Interview: Yanis Varoufakis

For a global movement with a radical agenda

Print edition : April 10, 2020

Yanis Varoufakis: “If anything, the first few pages of the Communist Manifesto describe today’s globalisation far more pertinently than it described 19th or 20th century capitalism.” Photo: Getty Images

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right) and main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn during the state opening of Parliament on December 19, 2019. “Brexit eclipsed the popularity of the Labour manifesto because of the coup in the Labour party,” Yanis says. Photo: JESSICA TAYLOR/AFP

Democratic presidential hopefuls former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders greet each other with an elbow bump as they arrive for the 11th Democratic Party 2020 presidential debate in a CNN Washington Bureau studio in Washington, D.C., on March 15. “His [Sanders’] greatest foe is the Democratic Party’s bureaucracy and power brokers. As in 2016, they would much rather see [Donald] Trump re-elected than Sanders win. ” Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (right) and Yanis Varoufakis, during the first round of a presidential vote at the Greek parliament in Athens on February 18, 2015. Photo: REUTERS

Interview with Marxist economist and former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.

Yanis Varoufakis is an internationally known Marxist economist and a Greek politician who served as Minister of Finance in Greece from January 2015 to July 2015. At present, he is engaged in mobilising people for a better and inclusive world with a progressive economic and political vision. Before entering active politics, he taught economics at various universities across the world, including the University of Cambridge, the University of Sydney and the University of Athens. As Finance Minister, he led negotiations with Greece’s creditors during the government debt crisis. After Greece surrendered to the austerity demands of the European Commission and accepted another loan without debt restructuring, Yanis resigned from Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) government on July 6, 2015. Since then, he has been actively involved in politics in Europe, and Greece in particular. In February 2016, he launched the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) with the aim of transforming the European Union (E.U.). It is an alliance of “people of the Left and liberalism, greens and feminists”.

On the formation of DiEM25, he says: “The main idea is twofold. First, since our main crises [private and public debt, banking, poverty, xenophobia, and climate] are transnational, we need a transnational movement, with a single, coherent agenda. Secondly, political parties that confine themselves to the nation-state are no longer relevant to the struggle against globalised banking and authoritarianism. On the basis of a new transnational politics, and with our Green New Deal as a unifying agenda, we are seeking to unite workers, the precariously employed, intellectuals, etc.”

In March 2018, he founded the European Realistic Disobedience Front (MeRA25), the “electoral wing” of DiEM25 in Greece with the stated aim of freeing Greece from “debt bondage”. MeRA25 secured nine seats in the Hellenic Parliament. Yanis returned to Parliament in 2019. In December 2018, he launched Progressive International, a grass-roots movement for global justice with the United States Senator and Democratic Party leader, Bernie Sanders. He supports and advocates the idea of basic income.

Yanis has authored several bestselling books addressing issues such as the European debt crisis, the financial imbalance in the world and game theory. They include Adults in the Room, And the Weak Suffer What They Must?, The Global Minotaur, Foundations of Economics: A Beginner’s Companion, Economic Indeterminacy, and A Game Theory: A Critical Text.

Yanis contributes articles to Project Syndicate, The Guardian, The New York Times, CNN, The Economist, The New Statesman, Financial Times and other international publications.

In this interview, the first to Indian media, Yanis speaks elaborately on the 2019 British election, Brexit, the E.U. crisis, the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the global financial crisis, rising ultra-national forces, the need for a progressive international movement, the DiEM25, rising inequality and the Greek crisis. Excerpts:

How important is this year’s U.S. presidential election for the world? What were the challenges Bernie Sanders faced in electoral politics? What did you look for in Sanders’ candidature? How do you view President Donald Trump’s years in the White House?

Every American election is significant given that its purpose is to elect the most powerful political operative in the world. However, none will be as crucial as the one that took place in 2016. Donald Trump’s election [that year] was transformational. Even if the liberal establishment returns to the White House, for instance a Joe Biden presidency, there will be no going back to the earlier model of U.S. hegemony. What died in 2016 was the post-War pattern of U.S. domination of a coordinated alliance of Western powers, with the U.S. determining the common line, and Europe, on the one hand and Japan-Australia-New Zealand on the other toeing that line. The new, Trumpian model of U.S. hegemony is based on what I call the bicycle wheel principle: The U.S being the hub and all other powers the spokes of the wheel that is global political economy.

