That’s why they call me Mr. Farenheit: On the accelerations of Yanis Varoufakis, from the journal of a colleague (for a day)
Officine Corsare, Turin, 11pm. I am sitting next to Yanis Varoufakis, whispering in his ear as I translate the speeches being made in a debate on democracy in Europe. He listens intently, and occasionally leans against the chair to reveal, from the leg of his trousers, a dark leather boot. Shortly before, as we were walking to the debate, it was the length – down to the calves – of his elegant coat that caught my eye. That too, black. ‘He’s like Neo’ – I think to myself, as I conjure in my mind that famous scene from The Matrix. Where the protagonist intuits the malleable matrix of reality, after he surprises himself dodging the bullets fired at him by agent Smith – the trajectory of which he is unexpectedly capable of following in slow motion.
But Varoufakis has more in common with Neo than his punk-themed elegance. The Greek economist – who was in Turin on March 17, 2016 to receive a honorary professorial appointment at the International University College of Turin [where I was lecturing at the time] – has a certain promethean aura about himself, not unlike the hero of The Matrix. It’s a boldness that comes with facing an obscure and oppressing computational order, and coming out at the other end with a burning truth to share with humanity: that of mankind’s enduring collective power to bring into being alternative visions of the possible. Out of metaphor, Varoufakis’ early career was spent precisely grappling with the esoteric formalism of mathematics, in its application to economics:
This [the study of maths] was by choice. I decided that I would learn their language better than they [the economists] know it.
He confesses this, as we converse at the end of his professorial appointment ceremony. Upon gaining an in-depth familiarity with what could appear to be simple algebraic unknowns, Varoufakis has eventually developed a unique acumen to engage their meaning critically, as postulates around the collective process of wealth production. He gives the following example, to show the point of deconstructing the maths behind economics:
You need continuity and you need convexity, in mathematics, to solve anything. So you assume convexity, because otherwise you can’t determine a solution. As long as you assume convexity, you can work with a smooth indifference curve and you have a smooth isoquant [the curve representing possible combinations of factors of production] … and then suddenly labour and capital can be treated as infinitely substitutable: the price of one being wage and the price of the other being profit. This is how every idea that Marx had about the social relations of production disappears from the economists’ consideration.
By this very method, Varoufakis has developed over the years a penetrating critique of the economic models used to justify financial and monetary infrastructures – both on a national as well as at an international level – that have proven to be highly unstable. This strand of work he has developed most fully in The Global Minotaur and his latest And the Weak Suffer What They Must?. Yet, especially following his stint as Finance Minister of Greece, this aspect of his work has become all-thematising, in a manner that artificially hinders a fuller appreciation of Varoufakis’ considerable and ongoing curiosity. I find it more appealing, instead, to try and trace a possible trajectory unfolding through his pursuits, which yields promise for pushing the boundaries of left-wing political imagination as a whole.
And Varoufakis’ trajectory vibrates with the roaring burst of accelerations, like those of his now-famous Yamaha.
His encounter with economics is partly casual. In his high school years, Varoufakis is an active member of the youth wing of PASOK headed by Andreas Papandreou, to whom he finds himself asking for a reference letter for gaining admission to an undergraduate programme in theoretical physics, in the UK. Papandreou consents to provide the reference, on one condition – which Varoufakis recollects, pensively, from the well of memory:
You’re not going to [do theoretical physics], you will do mathematical economics: the mathematics is the same as theoretical physics. The difference is that, if you do theoretical physics, nobody will take you seriously in political debates.
