Angela Merkel’s Legacy, European Politics & the “Sordid Arms Race”

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Source: Democracy Now!

The center-left Social Democratic Party in Germany has narrowly claimed victory in an election that marks an end to the 16-year era of Angela Merkel’s conservative chancellorship. We look at what this means for Europe and the world with Yanis Varoufakis, a member of the Greek Parliament and the former finance minister of Greece. The SDP’s narrow victory should be viewed critically, says Varoufakis, noting that the party “ruthlessly” practiced austerity in 2008 and 2009. “Not much has changed,” Varoufakis says. “It’s not as if an opposition party won.”

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to Germany, where the center-left Social Democratic Party narrowly claimed victory Sunday in an election that puts an end to the 16-year era of Angela Merkel’s conservative leadership. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democrats, won the second most votes, with the Green Party coming in third. Social Democrats will now have to form a ruling coalition, which could take weeks or possibly months. The SDP’s candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who positioned himself as a leader in the vein of Merkel during his campaign, vowed to tackle the climate crisis and modernize industry, he says.

Well, for more on what this means for Europe and the world, we’re joined in Greece by Yanis Varoufakis. He’s a member of the Greek Parliament, former finance minister of Greece who negotiated with Chancellor Merkel and international creditors in 2015, when they demanded harsh new austerity measures for a European bailout of Greece, largely at Merkel’s behest, although at some points Varoufakis was excluded from the negotiations. His latest piece for Jacobin is headlined “Angela Merkel Was Bad for Europe and the World.” His new book is called Another Now.

We welcome you back to Democracy Now!, Yanis. If you can first talk about what’s happened in Germany, what it means for Greece and for the world?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Well, it’s good to be back, Amy. Thank you.

Look, not much has changed. Let’s not hyperventilate about the great changes. Point number one: Angela Merkel was not defeated. She’s the first German chancellor in the postwar era that has not been defeated. She resigned. So, she is going home because she’s had enough. Point number one.

Point number two: The previous administrations, at least the last two, were administrations — the so-called grand coalitions between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, who now narrowly beat the Christian Democrats. So, it’s not as if [inaudible] Democrats are coming into government. They went into government. Olaf Scholz, who is going to be chancellor, if this coalition that he’s now concocting comes to fruition, he was finance minister until yesterday. So, let’s, you know, take down a few notches all the hype about the great changes that we’re going to see in Germany.

The other point, which is very important — two points, if I may, Amy, quickly, brief ones. Firstly, the austerity that hit our country here in Greece in 2010 was first practiced in 2009 — not to such an extent, but it was first practiced, put into place in Germany in 2009 — 2008, 2009, by the Social Democrats themselves. So it’s not as if the Social Democrats are an anti-austerity party. They were the inventors of austerity, and they practiced it ruthlessly in Germany.

And finally, the point I need to make is that whoever is in this government and whoever leads this government, this government is going to contain, for the first time since ages, the so-called Free Democratic — the Free Democrats of Germany, the FDP, which is a very strong, austerian, right-wing — libertarian even — party. And they are going to exact a pound of flesh from the Social Democrats or the Christian Democrats or the Greens, whoever joins them up. Their price for joining the government will be business as usual.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well ,Yanis Varoufakis, you have argued, in articles you published in the New Statesman and Jacobin, that Merkel’s austerity policies condemned Europe and Germany to decline. Could you expand on that?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Happily. Remember the Lehman Brothers and the great financial meltdown of 2008? Very soon after that, Angela Merkel found out, to her, you know, disbelief, that the German banks were also kaput, bankrupt. And so were the French banks. So were all the banks in the European Union, including the British ones. And they had to actually salvage them, like President Obama did in the United States, except that, unlike President Obama, the Europeans had given up on having a central bank, a national central bank. So they effected a cynical transfer of — instead of printing money, instead of having the Central Bank of Europe, the ECB, print the money, which is what Tim Geithner and Larry Summers and Barack Obama did in the United States — instead of doing that, they transferred their losses onto the shoulders of the weakest taxpayers, who were Greeks, you know, working-class Germans and so on. So you had socialism for the very few, for the bankers, and harsh austerity for everyone else — not just the Greeks, but the German workers, the French workers, the Slovak workers, the Portuguese workers, the Spanish workers.

