tue 28/03/2017

Brighton Festival: Yanis Varoufakis, Brighton Dome | reviews, news & interviews

Brighton Festival: Yanis Varoufakis, Brighton Dome

Brighton Festival: Yanis Varoufakis, Brighton Dome

Star-power and myth-busting from rogue Greek economist

Greek bearing gifts: Yanis Varoufakis

Maybe rock star economists are what we need. Former Greek finance minister Varoufakis’s bullish good looks, charisma and verbal fireworks failed to charm the Troika technocrats who finally banished him from government during last year’s infamous negotiations. But for this regularly applauding, sell-out crowd in Britain’s sole Green constituency he’s fascinating and, to many muttering approvingly, hugely admirable. As actual rock stars mostly absent themselves from their old role of rough, rebellious moral compass, this engaging, irreverent man of ideas may find his time has come.

Interviewed by Channel 4 economics editor and Guardian columnist Paul Mason, both men speak from the left, but Varoufakis’s ideas are inclusively stimulating. He’s a little like a 2008 Brighton Festival speaker on this stage, Gore Vidal, possessing some of the late, great American radical’s amusing arrogance (the just-dumped Austrian Chancellor is “intellectually not very strong”; a former cabinet colleague was “one of the brighter ones”), and all Vidal’s contempt for received opinion’s panaceas.

Varoufakis is touring Europe to promote his new book, And the Weak Suffer What They Must?, and his would-be movement for open European democracy, Diem. His declaration that this radical change will begin in theatres and audiences such as tonight’s, not sclerotic, democracy-despising parliaments, is flatteringly optimistic. But if even a few here are transformed from chattering to activist class by his words, then he’s done what he can.Syriza’s first weeks in power are wistfully recalled as a “campaign of governmental disobedience”, though one that weakened too soon. His nation now is “withering away in the corner” after “humiliation and asphyxiation” by the Troika; as the educated young leave in their thousands, “we are being bled dry of our human capital, of our flesh and our soul, while they play their little games.” I hear an audience member complain afterwards about such “emotive” language, believing Troika negotiators couldn’t respond to such terms. But it is the profound disconnection between those in power and the human misery they frequently cause which lets our rulers sleep at night. The emotion and art of Varoufakis’s words have their place.

Audience questions after Mason’s friendly interview are uniformly interesting, and answered head-on, though at such length only a fraction of those queuing at mics get to speak; the elderly gentleman left standing hunched-over at the back for 30 minutes might have expected some socialism in action from those in front. The sound-bites and aphorisms I scribble stud detailed arguments, and feel like curtains being parted on the wizard behind the bland Oz of the daily news. The intellectually woeful Brexit debate really amounts to “the English aristocracy not wanting to share their power with Brussels”; Europe’s refugee solution is “bribing an increasingly dictatorial President of Turkey to violate international law”; we are living in a “post-modern 1930s”, hopefully played out as farce this time; the wars in Georgia and Ukraine are the result of the European Union and NATO greedily trampling agreements made to Gorbachev, and NATO promising protection it never gives; the European rulers he’s met see democracy as a form of pleasant etiquette, abandoned once on the battlefield: “they loathe democracy... they like the packaging”.

These are, as always, serious times, and Varoufakis’s radical optimism is tempered by fear of a second capitalist “tsunami” hitting already damaged economies, and resurgent fascism truly taking hold. Having grown up, as he reminds us, under Greece’s fascist Colonels, he knows what that’s like. It’s been a night of intelligent plain-speaking, blowing away some of the fog of mainstream political debate, which complacently assumes nothing will or should change.

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