This is Yanis Varoufakis’ talk held at the 6th Annual Shakespeare Rose Lecture, 19th March 2018, Rose Theatre, Kingston
Since brevity is, indeed, the soul of wit, let me begin by stating the obvious: I am as qualified to deliver an annual Shakespeare lecture in this splendid theatre as an ant that walks in wonder on an iPhone is able to explain the mystery that goes on under its feet. When Professor Richard Wilson approached me out of the blue, during some political event in London, with the bewildering proposal that I appear before you tonight to talk about Shakespeare I was simultaneously flattered and incredulous. “But, Richard”, I protested “I am as far from being a Shakespeare scholar as anyone can possibly be.” Richard retorted that it is because, rather than in spite, of my not being a Shakespeare scholar that he thought I was a good fit, going on to recite – to my amazement – a long string of references I had made in books and speeches to the Bard’s lines, plays and plots.
The immediate thought that came to mind was that dropping Shakespearian quotes is often the last resort of the uninspired scoundrel and most certainly an insufficient qualification for delivering tonight’s talk. But, on top or just below the surface of that thought came the remembrance of something that gave me pause – and made me, within a minute or so, accept Richard’s kind invitation. What was this something? It was the memory of what a tremendous import drama in general and Shakespeare in particular had made to the development of my thinking about our troubled world while in geographical and cultural transit from my native Greece to England.
Arriving at the University of Essex as a 17 year old in the Fall of 1978, a few months before the Winter of Discontent, I faced two immediate challenges. The first was the sense of impotence at the realisation that, while my English was passable, by leaving Greece I had lost the capacity to persuade; a capacity which I had worked hard to acquire in my own tongue as a politicised teenager during the course of a fascist dictatorship’s reign and after its collapse in the summer of 1974. The second challenge was how to take seriously my economics lecturers whose narratives of what makes societies tick seemed to me at once technically fascinating and utterly unfit to illuminate human economies. Shakespeare became my aide and counsel in the attempt to face both challenges.
While finding my feet here in England, I recalled how my Greek had improved through exposure to ancient Greek drama, how Antigone’s and Prometheus’ dilemmas had informed my politics and, yes, the resonance I felt when reading a copy of Hamlet that my father had lying about in our living room – a splendid modern Greek translation that pushed the boundaries of demotic Greek to limits usually reserved for original texts. Back then, in Athens, I had become intrigued with Jean Paul Sartre’s Marxist existentialism and was overjoyed to encounter the Prince’s existentialist angst without the tedium and obfuscation of French philosophy. And so it was that, weeks after arriving in this country, I invested in a cheap edition of Shakespeare’s collected works. The original motive was, I confess, instrumental: I was dying to improve my English so as to elevate my powers of persuasion in a new environment where, as I declared in a students’ union assembly, “We Greeks, perhaps along with the Irish, are the blacks of Europe”. Nevertheless, very, very soon I realised that Shakespeare’s plays could also shore up my courage to confront my economics textbooks and lecturers – indeed to look at them with a combination of sympathy and pity, before switching degrees from economics to mathematics. (Why stick to third-rate mathematics, which is a fair assessment of mainstream economics, when one can read mathematics-proper and, in one’s spare time, read the classic works of political economy that modern Universities, to their detriment, never teach anyway?) Thus, during my undergraduate years I spent my spare time immersed in two splendid Anglo-Celtic traditions:
On the one hand, there were the beautiful classic texts of David Hume, Adam Smith, Alfred Marshall and John Maynard Keynes. And on the other hand, the Bard. The contrast was astonishing. Searching for the roots of contemporary economic thinking, I hit upon David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. In it I discovered a striking axiom: “We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Our acts, in other words, spring naturally from our passions with Reason playing the role of a pair of impartial scales weighing up the passions and instructing us to act in a manner that serves the mightiest of them all, with no capacity whatsoever to trump any passion as irrational or wrong. Our sense of right and wrong is, in Hume’s thinking, an illusion, albeit a terribly useful one. For Hume, a convention emerges that we ride our horses on the left hand side of the road simply because if no such convention prevails we shall keep bumping into one another. Then, without realising it, the prediction that the next rider we come across will keep left becomes transformed into a normative belief that the next rider ought to keep left. Soon we believe deeply that riders who do not keep left are… morally defective! Having acquired this moral veneer, having become an ‘artificial virtue’ (Hume’s term), the convention becomes evolutionarily more stable when we are morally outraged whenever someone violates it. Thus conflict is minimised and, eventually, the convention turns into Common Law. Adam Smith, Hume’s disciple, took matters further in establishing an economic theory in defence of the market societies