Yanis Varoufakis & Danae Stratou: Europe’s Dereliction of Duty


Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and artist Danae Stratou talk to Rob Johnson about Europe’s failures for working people, both before and during the pandemic.

Transcript

Rob Johnson:

I am here today with Yanis Varoufakis a member of the European parliament and the leader of DiEM25. And a scholar whose work with Joseph Halevi and his own writings has been a beacon to aluminate many of the challenges that are now before us. Also with us is Danae Stratou, an artist whose work has inspired me and who sheds light on many of the troubles and challenges that we face. Thank you all for joining me here today.

Yanis Varoufakis:

Thanks Rob.

Danae Stratou:

Thank you Rob.

Rob Johnson:

So we are here in the latter part of May 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic in my view has unmasked some failings in the structure of our society, in and of the ideas that have governed or led us in these directions. Now… How would I say? We have to face some challenges. I’m curious from each of you, what is it that you see has been revealed? What is it that you see in response that is disturbing and encouraging?

Yanis Varoufakis:

Well, let’s start with the good news. The good news is that politics has been revealed in all its bullish reality. Up until the pandemic hit us the media have portrayed politics as a game, a kind of football or basketball league where teams, parties score points or concede points, go up and down some league table. Eventually if they are lucky, to win the championship at the end of the term, they get the form of government but in the end they are not particularly powerful. So the idea was that politics is a game, governments can’t do that much, they’re in the pockets of the financial sector, which is not completely untrue. But now what COVID-19 has done, it has shown us what politics is really about and politics is about the capacity of some people to tell the rest what to do and what not to do.

They can say to you you’re in lockdown, you can’t go to the park, you can’t go to a music venue. And that is positive because for a long time we had forgotten the immense power that government has. And now it has come back in full view, we can see that Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was right when he said that politics in the end is about who does what to whom. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the already fragile financial capitalism that we lived in, that since 2008 was limping along creating socialist conditions for the very few and harsh stringent austerity for the many. That capitalism is now simply not fit for purpose but it’s not going away. It is simply buckling down using state power not as a power of good, but in order to continue the process of enriching the very rich and disempowering the powerless. Danae would you like to come in on this?

Danae Stratou:

Sure. Maybe I’ll start with the silver lining, some positive thoughts. One thing is for example, that I think we were running too much after too many things. We were super busy, everyone was always extremely busy and this sort of made us slow paces in a way. Even though we have been working a lot from home, even though we have been going back to basic things like cooking for ourselves, taking the time to find the food to prepare it, be together more. So these are good things in a way because we sort of took a pause from this crazy rhythms that we were all living in. And looked back into ourselves, into our homes, into a family, with the close, close people, people we love and maybe had not been giving so much time to.

So this is the good thing. The negative things of course are how inequality was exposed. Because of course we have the possibility to be in our home and be safe and in this environment, but other people do not of course and other people had to be out there in the front lines. Not only in the hospitals, people like doctors and nurses and all the healthcare people but people doing deliveries, people that had to work in the supermarkets and the pharmacies. All the people that supported the other people that could afford to sort of be secluded and stay at home. So this showed a lot of this inequality in the world.

Talking about my people, the artists in Greece in particular because we come up out of a decade of suffering economically and many artists had to close their official sort of practice and taxpaying their official papers let’s say. So they were nowhere so many people are suffering. They have no work because everything was canceled of course from exhibitions, to theaters, to music, to everything. And these people we’re not able even to take the small stipend that the government perhaps supports people who lost their jobs because we are nowhere, they’re not visible. So these kinds of things.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. What my friend and poet Ed Pavlic says, “We’ve revealed the importance of the labor in the shadows.” And it feels like… How would I say? That sense of what’s important in your life, what’s important in the economy is moving to a very, very different place. Yanis in Europe, you’re a member of parliament. There’s a lot of concern that as George Soros has often emphasized, Europe is sort of halfway there. It’s not an integrated nation with fiscal policy transfers and so forth, on the other hand it has monetary integration. He has always said it should go forward some of the work that scholars that I met have been emphasizing makes… How would I say?

One feel like it is very difficult to go forward, you were talking about socialism for the rich and a harsh environment for everybody else. I look at the country Italy and I wonder how without collective action as a whole system Italy is going to be able to stay within Europe. But you’re much more sensitive to this than I am, where do you see the architecture of Europe going and what can be done?

Yanis Varoufakis:

How about down the toilet for a very brief answer to your question. Look, many progressives especially in the United States I suppose living in the shadow of Donald Trump, look to the other side of the pond and they think that things are much better here than they are over there. And I can understand them for this, but what they are failing to discern is that the architecture of the European Union is simply buckling under the hubris of its establishment. It’s not just Rob that we’re not moving fast in the right direction, the tragedy is that we’re moving in the wrong direction. So the criticism that the European Commission, the European Union Council, the Euro group and so on are not doing enough is actually misplaced.

