“When you see orchestrated stupidity present itself as wisdom, you have to resist”

Since his time as Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis has been considered a rebel, but he was already swimming against the current in his student days. In conversation with Luca Klander and Caroline Blazy, he talks about his experience as spokesperson of the BiPoC student body, why he did not feel isolated in the Eurogroup and why he would have liked to be 20 years old in 1968.

Yanis Varoufakis has already lectured at the University of Cambridge, Sidney and Texas. At the invitation of the Critical Economists, he gave a lecture at the FU. Picture: Tim Gassauer.

Yanis Varoufakis is an economist, politician, author of several books and blogger. As former finance minister of Greece, he became known in 2015 for his controversial fiscal policy proposals, were met with resistance within the Eurogroup and his own cabinet. Yanis Varoufakis is co-founder of the paneuropean movement DiEM25 and was elected to the Greek Parliament in 2019 with its Greek offshoot MeRA25.

You can find the German translation here.

FURIOS: Mr. Varoufakis, in geology, “erratic” refers to a single piece of rock that lies in an environment where it does not belong. You call yourself an “erratic Marxist”. What do you mean by this?

Yanis Varoufakis: That I am not dogmatic. Towards the end of his life Marx said: “All I know is that I am not a Marxist.” He was referring to the dogmatism of people speaking in his name. Marx himself was constantly disagreeing with himself. If you read his letters, he is saying: “I used to think that, but it was complete rubbish.” But Marxists, they take something that Marx wrote at some point in his life and treat this as a religious text.

So by stressing on the word “erratic” I tried to convey two things. Firstly, that I am not dogmatic and secondly, that I don’t think Marx was right on everything. And I am quite happy to distance myself from Marx. If Marx distances himself from Marx, why wouldn’t I?

When and how did you start to become politicized? Was there a specific event that you remember?

I was born. That’s it (laughs). They say that one of the most terrible things of humanity is that knowing where, when and which family one is born into and which gender one has is enough to predict almost everything. And this is terrible because it means that we’re not free. We have an illusional freedom. But in the end, life happens more or less determined, and we can make certain adjustments.

My mother for instance was born and raised during a fascist dictatorship. And I was born and raised in a fascist dictatorship – in a different one. My father had spent many years in a prison camp for political prisoners. When I was six and a half, in the middle of the night, the secret police broke down our door and abducted my mother and we didn’t see her for months. How could I not be political?

During your studies in mathematical economics at the University of Essex, you became involved as a speaker for the BiPoC student body. Why?

The University of Essex happened to be very radical at the time. Margaret Thatcher called it the “red university” and wanted to close it down. Thank God she didn’t. So there I was involved with the anti-racist movement, the ANC (Anm. d. Red.: African National Congress) and Nelson Mandela, troops out of Northern Ireland and campaigns for nuclear disarmament – lots of different groups. There was also a group of Black students who had created the Black Students Alliance. We used to drink and have fun together and chat politics. One of them came to me and said: “We want you to be the spokesperson for the BSA The Black Students Alliance.” And I laughed: “Why? Why do you want me to do it?”. And he said: “Look: We want to make the point that Black has nothing to do with color. It has to do with power.” In the same way feminist say that – quite correctly – feminism is not about women, it’s about power relationships and exploitation. And what better way to signify that it is not about color than to have a spokesperson that looks white. “And anyway,”, he said and was joking, “you Greeks are the Blacks… you are the N****** of Europe.” That came from a Black man, who has the right to use the N-word. And I looked at him: “I’ll do it.” We had a whole plan of how it would work. I would get up at the students’ unity meeting representing the BSA and I would say “We Blacks…” and everyone would laugh – and that was part of the plan. Because then I would say: “Hey, come on friends: Black is a state of mind and we’re the Blacks of Europe. We include the Greeks, the Irish, the British working class” and so on. That would be the narrative. And it worked quite nicely.

