A racy, bare-all memoir from Yanis Varoufakis, maverick economist and former finance minister of Greece
Yanis Varoufakis calls himself an erratic marxist. His elevation to the post of Greece’s finance minister when the radical left group Syriza was voted to power in 2015 surprised many. Greece was then reeling under austerity, imposed on it by the Troika of World Bank, IMF and the European Central Bank following the country’s economic meltdown. By any measure, it was a humanitarian crisis even though Europe’s deep establishment was in no mood to call it one. Syriza in general and Varoufakis in particular were calling for a more democratic Euro establishment. They wanted no further bailout plans for Greece. Varoufakis was asking the European establishments to respect democracy and listen to the plans he had put forward. But would the ‘adults in the room’ listen? Did Varoufakis actually have a plan that would be acceptable to the establishment as well as the Greeks? Did he err? What caused his exit before Alexis Tsipras, Syriza Leader and Prime Minister of Greece, signed a new bailout agreement despite an overwhelming ‘no’ from the Greek people for further austerity? In this riveting political memoir — Adults in the room — Varoufakis takes us through the corridors of power, where democracy is hardly respected and finance capital does all the talking.
Varoufakis tries to write a classic in his own style, filled with interesting conversations where he outwits the bigwigs of Europe. There is an element of openness in the way he lays out those conversations for us to read. Sometimes, the memoir appears like a play where real life characters make an appearance; at times it becomes a nail-biting thriller despite the fact that most readers would be familiar with what happened next. Wolfgang Schauble, the German FInance Minister, assumes the role of a villain for those who desperately wanted to see the Syriza win their battle with the Troika. Schauble saw ‘Grexit’ as the only solution for the Greek crisis and allegedly pushed this as a means to frighten other vulnerable EU members into falling in line. In the early chapters of this book, Schauble is portrayed as an uncompromising baddie but towards the end of the tome a sense of empathy creeps into their relationship as their bosses Tsipras and Angela Merkel decide to take a course which both the finance ministers cannot agree.
Varoufakis thanks Christine Lagarde, the IMF Managing Director, for the title for his memoir. It seems Lagarde wanted to have “adults” in the room to reach any sort of conclusion to the Greek crisis. Varoufakis had a plan which he believed in. But he wasn’t very sure of receiving much support from the other European finance ministers. Still, believed he would be given a patient hearing. He says he relied a lot on IMF and the influence he could impart from his US relationships to get some kind of negotiation started with the Troika. Varoufakis did receive support. One of the first calls he received after becoming the finance minister was from US’ Bernie Sanders. He even had a cordial meeting with Barack Obama and it is evident that Varoufakis pinned a lot of hope on the support coming via the US. But what happened with the “adults” in the room was interesting. He calls it the Swedish National Anthem routine. He and his group of economists worked on plans, validated it with Wall Street and other top notch economists and took them to Greece’s creditors. In return for all his efforts, all he received was blank stares. He says it wouldn’t have mattered what he was saying, even if he were singing the Swedish National anthem. Was it smart on his part to assume that Brussels would have a different reaction to his proposals? Would they have allowed anything other than another bailout with further austerity measures? They wouldn’t. That is the reason why Tsipras finally gave up on the covenant he had in the “War Cabinet”, replaced his friend Yanis and handed over the baton to a lesser rigid Euclid Tsakalatos.
Apart from all the discussions about capital controls, the so-called Securities Market Programme (SMP haircuts) and other modes for debt restructuring, there is a careful effort to make all those bigwigs in the European establishment look like ordinary human characters with a role to perform in a well written drama. The theatre is of course Europe’s most powerful establishment and each one had his role — be it Schauble, Varoufakis, Jeroen Dijsselbloem the dutch finance minister. Varoufakis also takes some passing shots at Europe’s other social democratic parties who were worried that a Syriza win in the Euro group would potentially put them in a defensive mode when they go back to their people. He also tries to clarify why he had certain allies from the right side of political spectrum in his negotiations with the Euro Group. He trusts them because they have seen the worst of bailouts and would certainly be backing him to avoid another disaster.
The memoir, with scattered references to the likes of TS Eliot, Samuel Beckett, also reflects the author’s array of interests which spans well beyond the dismal science of economics. He sums up the Troika’s tactics to fend him off as Penelope Ruse, a reference taken from Odyssey, the Greek Epic. Penelope, Odysseus’ wife who waited for 20 years for his return put off her remarriage by promising to do it when the ruse was done. She kept weaving it during day and undid it during night. Troika used two tactics to weave and unravel the ruse, one by threatening to not discuss proposals if they were made public and other by accessing data directly from Greece’s ministries and later undoing them. Despite the ideological differences one could have with this “erratic marxist”, the empathy he shows towards the protesting working class in Syntagma Square and the millions of homeless in Greece is honest and humane. He attributes that to be inherited from a dad who was mistakenly imprisoned by the Nazis as a Communist student leader and a mother who was a core feminist. Only time will tell whether his optimism with the deep establishment in Europe is well founded and how the pan europeanism of DiEM25, a movement Varoufakis has set in motion, would be received. That’s, as they say, a billion-dollar question.