What they’re doing is in the wrong direction and if they were to do more of that it would make things worse. Take for instance Italy that you mentioned. We all know that Italy was hit the harshest together with Spain in terms of deaths and in terms of the epidemic itself. Of course, that goes hand in hand with the effect it had on the economy, because the lockdown was far more severe, the uncertainty, the grief, grief doesn’t help the economy as you all very well know. But on top of that Italy relies a lot more on small businesses and on tourism than Germany does. So the internal imbalances, the contradictions within the European Union were strengthened by the virus itself.

On top of that and that is the worst aspect of it all, the fact that already Italy before the coronavirus story begun had a massive public debt. Which there is no way of rolling over without some kind of debt restructure in the long term or medium term. This means one thing, that the enhanced budget deficit that is coming Italy’s way it could be more than 10% of GDP next year, is going to trigger an institutional reaction beginning from Berlin and then moving onto Brussels. And let me explain how this is going to happen. The German federal government is going to have a deficit this year of about 6%, at least that’s what the latest estimate is. And very soon next year they are going to come close to zero, in other words they will balance the books.

The moment they balance the books there will then be a telephone call from Berlin to Brussels, to the center of the beast of the European Union. And Berlin will be pushing Brussels to be pushing Italy, Greece, Spain, all the other deficit countries to balance their books as well in response to the balancing of the German books. Now that would mean that Italy is going to be pressurized by Brussels to bring down a budget that is worse in terms of austerity than what Greece suffered in 2010. 10 percentage points of GDP of austerity in order to narrow down the deficit is going to be a catastrophe for Italy.

So Italy was the worst hit by the virus and by the economic conditions, this summer’s disaster tourism is going to have an even greater negative multiplier effect on aggregate demand in Italy and on aggregate output and on aggregate incomes. And then when Italy starts to recover next year let’s say, that’s when a gigantic austerity wallop is going to hit Italy because of the faulty architecture of the Eurozone. Is this sustainable? No, I don’t think it is. Already you can see that opinion polls show that a country like Italy which was proudly pro-European up until a few years ago, 80% approved of the European Union. Now, the pendulum has gone the other way and 80% are against the European Union.

So Europe is going through a period of what I would describe as a dereliction of duty to itself, it is scoring one own goal after the next. Everything they have decided to help Italy and countries like Italy, to help Europe has been a replete with a category error that is the confusing sequence of bankruptcies for a sequence of illiquidity problems. So they are throwing loans at the bankrupt and loans have never helped the bankrupt escape bankruptcy as you know. So the same mistakes they were making in 2010 they continue to make them now. They have a better veneer around the package but the reality is exactly the same. And Europe is rich enough to be able to waste one opportunity after the other, to deplete its existing capacity to recover.

But at some point the great and very broad discontent that this is sort of creating is going to feed political monsters. Already Matteo Salvini and the fascists in Italy are leading the polls majestically. The same thing is going to happen with Orbanization, I’m talking now about Orban the prime minister of Hungary. This shift to the xenophobic right, recalcitrant nativism proceeding, France is going to be next. I very much fear that the European Union has just lost the plot.

Rob Johnson:

Danae you’ve spent a good deal of time in the United States. I know both of you were in Texas and in New York, how do you see what’s unfolding in the United States?

Danae Stratou:

Well it seems very, very difficult, a very dire situation what’s happening in the States. Of course we were there much before, I mean up until 2015. What I realized while we were there as a European basically was how many connections we have as Europeans. I felt European not a citizen of the world as I did before so much and there are differences between Europe and the United States for sure. At this moment of course we have many friends, we hear the news things are hard and with Trump being in government I mean this situation is not the best news. I don’t know, what I felt during our time there was of course again, about inequality. That in the United States, you have the richest and the poorest people and I’m sure there’s a lot of suffering in this conditions right?

Rob Johnson:

There is.

Danae Stratou:

I don’t know, what else can I say. We have to wait and see.

Rob Johnson:

I’ve sensed from conversations we’ve had before when we met in the United States, that you were troubled by what you might call the contradictions between what you and the principals say that are in the founding documents for the United States. And the hideous nature of inequality here which feeds despair and feeds into that authoritarian type of politics is very haunting. I remember one time when we chatted you had an exhibit, a photographic exhibit I think it was called Fences-

Danae Stratou:

Divisions. CUT-7 Dividing Lines it was. Yes this is a human condition of course that we find ourselves in very often. I mean, the project was about divisions around the world, so I had traveled in seven different divisions. One of them was the United States and Mexican border of course. So we had traveled all the way from going in and out from Mexico to the United States for about a month and it was excruciating of course to see this and this was along another six dividing lines on the planet.

