Yanis Varoufakis A Former Leftist Icon Turns to Science Fiction

As Greek finance minister, he made a name for himself for standing up to Germany. But his political star burned out quickly. Now, Yanis Varoufakis is trying his luck at writing novels.
Yanis Varoufakis: Economist, politician, author.

Yanis Varoufakis: Economist, politician, author.

Foto:

Socrates Baltagiannis / DER SPIEGEL

It’s the end of July in Athens and the temperature has risen to almost 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). One week later, the forests will start burning. At around noon, Yanis Varoufakis drives up to an older building on his motorcycle, the same Yamaha XJR 1300 he used to ride to cabinet meetings in spring 2015, even as the rest of the ministers would show up in chauffeured sedans.

Varoufakis is wearing a blue T-shirt and cords. He takes off his helmet and gives that look of his, piercing, but not cold. Instead of bumping the fist reached out to him in a corona-greeting, he grabs it firmly. Unfortunately, he says, he doesn’t have much time – but in the end, he does.

DER SPIEGEL 35/2021

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 35/2021 (August 27th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

He reminds one a bit of an aging rock star – which, in a way, he is. As Greece’s finance minister, Varoufakis was a cross between a one-hit wonder and an historical figure. During his brief, five-month tenure, he dominated the spotlight and rapidly accumulated both fawning acolytes and bitter enemies. The financial markets watched his every move with bated breath, the euro wobbled with each public appearance and the entire continent hung on his every word.

In hindsight, the euphoria surrounding Varoufakis at the time is almost incomprehensible. From the very beginning, he was out of his depth. He catastrophically overestimated himself and his influence, and almost nothing remained behind politically once he was gone. But the image of the Greek David fighting against the German Goliath, embodied at the time by the rock-hard German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, was branded into the collective European memory. The ascetic-seeming economist Varoufakis really did embody the hope – for a few weeks, at least – that a single, courageous Greek heart could prove stronger than all of Europe’s banks together. And since then, he has embodied the crushing of those hopes.

An Ego Larger than 3.44 Percent

Varoufakis sprints up the stairs to the second floor to the offices of MeRA25 – the party Varoufakis has represented in Greek parliament since 2019. He knocks on the door with his chip-card and a staff member opens up.

The party won around 3 percent of the vote in 2019 – or, as Varoufakis insists, "3.44 percent.” In the political realm in which he currently operates, every decimal point is important. The European movement DiEM25, of which he is a co-founder, only managed a pitiful 0.3 percent in European elections. On the one hand, that fits in well with the David-vs.-Goliath myth. On the other hand, it’s pretty bad.

Varoufakis’ ego, in any case, is larger that 3.44 percent, as is his need for public attention. Simply wasting away as an economist at some university was never his thing. And even if reality has proven somewhat contrarian, there is always fantasy. Which is why Varoufakis has now tried his hand as science fiction author.

Yanis Varoufakis and his wife Danae Stratou on the day of his resignation in 2015.

Yanis Varoufakis and his wife Danae Stratou on the day of his resignation in 2015.

Foto: Alessandro Serrano / AGF / SIPA

His first novel, "Another Now," which appeared in English last fall but which has only just now come out in German, imagines a world that changed as a consequence of the 2008 financial crisis. What if it had become a better world? What would it look like today?

In the fictional world of Yanis Varoufakis, there are no longer any commercial banks and no stock exchanges. Companies belong to the employees, with the staff determining salaries rather than the boss. There is a kind of unconditional basic income in this world and a right to living quarters. Varoufakis has essentially created a socialist dream world, one within which, one might hope, readers would feel right at home.

In fact, though, the world that Varoufakis has created feels strangely foreign, partly as a result of the rather essayistic writing style. There are constant references to somebody or something: Plato, Odysseus, futurists or even just the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s not always clear what the references are meant to convey.

"That's How I Am"

"Did you like it?" Varoufakis asks. When told that it wasn’t particularly easy to read, he says: "My wife also tells me that it was hard to read. She said she loves it, but needed to read it again." Friends of his, such as the pop musician Brian Eno, had a similar reaction, he says. When told that the book has a bit too much theory and a bit too little life, he says: "That’s how I am."

As a minister, it always seemed as though Varoufakis had accidentally stumbled into the political world. And the same holds true for the world of literature. Somehow, he always seems to be out of alignment.

"At moments of great pain, the human heart knows how to look at the funny side."

Varoufakis, though, has a knack for saying clever and surprising things. Oddly, he is at his most interesting when he is talking about German politics, which he continues to follow just as closely as he used to. It’s not an obsession, it just that he is extremely observant of developments in Germany, such as the current general election campaign.

At times, he can be laconic, such as when commenting on the numerous discoveries in recent years of senior German politicians having filched parts of their Ph.D. theses: "German politicians have a tendency to plagiarize. I don't know why, and I don’t care much." At others, he is funny, such as when he adopts a high-pitched, smug tone when speaking of Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic (SPD) candidate for chancellor. He is, Varoufakis says, the SPD version of Armin Laschet, who is running for the conservatives. And Laschet, he says, is "a man of the past. He's a coal man. A diesel man." He does, though, find that the criticism of Laschet for laughing during his visit to the areas worst hit by floods this summer to be overwrought. "I have been known to laugh during the funeral of my mother," he says. "At moments of great pain, the human heart knows how to look at the funny side."

The extremely precarious situation faced by Europe back in 2015 now feels far, far away, overshadowed by the pandemic and other crises. The stability of the euro seems to be the least of our worries. On the other hand, though, some countries are taking on more debt than ever before. And nobody knows if that might be the seed of yet another financial crisis – and a new crisis for the euro and the Continent.

