Sunday, 30 September 2018

When Yanis met Jeremy




Above is a conversation between economist cum politician Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s finance minister from January to July 2015, and Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, at the Edinburgh Book festival on 20 August this year.

They talk about the usual – democracy, socialism, post-capitalism, etc, etc, before going on to discuss Brexit.

Here, Varoufakis, comes out against a second referendum since, he says, referenda require a binary choice whereas the UK has, in fact, four choices in front of it. These are the Canada plus deal favoured by the hard Brexiteers; Norway plus, the deal Varoufakis advocates and which the Labour party is broadly putting forward – staying in the single market and the customs union; the Chequers proposal supported by the British government; and Remain. 

Corbyn argues the case for a General Election rather than a second referendum, before going on to state the customary issues Labour intends to fight the Tories on: health, education, poverty, homelessness, inequality, low and stagnant wages, etc. 

Moral outrage shapes Corbyn’s politics and, for him, socialism is simply the triumph of justice over iniquity, of fairness over inequality, and, when all is said and done, of right over wrong. Varoufakis has a more highfalutin understanding of what a socialist society would look like, referring us to Star Trek – in which, Varoufakis says, technology is harnessed in the service of the common good or, as Varoufakis puts it, machines do all the work while citizens discuss philosophy and explore the universe. 

The conversation continues with Varoufakis repeating his rather hysterical warning that Europe is currently staring into the abyss and risks a return to the politics of the 1920s and 1930s, i.e. risks the rise of fascism, and he points to the emergence of Victor Orban in Hungary, Sebastian Kurz in Austria and Matteo Salvini in Italy to prove his (facile) theory.

Finally, there is a brief discussion of the contrasting regimes of Athens and Sparta. Corbyn clearly has no idea how radical Athenian democracy was and regurgitates the usual platitudes about its flaws – slavery, the exclusion of women and migrants (metics) from Athenian political life – while Varoufakis reverts to the usual caricature of Sparta as a despotic or, in his terms, ‘fascistic’ regime. 

In fact, while it’s not unreasonable to describe Sparta as a totalitarian regime, it was not a dictatorship, tyrannical or despotic (unless you were a helot). Rather, Sparta’s constitution, with its senate, ephors, kings and assembly, was designed to ensure accountability, transparency and checks and balances. 


Aristotle asserts Sparta was a mixed regime, in which its two kings represented monarchy; the senate (gerousia) represented oligarchy; while the assembly – to which all Spartan citizens (Spartiates) were entitled to attend – and the institution of the ephors reflected the democratic aspect of Spartan politics. 


Indeed, ephors (or magistrates) – perhaps the most powerful element in the Spartan politeia – were selected in the most democratic method possible, via lottery, and had their terms in office limited to only one year, after which they were put on trial to judge whether they carried out their duties legally and effectively.