European Union, World

Varoufakis and Grexit: a dialogue on defeat

Two years years on from ‘OXI’ questions of past and future strategy remain hotly contested. What lessons must be learnt for the battles ahead?

Remarks occasioned by the Greek translation of Adults in the Room (Ανίκητοι Ηττημένοι) – by Konstantinos Poulis

Yanis Varoufakis’ case is a singular one. There is no other example of such a glaringly unjust mismatch between international esteem and domestic vilification. That said, I believe that the opposite of vilification is not praise but rather rational, rigorous critique.

This is a matter of life and death for the Greek Left today. Victory does not demand much thought, but defeat does: only through reflection can the defeated come to understand what has happened and begin to change the situation. The Greek Left has suffered a devastating defeat; we are literally gazing at the debris all around us. It is important, then, that we try to understand just what has happened and what we must do next.

The Greek Left has suffered a devastating defeat; we are literally gazing at the debris all around us.

Yanis Varoufakis’ position on the negotiations was that you cannot negotiate if you are more afraid of Grexit than of austerity. The difference between him and the “drachma purists” was that he believed that we had to seek a solution that would keep us in the eurozone, but that if the other side drove negotiations to an impasse then at least the blame would be on them. If and when we reached that point, we should not be afraid of an exit.

His new book is, in a sense, an account of how his expectations were disappointed, as much by his own party as by Greece’s creditors. In it we encounter a long series of Europeans and Americans who at first said “yes” but later admitted they meant “no”. We meet allies who proved not to be allies at all: individuals who concealed communications with European officials from Varoufakis; who submitted to him documents they passed off as their own but which had actually been composed by the Troika; who claimed that if they were fired they would start working for the Bank of Greece—Syriza’s sworn enemy at the time.

So when the crisis erupted and the creditors made clear that they had no interest in the logical proposals put forth by the Greek government, we had reached the point at which a Grexit was no more frightening than continued austerity. I do have a question, though: did Varoufakis’ public presence, from the outset of the crisis, lead to increased or diminished public fear of a Grexit? Because if it led to increased fear, as I believe that it did, then Varoufakis has de facto, regardless of what he intended, contributed to the country’s entrapment in the coercive dilemma posed by Schäuble, the man who said “The memorandum, the memorandum just as it is, without changes. Or the drachma.”

Tsipras meets Christine Lagarde ahead of their meeting at IMF Headquarters in Washington, October 2017. IMF/Flickr. Some rights reserved

When, at the end of the book, the moment of truth arrives, Varoufakis gives the Prime Minister his exit plan and adds “Read it and weep”. He elaborates that the plan was in fact preferable to a continuation of what he calls “Bailoutistan”. And yet, if his plan really was preferable, why should Tsipras have wept? Because, I think, at the heart of Varoufakis’ thinking was a deep conviction that there was no real chance of an exit. Even after Schäuble’s proposal, after the 17 hours of negotiations, Varoufakis continued to believe that Greece’s expulsion would be disadvantageous to Europe and so was fundamentally inconceivable. Now we will never know if that was the case, but to my mind it certainly explains why the “preparedness” of the general public did not figure significantly into his own thinking and action.

The manner in which Varoufakis describes the potential rupture is ambivalent, if not plainly contradictory at certain points. Multiple layers of thought and analysis are generally indicative of intellectual integrity and dynamism, but there are two kinds of situations in which those kinds of qualities prove misleading: when you break up with someone and when you run for public office. In those two cases, the other person hears only what they want to hear. The Greek people heard that there was no chance the creditors would not retreat, and Varoufakis, as ironic as it might now sound, was the ideal Minister of Finance for Syriza. He had a deep understanding and strong critique of austerity politics, which at the same time did not expose Syriza to criticism of being the anti-European drachma party. The result was that, in the end, the very thing that led Varoufakis to his role in the public discourse wound up strengthening the creditors’ position. He increased the public’s fear of a rupture, as for years he had been arguing in favor of the view that a return to the drachma would mark a return to the Paleolithic Era, that it had been a mistake to join the eurozone but it would be a mistake leave, and so on.

