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The only colour piercing the dimness of the hotel bar was the amber liquid flickering in the glass before him. As I approached, he raised his eyes to greet me with a nod before staring back down into his tumbler of whiskey. I sank onto the plush sofa, exhausted.
On cue, his familiar voice sounded imposingly morose. ‘Yanis,’ he said, ‘you made a big mistake.’
In the deep of a spring night a gentleness descends on Washington, DC that is unimaginable during the day. As the politicos, the lobbyists and the hangers-on melt away, the air empties of tension and the bars are abandoned to the few with no reason to be up at dawn and to the even fewer whose burdens trump sleep. That night, as on the previous eighty-one nights, or indeed the eighty-one nights that were to follow, I was one of the latter.
It had taken me fifteen minutes to walk, shrouded in darkness, from 700 19th Street NW, the International Monetary Fund’s building, to the hotel bar where I was to meet him. I had never imagined that a short solitary stroll in nondescript DC could be so restorative. The prospect of meeting the great man added to my sense of relief: after fifteen hours across the table from powerful people too banal or too frightened to speak their minds, I was about to meet a figure of great influence in Washington and beyond, a man no one can accuse of either banality or timidity.
All that changed with his acerbic opening statement, made more chilling by the dim light and shifting shadows.
Faking steeliness, I replied, ‘And what mistake was that, Larry?’
‘You won the election!’ came his answer.
It was 16 April 2015, the very middle of my brief tenure as finance minister of Greece. Less than six months earlier I had been living the life of an academic, teaching at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin while on leave from the University of Athens. But in January my life had changed utterly when I was elected a member of the Greek parliament. I had made only one campaign promise: that I would do everything I could to rescue my country from the debt bondage and crushing austerity being imposed on it by its European neighbours and the IMF. It was that promise that had brought me to this city and – with the assistance of my close team member Elena Paraniti, who had brokered the meeting and accompanied me that night – to this bar.
Smiling at his dry humour and to hide my trepidation, my immediate thought was, Is this how he intends to stiffen my resolve against an empire of foes? I took solace from the recollection that the seventy-first secretary of the United States Treasury and twenty-seventh president of Harvard is not known for his soothing style.
Determined to delay the serious business ahead of us a few moments more, I signalled to the bartender for a whiskey of my own and said, ‘Before you tell me about my “mistake”, let me say, Larry, how important your messages of support and advice have been in the past weeks. I am truly grateful. Especially as for years I have been referring to you as the Prince of Darkness.’
Unperturbed, Larry Summers replied, ‘At least you called me a prince. I have been called worse.’
For the next couple of hours the conversation turned serious. We talked about technical issues: debt swaps, fiscal policy, market reforms, ‘bad’ banks. On the political front he warned me that I was losing the propaganda war and that the ‘Europeans’, as he called Europe’s powers that be, were out to get me. He suggested, and I agreed, that any new deal for my long-suffering country should be one that Germany’s chancellor could present to her voters as her idea, her personal legacy.
Things were proceeding better than I had hoped, with broad agreement on everything that mattered. It was no mean feat to secure the support of the formidable Larry Summers in the struggle against the powerful institutions, governments and media conglomerates demanding my government’s surrender and my head on a silver platter. Finally, after agreeing our next steps, and before the combined effects of fatigue and alcohol forced us to call it a night, Summers looked at me intensely and asked a question so well rehearsed that I suspected he had used it to test others before me.1
‘There are two kinds of politicians,’ he said: ‘insiders and outsiders. The outsiders prioritize their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions. The insiders, for their part, follow a sacrosanct rule: never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders say or do. Their reward? Access to inside information and a chance, though no guarantee, of influencing powerful people and outcomes.’ With that Summers arrived at his question. ‘So, Yanis,’ he said, ‘which of the two are you?’
Instinct urged me to respond with a single word; instead I used quite a few.
‘By character I am a natural outsider,’ I began, ‘but,’ I hastened to add, ‘I am prepared to strangle my character if it would help strike a new deal for Greece that gets our people out of debt prison. Have no doubt about this, Larry: I shall behave like a natural insider for as long as it takes to get a viable agreement on the table – for Greece, indeed for Europe. But if the insiders I am dealing with prove unwilling to release Greece from its eternal debt bondage, I will not hesitate to turn whistle-blower on them – to return to the outside, which is my natural habitat anyway.’
‘Fair enough,’ he said after a thoughtful pause.
We stood up to leave. The heavens had opened while we were talking. As I saw him to a taxi, the downpour soaked my spring clothes in seconds. With his taxi speeding away, I had the opportunity to realize a wild dream of mine, one that had kept me going during the interminable meetings of the previous days and weeks: to walk alone, unnoticed, in the rain.
