I Political Symphonies
As Vintage’s resident ‘erratic Marxist’, Yanis Varoufakis recently had the opportunity to pen an introduction to their new reprint of the Communist Manifesto. There, he expounds on the nature of great manifestos. To succeed, a manifesto ‘must speak to our hearts like a poem while infecting the mind with images and ideas that are dazzlingly new.’ It must open our eyes to possibilities for progress, while it reveals how we have acted as the accomplices of stagnation. And most importantly, it must resound with ‘power of a Beethoven symphony,’ inspiring ‘humanity to realise its potential for authentic freedom.’
To me, this final part of Varoufakis’ description is slightly askew. While Marx and Engel’s great manifesto may crash upon its readers with the weight of a great orchestra, the document is really more like a solo performance. Manifestos are univocal in the extreme — like ‘a violin in a void’, to quote Nabokov.¹ Their climb towards some blinding, euphoric peak is a lonely expedition. The symphony, however, relies upon counterpoint, dissonance, harmony. It lives on the effects that exceed the sum of its many parts. They are truly polyphonic works, clouds of rich texture produced by an army of performers. Rather than a monologue, symphonies hold in their hearts the messy clamour of a conversation.
In Another Now, a book that could have been his most manifesto-ish work to date, Varoufakis completely ignores his own advice. But in doing so, he gives us something properly symphonic: a ‘political science fiction novel’ about an alternative economic reality, filled with Socratic dialogue, the truth of which emerges through the collision of its cacophonous voices. Instead of another tired manifesto, Varoufakis has produced something rich and indeterminate, a work that hums, agora-like, with political and philosophical polyphony.
II A Realistic Utopia
For the most part, Another Now’s discussion revolves around a hopeful snapshot of a parallel universe. This universe contains Varoufakis’ vision of an alternative to our present capitalist system, which forms the the heart of the book. Of course, there is an unbounded number of possibilities he could have chosen for a world without capitalism. But, cognisant as he is of the tyrannies of capital, the state, and hierarchies of power, Varoufakis gives us a world where capitalism has been replaced with a radical yet pragmatic system of technologically-driven anarcho-syndicalism.
The reader is introduced to this progressive dreamland through lead character, Costa. A brilliant but politically disillusioned engineer, Costa labours for years to create HALPEVAM,² a machine designed completely satisfy our individual preferences. With this machine, he hopes to confront the world with the logical conclusion of consumer society. But as he works on this invention, he accidentally creates a portal to ‘Another Now’. Through this tiny wormhole, he starts to send and receive dispatches to Kostis, his equivalent in the other world. By doing so, he learns of a world where capitalism died after the GFC.
In the Other Now, the ‘Ossify Capitalism’ movement — their equivalent of our less successful ‘Occupy’ — led to the demise of globalised financial capitalism. After 2008, rebels attacked the system at points made vulnerable by excessive privatisation — in particular, pension funds and CDOs — while coordinating mass strikes against digital overlords like Amazon and Facebook. The result of this assault: the world transitioned to democratically run, worker-owned corporations, where each person holds an equal, non-transferable share in their company, no matter their role.
Other changes followed this transformation. Share markets, investment banks and private credit creation were all eliminated. Land ownership was socialised. There was a thoroughgoing democratisation of the whole economy: companies now receive a democratically determined ‘Socialworthiness score’, and a Universal Basic Dividend is paid to all citizens of the world. Global trade has found balance, as countries (finally) adopted a version of Keynes’ international monetary system. Together, these changes cleansed markets of their fatal flaw — capitalism — finally allowing for the triumph of experiential value over exchange value.
What we find in Another Now, then, is a hopeful vision. It’s a humanist’s practical paradise, a world that Costa, speaking, we presume, for Varoufakis, says is ‘closest to [his] heart’. Most attractive is the feasibility of this system, a quality that gives us the sense that there is a real chance for political progress. Instead of our dystopic, ‘intolerable’ Now, where we ‘act as if our lives are carefree, claiming to like what we do and do what we like’ but where ‘we cry ourselves to sleep’ or endure ‘anxiety-induced insomnia’, the book shows how a realistic utopia could emerge. Much like Varoufakis’ Modest Proposal for reforming the Eurozone, Another Now thereby gives us a vision for a better world that feels tangible. Critically, this sense of realism ultimately reveals the contingency of our present situation. Reading Another Now, I was struck by the realisation that we could transition to the Other Now or a better Eurozone tomorrow if we desired, were it not for the vested interests of powerful actors.
