“Moreover, only when the weak have decent reasons to defend the system that reproduces their subservience does the empire of the powerful stand a chance to survive.” –And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic Future – Yanis Varoufakis
Image by S Donaghy
As I write, it is already the middle of September. I don’t know how this happens — the time slipping away so effortlessly. Perhaps the entire world feels mad, on fire, filled with a kind of crippling uncertainty that makes time present simultaneously as an accelerating blaze and a mind-numbing standstill (and the latter only because we see few resolutions or certainties that will provide comfort, that is, we fear the outcome of the upcoming US election; we watch literal fire turn large swaths of the world into infernos and then ash; we continue to grapple with the consequences of an out-of-control and still-not-entirely understood pandemic).
Just as always, reading is a salve, a form of hope, a cautionary tale, a glimpse into other worlds, other histories, lives we can only imagine.
Previous book reports: 2020 – July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.
Thoughts on reading for August:
Disappointingly most of what I read in August was uninspiring, and left me uninspired. A lot of things that were enjoyable or informative enough but were nevertheless mediocre. Despite having given myself time to contemplate everything, I’ve ended up without books that fit neatly into categories. Just a single list of a handful of books, making this August book report the shortest one I’ve written in a very long time.
“Inequality is neither economic nor technological; it is ideological and political.”
“This approach runs counter to the common conservative argument that inequality has a basis in “nature.””
A really densely packed and far-ranging book, probably not best served as the leisure-time reading for which I used it. It would be great if I were connecting it to something academic, but standalone – as great as it is – it’s a bit too much.
“To recapitulate: inequalities linked to different statuses and ethno-religious origins, whether real or perceived, continue to play a key role in modern inequality. The meritocratic fantasy that one often hears is not the whole story—far from it. To understand this key dimension of modern inequality, it is best to begin by studying traditional ternary societies and their variants.”
The book’s most valuable chapter is the final chapter, which serves as prescription pad for a more just and socialist future: Intertwined concerns – various forms of “justice” to reach equality, from educational justice to taxation, from democratic participation to universal income rights.
“She said that man was only smart if he was able to shed his identity. “Skin color is a little hard to shed,” she said, “it’s true. But the DNA of your social class is even harder to get rid of.””
Last month I mentioned Palestinian writer Sayed Kashua, as I enjoy his voice. This book was still on my to-read list at the time. I realized well into reading Second Person Plural that I had seen some form of film adaptation of it. The film, A Borrowed Identity, isn’t a direct adaptation of this book but instead is billed as an adaptation of Dancing Arabs, which I’d read last month. But Second Person is definitely tells the part of the story the film eventually takes on, in which an Israeli Arab ends up assuming the identity of the Israeli Jew he had been a caretaker for – with the blessing of the guy’s mother. The film portrays this event (taking over someone else’s identity and the relationship between the protagonist and the person whose identity he takes on) slightly differently, but the themes of co-existing cultures, fitting into a culture but only to a certain degree unless you literally become someone else… these are fascinating questions.
*And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic Future – Yanis Varoufakis
“Indeed, this book is about a paradox: European peoples, who had hitherto been uniting so splendidly, ended up increasingly divided by a common currency.”
I was on a Yanis Varoufakis kick in August, watching a number of his YouTube talks and interviews with other like-minded economists (there aren’t a lot of them because they have not drunk the standard endless-growth-is-good-possible-inevitable-at-all-costs KoolAid). When I feebly attempted to study economics myself it was this blind praise for capitalism as a model, as the centerpiece around which other theories only existed as faded, failed ideas that brought only misery to people, that turned me off. I was not looking for a love song for capitalism but alternatives. What reality shows us time and again, and which Varoufakis faithfully chronicles, is that people and the policies they enact, fail to enact or haphazardly enforce, cause misery. The theoretical economic systems people attempt to employ are just that — theories. It’s in practice that misery or relief or prosperity can be enacted, and it would be difficult to argue that unbridled capitalism has caused relief or prosperity for most people, even if it has done an exceptional job for the few who benefit from it.
“Capitalism, lest we forget, flourished only after debt was demoralized. Debt prisons had to be replaced by limited liability, and finance had to ride roughshod over any guilty feelings debtors were encumbered with, before “the rapid improvement of all instruments of production… [and] the immensely facilitated means of communication” could draw “all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization”—to quote from none other than Karl Marx.”
I never found the right kind of economics program at any university, so I abandoned the field. And almost 20 years later, after doing some casual self-education, I’ve learned that I was not alone. To step outside the norm and the accepted (in anything, not just economic studies) requires not only an act of defiance but also raises the flag that tells the world that you think differently, and may therefore be dangerous. This is where people like Varoufakis or Richard Wolff have walked a different path and have, at times, been “lightning rods” for daring to study, teach, lecture, and write about economic alternatives, which is akin to heresy for mainstream economists and capitalists. It’s also the unpopular direction economist Kate Raworth wanted her own economics studies to take, and she has discussed this in the introduction to her book,Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century Economist. All focus on wanting to implement an economic system that serves goals that support human well-being rather than serving the rights and growth of capital. You wouldn’t think that would be so dangerous or controversial.
“ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE once wrote that those who praise freedom only for the material benefits it offers have never kept it long. In today’s Europe, those who wax lyrical about the sanctity of the existing rules are their own worst enemy and the handmaidens of discretionary, autocratic power. Europe’s democrats must, for this reason, beware of those speaking of moves toward political union and “more Europe” when their real objective is to preserve an unsustainable monetary architecture. Continuing to impose impossible rules opens the door to the ugly ghosts of our common past.”