that were emerging then and which prevail to this day – capitalism in one word: Have you noticed how economists defend free-market capitalism as the best antidote to the inevitability of human belligerence? It is this pessimistic take on human nature that lies behind the celebration of markets as realms in which, as Adam Smith claimed, the common good is best served as long as people have no interest in serving the common good, too busy pursuing their private passions relentlessly. Provided markets are allowed to work without interference, harsh forces of demand and supply motivated by our greed power up an invisible hand which, behind our backs, harnesses our vices and channels our energies to serve the common good. Celebrating the selfish entrepreneur, Adam Smith wrote in the Wealth of Nations: “By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.” Private vices, in short, lead to public virtues as long as Hume’s sacralised conventions provide the legal framework. But they do so as long as we are motivated not by public virtues but, instead, by our private vices. Paradoxically, conflict driven by selfishness is at once the guarantor that market societies work harmoniously and the cause of its own demise.
To a young, leftist Greek, reading the British political economists from the original was at once enthralling and deeply dissatisfying. I could see that their argument was intriguing, superb and packed the mighty punch that only paradox can deliver. But in my bones I knew they had utterly missed the point about human nature the moment they assumed, along with Hume, that Reason is a mere slave of passions which, after Jeremy Bentham had finished with them, had boiled down to a single passion: a passion for a uni-dimensional thing called satisfaction or utility. Thankfully, the excited anger I felt at these brilliant political economists found an outlet. Theatre in general, and Shakespeare in particular, were my solace and the support mechanism that quelled my anger. “Unity, however desirable in political agitations”, I remember reading from a preface George Bernard Shaw wrote to one of his plays, “is fatal to drama.” No conflict no drama. “And without drama human reason atrophies”, I wrote on the margin. “The quintessential drama”, continued Shaw, is “at its best in conflict with the first broken, nervous attempts to formulate its own revolt against itself as it develops into something higher.” “That’s it!”, I surmised. That’s what is missing in Hume, in Smith and, much more so, in the infinitely inferior modern economics textbooks: the creative power of conflict without which human reasoning cannot rise higher, above that of cats, dogs and computers who also possess an instrumental Reason, a Reason that is the slave of their passion, their programming; a Reason lacking the ability to ask itself the hard question: “I crave X. I am programmed to crave X. But should I crave X?” The very question that is at the heart of the ancient Greek tragedies and, of course, Shakespeare.
Every time I felt exasperated by political economy’s sad depiction of humanity I would turn to my, by now, tattered Shakespeare volume. And when I was ready to put together my first single-authored book, under the telling title Rational Conflict, published eventually by Blackwell’s in 1991, I turned it into a battleground on which Shakespeare, Aeschylus and Sophocles clashed mercilessly with the economists’ army of assumptions and models. In the Preface I wrote that, while a world without conflict is a laudable objective, unless we understand the creative function of conflict in helping to fashion the individual and shape society, a conflict-free utopia will move further away as our grasp of our present circumstances, which engender hideous conflicts, remain incomplete. Of course, there is no doubt that, at times, we all wish that our Reason became Sovereign leading, with the help of the invisible hand of unintended consequences, to a benign equilibrium which negates conflict. Enlisting Hamlet to make the point that he put to Horatio, I quoted:
…and bless’d are those/ Whose blood and judgement are so well comingled,/ That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger/ To sound what stop she pleases. Give me that man/ That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him/ In my heart’s core, oy, in my heart of heart,/ As I do thee (Act III, ii, 73)
And there’s the rub, which economists cannot recognise: How to comingle our blood and judgment without being our passion’s slave. Economists love to think of themselves as the scientists of society. In that book I angered my profession by arguing that economists are merely storytellers. Indeed, we tell meta-stories, stories about stories (also called social theories) the purpose of which is to help us understand a social world that is constantly under construction around us, and within which we are both active contributors and incessant interpreters. Incapable of a genuine Archimedean perspective, from which to judge simultaneously both our world and our account of it, we resort to analysing and re-analysing the sort of stories we tell ourselves about our selves. In a chapter entitled “The economist as playwright” I asked the question: Can good theatre be written without violating the axioms of economics? And if it can’t is this proof that theatre has little to teach us about economic life or, more plausibly, that economics misses the essence of society – thus explaining how a smart woman like Margaret Thatcher could have concluded, once she immersed herself into neoliberal economics, that there is no such thing as society – only individuals doing what they like and liking what they do?