Powering through the watery curtain in pristine solitude, I took stock of the encounter. Summers was an ally, albeit a reluctant one. He had no time for my government’s left-wing politics, but he understood that our defeat was not in America’s interest. He knew that the eurozone’s economic policies were not just atrocious for Greece but terrible for Europe and, by extension, for the United States too. And he knew that Greece was merely the laboratory where these failed policies were being tested and developed before their implementation everywhere across Europe. This is why Summers offered a helping hand. We spoke the same economic language, despite different political ideologies, and had no difficulty reaching a quick agreement on what our aims and tactics ought to be. Nevertheless, my answer had clearly bothered him, even if he did not show it. He would have got into his taxi a much happier man, I felt, had I demonstrated some interest in becoming an insider. As this book’s publication confirms, that was never likely to happen.
Back at my hotel, getting dry and with two hours to go before the alarm clock would summon me back to the front line, I pondered a great anxiety: how would my comrades back home, the inner circle of our government, answer Summers’s question in their hearts? On that night I was determined to believe that they would answer it as I had done.
Less than two weeks later I began to have my first real doubts.
Super black boxes
Yiorgos Chatzis went missing on 29 August 2012. He was last sighted at the social security office in the small northern Greek town of Siatista, where he was told that his monthly disability allowance of €280 had been suspended. Eyewitnesses reported that he did not utter a word of complaint. ‘He seemed stunned and remained speechless,’ a newspaper said. Soon after, he used his mobile phone for the last time to call his wife. No one was at home, so he left a message: ‘I feel useless. I have nothing to offer you any more. Look after the children.’ A few days later his body was found in a remote wooded area, suspended by the neck over a cliff, his mobile phone lying on the ground nearby.
The wave of suicides triggered by the great Greek depression had caught the attention of the international press a few months earlier after Dimitris Christoulas, a seventy-seven-year-old retired pharmacist, shot himself dead by a tree in the middle of Athens’s Syntagma Square, leaving behind a heart-wrenching political manifesto against austerity. Once upon a time the silent, dignified grief of Christoulas’s and Chatzis’s loved ones would have shamed into silence even the most hardened bailiff, except that in Bailoutistan, my satirical term for post-2010 Greece, our bailiffs keep their distance from their victims, barricading themselves in five-star hotels, whizzing around in motorcades and steadying their occasionally flagging nerves with baseless statistical projections of economic recovery.
During that same year, 2012, three long years before Larry Summers was to lecture me on insiders and outsiders, my partner Danae Stratou presented an art installation at a downtown Athens gallery. She called it, It is time to open the black boxes! The work comprised one hundred black metal boxes laid out geometrically on the floor. Each contained a word selected by Danae from the thousands that Athenians had contributed through social media in response to her question, ‘In a single word, what are you most afraid of, or what is the one thing you want to preserve?’
Danae’s idea was that unlike, say, the black box of a downed aircraft, these boxes would be opened before it was too late. The word that Athenians had chosen more than any other was not jobs, pensions or savings. What they feared losing most was dignity. The island of Crete, whose inhabitants are renowned for their pride, experienced the highest number of suicides once the crisis hit. When a depression deepens and the grapes of wrath grow ‘heavy for the vintage’, it is the loss of dignity that brings on the greatest despair.
In the catalogue entry I wrote for the exhibition I drew a comparison with another kind of black box. In engineering terms, I wrote, a black box is a device or system whose inner workings are opaque to us but whose capacity to turn inputs into outputs we understand and use fluently. A mobile phone, for instance, reliably converts finger movements into a telephone call or the arrival of a taxi, but to most of us, though not to electrical engineers, what goes on within a smartphone is a mystery. As philosophers have noted, other people’s minds are the quintessential black boxes: ultimately we can have no idea of precisely what goes on inside another’s head. (During the 162 days that this book chronicles I often caught myself wishing that the people around me, my comrades-in-arms in particular, were less like black boxes in this regard.)
But then there are what I called ‘super black boxes’, whose size and import is so great that even those who created and control them cannot fully understand their inner workings: for example, financial derivatives whose effects are not truly understood even by the financial engineers who designed them, global banks and multinational corporations whose activities are seldom grasped by their CEOs, and of course governments and supranational institutions like the International Monetary Fund, led by politicians and influential bureaucrats who may be in office but are rarely in power. They too convert inputs – money, debt, taxes, votes – into outputs – profit, more complicated forms of debt, reductions in welfare payments, health and education policies. The difference between these super black boxes and the humble smartphone – or even other humans – is that while most of us have barely any control over their inputs, their outputs shape all our lives.