To my horror, more recently I was attacked decades later for appropriating cultural symbols that I don’t deserve to have. This is the way in which identity politics is becoming, I think, quite reactionary and not at all helpful. Helpful to what? To anti-racism.

And how did this specific experience of being a spokesman shape you in your further career ?

Oh, it really did. When I was a finance minister in the Eurogroup, I felt it in my bones. I was being treated like a Black. I could see the faces of people like Wolfgang Schäuble and others. “How dare he say no?”. I was basically representing people who were not the primary movers in the European Union. 

In public you often present yourself as a person who resists and tends to swim against the current. What are your views on that? Can you still identify with this role today?

I don’t resist for the sake of resisting, I really enjoy going with the flow. But when you see orchestrated stupidity presenting itself as wisdom, you have to resist. Politically speaking, when I was Greek finance minister in 2015, there was this combination: You have the most bankrupt state of Greece given the largest loan in history of humanity under the worst kind of austerity that will shake the people’s income further. You don’t need to be left-wing, right-wing, clever even, to understand that this is a crime against logic. So what do you do with this? Tell the lie that this is the solution or resist it? I resisted and I think everybody should.

As Greek finance minister, you found yourself increasingly isolated, both among your European counterparts and within your own government.

No, the whole experience was very different. That’s how the press presented it. Firstly, I wasn’t isolated in the EU. The fact that it was me against all of them didn’t make me feel isolated at all. Why? Because people talked to me informally and said that I was right. People like Mario Draghi never told me I was wrong. Wolfgang Schäuble, when I pushed him at some point and said “What would you do in my place? Would you sign (Anm. d. Red.: this assistance programme)?”. “No”, he said, “as a patriot I wouldn’t.” So, when everybody tells you that you’re right, even informally, you don’t feel isolated. You feel double determined to resist.

Was your resignation a reaction to your disillusioning experience in realpolitik?

As for the situation in my own cabinet, it wasn’t so much a cabinet. It was the inner circle of the prime minister. That was vaping and I realized that they had already sold out. For me the big question was: “When do I have to resign?”. The only reason I didn’t do it earlier was that people didn’t know what was going on and that we weren’t united as a team. If I would have resigned out of the blue, the people would have thought that I was a traitor. So I decided to stay until it was clear that the prime minister was betraying the course. And that happened on the night of the referendum when 60 percent voted to carry on and he said “time to sign” (Anm. d. Red.: the bridge loan by the euro rescue fund), and at that point I resigned. 

And based on your experience: What is your advice to young people who want to make a difference politically?

I don’t believe in giving advice, I do believe in personal responsibility. Everybody is responsible for themselves in the end, even when it comes to solidarity. I strongly believe that solidarity is a source of happiness and a source of success for humanity against the right-wing view that human progress is through survival of the fittest. That’s rubbish. The reason why we survived as a species is because humans collaborated, showed solidarity with one another. But in the end, everybody has to make their own mind up about how they define themselves. 

The Free University was the German epicenter of the worldwide student movement of the 1968s. Imagine you were a student today: What would you be committed to, what would you rebel against?

Oh I would be part of it, and I would love it! I really am sad that I wasn’t 20 in 1968 or in 1980, because those were interesting times. I grew up in very boring times. For me, the worst period ever was the 1990s. Firstly, awful music, terrible aesthetic (laughs), and a general illusion that we had arrived as humanity, that this was the end of history. And from now on everybody is an entrepreneur in a global village selling stuff. My goodness, that was a terrible time!

Are there any specific topics you would be committed to?

I would be committed to everything: Sexism, racism, capitalism, the whole thing that I am still doing. In history you’ve got these brief windows like now where everything seems possible. Windows of opportunity, where everything can change. For me, the worst enemy for young people today is what I call “the culture of inactivism”. Think of climate change and COP26 in Glasgow – it is a very painful fiasco. This culture is a great threat.

At the invitation of the Critical Economists, Yanis Varoufakis gave a lecture on “Re-thinking Money” at the FU on 12th November.