Yanis Varoufakis: Talking to my daughter about the economy: a brief history of capitalism (Bodley Head 2017)
Yanis Varoufakis, the Athens professor of economics who was finance minister for the first five months of the Syriza government in Greece, resigned when Syriza complied with international capitalist diktats, and now leads the Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM), has written a good plea for socialism. The book is due out in paperback in July.
The coming era, he argues, “will be typified by the momentous clash between two opposing proposals: ‘Democratise everything!’ versus “Commodify everything!’ The prpposal favoured by powerful and influential people and institutions is ‘Commodify everything!’.”
“Collective responsibility” — for the environment, and for society — “can only be brought about through collective ownership — being governed democratically either at the local level or... via the state”.
He confronts those who say that they “just want to get on with our lives... and enjoy the pleasures that market society provides”.
“Authentic happiness is impossible... without dissatisfaction as well as satisfaction”, without autonomy, rebellion, conflict. We can sustain “our creativity... our humanity and of course our planet” only by “periodic mental withdrawal from our society’s norms and certainties”.
“When you feel as if you’re about to give in to the idea that outrageous inequality is somehow unavoidable... maintain your outrage but sensibly, tactically, so that... you can invest it in what needs to be done to make our world truly logical, natural, and just”.
I guess I’m predisposed to like Varoufakis’s book because it is written as an open letter to his daughter Xenia, now 14, who lives on the other side of the world from him, in Australia, having been taken there by her Australian mother when she was a toddler. I too have daughters in Australia taken there by their Australian mother when they were small children: mine are now in their 20s.
But the book should strike a chord with any reader.
The “market society”, he argues, is inherently mean, inhuman, and unequal. He shows how the labour market and the financial markets, in particular, have “demons” “deep in their bowels”.
Unsurprisingly after his experience in the Greek government, he profiles the role of debt in the development of fully-marketised society more than most accounts do, but no more than fairly.
The book is eloquent, highly readable, with many quirky and unexpected angles. And Varoufakis is clear that he is arguing for a whole new and very different society, not just a softened version of capitalism, “this beast that dominates our lives”.
His story can be criticised on some details. Serfdom in England faded away much earlier than he suggests. His extrapolations about automation killing most jobs are dubious. He seems to defer to the old “quantity theory” of money.
Like most economists, he fails to make the distinction between labour-power (what workers sell to the bosses) and labour (the process of the bosses “consuming” the labour-power they have bought).
More importantly, he nowhere focuses on the special place of the working class within capitalism, on the potential of the working class as the social force that can make socialism, or on what needs to be done to transform the labour movements and make that potential reality.
For all that, and for combat against the trickier anti-socialist arguments circulating now, the reader will have to turn to the new book from Workers’ Liberty, Socialism Makes Sense.