III The Agora on Paper
As an economist-philosopher and prominent political activist, Varoufakis could have written Another Now as another didactic tract, crammed with technical information, historical excursions and theoretical flourishes. Instead, he tries something more radical, giving his dream of Another Now to a diverse team of interlocutors — Costa, Iris, Eva, and Thomas.
In their own way, each character has been disappointed by the false promises of modernity. After giving us a rich sketch of their backgrounds, these characters debate, critique, and ultimately accept or reject the chance to live in the alternate world. Their various disappointments give them credibility, and their words ring with the fervent lucidity of those who have spent their lives on history’s losing side.
Costa, as the purveyor of the dispatches from the Other Now, is unambiguously in favour of its political reforms. But the other characters are more critical. Iris, the book’s Marxist-feminist and ‘thinking radical’s thinking radical’, is a militant sceptic. She shares the Maoist fear of the reactionary and regressive forces that can poison progressive politics. Iris also knows how progressives can hide unjust hierarchies and abuses of power behind a façade of revolutionary speech. So, she is dismayed to hear that the Other Now defends patriarchy with a socially conservative language of political correctness, and that the imperialist psyche has survived the demise of capitalism.
Through Iris, Varoufakis makes his first critique of political correctness and romantic relationships under capitalism. In line with his other views, his is a rather Hegelian feminism. It’s a proper dialectics of desire, and he deploys it to give us the book’s best moment — a speech, delivered in the Other Now, on love, sex and consent. By stepping outside of his usual economic discourse, Varoufakis’ economic arguments gain another layer of sophistication. Unlike some other Marxists, it’s clear that he doesn’t think the tragedies of the human hearts can be reduced entirely to economic forces. With Iris, he shows his empathy, his understanding of ‘human nature’s capacity for mischief’ is too strong for such fallacies.
Eva, the book’s centrist voice, supplies a necessary counterpoint to Iris’ radicalism. She speaks with the voice of the economic establishment, and is a libertarian, market-fundamentalist to her core. When debating the Other Now, she frequently defers to the unshakeable beliefs common to such people. For her, markets are a natural, evolutionary necessity, and the best option of all possible alternatives. Personal liberty is essential, and it must be defended at all costs. She hates collectivism, and she is haunted by the ghosts of the gulag archipelago.
Eva’s dogmatism regularly brings conversations to an impasse. Yet this is not counterproductive. Instead, her resistance shows us how political discussions are hopelessly normative. At the end of a long debate, she votes ‘for capitalism and tradable shares knowing full well that it’s a vote for a dictatorship in the workplace’. Her reason? She believes it’s ‘the prerequisite for liberty at large.’ And that’s that. Iris, of course, votes for the democratic workplace. Then debate ends there.
With this conversation, Varoufakis reveals to us a basic political truth. When we speak about the ‘good society’, our dreams, we can’t avoid a collision of personal beliefs. There is always friction between our axioms, which can’t be secured by appeals to reason, logic or other transcendental signifiers. In a sense, our politics is a matter of faith. Despite this, Eva’s narrative also shows that open, vigorous discussion can clarify these beliefs, giving us a lucidity that can ultimately lead us to change our positions.
Eva’s son Thomas arrives as a final supplement to the discussion. A conspicuously sad, impotent teenage boy who ‘yearns for power’, Thomas admires and submits to authority wherever possible. Thus he acts as a vessel for the ‘wider political malaise’ that afflicted young men across the world throughout the 2010s. Loneliness, frustration, and a vulnerability to ‘absolutist, patriarchal power’ has left them sceptical of ethics, enraptured by displays of puissance, and deferent to paternalist figures like Jeff Bezos, Donald Trump and Jordan B. Peterson.
