzlingly articulate and delivered macroeconomic explanations to fellow finance ministers who did not want to know. He shed light on the dark dealings of global finance to a public who did want to know.

Of course, it was not only his star persona that commanded such attention. The whole world was watching Syriza in 2012 when they nearly won Greece’s general election and this intensified three years later when they actually won. Many in Greece and abroad heralded this victory as opening a new path for the radical left and for a population desperate to reverse their fortunes.

The stage was set for Varoufakis to play a starring role. Greece began negotiations with the troika (European Union, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund) in hopes of Greece exiting the debtor’s prison and regaining some control over its fate. The troika played with them duplicitously and ruthlessly, while the Greek government, particularly Varoufakis, alternated between ingratiation and defiance in response. Finally, the Greek negotiators capitulated and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras signed a memorandum agreeing to measures harsher than anything Greece had previously rejected, including those that had just been resoundingly rejected in a referendum.

Adults in the Room gives Varoufakis’s account of these events, opening up the closed rooms where the masters of the universe so cavalierly and contemptuously decide our fates. He tells us:

our bailiffs keep their distance from their victims, barricading themselves in five-star hotels, whizzing around in motorcades and steadying their occasionally flagging nerves with baseless statistical projections of economic recovery.

He presents himself as both insider and outsider to this world. As if sketching a scene for a film script, he recounts a meeting with Larry Summers in a Washington bar, where Summers tells him that he must decide which he is going to be: an insider or outsider. It is clear that Varoufakis glories in being one of them, while still wanting us to believe that he is simultaneously on our side. He speaks of how great it was to have the support of Larry Summers, Norman Lamont, and other figures on the Right, but it was support for whom, for what, and in whose class interests? Class analysis is far from the foreground of the picture sketched out here.

It is a chronicle of elite pacting far removed from the lives being impacted by the deliberations of these elites. Varoufakis never seems to grasp how elitist his own modus operandi is. He reveals himself not only in closed rooms with Christine Lagarde, Mario Draghi, and George Osborne, but even in his encounters with his own “comrades.” For example, he tells of his earliest meetings with Alexis Tsipras and Nikos Pappas, during which he claims he formed a “covenant” with them, a five-pronged economic strategy, overriding Syriza’s existing policies. He shows contempt for Syriza’s democratic structures and expresses doubts about Tsipras still feeling a concern about them. Tsipras and Pappas assure him that he need not be burdened by Syriza’s decision-making processes. Nevertheless, they criticize the European Union for its lack of transparency and democracy.

This book tells many truths that need to be told. Varoufakis lucidly explains the “extend and pretend” dynamic, in which Greece was never “bailed out” but forced, through many layers of subterfuge, to bear the burden of bailing out German and French banks, while plundering wages, pensions, municipalities, hospitals, schools, and public property to do so. He recounts many conversations with those imposing these measures, in which they agreed with his arguments and admitted that their policies could not possibly work even in their own stated terms, only to say the opposite in public. This book does a service in bearing witness to that essential dynamic.

However, Varoufakis’s book conceals as much as it reveals. Most importantly, it does not clearly conceptualize the sociohistorical forces at play, both because of an overbearing egocentrism and a lack of systemic analysis. Capitalism disappears in the play of elite personalities, primarily his own.

Varoufakis takes his title from a comment made by Christine Lagarde, who said that what the situation needed was “adults in the room.” Varoufakis complains that there were too few adults in the room, as if this explains what happened. Who said and did what obviously played a role, but despite the power of certain personalities, Wolfgang Schäuble above all, what was at stake was the pressure of the global system itself upon any government, party, or movement threatening its dominance. Varoufakis does refer to class war at one point, but not in a way that comprehends how this is the core story.

His publisher tells us “In this fearless account, Varoufakis reveals all.” This is not true. Rather, he constructs a narrative that selects some facts and omits others in a way that is blatantly self-justifying and distorts the history of this conjuncture.

Varoufakis constantly uses phrases like “my solitary struggle” and tells the story in a way in which everyone else’s role is blurred, distorted, or even invisible. Syriza barely exists. The Greek Left are nearly absent. The Greek people fade into the background. It is a landscape of elite players and anonymous masses.

Varoufakis uses a man named Lambos to stand in for people of Greece. Early in the book he appears as a translator for a foreign news crew interviewing Varoufakis. He had lost his job, home, and family in the crisis. He implored Varoufakis to do something, not for those like him who had already been felled by the crisis, but for those still hanging on by their fingertips. Varoufakis reminds of us through the book of his vow to Lambros. In August 2015, he informs us that Lambros was no longer homeless due to a bill he enacted. However, it was Syriza, led by alternate finance minister Nadia Valavani, who passed this bill for humanitarian relief in defiance of the troika, while Varoufakis takes credit for it.

This is a Lone Ranger narrative. Varoufakis, who played no part in the building of Syriza, who even exited the country at the peak of its trials, rides in to save the day. Syriza activists, even ministers, are minor players who either help or hinder him in his heroic struggle to save the people. It only departs from the Lone Ranger story, however, in that here, the baddies win.

Further doubt as to whether Varoufakis “reveals all” in this book comes from his omission of incidents which do not reflect well on him. He makes no mention of his Paris Match photoshoot, which opened him to scorn in Greece and abroad. There was already much criticism of the time he was spending giving media interviews and the Syriza paper Avgi had editorialized about “toxic overexposure.” Varoufakis projected himself as Prometheus, but revealed himself to be more of a Narcissus.

But more glaring an omission is his failure to account for his actions in the days of July 2015, when he was no longer finance minister but still a Syriza MP. On July 15, when the first crucial vote on the troika-dictated measures was taken, Varoufakis absented himself from parliament and retreated to his villa on the island of Aegina. When the next vote was taken a week later, a bill of 977 pages of oppressive measures, he voted yes. In August, on the ultimate vote on the memorandum, he finally voted no, recalling:

we received more than a thousand pages — which read as if translated from troika-English into Greek by something like Google Translate … The full horror was evident from its first page, in which the Greek authorities committed to agree to everything the creditors demanded, with no reciprocal commitment from the troika to agree on anything in return — a pledge of utter subservience.

He declares early on that there are “no goodies or baddies in this book,” but only people doing their best, as they understood it, in circumstances not of their choosing. This is not, however, how he writes it. He characterises some players as goodies, primarily himself and his band of star foreign economists, and others as baddies, although he is kinder to the troika than to certain figures in Syriza, whom he accuses of treachery. His preference for figures of the Right, such as Norman Lamont and Jeffrey Sachs, over the Left, in addition to his conceptualisation of many matters, make me wonder if he even understands the difference between right and left.

His perceptions of various characters, including Tsipras, Dragasakis, and Pappas, are fascinating, but so are their perceptions of him, which are told in tavernas and perhaps eventually in other books.

This book is far from a definitive account of these momentous events. I hope there will be many more books coming at this from different experiences and perspectives. I have written one of them — The Syriza Wave — which is a counterweight to this one, bringing many more voices and experiences into play and attempting to address the balance of forces and rhythms of history in a way that Varoufakis does not.

While I do not concur with Paul Mason’s assessment of this book as “one of the greatest political memoirs of all time,” I do think this is an important book. It is a long read — 560 pages — but worth the time and effort. At times, Varoufakis gets the plot exactly right:

Austerity is a morality play pressed into the service of legitimizing cynical wealth transfers from the have-nots to the haves during times of crisis.

Yet more often, he loses the plot in a failure to understand the role of personality in history. His hubris blinds him to the bigger picture. If that were not the case, it might then be one of the greatest political memoirs of all time.