And the Weak Suffer What They Must? by Yanis Varoufakis – review

Though heavy with egotistical bluster, the former Greek finance minister has valid points to make in this critique of the EU and global meltdown

It is easy to forget that Yanis Varoufakis spent two years as economic adviser and speechwriter to George Papandreou, the dismal socialist politician who inherited a party from his father and then, as prime minister, took Greece down the road towards its current crippled status. For the self-adoring, shaven-headed economist is far better known for his own five months of failure as finance minister, which alienated friends and foes alike yet catapulted him into heroic status on the anti-austerity left.

There are, sadly, all too few nuggets about his explosive time in office strewn around the pages of this book. Instead, “the most interesting man in the world” – according to one fawning quote on the back – has delivered a rather dull volume. It is meant to be a dazzling takedown of Europe’s fiscal crisis and its flawed monetary system by a brilliant rebel economist; instead, we get turgid analysis that would have benefited from tighter editing.

The tone is set from the start: Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, is “legendary” while even his wheelchair is “famous”. A failure to shake hands when he met the mighty Varoufakis on his first official meeting is seen as “the shunned hand [that] symbolised a great deal that was wrong with Europe”. After the 2008 financial implosion “nothing would be the same again” – although many would argue too little has changed, not least when bankers still seem as greedy and untouchable despite the crisis they caused.

Before going to Berlin on that first visit, Varoufakis said his party might be “leftwing riff-raff” but promised he would be charming. Instead, he praised his Syriza party leader for the crude gesture politics of laying a wreath at a memorial to Greek patriots executed by the Nazis, words that inevitably provoked anger in the German press. He still claims to be surprised by the reaction, which seems either disingenuous or remarkably naive, although at least he admits “this didn’t help my job of making friends in Berlin”. During his inglorious few months in office he went on, of course, to annoy pretty much everyone in European politics.

Yet while this book reflects a giant ego, and will not win prizes for its ponderous style, it is not entirely without merit for those with strength to plough through the pages. He argues that by contrast to the emergence of democracies in Britain and the United States, the evolution of the European Union began with a protective cartel of coal and steel producers, leading to the creation of a borderless cartelised economy designed to shore up elites. “As always happens when a technocracy harbouring a deep Platonic contempt for democracy attains inordinate power, we end up with an antisocial, dispirited, mindless autocracy.” Such language is often wearily extreme, with overblown depictions of elites and European politicians seeking to crush “sans-culottes” in places such as France, Spain and Greece. Countries are “beaten to a pulp”, economies are “carpet-bombed”, Greece subjected to “fiscal waterboarding”. The author seems to largely absolve the corruption and political incompetence that led to the problems facing his own country – some of which, such as tax collection, are being tackled to an extent post-crisis. And he has the usual misty-eyed conservatism of the far left in much analysis of recent economic history.

Yet he is right to point out that valid questions of sovereignty lie at the heart of Europe. And to argue that the euro was flawed by failing to unite politics and fiscal policy with monetary strategy, that German intransigence on debt has damaged the wider project and, above all, that Greece is being crushed by its rigid and ever-tightening financial straitjacket. Varoufakis – an admirer of John Maynard Keynes – sees the euro as the gold standard reborn, designed to unify nations but driving them apart by widening living standards in different parts of the continent. Britain, he argues, had a lucky escape.

Curiously, one of the few politicians to win his approval is Margaret Thatcher for “her prescient critique of the euro’s built-in democratic deficit” and for seeing “the fantasy of apolitical money”. Once he joined protests against her government; today he enjoys clips of her final parliamentary performance. Thatcher feared a European federation being sneaked in through the back door. “If only she had been right,” says the author, who sees it instead as a Trojan horse for “a clueless, inefficient bureaucracy… working tirelessly for politicians with an infinite capacity to recite unenforceable rules”.

Thatcher was, however, also a woman who understood that politics involved compromise. Clearly Varoufakis prefers the certainties of protest and comfort of the podium, allowing him to sneer at those who must take tough decisions amid the turbulence of crisis. As he discovered, modern politics is a messy game. Far easier to sit back, pour a jumble of impassioned words on the page and rage against the machine.

And the Weak Suffer What They Must? is published by the Bodley Head (£16.99). Click here to order it for £12.99


Ian Birrell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Chronicles: On Our Troubled Times by Thomas Piketty – review
Eight years on from the banking crisis, Thomas Piketty’s calls for reform are still being ignored

Nick Cohen

04, Apr, 2016 @6:30 AM

Article image
Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism – review
Kristen R Ghodsee’s study of the links between female sexual pleasure and politics is a joyous read

Suzanne Moore

03, Dec, 2018 @6:59 AM

Article image
The Finance Curse: How Global Finance Is Making Us All Poorer – review
The author and journalist Nicholas Shaxson gives a chilling account of the financial sector’s stranglehold on the UK

Oliver Bullough

23, Oct, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Talking to My Daughter About the Economy by Yanis Varoufakis review – provocative and challenging
The celebrated Greek economist draws on ancient myth, modern culture and personal experience to explore the nature and significance of capitalism

Nigel Jones

24, Sep, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
The 100 best nonfiction books: No 48 – The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes (1919)
The great economist’s account of what went wrong at the Versailles conference after the first world war was polemical, passionate and prescient

Robert McCrum

02, Jan, 2017 @5:45 AM

Article image
Moneyland: Why Thieves and Crooks Now Rule the World and How to Take It Back – review
Oliver Bullough follows the trail of the filthy rich in this compelling study of global wealth and corruption

Tim Adams

09, Sep, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Rutger Bregman: ‘We could cut the working week by a third’
Could this young Dutchman, hailed as a visionary, galvanise the left with his radical plan for a borderless future in which we are all paid for working less?

Andrew Anthony

26, Feb, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Francis Fukuyama: ‘Trump instinctively picks racial themes to drive people on the left crazy’
In 1989, the economist’s essay The End of History? asked whether liberalism had triumphed over ideology. History, however, had other ideas and his new book responds to the return of extremism

Tim Adams

16, Sep, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Hidden Hand review – China's true global ambitions exposed
Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg’s startling book about how the Chinese Communist party has spread its tentacles throughout the world is vital reading

Will Hutton

11, Aug, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Everything Must Change! review – the left's big beasts tackle a post-pandemic future
Conversations featuring the likes of Noam Chomsky, Brian Eno and Slavoj Žižek imagine a more communal world after Covid

Tim Adams

25, Jan, 2021 @7:00 AM