How did Macbeth, I asked, choose his path after having listened to the witches’ prophecy that he will become King of Scotland? If his choices were predetermined, the play becomes processional and… boring. But could an economist ever conceptualise Macbeth’s choices as genuinely hard and ex ante indeterminate? Recall that for economists we are all bargain hunters incapable of resisting anything that will increase our net expected utility gains by a smidgen of an iota. We only hesitate in front of equally profitable options. So, for Macbeth to hesitate before plunging his dagger into Duncan’s sleeping body, his expected gains from committing and not committing the first crime in the Scottish play must have been equal. But then how did he, in the end, choose? The only answer an economist can give without abandoning her theoretical take is by imagining that he decided by tossing a coin. And similarly with Sophocles’ depiction of Antigone’s impossibly hard choice to burry or not to burry her fallen brother; to respect the rule of law or to follow her conviction that a higher, an ethical law, compelled her to break her state’s law. My conclusion was simple: If Macbeth and Antigone, Shakespeare and Sophocles, made these choices as if by randomising, the resulting plays would have been confined long ago to the dustbin of cultural history. And this tells us that there is something profoundly amiss with the economists’ logic. But what exactly is it that is amiss?
It is, I continued, the possibility that a rational person, unlike any cat, dog or computer algorithm, has the capacity to defy the programming that nature and nurture has hardwired into her mind. Unlike any android or animal, Macbeth and Antigone can defy their dominant strategy for rational reasons external to their calculus of utility, passion, preference or desire. They can reason in ways that Hume and the economists would never concede. Even if we rarely rise to the occasion, even if we live life mostly as automata, the very fact that we can, with good reason, potentially deviate from the path that would ostensibly best serve our existing passions and preferences is what makes us human – and plays like Macbeth and Antigone timeless. With this capacity in the air, the audience, on the edge of their seats, suddenly expect the unexpected at every moment because ‘uniqueness’ no longer guarantees determinism. They anticipate dramatic choices not only when the alternatives are equally inviting for the characters but even when they are not!
On this account, Aeschylus raised Prometheus from the obscurity and banality of the Hesiodic tale by empowering him to experiment with a subversive, a deviant act whose merits escape anyone motivated solely by the question: “What’s in it for me?” Of course, other more cynical interpretations are always available. Prometheus could simply be suffering from imperfect information; failing to predict the punishment Zeus would inflict on him for giving humanity the gift of fire, of technology. Even worse, Prometheus could have enjoyed martyrdom, in a masochistic sort of way, or might have cared for his heroic profile enough to think of the ensuing, interminable pain a reasonable price to pay – a form of investment. However, these interpretations cheapen the character created by Aeschylus. No tragedy is worth its salt if it is based on the exploits of a hero who simply miscalculated or who unexpectedly learnt how to derive masochistic pleasures when things turned out differently to his original plan.