Trump correctly discerned that the multilateral NATO-G20-ANZUS-TTIP-TPP [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-Group of 20-Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty-Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership-Trans-Pacific Partnership] model was incapable of reproducing the U.S. hegemony as the size of the U.S. economy shrank proportionately. But, the bicycle wheel principle is different in the sense that the hub will always be stronger than any individual spoke.

In practical terms, this means that the U.S. downsizes or even blows up the institutions it helped create, NATO-G20-ANZUS-TTIP-TPP, and replaces them with bilateral agreements and relations. Trump’s loathing of the E.U. and his determination to fragment it [his support for Brexit, Marine Le Pen in the 2017 French presidential election, Matteo Salvini in Italy] must be seen in this context. What will change if someone like Biden is elected? Very little, I fear. Any member of the liberal establishment, Democrat or Republican, that manages to reclaim the White House will give some nice speeches, alluding to the importance of multilateralism, but, in practice, will neither manage nor want to shift away from Trump’s bicycle wheel model. And, thus, the world will continue to move in the direction of global feudalism under the military and monetary hegemony of a U.S. decoupling increasingly from both the supply lines of countries such as China and global capitalist institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

In this context, only Sanders could make a real difference. He is the only potential U.S. President who could do what Franklin D. Roosevelt did to Herbert Hoover-like policies that every other President would continue. This is precisely why he was targeted the same way that [Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn was in the United Kingdom.

You ask me about the challenges Sanders faced in this electoral year. His greatest foe is the Democratic Party’s bureaucracy and power brokers. As in 2016, they would much rather see Trump re-elected than Sanders win. If Sanders wins the primaries, the Democratic Party apparatchiks will do their damnedest to re-elect Trump, exactly as the so-called radical centre of the Labour Party was so relieved that Boris Johnson beat Corbyn.

I suppose that the lesson that progressives all over the world must draw from the United Kingdom and the U.S., from the Corbyn and Sanders experiences is this: centrist parties that used to be in the business of civilising capitalism, of restoring some balance between capital and labour, have become the greatest brake on progressive politics. Why? Because they were central in, first, unleashing the financial genie that caused 2008 [recall that it was Democrat and Labour administrations that deregulated fully Wall Street and the City of London in the 1990s] and, then, were central during 2009 in re-floating the bankers after their paper pyramids collapsed. In short, since the 2008 crash of Western financialised capitalism, centrists have been responsible for implementing socialism for the financiers and harsh capitalism for the many. The resulting discontent led to two intertwined phenomena: the nationalist international led by Donald Trump, on the one hand, and centrist parties, on the other hand, whose top priority is to prevent progressives like Sanders and Corbyn from challenging the nationalist international.

The 2020 U.S. presidential election must be seen through this prism. It is why the Progressive International is such an important project.

In the December 2019 British election, the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson won a historic mandate. How does it reflect on Britain’s domestic politics, the E.U. and the world? What went against Corbyn although the Labour had a promising manifesto?

There is a tendency to over-think this result. The situation is clear: Johnson took advantage of the voters’ collective fatigue with a never-ending Brexit process and of a Parliament incapable of making up its mind, to unite the Leave vote under a single ticket and with a simple slogan [Get Brexit Done!]. On the opposite side, the Remain vote was split between Labour, LibDems, the SNP [Scottish National Party] and Plaid Cymru [Party of Wales]. The final result was the culmination of the worst own goal in British politics scored by the hard Remainers who, on the one hand treated Leavers like vermin and on the other they attacked Corbyn, the only leader who could deliver them the second referendum they craved for.

Corbyn’s assessment, which has been ridiculed ad nauseam since it was delivered, was right: Labour won the argument but lost the election. What he meant, and where he was right, was that the Labour manifesto resonated with the views of a large majority: On the need for a massive investment in a green industrial revolution; for a National Investment Bank to work in conjunction with the Bank of England; for the extension of the National Health Service to a National Care Service; for transfer of shares from capital to labour; for an end to the U.K.’s carte blanche support of foreign wars. Alas, none of that mattered in the end. Why?

