Just a year ago the eyes of progressives all over the world were turned toward Greece. That which rarely happens had transpired in the Greek electoral system: a left-wing party with a strong ideological position was elected to power. The Syriza Party, which had upheld a staunchly anti-austerity platform, was propelled by the collective despair of the Greek populace into a landslide victory.
The challenge of Syriza, and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, lay in navigating between the opposing pressures of austerity-weary Greeks on the one hand, and the troika of creditors (the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund) on the other. Part of international fascination with this European moment was based on the hope that if Greece could thumb its nose at neoliberal capitalism, there might be positive repercussions throughout Europe and even elsewhere.
At the center of this battle was an unlikely figure: Yanis Varoufakis, a distinguished economist and author who was teaching at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin when he decided to run as a member of Syriza for a seat in the Greek Parliament. Varoufakis, who gave up his UT position for politics, has practiced his craft all over the world, including at Cambridge University in England; the University of Sydney; the University of Glasgow, Scotland; and Athens University, Greece. He garnered the highest number of votes of any Syriza member in the Greek election and then went on to be appointed by Tsipras as finance minister, the most important position in the Cabinet given the circumstances.
After only five months in office, during which he charmed the international media with his unconventional style and disdain for official etiquette while simultaneously provoking the ire of political elites, Varoufakis resigned. He proceeded to write a book, “And the Weak Suffer What They Must: Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic Future,” about the battle over austerity. While on a book tour, Varoufakis addressed a packed audience at an event I organized in Southern California and also gave me a one-on-one interview. During his talk and our conversation he revealed details of his five tumultuous months as finance minister, especially his interactions with powerful elites.
Paraphrasing what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said to him, he shared, “‘Yanis, you’re right, our program can’t work, but you must understand that we have put so much political capital in this, we can’t go back.’” That program involved imposing even greater austerity measures on the Greek population in order to service the deep debt that the government had incurred. Varoufakis tried to convince Tsipras to reject the deal, saying, “I spent three hours into the wee hours of the morning trying to convince him ... that it would be catastrophic for everyone. I failed.” He agonized over the wording of his resignation letter, which, “wasn’t easy because firstly I was upset, secondly I was tired, and thirdly I had to write the text which simultaneously castigated the prime minister’s decision without being written in an angry language—the language of division.”
But division is central to the story. Europe’s fiscal crisis stems from the battle between debt-ridden countries, like Greece, Portugal and Spain, and wealthier members of the European Union, like Germany and France. Germany in particular has refused to budge on austerity as a way to solve the economic impasse despite plenty of evidence that it does not work. The troika’s imposition of austerity on poor European nations reeks of the structural adjustment programs that the World Bank and IMF imposed on impoverished nations in the global south in the 1990s. Those prescriptions were so harsh that wealthier nations didn’t even consider taking their own medicine, but they fully expected poorer nations to accede.
“It’s a utopian project, but the only alternative is a dystopia.”The conundrum facing Syriza was painted as a stark choice between austerity and Greece’s exit from the eurozone, also known as “Grexit.” While Varoufakis stood firm against further austerity, he also lambasted the idea of Grexit, explaining that “it’s one thing to say we should not have created this European Union,” which he agrees with. “It’s quite another thing to say we should disintegrate now that we have it,” because, “if we exit from the monetary union, we’re not going to end up where we would have been had we not entered. We’re going to fall off a cliff.” Varoufakis is confident that solutions do exist to fix the eurozone so that it is both “efficient and humane.”
It is not just the suffering of ordinary Greeks that is the concern, but also the dangerous rise of authoritarianism on a continent that still shudders over its fascist past. Varoufakis sees the rise of Greece’s Golden Dawn neo-Nazi party as intimately connected to the fiscal crisis and the architecture of the eurozone. “What happens to a nation that is ritually humiliated, put through a Great Depression and given no hope?” he asked. “Those elements of vulgar politics that are always present in any society—those seeds start sprouting.”
To combat authoritarianism, austerity and the tyranny of the European Union (EU), Varoufakis spearheaded the launch of a new pro-democracy movement earlier this year called DiEM25, which stands for Democracy in Europe Movement 2025. The movement has branches in nations throughout Europe and has already grown to 17,000 members. According to Varoufakis, “[F]or the first time in Europe, people are trying to create a European agenda independently of borders, nationalities, culture and political party affiliation.” The group’s manifesto starts with the sentence, “For all their concerns with global competitiveness, migration and terrorism, only one prospect truly terrifies the Powers of Europe: Democracy!” The organization is growing fast and could develop into a mass movement before long. Varoufakis admitted, “It’s a utopian project, but the only alternative is a dystopia.”
There is a growing distrust of authoritarianism and capitalism all over the world today. Here in the United States, Varoufakis echoed the campaign catchphrase of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, saying, “We have a political revolution in this country.” When I asked him his opinion of Sanders, he shared an anecdote from more than a year ago:
“On Jan. 26, 2015, the day after our magnificent electoral victory [in the Greek election], I received a phone call from Vermont: ‘My name is Bernie Sanders, I am a senator from Vermont, and I’m calling to say we’re all watching you and we’re praying for you.’ What is happening [in the U.S. presidential election] is remarkable. The lesson we learn is that at some point people will respond, progressively and collectively and constructively, to the irrationality of the world we live in.”
Varoufakis is eternally optimistic. About his five months in office as Greek finance minister, he concluded, “It was only a battle. We didn’t lose the war. The war is being fought as we speak, in Athens, in Europe, and here [in the United States].”