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Lee Jones on Yanis Varoufakis's "fantasy politics"


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Lee Jones, a reader in international politics at Queens College in London, writes a take-down of former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’s “fantasy” politics. While Jones is rather polemical (he seems to call for a “Lexit,” or for the left to take control of EU dismemberment) he has some good points about holes in Varoufakis’s thinking. Read Jones in partial below, in full via Jacobin.

It is not immediately obvious why anyone is still interested in the views of failed Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, but as leader of the transnational “Democracy in Europe” movement (DiEM25), he still seems to influence some on the European left. In his latest article, he reiterates his increasingly contradictory views on why progressive politics is supposedly incompatible with leaving the European Union.

To his credit, Varoufakis at least recognizes that progressives “have no alternative” but a “head-on clash with the EU establishment,” since the European Union simply cannot be reformed to make it more democratic. But, he nonetheless insists, leftists must not support referenda to leave the European Union.

He offers two confused reasons for this. First, since exit referenda are “movements that have been devised and led primarily by the Right,” it is “unlikely” that joining them “will help the Left block their opponents’ political ascendancy.”

This left defeatism is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Left refuses to lead exit referenda campaigns, of course the running will be left to the Right. And since the Left cannot convincingly defend the European Union, that leaves the Right to benefit.

Secondly, Varoufakis suggests that restoring national democracy will mean the end of the free movement of “workers.” “Given that the European Union has established free movement, Lexit involves acquiescence to — if not actual support for — the reestablishment of national border controls, complete with barbed wire and armed guards.”

Leaving aside the fact that left-wing leadership could theoretically persuade an electorate to accept open borders, this defence of the European Union is simply bizarre. The European Union is very far from “borderless” (his word). It has created free movement not for “workers,” but for EU citizens, albeit limited for the citizens from accession countries.

But for non-EU workers, the European Union has established Fortress Europe: “barbed wire and armed guards” surround the continent, resulting in thousands of dead Africans and Asians in the Mediterranean Sea, and hundreds of thousands more languishing in squalid conditions in southeast Europe (including Varoufakis’s own home country, Greece) and Turkey. Moreover, the migration crisis has led to the restoration of “barbed wire and armed guards” across the continent.

The idea that the European Union safeguards some sort of workers’ paradise of open borders against right-wing revanchism is ludicrous.

The destruction of democratic control over migration policy has simultaneously eroded its legitimacy and led political elites to evade winning consent for open borders. Far from fostering cosmopolitan sentiment, therefore, the European Union’s migration regime has fueled a right-wing backlash against open borders. This is why parochial populism is flourishing throughout Europe.

Varoufakis only cites two other EU “programs worth defending”: “climate change policies” and “the Erasmus program.” This is laughable. The European Union’s emissions trading system is widely understood to be a boon for industrial and finance capital while doing nothing to reduce carbon emissions. Meanwhile, Erasmus is not even an EU program; even if it was, a university year-abroad project is hardly a good reason to neutralize national democracy.

Varoufakis’s preferred option is “pan-European movement of civil and governmental disobedience.” He hopes that progressive governments can be elected and then refuse to implement “the EU’s unenforceable rules at the municipal, regional, and national levels while making no move whatsoever to leave.” The European Union will try to fine, threaten, and bully recalcitrant member states, but if the governments resist, the European Union will either be forced to change, or to “dismember” itself.

How exactly this is supposed to work is not specified. The European Union will “blink” and, as if by magic, “be transformed.” This would apparently preserve “the spirit of internationalism,” demand “pan-European action” and differentiate the Left from the “xenophobic right.” Varoufakis invokes Marx, Engels and Gramsci to reject those calling for the restoration of national-popular democracy, arguing for a “transnational republic.”

This is no more than a reheated version of Varoufakis’s disastrous “good EU” strategy, which led Greece’s Syriza government to utter defeat and its supporters to ruination.

*Image of Yanis Varoufakis via Marc Lozano / Flickr