“We Have Nothing to Lose but Our Debts”

Yanis Varoufakis

Four years after he became a slavish enforcer of EU dogmas, Greek leader Alexis Tsipras is finally set to lose office. But for former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, next month’s snap elections are a chance to take the fight against austerity back into parliament.

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis speaks at the official launch of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) at the Volksbuehne theater on February 9, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup / Getty

Interview by
David Broder

Amid the bad results for the Left in the European elections, the Greek outcome was particularly poignant. In the last such contest in 2014, Syriza rode the revolt against austerity to become the largest single party, in its final step toward national office. Five years later, in last month’s election, it finished ten points behind the right-wing New Democracy. And where once Syriza promised to spark change throughout the EU, it is now the best student of the neoliberal dogma “There Is No Alternative.”

After four years of slashed pensions, sell-offs of state assets, and even a right-wing turn on foreign policy, Syriza is now also set to lose office. Indeed, not only did Alexis Tsipras’s party enforce an even harsher austerity than its predecessors ever dreamt of, but as snap general elections loom, it is set to become an exhausted opposition to a sharply reactionary New Democracy government. Polls for the July 7 vote suggest the conservatives have a massive lead, and could even secure an absolute majority in parliament.

The hollowing out of Syriza’s base is the expression of disappointment and despair. But there are also signs that some of its voters are turning to left-wing alternatives. Former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’s MeRA25 party achieved a particularly creditable result in the European contest, less than four hundred votes from electing a member of the European Parliament. As Greece heads to a fresh general election, MeRA25 hopes to elect its first members of parliament, offering a platform for its call to replace austerity with Europe-wide investment.

Jacobin’s David Broder spoke to Varoufakis about the effect of Syriza’s defeat on the wider European left, the prospects of a realignment of EU politics, and MeRA25’s own plans for a “political revolution” in Greece.

David Broder

Almost all left-wing parties lost votes in the European elections, no matter what their strategy regarding the European Union (EU). For this reason, many analyses of the result have focused on more general obstacles, invoking the “death of the populist moment,” the stabilization of the EU, or indeed the lack of left-wing governments able to challenge its current policy balance. Such readings would all suggest a window of opportunity has closed. Do you think this is the case, or are there still openings?

Yanis Varoufakis

It is undoubtedly the case that a large window of opportunity has closed — and it was closed here, in Greece, in 2015. Millions of Europeans looked with hope to this country, and it was Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza government (elected that January) that had the responsibility for keeping that window open, and for opening it up further for others. What these millions wanted a break from was not even true neoliberalism, but what I would call bankruptocracy — a new regime in which the greatest power was wielded by the most bankrupt bankers.

Tsipras’s surrender in July 2015 closed that window of opportunity. And there’s no sugaring the bitter pill — the European elections were a complete catastrophe for progressives. Yet at the same time, we should also be clear that there is never a final victory or defeat. New windows are always opening up.

David Broder

Yet if the troika’s treatment of Greece damaged the EU’s image, and also cast doubt on the prospect of a single state being able to change things, there is little sign of what other forces could challenge the present order. DiEM25 has spoken of constructing broad fronts across Europe, including even liberals and progressive-minded conservatives who see the need to break the EU out of its austerian dogmas. But do you see any evidence that other political forces are actually moving in the direction you suggest?

Yanis Varoufakis

Firstly, I’ll say that the reason we lost the window of opportunity wasn’t the troika’s treatment of Greece. We shouldn’t blame our enemies for our defeats, just as we don’t blame the scorpion for stinging us — this is in its nature. The blame lies with those who decided to trade the anti-austerity agenda on which they were elected in exchange for a few years in office — all the while having their backs patted by the enemy.

As for the resonance of our arguments, there is an impressive disconnect between a general recognition that austerity was, indeed, a disaster, and the lack of any political program to end it. I have the privilege of speaking to a lot of bankers — for some reason, they like talking to me. They completely accept that socialism for bankers and austerity for the population brought about a major defeat for European capitalism. Social democrats on the ground admit that it has been terrible, as do some conservatives, as well as the Greens and the Left. But the disconnect lies in the lack of an organized political plan to shift us out of this.

Even progressives have failed to get together to advance an alternative — indeed, only DiEM25 put forward the plan for a Green New Deal. The Greens themselves are so conservative, so ordoliberal, and so scared that conservatives will accuse them of being fiscally irresponsible, that they end up recycling ordoliberalism.