So putting these together in photographic material, in photograph sounds that I recorded and a video that I made sort of brings out this human condition in an extreme way. But the reality is that we have this kind of separation even within our homes, even within ourselves. And in America you see this kind of division in the quality and the inequalities of the human condition maybe quite extremely.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I think I’ll quote the famous British economist John Maynard Keynes. His quote was, “Intuition always precedes intellect.” And I’ve often found people like yourself who are engaged in the arts can sense and see and begin to react to things before the intellectuals. It crystallizes later in the mind but it emerges in the heart and I think you were quite prescient. I’ve thought of that exhibit and those examples you showed me from that exhibit many, many times in the Trump build a wall world in which I live now in the United States.

Danae Stratou:

Of course, this is the artist’s sort of work is to have your antenna open. The way that I function as an artist is this and I suppose most artists this is what our job is. To open our ears, our eyes and our mind’s eye basically, to understand what is happening in the society, to understand what’s happening in the world. And this is why we can shed light and bring a different narrative, a different way of shedding light and raising awareness on these issues. That are different from the political language or the journalistic language for that matter. So this is really the artist’s job, to be there and to understand these things. For example talking about the project on the divisions, what I saw is that poor Mexican people might be richer than poor American people.

Which is a huge contradiction no one would ever imagine. Or seeing really poor people in the Amazon or in India that who are nevertheless healthy in their psyche, whereas the poor American people are not well you can see. So looking at the human societies and understanding the human condition and then trying to show this in a human way, in a different way that people can be touched by and understand within themselves as you said beyond the intellectual, even in a physical way maybe sometimes.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I’m always reminded of the mystic theologian Meister Eckhart and reading some of his writings. He always said, “Try to see through the eye of the heart.” And I have a lot of faith in how artists illuminate and sometimes heal because going to the heart is often a way of what you might call counteracting the fear in the intensity of logical debate. When we need something that’s more soothing and more encouraging.

Danae Stratou:

Absolutely. This is very nice. Very nice as you said it.

Rob Johnson:

There is a gentleman whose name is Celaya he’s I think based in the Los Angeles area and he once gave a very, very beautiful talk I believe in Nebraska. And it was one of those just very… How would I put this? Very surprising to me but so enriching and I’ve gone back to it over and over. And he said, “Art which is many things to many people is just one thing to me. It is a whisper of the order of things that dismantles consciousness and suggest my place in the world. The whisper of the order of things is not meaning, but it offers a point of reference from which the measurement of meaning makes sense. Meaning that has answers to questions of my place in the world, of the choices I make and my relationship to others. The whisper is faint but the best art helps us hear it.

It has nothing to do with the realm of perceptions, rather the invocation of a great order in the face of nothingness is a fundamentally and ethical experience.” And I find that… How would I say? Yanis, the practice in economics is almost to have an allergy to values and moral and ethical discourse, to pretend we’re scientists and value free. But I know from a lot of your writings and presentations that… How would I say? You’ve unmasked that false consciousness in many ways and shown that values are embedded in the structure of these policies, whether in your writings about Europe or your book The Global Minotaur I found. I almost wrote you a letter about a month ago and said, “What are you going to write as the like reissue of The Global Minotaur? What’s the final chapter going to look like looking back now?” Because that was such a prescient book.

Yanis Varoufakis:

Well, there was a second edition in 2013 and I have to say that the final chapter, which I had to rewrite for the second edition is very close to the one I would write again. Because the great question that I left that book with the second edition was all about the incongruity between the United States and China and the impossibility of the… The Global Minotaur by the way for those who are listening and who don’t know what it is, it’s a metaphor that I use for the United States economy that operated between the end of the Bretton Woods period in the 1970s and 2008. As a Minotaur that was devouring both the net exports of countries like Germany, Japan, and later China and the profits that capitalism, Germany, Japan, and China were making.

That were heading for Wall Street, inflating financialization and then giving rise to the bubbles that burst in 2008. So this beast which was so central to the dynamism of globalization, of globalized financialized capitalism is wounded, it’s not dead. And wounded beasts are more dangerous, but at the same time quite unable to have the rigor and the rude health that they did once. So I very much feel that look between 2008 and 2020 we had a variety of the post 1929 period. The only difference was really that the central banks were pumping huge amounts of liquidity into the financial sector, refloating asset prices, refloating stock changes, refloating banks but not doing much in order to convert that liquidity into investment.