This first jolt, by which he moved closer to economic method, in time made it possible for the Greek economist to attempt another acceleration, through which to break the barrier of quantification – the veritable pillar of economic formalism. Indeed, if many economists view it as an obstacle – a stumbling block – whenever they are unable to formalise a closed mathematical model of reality, Varoufakis was struck by the opportunity this offers. Namely, to focus scholarly inquiry once again on the qualitative dimension of economic agency, by taking seriously the paradox that a large part of the processes by which socially produced value circulates are recalcitrant to being enclosed in a manageable algebraic formulation. This very qualitative dimension of economics, after all, is one that the ‘political economy’ schools of the 1800s had contemplated at length – a point he expands with an example:
The labour market is not a real market, it’s more like a contested terrain. Marx’s contribution for instance was to say that labour comes in two forms. It’s a commodity which you sell or lease to an employer, and that’s quantifiable: forty hours a week, for so much money … But then it’s a weird place to be in, this labour market: the buyer is not interested in what he’s buying. What he’s interested in is something quite different: your work. Work and labour [as tradeable commodity] are not the same thing … I may be employed for forty hours, sit here, look at the ceiling, and do nothing; have no productive input. But the amount of productive input [which the capitalist desires] enters the production process as a result of a social relation between me and my firm, which is outside the market: it cannot be captured by any market.
Far from seeing the qualitative dimension of productive relations as a negative limit to economic inquiry, Varoufakis pushes once more on the gas pedal, to further his understanding of the creation of value that takes place outside of the mediation of markets. For instance, after resigning as a minister, he undertakes a sabbatical year, during which he is able to study, from within, a videogame company – Valve – that had hired him as a consultant to help manage the virtual trading communities between gamers. In that setting, Varoufakis cultivates interesting insights on ‘impure exchanges’, which encompass a gift dimension that characterises the relationship between the parties, resisting complete quantification of the parties’ respective profit and arbitrage. On the wave of the same curiosity towards social production forms that are not amenable to a market logic, Varoufakis finally improvises himself etnographer of Valve, describing with admiration their organisational experimentation. And of how they seek to move beyond the hierarchical principle that structures production inside most corporations, making them akin to small authoritarian feuds: Varoufakis paints an enthusiastic picture of how Valve leverages instead the spontaneous process of self-organisation, to the point of making it necessary for ‘the people who work there … to be de-programmed, because they all came from Microsoft, Google … with a hierarchical notion in their heads’.
In sum, Varoufakis’ accelerations appear to compose a trajectory, which I want to dare to name. The eclectic Greek economist has moved through economic science, having cracked the code of its methods, to become open to qualitative readings of economic agency, finally reaching the point of honing a curiosity for the new organisational forms that are sprouting, outside the sphere of the market.
Were one to try and discern in this trajectory the contours of a political strategy, it it first of all obvious that Varoufakis does not situate a post-capitalist horizon in the mere return to ‘simpler’ forms of community: ‘I’m not a hippie, and neither am I a luddist’ – he makes clear. Rather, the search should be projected forwards; it should accelerate, Varoufakis-style, in order for the confining structures of capitalist production be overtaken by new organisational forms, which be technologically advanced and democratically managed, so as to make the old game obsolete. This position would be not too far off the one articulated by Williams and Srnicek in the Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics. I mention this vicinity to him; Varoufakis seems interested, and adds:
History is what happens when our inventiveness creates new machines, new technologies, which suddenly clash against the social relations of production. Just like the steam engine destroyed feudal relations of production … so capitalism isn’t safe, since technological innovation makes the existing social relations of production unstable … I’d like technology – like the accelerationists from what you’re telling me – to be implemented and to be be adopted much faster, and to evolve much faster, but under political guidance, so that we do not end up like doctor Frankenstein, being destroyed by our creation.
In other words, it’s not the speed of change one ought to be mindful of, but the ability to channel those very transformative energies through a non-authoritarian, participatory deliberation. I wanna make a supersonic man out of you: this sounds like the type of invitation that this Mr Fareheit of post-capitalism would want to make. In response to the call of land beyond the horizon, Varoufakis has no hesitation in accelerating towards it, if to accelerate means to leave behind the quantifying myopias of contemporary economic thinking. And he does so, by sketching a renewed aesthetics of modernity, that be mindful not to overlook the inextricability of value creation from the cultural, biological and ecological processes that are its conditions of possibility; he also prompts for collective inventiveness to be channelled into a wiser – and more democratic – art of ethical-political navigation. If this were his invitation, I’d take the liberty to reply with the curious enthusiasm of an Italian singer/songwriter – Lucio Dalla – speaking as a sailor, as he addresses a courageous captain that set sail from the Greek seas:
should there be more of the world … I am ready: where are we headed?