On July 5, 2015, at the height of the eurozone debt crisis, the Greek demos voted by a wide margin to turn down the bailout offered to them by their Troika of creditors – the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. At the time, the Greek Finance Minister was Yanis Varoufakis, who had spent most of his career in academia before joining the Syriza party to run for parliament, the opportunity to confront the Troika, and to put an end to the endless cycles of rising Greek debt. He argued for a rejection of the austerity measures attached to the proposed package. Despite victory in the referendum, Varoufakis was forced to resign because the Prime Minister disregarded the people's verdict and accepted the new austerity measures. Today, Greece is committed to continued austerity until 2060.
Since his break with Syriza, Varoufakis wrote the best-selling Adults in the Room, an account of the negotiations to save Greece from its creditors. He has also helped launch a new political party: the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25). He now sits in parliament as a member of its Greek branch, and is an active member of the Progressive International, an organization that supports like-minded causes around the world.
Varoufakis invited me to his home on Aegina, where I asked him whether his views on degrowth had evolved since his exchange with Timothée Parrique. As we wait for the publication of his latest book on what he calls “techno-feudalism”, I asked him about political strategy at this time of immense risk for the future of our societies.
You've often regretted that DiEM25 does not have more of a mass base of support. I wondered how your work is contributing to countering that tendency, and how you're thinking about the problem in this decade of extraordinary risk.
Well, the honest answer is I have no clue how you do it. When we started DiEM, we started it haphazardly: we didn't even know what we were doing. It's the experience in this country with the party that we now have, which allows me to be a bit more cogent in answering your question, because now we have managed to create grassroots and not only to create our own grassroots organizations, but to connect with movements that are not part of our party: we give them a voice in Parliament. We don’t try to absorb them; we don’t try to exploit them. And I think that's the way to go.
In this time that Adam Tooze would call the polycrisis, do you see any alternative in terms of creating an agent of change than an organized working class?
Well, you see, you are now hitting a nerve, because I'm in the process of writing a book on techno-feudalism, which I've been talking about for a long time. And my view about techno-feudalism is that we now have the transition into something I call cloud capital, algorithm capital.
We have a completely different system of capitalism in which exploitation has become universal. It used to be a case where most wealth came out of profits and profits came out of surplus value and that was produced at the workplace. When that was the case, the only thing to do was to organize the workplace. But now you've got billions of people out there working for no pay, on behalf of what I call cloud capital: Amazon, Google and Facebook, but also private equity firms which are using existing companies in order to create rents, not profits, through asset-stripping and all that. So if I'm right, then the bulk of value extraction is taking place outside the traditional workplace.
It's not enough to organize auto workers and Amazon warehouse workers. It's important to do so, but it's really not enough. And that's why I'm orienting myself towards this idea of combining industrial action with citizen action: using the same instruments as the devil – maybe financial derivatives, maybe the Internet.
For instance, I've been trying to convince my colleagues in the Progressive International. We've been running this campaign every Black Friday against Amazon, but it's not enough to organize strikes. We should put all our emphasis into saying: "On that day, nobody buys anything from Amazon." So, let’s organize a consumer boycott together with strike action to combine the people who actually work at the coalface with the rest of us who are producing cloud capital for Amazon. Amazon doesn't really care if you buy something from it, even visiting it, posting a review is enough: it adds to its capital stock.
With regard to the voice in Parliament that you're providing for various grassroots movements, I'm wondering about how you can use it to build counter-hegemony. You've defended in your work some of the core tenets that we might say make up Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – or perhaps older ideas, from Hyman Minsky to chartalism. Do you think that ideas from MMT can be used to counter some of the hegemonic myths that are such a burden to the Left? Do you see MMT in a strategic sense, as a narrative that could be useful?
I'm very eclectic as an economist. Every school of thought is wrong. Each one of them has things to contribute, and you need to pick and choose pieces from here and there and everywhere in a way that makes us change every day, because the world changes every day.
I was never one of those economists who belong to one school of thought like MMT or neoricardian or Marxian economics. I benefited from all of them. It's horses for courses, really. MMT is not that useful in Europe. It's very useful in the United States. In Europe, we have the euro, so effectively, we all have a foreign currency that we do not issue. I'm MMT friendly; I'm not an MMTer. I keep saying that. I have to tell you that all the things that MMT says which are useful, I knew before I knew about MMT. Keynes had said most of it. Marx had said a lot. Minsky's idea was very useful to counter Hayek. The MMT crowd are very useful in blowing up the commodity theory of money. The idea that money is like any other commodity. It's a lot more than that. It's a bit like labor and capital: it's a social relation. And it's got a macro component without which you do not understand its commodity value.
Which leads you to erratic Marxism and your rejection of dogma?
People say to me: "How dare you call yourself an erratic or libertarian Marxist?" If you read Marx, every now and then he's got a footnote saying: "By the way, what I wrote six months ago was complete and utter bullshit for this reason..." He contradicts himself, which is fine. If you're not contradicting yourself, you're not thinking: only fanatics are consistent all the time. As for the libertarian part: I abhor the left of the 20th century that traded liberty for justice. I wrote an article in an American Marxist journal called Science and Society which brought the house down. I mean, I had all the Marxists in the United States hating me because the title of the article was: Against Equality. And I was saying why I am completely against the idea of equality. Equality of what? We used to be all about freedom. And then we allowed the Right to take over freedom and claim it as its own. The whole point about the early feminist movement was women's liberation, not equality. Then suddenly we all became Social Democrats and we care about something called social justice and John Rawls's idiocy.
You have rejected the idea of degrowth on a semantic basis, and I would agree with you that it might not be very useful in the political arena. Do you find it unhelpful from an analytical standpoint as well? Do you find the emphasis on growth redundant if we're going to talk about a capitalist mode of production?
The capitalist mode of production cannot do away with growth. And growth of what? GDP. Now, GDP sucks – we all know that. Burn this house down, burn the whole forest: GDP goes up. But that is no argument for replacing GDP with something else. Because we live under capitalism which values only exchange values, not use values: use values have gone. Experiential values – the smell of the pine forest: who cares? Can you monetize it? If you can't, it's got no value under capitalism, right? So capitalism is like a shark that needs constantly to keep moving and the equivalent being to produce more GDP.
Now, if you don't like that, you do away with capitalism. You don't measure things differently when the whole logic of profit maximization and capital accumulation is towards more GDP. So you can't be a true radical if you don't want to overthrow capitalism and simply want a different measure. What if we measured love? All we would manage to do is to diminish love if we measure it. We're not going to produce more of it. So the whole discussion between growth/degrowth leaves me completely cold. Now, we need to reduce the amount of cement that we produce and use – toxins as well, certainly CO2. It would be good to reduce the amount of steel that we're producing, because we know that steel production is destroying the planet (at least until we find ways of using green hydrogen to do it).
But degrowth? The opposite of grow is reduce. It's not degrow. Reduce the use of the things that are destroying the planet. That means moving away from the media, which is dominated by the companies whose job it is to put in your soul desires that you never had. But that, again, is overthrowing capitalism.
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