Varoufakis, as ironic as it might now sound, was the ideal Minister of Finance for Syriza. He had a deep understanding and strong critique of austerity politics, which at the same time did not expose Syriza to criticism of being the anti-European drachma party.

Varoufakis maintains that it is impossible to enter into battle if you are already speaking of defeat. And yet, it turned out that we entered into a battle in which the soldiers never thought they would have to fight. There is no use in dwelling on old statements that bore these kinds of warnings. It is certain that they exist. But it is equally certain that Syriza, in order to win the election, had to distance itself from the drachma supporters and so to keep on repeating that an exit from the euro was out of bounds. When the moment of rupture came, nobody prevented Tsipras from reversing the result of the referendum. If the point of OXI was that the people desired to leave, then there would have been someone to fight for it instead of Syriza being re-elected under the Thatcherite banner of “TINA”.

Political disagreements aside, the value of this book is fundamental. It is an account of events of massive political importance for all of Europe, whose hopes rose and fell along with ours. Those events are recounted by one of their protagonists, an individual who has every element of personal integrity and honesty and is also a remarkable writer. The book’s international success has been ridiculed by Varoufakis’ political opponents in terms that oscillate between slander and jealousy. But if public dialogue is impossible via the debased channels of political parties and television, then those most in need of the conversation should at the very least be promoting it.

*Note: This essay represents an elaboration of the basic argument I briefly outlined when I moderated the conversation at Varoufakis’ book presentation in Athens on October 9.

Chris Akos. Flickr. Some rights reserved

On 2015, with an eye to 2019: a response to the critique by Konstantinos Poulis – by Yanis Varoufakis

In his recent remarks, Konstantinos Poulis expressed the most substantive and essential critique of the strategy I pursued with regard to the creditors both prior to and during my brief term in the Ministry of Finance. In short, his critique was that:

I did not prepare Greece’s citizens for the possibility of a Grexit, despite the fact that I had boldly forewarned them that there was no sense in winning the elections and standing up to the creditors unless we were prepared to choose Grexit over a third memorandum and further austerity measures. Because of my insistence that Grexit would spell disaster and, simultaneously, that the creditors would only cave if we were in fact prepared for a Grexit, “the very thing that led Varoufakis to his role in the public discourse wound up strengthening the creditors’ position.”

Poulis’ critique is extremely useful in that it sheds light on the main question of 2015: how could we, both the leadership and the citizens, convince ourselves we could avoid a terrible Grexit only if we truly believed that there was something even worse: the establishment of permanent debt-bondage by means of a third memorandum?

Poulis’ critique is twofold: that for years I had overstressed, first, the cost of a Grexit and, second, the likelihood that the creditors would cave if we were ready to accept a Grexit (with the result that Grexit would thus be avoided). Thus, on the one hand I intensified fear of Grexit in the minds of the citizens and, on the other, I told them that there was no reason to prepare for it. Poulis therefore concludes,

[I]t turned out that we entered into a battle in which the soldiers never thought they would actually have to fight…When the moment of rupture came, nobody prevented Tsipras from reversing the result of the referendum.

As I was carefully reading this critique, two thoughts/comments occurred to me:

An alternative strategy?

The logical consequence of the above critique would be that I should have (1) spoken of Grexit in words that made it seem less catastrophic and (2) not spoken with such certainty of the likelihood that the creditors would cave if we were in fact ready for a Grexit. I understand the argument here, but I have difficulty agreeing with it for one simple reason: it implies that I should have said things I did not believe, and which I still do not believe to this day!

I understand the argument here, but I have difficulty agreeing with it for one simple reason: it implies that I should have said things I did not believe, and which I still do not believe to this day!

(1) A Grexit would have come at an immense cost. Whoever denies that is lying, either to themselves or to others. In my book’s introduction, I calculate that the cost of a Grexit in the summer of 2015 would have amounted to a decrease in GDP of between 6 and 13%. I had no right to conceal that from the citizens in general, and from the voters in particular. The duty that I had—and which I fulfilled—was to continue repeating, loudly and clearly, that a Grexit would prove (in the medium term, over an 18-month period) less painful than a third memorandum.