These musings gradually culminated, toward the end of my book, to the conclusion that high theatre, just like free will, is impossible without radical indeterminacy. But even if we agree that indeterminacy is a prerequisite for a good play, it is not enough. Something must help us understand the manner in which the protagonist eventually dissolves the indeterminacy and chooses her actions. And that something better not be a randomisation, the tossing of a coin. We may never be able to put our finger on it but, and this is the stuff of good theatre, as the drama unfolds we recognise the reasons that led her to the deviant actions. Macbeth adds crime to crime, as a result of successive choices that he ‘fell’ into when ‘murder’ was one of several options. He then emerges defeated while simultaneously victorious. Powerless while fully in power, and more powerful than ever in defeat! When he achieves clarity toward the play’s end, he tells us that he wished his ‘beliefs’ were expunged:
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d,/ Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,/ Raze out the written troubles of the brain,/ And with some sweet oblivious antidote/ Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff/ Which weighs upon the heart (Macbeth, V,iii,40-44)
But at the same time when forced to choose between a dignified and a humiliating death he re-discovers his dignity:
…Lay on Macduff,/ And damn’d be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’ (Macbeth, V,vii,62-3)
The economist, I argued, can only see in Macbeth an irrational agent who miscalculated or who was imperfectly informed. What they ignore purposely is the absurdity of their axiom that Macbeth’s motivation, his personality, determines unidirectionally his choices. They need to make this assumption because, once choice contaminates motivation, motivation cannot fully determine the choice. Indeterminacy is, therefore, irrepressible not just as the stuff of good theatre but also as a prerequisite for human development and a decent understanding of economic life. Here is where I must introduce another Greek word, praxis, which I shall juxtapose against its English equivalent: action or choice. The difference of praxis, in the ancient Greek meaning, from a mere act or choice is the potential to generate not only events but also to re-shape the actor, the decision-maker, the doer. The importance of praxis for deciding what kind of theatre and economics we want is not hard to discern: Macbeth’s tragedy is not so much about his fate and final destruction, not about the outcome per se, as it is about the transformation of his self through praxes – a transformation that the theoretical economist cannot concede without losing a capacity to solve her models and to deliver economic forecasts. Even sophisticated economics, that takes a Darwinian view and depicts behaviours as memes that adapt and mutate, can only solve their model if these ‘mutations’, our deviant actions, are statistically uncorrelated ‘mutations’ – in other words, actions which, unlike praxes, cannot be causally linked to the evolution of character.
If we are to make room for a proper two-way process, from self to action and from action to self (the process that I call praxis), theatre regains its potency and meaning while the models economists teach in our universities collapse into a heap. Why? Because no mathematical model of behaviour can be solved if it allows for this two-way street, where motives beget actions and actions alter the motives. This backwards and forwards between motives and actions renders the models indeterminate – something like a system of two equations in more than two unknowns. Still, praxis is the very essence of good plays like Antigone and Macbeth where acts flow from motives but then shape who they truly are. The great danger here is that we go from the extreme of the economists’ determinism to a relativism which, while acknowledging indeterminacy, portrays Macbeth’s actions as arbitrary and non-rational – as a postmodern agent for whom any behaviour is as good as any other. The essence of good theatre, and good economics, I tried to convince my readers and students, is the possibility of having a complete, modernist, riveting script without determinism. The key is the admittance into the plot of twists that defy the protagonists’ ostensibly most profitable, their optimal strategy, and in so doing capture the audience’s imagination while explaining how history accelerates when humans rationally defy, in today’s parlance, their own software. It is only when characters who reasonably and purposely deviate from some uniquely attractive choice that we learn something momentous about both the said characters and the human condition – for example Prometheus’ theft of fire on behalf of humanity or Brutus’ decision to put the Republic above his friendship with Julius Caesar. The question, then, becomes: Where does the rationality of deviant behaviour come from if not from the calculus of desire or the Humean balancing act between competing passions? The difference, I submit, between a hero and a rational lunatic is elusive when the reasons supporting an action are strictly internal to one’s passions, desires, preferences. If Prometheus had reasons for serving humanity exclusively internal to his passions, or Brutus was a personal gratification maximiser who computed that his inter-temporal net utility was maximised by murdering Caesar, their choices would not be dissimilar to those of a terrorist who blows himself up in a crowded square calculating that his expected net gains from martyrdom in Heaven outweigh the damage he is about to inflict on Earth. Indeed, toning down the drama, let’s for a moment think of the difference between a kleptomaniac and a shoplifter. The kleptomaniac acts on pathological reasons external to any Humean calculus of passions or desire. The shoplifter on the other hand is a calculating agent acting on internal reasons. The question is: Unlike in the case of the kleptomaniac who is incapable of rational control over of his external reasons for action, can external reasons be marshalled by a rational will? Prometheus and other heroic figures may only be different from fanatics to the extent that they choose rationally to ignore what passes through the Humean gate of instrumental reasoning. They act upon principles of what is right that set aside as irrelevant their passions or any prospective satisfaction from their action. Of course, every sword is double-edged. Richard the Third gate-crushes this discussion of rational heroes because he too struggles to will himself to actions underpinned by reasons external to his calculus of preference. Except that he wills himself to be evil! Perhaps Shakespeare’s most precious lesson, for me at least, is that external reasons for action – reasons that economists can by definition never grasp – are the true makings of both true heroes and true villains.
