The politics of memoir
Yanis Varoufakis’ ‘Adults in the Room’ offers an insider’s view of the Greek financial crisis
Clichés should be avoided like the plague. So too, I tend to think, should political memoirs.
With these two edicts in mind, it was a task to make it through the preface of Yanis Varoufakis’ Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment (Vintage, $35.00), where the former Greek finance minister begins to frame his 162-day reign by unblushingly referencing Macbeth and the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex.
In this diary-cum-apologia of his time trying to end the Greek financial crisis, or Grexit as it became known, Varoufakis sees himself as a heroic and tragic figure, betrayed by colleagues, foreign adversaries and a corrupt press. The Varoufakis in the mirror is prone to taking solitary walks in the rain, finds himself eternally correct, benevolent, and wise yet humble, not to mention a great wit. His only faults are that he was too kind and trusting to those who would turn on him.
Between the turgid beats of the early prose (“this difference is encapsulated in a single word: power. Not the type of power associated with electricity or the crushing force of the ocean’s waves, but another, subtler, more sinister power: the power held by the ‘insiders’”), a heroic ego (“my solitary struggle to convince a nation”), and score settling (“cavalier and immature” are among the many adjectives used to describe prime minister Alexis Tsipras), the opening acts are not particularly kind to the reader. That said, it is worth persevering for those who wish to gain an insider’s view of the few people controlling the strings of the invisible hand that dominates our lives, and for those who wish to understand the global structural forces that have brought us the resurgence of the populist right and the rapid reframing of the political paradigm as we know it.
Varoufakis explains the depth of the European “too big to fail” crisis, which history has largely couched in American terms:
A Greek bankruptcy in 2010 would have immediately necessitated a bank bailout by the German, French, Dutch, and British governments amounting to approximately $10,000 per child, man and woman living in those four countries. By comparison, a similar market turn against Wall Street would have required a relatively tiny bailout of no more than $258 per U.S. citizen. If Wall Street deserved the wrath of the American public, Europe’s banks deserved 38.8 times that wrath.
Capturing the mood of the times, Varoufakis is frustrated by liberal democracy’s existential crisis; the orthodoxies in the political economy we’re told that cannot be challenged. He highlights the inertia of a world where there is no alternative, “a network of power within other pre-existing networks, involving participants who conspire de facto without being conscious conspirators”.
Finding himself more at home with economists on the libertarian right, who were perhaps the most vociferous opponents of bank bailouts, Varoufakis is highly critical of the technocracy that appears to have taken over the continent’s left, leaving him with “outstandingly low expectations of Europe’s social democrats”.
The long preamble to the climax of the crisis could largely be described as a page turner for anyone outside the world of economics, but the third act – the final months of posturing before the referendum and what Varoufakis sees as the betrayal the Greek people by Tsipras and the Syriza coalition – is compelling even for those whose eyes glaze over when it comes to VAT percentage negotiations or recall how events unfolded.
More important than showing the trials of the losing side, Adults in the Room’s greatest service is in Varoufakis’ portrayal of the public and private faces through the procession of negotiations to determine Greece’s future. He details what academic Daniel Boorstin 50 years ago dubbed “pseudo-events”: demands of Greece made for consumption by domestic audiences, animosity staged for the cameras, the private agreement that what was being asked of a poor country was impossible and wrong, a system that must give the appearance of being stronger than the sum of its parts.
Of a final meeting with his nemesis, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, he writes:
‘Would you sign the MoU if you were in my place?’ I was expecting him to give the predictable answer – that, under the circumstances, there is no alternative – along with the usual, senseless arguments. He didn’t. Instead he looked out of the window. By Berlin standards, it was a hot and sunny day. Then he turned and stunned me with his answer. ‘As a patriot, no. It’s bad for your people.’
In spite of Varoufakis’ hubris and at times overwrought prose, a glimmer captured me in his introduction that sustained my interest to the end: his motivation to enter politics for his distraught country. “What happens when human beings find themselves at the mercy of cruel circumstances that have been generated by an inhuman, mostly unseen network of power relations,” he posits. It’s a theme he anchors himself to throughout six months of tumultuous negotiations.
Political memoirs are nothing if not self-serving, and while his ego is a continuous presence in the room, Varoufakis’ emphasis on dignity, decency, rejection of cruelty and economic crisis as humanitarian crisis is a sadly rare thing. Anyone whose politics emanate from such a moral centre is worth listening to.