And the Weak Suffer What They Must?
Yanis Varoufakis, The Bodley Head, 2016
Viis Taloudesta! [Never Mind Economics!]
Christer Lindholm, Vastapaino, 2016
I am not completely sure why I picked up these two popular science books on economics but I am certainly happy that I read them. Well, that’s not completely true. I have my reasons. Lindholm’s book I bought because I heard his interview on the radio. What comes to Varoufakis, thus far I have liked his public appearances and I wanted to know what he is really about.
Lindholm writes about five interlinked myths that rule the public discussion on economics but have no good grounding in economic science. He presents nice and quick arguments why it is not the case that a) markets will solve everything, b) public sector is a problem, c) taxes are harmful, d) supply will create its own demand, and e) globalization is here to stay. Lindholm’s bold claim is that all these are neoliberal myths, with no solid basis in economic theory, that are built to dismantle democracy by moving political decisions out of the public sphere. Putting investors’ and corporations’ interests in the driver’s seat, in turn, erodes the viability of a welfare state and, ultimately, makes life worse for the most individuals.
Varoufakis restricts himself on a slightly more specific topic – the European economic crisis. I do not have the knowledge to really say how valid his claims are, but he does present a historically detailed and compelling story of how the Eurozone was born and how it includes fundamental structural problems. And the biggest of these is the lack of democracy.
There was nothing wrong with the idea of a single market from the Atlantic to the Ukraine and from the Shetlands to Crete. Borders are scars on the planet and the sooner we dispose of them the better, as the recent Syrian refugee crisis confirms. And there is nothing wrong with a single currency either. What was dangerously wrong-headed was the idea that we could create a single market and a common currency without a powerful Demos to counterbalance, to stabilize, to civilize them. (p.193-194)
It’s not all about the lack of democracy though. Varoufakis argues that the actual policies that the Troika (the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund) entertains are disastrous. Austerity does not help economy but rather provides fertile ground for extreme nationalist movements and growing disillusionment on the whole European community.
In short, both authors argue that the current economic reasoning is fundamentally flawed – on many fronts and for various reasons – and this, in turn, causes immense suffering and can ultimately even lead to new wars. Here is a philosophically interesting point too. That is, the economic reasons/causes are taken to be the most fundamental reasons/causes. Although it is not state explicitly, it is easy enough to read between the lines that, for example, forms of identity politics are subordinate to whatever the current economic situation is. Then again, this might well be the case and it should not be surprise to anyone that left-leaning writers will take this line. Marx anyone?
Another interesting point is that both authors see increased democracy as a (partial) solution to the (economic) problems. I certainly agree that democracy is worth defending but I also think that democracy alone does not guarantee stable and civilized markets. For that we would need civilized voters too. Democracy itself as a decision-making mechanism cannot guarantee that the decisions themselves are any good.
In any case, I would certainly recommend both of these books. For someone like me, who has not read that much economics, they were extremely informative. Recommendable is also the theoretical route that both authors take: for the most of the time Lindholm and Varoufakis are doing what is called ‘intrinsic’ critique. They are arguing from within the economic sphere by using their terms and their laws and by showing how those who claim that there is no alternative are not basing their arguments on science – and this is so even before questioning how scientific economics is – but rather on ideology. Not that there is anything wrong with ideologies in politics. However, dressing them on the guise of facts and necessities is misleading at best and extremely destructive at worst.