politics

Talking Brexit, Bernie and Left Internationalism with Yanis Varoufakis

The former Greek finance minister on his attempts to get the left to think global.

by Casper Hughes
21 December 2018, 9:00am

Yanis Varoufakis with Jeremy Corbyn (Steven Scott Taylor / Alamy Stock Photo)

He’s the former Greek finance minister who was tasked with renegotiating Greece’s bailout terms with the troika. And since his resignation from Syriza’s government and the subsequent acquiescence of Alexis Tsipras to the eurozone’s demands, Yanis Varoufakis has set up Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), an organisation whose aim is to unite progressives across the continent to reform the European Union. Now he is turning his attention to America, and specifically to a presidential candidate who he thinks can help spark a global progressive movement: Bernie Sanders.

Varoufakis talks to us about what he’s planning with the veteran US politician, why Jeremy Corbyn has been slow to support his campaigning efforts in Europe, and whether it’s possible for the UK to "remain and reform" inside the EU.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: Can you start by telling me about your trip over to the US. What plans do you have in the pipeline with Bernie?
Yanis Varoufakis: To begin with, an internationalist progressive agenda has been in the offing and desperately needed for quite a while now. In my estimation of the state of play globally, 2008 [the financial crash] was a momentous instant. It changed the world. Nothing that has been happening since 2008 makes sense anymore in terms of the conventional wisdom before 2008.

On the one hand we have a very effective internationalism practiced by members of the financial community. They have banded together to protect their individual interests – not the interests of the financial sector, but their individual interests – and that has shifted the burden of the crisis onto the shoulders of those who had never had organisational capacities beyond the limits of the nation state, and who very quickly became the victims of this cynical shifting of the burden of the bank’s losses, also known as austerity. That bred discontent, discontent bred a second wave of internationalism among the xenophobic, racist neo-fascistic right. Steve Bannon’s sojourn across Europe is just one example of how they are banding together and internationalising.

So some of us have been arguing for a while that progressives must internationalise too. And we must juxtapose internationalism against globalism.

Do you think it’s important that Bernie runs for president again?
No one person matters – I don't believe history is personality-driven – so I’m not going to say that Bernie is the one and only. But it is true that Bernie Sanders introduced a new kind of politics in the US, introduced a discussion in the US that was forbidden until then. No one was allowed to talk about poverty, at least since the time of LBJ. Bernie Sanders has pointed out the magnificent paradox that the richest country in the world produces the greatest and most hideous aspects of poverty in the world: if you’re a poor American, you’re far worse off than being a poor Indian in Kerala. He’s brought that discussion back to the fore.

Okay, so people say what about his age – it is true. But on the other hand, none of the other people that have risen up in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ revolution are up to the task yet of running for president. This is why it is important that he throws caution to the wind, defers his retirement and runs one more time, to sustain the burgeoning progressive movement in the US.

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Yanis Varoufakis speaks at a 'Vote In' conference in London (Mark Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo)

The far-right appear to be better connected globally than the left. Why do you think that is?
There is a kind answer and an unkind answer. The kind answer is good people, trying to change the world and make it better, traditionally in human history fall out with one another and become divided.

The unkind answer is the answer that was given by the Spanish anarchists during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s, who adorned themselves with the colours red and black. Red was for revolution: it was for heart, it was for changing the world to make it a better place, and black was their reminder of the dark side in us all. And let’s face it, the left has a dark side.

Whenever we managed to get our hands on the levers of power, the whole thing degenerated quite quickly. Not immediately, not everywhere. But we built gulags for our comrades, we backstabbed one another, which is what happened in 2015 with the Syriza government which I was part of. So unless we are self-critical as leftists and progressives, unless we constantly keep an eye out for the dark side, unless we overcome personal ambition and a natural tendency towards sectarianism, we will have failed in our historic role just as we failed in the mid-war period where there was a complete triumph of darkness, of Nazism. So I'm not one of those leftists who celebrate the left. I think the left must never celebrate ourselves – we have many skeletons in our closet, we must be vigilant against our own tendencies towards authoritarianism and sectarianism.

Our current situation/the future of the planet is often characterised as a scrap between the far-right – Bolsonaro, Trump, Orban, Salvini, etc – and the far-left –Corbyn, Sanders, AMLO, Morales. The centre has fallen and it’s either socialism or barbarism now. Is that a fair characterisation? If so, how does the left win this battle?
I wish it was as simple as that. We progressives are far weaker than that framing would make it sound.

But the great tussle at the moment isn’t between us progressives and the Trumps, Salvinis, Orbans, etc. This is – at least seemingly to the vast majority of people – a clash between the liberal establishment and the xenophobic right. That is the main game in town, so to speak. My concern is that this a fake opposition. Yes, they may not like each other at all. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump loathe one another. Macron and Matteo Salvini dislike each other maybe. But what worries me is that they are co-dependent, they are accomplices in reality. Macron needs Le Pen and Salvini in order to have any chance of remaining in power, and Le Pen and Salvini need Macron to be there implementing their business as usual policies of the establishment which breed the discontent which fuels them. Our objective of progressives should be to expose the fact they are accomplices and co-dependent, the fact that neither of them have the answers, and each one of them is part of the same problem, not a different view clashing with another view. We cannot do this unless we can coalesce at the international level, like they do.

In the cacophony created by the clash between the establishment and the far right, it’s very difficult to get a word in edgeways. It’s very difficult to have any sensible debate about anything. I mean look at Brexit today, a disaster in Britain. The greatest victim of it is any sensible debate on matters of substance.

While we’re on the topic of Brexit, what should Labour’s strategy be? A big part of your agenda has been about remaining inside the EU and reforming it. There’s currently a big battle on the left in the UK about whether that’s possible. Why do you think that’s the best idea?
I campaigned against Greece entering the common market back in the 1970s and against Greece entering the euro. At the same time, I’m against the Lexiteer argument that now we should get out. Now, is there an inconsistency? I don’t think so. There is a gigantic difference between saying we should not have entered the European common market and saying that we should exit. It isn't the same thing. Because once you enter there are new facts on the ground. And exiting will not take you to where you would have been if you had not entered. And this is something that Britain is now finding out. I was completely with Tony Benn in the 1970s when he was saying Britain should not enter the European common market. But once you have entered and you spend 40 years there, and a tide of legislation has flooded your country, and you have this co-dependence now – supply chains, universities are very inter-linked, airlines and so on – stepping out is going to create substantial costs which will disproportionately hit the weakest citizens. So in as much as progressives should try to minimise harm to the weakest, the Lexit argument is one that we should very seriously scrutinise. Even if we all agree that the EU is a terrible set of institutions, that is completely neoliberal, created in order to perpetuate the power of the elites of the cartels, of the oligarchies. There is no doubt about that. Even if we think it is probably impossible to reform, we should take pause before we call for an exodus.

If we all become Lexiteers, and I were to travel to Stuttgart or Hamburg or Hanover, as I usually do to talk to progressives, I would say to them, "Look, it’s all over, the party’s over, the EU is unreformable, stop it. You go back to your nation states, and we’ll go back to ours." I’ll tell you what will happen. The audience of Germans there is going to be very saddened, they will feel something important has come to an end. Compare and contrast that if I were to say, "Let’s stick together, decide together to storm the winter palace in Brussels and Frankfurt and so on, take over the institutions of the EU and forge a transnational movement where we all make decisions together, we all plan together, we all come up with a new deal for Europe and we have a common view of these important policies. Let’s stick together. And if the thing comes tumbling down, let’s be there to rebuild it, to rebuild a new, internationalist Europe that works."

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