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NON-FICTION: HOW THE LEFT WAS CONQUERED

September 10, 2017
People queue at an ATM outside a bank in Athens | AP
People queue at an ATM outside a bank in Athens | AP

Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment is Yanis Varoufakis’s gripping blow-by-blow account of the Greek government’s showdown with its European Union (EU) creditors, a confrontation that dominated the news cycle in 2015.

After decades of slumber, the global left had begun to stir again in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. This movement peaked in the electoral victory of the Coalition of the Radical Left, known as Syriza, in the Greek general elections. This was the first time in recent history that a radical left party had assumed power in a Western European country. The resulting confrontation of capitalism with democracy is arguably one of the defining battles of our times, and this privileged insider-account by a man at the forefront reveals the sheer magnitude of the tragedy. There are no winners in this fight: democracy is vanquished and capitalism stands exposed.

Varoufakis starts by pointing out a little-known but fundamental design flaw in the EU: the concentration of industry and financial clout is a boon for rich countries such as Germany and France, but a deathtrap for economies on the periphery. Since monetary policy is the sole province of the European Central Bank, poorer economies such as Greece can no longer manipulate their currency to navigate their way out of a financial crisis. These nations therefore routinely face yawning deficits that manifest as surpluses on the balance sheets of their well-to-do neighbours, ie the rich get richer at the expense of the poor. The EU thus contains within itself the mechanism of its own undoing.

Varoufakis reveals that when the global banking system imploded in 2008, Greece promptly went bankrupt. Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany was startled to discover that the domino effect imperilled big German and French banks that had gorged heavily on Greek debt. Unlike the United States, in Germany bailing out reckless bankers would have been tantamount to political suicide.

Could the shattering of Greece’s economy in 2015 be a deliberate attempt to maintain imbalance in the European Union?

Then Merkel had her eureka moment: tell the German parliament that we’re bailing out our Greek brethren in need. We give them funds from the EU taxpayers’ pocket, but we force the Greeks to give it back to their creditors, ie our banks!

The Greek bailout was actually a bailout for French and German banks in disguise.

Thus began a spiral of debt, bailout upon bailout, each to service the one before. This was accompanied by International Monetary Fund reforms that forced austerity measures and the fire sale of Greek assets to foreign buyers. The Greek economy plummeted. Homelessness, emigration and suicide rates went up.

Seven years later, into this wreckage stepped Syriza, a radical left party with a strong mandate to confront the bankers. Varoufakis was appointed finance minister, tasked with negotiating a new deal with EU creditors, to restructure Greek debt and stop this mindless cycle of exploitation.

Reading this book we discover — much like with Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails — that what really happens behind closed doors and what we are told are two very, very different things. Thanks to Varoufakis, we see a dark, ugly face of the EU that rarely emerges in daylight; behind the utopian, romantic pretensions, the project is little more than capitalism unrestrained, an efficient all-consuming neo-liberal machine, an implacable enemy of democracy and human dignity, the epitome of fascism in our times.

The American television show House of Cards has it right: high-level politics is very rarely about principles or ideals. It’s about power and the attendant corruption. In the Greek negotiations, we see how brute ego dominates common sense; we see the power play in closed-door meetings and economic fundamentals being violated by ideology without compunction.

The stakes could not be higher. If one looks at the big picture, this fight was never about bailing out a small, bankrupt country in the backwaters of Europe. It was to crush the revolutionary spirit in its bud, a spirit that could well-nigh have transformed Europe entirely. Varoufakis is very clear on the real reason why EU politicians were adamant that Greece yield to debt slavery: “If they were not careful, dangerous ideas might infect the minds of other Europeans — Spaniards, Italians, possibly the French — such as the idea that it is possible, even within this Europe, to regain one’s sovereignty and to restore a nation’s dignity.”

The story is a tragedy. Syriza collapses under pressure from the creditors. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, messiah of the radical left, rejects the results of a popular referendum. Varoufakis is fired. His replacement promptly signs the devil’s deal, relegating Greece to debtor’s prison and another eternity of austerity.

Varoufakis’s prose is urgent and passionate. He humanises the key characters — Tsipras, Nikos Pappas, Yannis Dragasakis, Wolfgang Schaeuble and Christine Lagarde. They turn out to be the kind of people we know in real life: idealistic and heroic at times, but also all too flawed, timid and corrupt. Bernie Sanders and Emmanuel Macron make cameo appearances. We have all the stock characters for a modern-day Shakespearean tragedy or Greek drama: there is Varoufakis the honourable general, pitted against the cunning, scheming bankers. There is Schaeuble the tyrant, and Tspiras the noble but ultimately flawed hero. And behind it all, in the background, standing out in stark relief like a ghostly ethereal presence, is the heartbreaking suffering of the Greek people themselves.

While the lay reader can enjoy this book perfectly well without any background in economics, this is essential reading for the politically inclined and activism-oriented folk. Varoufakis’s behind-the-scenes revelations fill in the missing pieces of our daily media cycle. We realise how the short-sightedness and irrationality of the EU taskmasters, and their absolute contempt for democracy, has fuelled far-right movements all across the continent and culminated, quite naturally, in Brexit. We see that Greece is likely the template for the future of Europe.

The fight still continues.

The reviewer is an assistant professor at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment
By Yanis Varoufakis
The Bodley Head, UK
ISBN: 978-1847924452
560pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 10th, 2017