Varoufakis: The Book

Detail of a fresco from the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii, 2nd century BC

About a month ago, I finished reading former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ book “Adults in the Room”, subtitled “My Battle With Europe’s Deep Establishment”, and published by The Bodley Head. I started writing about it right away, but noticed I was writing more about my personal ideas and experiences related to Greece than about the book. So I let it rest a bit.

I read the book in, of all places, Athens, sitting outside various old-style cafés. That got me a lot of reactions from Greeks seeing the cover of the book, most of them negative, somewhat to my surprise. Many Greeks apparently do not like Varoufakis. Of course I asked all the time why that is. “He’s arrogant” was/is a frequent one.

That’s not very helpful, I find, since first of all, it’s a purely subjective judgment, and second, I’m convinced their views come to a large extent from Greek media coverage, not only during Yanis’ term as finance minister from January to July 2015 but also in the years leading up to it. And Greek media are all controlled by ‘oligarchs’ et al, who certainly do not like either Yanis or the Syriza party he represented as minister.

The irony is that Varoufakis received more -individual- votes in the January 2015 election that brought Syriza to power than any other party member. And in the July 5 referendum 61.3% of Greeks voted against -yet- another bailout, very much in line with what Varoufakis had proposed. So there was a time when he was popular.

One guy said: ”he should be in jail”. When I asked why, the response was something like “they should all be in jail”, meaning politicians. Which is a bit curious, because whatever Varoufakis may be, a politician he is not. And the Greeks know that. They are very disappointed, and often depressed, by what has happened to them, of course they are. But why they would think Yanis is responsible for that is much less clear. Other then: “they’re all responsible”.

The best line, in my opinion, came from someone who said he thought Varoufakis was wrong for getting involved with Greek politics in the first place, a pit -as is the EU- replete with slithering venomous snakes. That I understand. That he should never have become minister since it could only have ended badly because of the corruption and backstabbing at all levels. I’m guessing Yanis himself has thought that too at times.

But at the same time, I remain convinced, as I’m sure he does, that he genuinely did it to help his people -who were already in terrible shape in late 2014 when he decided to run, and are much worse off now. And that’s not all. He would never have done it if he hadn’t had a plan to make things better. He did. If anything, that’s the key to his story.

And if his one-time friend, PM Tsipras, had not been paralyzed with fear at the last moment, that plan might well have worked. Yanis is an economist, and a game theorist at that. And though he has always insisted game theory was not the basis of what he did as minister, and rightly so because it’s not a game, there’s one aspect of what happened that comes straight from that field.

That is, before he agreed to run for finance minister, as he writes in the book, he tells Tsipras and his closest Syriza confidants that because Greece is very weak vs the Troika, they are not in any position to bluff. Meaning, if they are going to follow ‘the plan’, they must follow it to the end, in other words, they must be willing to walk away from the Troika, from the EU.

Not because they want to, but because the rules of the game demand it. When you’re weak, you cannot afford to blink. Yanis based his plan on letting the other side blink first, as he felt they would have to if only Greece did not. That’s what the whole thing was based on. And then, after -or rather, even before- winning the NO referendum, Tsipras blinked.

And yes, you can blame Varoufakis for that: for not making sure that would not happen. For putting trust where none was warranted. But the alternative would have been to stay in Texas and see his country perish. He was asked to join, he had a plan he believed in, what was he supposed to do?

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