Now, I have been talking about Sophocles, Aeschylus and Shakespeare in the same breath. It is often said that Shakespeare differs from the Greeks in that he is happy to leave his plays open-ended, content to put indeterminacy on the stage and leave it there as the curtain falls. In contrast, the Greeks need their catharsis, often brought onto the stage by a Deus ex Machina. While I understand this argument, I do not share it. Catharsis takes many different forms. For instance Brutus running toward the sword held by a loyal servant is cathartic, especially in view of Anthony’s eulogy later. Or Prospero’s final act of giving up his sorcery and his books as justice is restored. Indeterminacy also takes many different forms and is as much part of the Greek tradition as it is prevalent in Shakespeare. What makes it so is a readiness to infuse rationality with irrationality in the defence of deviance and rebelliousness. Yes, Prometheus in the end is spared but the real catharsis for the audience comes from his rational selection of a seemingly irrational but worthy choice. Medea commits the most heinous crime known to man, maddened by pain, but her defiant act is a supreme, rational and very contemporary rebellion against women’s objectification. How the play ends does not matter much, at least to me. It is how a play is staged that brings out the sheer beauty and creative power of resolved indeterminacy. Run-of-the-mill Hollywood movie makers and economists alike think of actors as people shedding their personality, stepping into predetermined roles, and struggling to impersonate some character whose entire presence flows from the script. But, what distinguishes high theatre and great movies from third-rate drama is that it gives actors a chance not to impersonate the character but to personify the character. They get an opportunity to bring on stage their selves, their own interpretation of the inner conflict that characterises the choice of some deviant strategy with no need either for a predetermined take on events or for an open-ended, relativist, postmodern, multi-player video game-like, script. Since the coexistence of Reason and Unreason in the same behavioural pattern is inherently confusing, the actor can draw from her own past whatever is necessary to convey the intensity of such choices.
