The unique background of Europe’s most exciting politician is both an asset and an obstacle in performing his own Mission Impossible.
Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s finance minister, is the ultimate outsider. Cut from a cloth different to a Continental tradition where politicians long ago abandoned themselves to navy-blue conformity, Varoufakis’ headline-making sartorial choices and subversive recommendations on how to deal with eurozone debt have inspired rock star levels of adulation among his fans.
From naming a cocktail after him (the Varoufunky), to a Facebook page (V for Varoufakis), the irreverent, shaven-headed, motorbike-riding academic’s arrival is being viewed in Greece and abroad in almost messianic terms by three disillusioned generations searching for salvation from political and economic extinction.
But if those who voted for Syriza think its finance minister will negotiate a solution reversing the cutbacks dictated by austerity and engineering a return to a pre-crisis Arcadia, they need to examine his background and beliefs better.
Varoufakis is different, even from Syriza head Alexis Tsipras who, despite upsetting the hegemonic families ruling Greek politics, is no newcomer.
In a country which until last month was ruled by three political families and their related patronage networks, Varoufakis is the very definition of an outsider; an aspiring professional volleyballer-turned-economist who left Greece at age 17 for 23 years in the world of Anglo-Saxon academia.
He fled a decade in Thatcherite England for 12 years in Australia, and moved once more when conservative politician John Howard assumed power there.
Two years at the University of Austin polished off the crafting of a global citizen, as alien to contemporary Greece’s introverted, entangled political and business elites as could be. Unlike those Greeks who stayed behind and participated – willingly or not – in Greece’s stultifying patronage networks, Varoufakis is a self-made man.
He is also a kind of Greek largely eclipsed from the international stage since the 1960s; polyglot, adventurous, and hailing from a lively and vibrant Greek diaspora before it solidified into small-minded communities nurturing a parochial definition of Hellenism fossilised sometime circa 1950. Varoufakis’ father was born and grew up in Cairo’s fabled Greek community, directs a major Greek metallurgical interest, and maintains an interest in Hellenistic civilisation on the Mediterranean seaboard.
The son he brought up contrasts to the kind of citizen that the conservative establishment of post-civil war Greece encouraged; obedient, conservative, and conditioned to think of adventure less as an escapade of 'opportunism'.
The son he brought up contrasts to the kind of citizen that the conservative establishment of post-civil war Greece encouraged; obedient, conservative, and conditioned to think of adventure less as an escapade of “opportunism”.
Unlike Europe’s buttoned-up establishment politicians, Varoufakis is refreshingly candid about his beliefs. An embarrassment of television and print interviews, articles and mini-documentaries trace his intellectual development over the past 20 years.
In this 1993 interview, he is remarkably clear-sighted about the direction his country was to take under the stewardship of its existing political class.
“There is the conventional belief in Greece that all we have to do is wait for these people to pass away and then a generation of young people with new ideas will emerge,” he said.
“I happen to be of the view that we will not necessarily see a greater vision by the younger generation. If you look very closely at the younger generation, at all parties – the Communists, the Socialists and the right wing – I don’t think you see an enormous amount of talent there.”
As proved to be the case. Varoufakis returned to Greece in 2000.
One Turkish friend pointed out that his return was greeted with the same kind of anticipation offered by Turks to Kemal Dervis when he arrived in bankrupted Turkey to engineer its economic recovery, but that unlike the “utterly westernised” Dervis who “held no organic connection to society”, Varoufakis appears rooted in Greece despite his long absences.
Nevertheless, Varoufakis was frustrated, and by 2012 was in Seattle composing an article titled: “Why I’m absent.” His second departure from Greece followed his frustrated attempts to set up an elite PhD programme in Economics which resulted in a “war waged against me for expressing my views” and “the collapse at the university of all in which I had invested for a decade”. It got to the point where Varoufakis was faced with the choice of either becoming a politician in order to engineer change, or leave Greece. He took the latter option.
Despite starting to read Marx aged just 11, during the heady days of the collapse of the generals’ Junta and restitution of democracy, Varoufakis is a left-leaning Keynesian who believes that capitalism must be saved from itself if Europe is to avoid a deeper shift to the far right.
He considers capitalism to have reached its “bankruptocracy” stage, and austerity to be as unlikely a solution to the crisis as democracy was to post-invasion Iraq. In one talk, he attributes “Why send out murderers when we can employ bailiffs?” to Bertold Brecht, then asks: “Why send out the Wehrmacht when you can have monthly Troika visits in Dublin and Portugal?”
In another article, the film buff uses the arthouse film, The Double Life of Veronique, as a vehicle to explain why the mystical bond between two women inhabiting opposite corners of Europe would be shattered in a Eurified Europe where everything, even culture, is commoditised.
“Indeed, Veronique would probably be worried that Weronika might move to Paris and take her … job,” he quips.
Varoufakis seems to hail from another Hellenism, the one defeated at the end of the 19th century when politics and circumstance conspired to ensure that the Hellas that entered the 20th century was narrowly defined by national borders, rather than the spread-out Greek-speaking cosmopolitanisms of North Africa, the Levant and Anatolia.
Always a protectorate of the West, modern Greece was trapped by small-minded nationalisms (including its vendetta with post-Ottoman Turkey), resulting in the homogeneous and small-minded parochialisms from which the Golden Dawn impulse springs today.
Now, Varoufakis has come home to serve his country. The result is already proving as awkward and explosive as might have been expected.
The criticism unleashed against him in social and mainstream media is as passionate as the adulation expressed by a young, internationally-minded constituency who voted for Syriza because they were sick of their ambitions bumping up against a glass ceiling, whether that imposed by the previous political class or by the Troika’s austerity measures.
Varoufakis will struggle to keep everyone satisfied, not least those who benefited from the deceased patronage system, find themselves unemployed today and whose life trajectories were as timid and conventional as his was bold and risk-taking. Perhaps it was not by chance that, as he took the oath to serve the Greek people, an involuntary grimace streaked across his face.
Iason Athanasiadis is a photojournalist who covers the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.