Brexit eclipsed the popularity of the Labour manifesto because of the coup in the Labour party and, in particular, by The Guardian and the BBC. Ever since Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party, the centre-left’s establishment made it its top priority to overthrow him. A series of coups took place within the party, but they failed because hundreds of thousands of new members kept supporting Corbyn. The plotters were banking on the 2017 general election, hoping that a terrible result would help them oust a party leadership that challenged the privileged classes’ capacity to reproduce their privileges by co-opting the young and the working class. Alas, in 2017 the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, made the error of going to the polls before she had an over-ready Brexit deal. That gave Corbyn the opportunity to campaign on the basis of an anti-austerity, progressive Labour manifesto. The result was a remarkable 40 per cent of the vote and denying the Tories an overall majority.

From the next day, the internal campaign to unseat Corbyn took a nastier turn: they attacked his character, with anti-Semitism as the tip of their spear. And they ridiculed, as indecisiveness, his worthy attempt to behave like an honest broker of unity between working-class Leavers and Remainers.

For two years The Guardian and the BBC adopted twin tactics. First, they chose a turn of phrase whenever they referred to Corbyn that indirectly, but surely, insinuated that he was of suspect character and, most certainly, an enabler of anti-Semitism. Secondly, and more poignantly, they pushed hard the view that “they are all the same”, successfully building on the majority’s dislike of politicians by portraying everyone, from Johnson and Nigel Farage to Corbyn and John McDonnell, as different sides of the same coin. Moreover, their incessant campaign to cancel Brexit by any means helped turn progressive Leavers away from a Labour party in which Corbyn struggled to keep Leavers and Remainers united by keeping alive the prospect of resorting to…democracy—to a second referendum.

Given that most of the media were always in the pocket of the Tory party, ready and willing to promote Johnson when it mattered, having the only outlets of anti-Brexit, non-Tory, opinion (The Guardian and the BBC in particular) taking a neutral stance on the basis of “they are all the same” proved a decisive advantage for the incumbent Tories. If “they are all the same”, why not vote for Johnson, who will at least end once and for all the Brexit saga? Thus, Brexit trumped the popularity of Labour’s manifesto, giving a magnificent opportunity to Corbyn’s opponents within Labour to take back the leadership of the working class’ party and, once more, turn it against the working class, against the precariously employed, against the young (who voted overwhelmingly for Corbyn), against those on the fringes of a failing British capitalism.

The lesson from the 2019 U.K. general election is the same as the lesson from Greece’s 2015 referendum: At crucial moments when people get a chance to win power, their worst enemy emerges not within the ranks of the establishment’s servants but within their own progressive block’s, or party’s, nomenklatura.

Britain is no longer a member of the E.U. What would be its political and economic implications in the international system and Europe, in particular? Would other E.U. member-countries choose the path of Britain in the future?

The main impact will be on the E.U. itself. Already, the funding gap that the U.K.’s departure caused has made it necessary for Brussels to distribute cuts among the remaining member-states. The E.U., like all cartels, is quite good at distributing gains but awful at distributing losses. It is not so much the missing money. What matters is the manner in which the need to distribute losses is exposing existing rifts within the E.U.. While I do not envisage other ‘exits’, Brexit is already causing the existing bonds within the E.U. to weaken. The E.U.’s greatest danger, therefore, is that policy agendas on migration, banking, debt, etc., are re-nationalising. In the limit, the E.U. runs the serious danger of ending up formally intact but, in reality, an empty shirt. And would that not be music in Trump’s ears?

Because of the memories of the World Wars and the traumatic past experiences, most of the European Left is more in favour of an integrated Europe and also sceptical about the demands for exit or separation. You were personally against Brexit. Why so? Don’t you smell a ‘revolt against Capital’ in Brexit? You advocated ‘Greece exit’ earlier when Greece was in the crisis. Why two different positions?

