The Day I Almost Met Yanis Varoufakis

by Rafael A. F. Zanatta

On May 5th 2015, I received an e-mail from Giuseppe Mastruzzo, the academic director of the International University College of Turin. The e-mail, with the word Varoufakis as its subject, had the following message (after the usual introduction):

“Professor Yanis Varoufakis, currently serving as finance minister of Greece, is going to give a lecture and accept an honorary professorship from the IUC this coming May 26th. The (big) event will be held at the Luigi Einaudi Campus. We’d love to have two IUC students as discussants (it’s a 7–8 minute speech each I’m thinking of). The discussants will seat at the table with Varoufakis, Ugo Mattei (who’s going to introduce with the “Laudatio”), the IUC president Roberto Louvin, and one representative from Unito (rector or director of law department). Are you going to do it for us? If so, let’s talk about it. I do understand you are extremely busy with the courses, but I guess it might also be an opportunity not to miss”.

On the very same day I replied to Prof. Mastruzzo in the following terms:

I’m very delighted and honoured with the invitation. I’ve been following the work of Varoufakis since Prof. Halevi introduced me to his work. Plus, I’m very aware that he is one of the main figures in political action in Europe today. Everyone is watching his moves in Greece with Syriza — including myself.

By that time, I was thrilled — and even scared — with the opportunity. Varoufakis was on the spotlight because of Greece’s financial crisis. As the finance minister of a new left-wing government, he was in charge of negotiating a new agreement with the European Central Bank and other creditors — a really tough job. The international media was flooded with news about the “Greek debt and the future of Europe”. A lot of speculation was going on. Frankfurt, Brussels and Washington were watching closely the next steps of Syriza. It was a hard game.

In fact, Varoufakis was in the middle of a huge financial hurricane. As students in Turin, we were just trying to understand what everything was about and what would be the terms of this agreement and its impact for Greek citizens.

I later discovered that Cecelia del Barrio — a colleague from Argentina that studies the regulation of debt restructuring — was going to join me in the event.

I felt relieved because we would have someone “from the field” to talk about the subject. Varoufakis’ lecture was Monetary Union and Democracy: Europe’s greatest challenge and I was a lawyer trained in sociology and public policies.

For three weeks, I spoke to many people about this speech. What should I say to Varoufakis? What can I ask? Can I say something meaningful to this important person in this extremely delicate moment?

The situation was almost surreal.

Picture this scene: imagine one young Brazilian lawyer in Paleocapa Cafe, a small coffee house close to Piazza Carlo Felice in Turin, asking Prof. Sanjay Reddy from The New School the following question: “So, Professor Sanjay, what can I ask to Yanis Varoufakis about the European monetary system?”.

Or picture this other scene: this same Brazilian lawyer meets with Edoardo Reviglio — former Economic Advisor to the Italian Minister of Economy and Finance — at the student’s lounge at the IUC and asks: “What would you do in my shoes?”.

They offered valuable insights but could not help much. The subject was too complex for a lawyer not trained in macroeconomics and financial system at the European level. I was lost and afraid of saying anything on May 26th.

“Just be yourself”, they said.

On May 25th, I spent the day at the library with Cecilia finishing the speech we were supposed to deliver. After long hours of labour, I finally had something written down. It was a short speech that truly represented my political perception about our generation and the need to overcome disciplinary boundaries in social sciences.

At 10pm, I wrote an e-mail to Prof. Mastruzzo and Prof. Ugo Mattei with the following content:

Dear Giuseppe and Prof. Ugo,
As I promised, I’m sending one rough draft of tomorrow’s speech for Varoufakis in the name of the IUC students. If possible, send your feedback (anything I could remove or complement).
“Good morning. It is very hard to speak after Prof. Varoufakis for three reasons.
First, because he is an excellent speaker, as you just witnessed. Second, because he is an academic who is putting into practice his ideas (as Karl Marx warned us to do). Third, because I am not a trained economist and luckily I do not work with sovereign debts and fiscal policies.
I asked for guidance in these last days and realized that I was in deep trouble for this morning. When I talked to Prof. Edoardo Reviglio and Prof. Sanjay Reddy about the monetary policies and Greece they both stared at me and said: “this is a very complex issue. Good luck, Rafael”.
But I want to make sense of why I am here and why Prof. Varoufakis is being honoured.
As it has been said this morning, Varoufakis is linked to Prof. Joseph Halevi, who teaches the course on Economic Theories at the IUC. In the last chapter of the book Modern Political Economics, after discussing the ‘Global Minotaur thesis’, Varoufakis and Halevi discuss the idea of a ‘New Global Plan’. In fact, they do not go deep into the plan, but they make one very good question: ‘Is there a future socio-economic arrangement worth fighting for’?
This is a deep question very connected to the IUC. The institution was created to bring scholars of different background and different countries to think about common problems that affect us. These problems are so complex that they cannot be divided into categories of knowledge, like economics, sociology or law.
I want to make two points and end up with a question for Prof. Varoufakis.
The first one is that we must make sense of politics in its complexity and in order to do so we must break with the cognitive barriers that were created by the specialization of knowledge in universities. It might seem crazy to call a young Brazilian legal scholar to make comments on Varoufakis presentation. But that is precisely the point of this panel. We must strive to break the small circles of technical knowledge. If we start doing this we will discover that a ‘technical issue’ is sometimes only a smokescreen for some political issue that every citizen could debate.
I will give one recent example of my country. Different scholars are now studying the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) in order to understand how the money is spent, how decisions are made and what is the impact of this institution in the economy. What is interesting is that this is bringing scholars from economics, law, sociology, political science and other fields together. The technicalities are now being exposed into light.
The second point is the need to change the way we think of our social world and the way we think about democracy. We know that something is deeply wrong in Europe, United States, Tunisia, Brazil, Gambia, and other countries. This feeling of ‘uneasiness’ might be perceived in our classroom and also by our generation. The social-democracy model seems eroded by the financialization of life, the corruption of politicians, and the lack of belief in community in a scenario of austerity.
But the problem might be that we spend too much time trying to rationalize the existing institutions instead of making an effort to ask ourselves what we want and how we can change things. This ‘mainstream mindset’ in social science has prevented us of having real discussions about our values and in imagining possibilities for our future — as Prof. Varoufakis is trying to do in Greece.
I know I’m making two simple points and I’m not touching concrete issues of the European Union and the Greek situtation, something that Cecilia might do. But I believe we should take this opportunity to think about what we are doing as scholars and intellectuals — and here I mean intellectual in the sense proposed by Antonio Gramsci without any kind of elitism.
I want to finish with this very simple question to Prof. Varoufakis, having in my mind our ‘place of speech’ as students trying to work differently in the 21st century: what can we learn from the mistakes of the past generation? How can we deal with complexity in an interdisciplinary perspective without falling into meaningless conversation?

Thank you.

I closed my computer and waited for Cecilia to finish her speech. After a while, we were ready to lock the library and leave the building.

But then, when we were at the door, we heard some steps from the corridor. Someone opened the door from outside and surprised us. It was Roberto Louvain, the director of the IUC.

Ciao, ragazzi. What are you doing here so late?”, he asked us holding a gelato in his left hand. “We were finishing our speeches for tomorrow’s event with Prof. Varoufakis”, I replied.

Then he looked at us with sad eyes and said: “I am sorry to tell you this, but Varoufakis is not coming. There were some rumours of a Greek bailout and Alexis Tsipras called an emergency meeting with all the members of the government. We will cancel the event and inform everyone tomorrow morning”.

I went home and had a bottle of red wine from Piemonte with my friends. I was relieved that I did not have the obligation to speak in the name of all my colleagues. The event was cancelled so I would not have the chance of failing or saying something silly.

But at the same time I felt that I had lost a “once in a life-time opportunity” to look in the eyes of someone who is making a difference in this world and say something that I believe in.

It did not happen this time in Turin. To be honest, I may never have the chance to meet him again.

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