If Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis were an investment banker, say from Deustche Bank or HSBC, or even Chancellor of the Exchequer, Twitter would not have exploded in a hot mess over why he agreed to pose with his wife for a glossy lifestyle spread in Paris Match. But he is not. He is a self-proclaimed “accidental Marxist” who by no accident other than indulging his penchant for the flamboyant, adds to the chorus of detractors worried he is but the latest in a long succession of Athenian politicians more concerned with advancing personal agendas than reversing the country’s pathological inability to arrest the vortex of near-permanent social and economic collapse.
It is a mistake to conclude Mr. Varoufakis’ latest PR misstep is merely a brocaded embellishment affixed to his and her motorcycle jackets. If you believe that, you are entirely missing the point. Lifestyle mavens and merchants of cool may indeed be focusing their lens on Greece’s “hottest new couple” but that is nothing more than big media feeding the insatiable appetite for affluenza-consumerist culture. Breathless headlines – “Look they even cook!” – designed to sell glossy magazines is not the issue at hand (although it certainly is an issue.) The real problem is that in Greece, once a certain level of celebrity or fortune is achieved, even the ardent socialist is transformed into an eager conformist seeking the adoration of precisely the audience he proclaims to detest.
Crystalized in the lifestyle spread of Mr. & Mrs. Varoufakis, is the Achilles heel of Greece, which remains the inability of the well-heeled to demonstrate any meaningful empathy with those outside their social class. Greeks who live in important places, surround themselves with important people and consider themselves important, become addicted to grasping for whatever they can get, no matter the consequence to society. The country’s history supports the premise that no matter how much the ruling classes manage to amass, it is never enough. The grotesque inequality afflicting our world is asymmetrically on display in Greece, where power and wealth in the hands of so few is used and abused against so many. This isn’t just measured in how the rich avoid paying taxes. It’s much deeper than that. It has become a way of life and a prevailing ethos among many Greek elites who even now, after everything the country has suffered, shows no sign of abating.
This isn’t about class warfare or crucifying the rich because they are rich. What Mr. Varoufakis did by posing for Paris Match is indicative of what happens to Greeks when they amass a certain level of power. They abandon the egalitarian principles they once proclaimed to champion once they rise to the top of the food chain. It’s not natural Darwinism either. It is taught behavior and explains the cavernous schism in social values that chains Greece to a destiny of self-destruction and its concomitant consequences. A World Values Survey ranks Greece dead last in the world on how well parents teach trust and tolerance to children and it is particularly acute among the rich. In philanthropy too, Greece ranks 152 of 156 countries measured in terms of philanthropic engagement. It is ironic then that Mr. Varoufakis, himself a child of affluence, has painstakingly cultivated his personal brand on the premise that Greece is but a Hobbesian paradise of man against man while exhibiting precisely the lifestyle his political and economic rhetoric professes to disdain. The motorcycle may be cool but clearly, it is not indicative of some burning quest to live like average Greeks. As Sigmund Freud once wrote, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
FinMin Varoufakis needs to understand just how incompatible his self-aggrandizing is to his political success. It’s one thing coming from a conservative right-wing economist. Quite another from this leftist disciple of Karl Marx, more concerned with getting his way (and perhaps his share when he returns to academia and the lucrative lecture circuit post-Syriza). Prone to pedantic oratorical flourishes of ancient myths to express his modern dilemma, here’s one he should consider when next lecturing the EU in Brussels: Narcissus.
Like Narcissus, Varoufakis appears glamorous and smooth yet displays a disturbing degree of spiritual autism, further weakened by a tendency to view criticism as conspiratorial obstruction rather than thoughtful alternative. Varoufakis argues that the brashness of his plans seem so radical as to blind opponents with a rage preventing them from even considering the upside of his proposals. As he struggles to translate academic game theory into market practice, serving it al fresco on his terrace with a crisp white wine as his fellow citizens queue up at food pantries, and where famine is not some abstraction but a real threat for millions of Greeks, you have to wonder does NO ONE in Athens understand that personal hubris and the stagnation of corruption inflicted upon Greece throughout its entire modern history demands a new public AND private morality, launched from amidst the ruling class? If left unchecked or utterly ignored, it will destroy the nascent government’s efforts at meaningful reformation, or at the very least heroic redemption.
To think otherwise condemns Greece to a future where the ruling classes continue staring at their own image, only to drown their beautiful country in their ugly reflection.