This difference is encapsulated in a single word: power. Not the type of power associated with electricity or the crushing force of the ocean’s waves, but another, subtler, more sinister power: the power held by the ‘insiders’ that Larry Summers referred to but which he feared I would not have the disposition to embrace, the power of hidden information.
During and after my ministry days people constantly asked me, ‘What did the IMF want from Greece? Did those who resisted debt relief do so because of some illicit hidden agenda? Were they working on behalf of corporations interested in plundering Greece’s infrastructure – its airports, seaside resorts, telephone companies and so on?’ If only matters were that straightforward.
When a large-scale crisis hits, it is tempting to attribute it to a conspiracy between the powerful. Images spring to mind of smoke-filled rooms with cunning men (and the occasional woman) plotting how to profit at the expense of the common good and the weak. These images are, however, delusions. If our sharply diminished circumstances can be blamed on a conspiracy, then it is one whose members do not even know that they are part of it. That which feels to many like a conspiracy of the powerful is simply the emergent property of any network of super black boxes.
The keys to such power networks are exclusion and opacity. Recall the ‘Greed is great’ ethos of Wall Street and the City of London in the years before the 2008 implosion. Many decent bank employees were worried sick by what they were observing and doing. But when they got their hands on evidence or information foreshadowing terrible developments, they faced Summers’s dilemma: leak it to outsiders and become irrelevant; keep it to themselves and become complicit; or embrace their power by exchanging it for other information held by someone else in the know, resulting in an impromptu two-person alliance that turbocharges both individuals’ power within the broader network of insiders. As further sensitive information is exchanged, this two-person alliance forges links with other such alliances. The result is a network of power within other pre-existing networks, involving participants who conspire de facto without being conscious conspirators.
Whenever a politician in the know gives a journalist an exclusive in exchange for a particular spin that is in the politician’s interest, the journalist is appended, however unconsciously, to a network of insiders. Whenever a journalist refuses to slant their story in the politician’s favour, they risk losing a valuable source and being excluded from that network. This is how networks of power control the flow of information: through co-opting outsiders and excluding those who refuse to play ball. They evolve organically and are guided by a supra-intentional drive that no individual can control, not even the president of the United States, the CEO of Barclays or those manning the pivotal nodes in the IMF or national governments.
Once caught in this web of power it takes an heroic disposition to turn whistle-blower, especially when one cannot hear oneself think amid the cacophony of so much money-making. And those few who do break ranks end up like shooting stars, quickly forgotten by a distracted world.
Fascinatingly, many insiders, especially those only loosely attached to the network, are oblivious to the web that they reinforce, courtesy of having relatively few contacts with it. Similarly, those embedded in the very heart of the network are usually too far inside to notice that there is an outside at all. Rare are those astute enough to notice the black box when they live and work inside one. Larry Summers is one such rare insider. His question to me was in fact an invocation to reject the lure of the outside. Underpinning his belief system was the conviction that the world can only be made better from within the black box.
But this was where, I thought, he was very wrong.
Theseus before the labyrinth
Before 2008, while the super black boxes functioned stably, we lived in a world that seemed balanced and self-healing. Those were the times when the British chancellor Gordon Brown was celebrating the end of ‘boom and bust’ and the soon-to-be-chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke was heralding the Great Moderation. Of course it was all an illusion generated by the super black boxes whose function no one understood, especially not the insiders running them. And then, in 2008, they broke down spectacularly, generating our generation’s 1929, not to mention little Greece’s fall.
It is my view that the 2008 financial crisis, which is still with us almost a decade later, is due to the terminal breakdown of the world’s super black boxes – of the networks of power, the conspiracies without conspirators, that fashion our lives. Summers’s blind faith that the remedies to this crisis will spring from those same broken down networks, through the normal operations of insiders, struck me even at the time as touchingly naive. Perhaps that is not surprising. After all, three years earlier I had written in Danae’s catalogue that ‘opening these super black boxes has now become a prerequisite to the survival of decency, of whole strata of our fellow humans, of our planet even. Put simply, we have run out of excuses. It is, therefore, time to open the black boxes!’ But in real terms, what would this entail?
First, we need to acquire a readiness to recognize that we may very well, each one of us, already be a node in the network; an ignorant de facto conspirator. Secondly, and this is the genius of Wikileaks, if we can get inside the network, like Theseus entering the labyrinth, and disrupt the information flow; if we can put the fear of uncontrollable information leaking in the mind of as many of its members as possible, then the unaccountable, malfunctioning networks of power will collapse under their own weight and irrelevance. Thirdly, by resisting any tendency to substitute old closed networks with new ones.