And that huge gap disconnect between the world of money and the world of real people whose jobs, job prospects were declining because not enough money was being actually invested into good quality production processes. And networks of mutual support and public health care systems and all that, that incongruity breeds the discontent that gave rise to people like Bolsonaro in Brazil, not to mention Trump in the United States. And that doesn’t change, 2013 when I wrote the last edition of The Global Minotaur all that has happened is that this gigantic bubble now seems to be bursting because of COVID-19. But nothing fundamental is changing except that the discontent is getting deeper, the grapes for us are getting heavier for the vintage and the very bitter vintage it is.

So speaking of books Rob, allow me to plug my next one which is coming out in September. What I tried to do instead of writing and rewriting The Global Minotaur or books like The Global Minotaur, I decided to use a little bit of therapy for myself. I wrote a book of science fiction, political science fiction where I try to imagine a different trajectory that we could have taken in 2008. So the book is called Another Now and there’s a convoluted story based on science fiction, which I’m not going to bother you with now. But the idea is that sometime around 2020 actually, no actually that’s wrong.

2025 a bunch of interesting people discover through wormhole that there is another trajectory that started in 2008 and there they find themselves as they developed in a completely different socioeconomic system. One in which there are no share markets and there are no private banks. There are markets, there are corporations, but no share markets and no private banks and I call this book Another Now.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I think there are a whole lot of people yearning for Another Now and particularly which you might say… And Yanis you’ve written textbooks, I remember Modern Political Economics with Joseph Halevi and it feels to me like the textbook in economics is what you might call selling a model that is an indoctrination that is now in tatters. What’s another now look like that you would like to see become the textbook of economics?

Yanis Varoufakis:

Look ideally, since you mentioned Keynes. Ideally we should live in a world where the economy can be managed like server mechanism, like an engineering system, but we don’t. And we don’t because of the financial sector and an oligopolistic structural of markets which results from the financial sector in combination with the share markets. Whereby most value is fictitious, the concept of fictional capital which is completely absent from economics textbooks. So allow me just a little sojourn into textbooks. Every textbook that there is, even the best ones that are taught at the best schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, wherever you go to, great schools in India.

Every single textbook has a model of the economy, of an economy which lacks labor, there’s no actual labor happening in there everything is portrayed as a sort of exchange. And we know very well that if you labor in an Amazon warehouse you are not in indulging in any kind of exchange with Jeff Bezos in there. It’s a labor process that no mathematical equation can capture and actually in these economic models there’s no such thing as money. Money cannot be modeled in these models and if no money is modeled, there’s no debt. So imagine if you were to go to a 10 year old and say, “Okay, I’m now going to teach you how the economy works but my model does not contain labor, money or debt.”

The 10 year old would turn around say, “Then mate you’re completely and utterly useless to me.” So this is what we have. But in a world in which I would like to live in, we would need as John Maynard Keynes put it economists to be able to work out the mechanics of the system with a simple view to improving life for people. At the moment you’ve got this remarkable disconnect in the same way that in the real economy there’s this disconnect between savings and investment. In the world of economics and economic policy you’ve got this gigantic gap disconnect between on the one hand, a model of how capitalism works, a theory and ideology of how capitalism works which is captured in the textbooks that has no capitalism in it.

And then the practice of capitalism that has no economics in it. And the practice of capitalism is very simple, do whatever it takes in order to reproduce the oligarchic power of those in power.

Rob Johnson:

Yes, yes. Danae if you were designing a curriculum for economics or social science what would be the mandatory dimension of the arts that should accompany the what you might call more sterile or technocratic or systematic focus that economics has? How would you infuse the energy from the way you see things into that curriculum?

Danae Stratou:

So firstly, we need to understand the importance of art because art is not a luxury. So art is part of being human, right? So art reflects. If you see art through the historian of the future it’s extremely important in order to understand the history, what was happening, what’s happening in a society. It reflects the human societies, the human conditions in each and every moment. So in this way it would be nice if it could be more integrated more organically. I find the arts, artists and the whole art system is always struggling. I mean the art that is worth doing or worth existing sort of struggles in order to exist because people may not want to, not want to support it, but somehow it doesn’t find easily the funds.

And then there’s this whole bubble of the cycle of museums, curators and all these which is really not about what real art should be about which is what I mentioned before. So if there was a way that it came more naturally, more organically it would be good. I would like to mention a couple of things that may work in sort of a therapeutic way also which is important for me in my work process for example. I find myself one thing that I want to say and it’s very important to mention this. Is that the big problem that we have is not the virus that we’re now currently going through which is of course very terrible, but when this passes and it will pass at some point sooner or later, it’s climate change and this is something that you know.

