By Gina Poulos
Freelance journalist, Gina Poulos speaks candidly with MeRa25 politician and academic Yanis Varoufakis on various issues including his former life as a scholar at the University of Sydney, his current views on academic education in Australia both past and present and his aspirations and life as a politician in Greece in the lead up to the Greek elections on July 7, 2019.
You left Greece as an 18-year-old to study in England like many Greek students. You completed a doctorate in Economics and got your first academic position at the University of Essex. What prompted you to leave England and travel all the way to Australia?
Thatcherism. 10 years of living under Thatcher in Britain was an exercise in depression. I loved England and I hated it at the same time like English people love and hate their country and it goes with the territory but that was a very depressing period and massive unemployment constant cuts in the university so I lived my life both as a student and an academic. The universities were absolutely miserable.
”Professors, lecturers students, everybody was experiencing a psychological collapse and so when Thatcher won the third election in 1987 I started thinking to myself I’ve got to get out of here but I didn’t know where to go.”
I couldn’t come back to Greece because the army was waiting for me with open arms. Back then the European continent was not as it is today, you couldn’t get jobs on the basis of the English language, I couldn’t teach at an academic level in France or Germany so I felt at some point that I was condemned to live out my days in Britain until I got a telegram back in the old days of telegrams from the University of Sydney.
It was a position completely out of the blue, I had not applied. I turned it down initially and then I got a second telegram saying don’t be silly, come for six months and if you don’t like it you return which I did. I stayed.
What were your first impressions of Australia?
I loved it. Firstly the weather after Cambridge and East Anglia and Essex, I got a small flat in Bondi and was commuting between the beach and the University.
I thought, “Why have I not done this years ago? It was wonderful. Also in Australia in 1988 under the Labor government at the time there was an air of progress, optimism and multiculturalism were well established at the time. It was a very progressive society at the time.”
You took up a position as lecturer in what used to be the Economics Department of Sydney University. Do you recall the early days as the new kid on the block in the Economics Department?
Absolutely as if it was yesterday. It was a great place because it was old fashioned. It was antiquated and that’s a good thing because, with universities, the more modern the place becomes the less scholarly it becomes. The tempo was slow.
I remember the Head of Department a magnificent New Zealander Warren Hogan, a very right-wing guy by my standards. I’m a left-winger he’s a right winger but we got on like a house on fire. We had long wonderful discussions usually disagreeing with each other about everything and he said to me ‘take six months off to consult your sources and get used to the place before you start teaching’ that kind of regime which no longer exists in universities.
Now It’s a proletarian existence and the other thing that I found great was the pluralism. There were two degrees in the department at the time, a standard neo-classical mainstream economics degree and there was the political economy stream which was called economics as a social science at the time and those were rebels who had fallen out with mainstream of the economists. They had their own degree and I was the only lecturer that was a great privilege and joy to be teaching both degrees. It was magnificent. All that is dead now.
Do you think the standard of education has dropped then as a whole in the university world?
The standards of university education both in Australia and the United Kingdom two countries that I know very well has plummeted. There is no comparison at least in the Social Sciences at least in Economics between the kind of education students used to get in the 1980s and the kind of education they get today.
Today they get a lot of stuff crammed into their heads most of it is useless most of it is much better if they didn’t have it in their minds. Now when they go to corporations to work for them, they need to be deprogrammed and I talk to personnel managers in large corporations and especially economists.
The first thing they need is to try to delete from their memories everything they have learned from universities because it is not only useless, it is actually inimical to their functioning in universities and there is a whole process which explains that the sociology of knowledge, sociology of the profession. Quality has been pushed out by quantity in the process of quantification. Measurement was and has been the greatest enemy of knowledge.
Do you still follow Australian politics? Any special mentions?
Well I do try to keep up with the goings-on in Australia’s political economy but I find it very depressing to be perusing the news regarding the political shenanigans the way in which the office of the prime minister has been completely denigrated by a series of coups within the party rooms beginning with the way in which Kevin Rudd was overthrown. Now it is so difficult to catch up, to keep up with who the prime minister is and what the various plots against him or her might be and it is a political process which is completely meaningless. It is not a clash of ideas or ideologies or political priorities and policies. Here you’ve got just a clash of personalities, very ugly personalities at that.
What changes would you like to see in Greece to improve the living standards of the people?
When you are bankrupt you need to restructure your loans. That applies to any business, to any family to any entity. If you are bankrupt you have to escape bankruptcy and the only way to escape bankruptcy is by an agreement with your creditors that restructure your loan. That is condition number one. If we don’t do that there is no future. The reason why I am saying that is because when you are pretending that you’re not bankrupt you are setting targets for the surplus from the amount you will extract from the economy to give to the creditors and how will you extract it? You will extract it by incredibly high tax rates.
“This cup of coffee here is 24% sales tax. Introduce 24% sales tax in Australia and see what happens to the economy. Small businesses have to pay next year’s tax and this year’s tax this year. Try to introduce that in Australia.”
This is what the creditors have imposed upon this country. When you are pretending that you are paying off your debts and you can’t, you have to set yourself targets for extracting money from the economy which destroys the economy so it’s like a cow that is sick and you have promised to produce a lot of milk out of it but then you keep it hitting it, clobbering it to produce more milk. At some point it will die; there will be no milk. Debtor structure is the necessary condition, not the sufficient condition but a necessary condition for any progress in this country.
What do you think the people of Greece actually think of you as a future politician in this country?
These are polarising times when you have an economy that has collapsed in a great depression, think of Germany in the 1920’s think of the United States in the 1930s, the dustbowl the Great Depression similarly here from 2010 you have a society which is directly at war with itself a society which is feeding off its discontent a society where politics becomes toxic, where the media goes bankrupt and they are in the pockets of the oligarchy and of the creditors and therefore they are fuelling discontent by taking extreme positions either one side or the other so these are polarising times.
I very much fear that I have acquired personally speaking now the two kinds of people that I never wanted. Fans and enemies. I never wanted either. The problem is fans will believe anything I say before I’ve said it, not good and with enemies that they will reject what I’ve said before, I said it, not good. Democracy is predicated upon having an open mind and I’m afraid minds have been closed by the inauspicious circumstances.
If we walk down the street together you’ll find most people are extremely positive and sympathetic and actually touching with me but there are other people who think that I am the devil incarnate. This is a reflection not of me but of the circumstances of the place.
Where do you see yourself in five years from now?
I would very much like not to have to do politics anymore and to be able to stay at home and write my books and give the occasional lecture and go to meetings have fun. That’s my aspiration but I very much fear that I will still be in this political arena that is the place for struggling to maintain the vision a democratic vision.
To watch the entire interview with Yanis Varoufakis visit: