Dropping The Pilot: The classical character of Varoufakis’s departure as Greece’s Finance Minister was made even more poignant by the fact that his own personal defeat was announced amidst the echoing tumult of a victory that he, more than anyone, had secured for his people.
“WE OF THE LEFT know how to act collectively with no care for the privileges of office.” How long has it been since a left-wing leader talked like that? Yanis Varoufakis may have used a blogpost to announce his resignation to the world, but the sentiments he expressed were straight out of Homer. Like the hero of an ancient Greek legend, he showed that he understood both the duty he was bound to fulfil, and that he embraced it with a glad heart.
The classical character of Varoufakis’s departure as Greece’s Finance Minister was made even more poignant by the fact that his own personal defeat was announced amidst the echoing tumult of a victory that he, more than anyone, had secured for his people.
Across the whole of Greece, from Thrace in the north to Crete in the south, the Greek people had delivered a resounding “Oxi!” (No!) to the European Union’s demands for never-ending austerity.
Beneath a frenzy of flailing flags, in Athens’ Syntagma Square, tens-of-thousands of supporters of the Syriza Party-led coalition government shouted their defiance of the hated “Troika” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund). But, even as the Oxi voters celebrated, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was delivering the “Eurogroup’s” lethal ultimatum to his Finance Minister.
In Varoufakis’s own words: “Soon after the announcement of the referendum results, I was made aware of a certain preference by some Eurogroup participants, and assorted ‘partners’, for my… ‘absence’ from its meetings; an idea that the Prime Minister judged to be potentially helpful to him in reaching an agreement. For this reason I am leaving the Ministry of Finance today.”
If, as Troy burned, King Agamemnon had asked Odysseus to appease its tutelary deities by falling on his sword, the shock of injustice and ingratitude could hardly have been greater. But Varoufakis did not demur. “I consider it my duty to help Alexis Tsipras exploit, as he sees fit, the capital that the Greek people granted us through yesterday’s referendum.”
And yet, even as he abandoned his portfolio for the back-benches, Varoufakis could not resist one final, parting shot at the European hierarchs who, in their petulant fury, had demanded his political head.
“And I shall wear the creditors’ loathing with pride.”
This undisguised contempt for both the intellect and the character of Greece’s European creditors was, almost certainly, Varoufakis’s hamartia (in Classical Greek literary tradition, the fatal character flaw that causes the hero’s downfall). The son of a wealthy Greek industrialist, Varoufakis was never for a moment overawed by the European Union’s political bureaucrats and bureaucratic politicians. That he was, himself, an accomplished academic economist and author merely heightened his conviction that he had nothing to fear, and even less to learn, from the Eurogroup’s “participants and assorted partners”.
That Varoufakis’s professional analysis of Greece’s economic position was correct (as confirmed by at least two Nobel laureates – Stiglitz and Krugman – and, more recently, by the IMF itself) only made him more insufferable to the likes of Germany’s 72-year-old Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schauble. The hard-working German ant did not appreciate being lectured at by some upstart Greek grasshopper with a PhD – and no neckties.
Varoufakis’s sartorial insouciance was, of course, as carefully calculated as his economic analyses. His leather jackets and brightly coloured shirts (all-too-often unaccompanied by the required necktie) signalled his determination to carry just a little Mediterranean sunshine and machismo into the grey, staid and deeply conventional world of European finance. That these ageing Teutons in their dark suits and sensible ties felt upstaged by Varoufakis’s big fat Greek virility was as obvious as it was disruptive. A rock star at a Rotary meeting could not have been more out of place.
But disruption and non-conformity were essential ingredients of the Varoufakis shtick. What better way to demonstrate his radical new approach to doing business with the “suits” than by refusing to turn up in one? In a world increasingly informed by images rather than words, Varoufakis was signalling that Neoliberalism is not the only game in town: that economic alternatives do exist.
His people got the message. And even if he is not there to deliver it in person, Varoufakis’s vision of a better world will continue to dazzle the eyes of the “gods” who demanded this Greek hero’s sacrifice.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 July 2015.