Now, what happens when you do that? You know, the bankers have been refloated. They are constantly being given money that the Central Bank brings, eventually. And the masses are suffering and laboring under the yoke of austerity. Now, big business looks at the “little people” out there and says, “Oh, well, they will not be able to afford the equivalent of a German Tesla,” let’s say, so they don’t build one. They won’t invest. So investment is very low. Good quality jobs disappear. They are replaced by mini jobs, delivery jobs, you know, the gig economy. So you have discontent across Europe. You have low levels of investment in the places that are the richest, like Germany. And, of course, you have nonexistent investment in places like Greece.

This is what I said when I tried to make the point in the articles that you kindly mentioned, that Angela Merkel leaves the chancellery, the office of prime minister of Germany, much stronger than she inherited it, because of the crisis. She leaves Germany complete and replete and full of economic surpluses, of, you know, surplus money. But she also leaves it with low levels of investment and, effectively, condemned to be falling behind China and the United States when it comes to the things humanity and Europeans will be needing in the next few years, which is green energy, artificial intelligence, high-tech companies that can combine the green transition with some degree of shared prosperity.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about another issue that marks, I guess, Merkel’s legacy, is the issue of immigration. I mean, we’re seeing new images again, not just in the United States of Haitians and Central Americans at the border, but, once again, in Southern Europe, of 600 asylum seekers yesterday in one boat in Italy, a huge increase in those escaping from Africa and the Middle East, coming to Europe. Greece, obviously, has been dealing with this. But Merkel was distinguished among the leaders by initially welcoming hundreds of thousands of migrants into Germany, when other countries were trying to close their borders. Your sense of her legacy in terms of migration policy and how migration is affecting Europe, given the fact that these imperial powers keep waging wars, disrupting these countries, creating chaos, and then insisting that migrants cannot come into Europe?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Yes, you are so right. I mean, it was such a show of hypocrisy recently, when the Taliban moved into Kabul, and the liberal press in the United States, and then, of course, in the European Union, they were horrified by the sight of the Taliban taking over, and all these concerns about the liberal, progressive Afghans, especially women, and then, at the very same time, you know, our great and good leaders, the same ones who were lamenting the success of the Taliban, they started talking about raising the height of the fences that they’re building to turn Europe into fortress Europe — not one mention of letting the Afghan women that are being persecuted by the Taliban come in.

But going back to your question about Merkel’s legacy when it comes to immigration, look, there was a key word in your question. That was “initially.” Her initial response, in 2015, the summer of 2015, when the Syrian refugees came storming in, running away from the civil war in Syria — her initial response was great. I mean, I even tweeted that — and, you know, I’m not a political ally of Angela Merkel. I said in my tweet that I am proud to be European because of Angela Merkel, because she said, “Let them in.” My goodness! And she let 1 million people in. But then, immediately, her pragmatism kicks in. She is the leader of a conservative party that would — was about to eat her up alive, to put it blunt — not too bluntly, I hope. And within two weeks, she reversed course. So, that initial response shows that the woman is probably a very decent person. And, you know, all kudos to her. But within two weeks, she spoke to the Turkish president, Mr. Erdoğan, and together they concocted a travesty of a policy.

Effectively, the European Union, under Merkel’s guidance, bribed, with a few billion euros, the president of Turkey, the Turkish government, to allow the European Union to violate international law, not to allow refugees. You know, refugees, on these ramshackle boats that end up on Lesbos, the Greek islands — right? — here, they really don’t have the right to seek asylum, because Merkel and Erdoğan agreed, years ago, with the approval of my former comrades in this government, after I resigned, the French, the Italians and so on — they agreed that Turkey is a safe country, and therefore, no refugees from Syria, from Afghanistan, from wherever, has the right, the automatic right, to file an application for a refugee status, even if they’ve been tortured. You know, this is absolutely preposterous. So, you have the initial reaction, which was good, and then you have what has been happening over the last few years.