As you know we have discussed this many times, raising awareness through art because I believe many artists are trying to work on this field is extremely important. So I just wanted to say this, maybe we can discuss it in more detail later about the role that art can play in this problem in raising awareness on climate change. And of course working artists, working together with technologists impact. And another issue of course is this notion where how our social can be engaging in these problems, in the political, social political problems that we are currently going through. And later I will tell you what my reaction is on this and how I have managed to do something in this moment of crisis but we can’t really do much as artists at the moment but maybe something can be done.

Rob Johnson:

I want to underscore a friend of mine who I made a podcast with a few weeks ago. His name is Benjamin Grant and his work, his book is called Overview. And Ben uses satellite photography of the oceans, of the coastlines, of the mountains and what you might call the sequence of that photography over time. To create a very powerful, artistic rendering of what’s happening to our planet. And I’ll put you in touch with him and his work because I think you sound very similar. The gentleman I mentioned earlier, Enrique Martinez Celaya he has so many quotes that come to my mind, I hear him all the time. But he says, “Art is not revealed in or as a stable meaning, but by a very particular instability of meaning.”

Art is that vibration between meaning and no meaning whose experience renders the opposition meaningless and dissolves our separation from the primal nature of the universe. The bigger the initial apparent gap between meaning and no meaning, the greater the art. The experience of art, the basis of meaning that it opens is not only unstable, but depends upon instability. Any desire to make it concrete precludes the experience of art.” I’ve often found in my own thinking, I remember reading about the social origins of Florentine painting by Frederick Antal. That in many ways people like the philosopher John Dewey often says, “Quest for certainty.” The quest for false resolution.

And one of the things I find so powerful about art is that it contradicts the notion that things and meaning are stable and how you say? unmoving or unchanging. I think that’s a false consciousness that economics falls into very, very badly. Yanis you know when we were kids, we weren’t all talking about the internet. This isn’t a dynamic programming problem to a terminal equilibrium 30 years from now or whatever that we all understand and the false consciousness of analytic economics. And I know you’re a far better mathematician than I am but it feels like scientism not scientific.

Yanis Varoufakis:

Absolutely. It is the same relationship that astrology has to astronomy, economics has to mathematics. Many astrologists use and charts and it’s complicated, some of them even use equations but it’s not astronomy is it? Similarly the physics and mathematics envy of economics what it does is it takes ideology, even religious beliefs about how markets work and gives them a mathematical structure which plays two roles. Firstly, it’s aesthetically beautiful. There’s no doubt that standard economic models are aesthetically very pleasing, if you understand the maths they look beautiful and it’s fun to play with. And the other thing they do, they speak to the only economic concept that economists understand and that is the power of monopoly.

And if you use very high part mathematics to couch your theorism, that means you exclude almost everyone from being able to understand what your theories are and that creates monopoly power for you. And suddenly you’re the expert because you are the only one who can understand that. And if your models contain then very simplifying assumptions, which taken from the ivory towers of the universities to Wall Street and applied there to models that pertain to compute the value at risk of Goldman Sachs and your model gives the CEO of Goldman Sachs the answer he wants. So suddenly you get a lot of money by being an economist in a university at MIT or Yale and you provide false models to somebody who wants false model in order to present their falsities in a way which is very lucrative to them.

So the whole thing is wonderfully Darwinist but in an inverse kind of Darwinism variety. Because it’s selection of the worst of the unfitness economic theories, the most unfit economic theories. The theories that are most unfit in explaining capitalism are the ones that are selected for by a process of reinforcing these theories through the connivance between the interest of the financial sector and the interests of the academics that peddle them.

Rob Johnson:

Yes and when we embed this in the political process that false consciousness of saying that the rocket scientists can measure a value at risk. We have it under control at the financial firm implies no need for regulation, supervision, or examination which you might call further permits the reckless. And that recklessness I think played a very big role in the prelude to 2008 and it seems to be what you might call be engaging. Though in America now I think it’s the sheer muscle of money and politics.

Instead of having tax evasion, we have legal tax avoidance so that the wealthy can keep their money off shore and then say we can’t afford it at home. But the entire design of the financial system is what I will call commodified social design. And it lives on those false premises that you just cited with regard to the analysis of finance and the idea that statistical distributions made up of subjective psychological expectations have some kind of stability that you can count on. I find just unfathomable that people actually could believe that.

Yanis Varoufakis:

Indeed, indeed. Statistics is a beautiful science, the problems begin when economists get their hands on beautiful statistical theorems and models and they make assumptions. Make rubbish assumptions, you get rubbish results. But isn’t it fantastic Rob that when the whole edifice built on these false models comes crashing down. The very same people who were kicking and screaming at anyone who dares suggest that the state should help the poor, that the state should provide public health, that the state should do things in the public interest.

