Yanis Varoufakis: Globalisation vs Internationalism

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The Southbank Centre hall set up for the talk

Exterior view of the Hayward Gallery displaying the Gursky Exhibition, overshadowed by new development

As part of the Andreas Gursky Exhibition at the Southbank Centre in London, Yanis Varoufakis, Greek ex-minister of finance, gave a talk on one of the fundamental economic forces that arose from the 20th Century and caused controversy in the 21st: globalisation. A force that he argues “is in retreat” and the result of poor but inevitable choices.

Following a short introduction, the seminar opened with a critical analysis of globalisation, suggesting that stability and growth depend on trade and money movements being unbalanced. Whilst contradictory at first, the statement does appear to hold some truth; water will only flow with a gradient. As Varoufakis himself explains, it is pointless for large corporations and conglomerates to only make a profit, without recycling the income to avoid metaphorical stagnation.

For what could be considered an economics lecture, the talk explored at length the origins of this school of thinking; from 1944 and the New Deal administration, through the Marshall Plan and beyond what was effectively the ejection of Europe and Japan from the “Dollar zone” by Nixon in August 1971. Whilst looking at the change from fixed exchange rate to the escalation of credit supplied by wall street, one underlying motif was hinted at: financiers “provide the sermons that steadied the hands of politicians”, which leads to the discussion over how indistinguishable political philosophy and economic policy can be.

The Gursky Exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, on which the talk was based

The repercussions of these ideas were also discussed with a major focus on the argument that division grows stronger with globalisation. Here another historical tangent was followed, with examples such as the December 1944 Athens civil unrest, Berlin 1945, Korea 1946, Palestine 1948, Berlin again and most prominently in 1963, and Belfast in 1972. Although differences in both religion and politics are regarded to have established these divisions, Mr Varoufakis argued that economics both enforced and exacerbated “the globalising wall”. The example of Israeli engineers employed in the US to advise the raising of a physical border divide epitomises the globalisation of partition.

Current issues both driven by and affecting globalisation were largely simplified and traced back to “Wall Street and Wal-Mart”, where US and European companies have massive sums of capital which are no use to them, seemingly having “too much money in their own hands”. This, Mr Varoufakis explained, is unmaintainable, and a system that is unsustainable will not be sustained. Alongside these issues, one of the basic principles of planning is anticipating the future; in this instance this is a little alarming. By 2030 it is predicted that 40% of American jobs alone could be occupied by robots. With the advantages of greater efficiency and an instant reduction in wages the advantages of automation are clear, and troubling.

The interior of the Southbank Centre venue

In anticipation of this, Mr Varoufakis suggested that the liberal establishment should look to its rotting foundations. As the issues (climate change, mass migration and a widening wealth gap to name a few), are global, nativism and xenophobia are no longer options, and “our solutions therefore must be global”. Here the concept of internationalism is introduced. Globalisation is neither a blunder or warfare according to the speaker, but the natural progression of capitalism; this leads to the next contradiction to be considered, that capitalism may well undermine capitalism.

Whilst the talk appears pessimistic at best, Mr Varoufakis did offer some advice to prevent the continued deterioration described. “We should squeeze finance, and decommidify our lives”, put simply. Whilst this was openly self-described as the opinion of an ex-politician with centre-left views, the idea of experiential value over commodity value appears more like a maxim than policy. Alongside quips about the political right, and self-depreciating jokes about the left (“we have never missed a chance to miss a chance”), the speaker left the audience with a note of hope, that to tear down this physical and metaphorical wall was not only possible, but vital.