But we don’t regret not standing together with the Party of the European Left, which has chosen incoherence. From Italy to Switzerland, Hungary or Britain, the fascists and right-wingers are coherent: they say, “we want our country back,” and that means dissolving supranational organizations and institutions and pointing the finger of blame at foreigners, whether that means Jews, Syrians, Greeks, Germans, or refugees — the “other.” It is a misanthropic dead end, but it is coherent.

That cannot be said of the Party of the European Left, which included not only Syriza — which completely surrendered to the troika — but also the europhile French Communist Party and allied euro-skeptic forces like Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise, or Podemos, whose policy on Europe and the euro is not to have a policy.

So, I’d say DiEM25’s program is the only one worth fighting for. In the European elections we didn’t do well — we got just over 1 percent of the vote. But I should add, our total budget was just €85,000, a pitiful sum for a European election. People running to be the mayor of even a small town would spend many times that. Running on a principled position meant we didn’t have the infrastructure or spending power to do better.

David Broder

This election saw not just the growth of the far right but also advances for liberal and Green parties, at the expense of social and Christian democrats. But if pro-European sentiment has been mobilized in opposition to right-wing populism, do you think this could be harnessed by the anti-neoliberal left? Wasn’t the rise in support for these parties instead more of a vote of confidence in the EU as it currently exists?

Yanis Varoufakis

It is stupendous that there is talk of a vote of confidence in the EU when the far right came first-placed in France, Britain, and Italy. Ten years ago, if you were told this would happen, you’d have said — oh my god. The mainstream media presenting the rise in liberal and Green parties as a vote of confidence in the EU is mind-boggling.

Politically and historically speaking, these parties’ rise is irrelevant. The liberals’ rise owes to Macron in France and Ciudadanos in Spain. These are deeply conservative forces — Ciudadanos even governs together with the far-right Vox in Andalusia. There is nothing liberal about them: they are traditional, austerian class warriors against the working class. Some such forces could be called more liberal, but only in the sense that the German CDU [Christian Democratic Union] is more liberal than the Austrian ÖVP [People’s Party]. This is just a shift within the same liberal-conservative bloc.

The same could be said of the Greens — and here we are really talking about France and Germany, where the Greens are a significant force. These parties are the green wing of social democracy, and their traditional government partners are the Parti Socialiste and SPD [Social Democratic Party], who collapsed due to their connivance in the assault on working-class voters. Indeed, overall the social-democratic/green blocs that led to the governments of François Hollande and Gerhard Schröder have shrunk.

To celebrate the rise of the Greens is to celebrate a lifestyle choice – fiscal conservatives who want to celebrate recycling and who say they like Greta Thunberg when addressing their kids. Indeed, in a debate with Sven Giegold, the German Greens’ leading candidate, in response to my presentation of DiEM25’s ambitious green investment plan of half a trillion euros annually funded via European Investment Bank bonds, I was appalled to hear him retort that there were not enough green projects to fund with so much money. He offered as proof for this the neoliberal creed that if there was such a need, the market would have provided the investments!

David Broder

Looking at Greece more specifically, despite everything, there are only mixed signs that Syriza’s voters are headed elsewhere. DiEM25’s Greek section MeRA25 did well, as it fell just short of electing a member of the European parliament (2.99 percent); former Syriza parliamentary speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou’s list also scored 1.6 percent, but the other radical-left forces Popular Unity and Antarsya got just 0.6 percent each. Do you think left-wing voters have bought Tsipras’s message that Syriza made the best of a bad situation? Or have they lost faith in the prospect of changing things? And what are the chances of bringing these other forces together?

Yanis Varoufakis

Ever since he surrendered to the troika, Tsipras was always going to invest in a dilemma put to progressives: “Who do you want to torture you — an enthusiastic torturer, or someone like me who doesn’t want to torture you but will do it to keep his job?” This was his line in September 2015 [in that year’s second general election, after Syriza caved to the troika]. But four years later, after pushing through the most naked, harshest austerity policies anywhere in Europe — including under Greece’s previous governments — he can no longer blackmail progressives with lesser-evil arguments.

Readers may not know, but in the European elections our party, MeRA25, had to struggle against a systematic effort to silence us. We received absolutely no media exposure until the moment where media were forced by law to mention us and give us a little airtime. This was not true of Popular Unity or other smaller parties advocating Lexit [a left-wing exit from the EU].

The regime did not feel threatened by parties advocating exit from the euro and EU. Our view — that we’re not going to leave, and it’s up for the German government to leave, or to throw us out — is harder for them to deal with. The regime despised us because we neither want Grexit nor fear it. Our call unilaterally to implement perfectly moderate policies without fear or passion destabilized them. It was a danger to their system because of its widespread appeal.

