The one most arresting reason why I love reading the books of Yanis Varoufakis is the degree of accessibility which he accords. Although an expert in the domain of Economics, he has the unique and compelling ability to shed the garb of an expert and make himself comprehensible to every layman whose curiosity has piqued towards understanding the dismal science. Whether it be his devastating book on tumultuous, draining and daring battles with the European establishment during his eventful and short tenure as the Finance Minister of Greece or a marvelously nuanced work on the convulsions of austerity suffered by a country teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and despondency, Varoufakis has always embellished not only himself but also the virtues of courage, hope and candour.
His latest and most shortest (till date) offering “Talking to my Daughter About the Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism” (“The Book”) is no exception to the glittering and refreshing ‘Yanis Barometer’. Providing a fundamental, although essential introduction to the well-oiled/lubricated machine of capitalism, Varoufakis uses his most potent weapon of simplicity to dazzling effect. Engaging in an imaginary conversation with his daughter about the hesitant evolution and rampant, ubiquitous permeation of the beast of capitalism, Varoufakis blends the discipline of economics with a surprising dose of introductory mythology. For example the fruition of the concept of debt is explained with reference to the fatal bargain or pact made by the unfortunate but arrogant Dr.Faustus with the Devil (Mephistopheles) in Christophe Marlowe’s immortal Elizabethan tragedy, “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.”
The fateful bargain with the Devil makes the Doctor indebted to the Devil as the former sells his soul after enjoying twenty four years of unimaginable power and influence. As for the analogy of the tragic tale to the shenanigans of unscrupulous bankers, it is left to anybody’s rational imagination. Similarly, the difference between an experiential value and exchange value is clarified by reference to the mythological battle between Odysseus and Ajax for possession of the valued armaments of the fallen demi-god Achilles. There was no auction or reverse auction for the distribution of the invaluable weapons of Achilles. Instead the rightful heir apparent was decided by a war of wits between the two most deserving candidates Odysseus and Ajax. In fact when Odysseus was declared the rightful winner, Ajax, unable to bear the humiliation of losing, fell upon his own sword. Thus no value of exchange could compare with the experiential value in this regard.
This book is not too dissimilar to the ones penned by the famed Michael Sandel in many aspects. Altruism, civic sense and ecological preservation are all laid out as viewed through the narrow and draconian lens of capitalism and the fatal flaws rigorously exposed. Varoufakis also has his own variant of the popular ‘experience machine’ made famous by the philosopher Robert Nozick in his 1974 book, “Anarchy, State and Utopia”. Varoufakis’s experience machine is termed “HALPEVAM” – Heuristic Algorithmic Pleasure & Experiential Value Maximiser”. Other than the imaginative name, there is nothing to distinguish HALPEVAM from Nozick’s experience machine.
The book is a must read for the seasoned veteran and novice alike. In fact the former might be more benefitted than the later courtesy a realization that at time more harm than good comes out from leaving an expert to exert his/her uncontrolled influence over the sphere of his/her influence!