If you haven't been paying attention to the ongoing Eurocrisis and the recent election of the anti-austerity Syriza party in Greece, you may have missed Yanis Varoufakis' ascension to rockstar status.
Who is he? The newly-minted Greek finance minister — an academic economist, with chiseled good looks that belie his 53 years and a charisma equal parts dignified, equal parts swaggering. On the back of big promises to free Greece from the yoke of Europe's imposed austerity – an aggressive program of budget cuts, hacking away at every Greek state provision as a condition for loans from Europe – he's gained fans worldwide, especially of the anti-capitalist sort.
But admirers, beware. Varoufakis will surely break your heart.
"Fuck yea Varoufakis" memes abound. A mockup movie poster depicting Varoufakis as a cartoon superhero facing off German Chancellor Angela Merkel in "The End of Austerity" is bouncing around social media. Tumblr sites dedicated to his image feature him as Superman, the Terminator and V from "V for Vendetta." His left-wing coalition Syriza party promised "hope is coming" to a Greek public crushed by the vicious austerity programs demanded by the European troika (the technocratic body representing the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank). He's earning the adoration of socialists around the world, and even the cautious interest of some party politics-averse anarchists and radicals. But he will break the hearts of those hoping for a Marxist hero.
Syriza's electoral success owes more to Greek desperation (25 percent unemployment and a third of the population living below the poverty line) than anything else. The party and its 40-year-old leader, Alexis Tsipras, promise an end to the tyranny of austerity, which Varoufakis has called "fiscal waterboarding." Internationally, the rise of Syriza represents some hope for a left-wing challenge to the grip of neo-liberal economics over the West, especially with Spain's left-wing Podemos party swiftly growing popularity. Syriza replaces the most conservative government Greece had seen since 1974.
But just over a month after Syriza's victory, the party's dizzying promises of a challenge to European economic policies are already looking like the unreconciled vows of a lovesick teen. Following days of tense negotiation, Greece signed on to continue the existing bailout deal for another four months — the very deal that demanded austerity in return for continued lending. While Greece gained a little more flexibility with economic reforms in the negotiations, this was truly a compromise on Syriza's part. The plan to hack away at austerity has been deferred — as seemed likely, despite Syriza's platform promises to stay in the Euro while standing up to the Eurocrats.
Varoufakis had hearts racing again when reports circulated that heated negotiations last week had almost come to blows. It was alleged that he furiously shouted "Liar!" at Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem. But the finance minister himself dispelled the rumor on Twitter, stating, "I have bad news for you: Your report is fake. Never was there such a moment between Jeroen and me. Sorry to disappoint." I get the feeling this won't be the first time we hear "sorry to disappoint" from this guy.
But that's why excited radicals and leftists should mitigate their high hopes for both Syriza and Varoufakis now. Pay attention to what the man has already said— he is not putting forward a radical agenda. His plan is not to bring capitalism to its knees. Rather, he has stated that, while he finds current capitalism in Europe "repugnant," he is committed to saving it. In a lengthy essay for the Guardian, Varoufakis describes his position to be one of "erratic Marxism."
It's bare bones are this: he believes the Marxist principle that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction because of its inherent contradictions. Namely, as capitalism advances, it decreases the aspect of human labor that is unquantifiable and value-creating, but if this part of commodity production is eradicated entirely, so would be capitalism (because essentially capitalism's game is the creation and distribution of value). But while Varoufakis wants to see an end to capitalism, he believes it must be saved now, to buy time to develop strong alternatives. He admits, he doesn't expect this in his lifetime.
He says that the op-ed is intended as a "confession intended to convince radicals that we have a contradictory mission: to arrest the freefall of European capitalism in order to buy the time we need to formulate its alternative." Call me cynical, but I read it as an effort to assure European lenders that their new ostensible opponent had no intention of upending their system.
But Varoufakis is also trying to save us from heartbreak here. He urges that we don't get carried away with Syriza's victory, in the midst of Greek devastation, as anymore than a spark of hope for the rise of the left. He tells the story of his very own heartbreak when, during his mid-thirties, he believed he saw such seeds of revolution in Thatcherite Britain. "The hope that the deterioration of public goods, the diminution of the lives of the majority, the spread of deprivation to every corner of the land would, automatically, lead to a renaissance of the left was just that: hope." (And I think we've established the problem with hope by now.)
So those crushing on Varoufakis as an anti-capitalist inamorata should heed the man's warnings; beware any lover who says that they will probably break your heart. He has told radicals as much. But those putting faith in his promises of developing future alternatives to the capitalist system should be wary too.
Varoufakis — himself and economic and academic animal, not a political one — is overlooking that inherent flaw of political parties.: if they have any longevity, it’s because they learn to perpetuate themselves. The continuation of the party becomes the primary objective, consistently to the detriment of radical change at the very ideals the party members may have once proposed.