We scored slightly under 3 percent. But this result is more striking if we consider that our internal polling told us just 38 percent of voters even knew our party exists.

We’re not going to participate in a civil war on the Left: for three years, we have never publicly criticized comrades. Our view has always been nuanced but also steadfast in its opposition to austerity and to the liquidation of people and property for the troika’s benefit. We instead proposed a pan-European program for investment and for social policy — that is, the transformation of the EU by mass political movements, and not just its “reform.”

Before the election we called on our friends — Zoe Konstantopoulou, members of Popular Unity, and Antarsya – for a discussion on what could be done. They weren’t interested. However, since the European elections many supporters of these parties have come looking for a dialogue. Our doors are, naturally, open. This isn’t a discussion that should be conducted under anyone’s hegemony, but rather one that ought to be based on the principle of person, one vote.

Yesterday we published a list of prominent progressives who hitherto had nothing to do with MeRA25 but who are now eager to run with us as parliamentary candidates in the July 7 Greek general election. MeRA25 is, I am happy to say, turning into a grand coalition of progressives, from the Marxist left to greens and even anti-systemic neoliberals.

David Broder

But what basis is there for unity with neoliberals?

Yanis Varoufakis

I’ll give you an example of a neoliberal who threw in his lot with us. He’s a supporter of Von Mises and Hayek, I think he even looks kindly on Thatcher. But after ten years of taxpayer-funded bailouts for the bankers and debt bondage for the multitudes, he surmised that the current regime is detrimental to liberty. In a message of support he sent us from Ecuador (he’s writing a book there), in which he called us compañeros, he concluded with the words: “We have nothing to lose but the chains of our debt bondage!” I think this answers your question.

More generally, our collaboration with people from different ideological backgrounds is not about summit meetings in which posts are distributed between functionaries and new entrants. We have a program, with parts that people may or may not agree with fully. But it’s constantly amendable on the basis of equality and one person, one-vote.

Indeed, we are proud of how we set our program: MeRA25’s policy agenda in Greece is determined by online voting including our British, German, Portuguese, etc. members as well as Greeks. If you want to amend it, then the amendment needs translating into nine languages. It’s not just a yes-no choice — do you agree with what’s in front of you — but rather the result of five referenda on five issues, to decide what we say on Macedonia, on the army and conscription, on drugs, and so on, before we voted on the whole program.

David Broder

Beyond party politics, there’s also the matter of the wider anti-austerity movement. One analysis holds that after the high point of mobilization in 2011–13, Syriza could push through its policy with little resistance because the social movements had declined, not least as years of austerity made it harder for people to devote time and energy to politics. Do you see any revival in these movements, for instance around home foreclosures or mutual-aid pharmacies? What links do you have with them?

Yanis Varoufakis

Firstly, I must say that I oppose with every fiber of my being the excuse put forward by Tsipras, holding that the people weren’t ready to fight. There was a 62 percent “no” vote in the July 2015 referendum — a vote truly determined by class, perhaps the first in Europe.

The people who voted “no” were the ones who had no money in the bank, including right-wingers who had always supported New Democracy; and I can assure you that colleagues from Syriza who had money in the bank voted “yes.” In the streets, in the neighborhoods, the institutions of solidarity that emerged in the crisis years, like the medical facilities set up by volunteer doctors and the free groceries gathering food for the poor, were at their apogee in July 2015. They were ready to step in, to back up the honoring of the “no” vote.

But on the night of the referendum, the prime minister did a Ramsay MacDonald [the Depression-era UK Labour leader who imposed harsh spending cuts and allied with the Conservatives, splitting his party] in just one night. What do you expect people to do? I can tell you what they were doing: they were hugging each other and crying into each others’ arms. It was like the sense of loss after a major natural disaster, except it was even worse because it wasn’t a natural disaster, but a defeat imposed by the leader of the Left, whom they had worshipped.

The fact that they didn’t take to the streets doesn’t give Tsipras the right to say, callously, that the people weren’t ready. You weren’t ready, mate.

But the privatization of pain is a real phenomenon. You have no idea how many people were ready to fight then, but today are burnt out. They say, “it’s great what you’re doing with MeRA25, but we can’t go through it all over again.” It’s like having been through a traumatic relationship and not being able to face going through the betrayal and breakup all over again.

We are accused, perhaps with some justification, of being an elitist party. We were formed at a theater in Berlin and organized online, and people who joined thus tended to be young, well-educated, internationally oriented and so on. All this is true, but we couldn’t start out any other way while also being transnational.