Confronted with this contemporary despair, this sadness that only enriches ‘the self-help gurus and big pharma’, Costa elaborates an alternative for Thomas: a properly democratic, communal solidarity that empowers all involved. Other leftist activists would be content to shame or denigrate these lost boys. Varoufakis instead displays an admirable sensitivity: he outlines for them a progressive option that appeals to their all too human need to feel powerful.
By assembling this disparate group, strategically plucked from points across the political spectrum, Varoufakis creates an approximation of an ancient Greek institution: the agora, that bustling assembly where the polis once gathered. Reading Another Now, there is a sense that the conversation, much like that of a true democracy, is never finished. Though the book offers a concrete and well-wrought alternative to capitalism, the characters’ disagreements ensure that the interpretation of this vision is never settled.
Like the unresolved political situations of our present moment, the Other Now, and indeed, in all other places and times, the discussions in this book are therefore pregnant with contradiction. Any attempt to resolve this state simply begets another contrapuntal voice: ‘but what if…’. At the book’s end, readers therefore find themselves beset by lingering, internal disagreements, arguments that have crept from the page into their life. In Another Now, then, Varoufakis transplants the public arena’s restlessness and lack of closure into his book and his reader. He turns his personal vision into an opportunity for noisy, messy democracy. Thus, Another Now is, above all, a drawing of the agora.
IV Radical Indeterminacy
Another Now is more than an argument for techno-syndicalism, then. More fundamentally, it depicts a democracy in action, untidy and unclosed. At the level of its content, we find a democratic pattern, a swirl of indeterminacy. And remarkably, Varoufakis manages to carry this motif over to the form of his novel as well. There is yet another layer to Another Now, a final involution that harmonises the book with his broader intellectual project.
For many years, Varoufakis studied economic theory to show that it fails on its own terms — that its pretensions of objectivity, rationalism and deterministic closure are dangerous fallacies. With Marx, Varoufakis argues that free and creative human work, the lifeblood of capital, cannot be reduced to any kind of formula. Taking after Keynes, he insists that our individual and collective beliefs are self-referential and non-deterministic, defined by our unpredictable moods, and our beliefs about others’ beliefs, which are defined by their beliefs about our beliefs. And most importantly, he believes that a scientific notion of value is impossible, as ‘social power is determined by our valuation of things, of people and of their ideas and, at once, determines these values.’ Combining these observations, this implies that whether they are studying individuals, beliefs, and social groups, humanity resists the economist’s attempt to capture them with mathematical models. We are open-ended and protean: undefined, and forever reacting in unpredictable ways to new phenomena. Vitally, we will always be that way.
In short, Varoufakis believes that human behaviour is radically indeterminate. In his eyes, our lives can never be reduced to a formula, and his book reflects this notion. Instead of providing neat closure, Another Now is filled with impasses, disagreements, obdurate resistances, and changes of heart. Irreconcilable views litter its pages. The novel begins and ends with disagreement, and its intervening discussions are democratic clamours that lack definite conclusions. No single perspective dominates the others at any point in the novel. And the reader, of course, adds their own caveats, objections and endorsements to these arguments, forever expanding the conversations depicted on the novel’s pages. For this reason, our interpretation of the Other Now — and by extension, our own political beliefs — is unfixed, unpredictable and free. Indeterminate, in a word.
In an article for The Guardian, Varoufakis told us that writing Another Now ‘as a manual would have been unbearable. It would have forced [him] to pretend that [he had] taken sides in arguments that remain unresolved in [his] head — often in [his] heart.’ Even now, his own views are like those presented in the novel. Both Varoufakis and his book are polyphonic, shifting, disputatious. Rather than evasiveness or indecision, this statement is actually a portrayal of his most fundamental conviction: that ‘learning to embrace indeterminacy is part and parcel of attaining a higher order of rationality.’ From his politics, we can discern that Varoufakis tries to live by his own words. And we see that Another Now is a continuation of this indeterminate performance.
As such, both man and book are images of the ambiguous openness necessary to the progressive conscience. Together, they form a picture of the permanent revolution of the heart and mind essential to human progress. They are equally democratic in form — brilliantly, necessarily polyphonic.