Does any of this matter beyond the world of theatre? I think it does, and that Shakespeare demonstrates this amply. He shows that to understand conflict in the social world around us it is obligatory to look into a conflicted heart overseen by a bright mind – whether that is Richard the 3rd, Macbeth, Brutus or Shylock. If we are to follow him without abandoning the realm of rational analysis, the only option is to enrich our perception of it. Rejecting the economists’ mindset in favour of Shakespeare’s is an excellent start. And not just for the benefit of humanist studies, good literature or excellent theatre. No, we need to abandon the economists’ mindset in the interests of good economics and of a better social order too. Let me speak to this very briefly. Remember the collapse of international finance in 2008, our generation’s 1929? Remember how for two decades prior to that bankers built up mountains of private money in the form of terribly complicated forms of debt – derivatives as they called them? Did they not get what small children on the beach learn through building sandcastles; that at some point if you keep piling sand on top of sand, paper assets on top of paper assets, your pile will tumble down? No, they did not. Why not? Because they were building their toxic derivatives on the basis of mathematical equations that predicted their value and reported to them every morning and every night how much money they stood to lose that day. Until the very last moment, when the bottom fell out of all financial markets at once, and we had to bailout them out at the expense of a lost generation, their mathematics were telling them that their potential losses were tiny. Why were their equations so badly wrong? For a simple reason: The financier’s models were built on the assumption that the probability of correlated losses was tiny. Insurance companies have every reason to think that when it comes to accident insurance. What is the probability that if Ann breaks a leg skiing in Switzerland will be causally related to you breaking a leg when walking home tonight? Zero. Taking their cue from this, they assumed that the probability of correlated bankruptcies was close to zero; that the chances that Jill would go bankrupt because Jack did were nil. What they forgot was that, in a crisis, almost everyone goes bankrupt at once. It was the equivalent of assuming that the probability of the crisis they were trying to predict is… zero. They resembled meteorologists who tried to predict the probability of a tornado once he has assumed that no tornado can ever happen – poor Michael Fish! The question of course is: Where did the financiers find the confidence to make such an absurd assumption? And the answer is… In the economists’ theoretical models which assume away praxis, reducing it to acts motivated purely by internal reasons, before also assuming that greed and conflicting interests will always and necessarily lead to an equilibrium that serves the public interest because everyone is as uninterested in the public interest, and as self-serving, as the financiers knew themselves to be. In short, while economists did not commit the crimes, they provided the theories, the latter-day sermons, that steadied the hands that pulled the trigger, that gave the financiers the confidence to jeopardise everyone’s well being. And the gist of those models was the axioms about human nature and rational choice that, if allowed to infect theatre, would produce terrible theatre – economic axioms that anyone who read a tattered copy of Shakespeare’s Collected Works as a younger woman or man would instantly dismiss.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, just in case I have not made myself clear on this, I am indeed arguing that Shakespeare should be compulsory reading for economics students. Sophocles, Marlow, Shelley, and Aeschylus too. Perhaps the only thing that economics students should not be allowed to read is… economics textbooks: the type of book written as if to make it impossible for its readers to recognise, let alone analyse, really existing capitalism. This being a paradox that I could speak forever on, let me fast forward to the era after 2008, once the financiers had created a dystopian post-2008 world which is impossible to understand in pre-2008 terms and which is, increasingly, resembling a post-modern version of the 1930s.
As is, alas, well known, my country went bankrupt in 2010. And the oligarchies, Greek and European, in power decided to cover it up by means of largest loan in History to the most bankrupt European state – money that was, always, meant to flow on to France’s and Germany’s bankrupt bankers while the Greeks were thrown indefinitely into debtor’s prison and treated to the harshest austerity this planet has ever seen. Yes, there was method to the madness of the powers-that-be, just as in any Shakespearean play. Watching them stumble from one idiotic decision to the next, making things up as they were going along, and intensifying the crisis that they were trying to quell, was like watching a version of Othello, wondering how smart people could be so foolish, or of a Macbeth scheming in the land of Oedipus. Like King Laius of Thebes unwittingly brought about his own murder by his son Oedipus because he believed the prophecy that Oedipus would kill him once he grew up, so too did Europe’s Deep Establishment, in a bid to save their bankers while safeguarding their legitimacy, undermined their legitimacy by committing successive, Macbeth-like, crimes against logic – so much so that, today, the so-called political centre traditionally in the service of the Establishment lays in ruins everywhere in Europe: Think France, Austria, Germany, recently Italy, where political monsters are rising up across Europe bringing to mind Brutus’ line in Julius Caesar about the hatchling of the serpent’s egg that must be “killed in the shell” before it emerges. Except that, instead of crushing the shell before the new serpents hatched, the Establishment kept it warm, facilitated its hatching, and is now repeatedly bitten by them.
