Book review: Varoufakis slays a few Minotaurs

Greece’s former bailout hard man says Europe has fallen 'under the spell of German surpluses' in an updated edition of his conspiracy-minded economic polemic

Yanis Varoufakis: the former Greek finance minister’s book on the global economy is uneven, but his basic diagnosis may be correct. Photograph: Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Yanis Varoufakis: the former Greek finance minister’s book on the global economy is uneven, but his basic diagnosis may be correct. Photograph: Christian Hartmann/Reuters

 

This is some time to be reviewing Yanis Varoufakis. Greece teeters on the edge of the euro zone, its fate a matter of ferocious dispute between Europe’s finance ministers. Until recently Varoufakis was one of them, by most accounts the most irritating and the most self-assured man in the room.

Now he lurks venomously on the fringes, spitting disdain upon a rotten bargain that he believes will doom his nation to further misery, all of which he foretold.

Or did he? That is what will preoccupy anyone perusing The Global Minotaur, the polemic Varoufakis has updated for the latest leg of the crisis. Regrettably, it is too uneven for any clear verdict, providing material enough only to confirm the prejudices of those on either side of the argument.

Spell of surpluse

Europe

It is no exaggeration to describe the book as an attempt to model the world economy on GSRM. To those with a surplus, this will feel pernicious. They see it as a mark of virtue and thrift, not a lurking incubus of financial havoc. To German ears, any call to disperse surpluses smacks of a vagrant hustling loose change for his whisky budget. One can almost imagine Wolfgang Schäuble, German finance minister, warning: “Beware these Greeks bearing surplus recycling mechanisms.”

Siphoned capital

GermanyCrete

Along the way, this Minotaur is deployed to explain everything that irks the leftist polemicist. The Wall Street mergers and acquisitions boom, the US defence budget, Walmart: all were just the creature’s “hand maidens”.

The destruction of the Minotaur by a storm of its own making laid bare the instability of world demand. This is where the saga of Greece and the euro zone re-enters the tale. What Germany has built is a system of fixed exchange rates without any means of recycling surpluses towards deficit countries.

Neither benign hegemony (like the US after the second world war) nor voracious, irresponsible Minotaur, Germany squats sullenly atop the European economy, bargaining stagnation outside its borders for the security of its surplus.

Until last week, my reaction had mostly been to scatter “nonsense” in the margins, and list the bad history and cherry- picked examples that dot the pages of The Global Minotaur. Often it reads as less as a work of economics than a drawn-out conspiracy fable that just happens to use economic terms. Varoufakis, at times appearing confounded by supply and demand, is determined to see Machiavellian impulses behind every flow of capital. One of the mysteries the book clears up is how Varoufakis could so annoy Greece’s creditors that his departure proved essential for a deal.

External demand

Until the last phase of the Greek standoff, I thought this would be understood in Europe’s capitals, and that Athens’ final capitulation would be met with some recognition of the need for relief. Instead, there was only a further twist of the ratchet.

Yes, reform is needed – and Varoufakis’s dismissal of structural solutions does Greece no favours. But the savagery of the German approach, akin to dragging a collapsed marathon runner back to the race, looks like an economic surplus used as a weapon of coercion.

More such behaviour, and this will not be the last edition of Varoufakis’s conspiracy- minded book.

The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy, by Yanis Varoufakis , Zed Books (£8.99/ $12.95)

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