The many faces of Greece's Yanis Varoufakis

March 1, 2015
Graphic by Athanasios Lazarou.

He is an economist, academic, poet, blogger, video game consultant, libertarian Marxist, motorbike rider and accidental fashion icon. Now he’s the holder of possibly the most difficult job in the world: Greece’s finance minister.

Meet Yanis Varoufakis, SYRIZA Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s right hand man and the key negotiator between Greece and its creditors.

In downtown Athens, Varoufakis is well liked among the public. He is the definitive cosmopolitan, self-made man who sees himself as a citizen of Europe as much as Greece.

He studied in London, taught in Sydney, Athens and Texas, and through his blog ― which has a sardonic .eu address ― corresponds to the world.

But Varoufakis is also an Australian. Sort of.

He is a dual citizen of both Greece and Australia, having spent 11 years as a senior lecturer at Sydney University's economics department from 1989–2000. Ironically, the finance minister in Europe's first radical left government to be elected since the 1930s, later learned he was hired to prevent a left-wing economist taking the lecturer position.

His special subject is game theory; the study of strategic decision-making in situations where subjects compete to maximise gains and minimise losses. It is a special set of skills for an economist in the political arena to hold.

Despite his current position, Varoufakis says his greatest fear is turning into a politician.

Smart, quick-witted, and notably poetic, when SYRIZA was elected he referenced Welsh poet Dylan Thomas: “Greek democracy today chose to stop going gently into the night. Greek democracy resolved to rage against the dying of the light.”

Varoufakis can make economics palatable to a broader audience ― he gives the numbers a human dimension.

In the crisis that has engulfed Greece since austerity was imposed, the numbers have been all too human: hunger, homelessness, suicide. Varoufakis, therefore, has appeared to the nation as hope wearing a fancy jacket.

During his recent meetings with finance ministers across Europe, Varoufakis has kept a high profile. His customary greeting ― jacket, untucked shirt, hand in pocket ― has not gone unnoticed with the world's press running commentary.

He first gained worldwide attention with his 2011 book The Global Minotaur, which examined the causes of the GFC as a product of US economic influence. In the book, he conceived of the US as the Minotaur and examined how economics operates during crises.

Varoufakis wrote: “Regular crises perpetuate the past by reinvigorating cycles which started long ago. In contrast, (capital-C) Crises are the past's death knell.”

Describing himself as an “erratic Marxist”, Varoufakis is a student of Marx, but believes Marx was wrong by way of his “scholastic mechanism”.

Varoufakis states that “no truth about capitalism can ever spring out of any mathematical model.”

In particular, Varoufakis follows what he calls a “dialectical perspective where everything is pregnant with its opposite” and where the ability to discern the potential for change exists “in seemingly the most constant and unchanging social structures”.

SYRIZA isn’t Varoufakis’s first foray into Greek politics. He was previously an economic advisor to the then-opposition leader and former PASOK Prime Minister George Papandreou, whom Varoufakis said ignored all economic advice once he came to power.

Most critically, Varoufakis was not a member of SYRIZA before running on its ticket in the January 25 poll. He now sits with SYRIZA's parliamentary group. This places him outside the party's internal political structure and gives greater importance to his relationship to Tsipras.

When Varoufakis, as Greece's chief negotiator, signed a much-debated four-month deal on February 20 that gave Greece a 3.3 billion euro lifeline from the European Central Bank, headlines from around the world varied from “SYRIZA holds its ground” to “Greece runs up the austerity white flag”.

Varoufakis has been aggressive in his negotiating tactics. But within SYRIZA itself, critics have not been silent.

SYRIZA central committee member Stathis Kouvelakis, a leader of the party's Left Platform, has accused the government of backtracking, and the Left Platform is publicly criticising its negotiation tactics.

Reinforcing the difficult position he and SYRIZA hold, Varoufakis said: “Urgency is the essence at the moment. We are perhaps the government that has the least amount of time, of leeway, compared to any other government that was ever elected since the Second World War.”

Until the next round of negotiations, it is difficult to draw clear conclusions about the deal.

Regardless, Varoufakis believes “the trick is to avoid the revolutionary maximalism … and to retain in our sights capitalism’s inherent failures while trying to save it, for strategic purposes, from itself.”

Greece has been bruised by a battle, but the next phase of the war is coming. All eyes will be on the many faces of Varoufakis.

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