I’m joined by Yanis Varoufakis, the former Finance Minister of Greece. Thank you very much for sitting down to speak with me.
So, first of all, let’s start a decade ago: 2008, the financial crash. It was heralded as this major crisis in capitalism, but 10 years later the left doesn’t seem to have capitalised on the opportunity that it offered.
Well, our generation – actually your generation – should think of 2008 as its own 1929 moment. There are many similarities. The similarities are just stupendous. Think of what happened after the Wall Street collapse of 1929. The imposition of austerity in places like in Germany, in France, in Holland. In the United States of America, the liquidation of labour, the liquidation of businesses. What happened was, we fell into the abyss of an ultra right-wing equilibrium – or disequilibrium. It was not the left that benefitted. The period of the Grapes of Wrath – to quote the famous novel, Steinbeck’s novel – is not a revolutionary period. It is a period that does not favour the left, it favours the forces of parochialism, of xenophobia and of nationalism. Lo and behold this is exactly what happened after your generation’s 1929 – after 2008. This time the left should learn its lessons, we progressives should band together with progressive liberals, with anyone who is interested in the common minimalist agenda for arresting this crisis, and reversing the path to our very own postmodern abyss.
Whenever it came to challenging Thatcher and the neoliberal consensus, the left had to move to the centre to get into power under Blair and the Third Way. And last year, in the French Presidential election, it was Macron, a former investment banker – the archetypal neoliberal – who had to rise to the occasion to defeat the neo-fascist threat of Marine le Penn. So, with that in mind, how convinced are you that the left does offer that opportunity – that the left is capable of coming up to that threat?
Well, we’ve been terrible haven’t we? We of the left, we have failed spectacularly. But I will challenge the proposition that the left had to move to the centre in order to gain power. In my experience, in 2015, my party went from 4% to 40%. Not by shifting to the centre, but by becoming better at articulating our position. Jeremy Corbyn’s singular contribution to progressive politics around the world is that he proved beyond reasonable doubt that you could energise masses of new – young people in particular – to bring them into politics, without ‘doing a Tony Blair’. Indeed, he manged to succeed – of course he did not ‘do a Tony Blair’. And also, to create a large alliance across society that defends the rights of the many, not of the few. So, there is nothing inevitable in politics, because Tony Blair won government by shifting to the right – or to the centre, as you would put it – it does not mean that that’s what had to happen.
And just to move on briefly to Brexit – you said yesterday in your speech in Derry, a line that stood out to me was: “[the vote for Brexit] is what happens when English nationalism can no longer find expression in colonialism”. Can you expand on that a little bit?
The English working class was traditionally treated by the English ruling class like vermin, like scum. If you read Fredrich Engles’ ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’, you’ll see that there is a long tradition of the English working class being treated abominably by the English aristocracy, the merchant class, industrialists, capitalists. But what they have been offered traditionally was the ‘reward’ – the toxic, putrid ‘reward’ – that “yeah, sure, we are treating you really badly, but we are treating others even worse than we are treating you”. Whether these are Indians, or Cypriots, or the people in the colonies, or, indeed, the Irish.
And in terms of that colonial expression of English nationalism – do you think that’s what fuels the attitudes English people have towards Northern Ireland when it comes to Brexit, and all of the debate around the border – and the ignorance that the rest of the UK about that issue?
The Good Friday Agreement effectively ended the pretension of the British state to be the colonial power in Northern Ireland. And simultaneously, ended the sensation amongst many of the reactionary elements of the working class in England that at least they had the Irish under their boot. In conjunction with the depletion of industry in Britain following Thatcherism, this combination of feeling discarded by their own country, the fact that devolution meant that the Scots had their own Parliament, the Welsh had their own Assembly, Northern Ireland was on a different trajectory towards a different kind of governance, based in Northern Ireland. What did the English have? They had no Assembly, they had no Parliament, they had no jobs, they had no industry. And it was very easy for a right-wing Brexiteer narrative to develop on the basis of ‘we want our country back’, without, of course, any kind of coherence as to who ‘we’ are and what country we want back. Do we want England back? Do we want Scotland as well? Do we want Northern Ireland?
Okay, so – just a final thing , because I know you’re tight for time.
What’s your message for the young people of Northern Ireland? We’re obviously in a precarious context here in terms of Brexit, the border, there is still obviously a lot of political instability – we don’t have a government up at Stormont. What’s your message to young people in Northern Ireland?
You are not alone. All young people, whether they are in Greece, in the Balkans, in France, in Germany, across Europe, they all feel uncertain. They all feel that my generation have bequeathed them with deep uncertainty, a precarious existence, a dearth of good jobs, too much debt. And unless they reach out across borders, across ethnic divides, to create a progressive alliance so that they can take their lives back, as young Europeans, they will be regurgitating and reproducing the conditions of the crisis.
Yanis Varoufakis, thank you very much.
Jack O'Dwyer-Henry is an 18-year-old political activist and a co-founder of Challenges NI. You can follow him on Twitter @JackODwyerHenry.