Let me give you some — a piece of information which I think is significant. Last week, two weeks ago, a concentration camp, a prison camp, was built with European Union money, as part of the Merkel legacy, on the island of Samos. Now, on the one hand, you have those who are waxing lyrical about it, because those refugees that used to live in tents, and they would — you know, tents that would be washed away whenever there was a wintery storm or rain, heavy rain falling — you know, suddenly, they had decent dwellings. They even had a restaurant, and they had Wi-Fi. But what they forget to mention is that there is also barbed wire surrounding them. So these people can stay in there for years for having committed the crime of coming to Europe to seek refugee status.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Yanis Varoufakis, you’re speaking to us from a Greek island, and so we’re having a little trouble with the Skype. But thank you all for bearing with us. You tweeted on Tuesday, “At a time when the US& France are competing on which of the two will undermine Peace in the Pacific more effectively, the Greek PM is pushing Greece further into debt bondage by purchasing French frigates–with a nod from Biden so as to placate Macron. Greece deserves better!” And, of course, talking about AUKUS, this new military alliance to marginalize China, many are asking if it’s Biden who is really creating a new cold war with China. He makes a deal with the U.K. and Australia for — it was a deal, $65 billion, nuclear-powered subs. And this cut France out. They felt stabbed in the back. So now France is making a deal with Greece, further militarizing the world. Your thoughts?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: I am ever so depressed by this. You know, we are not learning any lessons from the past. You put it quite rightly. There is a sordid arms race, arms deal race, happening in the Pacific. So, you know, the French want to make some money out of the Australians by selling them submarines. The Americans come in, and they cut the French out of the deal. The French get seriously peeved. All this is happening, supposedly, in order to increase security in the Pacific. It is doing exactly the opposite, because the Chinese are simply going to respond to this arms race by just upping the ante, building more of their own nuclear subs.

The nuclear subs are a waste in any case. Now, you know, we live in a technological world where we have transparent oceans. These old-fashioned nuclear submarines are neither here nor there. They are not increasing security. If they increase anything, it is insecurity.

But there’s a lot of money to be made, by the French, who want to sell them, by the American government, who wants to make sure that their mates that are producing these nuclear subs get the deals from Australia. And Macron is stabbed. And then, sadly, President Biden decides to throw him a few morsels of bread in order to pacify him. And that is to give the green light to the Greek prime minister to buy three or four frigates from the French government, which — exactly what are they going to contribute to our security? Yes, we do have a problem with Turkey. We have a recalcitrant Turkey. We have a Turkish regime that traditionally proves imperialist or acts imperialistically when it wants to solidify its own foundering base within Turkey, because it is a dictatorship, and our Turkish comrades, Turkish democratic comrades, are suffering under it. So, whenever the Turkish government feels unsafe, it creates tensions in the Aegean. But how exactly is this going to help? By “this,” I mean a few more high-tech frigates that Greece is going to buy from France — using what? More debt.

You mentioned that, you know, I was a finance minister at the height of the Greek debt crisis. Well, let me restate it for the record, that, back then, when every newspaper in the world, including in the United States, was covered with articles about the Greek crisis, our debt-to-GDP ratio was something like 170%, 150%, 170%. Right? One-and-a-half times our national income. Today it’s more than twice. It’s 210%, 212%. And still they are borrowing more money from the Europeans to buy European frigates to pacify Macron in terms of what he lost in the Pacific, while both the Pacific and the Aegean oceans and seas are becoming less secure and more prone to conflicts that will only have victims amongst the working classes of China, of Australia, of the United States, of Greece, of Turkey, of France and Germany.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Yanis, if you can say why you called your new book Another Now?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Because I’m a leftist. And we leftists have a problem, Amy, especially those of us who declare to be critical of capitalism or against capitalism, because the obvious question that then comes or is thrown at us is — and it’s a fair question — “Mate, if you don’t like capitalism, what’s the alternative? How could we have organized society — the economy, polity, the whole thing — differently without capitalism?” So I decided to write a novel, a science fiction novel, a political science fiction novel, in which I imagine that the 2008 great financial collapse led to not just Occupy Wall Street, but to a global movement that, with some degree of realism, built another now.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to ask you to stay so we can have a further conversation about Another Now and post it at democracynow.org. Yanis Varoufakis, member of the Greek Parliament, former finance minister of Greece. His latest piece for Jacobin, we’ll link to, “Angela Merkel Was Bad for Europe and the World.” His new book is titled Another Now.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We’re joined now for Part 2 of our interview with Yanis Varoufakis, member of the Greek Parliament, former finance minister of Greece. We spoke with him about the outcome of the German elections in the first part of our interview. His latest piece for Jacobin, “Angela Merkel Was Bad for Europe and the World.” He’s also a professor of economics. But he’s written a novel. It’s his new book. It is called Another Now.

Yanis Varoufakis, thank you for staying with us. Start off with that title, Another Now.

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: All my life as a lefty, I had to find ways of escaping the poignant question: “Mate, if you don’t like capitalism, what’s the alternative? How could the system work differently? Labor markets, companies, land use, housing, foreign trade — how would it all work if people like you could reshape the world?” And I have to admit that this is a question that most socialists, like myself, whenever we heard it, we run for cover, because it’s a very difficult question to answer. You can’t possibly even begin to imagine that the Soviet Union is a good model for what we need here now. It was a gulag. I would be the first one to end up in the gulag. I always knew that. So it was a question that, for a long time, I avoided by concentrating on criticizing capitalism.