Those very same libertarian deniers of the role, of the proper role of the state are now asking for the state to effectively collectivize the economy. To start paying wages of people, take over airlines or bail them out, banks, the whole lot. And the moment they stabilize their hold over society they will go back to the same rubbish, to the same fake models, to the same flimsy conceptions of the relationship between the market and the state as if nothing happened. And there’s no journalism that can actually hold them accountable for this flip flopping.

Rob Johnson:

Yes. Danae, Naomi Klein and her husband Avi Lewis are people who they’ve been good friends of mine for many, many years. We met through the late William Greider who was a fabulous analyst of the disfunction of democracy and wrote a wonderful book on central banking called Secrets of The Temple. But Naomi’s book This Changes Everything in relation to climate was getting at something that Yanis was just alluding to. Which is she was saying that in essence the scientific evidence about climate deterioration may be true, but acknowledging that allows governments to come back in and play a role. And may set a precedent for the inadequacy of what you might call private sector market systems to handle everything and anything without the need of government.

Do you think on the horizon now, awakened by the pandemic that when we look at climate we’re in a place where as Naomi said, it’s time to change everything? In the way in which government is allowed to respond to collective need and the public good? Where scientists are telling us we only have maybe a decade or two before catastrophic effect on humankind would emerge. How do you put this all together? How do we shatter the old ideologies and what is the challenge you see on the horizon?

Danae Stratou:

This is exactly as we put it, very much the big challenge because will we wake up? Will we realize that each one of us needs to be responsible and take action and not allow things to go back to normal as they were? So this is exactly the big, big challenge that we need to take things into our hands and to demand and to make a difference. And then talking about of course we each need to be responsible in our everyday lives, but this is not enough of course. So will we pressure the governments? Will we understand that we are billions, we are the many? We can make the change and we don’t have to give in to whatever the authority pretends that they know everything and they understand it all?

No, we have an obligation in this moment in history and this exactly is a very good opportunity, the fact that we are going through this crazy virus. And this is maybe a wake up call, and it may be the only opportunity we have right now to change our predicament, to take it into our hands and to make a future for our children and their children. Because the way that they’re just going on like everything is okay is just impossible. So it is really, really a matter of opening the black boxes let’s say of the system, revealing the way that they function and taking things in our hands and making the change. So I’m working on this project which is an ongoing project, which was initiated from the crisis, economic crisis 10 years ago but it’s now very relevant again.

And I’m making a new open call, a global open call on that people have with one word to answer what threatens you mostly today or what do you feel is being threatened and you would like to protect? So I’m initiating next week through the website Open The Black Boxes. This global open call which basically then portrays the psychological portrait of humanity, of our hopes and our fears. We need collectively to take things in our hand and demand a difference because I think that can change comes when we can imagine what we want. When we can imagine where we want to be and not believing what people tell us that we have to be, where we have to be, the authorities I mean. So we need to imagine a future for ourselves and make it happen.

Rob Johnson:

I’m a very inspired. The opening black boxes experiment I want to get information on that because at INET now we have a Young Scholars Initiative that’s approaching 12,000 members and I would like to alert that network and get them to participate. And I think-

Danae Stratou:

Absolutely I will send the details once we are ready to go online with this new open call. It will be very, very nice, useful for everyone to have this support yeah.

Rob Johnson:

I think that’s a brilliant idea. Yanis I’m reminded in 2015 I guess in late 2014, you and I talked about my annual conference that was going to be in Paris, hosted at the OECD. And lo and behold, by the time we got to that conference you were the finance minister from Greece then you and Joseph Stiglitz with me playing a moderating role had a fabulous conversation. I was later told by the way, it was the first time in the history of Bloomberg Television that they had switched every show in every country away from its regular programming and onto that event. But I remember very warmly the power and the energy of what you brought forward that day and have continued to bring forward and I will tell you that you are a big inspiration to me.

A year or so ago I went to Bruges, Belgium and I was talking to people about a man named Lawrence Freeman who’s building a leadership retreat there. He’s a monk and has been a mentor to many people, but primarily through the role of meditation. And what I said in my talk was that one has to go into yourself and understand your neediness and where you’re vulnerable. So you’re not just getting in front of parades that other people create in order to what you might call lick your wounds or fortify your weaknesses. You have to go in and decide on an inner purpose. And that inner purpose is something once you can reach that, and I was advocating that meditation is helpful in this regard.

