Yanis Varoufakis The Return of the Latin Lover

The big show captivating Europe at the moment -- the personality cult around the articulate, defiant Greek finance minister -- is also a tale of the left's revival. Mr. Varoufakis means challenging the establishment, enchanting voters -- and southern Europe's comeback.
Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis at an economic conferernce last Saturday in Cernobbio, Italy.

Yanis Varoufakis is possibly the most hotly debated politician in Europe at the moment.

The economist-turned-Greek finance minister cut his teeth in the corporate world advising American Valve Corporation, which makes the popular video shooting games Half-Life and Counter-Strike.

An unpretentious charmer with the winning smile, Mr. Varoufakis can rally the masses and estrange the political establishment with equal aplomb.

But what is really striking is that Mr. Varoufakis is not a singular phenomenon.

He might be the most extreme of his kind.

But in the public’s eyes, he is part of a new wave of politician that includes his boss, Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, and Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Spain's left populist Podemos party.

In Europe, after two decades of hibernation, it may again be the time for the leftist populist – unorthodox in approach, impetuous in economic policy, ruthless in opposition and decidedly uncompromising. In two words: southern European.

While northern Europe’s politicians get heated up about the chutzpah of the new populist left, Tim Bale, a consultant at Policy Network, a think tank, said: “The phenomenon is a turning point.”

Until now, populists in Europe used to mobilize cultural prejudices, such as conservatives like Marine Le Pen of France's Front National party or Matteo Salvini in Italy.

Mr. Varoufakis, Mr. Tsipras and Mr. Iglesias are different.

They talk about material instead of cultural differences. Their alternative mixes coarse Keynesianism, which is government spending for everything, with pop Marxism, dirigisme with sex appeal.

Mr. Varoufakis's boss, Mr. Tsipras, recently wrote in Spanish newspaper El País: “The citizens of the entire south should stand together and rise from the darkness of austerity.” And the cover of Italy’s largest news magazine, Espresso, asked last Friday: “Don’t we need more Podemos?”

The idea has been floating in the Mediterranean for years: a socioeconomic Latin Europe.

They prefer leather jackets (Varoufakis) and rolled-up sleeves (Tsipras). They despise status symbols like government jets or luxury cars.

Latin Europe is the opposite of Merkel Europe of German chancellor Angela Merkel, which in the south is viewed not as “austerity equals prosperity equals wealth,” but as “states save banks.”

The French philosopher Edgar Morin said the south doesn’t measure the value of life quantitatively, but qualitatively – which is incompatible with capitalism.

Mr. Varoufakis, whom Greek media has dubbed the “tsar of cool,” has always held strong convictions and worn his shirt not tucked in.

Back in 1996, at a university in Louvain in Belgium, he used to write sentences like: “The mainstream economy is as dominant as it is unappetizing.”

 

The Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, and his wife, Danae Stratou, on the balcony of their penthouse apartment in Athens.

 

And he’s written a lot on the euro crisis, for example in his personal blog, yanisvaroufakis.eu. To claim that he doesn’t know the complicated conflict he’s talking about is inappropriate.

Mr. Varoufakis' partners complain that his train of thought is incomprehensible. “He just thinks completely differently from me,” said one European finance minister who declined to be named.

The Greek likes to call himself an “erratic Marxist,” saying that Karl Marx, the German father of communism, has shaped the Greek's world outlook since childhood.

With his theoretical upbringing, it is no wonder that Mr. Varoufakis now relies on his own instincts.

Unlike his predecessors, who consulted with economists, he reportedly doesn’t consult anyone.

Sociologist Michael Kelpanides, a student of Theodor Adorno, a German philosopher, considers Mr. Varoufakis to be a representative of neo-Marxism. “The supposedly unconventional behavior as a trademark – that’s typical for a leftist intellectual,” said. Mr. Kelpanides.

Neo-Marxist parties like Greece's ruling Syriza Party succeed at the polls in “backward societies” such as those in southern Europe and Latin America, according to the sociologist: “Those countries neither have developed industrialized societies nor democracy,'' Mr. Kelpanides said. "Instead, clientelism, nepotism and corruption rule there.''

But in those states, Mr. Varoufakis and Co. are the new stars.

The Greek finance minister has written books, including “A Modest Proposal for Resolving the Eurozone Erisis,” which has just been released in German.

The work’s central argument is that Greece is a victim of the financial crisis, and it a “monumental task” to “drive out the ghost of the troika, to eradicate its mentality and to end its power.”

In this regard, Mr. Varoufakis sings the same tune as his predecessors, claiming that the crisis is something external that came over Greece.

But no matter how meager the results of the new Greek government so far – the country is close to bankruptcy, tax revenues are plunging and international lenders are outraged – one can't deny the new left’s marketing skills. They break with the conventional dress code of politicians, preferring leather jackets (Varoufakis) and rolled-up sleeves (Tsipras).

They despise status symbols like government jets or luxury cars.

And they know how to soothe the dominant feeling in Greece that something has been going fundamentally wrong over the past five years, during which the country’s gross domestic product shrank by 25 percent.

A new study by the Mannheim Center for European Social Research from last week corroborates this. According to researchers, Greece suffers from a lack of social and political trust unique in Europe.

Neo-populists therefore benefit as underdogs with subtle but strong appeal. They might not have the means of the established politicians – but they show compassion and passion. That wins hearts and minds. It’s David versus Goliath all over again.

Cold E.U. institutions and their gray officials increase the appeal of the new David.

But does that mean the traditional center-left parties, like the U.K.’s Labour Party, should open themselves to the left to prevent being marginalized? That would be a mistake, said Ernst Hillebrand, head of the international dialog division at a German left-leaning foundation, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

I’m shocked by the effort with which misinformation is spread. Yanis Varoufakis, Greek finance minister

Mr. Hillebrand calls Mr. Varoufakis and his allies a classic “crisis phenomena.” The greater the social misery, the greater the appeal of leftist populists, he said.

“The majority of voters want politicians who solve problems,” Mr. Hillebrand said, adding that most leftist populists don’t do that, but simply “live off their system-defying attitudes.” That’s why the researcher advises Social Democrats not to assimilate the rhetoric and style of leftists.

Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi demonstrates how that can work.

Mr. Renzi might be the real miracle in European politics.

A 40-year-old Social Democrat who rose to power on calls for “scrapping” the old political caste, on marathon tweeting and similarities with Mr. Varoufakis and Mr. Tsipras, the Italian has chosen a different path than his allies.

Mr. Renzi is in a sense an amalgam of Germany's Ms. Merkel and Greece's Mr. Tsipras.

The Italian prime minister is a representative of the political establishment who can rally the masses. He preaches social and economic renewal and delivers it. He supports the political line of the euro group but still gets more than 40 percent of the votes in notoriously divided Italy.

 

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, left, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras are part of the new wave of Europe's appealing southern European leaders.

 

He is the Italian leader who not only sent former playboy-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi into political oblivion but also the irksome populist, Beppe Grillo.

And Mr. Varoufakis?

He keeps provoking and complaining that the press twists his words.

“I’m shocked by the effort with which misinformation is spread,” he has said.

In a private conversation with Mr. Schäuble, he once openly voiced his frustration with the media.

Mr. Schäuble was surprised by his irritation and vulnerability, recalling: “I replied to him, ‘So far it seemed to us that you were much stronger in communication than in substance.’”

 

This article originally appeared in German business magazine WirtschaftsWoche. Tim Rahmann, Daniel Rettig and Silke Wettach in WirtschaftsWoche's Brussels burea also contributed to this article. To contact the authors: [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]