And, you know, now I’m 60, Amy, and I decided that it’s time to put my money where my mouth is. But, you know, sitting down to write a treatise of how would markets work, how would this work and so on, was just too boring to do. So I decided I’m going to write a novel, because, you see, when you have a novel, you have characters. And when you have characters, you can put different ideas — your own ideas, different ideas, because I have conflicting ideas in my head, about how a democratic, socialist, liberal, market society should be like — so I put different ideas into different characters, and I let them fight it out.

And I created — I used the medium of science fiction in order to imagine what would have happened in 2008 if a transnational, international technorebellion took place. How could we transform capitalism, overcome capitalism, replace it with a thoroughly democratized economy? And, you know, how could it come to be? And what would it be like? So, there you are. I would have created another now by the end of writing this novel, I thought, and that’s what I hope I have done.

AMY GOODMAN: So, and you’ve done it brilliantly. Tell us the story of Costa, your main character, a brilliant but deeply disillusioned computer engineer.

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Well, by the way, can I break some news to you? Costa is based on a real person. He’s also called Costa, and he — I hope he’s not listening to me now. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is a high-tech freak. He’s a great friend of mine, so I’m allowed to say that. He’s a Cretan, a Greek from Crete, who studied electrical engineering, computing science in Germany, who worked designing, initially, missile systems and then had a massive existential crisis and gave this up. And then he concentrated on designing bionic ears — not bionic eyes, as I have it in the book.

But he represents — from where I’m standing, he represents the early and defeated hope that digital technologies — the internet, all these fantastic digital contraptions and technology — would liberate us. It’s, we know, one variety of defeated modernity, right? Another one is the Marxist left, who thought that, you know, we would rise up and storm the winter castle, and then we would bring about the good society. We didn’t. We brought about the gulag. Costa is the techie who gets very excited by technology, until he realizes what Big Tech and capitalism does with them. So he becomes utterly disillusioned and finds a way of making a lot of money for himself in order to find ways of channeling his creativity to projects that will help liberate us from, you know, the illusions that consumerism and capitalism implant into our minds.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Yanis, tell us about his journey to England and the women he meets up there.

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: So, there are three main characters. Costa, the tech-savvy tech evangelist who turns technophobe, because he sees what Big Tech does, what capitalism does with big technology. And then there is a neoliberal, mainstream economics professor who used to work for Wall Street, until 2008. She got burned in 2008. Then she became a professor in the United, and then in England. And she represents the other variant — sorry, I’ll say that again. And she represents the other variant of modernity, which is the neoliberal one, because the neoliberals also believe in progress. They believe that if you do away with the state, if you let the state wither and you enable markets to do their thing, to perform their miracle, everybody’s going to become better off, and everybody’s going to become free. This is another variety of modernity, the idea that reason and rationality will triumph. And that crashed and burned in 2008, as we know, when Wall Street came down, and then we had socialism for the bankers and harsh austerity for everyone else. So, that’s Eva. And then there’s Iris, the Marxist feminist, very radical Marxist feminist. She doesn’t like Marxism, she doesn’t like feminism, because she thinks that all these projects, in the end, generate different kinds of oppressions amongst comrades. So, she represents the left-wing variety, variant, of modernity.

And they all meet together. And an accident that takes place in one of the contraptions that Costa has concocted, has invented, allows them to glimpse at, through a wormhole, at an alternative trajectory of the time-space continuum. The idea here is that, in 2008, the crisis was so great — I like to imagine that — that the time-space continuum split in two: the one we live on, where capitalism survived and used central banks and Big Tech and so on in order to solidify the power of the very few, but there was another trajectory where, you know, the Occupy Wall Street kind of movement, using financial engineering, using mass digital strikes, mass trade union activity and so on, overthrew capitalism and created something much better. So, those three characters can see through this wormhole. They can get glimpses of what that alternative now is like. And they get to debate it and to really have huge arguments against one another —

AMY GOODMAN: The other now.

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: — about its merits. The other now.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, as you reflect both on your fictional writing, creating the other now, and what your job was before, as finance minister, was it strange working with fictitious capital and then turning to fiction to express your worldview?