Brexit and Grexit are like chalk and cheese: very, very different propositions. Brexit was a home-made campaign and aspiration. It reflects an essential incongruity between British and Continental capitalism and, importantly, a commitment of the British [bourgeoisie and working class] to parliamentarianism that is absent on the continent. In contrast, Grexit was never a home-grown campaign in Greece. In fact, Grexit was a threat invoked by the European establishment to make Greece accept new loans to pass on to the French and German banks: “Take these loans on condition of stringent austerity or we throw you out of the eurozone.” Also, whereas Brexit was about exiting the E.U. by a member-state that never adopted the euro, Grexit was about Greece returning to its national currency [exiting the eurozone] but not the E.U. itself. You are correct to say that I campaigned against Brexit. Why? Because it was always going to reinforce the British ruling class, divide progressives and magnify xenophobia. The events of the last year or so confirmed this prediction. As for Grexit, while I never advocated it, my reply to the European establishment was clear: If you are forcing us to choose between permanent debtor’s prison and Grexit, we shall take Grexit, thank you very much.

How would you trace the economic and political interest behind the establishment of the E.U.? You had earlier said that “Europe is disintegrating”. Whether Brexit and similar demands point to a fundamental discontent against the E.U. set-up other than just reading these developments as demands of right-wing populism? Also, Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) campaigned for “Germany exit” from E.U. ahead of the European election last year.

The E.U. was set up as a big business cartel, inimical even to bourgeois democracy. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, the E.U. began to disintegrate. To keep it together, its establishment imposed a class war against the weak across Europe [from Greece to Germany and from Latvia to Portugal] while printing mountains of money to re-float the failed banks. Is it any wonder that good, progressive people began to question the desirability of this E.U.? However, it is one thing to come up with the above diagnosis and it is quite another to advocate the disintegration of the E.U. The latter will only blow fresh wind into the sails of deflation and the ultra-Right. As for the fact that the ultra-right has advocated exiting/disintegrating the E.U., it reinforces my point and reminds us of how in the 1920s and the 1930s, the Fascists followed the strategy of adopting elements of the Left’s critique of existing institutions before taking them over and weaponising them against the people.

As a Finance Minister of Greece in 2015, you presented the Greece Debt Restructuring plan before the establishment of Brussels. What were your key suggestions in the “debt restructuring plan” then to address the crisis?

I knew that the German government could not “sell” an outright haircut to the German Parliament. So, to make it more palatable for them, I proposed a series of debt swaps. For instance, swapping existing debt obligations that specified fixed interest rates and repayments with new bonds specifying repayments and interest rates that were analogous to Greek gross domestic product [GDP] size and growth rate. More precisely, I was proposing to link the total amount to be repaid by, say 2040, to Greece’s total GDP between 2015 and 2040 and the rate of repayment to the rate of Greece’s GDP growth.

What was the reason put forward by the establishment in Brussels for not accepting your plan of restructuring Greece’s debt?

No economic reason whatsoever. In fact, behind closed doors they agreed that it was the obvious thing to do. Alas, they rejected it because the German leaders had lied to Germany’s Parliament in two ways. First, they had told their members of parliament that the loans were for the Greek people, covering up the fact that they were a bailout of French and German bankers. Secondly, that they would get every penny back from the Greek state, even though they knew perfectly well that it was impossible to retrieve monies lent to an insolvent entity, especially if you forwarded the loans on conditions of stringent austerity that would shrink the already low incomes of the insolvent. Tragically, having issued these lies in Germany’s federal parliament, the German Chancellor did not want to return with a debt restructuring proposal that, in effect, was tantamount to an admission that she had lied to them. In short, they rejected my proposals in order to avoid admitting to having lied to their own people—a rejection that, interestingly, cost their taxpayers serious money (in the sense that my proposals would have allowed the Greek state to repay more of its loans in the long run).

The Greek debt crisis and the ultimatum given by the troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the IMF) in 2015 was a classic case exposing the face of institutions such as the IMF and the ECB. As the Finance Minister of Greece at that time, could you speak about the unfolding of the crisis?

My precise expression was that it was as if the eurozone crisis, which erupted in Greece before spreading like a bushfire across Europe, was designed. No one intended it, of course. But, the crisis was inevitable given the design of the euro, Europe’s common currency. Think about it: They created a central bank, the ECB, without a state to have its back during a crisis while, at the same time, 19 states shared did not have a central bank to have their back [since the ECB was banned from monetising the states on whose behalf it issued the euro].

