Lessons in what not to do

Review of Eric Toussaint, “Capitulation entre adultes, Grèce 2015, une alternative était possible”, Paris: Syllepse, 2020.

30 July by Costas Lapavitsas

In 2017, Yanis Varoufakis published “Adults in the room”, a thick volume that became a huge global success and was even turned into a film by Costas Gavras two years later. The author was one of the protagonists of the Greek events of that decade that culminated in the first seven months of the SYRIZA-ANEL government of 2015. He became an international celebrity, a veritable phenomenon of our age, and continues to be politically active internationally.

Despite its enormous success, his book is neither a balanced nor a penetrating historical analysis of the SYRIZA events. Those who were personally involved in the debacle were immediately aware that Varoufakis carefully collated a series of anecdotes with one clear purpose: to justify his own actions and motives post festum. He bent historical truth and misrepresented events to put himself in the best possible light. In this respect, he has been very successful, giving himself the opportunity to continue his career. As a participant in the SYRIZA episode, he was an unqualified failure.

Eric Toussaint has just written a book examining Varoufakis’s trajectory with patience and skill. Toussaint discusses the broader political context of Greece and Europe in the 2010s and puts forth a sharp critique of the political hopelessness of Varoufakis’s strategy in 2015. The debacle of SYRIZA has its roots in that political hopelessness, which was ultimately due to Alexis Tsipras, the leader of SYRIZA.

 A shameful surrender

Varoufakis presents himself in his book as a determined opponent of the vicious European elite, who was unfortunately let down by the pusillanimous SYRIZA, and especially by Alexis Tsipras. It is a gripping tale, told with secretly recorded snippets from the endless diplomatic and administrative meetings he attended as Minister of Finance. Unfortunately, it is also entirely misleading, as Toussaint methodically shows. Far from being a committed challenger of the European status quo, Varoufakis was a sellout.

One simple piece of evidence suffices to prove this point, and Toussaint discusses it at some length. The notorious agreement of 20 February 2015 was a surrender by SYRIZA on all important points at issue with the European lenders, including public debt, unilateral sovereign action by the Greek government, overturning austerity, and so on. It set the path to eventual defeat and dashed the hopes of the social forces that had put their trust in SYRIZA.

That agreement was concluded less than a month after the triumphant electoral victory of SYRIZA on 25 January, at a time when the government had the support of more than 60% of the population. It was signed, of course, by Varoufakis, who thus opened the way to a series of other defeats, until the final surrender in August 2015. Two years later his book gave an entirely different picture of himself as an indomitable fighter let down by others.

In truth, Varoufakis was extraordinarily confused about the EU, firmly declaring his intention to stay in the monetary union, while also hinting broadly that Greece might exit, if the lenders made no concessions to SYRIZA. This was an entirely untenable negotiating position for a weak country with an inexperienced government led by a party that systematically avoided creating a genuine popular movement to secure grass-roots support against the lenders and its own ruling elite. It is no wonder that the lenders immediately appreciated the inherent nonsense of this strategy and, through naked blackmail based on liquidity Liquidity The facility with which a financial instrument can be bought or sold without a significant change in price. provided by the ECB ECB
European Central Bank
The European Central Bank is a European institution based in Frankfurt, founded in 1998, to which the countries of the Eurozone have transferred their monetary powers. Its official role is to ensure price stability by combating inflation within that Zone. Its three decision-making organs (the Executive Board, the Governing Council and the General Council) are composed of governors of the central banks of the member states and/or recognized specialists. According to its statutes, it is politically ‘independent’ but it is directly influenced by the world of finance.

, ruined it at the very first confrontation. Adding humiliation to defeat, they made Varoufakis the signatory of the surrender document of February 2015.

 What not to do

Varoufakis was not a member of the left of SYRIZA, indeed he has himself expressed doubts whether he belongs to the Left altogether. As Toussaint reminds us, he was always a “free electron”, cutting a deal with the small band of opportunists around Tsipras who ran both party and government. Toussaint is exercised by the purpose of that deal. In my view it is quite straightforward. Varoufakis imagined he was getting a free hand to try his hare-brained schemes, while Tsipras used him as radical cover during the crucial initial period of SYRIZA in power. Tsipras is a political operator of an entirely different order, a man focused on power at all costs and ready for any compromise to achieve it.

After the surrender of 20 February, Varoufakis became increasingly a figure of derision among European Finance Ministers, and Tsipras effectively sidelined him. Euclid Tsakalotos was the real Finance Minister of Greece long before he formally rose to that position in order to apply the austerity measures of the SYRIZA bail-out. One of the most misleading parts of Varoufakis’s book is on the notorious referendum of July 2015, when the No of the Greek people became the Yes of Tsipras. In reality, he was not particularly important to those events, and certainly not the uncompromising fighter that he likes to portray himself. Those who are interested in historical detail might do a quick check on his voting record in Parliament on the third bail-out. They will discover a highly tactical use of his vote, aiming to keep channels open with the Tsipras government.

The left of SYRIZA during those crucial months comprised many different currents, among which the Left Platform was preeminent. The Left Platform had very little time for Varoufakis’s puerile political analysis, pointing out that it would lead to failure. Its own tragedy was that it failed to argue decisively for an alternative programme, including exit from the monetary union, despite the fact that such a programme was available, as Toussaint confirms. The weakness of its leadership, amply demonstrated by the subsequent demise of Popular Unity, must take some of the blame for the eventual failure of SYRIZA, though the lion’s share Share A unit of ownership interest in a corporation or financial asset, representing one part of the total capital stock. Its owner (a shareholder) is entitled to receive an equal distribution of any profits distributed (a dividend) and to attend shareholder meetings. undoubtedly belongs to Tsipras and Varoufakis.

Eric Toussaint had an important presence during those times, and was highly active in the “Truth Committee on the Debt”, an initiative led by Zoe Konstantopoulou, then the Speaker of the Greek Parliament. The aim of the Committee was to undertake a Public Audit of Greek public debt, a proposal that I originally put in the public domain in 2010, and which became a genuine grass-roots campaign in 2011-12. Tsipras gave his tacit agreement to Konstantopoulou to revive the campaign after the electoral victory of SYRIZA, but never took it seriously and only hoped to gain some further left-wing credentials by allowing it to proceed. Konstantopoulou tried to use the campaign for her own political purposes but had limited success. It is to her credit, however, that, whatever one makes of her political views, she never compromised with the lenders. Instead, she acted as a scourge of Tsipras, Varoufakis and the rest of the shameless opportunists who caused the debacle.

Yanis Varoufakis has played a disastrous role in Greek and European politics during the last decade. Astonishingly, he has largely succeeded in extricating himself from blame and has carved out a new career as a global fighter against capitalism through DiEM25. It is equally astonishing that his main political message for Europe, insofar as it could be ascertained from the contradictory views he regularly expounds, is the same opportunist farrago as in 2015. Eric Toussaint has drawn on his experiences during the Greek events to give us a serious political analysis of Varoufakis and his doings. There is no doubt at all that he is an object lesson in what the Left ought not to do.

Costas Lapavitsas

is a member of Popular Unity, Professor of Economics at SOAS and former member of the Greek Parliament.

Other articles in English by Costas Lapavitsas (16)

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