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: It’s weird and wonderful, because, let’s face it, capitalism is based on fictitious capital. You heard the other day that the International Monetary Fund created $650 billion worth of something called SDRs. What’s that? It’s fictional, fictitious capital. It’s the money tree. When the Fed creates money, that’s fictional money, fictitious money. But, of course, it’s very powerful, because those who get it, those who receive it — and it’s usually the Bank of America, Citibank, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs — then they give it to their mates in Apple, Google, Exxon and so on, and that gives them enormous power over the rest of us. So, it’s fictional or fictitious capital, which has a real impact in the distribution of power, of who gets to order other people around. That’s what politics boils down to, and that’s what economics boils down to: the power to make other people do that which is in your own interest. That’s how capitalism works.

So, I tried to imagine: Is there a way that we could, as a species, as humanity, harness the power of humanity to create fictitious capital, for the many, not for the view, to put it in — to put it in the service of organizations like FreeSpeech.org, cooperatives, social enterprises, where everyone has one vote, because everybody has one share, because this is what you do? You have corporations, you have companies, you have media companies, and you have factories, operating along the lines of a college, where, you know, when you enroll in college, you get a library card. You can’t sell it. You can’t rent it. You can’t lease it. You can’t speculate on it. But it gives you power. It gives you the power to borrow books. It gives you the power to enter the computer system of the college.

Imagine if shares were like that. Suddenly, yes, we would have corporations. We’d have freedom. We have would have competition. But we wouldn’t have labor markets, because everybody would share the profits, not necessarily equally, but even the inequality, the bonuses that are given, could be decided democratically on the basis of one person, one share, one vote. Then you do away with Wall Street, because there would be no share market, because, you know, shares will not be tradable.

So, if you allow your realistic fantasy, your realistic imagination, to take it further, there is a possibility. And that’s what I’m trying to do with Another Now, to dissolve the toxic dogma of TINA, that “there is no alternative,” because, astonishingly, there is always an alternative.

AMY GOODMAN: Yanis, I wanted to ask you about the organization you formed with Senator Bernie Sanders, who has become extremely powerful in the Senate. For many years, people would have thought that would be another now. But it happened. He is the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. And I’m wondering if you can talk about the vision the two of you have, not just for the United States — and what it’s like for you to see him operate in the United States — but throughout Europe and around the world.

YANIS VAROUFAKIS: The vision was really very, very simple. After 2008, the bankers of the world united, forming a bankers’ international. And they got the G7 to bankroll them and, effectively, to cover for all their huge losses after 2008 by getting the central banks of the world to print enough money to give them. That’s how they bailed them out. So there is a bankers’ international. The result, we can see everywhere, from Seattle all the way to Missouri, and, you know, from New York all the way to India and to, you know, to sub-Saharan Africa and to the European Union: austerity for the many and socialism for the very few.

Soon after that, the discontent that the bankers’ international created fed into right-wing, xenophobic populism. And they internationalized. You know, Donald Trump, Prime Minister Modi of India, Bolsonaro in Brazil, all the neofascists in Europe, they loved each other — the Brexiteers, the right-wing Brexiteers in Britain. And they collaborated magnificently. So there was a nationalist or ultranationalist international — which is a contradiction, but it’s not really, because they cooperate. The only people who never manage to get together and collaborate are the progressives.

So, this is what, you know, Bernie and I said in Vermont in November 2018, that it’s about time. And we called upon people of the Earth to collaborate in the context of a Progressive International. Now, then Bernie had, of course, to run for president. And he did very well, and we all supported him. And I’m very pleased that he has taken up the opportunity that Biden has given him to try to push the American Senate in a progressive direction. At some point he’s going to be eaten alive by this regime, but it’s good that he’s trying. The rest of us are putting together and they are realizing that vision of the Progressive International.

And let me give you an example. During Black Friday, last December, we organized a unique industrial action. We called it #MakeAmazonPay, in support of workers that are exploited, both in terms of low pay but also in terms of the automation of their bodies through the machinery that Amazon uses in its warehouses — [inaudible] humans, without humanizing the robots. So, we had this rolling strike in Amazon warehouses that was called and organized by the Progressive International. It started in Bangladesh. On the same day, it rolled into India. Then it went to Germany. Then it went to New Jersey. Then it went to Seattle. This is the kind of thing we’re doing.

We now have an organization comprising different trade unions and climate activists around the world, and so on, and antiwar movements. We have about 200 million people that are, through their organizations, participating in the Progressive International. You know, we’re trying to make this work in the way that the bankers and the fascists have completely made it clear we need to move, to internationalize, because it’s the only way of fighting them.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Yanis Varoufakis, I want to thank you so much for being with us, member of the Greek Parliament, former finance minister of Greece. His new book is a novel. It’s titled Another Now. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

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