To boot, they preserved separate banking systems [a German, an Italian, a Greek, and so on] that had to be bailed out, without any help from the ECB, by the national governments, which could not rely on the ECB either. The sequential bankruptcy of states and banks was, therefore, a designer feature of the eurozone. The fact that it was not the intention of the euro’s designers does not make it less of a designer feature of the common currency they produced.

Even a leftist government that came into office with the promise of a restructuring plan different from that of the troika, surrendered before the troika. It led to your resignation from the Cabinet.

You have to ask them. The moment my comrades, the Prime Minister in particular, surrendered, I resigned, joined many progressives around Europe to form the Democracy in Europe Movement and, eventually, to return to Greece’s Parliament to carry on the fight that must be fought against the orchestrated misanthropy that passes for economic policy.

What are the lessons nations, especially countries of the tricontinental, should learn when dealing with international agencies. What does the case of Greece tell the world?

It is a lesson that has been learnt a long time ago, during the developing world’s debt crisis in the 1970s and the 1980s, in the case of South East Asia in the late 1990s, and today in Ecuador and Argentina. And it is this. The IMF operates as a bailiff on behalf of international creditors. Their job is to come in after a government fails to meet its debt repayments and impose, in exchange of stabilising the currency, cruel conditions that amount to the expropriation of the majority’s assets and public services. The trick is to, in the first place, avoid a build-up of debts to foreign financiers in a currency that your state does not control and, if this has failed, to be ready to shun the IMF even if the price is a default and a sharp devaluation of one’s currency. Accepting IMF loans on conditions that turn your country into a debtors’ prison is never a good idea, whatever the local oligarchy [who always benefit from IMF programmes] say.

In this context, it is worth quoting the idea of delinking championed by Marxists such as the late Samir Amin and Prabhat Patnaik. They talk about the delinking of Third World countries from the vortex of globalisation. As an economist and a politician, what is your take on this idea? What are its practical implications? How could a country not willing to bow down before the neoliberal financial capital meet the transitional economic difficulties when it dares to delink and also maintain an alternative path of economic development? Bolivia declared total independence from the World Bank and the IMF. Yet, its economic indicators show improvement.

As I already said, it is crucial to delink from private loans that are denominated in a foreign currency or a currency that your government does not control. This is what is crucial, since it immunises you to IMF interventions. This does not mean, of course, turning to autarky. Joint ventures, collaborating with foreign companies on the basis of mutual advantage, technology transfers, etc., cannot and should not be avoided.

Green new deal as unifying agenda

Along with democrats from various political traditions—green, radical Left and liberal—you founded DiEM25 to repair the E.U. What are you looking forward to “repair” through such a movement? How do you propose to “mobilise, organise and hold” the movement? What are the alternatives you are looking at to see this movement through?

Our objective is not to repair the E.U. but to transform it. You repair something that used to work well but is not broken. The E.U. was always a big business, anti-democratic cartel which could not handle the 2008 crisis and its aftermath without massive doses of misanthropy. This is why DiEM25 is not about its repair but its transformation. The main idea is twofold. First, since our main crises (private and public debt, banking, poverty, xenophobia, climate) are transnational, we need a transnational movement, with a single, coherent agenda. Secondly, political parties that confine themselves to the nation-state are no longer relevant to the struggle against globalised banking and authoritarianism. On this basis, of a new transnational politics, and with our Green New Deal as the unifying agenda, we seek to unite workers, the precariously employed, intellectuals, and others.

On the issue of inequality, Thomas Piketty’s research and proposal for a global wealth tax has received much appreciation in many progressive and liberal circles. How could it be implemented in a world context where big capitalists control every organ of states in most parts of the globe? You proposed universal wealth dividend. Could you elaborate?

I have no quarrel with a wealth tax, except that it won’t do much either to restore justice or to stabilise capitalism. Take for instance Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax, the most radical variant of Piketty’s idea. If implemented, it will not raise more than 1 per cent of the national income.

In my view, nothing will do short of redistributing property rights over capital. A first step is DiEM25’s universal basic dividend. It would work very simply by making it a legal obligation of all large companies to pass, say, 10 per cent of their shares to an international wealth fund, with the accumulating dividends divided amongst the population. A second step would be to increase that percentage in proportion to automation. A third step would be to re-write corporate law. My dream would be to live in a world where shares are non-tradable and where each member of staff has a single share granting her or him a single vote on all matters pertaining to management and to the distribution of a firm’s net revenues. That would end the wage-profit divide, indeed it would end… capitalism!

