Sophisticated Heretic: Yanis Varoufakis at The Cambridge Union

Harry McNamara 15 November 2019
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Yanis Varoufakis has been adamant that he is not a politician. He might be an economist, though his conversation with Margaret Levi – a Stanford political scientist – at the Cambridge Union last Thursday evening on 7th November 2019 smashed the academic boundary walls of economics in style.

His critical principles come from his characteristic cool iconoclasm – he has ‘zero respect for economists’ – but this is a radical spirit that guides his beliefs to a mature and deeply felt complexity.

Varoufakis is impressively historically literate: he folds contemporary political and economic events into their bigger intellectual history. He puts it that the huge discursive power of the medieval clergy has, in a modern context, been seized by economists. The go-to revolving door theory – where industrialists are recycled as industrial-legislators – is reimagined by Varoufakis as the emperor at the confessional ear of the archbishop: their power is co-dependent.

He suggests that the ‘supreme power’ of established economic thought and policy over our collective imagination is analogous to the hold of sacred words on medieval minds. That the people, in their own language, might begin to understand scripture was an unhinging prospect that terrified the Tudor establishment. Varoufakis ascribes the quasi-religious authority of received economic thought to the mystery of its language. He drops into his medieval history, perhaps pointing to role models, the term ‘sophisticated heretics’.

Image Credit: Flickr

I asked him if the left today is open to intellectualism. He thinks the left has always been more welcoming than the right because, ‘all outsiders in human history have been more open to an intellectual reconfiguration and reconsideration of the status quo.’ But – never the politician – he pushes away an uncritical ideological spirit: ‘the left has also been responsible for immense acts of authoritarianism, and closing down debate, as it approached power. Power corrupts, and the left is not immune to that. So I am distinctly aware of the left’s proclivity towards modes of thinking that are just as oppressive as what we have today in the dominant paradigm.’

Toying with this urgent self-awareness, he turns on his new political party in Greece – MeRA, which is under the umbrella of his pan-European movement, DiEM or European Spring: ‘I watch how even small increases in our power, in our percentage in the polls, are always threatening us with a dissolution of friendship, of tolerance, of openness.’ Varoufakis holds up the flag of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists as he likes its sophisticated symbolism: ‘[it] was black and red: they used to say red for the excitement, the hope, the revolutionary spirit in our heart, and black for the dark side that each one of us has.’

“I am an expert on economic theory,’ he says, ‘[but] that does not mean I am an expert on what needs to happen. That is very difficult.”

I find it difficult to see how these intellectually complex principles translate into his popular democratic movement, especially in the context of disinformation and a resistance to academically-informed discourse. ‘I am an expert on economic theory,’ he says, ‘[but] that does not mean I am an expert on what needs to happen. That is very difficult.’ He clarifies the difference I am trying to define between the academic and the political spheres: ‘In the academic sphere, the beauty of being in a place like Cambridge, is that at the level of research, you put forward your hypothesis, then you meet with your colleagues whose job it is to disprove it. It is only through this test, this trial, that good ideas survive and bad ideas die. This means that the greatest merit of being an academic must be an openness to criticism and a readiness to change your mind, which is exactly the opposite of being in politics. Imagine, instead of having a roundtable of academics where we are testing each other’s theories and trying to disprove them, that we have a roundtable with television cameras, with politicians. Just for a moment fantasise that you are in this conversation and your political opponent says something, and suddenly, you think: my God, that’s a good point! If you say so, you are gone. That really concerns me about politics.’

“Just for a moment fantasise that you are in this conversation and your political opponent says something, and suddenly, you think: my God, that’s a good point! If you say so, you are gone. That really concerns me about politics.”

He says that difference between the academic and the political is a very difficult difference to survive.

One feels that Varoufakis is up for the fight for that survival though. In the spirit of self-criticism, I wondered if he feared the risk as Finance Minister in communicating the complex idea of being at the same time a Europeanist whilst being a radically disruptive force in Europe, the risk of losing control of that narrative to the nationalists and the far right. ‘At every point: I still fear it’. Characteristic of his responses, he reserves political uniformity and gives a double critique of the Syriza project: ‘I think that on the one hand, when it came to the Greek people, we were very successful. Proof of that is that our narrative secured 36% of the vote in the January, and then a few months later, even though the banks were closed (and we were held responsible for that) and all of the media were lambasting us, we took that 36% to 62% of the vote. So, in our communication to the people of Greece, we were spectacularly successful.’ Of course, he checks his triumphalism though: ‘with many Europeans – not all, but many – the systemic media narrative prevailed. I still have to answer questions from journalists: ‘Mr Varoufakis, how dare you go against Europe?’ The answer is I did not.’

I put it to him that Jeremy Corbyn could have taken and led with that risk in the European debate in Britain, and Varoufakis is, for a moment, defensive. ‘He did.’ A quick clarification that he should have been more outright seems underplayed. ‘He showed a very sensible streak by saying: I am highly critical of this EU, but on balance, on the evidence, I think it would be hurtful for most of our people if we left.’ It is an unbrilliant logic that seems to lack Varoufakis’s usual brio, and I am unconvinced that Jeremy Corbyn posed the case for ‘radical Remain’ as well as Varoufakis has it that he did.

He talks me through what comes next for his European Spring movement, and he moves through its failures comfortably, admitting uncomplicatedly that the European Parliament elections this year were not a success for his movement. Varoufakis wants to keep the Green New Deal at the movement’s heart, and it makes sense to promote an issue, international by its very nature, in a political effort aimed at deleting political boundaries along conventional national borders.

This is a reconfiguration informed by his intellectual principles, which recognise the continuity between mathematics, metaphysics, politics, and the lists of other disciplines.

It appears from all of this that Varoufakis is training the modern left, building up its intellectual heft so that, so he says, it is ready for the next crisis. The left failed to enact a genuine paradigm shift after the 2008 financial crash, and Varoufakis seems furious at the wasted chance. He argues, in his conversation with Levi, for an ‘embrace of indeterminacy’. Varoufakis is calling for a sea change in our way of thinking, and it is a radically inspiring call. But, to the end, his principle checks even its own hope, and he questions his whole argument, that a radical departure can come from within the existing system: he is – charmingly – not so sure any more.

“But, to the end, his principle checks even its own hope, and he questions his whole argument, that a radical departure can come from within the existing system: he is – charmingly – not so sure any more.”

What do you think? Let us know at editor@tcs.cam.ac.uk with the subject line ‘Letter to the Editor’!