Then you come back out to the world and it’s only then that you have the power to actually help and heal. And when I delivered that speech afterwards at the dinner, somebody asked me for an example of someone who I thought operated like that and the person I mentioned was you. My man Enrique Martinez Celaya has said, “What Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and most of the prophets have in common is a strong, ethical outlook and a heightened sensitivity to attitudes and morals. The obvious ones, as well as those that lurk beneath the surface. They also share urgency. Prophets are not inclined to wait for the right time. Their prophetic vision demands action, leaving a little room for calculation or diplomacy.

Truth for prophets is not merely a belief, but a moral imperative that compels them to speak and act with little regard for convenience or gains. But prophets need to do more than speaking and acting. It is not enough to be apocalyptic, something must be brought forward.” Yanis when I look at you from that day, and we knew each other before. But from that day when you were on center stage around the world and the changes you’ve made in your career and the voice that you’ve created I sense that… How would I say? That you’re compelled to go for something that is healing of society and you’re not merely apocalyptic. You’re trying to build things going forward.

Where do you find the strength? I know as I’m listening to Danae with you that the two of you are much bigger than the sum of the parts and I know each of you is very strong in your own right. But where do you get the conviction? You’ve taken a beating from elites mocking you and so forth and you keep moving. I’m actually talking to you about you as an example to my young scholars of what to become, but I need your vision of what you’re doing and where does that strength come from?

Yanis Varoufakis:

To begin with Rob, thank you for your kind words. The last few years have been difficult because as you said, the fact that Bloomberg turned on all their stations to me was not because I’m so important. At that moment, I was the only finance minister in the Eurozone that was saying no to policies that were catastrophic for Europe and I had to be crushed for that. And I was a major threat to most of the clients of Bloomberg but that did not matter because as you say on the one hand, yes it is true that with Danae it makes such a huge difference that it’s two of us not just one. And also that we’re not both economists, that she’s an artist and I do what I do.

You reminded me when you were talking about effectively integrity of the vision but you were linking it to the prophet. I link it to the artist on the one hand and the scientist on the other because one of my great influences Rob is or was Iris Murdoch the philosopher turned play write, play write as well but mainly novelist. And she makes this neoplatonic point that I always adored, and the point is that the true scientist and the true artists share one thing. That in pursuit of truth through different channels they overcome themselves. And in end just because you have managed to overcome yourself, you become the person you could be but that takes a capacity not care about what the establishment says, what Bloomberg says, but the systemic presence says.

It doesn’t mean that you don’t pay attention and that you don’t learn from your mistakes, because then you end up being a fanatic. But what it means is that you learn how to appreciate, for instance when the systemic media, mass media that are paid it’s there and that’s what they’re getting their salaries for in order to promote the interest of a particularly parasitic oligarchy. When they take swipes at you, well that should please you and you should be particularly worried if they start saying kind words about you. But let me just finish off by saying that you’re totally right. What truly matters is to combine a capacity to just be self deprecating and constantly to be critical of yourself with a second capacity, not to budge simply because there are strong headwinds. When the headwinds don’t come from the interest of the many but the headwinds emanate from the toxic interests of the very, very few.

Rob Johnson:

Yes, yes. Danae I’m very fond of poetry and one of my favorite poets and writers is a woman named Muriel Rukeyser. She wrote a book called the Life of Poetry. And when I heard Yanis a moment ago talk about not so much prophetic, but science and arts it brought to mind this quote from her. “Poetry. It’s a way to allow people to feel the meeting of their consciousness and the world. To feel the full value of the meanings of emotions and ideas in relation with each other and to understand in the glimpse of a moment, the freshness of things and their possibilities. The relations of poetry are for our period, very close to the relations of science.

It is not a matter of using the results of science, but of being that there is a meeting place between all kinds of imagination. Poetry can provide that meeting place.” She wrote that in the 1950s, but I see you very much in that meeting place and bringing the arts as a way, a pathway into the realm where say Yanis and I were directed. And I think that this daunting time right now can only be healed with the pathway that you construct. How did you… I’m asking a similar question that I brought up Yanis, how did you define that inner purpose that has become who you are today?

Danae Stratou:

You’re quoting beautiful, beautiful writers and ideas, it’s lovely to hear these very inspiring words that you have found. So for me there’s a common thing that we have with Yanis that I think has to do with the fact that it’s not so much caring about yourself, like your everyday self but one feels that life is a bigger thing and we need to celebrate it and it’s a huge gift. And for me since I was a small child I had one fear and that was that I wouldn’t live up to see the whole of the world and to give everything back to this gift that I was given which is life. So what I feel very often when I have an inspiration to make a work, to do something to work is it’s like a matter of life and death.