At the time, Varoufakis nurtured his media image of a kind of motorcycle-riding Robin Hood. "It’s not a bailout package! It’s a diktat," he said in an interview with the German newsmagazine Stern, adding that it was the "greatest attack on European democracy since the end of World War II." He once called a DER SPIEGEL reporter a "son of a bitch." For the magazine Paris Match, he posed with his wife on a rooftop terrace with a view of the Acropolis. The tabloids discussed his sex-symbol status. Whether or not you liked him, or even took him seriously, wasn’t important. The only thing that mattered was the message: He is a man of action.

Minister Varoufakis in Greek parliament in 2015: "It was a pain."

Minister Varoufakis in Greek parliament in 2015: "It was a pain."

Foto: Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP

At a Eurogroup meeting of EU finance ministers, he skipped the official dinner, later saying he had been too tired. He spent months recording confidential Eurogroup discussions, which he then published last year: Was he perhaps already living in the world of fiction back then?

Today, he plays down that period. When asked if it was an exciting time to be a minister, he says: "Not at all. It was a pain.”

What exactly? "The whole thing.”

A "Matrix" Experiment for Socialists

Then, he comes up with the following comparison: "It is a little like taking the rubbish out at night. It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it. This is exactly how I experienced the ministry."

But, he says, he did learn to be more careful, particularly with journalists. The Paris Match photoshoot on the rooftop terrace was, he now says, a mistake. There’s nothing wrong, he says, with drinking a glass of wine with his wife and having a meal of local fish. But the media, he says, made a huge deal out of it.

The idea for his novel, Varoufakis says, is one he had been carrying around with him for a long time. In the 1980s, he says, back when he was still teaching economics, he had come up with the thought experiment at the center of the book.

He says he would say to his students: Imagine that there was a machine that was a good friend and could read all of your desires. Whether you wanted to become a football star winning the World Cup, a physicist, or a rock 'n’ roll star indulging in sex and drugs. The machine would be able to create the world in your head that you wanted to live, and you would forget that it wasn’t real. Would you want to do it? Forever?

Usually, he says, the students didn’t take long before saying "no."

Karl Marx, says Varoufakis, consistently avoided the decisive question: What does communism actually look like? Instead, he says, Marx contented himself with constantly tearing apart capitalism. But that’s not enough. "We can’t avoid the question," says Varoufakis, whether the world could be different and whether it would then be better.

The main character in Varoufakis’ book is a man called Costa, who invents a miracle machine that is able to establish contact to his alter ego in another world. He begins talking with this alter ego about his life. Costa’s friends Ira and Eva also have counterparts in the machine’s miracle world. It is a kind of "Matrix" experiment for socialists.

"A Different World"

The characters in his novel are assembled using components from Varoufakis’ real life. The narrator is called Yango Varo, after Varoufakis’ grandfather. The Marxist feminist Iris is based on a lesbian friend from his student days. Costa, the nerd, actually existed: He left Greece when he was 18, went to university in Germany and became an electrical engineer.

Those are the ingredients for Varoufakis’ rather odd utopia. It is bizarre for the fact that the patriarchy is apparently still alive and well in the book, a clear message from the feminist Varoufakis that there is no such thing as a perfect world. He doesn’t even go so far as to say that the alternative world he imagines is better than the one in which we live.

Varoufakis says he’s rather ambivalent on that count. He doesn’t want to tell his readers what to think, instead leaving them a choice. And what about him? What would he do were such a machine available? The temptation would be great, he says. But staying in another world forever? "No, no."

Why write the book, then? Is it not a rather odd utopia if not even its creator believes in it?

That piercing gaze returns to his face. "What matters is that we change the conversation. That we give people the confidence to think that there is another now, that there is an alternative."

Does he believe that his book is a final attempt to create an alternative to capitalism? "It's not a book against anything," he says. Anyway, he adds, capitalism has long since receded into the past. It has changed, he says, into something that he calls "techno-feudalism" – rule by platforms like Facebook and Amazon. They are, he says, destroying precisely that which is the chief characteristic of capitalism: the free market. That, he says, is what his second book is about.

The strangest part about spending time with Varoufakis is that there is nothing left of the missionary. Not even a hint of aggression. He merely chuckles at questions about Wolfgang Schäuble and isn’t particularly passionate when discussing Angela Merkel either. She’ll be missed, he says, despite her mistakes. He prefers talking about his house on a hill on the island of Aegina. In the morning, he rides his motorcycle down to the port and takes the ferry to Athens. He drinks his coffee and answers his emails as the sea passes by outside. He then gets back on his motorcycle for the short ride to parliament. Perhaps he is living in his own kind of utopia.

His book, on the other hand, illustrates that not just he, but also the entire political left, has no vision for the future that can excite anybody. In Germany, too, the left side of the spectrum has become bogged down in the gender debate and reliving past social welfare battles. The left used to derive its energy from the promise of a better world for the many. Today, though, it can’t even describe that world, much less achieve it. How nice it would have been had Varoufakis been able to provide an escape.

In a display case in Varoufakis’ party office, there is a mug that shows him as a character in a comic strip, a bit of merch for his party. In the first of the three panels, he says: "At the next beep, the Troika will have raised the cost of my negotiations to 2,740,219 billion.” In the second panel, his mobile phone goes "Bing!” In the third, he says: "At the next beep, the Troika will have raised the cost of my negotiations to 5,649,852,192 billion.”

And that could very well be all that remains. A coffee cup with a cartoon printed on it. And a utopia that nobody believes in.

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