You say that “social democratic new deal paradigm is finished and it cannot be revived”. Could you explain?

Social democracy lost its soul when social democrats [from the SPD in Germany, Tony Blair’s Labour, Bill Clinton’s Democrats, and so on] got into bed with the bankers, cutting a deal according to which social democrats would let the bankers run riot and the bankers, in return, would give them a cut to finance their campaigns and, partly, the welfare state. So, when in 2008 bankers went bust social democrats lacked both the analytical power and the moral strength to expropriate the bankers while saving the banks. Instead, it acted as social democrats that imposed austerity on the many and socialism for the bankers. That’s when the social democratic project died.

Can it be revived? No, it can’t be. Global capitalism can no longer be restrained by national governments seeking some historic compromise between national industrial capital and the nation’s trade unions. We now need a transnational movement which targets both financiers and multinationals. Social democrats are neither interested in nor capable of being part of such a movement. This is why we created DiEM25. This is why we are working hard to put together a Progressive International, to which we invite our friends and comrades from India to be part of.

How do you analyse the present state of capitalism?

Capitalism suffered a large blow in 2008, inaugurating a third post-Second World War phase that poses a lethal threat both to capitalism and to humanity.

The first phase [Bretton Woods, 1944-1971] was based on a highly regulated global system with fixed exchange rates, capital controls and a U.S. which provided the global currency but which also recycled its surpluses to Europe and Asia, thus stabilising capitalism. That phase ended when the U.S. turned from a surplus to a deficit economy and could no longer stabilise global capitalism without becoming insolvent.

The second phase began with the end of the fixed exchange rate regime [of Bretton Woods] and was typified by the important role of the U.S. current account deficit which provided huge demand to net exporters in Europe and in Asia, in exchange for 70 per cent of Asian and European profits that flowed back into Wall Street, thus closing the loop and funding the U.S. [current account and government budget] deficits. On the back of these capital flows, Wall Street built up financialisation, which in 2008 imploded.

The third phase began with that 2008 implosion. Even though the policy of bailouts for the bankers and austerity for the people re-floated banking and returned the U.S. current account deficit to its original levels, Wall Street and the rest of global finance could not recover their capacity to fund investment in real capital. Thus, since 2008 capitalism suffers a massive imbalance between savings and investment, leading to low-quality jobs and negative interest rates. The remarkable technological innovations [the rise of machine learning, 3D printers, etc.] that come on top of this failure to balance savings and investment are now magnifying the political and economic pressures upon globalised capitalism. Barbarism, xenophobia and Donald Trump are mere symptoms of this congruence.

“The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Antonio Gramsci explained the inter-War period thus. Would you draw a similar conclusion about the present world situation?

Absolutely. This is why it is crucial that we speed up the evolutionary process, by means of a radical, transnational movement with a radical, transnational agenda that can inspire peoples from across the world: to help the new be born and end the interregnum that only benefits the varieties of authoritarianism damaging humans and the planet.

There is an upsurge of right-wing nationalist/fascist movements across the spectrum of the globe in different forms. This phenomenon can’t be analysed in isolation from the trajectory of neoliberal capitalism and its predatory nature. Samir Amin called it “the return of fascism in the contemporary capitalism”. And you said that the 2008 financial crisis also is one of the reasons for such an uprising. How dangerous is the threat? Is there enough “political infrastructure” to counter it?

2008 was not one of the reasons: it was the reason, in precisely the same way that the crash of 1929 was the reason that the dark side of humanity took over, leading to tens of millions of deaths.

On November 30, 2018, you formed Progressive International. Is it a political counter to right-wing upsurge?

Yes, I believe Progressive International is the only weapon we have against, on the one hand, global finance and, on the other, the nationalist international that the crash of 2008 has given rise to. This is why, together with Sanders; Katrin Jakobsdottir, the Prime Minister of Iceland; Fernando Haddad, Lula’s stand-in candidate in Brazil; and many others we inaugurated Progressive International in Vermont [U.S.] in November 2018.

