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7 October 2023

Yanis Varoufakis: The Democrats are helping to elect Trump

The former Greek finance minister on his new book Technofeudalism and why the left keeps losing.

By George Eaton

Socialists periodically predict the downfall of capitalism, but each decade the coffin remains empty. In his new book, Yanis Varoufakis – the former Greek finance minister, game theorist and “erratic Marxist” – offers a twist on this familiar narrative. Capitalism, he writes, has already died – we just failed to notice. 

“It does demonstrate the failure of the left because we used to think that organised labour would overthrow capitalism,” Varoufakis, 62, told me when we met recently in central London. “But it turned out that it was another artefact of capitalism that overthrew it – and that’s capitalism itself.”

“Technofeudalism”, as the title of Varoufakis’s sixth book has it, is now the defining economic system. Digital hegemons such as Google and Amazon have eroded two of the distinctive features of capitalism: profit and markets. 

“After 2008, the role of profit was replaced by central bank money [through quantitative easing] and rents; that’s not capitalism as we understood it,” he said.

“And the markets were displaced by digital platforms. Now, many people such as [the left intellectual] Evgeny Morozov and Shoshana Zuboff consider companies such as Amazon to be examples of monopoly capitalism. But I don’t: a company is not a market. If you walk into Google as an employee, the moment you step in you leave the market. You enter a Soviet-like Gosplan with better pastel colours and better food. It is a hierarchical, centrally planned operation.”

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In this new world, humans have been reduced to “cloud serfs” – freely creating value for tech companies by tweeting and posting – while others labour as “cloud proles” in sometimes dystopian conditions. But what of the capitalist riposte that Google and Amazon simply make people’s lives easier? During the Covid-19 pandemic, the latter became the West’s supermarket.

“When I was in my early teens there were two books that scared the living wits out of me: Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World,” Varoufakis replied. “And I was more scared by Huxley than I was by Orwell because the slaves are happy in his book. They don’t need to be surveilled. A servitude that is volunteered to is more scary.” 

Events in Varoufakis’s home country have only deepened his intellectual pessimism. In March he was attacked outside a restaurant in Athens by a gang of seven, who accused him of approving Greece’s bailouts, leaving his nose broken in six places. The police, he believes, were “complicit”. 

“Firstly, we now have CCTV. These seven thugs dissolved through the ranks of 20-30 policemen who were nearby. But that’s not the main thing: I was never called to identify them [the attackers], not me, not my wife, not the people who were witnesses. 

“The police offered to post themselves outside my apartment and I said absolutely not. I wouldn’t trust them.” 

At the recent Greek general election, the conservative New Democracy won a majority of seats while the left was vanquished. Syriza, Varoufakis’s former party, was left with just 47 seats, while his current party MeRA25 was left with none (having previously held nine). 

Varoufakis traces the right’s resurgence back to Syriza’s decision to ignore the 2015 bailout referendum result, in which the Greek people refused to accept EU austerity – the act that prompted his resignation as finance minister. “After eight years of this, the vast majority of people don’t care as to who was right and who was wrong. Was [the then Greek prime minister and leader of Syriza, Alexis] Tsipras, was I right? Am I right in saying that he surrendered and betrayed? Is he right in saying that he behaved responsibly? They don’t care, they look at both of us and say ‘bugger off. You gave us hope and then you dashed that hope.’”

Syriza, which originated as a radical left party, is now led by Stefanos Kasselakis, a shipping executive and former Goldman Sachs trader. “It’s worse than New Labour, it’s closer to the Democrats… I know nothing about him, I’d never heard of him till August; nobody had heard of him. He comes along with one video on YouTube and he wins. That’s when politics becomes depoliticised as a result of the failure of the left to keep it political.” 

It is not only in Greece that the left is becalmed. In Germany, the Social Democrats are polling behind the hard-right Alternative for Germany. In France, the left has failed to profit from Emmanuel Macron’s woes, while in its traditional Nordic heartland, the centre left has lost office in Sweden and Finland.

“The left has gone to ground,” said Varoufakis. “We are fighting over how to define a woman, which is irrelevant to people who can’t put food on the table or pay their electricity bills. We’ve lost support among the working class, the equivalent of your Red Wall in northern England.”

But Varoufakis is still more withering about the US Democratic Party. “The Democratic establishment are doing everything they can to re-elect Donald Trump, everything. These indictments, one after the other, the weaponisation of the legal system, they are a major contribution to his campaign… It is not clever politics.”

What does Varoufakis believe a second Trump presidency would mean for the world? 

“It will be terrible for the United States. It will be terrible for women. It will be terrible for blacks, for Latinos, for the working class. Even the ones who vote for him are going to suffer as a result of him being president. But it may not be such a terrible thing for the rest of the world – because he doesn’t care about the rest of the world. 

“He may not be so gung-ho about pursuing the Cold War [with China], which he started but was not going to escalate. Joe Biden escalated it in a reckless manner. And also I have this view that the West is committing a major crime against itself and the people of Ukraine by not having a strategy for ending the war in Ukraine. Trump may have an endgame, for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes bastards do the right thing for the wrong reasons.”

Varoufakis, who was a champion of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership – and reputedly persuaded him to back Remain in 2016 – draws no such consolation from Keir Starmer’s likely election. “Starmer is becoming a figment of our imagination. He flip-flops all the time, he never comes up with a statement that has a beginning, a middle and an end, a commitment that can be checked against his future deeds.

“Tony Blair, could have been excused back in the Nineties because at least there was a sample of zero about the possibility that you could cosy up to the Davos crowd and do something good for the majority in Britain. Now we know it doesn’t work.” 

Yanis Varoufakis, once one of Europe’s most prominent politicians, is now exiled from his country’s parliament, while across the continent his socialist allies are marooned. In these circumstances, what still gives him hope?

“Hope itself. Hope is a duty, it is my religion. Hope is that which you must have without any empirical evidence. That’s why I always make the distinction between hope and optimism: optimism is for idiots but hope we have a duty to have. In the same way that Christians have faith, I have hope.”

“Technofeudalism: What Killed Capitalism” is out now with Bodley Head.

[See also: Labour and the death of consensus]

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