Game-Over Theory: DiEM25

FB
X

In the Greek elections of May 21st, MERA25, the “European movement for realistic disobedience”, (formerly known as “Diem25” or the “Democracy in Europe by 2025 Movement”) led by superstar Neo-Keynesian economist Yanis Varoufakis lost all its remaining seats in the Hellenic parliament. Varoufakis in turn condemned the “Erdoganization” and “Orbanization” of Greece, comparing the growth of the Greek right to parallel developments in Turkey and Hungary– even though other center-left entities, such as Varoufakis’ erstwhile ally-turned-rival SYRIZA, alongside the social-democrat PASOK remain in government, despite being dwarfed by the more openly oligarchic parties of the Balkan country. In a palliative text titled “Our Defeat in Context” Varoufakis explained the calamity thusly:


“MeRA25 seems to have suffered because we tried to inspire our base with hard-hitting truths and a call to arms, rather than soothing narratives falsely claiming that we could costlessly turn things around for the many. (…) It turned out that the voters did not want to hear bad news, nor cared for calls to arms. (…) This is the mountain MeRA25 must now climb: How to persuade bad-news-averse marginal voters to vote for us again without plying them with soothing lies.”


The language sounds familiar: a cavalier dismissal of the wretched vox populi by progressive academic politicians, who rather castigate the moral deficiencies in the broader public, instead of subjecting their party politics to rigorous and necessary self-analysis. These politicians seem to have forgotten the left’s origins as the movement of self-critical social consciousness.


The day after the comments on weak-minded voters rankled part of his Greek online following, Varoufakis explained further, now armed with Hannah Arendt: “Yesterday, I was criticised for saying that battered voters often prefer soothing lies to painful truths. Hannah Arendt defended me from the grave: “The masses’ escape from reality is a verdict against a world in which they are forced to live & in which they cannot exist.” This response exemplifies a tragic pattern of DiEM25’s career. It suggests a formula that began before Diem25, within the SYRIZA Ministry of Finance in 2015: at every failure to seize power or fill the shoes of an organizer, strategist or political representative, simply adopt the voice of a performative public intellectual, who observes society from the margins; deliver prophetic verdict of the masses; always insist on “speaking truth to power”(preferably in the format of a Ted-talk or Google-lecture) rather than grabbing power by its soiled reins. Who has really escaped reality–the center-left leadership or the voting public? What happened to this once-sprawling movement that postulated itself as both “think tank” and “superglue” reinventing the global left?


While DiEM25 press releases describe the right’s landslide victory as a surprise, fragmentation was long underway–both in its foundational bedrock in Greece, as well as in its international incarnation heralded as “Pan-European, progressive movement that aims to democratise the EU before it disintegrates” promising a “democratic revolution” that would create “a nightmare for Europe’s oligarchs” by no later than 2025. In the Athenian parliament, the real trends came to the fore by late 2022: when Angeliki Adamapolou became the first of free elected Greek MPs to abandon the Greek wing of the relatively new Pan-European internationalist movement. She immediately faced an accusing chorus of ex-comrades on her way out. Adamapoulou did this while publicly releasing a devastating resignation letter, citing “internal authoritarianism” and “family-rule”– perhaps alluding to Varoufakis’ successful endorsement of his wife, Dana Stratou– heiress of the Stratou industrialist family-dynasty– to prominent candidacies and leadership positions within his party. A key member of MeRA’s Italian offshoot resigned after the revelation of spousal privilege, purportedly lamenting what had become a family business.


Last autumn, Fotini Bakadimas became the third MP to abandon MeRA. Varoufakis declared via tweet “(Fotini) has chosen to abstain from battles… at a time when MeRa25 is under an all-out attack from the oligarchs!” Ms. Bakadimas served as Varoufakis’ “right hand” and close confidante during his short-lived service as finance minister in 2015, when SYRIZA appointed him after winning the elections on its broken promises to take on European Union technocrats and the Troika. She has rejoined SYRIZA. Another MP, Constantina Adamou switched to the long-disgraced PASOK. SYRIZA or the “Progressive Alliance”– is the party which Varoufakis had once denounced, before Diem25, or Mera (a Greek word for “morning”, since the dawn is reserved by the right in Greece) was founded largely as a revolt against SYRIZA’s notorious and self-denigrating capitulation to the anti-democratic austerity-schemes of Brussels, the IMF and Berlin, all of whom became Tsipras’ new masters.