By the time I entered that Washington bar three years later I had tempered my stance. My priority was not to leak information to outsiders but to do whatever it took to get Greece out of debtors’ prison. If that meant pretending to be an insider, so be it. But the instant the price of admission to the insiders’ circle became acceptance of Greece’s permanent incarceration, I would leave. Laying down an Ariadne’s thread inside the insiders’ labyrinth and being ready to follow it to the exit is, I believe, a prerequisite for the dignity on which the Greek people’s happiness relies.
The day after my meeting with Larry Summers I met Jack Lew, the incumbent US Treasury secretary. After our meeting at the Treasury, an official seeing me out startled me with a friendly aside: ‘Minister, I feel the urge to warn you that within a week you will face a character assassination campaign emanating from Brussels.’ Larry’s pep talk about the importance of staying inside the proverbial tent, along with his warning that we were losing the media war, suddenly came into sharp focus.
Of course, it was no great surprise. Insiders, I had written in 2012, would react aggressively to anyone who dared open up their super black box to the outsiders’ gaze: ‘None of this will be easy. The networks will respond violently, as they are already doing. They will turn more authoritarian, more closed, more fragmented. They will become increasingly preoccupied with their own “security” and monopoly of information, less trusting of common people.’2
The following chapters relate the networks’ violent reaction to my stubborn refusal to trade Greece’s emancipation for a privileged spot inside one of their black boxes.
It all boiled down to one small doodle on a piece of paper – whether I was prepared to sign on the dotted line of a fresh bailout loan agreement that would push Greece further into its labyrinthine jail of debt.
The reason why my signature mattered so much was that, curiously, it is not presidents or prime ministers of fallen countries that sign bailout loan agreements with the IMF or with the European Union. That poisoned privilege falls to the hapless finance minister. It is why it was crucial to Greece’s creditors that I be bent to their will, that I should be co-opted or, failing that, crushed and replaced by a more pliant successor. Had I signed, another outsider would have turned insider and praise would have been heaped upon me. The torrent of foul adjectives directed at me by the international press, arriving right on cue only a little more than a week after that Washington visit, just as the US official had warned me it would, would never have descended onto my head. I would have been ‘responsible’, a ‘trustworthy partner’, a ‘reformed maverick’ who had put his nation’s interests above his ‘narcissism’.
Judging by his expression as we walked out of the hotel and into the pouring rain, Larry Summers seemed to understand. He understood that the ‘Europeans’ were not interested in an honourable deal with me or with the Greek government. He understood that, in the end, I would be pressurized inordinately to sign a surrender document as the price of becoming a bona fide insider. He understood that I was not willing to do this. And he believed that this would be a pity, for me at least.
For my part I understood that he wanted to help me secure a viable deal. I understood too that he would do what he could to help us, provided it did not violate his golden rule: insiders never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders do or say. What I was not sure about was whether he would ever understand why there was no chance in heaven – or hell for that matter – that I would sign a non-viable new bailout loan agreement. It would have taken too long to explain my reasons, but even if there had been time I feared that our backgrounds were too different for my explanation to make any sense to him.
My explanation, had I offered it, would have come in the form of a story or two.
The first would have probably begun inside an Athenian police station in the autumn of 1946, when Greece was on the brink of a communist insurgency and the second phase of its catastrophic civil war. A twenty-year-old chemistry student at Athens University named Yiorgos had been arrested by the secret police, roughed up and left in a cold cell for a few hours until a higher-ranking officer took him to his office ostensibly to apologize. I am sorry for the rough treatment, he said. You are a good boy and did not deserve this. But you know these are treacherous times and my men are on edge. Forgive them. Just sign this and off you go. With my apologies.
The police officer seemed sincere and Yiorgos was relieved that his earlier ordeal at the hands of the thugs was at an end. But then, as he read the typewritten statement the officer was asking him to sign, a cold chill ran down his spine. The page read, I hereby denounce, truly and in all sincerity, communism, those who promote it, and their various fellow travellers.
Trembling with fear, he put the pen down, summoned all the gentleness that his mother Anna had instilled in him over the years, and said, Sir, I am no Buddhist but I would never sign a state document denouncing Buddhism. I am not a Muslim but I do not think the state has the right to ask me to denounce Islam. Similarly, I am not a communist but I see no reason why I should be asked to denounce communism.