It’s like it needs to exist, it needs to come out and it’s like giving birth, but you give birth to an idea. So poetry is art and art is poetry and the argument is a science. So if we put poetry and argument as two not opposites, but different ways of being in life everything is connected and they’re both in value. But it’s just different ways of being in life and expressing ideas and yeah. The human mind is about going a step further than having ideas and making them happen, making them happen in different forms. This is what makes us unique.

Rob Johnson:

Yanis I’ve remembered because of my musical interests that you’ve worked with Brian Eno and he has this artistic dimension as well. And I always remember I believe he was the producer of the U2 Achtung Baby and there was a song in there called One and we’re near the end. The verse says, “Well, it’s too late tonight to drag the past, out into the light. We’re one, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other. Carry each other.” I see the two of you carrying each other, but I see you each defining yourself to bear a lot of weight and carry us all.

Danae you said, I brought up beautiful quotes and I thank you for that but what you must understand is I didn’t come to this talk with any of those quotes in preparation. I was inspired in this conversation. Those things emerged from my reading, from things that I’ve had meaning and they correlate with the two people that I’m talking to today. That’s what inspired beautiful quotes. So I guess I’m saying I know two very beautiful people.

Danae Stratou:

Well, Rob, what can we say? It’s so touching and I’m very touched by what you have said just now. And it’s a privilege to be in this company with you.

Yanis Varoufakis:

And let me, let me say something about Rob Johnson very, very briefly. I don’t know whether in the next 15 years there will be people who start working in Wall Street and working for hedge funds and in finance. I hope there will be but I very much fear there won’t people like you in 50 years from now. Who will have the capacity to move from the arid and toxic world of finance to do what you are doing, which is to try to effectively warn the universe. Rear young men and women, young scholars through INET into a kind of conception of the world that gave you your professional legs initially. And make them wary of it and make them look at it critically and make them even subverted it and resist it. I wonder whether they will be people like that in the future, I hope there are Rob. I hope there are other Rob Johnsons in the future.

Rob Johnson:

I find and thank your lovely comments, but I find right now that we are at a juncture after over 200 years where the notion of religion has been discredited in the notion of the market and economic logic has become deified. And the fault lines of such a false consciousness are very much… How would I say? Evident now. I remember a scholar at Oxford from the 50’s, R. C. Zaner, who said, “The loss of faith in a given religion does not, by any means implied the eradication of the religious instinct. It merely means that the instinct temporarily repressed will seek an object elsewhere.”

I believe that you each and together have defined a courage in your purpose that helps us with those yearnings, those psychological desires that are akin to religious devotion but we need to move them to a different place. And I’m reminded that the word courage if you take its Latin roots ‘cour’ and ‘age’ when translated means to tell the story of your heart ‘cour’… Excuse me, to tell the story of your time, your age with your whole heart ‘cour’. And then getting together with the two of you I am encouraged to continue on the path of my story to try to help like you mentioned the younger generations. Evolve to a much healthier place of guidance for what is good for themself and what is good for society.

But each of you, and it didn’t start today, though today has been a beautiful conversation. Each of you has been inside my heart an example, and in your support fortified my courage for as long as we’ve known one another, which is now many many years. But I want to thank you each and both for being with me today and I hope that before too much time passes we can reconvene, have another look at the world and… How would I say? Open those black boxes as you both do so marvelously. Thank you.

Danae Stratou:

Thank you so much, Rob. It was just wonderful for us. The fact that you invited us together is also it was so touching for us and it’s so important to be together in this conversation. So I really, really from the bottom of my heart want to thank you for that.

Rob Johnson:

You’re welcome.

Yanis Varoufakis:

And for me Rob as a faithful, devout and believer I want to thank you from my bottom of my heart because the only alternative to faith even for an atheist like me is superstition. And that’s what we are trying to fight together all three of us superstition.

Rob Johnson:

Yes. I might have to play a little Stevie Wonder when we get off the air but we’ll play a little Stevie Wonder and open some black boxes together.

Danae Stratou:

Wonderful. Fantastic.

Yanis Varoufakis:

Fantastic.

Rob Johnson:

Thanks.

Danae Stratou:

Thanks.

Rob Johnson:

Talk again soon.

Yanis Varoufakis:

Thank you.

Rob Johnson:

Bye-bye.

Yanis Varoufakis:

Bye.

Danae Stratou:

Bye-bye.

About the Host

ROB JOHNSON serves as President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Johnson is an international investor and consultant to investment funds on issues of portfolio strategy. He recently served on the United Nations Commission of Experts on International Monetary Reform under the Chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.

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About the Guests

YANIS VAROUFAKIS, a former finance minister of Greece, is leader of the MeRA25 party and Professor of Economics at the University of Athens.

DANAE STRATOU is a Greek visual and installation artist and former adjunct professor of fine art.