Indeed this is at the heart of a functioning democracy, which has in recent years grown threadbare before our eyes.
“DEMOCRACY VS. DISCRETIONARY POWER This section ought to be superfluous. The fact that it is not reflects badly on a world that seems to have forgotten the minimum requirements for a functioning liberal democracy. So here we are, stating what, once upon a time, everyone knew well, namely that the chief purpose of law is to create a level playing field between the weak and the powerful. While a level playing field does not preclude exploitation and serious violations of freedom, it is the very least the rule of law must provide.”
A few key points from Varoufakis’s work:
“Looking down from the heights of the famous Ferris wheel at the Prater amusement park in Vienna, Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles in The Third Man, 1949) issues an impertinent theory of European civilization. Under the Borgias, he professes, three decades of bloodshed gave us the Renaissance. In contrast, five centuries of Swiss democracy and peaceful coexistence produced nothing more spectacular than the cuckoo clock.”
In addition to parallels with other modern economists, Varoufakis’s warnings about inequality and how capitalism (one of the great engines of inequality creation) will devour democracy (hasn’t it already in the form of things like Citizens United?) parallel the underlying themes of works by journalists like Sarah Kendzior. Kendzior is best-known for her work on Trump and his long-lived criminal ties, but has an academic background and expertise in the rise of authoritarian regimes. When Varoufakis writes:
“Leonard Schapiro, writing on Stalinism, warned us that “the true object of propaganda is neither to convince nor even to persuade. But to produce a uniform pattern of public utterances in which the first trace of unorthodox thought reveals itself as a jarring dissonance.”
…you cannot help but think of Kendzior’s own warnings about how Trump’s scandals are a form of smoke and mirrors that serve as a distraction from the actual criminal pursuits taking place just below the surface (well, not even out of the public eye — if anyone were paying attention or cared, we can all see the illegality). I’ve recently reread Kendzior’s book, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America and was struck by these kinds of analysis most of all: the spectacle, the propaganda machine, spits out new craziness on a daily basis. The perpetual fatigue and exhaustion create conditions ripe for the exploitation and complete plowing under of democracy.
And in a fragile, flawed democracy based on capitalism, which is — if you didn’t realize — controlled by money, money talks… loudest and longest, and those without (which is most of us) have very little recourse.
Another thought-provoking point from Varoufakis’s work: he discusses at some length the 1991 Krzysztof Kiesłowski film La Double Vie de Véronique. His brief analysis digs into Kiesłowski’s own thematic exploration of the burgeoning European experiment. Near the end of Kiesłowski’s life, his final works dealt with European unity after 40+ years of disunity (the Trois Couleurs trilogy directly confronts and grapples with this). But the earlier Véronique teases some of the themes: The connection between the two characters (twinned souls, of sorts – one in Poland (Weronika) and one in France (Véronique) – who only briefly get a glimpse of one another) could represent the connections between these very different countries (Poland and France) and their very different historical trajectories. At the time we had only the haziest ideas of what each other’s lives were like, but we were still human — and the two heroines here have a split-second recognition of each other’s humanity, and its fleeting nature. Varoufakis takes this a step further, looking at how the past 25 years have eroded that naive hope and dashed much of the compassion with which Kiesłowski treated his subjects:
“And here is the irony: Before the border fences were torn down between Poland, Germany, France and Britain, a film like The Double Life of Veronique resonated perfectly in Warsaw, in Paris, in London and in Stuttgart. Today, a similar film would not. Véronique and Weronika would have no bond, no mystical connection. They would be pitted against each other in the context of a ruthless European Union where solidarity has been reduced to predatory “bailouts” that increase debt, “reforms” that translate into savage cuts in the poorest Europeans’ wages and pensions, and “credibility” that is synonymous with following failed economic recipes.”
I had never really thought much about these underlying themes when the films were released because at the time, as an American youth looking in from the outside at a Europe at the end of the Cold War, at the threshold of a new cooperation, it felt like a peaceful inevitability that Europe would unite – and Kiesłowski delicately captured the novelty and fragility of that. It remained to be seen then how unification would actually play out. How the unity of people is not at all the same thing as the unity of a currency.
On a final and completely frivolous note, Varoufakis wrote about people he met in 1991, one of whom was called “Grandma Georgia”. I laughed out loud seeing this, as my own grandmother was a “Grandma Georgia”, and a girl I knew in my adolescence claimed that she loved the sound of these words together so much that one day she would name a child “Grandma Georgia” (she didn’t).
A detailed and harrowing account of how Greece’s then-finance minister, economic Varoufakis tried to negotiate with the European and American establishment in the face of truly bleak odds and real human pain on display in a flailing/failing Greece. The establishment was not receptive and not negotiating in good faith, and much of this book, in addition to providing a blow-by-blow account of the crisis, explains much of the backstory as to how and why it’s not what it seemed and was not in good faith.
“But that’s not all. Washington could park Wall Street’s bad assets on the Federal Reserve’s books and leave them there until either they started performing again or were eventually forgotten, to be discovered by the archaeologists of the future. Put simply, Americans did not need to pay even that relatively measly $258 per head out of their taxes. But in Europe, where countries like France and Greece had given up their central banks in 2000 and the ECB was banned from absorbing bad debts, the cash needed to bail out the banks had to be taken from the citizenry. If you have ever wondered why Europe’s establishment is so much keener on austerity than America’s or Japan’s, this is why. It is because the ECB is not allowed to bury the banks’ sins in its own books, meaning European governments have no choice but to fund bank bailouts through benefits cuts and tax hikes.”
Poetry of course
What do you think?! POETRY!
Need I say it? Poetry.