When Yanis met the Prince of Darkness - An extract from 'Adults in the Room'
12 June 2017
This is an extract from Yanis Varoufakis' new book, Adults in the Room: My Battle With Europe’s Deep Establishment
The only colour piercing the dimness of the hotel bar was the amber liquid flickering in the glass before him. As I approached, he raised his eyes to greet me with a nod before staring back down into his tumbler of whiskey. I sank onto the plush sofa, exhausted. On cue, his familiar voice sounded imposingly morose. ‘Yanis,’ he said, ‘you made a big mistake.’
In the deep of a spring night a gentleness descends on Washington, DC that is unimaginable during the day. As the politicos, the lobbyists and the hangers-on melt away, the air empties of tension and the bars are abandoned to the few with no reason to be up at dawn and to the even fewer whose burdens trump sleep. That night, as on the previous eighty-one nights, or indeed the eighty-one nights that were to follow, I was one of the latter.
It had taken me fifteen minutes to walk, shrouded in darkness, from 700 19th Street NW, the International Monetary Fund’s building, to the hotel bar where I was to meet him. I had never imagined that a short solitary stroll in nondescript DC could be so restorative. The prospect of meeting the great man added to my sense of relief: after fifteen hours across the table from powerful people too banal or too frightened to speak their minds, I was about to meet a figure of great influence in Washington and beyond, a man no one can accuse of either banality or timidity.
All that changed with his acerbic opening statement, made more chilling by the dim light and shifting shadows. Faking steeliness, I replied, ‘And what mistake was that, Larry?’ ‘You won the election!’ came his answer.
It was 16 April 2015, the very middle of my brief tenure as finance minister of Greece. Less than six months earlier I had been living the life of an academic, teaching at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin while on leave from the University of Athens. But in January my life had changed utterly when I was elected a member of the Greek parliament. I had made only one campaign promise: that I would do everything I could to rescue my country from the debt bondage and crushing austerity being imposed on it by its European neighbours and the IMF. It was that promise that had brought me to this city and – with the assistance of my close team member Elena Paraniti, who had brokered the meeting and accompanied me that night – to this bar.
Smiling at his dry humour and to hide my trepidation, my immediate thought was, Is this how he intends to stiffen my resolve against an empire of foes? I took solace from the recollection that the seventy-first secretary of the United States Treasury and twenty-seventh president of Harvard is not known for his soothing style.
Determined to delay the serious business ahead of us a few moments more, I signalled to the bartender for a whiskey of my own and said, ‘Before you tell me about my “mistake”, let me say, Larry, how important your messages of support and advice have been in the past weeks. I am truly grateful. Especially as for years I have been referring to you as the Prince of Darkness.’
Unperturbed, Larry Summers replied, ‘At least you called me a prince. I have been called worse.’
For the next couple of hours the conversation turned serious. We talked about technical issues: debt swaps, fiscal policy, market reforms, ‘bad’ banks. On the political front he warned me that I was losing the propaganda war and that the ‘Europeans’, as he called Europe’s powers that be, were out to get me. He suggested, and I agreed, that any new deal for my long-suffering country should be one that Germany’s chancellor could present to her voters as her idea, her personal legacy.
Things were proceeding better than I had hoped, with broad agreement on everything that mattered. It was no mean feat to secure the support of the formidable Larry Summers in the struggle against the powerful institutions, governments and media conglomerates demanding my government’s surrender and my head on a silver platter. Finally, after agreeing our next steps, and before the combined effects of fatigue and alcohol forced us to call it a night, Summers looked at me intensely and asked a question so well rehearsed that I suspected he had used it to test others before me.
‘There are two kinds of politicians,’ he said: ‘insiders and outsiders. The outsiders prioritize their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions. The insiders, for their part, follow a sacrosanct rule: never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders say or do. Their reward? Access to inside information and a chance, though no guarantee, of influencing powerful people and outcomes.’
With that Summers arrived at his question. ‘So, Yanis,’ he said, ‘which of the two are you?’
Instinct urged me to respond with a single word; instead I used quite a few.
‘By character I am a natural outsider,’ I began, ‘but,’ I hastened to add, ‘I am prepared to strangle my character if it would help strike a new deal for Greece that gets our people out of debt prison. Have no doubt about this, Larry: I shall behave like a natural insider for as long as it takes to get a viable agreement on the table – for Greece, indeed for Europe. But if the insiders I am dealing with prove unwilling to release Greece from its eternal debt bondage, I will not hesitate to turn whistle-blower on them – to return to the outside, which is my natural habitat anyway.’
‘Fair enough,’ he said after a thoughtful pause.
We stood up to leave. The heavens had opened while we were talking. As I saw him to a taxi, the downpour soaked my spring clothes in seconds. With his taxi speeding away, I had the opportunity to realize a wild dream of mine, one that had kept me going during the interminable meetings of the previous days and weeks: to walk alone, unnoticed, in the rain.
Powering through the watery curtain in pristine solitude, I took stock of the encounter. Summers was an ally, albeit a reluctant one. He had no time for my government’s left-wing politics, but he understood that our defeat was not in America’s interest. He knew that the eurozone’s economic policies were not just atrocious for Greece but terrible for Europe and, by extension, for the United States too. And he knew that Greece was merely the laboratory where these failed policies were being tested and developed before their implementation everywhere across Europe. This is why Summers offered a helping hand. We spoke the same economic language, despite different political ideologies, and had no difficulty reaching a quick agreement on what our aims and tactics ought to be. Nevertheless, my answer had clearly bothered him, even if he did not show it. He would have got into his taxi a much happier man, I felt, had I demonstrated some interest in becoming an insider. As this book’s publication confirms, that was never likely to happen.
Back at my hotel, getting dry and with two hours to go before the alarm clock would summon me back to the front line, I pondered a great anxiety: how would my comrades back home, the inner circle of our government, answer Summers’s question in their hearts? On that night I was determined to believe that they would answer it as I had done.
Less than two weeks later I began to have my first real doubts.
Adults in the Room by Yanis Varoufakis is out now in hardback (Bodley Head, £20.00).