Developments in 2019 proved beyond doubt the Progressive International’s importance. To put it bluntly, the progressives’ lack of coordination, of a common programme, of common institutions, led to 2019 being our collective annus horribilis all over the globe: From the E.U, where in May 2019 European Parliament election, regressives and authoritarians triumphed, to the unchallenged dominance of Narendra Modi, Boris Johnson, Benjamin Netanyahu, Jair Bolsonaro, and the new conservative Greek government. Everywhere we turned in 2019 we saw progressives lost, defeated or, at the very least, on the back foot.

This is why in 2020 we shall do our utmost to give Progressive International a boost. We begin in February with the launch of a board comprising progressive leaders from around the world, each of whom will join not just symbolically but in order to pursue a particular project on behalf of Progressive International; e.g., to organise a global trade union recruitment and coordination exercise or a consumer boycott of multinationals pushing workers into precariousness and small business into bankruptcy. Then, in the Fall of 2020, we plan our first large-scale event where a common programme and a manifesto will be hammered out.

You opinioned that Chinese economic management is the most adorable in the world. And, China helped a lot in managing the 2008 financial crisis. Still, you have differences with the Chinese mode of governance. How do you see their economic growth and poverty alleviation in the last decades? Do you think China is still on the socialistic track? If not, where do you place China?

I opined that the Chinese government proved to be an adept macroeconomic manager and, also, that without China’s massive investment drive after 2008, global capitalism would have been in a far, far worse state.

What is my problem with China? The abject authoritarianism, the manner in which workers have been denied a voice, the environmental damage wilfully inflicted… How do I place China? Certainly not a socialist country, it is nevertheless a fascinating experiment in combining markets, planning, common purpose, individuality, high technology and a refreshing scepticism over globalised finance. Future socialist experiments have a lot to learn from contemporary China.

In Europe, the refugee influx has been used by right-wing political movements to increase their appeal. It seems that not only the right but even liberal politicians hold anti-immigrant views. “Europe must curb immigration to stop right-wing populists,” said the former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. You criticised her for this comment. Could you talk about the so-called “European refugee crisis”? How does the Left politically engage with this?

There is no such thing as a European refugee or immigration crisis. Europe is large, rich and comprising half a billion people. One or two million wretched souls arriving on our coasts and crossing our borders would not have been an issue if it were not for the deep crisis of European capitalism which, as always, gives a splendid opportunity to xenophobes to jump on a soap-box and point the finger at the “brown people” as the reason for the crisis.

How should the Left engage with this phenomenon? By denouncing politicians of the Hillary Clinton variety who advocate “racism lite” as an antidote to the Right’s full-blown racism. No version of racism can counter its true-blue variety. Only radical humanism can do it. It takes courage but it is our only option. This is why DiEM25 states clearly: Let them in! Europe has been colonising the world for 1,000 years. Now that we are getting older, as a continent, the migration flows have reversed. No walls can change this. Let’s embrace the immigrants. Let’s see them as a gift. Let’s fight fascism with the only worthy weapon we have: radical humanism.

The world has changed in many ways from the time of Karl Marx. How relevant is the analytical framework and revolutionary theory of Marxism in understanding our times and for changing the world?

More than ever. If anything, the first few pages of the Communist Manifesto describe today’s globalisation far more pertinently than it described 19th or 20th century capitalism. As if to disgrace social democratic notions of a mixed economy and a middle-class liberal democracy, capitalism has recently destroyed both the mixed economy and the middle class; as if to confirm Marx’s prognostication that capital accumulation, once globalised, creates a dynamic that polarises humanity between a tiny ruling class and a massive precarious proletariat.

You taught economics across the world before assuming the post of Finance Minister in Athens in 2015. While in office, you saw “how power and its establishments work”. As a Marxist, what did you learn about the opportunities and limitations when working within the state?

That it is utterly possible to disrupt the establishment by means that even authentic liberals would approve (e.g. denying bailout funding from the IMF). And that the worst enemy is not the ruling class but, alas, our own comrades who can ever so easily be lured by the establishment in surrendering—and, at once, turning against the common cause.

Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M. are fellows at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and contribute to various national and international publications, including The Hindu, The Caravan, The Indian Express, The Wire, Frontline and Monthly Review. The writers can be reached at jipsonjohn10@gmail.com and jitheeshpm91@gmail.com.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

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