At the news of these defections, MeRA ex-comrades took to twitter: “We continue with those who insist on fighting for the people and not for personal positions and power at all costs, like the new interlocutors of our female former deputies, who are unbothered by the capitulation of 2015 and by the delusions of Mr. Tsipras(…)”


Ms. Adamopolou’s original resignation statement reads as a dignified attempt to preserve her party:


“In the more than two and a half years of my term as a member of the Athens National Assembly of MERA25, (…) I faithfully served the positions of the modern Left with a clear patriotic orientation, I promoted proposals for a better and fairer Greece, I defended the rule oflaw, equality and humanity. In this way, I contributed with consistency, seriousness, and a sense of duty to the improvement of the public image of MERA25 and to the strengthening of the party’s resonance among the citizens. (…)”


“However, with great sadness and escalating frustration I observe almost immediately after the 2019 elections and gradually until today, MERA25 is transforming internally– from a pluralist and polyphonic collective into a closed club of the elite. Unfortunately, the leadership of MERA25 and specifically its well-liked executives try daily, with authoritarian and arbitrary ways, to impose themselves without dialogue and without procedures. For the sake of decency, I do not wish to expand on specific incidents and feed the pervasive media cannibalism of our time. However, I owe it to my fellow citizens to state publicly that MERA shows a serious lack of democracy, meritocracy, equality, responsibility, and transparency, an excess of family rule and nepotism, an excess of discrimination favouring certain MPs and executives, (…) In short, MERA25’s estrangement from its own ideological and moral core, along with its ownership logic–the factor of oligarchy– have completely alienated me (…)’” Adampolou concluded wishing old comrades “a return to the pure and high ideals that a few years ago united the raised fists of all those of us who unhesitatingly supported the vision for a fairer Greece in a fairer world.”


In turn, Varoufakis retorted accusations of careerism: “We wish Angeliki best of luck in her new party–now that she smells elections coming. Today, on (International) Women’s Day, we (MERA25) are in the street–for women, not for positions!” (Adamopolou had become an independent, and not yet SYRIZA at the time.) The rather awkward invocation of macho-feminism–though nowhere as odd as Varoufakis’ momentous “Hang in there, sisters!” twitter-message to the Afghan women as the Taliban stormed Kabul–has become characteristic of the movement, which currently proclaims itself an “intersectional feminist” organization featuring far more internal discussions on gender, “white fragility” and eco-feminism than any of the anti-austerity politics it was founded on.


Diem25 is regularly under attack by the forces of the oligarchy which control Greek media. But that was only to be expected of a party with a dissident message. Varoufakis’ and his advisors’ fear of the Greek and international press’s capacity for character-assassination has likely impacted major decisions on the international scene, such as Varoufakis’s insulting and refusing Caracas’ requests for his advice on reorganising Venezuela’s economy so that the Venezuelan people can better survive the crisis.


All this is a far cry from the hope and exhilaration with which the movement took off in 2016 in an East-Berlin theatre.


Game-Over-Theory


Varoufakis, alongside his closest allies had in 2015 successfully distanced themselves in the public eye from the notorious Greek left’s self-betrayal. Tsipras’ farce, which disheartened and damaged sympathetic movements the world over, from Spain to Argentina, was seen as Tsipras’ and SYRIZA’s alone. It remained unclear, however, why Varoufakis in his short-lived gig as finance minister had dismissed pressures from SYRIZA to unseat the neoliberal, pro-Troika Europhile economist Ianis Stournaras from his position as chairman of the Greek Central Bank. Varoufakis had alluded to an intricate and complex “game theory”-infused strategy, which would render such aggressive political action completely unnecessary. Perhaps the results speak for themselves. German elites saw they could call the Greek bluff, as the permanence of their asset-man, firmly seated on his laurels in the Hellenic Central Bank, allayed any fears that Greece might go so far as to undermine the EU superstructure by exiting the Eurozone if Greek demands weren’t met.


In this botched, over-wrought scheme, we can trace the seeds of the later MERA movement’s self-destruction: an overreliance on symbolic and rhetorical gestures, an overthought performative PR “strategy” –Varoufakis the academic specialized for years in studying the “game theory” founded by John Nash. In Diem25 “game theory” and “branding” end up replacing political organising. When the leaders fail in representative and organizational functions, they compensate by resorting to the role of outsider public intellectual–e.g., quoting Hannah Arendt on the voters’ gullible false consciousness on the eve of an electoral disaster.


In this model, a clearly defined politics is substituted by celebrity appearances and a think-tank reality show meant to entertain the Western European middle class fanbase. This was by no means the original intent of much of the leadership and has lead to a formula that wins on the basis of youtube-views –our contemporary ratings-system–but loses as a political party.


In 2018, the Diem25 movement prematurely reinvented itself as a party with the Euro-parliament in its sights. Surprisingly, Varoufakis announced that he would campaign for the European parliamentary seat in Germany. The decision, which seemed self-defeating from the outset, alienated German allies of Sahra Wagenknecht’s DieLinke who had agreed to represent Diem25 in the elections; it also ignored the effectiveness of insidious anti-Greek propaganda which still radiated from German media at the time. Shortly after, members at televised conferences overheard Varoufakis promising that, if elected to European parliament, he would deliver one last Periclean speech, and then resign. This preannounced the campaign bid as a form of gestural politics: an avant garde, theatrical denunciation against power and injustice, flippantly invoking Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle”. It might have worked in theatre-savvy former Yugoslavia–where for example, the art-rock group Laibach constitutes an active political party with a high profile in Slovenia. But not in Germany.


