If Yanis Varoufakis was going to make a comeback, it had to be in the German capital. Varoufakis, who resigned as Greece’s finance minister last summer rather than bend to Germany’s diktat of austerity, came to Berlin last week in a bid to steal back the limelight. Saving Greece was apparently not challenging enough. Now Varoufakis wants to stop his former nemesis – the European Union – from devouring itself.
In the half year that he led Greece in debt talks with its European creditors, the bullet-headed economist transfixed the continent with his unconventional style. Varoufakis shunned neckties and pounded the parquet of European ministries in his Doc Martens. Germans nicknamed him “the Greek Bruce Willis.” In his Twitter profile, Varoufakis describes himself more modestly as “economics professor, quietly writing obscure academic texts for years, until thrust onto the public scene by Europe’s inane handling of an inevitable crisis.”
Last Tuesday night, Varoufakis hosted a show in a sold-out Berlin theater that was as much about him as it was about his new movement: DiEM25, or Democracy in Europe Movement 2025. The assembled ex-hippies and students were heeding Varoufakis’s call to “put back the demos in democracy.”
“Europe will democratize or it will disintegrate. That’s not a scare tactic but a fact,” Varoufakis said as he took the stage as MC and keynote speaker. The core of his thesis is that a cadre of bureaucrats has usurped the European Union, which is not only undemocratic but anti-democratic. The “depoliticization” and secrecy of decision-making have estranged the majority of Europeans from the European Union, leading to a rise in nationalism. Given the economic havoc wreaked on large parts of Europe through forced austerity, Varoufakis said, the continent is facing “a post-modern version of the 1930s,” the heyday of European fascism.
Despite his reputation, Varoufakis is not a firebrand and can hardly be called a politician. He delivered his speech in precise but colloquial English like the professor that he is. When Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called him into his government a year ago, Varoufakis was teaching at the University of Texas at Austin.
Not surprisingly then, the first DiEM25 event turned into part university lecture and part Communist Party congress – with little of the energy or participation one would expect at the founding of a grassroots democratic movement. A dozen speakers, mostly left-wing European politicians, followed Varoufakis to the podium.
The most rousing speech came from Miguel Urban, one of the founders of the insurgent left-wing Podemos party that entered the Spanish parliament in December. Urban’s voice rose in crescendos while his index finger jabbed the air. “You don’t need tanks for a coup d’état anymore, as we saw in Greece,” Urban said. “Debt is being used to blackmail southern Europeans.”
The audience reserved the greatest applause for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose stubbled face was beamed in live from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he sought refuge from a Swedish arrest warrant in 2012. While Assange claimed to have contributed to the DiEM manifesto, his exact connection to the movement was unclear. The Australian hacker repeatedly referred to Europe as “a country” and exhorted supporters to “seize the night.”
Two hours of fanciful left-wing terminology – “organic construction of daily struggles,” “regime of suppression,” “normalized precarity” – began to wear down even the most committed activists. Varoufakis paraphrased a saying by Oscar Wilde, joking that “socialism will never work because the meetings are too long.”
It would take another hour until the question-and-answer session – but not before Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek confused everyone by comparing DiEM to an “old-fashioned, paranoid science-fiction film.” One of the first questions from the audience was inevitably: “What is DiEM?”
Varoufakis’s vision is to begin with concrete demands, such as pushing EU institutions to become more transparent, then develop detailed policy proposals, eventually convening a “constitutional assembly” where citizens will determine how to democratize the European Union by 2025.
While its criticisms of the status quo are on the mark, Europe’s left has been incapable of presenting workable solutions. In a press conference on Tuesday morning, Varoufakis dropped a hint as to why. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the European left was drained of moral strength, or as Varoufakis put it, carried “collective guilt” for some of the worst crimes committed in the 20th century.
There are also other reasons. Since the times of Karl Marx, one of the paradoxes of leftism has been that it is an anti-elite ideology designed by elites. In his speech, Varoufakis said he was also addressing those people who were at home “watching reality TV shows to drown out their anxiety.” It’s not clear that he will ever reach them.
The live Internet transmission of the theater event seemed like a conceit. DiEM’s first demand is for secretive EU institutions to live-stream their sessions. But the movement’s own meetings Tuesday afternoon were closed to the public and the press.