In my recent memoir, Adults in the Room, I recount how at the end of my first meeting with the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, at the meeting’s end, walking towards the door, we got a chance for a short, relaxed but telling tête-à-tête. Taking her cue from the points I had raised, Christine Lagarde surprised me by seconding my appeals for debt relief and lower tax rates as prerequisites for a Greek recovery. With calm and gentle honesty she said: “You are of course right, Yanis. These targets that we insist on can’t work. But, you must understand that we have put too much political capital into this program. We cannot go back on it. Your credibility depends on accepting and working within this program.” My jaw dropped before a smile emerged from within as I recalled a far better phrasing of her confession. Lagarde might as well have said: “What’s done cannot be undone.” Or, even more to the point,
…I am in blood/ Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,/ Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
Turning to the challenge of writing up that memoir, it must be said that no account by any protagonist to a cutthroat drama can escape bias or the desire for vindication. To be as fair and impartial as possible, I tried to see their actions and my own through the lens of a Shakespearean play, like for example Julius Caesar, in which fallible characters, neither good nor bad, are overtaken by the unintended consequences of their conception of what they ought to do. Most of the persons I encountered and wrote about in Adults in the Room believed they were acting appropriately, but, taken together, their acts produced misfortune on a continental scale. Is this not the stuff of Sophocles and Shakespeare? Indeed, with every meeting, especially with the troika’s smarter and less insecure officials, the impression grew on me that this was not a simple tale of us against them, good versus bad. I witnessed how the moment the supremely powerful recognised their powerlessness, the hatches were battened down and official denial prevailed. Even when it was abundantly clear that they would get less money from Greece if they strangled us, than if they accepted my proposals, Shylock-like they demanded their pound of flesh from the Greek people. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I had the unenviable job of negotiating – like Bassanio – with creditors who did not want their money back. And while sorrows came to my people, not as single spies, but in battalions, the consequences of the tragic impasse Europe’s Establishment created were left to unfold on autopilot, imprisoning them further in a situation they detested. This impression became ever so clear in my final meetings with the German finance minister, his shoulders drooping from the realisation that, despite his immense power, he was powerless to do what deep down he thought right.
As in all tragedies, the most thankless and painful of tasks is working out how one could have been fooled by one’s comrades. People ask me on the street: Why did you not see that your comrades were, Iago-like, plotting your defeat from Day 1? The simplest explanation is, of course, that I was another fool indulging a penchant for wishful thinking, projecting on comrades qualities they lacked. Be that as it may, a puzzle remains: Why was I not fooled by most of them – whom I recognised as plotters of our surrender from very early on – but I did not see my Prime Minister’s machinations coming? The answer I came to, in the end, is that he, Alexis, was the only character that was not banal in Hannah Arendt’s sense of the term. He had to talk himself into crossing his own red lines, which is the opposite of never having the intention of keeping to them. I can imagine Alexis saying to himself, Richard the 3rd-like:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a rebel,/ To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/ I am determined to prove a villain.
He struggled to reconcile himself to betraying our red lines, to find peace in crossing them. It was, I am convinced, his inner voice that was both his strength and his downfall, both the usurper of our common project and the reason why I believed him almost to the bitter end.
A few weeks ago a highly sympathetic review of Adults in the Room appeared in the New York Review of Books, authored by a good, solid Columbia University economist. In his concluding remark he writes: “Varoufakis adorns his narrative with references to… tragedy… As far as the eurozone is concerned these are largely beside the point. What he has actually given us is something more prosaic but no less important: a deeply reflective, first-person insight into the workings of modern power and politics.” This is proof that economists, even decent ones, simply do not get it. They do not get that a proper insight into the workings of modern power and politics is impossible without the perspective of a Shakespeare or a Sophocles. Economists must, I submit to you, be deprogrammed before they begin to see that justice is not a matter of how the superflux, the economic surplus, is redistributed away from those with the power to extract it. Shakespeare’s plays shine a brilliant light on the established powers’ desperate attempts to avoid ethical accountability. They insist that ethics is for wimps, that the strong do as they will, and the weak suffer what they must. But, in the end, unjust power gets its comeuppance in proportion to its magnitude. What Shakespeare has taught me, and I shall be forever grateful for this lesson, is that what passes for political realism has no capacity to hold our societies together because in the end it is… utopian to believe that the few can oppress and exploit the many sustainably without becoming enslaved by their own insecurity, paranoia and, in the end, induced incompetence. As my friend Slavoj Zizek said in a message of support of MeRA25, the new Greek political party that we are about to found in Athens next Monday: “We are not dreamers. While the true utopians sit in their comfortable fat chairs in Brussels, we are the agents of the European awakening.”