Yiorgos’s civil liberty argument stood no chance. Sign or look forward to systematic torture and indefinite detention – the choice is yours! shouted the enraged officer. The officer’s ire was based on perfectly reasonable expectations. Yiorgos had all the makings of a good boy, a natural insider. He had been born in Cairo to a middle-class family within the large Greek community, itself embedded in a cosmopolitan European enclave of French, Italian and British expats, and raised alongside sophisticated Armenians, Jews and Arabs. French was spoken at home, courtesy of his mother, Greek at school, English at work, Arabic on the street and Italian at the opera.
At the age of twenty, determined to connect with his roots, Yiorgos had given up a cushy job in a Cairo bank and moved to Greece to study chemistry. He had arrived in Athens in January 1945 on the ship Corinthia only a month after the conclusion of the first phase of Greece’s civil war, the first episode of the Cold War. A fragile détente was in the air, and so it had seemed reasonable to Yiorgos when student activists of both the Left and the Right had approached him as a compromise candidate for president of his school’s students’ association.
Shortly after his election, however, the university authorities had increased tuition fees at a time when students wallowed in absolute poverty. Yiorgos had paid the dean a visit, arguing as best as he could against the fee hike. As he left, secret policemen had manhandled him down the school’s marble steps and into a waiting van. and he had ended up with a choice that makes Summers’s dilemma seem like a walk in the park.
Given the young man’s bourgeois background, the police had every expectation that Yiorgos would either sign gladly or break quickly once torture began. However, with every beating Yiorgos felt less able to sign, end the pain and go home. As a result, he ended up in a variety of cells and prison camps that he could have escaped at any point simply by putting his signature on a single sheet of paper. Four years later, a shadow of his former self, Yiorgos emerged from prison into a grim society that neither knew of his peculiar choice nor really cared.
Meanwhile, during the period of Yiorgos’s incarceration, a young woman four years his junior had become the first female student to gain admittance to the University of Athens Chemistry School, despite their best efforts to keep her out. Eleni, for that was her name, began university as a rebellious proto-feminist but nevertheless felt a powerful dislike for the Left: during the years of the Nazi occupation she had been abducted as a very young girl by left-wing partisans who mistook her for a relative of a Nazi collaborator. Upon enrolling at the University of Athens, a fascist organization called X recruited her on the strength of her anti-communist feelings. Her first – and, as it would turn out, her last – mission for them was to follow a fellow chemistry student who had just been released from the prison camps.
This, in a nutshell, is the story of how I came about. For Yiorgos is my father, and Eleni, who ended up a leading member of the 1970s feminist movement, was my mother. Blessed with this history, signing on the dotted line in return for the mercy shown to insiders was never on the cards for me. Would Larry Summers have understood? I don’t think so.
Not for me
The other story is as follows. I met Lambros in the Athens apartment I share with Danae a week or so before the January 2015 election that brought me to office. It was a mild winter’s day, the campaign was in full swing, and I had agreed to give an interview to Irene, a Spanish journalist. She came to the apartment accompanied by a photographer and by Lambros, an Athens-based Greek–Spanish translator. On that occasion Lambros’s services were unnecessary as Irene and I talked in English. But he stayed, watching and listening intensely.
After the interview, as Irene and the photographer were packing up their gear and heading for the door, Lambros approached me. He shook my hand, refusing to let go while addressing me with the concentration of a man whose life depends on getting his message across: ‘I hope you did not notice it from my appearance. I do my best to cover it up, but in fact I am a homeless person.’ He then told me his story as briefly as he could.
Lambros used to have a flat, a job teaching foreign languages and a family. In 2010, when the Greek economy tanked, he lost his job, and when they were evicted from their flat he lost his family. For the past year he had lived on the street. His only income came from providing translation services to visiting foreign journalists drawn to Athens by yet another demonstration in Syntagma Square which turned ugly and thus newsworthy. His greatest concern was finding a few euros to recharge his cheap mobile phone so that the foreign news crews could contact him.
Feeling he needed to wrap up his soliloquy, he rushed to the one thing he wanted from me:
I want to implore you to promise me something. I know you will win the election. I talk to people on the street and there is no doubt that you will. Please, when you win, when you are in office, remember those people. Do something for them. Not for me! I am finished. Those of us whom the crisis felled, we cannot come back. It is too late for us. But, please, please do something for those who are still on the verge. Who are clinging by their fingernails. Who have not fallen yet. Do it for them. Don’t let them fall. Don’t turn your back to them. Don’t sign what they give you like the previous ones did. Swear that you won’t. Do you swear?
‘I swear,’ was my two-word answer to him.
A week later I was taking my oath of office as the country’s finance minister. During the months that followed, every time my resolve weakened I had only to think back to that moment. Lambros will never know of his influence during the bleakest hours of those 162 days.
Copyright © 2017 by Yanis Varoufakis