But things are also changing. In recent weeks, we have built strength among the trade unions, for instance among the electricity workers. They were betrayed by Syriza, who broke up and privatized the public energy company. Or take the cleaning workers in the public sector, who bore the brunt of the troika’s assault against the poor. One female cleaning worker is running on the proportional part of our list for July 7.

We are reaching out to social movements, because they need a political organization that allows them a voice beyond their specific localities, and also one that doesn’t dominate them. If they don’t have this, then they will be crushed by a new right-wing regime of a resurgent oligarchic right – one founded on what I call the Fourth Memorandum, the state of debt bondage until 2060 agreed with the creditors by Syriza.

David Broder

The right-wing New Democracy looks certain to win the general election, having defeated Syriza by ten percent in the European contest. But it is unclear what will happen to Tsipras’s party. Several of its leading candidates in the May 26 vote came from apolitical or even right-wing backgrounds, suggesting the embrace of an old clientelist model like PASOK’s. Yet a spell in opposition could allow it to change its image. Do you see signs of regeneration, or forces you could work with, within Syriza?

Yanis Varoufakis

The only thing we care about is liberating Greeks from debt bondage. If we could work with Syriza to that effect, we would. But we can’t and we won’t, as they are not fit for the purpose. It’s true that Syriza will be the official opposition, but it won’t be a credible opposition. Thankfully, I think we will elect MPs, and we shall be the real opposition.

That’s not just a personal opinion. What can they really say to [New Democracy leader] Kyriakos Mitsotakis when he’s prime minister? Restore the pensions that Syriza eliminated? Bring back the ports and airports that Syriza privatized?

Consider this, for instance: Syriza sold the railways for €43 million; I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and worked out they’d have got more money tearing up the rails and selling them as scrap metal. Or take gambling — Syriza enabled the deployment of thirty-five thousand poker machines by a private company, exploiting a bankrupt people with the fake promise of easy winnings. Even the Right’s privatizations were less deplorable than Syriza’s.

Even if they have an epiphany and fall on their knees to beg forgiveness, they just don’t have the credibility. For Syriza to be the opposition is a great gift to New Democracy. When I said in a press conference that a vote for Syriza in the forthcoming national elections is a wasted vote, I upset many of my former comrades in Syriza. But it is true. Tsipras says they alone can stop New Democracy, but everyone can see that they are not going to make up a 10 percent gap.

In fact, the situation is the other way around. If we saw the same results as in the European elections, with MeRA25 just below the 3 percent threshold for representation, then New Democracy will have an absolute majority, with 154 of 300 seats, but if we get just above 3 percent it’d be down to 149. So, our argument is that it is essential that MeRA25 gets in, for we are the only ones who can deny New Democracy an absolute majority and who, once in parliament, can wage genuine, credible opposition to them.

David Broder

I’d like to talk about how MeRA25’s activity relates to DiEM25’s. Your project seems defined by the bid to find pan-European solutions, yet you are also running in elections to individual national parliaments. Is your long-term strategy to enter national governments and drive change from there? Or is the aim to use your parliamentary representation to build a pan-European force that changes the EU’s own institutions from within?

Yanis Varoufakis

Well, in Greece the aim is to become the official opposition as soon as possible, or else assorted fascists will. Our immediate strategy — something we’re working very hard for — is to deny New Democracy an absolute majority. That is very important, because if it is forced to make a coalition with PASOK or some other rightist party, that will at least slow the rate at which misanthropy is imposed.

MeRA25 in parliament will encourage more people to come in and join our movement. It is an open platform, without democratic centralism. We can work jointly on opposing austerity, funding the green transition, or rejigging Greece’s relationship with Israel: can you believe that Tsipras has become best buddies with Benjamin Netanyahu? Any MeRA25 member who disagrees on any point can just say so. We think this open, participatory approach can create the dynamism we need in order to become a major force.

DiEM25 is often accused of wanting to reform the EU through its institutions. But we are not naïve. Put Che Guevara in the European Commission or the European Central Bank and he will end up toothless. We campaigned for the European elections not because we could transform Europe by entering the European Parliament but because it was an excellent opportunity to put forward our platform in multiple countries at once.

Rather, the task at hand is to take power in European nation-states and then have two or three prime ministers in the EU Council prepared to veto everything until austerity ends and a modicum of common sense, of the type that helps the many and the environment, infects Brussels.

If this causes a recalcitrant establishment to proceed to break up the EU (e.g., by throwing Greece out of the euro), then so be it. We shall remain European internationalism’s authentic defenders. And we shall do so by remaining faithful to our program in the face of a hapless regime that is wrecking Europe, through an inane austerian agenda that begets political monsters like Salvini in the process.