Yanis Varoufakis:Avrupa’da yeni siyasi harekete ve demokrasiye ihtiyacımız var (english)
Yanis Varoufakis: we need a new movement for democracy in Europe
Yanis Varoufakis speaks to Nick Buxton about why he is launching a pan-European movement for democracy, to save Europe before it’s too late
What do you see as the main threats to democracy today?
The threat to democracy has always been the disdain the establishment has for it. Democracy by its nature is very fragile and the antipathy towards it by the establishment is always extremely pronounced, and the establishment has always sought to undo it.
This story goes to back ancient Athens when the challenge to establish democracy was immense. The idea that the free poor, who were the majority, could be put in control of government was always contested. Plato wrote The Republic as a treatise against democracy, arguing for a government by the experts.
Similarly in the case of American democracy, if you look at the Federalist Papers and Alexander Hamilton you will see it was an attempt to contain democracy, not to bolster it. The idea behind a representative democracy was to have the merchants represent the rest because the plebs weren’t considered up to the task of deciding important matters of state.
The examples are countless. Just look at what happened to the Mossadeq government in Iran in the 1950s or the Allende government in Chile. Whenever the ballot box produces a result the establishment doesn’t like, the democratic process is either overturned or threatened with being overturned.
So if you are asking who are and have always been the enemies of democracy, the answer is the economically powerful.
This year it seems democracy is under attack from entrenched power more than ever. Is that your perception?
This year is special in this regard as we had the experience in Greece where in the elections the majority of Greeks decided to back an anti-establishment party, Syriza, which came to power ‘speaking truth to power’ and challenging the established order in Europe.
When democracy produces what the establishment likes to hear then democracy is not a threat, but when it produces anti-establishment forces and demands, that’s when democracy becomes a threat. We were elected to challenge the Troika of creditors and it was at that point the Troika asserted quite clearly that democracy cannot be allowed to change anything.
From your time as Greek finance minister, what did the experience reveal to you about the nature of democracy and power? Were the things that surprised you?
I went in with my eyes open. I had no illusions. I always knew that the European Union institutions in Brussels, the European Central Bank and others, were established as democracy-free zones by design. It wasn’t that there was a democracy deficit that crept up on the EU; from the 1950s, the EU was in fact set up primarily as a cartel of heavy industry, later on co-opting the farmers, primarily the French farmers. And its administration was that of a cartel – it was never meant to be the beginning of a republic or a democracy where ‘we, the people of Europe’ rule the roost.
Regarding your question, a couple of things struck me. The first was the audacity with which it was made clear to me that democracy was considered irrelevant. In the very first Eurogroup meeting that I attended, when I tried to make a point that I didn’t think would be contested – that I was representing a freshly elected government whose mandate should be respected to some extent, that it should feed into a debate on what economic policies should be applied to Greece – I was astonished to hear the German finance minister say to me, verbatim, that elections cannot be allowed to change established economic policy. In other words, that democracy is fine as long as it does not threaten to change anything! While I was expecting that to be the overall motif, I was not prepared to have it spelled out so bluntly.
The second thing that I would have to say I was less prepared for was, to rephrase Hannah Arendt’s famous expression on the banality of evil, was the banality of the bureaucracy. I was expecting that the bureaucrats in Brussels would be quite disdainful of democracy, but I expected them to be suave and to be technically accomplished. Instead I was surprised to see how banal they were, and from a technocratic point of view how second rate they were.
So how does power operate in the European Union?
The main thing that one should note about the EU is that the whole operation in Brussels is based on a process of depoliticising politics, of taking what are essentially profoundly, irrevocably political decisions and pushing them into the realm of a rules-bound technocracy, an algorithmic approach. This is the pretence that decisions about economies in Europe are simply technical problems in need of technical solutions to be decided by bureaucrats that follow pre-established rules, just like an algorithm.
So when you try to politicise the process, what you end up with is a particularly toxic kind of politics. To give you just one example. In the Eurogroup, we were discussing economic policy pertaining to Greece. The programme I inherited as finance minister set a target of a primary budget surplus of 4.5% of GDP, which I considered outrageously high. And I was challenging that on purely technical, macroeconomic theoretical grounds.
So I was immediately asked what would I like the primary surplus to be. And I tried to give an honest response, saying it had to be considered in the light of three key factors and figures: investment in relation to savings, the schedule of debt payments, and the current account deficit or surplus. I tried to explain that if we wanted to make the Greek programme work after five years of catastrophic failure that had led to the loss of almost a third of national income, we would have to look at these variables together.
But I was told that the rules say we should look only at one number. So I replied: ‘So what?’ If a bad rule is in place, we should change it. The reply was: ‘A rule is a rule!’ And I would retort by saying ‘Yes, this is a rule, but why should it be a rule?’ At that point I received a tautological answer: ‘Because it is the rule.’ This is what happens when you move away from a political process to a rules-bound process: we end up with a depoliticisation process that leads to toxic politics and bad economics.
Another example I could give you is that, at some point, we were discussing the Greek programme and debating the wording of a communiqué to come out of that Eurogroup meeting. I said okay, let’s mention financial stability, fiscal sustainability – all the things that the Troika and others wanted said – but let’s also talk about the humanitarian crisis and the fact we are dealing with issues like widespread hunger. The reply I received was that this would be ‘too political’. That we can’t have such ‘political wording’ in the communiqué. So data on financial stability and budget surplus was fine, but data on hunger and the number of households without access to electricity and heating in the winter was not okay as it was ‘too political’.