But, lest I turn this into a party political broadcast, let me go back to the superflux and what shaking it profitably for human society and human flourishing means. It cannot mean, despite rumours to the contrary, philanthropy or mere redistribution of the establishment’s loot. Philanthropy, and altruism, when extreme in magnitude, lead to bankruptcy and, ultimately to misanthropy – as Shakespeare demonstrates in Timon of Athens. And when milder, philanthropy or redistribution of the sort that King Lear thinks he should have practised when he had the chance, it becomes an engine that reproduces privilege and exploitation. Permit me to state this: Nothing is more dangerous to society than a ruling class on good terms with its conscience. No! In my estimation, shaking the superflux, “showing the heavens more just”, requires much, much more than sharing the surplus more ‘fairly’. It requires solidarity with the exploited which, in turn, requires that we work tirelessly to abolish the main cause of systemic misery: institutionalised exploitation – especially if this means the abolition of our privileges and power that, in the end, makes even the powerful feel empty vessels, powerless playthings of forces beyond their control.
From this perspective, to shake the superflux, and not just to stir it pitiably, the last thing we need are sermons on the injustice of it all, denunciations of rising inequality, or vigils for our vanishing democratic sovereignty. Nor should we stomach desperate acts of regressive escapism to some pre-modern, pre-technological, parochial nation-state where we can cling to the bosom of nationalism. (I promise that, tonight, this shall be my sole allusion to Brexit.) No, what we need is to grasp the tragic dynamic of capitalism. When journalists ask me how can a smart person still declare himself a Marxist, albeit an erratic one, I respond thus: If capitalism appears unjust, it is because it enslaves everyone, rich and poor, capitalist and worker, wasting human and natural resources. The problematic nexus of capital and waged labour stops us from enjoying our work and our artefacts, and turns employers and workers, rich and poor, into mindless, quivering pawns who are being quick-marched towards a pointless existence by forces beyond our control. The same ‘production line’ that pumps out untold wealth also produces deep unhappiness and discontent on an industrial scale. This perspective, that guides my thinking every day, I owe as much to Marx as I do to Shakespeare.
So, our first task must be to recognise the tendency of capital – this all-conquering economic ‘energy’ – to undermine itself. Can there be a more Shakespearean take on our society’s condition? Think back to the opening line of the Communist Manifesto: ‘A spectre is haunting Europe.’ Like Hamlet confronted by the spectre of his slain father, the reader is compelled to wonder: Should I conform to the prevailing order, suffering the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune bestowed upon me by history’s technology-driven, irresistible forces? Or should I join these forces, taking up arms against the status quo and, by opposing it, usher in a brave new society? Should I adapt this idiotic world to my beliefs or my beliefs to this idiotic world? Depending on how we each answer Hamlet’s re-worked question, humanity may succeed in securing social arrangements which, with the help of our new robotic slaves, will allow for ‘the free development of each’ as the ‘condition for the free development of all’. But, then again, we may end up in the ‘common ruin’ of nuclear war, environmental disaster, or agonising discontent as the superflux, unshaken, is concentrated more and more in the hands of the powerless powerful.
There are no guarantees – just as in Shakespeare’s plays where indeterminacy rules supreme and catharsis is in the eye of the beholder. This is why democratic politics is indispensible. But isn’t politics stultifying, especially socialist politics, which Oscar Wilde once claimed ‘takes up too many evenings’? The answer is: Because we cannot end this idiocy individually! Because, no market-based mechanism can ever emerge that will produce an antidote to this stupidity and shake the superflux. Collective, democratic political action is our only chance for freedom and enjoyment. Maybe, as the establishment is turning Parliament into farce we must turn our theatres into Parliaments. And for this, the long nights seem a small price to pay.