The clash of civilisations: Varoufakis and Schäuble

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Before setting off to negotiate what was to become the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the founder of the Red Army Leon Trotsky promised to use the negotiations to put the entire conduct of the War on trial:

“Sitting at one table with [the representatives of our adversaries] we shall ask them explicit questions which do not allow of any evasion, and the entire course of negotiations, every word that they or we utter, will be taken down and reported by radio telegraph to all peoples who will be the judges of our discussions. Under the influence of the masses, the German and Austrian governments have already agreed to put themselves in the dock. You may be sure, comrades, that the prosecutor, in the person of the Russian revolutionary delegation, will be in its place and will in due time make a thundering speech for the prosecution about the diplomacy of all imperialists.”

The military imbalance between a Russia desperate for peace and a German army still 12 months from disintegration dictated that Trotsky was not able to carry through, except briefly, on this promise. But he had his moments. At one stage, his antagonist General Hoffmann denounced the Bolsheviks because their government was supported by force. Trotsky replied:

The general was quite right when he said that our government rests on force. Up to the present moment there has been no government dispensing with force. It will always be so as long as society is composed of hostile classes … What in our conduct strikes and antagonises other governments is the fact that instead of arresting strikers we arrest capitalists who organise lockouts; instead of shooting the peasants who demand land, we arrest and we shoot the landlords and the officers who try to fire upon the peasants …

If you have not yet watched the meeting between the Greek minister of finance Varoufakis and his German counterpart Schäuble, I would urge you to do so, for their encounter reflects two ways of thinking no less implacably at odds than the encounter of Hoffman with the Bolsheviks.

Much has been made of Varoufakis’ untactful remark that Germany, by imposing poverty on Greece, was opening a path to the re-emergence of the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn. But it is Schäuble who, on this occasion, interests me more.

Do not think that only Varoufakis uses his clothes to express an ideology. Wolfgang Schäuble, who normally dresses in a more authoritarian dark grey bordering on black, wore on this occasion a lighter grey suit which to anyone used to watching London politicians would appear loosely-fitting and cheaply-tailored. Far from wanting to come over as the official representative of one of the largest national economies on earth, everything about his demeanour conveyed a provincial bank manager on temporary secondment to head office.

His message was deliberately pedestrian; Greece has made progress in recent years in so far as its economy has shrunk, its state’s expenditure has declined and its operating costs were reduced. “Problems in Greece have not been solved but significant progress has been made in implementing the programme … Greece has achieved a primary budget surplus”.

The problems which Varoufakis determined to present as political, and therefore capable of discussion and potentially resolution, Schäuble described as problems of accountancy: Greek was in debt, that debt had to be paid. In so far as it proposes to spend more the Syriza government is in an error as basic as that of the schoolchild who adds up their seven times table wrongly in their head.

Of course, in order to convince yourself and to tell the world that an economic problem avails of only a single solution you have to be the servant of an ideology, and in Schäuble’s case it is the conviction that debt is only ever the product of recklessness by a debtor, and that all debts have to be repaid in full, even if (by this stage) the debts involve Greek citizens paying German banks at artificial rates appropriate to an economy which was then twenty-five percent larger than it is now.  One of Varoufakis’ favourite approaches is to accept the analogy neo-liberals always draw between national and household economics. But for over a century, he responds, we would have allowed citizens to declare themselves insolvent, clear their debts and begin anew. What other than deliberate blindness prevents us from applying the same logic to an indebted national economy?

Deeper than this initial conflict, there is a much more profound clash about what economies are for – serving banks and companies, or people?

The logic of their clash shapes the areas into which the two economics ministers were constantly seeking to turn the discussion: for Varoufakis, the Greek debt was something that required an answer now, where the will of the people was sovereign, for Schäuble, no matter how people vote there is never an alternative to the rule of the investors. Let Greece starve a little, he sent the message back, and surely her people would come round.

For more than thirty years, we have let the Schäubles of the world rule, and it is not only Greece which has been impoverished: we can see their hand in the ever shrinking portion of the American and European economies that goes to wages, and the ever increasing portion of wealth taken by the 1%.

At Brest-Litovsk, of course, the Bolsheviks had to concede a humiliating peace, once almost worse than a continuation of the war, and yet within a further 12 months, their government had been entrenched, and it was the Hoffmans who had been consigned to history.

So it might still be – if in Spain, Podemos wins the election, if the struggle depends in Greece and if those resisting austerity in Greece can find solidarity in London and Berlin. If we are going to be free to breathe, the Europe of the future must first overcome the rule of the accountants.

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