Avant garde posturing, or the “theatre of dissent” peaked when our leading activists prominently featured Baywatch bombshell Pamela Anderson as figurehead of the “European Spring” and “Green New Deal for Europe” campaign. Anderson might have likely garnered votes with a campaign in Italy, (home of Ilona Staller, the porn starlet turned politico, better known as “La Cicciolina”, Meloni’s ancestress.) In Germany, however, the spectacular fusion of pop-cultural icons with revolutionary politics was culturally out of context for notoriously sober and Lutheran audiences.


Varoufakis’ strange self-postulation in Germany might have stood a chance nevertheless, had it offered a program more oriented to former-East-German working class voters–who identified with Greeks during Greece’s evisceration by Wolfgang Schaüble’s liberal shock-therapy. Their elites’ self-righteousness inevitably reminded the former East-Germans of that Western economic conquest of their regions post 1989, which many had experienced as an humiliation. But team-Varoufakis did not concentrate on those neighborhoods: instead, Diem25’s efforts targeted German middle classes: those who had imbibed German corporate media’s scapegoating and anti-Greek sentiment in preceding years. Diem25 hinged its electoral program on its manifesto calling for a “Green New Deal For Europe”. The document, in which the concept of class is hard to find, used as its cornerstone a reference the New Deal which appeals to the American, rather than European collective memory of the birth of postwar social democracy. Overemphasizing “Green” led Diem25 into the trap of inadvertently campaigning for European Green Parties, today led by hawkish figures like Baerbock who agitate for nuclear war.


We predictably lost the Euro-parliamentary race. But thanks to these campaigns Diem25 still came away with agreatly enlarged German and Europhile membership and participation. That influx included veterans of Germany’s surreal “Anti-German Movement”: known for its self-flagellating performances and waving rainbow, EU, and Israeli flags at marches.


Following the plotline of Orwell’s Animal Farm, DiEM25 had turned into a comic microcosm of the very EU it had set out to fight: in which once again, a North-Western European bloc wielded outsized influence on both base and leadership in setting the tone and values; denouncing the swarthy Southerners of harboring a culture of corruption and machismo. German, Dutch, and Belgian members stood at the forefront, accusing the mostly Mediterranean leadership of corruption and “patriarchy”. This manifested as an internal culture war about “wokeness” versus materialist politics.


The foreign policy brigade, of which I was a proud co-founding member, was the island of exception. We raked up “controversy” by pointing out that US military bases are the world’s leading consumer of jet-fuel and there can be no “Green New Deal” without an end to Western military imperialism. Varoufakis had stunned the foreign policy group’s originators in Belgrade–site of NATO’s historic bombings against Europeans–by adamantly insisting that European foreign policy will never change.


Yet it became clear that one way to express the radical identity of the movement, and end the moronic culture-wars,would be through challenging the European foreign policy establishment. Our group was slandered as a pro-Kremlin/Assad puppet-show when we organized an “Alternative Munich Security Conference” featuring guests like American podcasters Katie Halper, Rania Khalek and Aaron Maté in 2020 to speculate about the likely ascent of “Woke Imperialism”. Before then, we were being regularly attacked by our fellow activists– especially after announcing our development of a program to change Europe’s quietist position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Members in Leipzig(hometown of the OG original gangster of “wokeness”, Martin Luther) frequently smeared all our Jewish and Arab comrades and members as anti-semites, taking their cue from Starmerite Labour. But ultimately our proposal calling for a fully de-nuclearised Middle East and enforcement of European commitment to end all support for illegal settlements, though it won Noam Chomsky’s signature, struck the leadership as overly mild and insufficiently telegenic or “radical”. The leadership then campaigned against us and won but have remained inactive when it comes to enforcing their more radical than Thou program, which is basically Yannis’ call for abolishing Israel and which is a position that never fails to elicit applause within the fortress of the Greek left, but which always fails to generate any result that might help improve Palestinian life.


In the midst of all this culture-war, our leaders wearied of heaping even more sectarian strife onto its plate, and tried to quietly dance around the issue of NATO. One of our foreign policy group’s tasks had been conducting mass-interviews of the movement. These sessions revealed that a majority of ordinary members of Diem25 at that time opposed NATO. The leadership feared that revealing these results of our arduous research too soon, might alienate Polish and Balticcomrades from the rest of the base. A quietist strategy of “buying time” for years before announcing what we all actually think about NATO, proved a time-bomb detonated by the events of February 2022. By then it was too late to maintain an integral Pan-European movement. We had needed urgent movement-wide plenaries to debate about NATO, and about the civil war roiling in Ukraine since 2014, long before the escalation. Our leadership instead surprised Polish and Baltic members–who tended to see NATO as a protector– at the last minute, ending the cover-up surreptitiously. Fears about alienating the East Europeans became a self-fulfilling prophecy when Lewica Razem, former Polish ally of Diem25 announced on twitter its breaking of all ties with Diem25 and the Progressive International on the eve of the invasion.