(2) A Grexit would have cost the rest of Europe approximately one trillion euros, with precisely the result that I predicted: if we were ready for Grexit, there would be no Grexit, because the creditors would have caved at least on the matter of restructuring the debt. And you don’t have to take my word for it: Vice President of the European Central Bank Vítor Constâncio fully confirmed this, when in September of 2015 he boldly stated that the cost to Europe would have been so great that there was no chance of the ECB pushing Greece out of the Eurozone. In other words, he confirmed that it had all been an “empty” threat. The same thing I had believed since 2010 I still believe today. Should I have said anything different to the public?

Beyond the fact that telling the truth is itself a revolutionary act, I disagree that being more “economical” about what I believed to be true (by understating my estimate of a Grexit’s cost and overstating its likelihood) would have improved the unity of the OXI-bloc and so increased our negotiating power.

International support for OXI via Die Linke Berlin. Flickr. Some rights reserved

Soldiers who hadn’t realized they would have to fight?

Poulis writes: “If the point of OXI was that the people desired to leave, then there would have been someone to fight for it instead of Syriza being re-elected under the Thatcherite banner of ‘TINA’.” Allow me to disagree.

Under no circumstances did the people desire rupture. The Greek people were extraordinarily at the ready throughout the “Spring” of 2015, especially on the fifth of July. The significance of the OXI, as I interpreted it and continue to interpret it, was simple: we don’t want rupture. We don’t want to leave the euro. And yet, if the terms of our remaining are the permanent establishment of debt-bondage, continued indignity, propagation of humiliation, and the selling off and desertification of the country, then let’s leave the Eurozone. If official Europe presents us with a Schäublean ultimatum “Austerity or Grexit”, then…Grexit.

That was the will of those who filled Syntagma Square on the evening of July 3. It was the message sent by the 62% two days later. The people did their duty; the soldiers were ready for battle. Consciously, with full awareness of the enormous cost of a Grexit, they were prepared to accept that there was no other choice, knowing, at the same time, that if the leadership honored their expressed will then the likelihood of Grexit was small.

In other words, the soldiers were well informed and were ready to fight, even if we were a David standing before the creditors’ Goliath. What they were not prepared for, however, was the capitulation of those who had readied them to fight the good fight. In fact, when, even before the battle had truly begun, their generals laid down their arms and informed the people that concession was the only path, it was no surprise that they returned home in despair, resolved never to believe anyone again. This was why, in September of 2015, a mutated Syriza and “TINA” won out: More than 1,500,000 “soldiers” (i.e., eligible voters) did not vote in the referendum, while those who did vote chose, half-heartedly, to keep those who had promised to implement the terms of capitulation with wild enthusiasm far from Maximos Mansion.

Epilogue

Anti-fascist demonstrators in Athens, 2017. Ggia/Flickr. Some rights reserved

2015 is a part of our history. Now the matter at hand is 2018, and especially 2019. There is no such thing as ultimate defeat, just as there is no such thing as ultimate triumph. Independent of disagreements about the precise probability that the creditors would have caved back then, today we face a simple choice: between the narrative of austerity-driven recovery that has been realized (or at any rate is on its way) and the alternative of constructive disobedience. The hour of the next battle draws near.

*With the publication of my book on the 2015 Greek Spring (Adults in the Room/Ανικητοί Ηττημένοι), I have now finished issuing responses and explaining my positions regarding those events. The present text was written for one reason: it constitutes a response to the comments offered by my friend Konstantinos Poulis during my book presentation, which he moderated. Thus, with this response, that presentation is concluded.

These pieces were translated by Konstantinos Poulis and Johanna Hanink. Published here with thanks to The Press Project

Adults in the Room, Varoufakis’s insider account of the negotiations, is available to purchase here.

Lead image by Johannes Zielcke. Flickr. some rights reserved.

Bio

Konstantinos Poulis

Konstantinos Poulis studied Sociology and Greek Drama in Greece and Britain. His publications include theatre plays, short stories, and essays on politics and philosophy. He is a member of the editorial board of the literary periodical “Neo Planodion” and a regular contributor to The Press Project.

Yanis Varoufakis

He is the co-founder of DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement). He is also the former finance minister of Greece. His latest book is And the Weak Suffer What They Must? : Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic Future.