What if Occupy became a worldwide rebellion?
Yanis Varoufakis’ new book, Another Now, is a utopian novel. It follows the form of most utopian works in that it is didactic, with minimal character development and a slim plot line. So, if that turns you off you might as well not read further. However, if you do enjoy informed speculations of a possible future world, then you might like Another Now.
I purposely say “informed” to distinguish this utopian fiction from total fantasy, though like almost all works in this genre there is an element of fantasy. Julian West, for example, in Edward Bellamy’s 19th century best-seller Looking Backward awakes after 133 years from a hypnotic sleep. William Morris’ protagonist in News from Nowhere, Willian Guest, more reasonably awakes from a sleep induced by a political meeting to find himself pleasurably roaming about in a utopia devoid of the regimentation of Bellamy’s future. Varoufakis’ traveler, a software engineer named simply Costa, while fiddling with electronics in his lab, contacts a utopian resident via an accidentally induced time warp.
The fantastic nature of the encounter gives way to a realism only a radical professor of economics could provide. In fact, Another Now, could be considered an entertaining economics lesson—a lesson in democratic economics.
Varoufakis taught economics around the world including the University of Texas, at Austin. In 2015, given his reputation, he was appointed the Greek Finance Minister in the left-wing government and tried to negotiate with EU bankers a favorable financial settlement of Greek debt. He failed and Greece was plunged into something approaching bankruptcy. That experience propelled him into an activist role as the founder of DiEM25 a platform for radical politics in Europe.
Another Now rolls out the story of a path not taken by Occupy movements in 2011, but one where a few subversive groups working in various sectors of society—electronics, banking, politics—manage to leverage their expertise to force the capitulation of powerful institutions to their demands. Varoufakis delves deeply into a detailed depiction of the alternative economic mechanisms that lead to a more democratic society in this other future. For those who are either involved with cooperatives, especially worker cooperatives (a growing sector with a thousand in the pipeline), or who are agitating for democratic economic structures Another Now will be engrossing.
Over five years ago, Varoufakis was the economist-in-residence for Valve, the gaming company, advising them on their flat organizational structure. (Some currently contest Valve’s adherence to those non-hierarchical values.) He brings that experience of self-management to this book. Another Now, however, expands both the contemporary cooperative sector’s tepid criticism of capitalism and its precarious position in the market economy. In the utopia outlined here, there is universal participation in the management of all enterprises. Beyond that, every person receives a substantial stipend based on the economic bounty society provides (a minority no longer absconds with the common wealth). Subsequently, banks have been made redundant since all transactions are recorded as personal data without the need of bankers—so no savings and checking accounts. And further, since individuals have funds at their disposal they can collectively invest directly in a project without the mediation of bankers’ loans and stock brokers’ fees.
The history of the emergence of these radical reforms and how they function form that economics lesson I mentioned. It unfolds as a story of Costa and his two friends trying to survive in our fucked-up society. His friends draw on their embittered experiences in politics and economics to express their misgivings of Costa’s communications from “another now.” Their skepticism of a future society free of much of the political and economic constraints we suffer elucidates the radicalism of the measures enacted. The critical, dialogic conversation between the three friends is a standard teaching technique, and it works here to clarify how our economy could be replaced, at least partially, with one that better serves us.
How this future society evolved, nonetheless, left me disappointed that the agents for change were small groups of skilled people who managed to leverage their exclusive (privileged?) knowledge to contest and defeat established institutions. For example, there were the Crowdshorters who organized boycotts of utility payments, which forced private investment out of that field. Then there were the Solsourcers who agitated for the mass withholding of pension contributions to funds holding super-exploitive corporate stock. The Bladerunners, organized mass consumer strikes targeting big tech companies and the Wikiblowers, infected government computers worldwide with a virus that exposed all their secret files preventing retaliation from security forces against the rebels.
These were lovely actions, with mass support, that are precisely recounted by Varoufakis, along with their devastating repercussions against authority. However, it is dismaying that, while ostensibly these groups developed in the wake of the experiences of Occupy throughout the world, they are not that reflective of the spirit of Occupy. An exemplary occurrence of that spirit was the spontaneous volunteer support that rushed to aid those devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
And what resonates more with the creative subversions Costa describes, though not its form, was the Reddit inspired mass short-selling that bankrupted a major hedge fund and threw the stock market into a panic. This action was sparked by a suggestion on Reddit, there was no cabal of players directing it—it was a mass rebellion against the millionaires on Wall Street.
Small groups of dedicated revolutionaries who have taken the stage of history to propel populations to rebel have often betrayed that spirit of revolt by institutionalizing their role. To prevent the recurrence of authoritarianism, a popular movement, embedded in the culture of a society, must be actively experimenting with democratic forms. Popular rebellions may erupt spontaneously, but their germination occurs over time, whereas coups occur overnight.
Costa, refers to the Spanish anarchists in passing near the beginning of the book. The laudable role of the anarchists served as an inoculation against hierarchical politics of the left and the right, from liberals to Leninists. Varoufakis obviously knows this history and so it is unfortunate that they, and their significance in forming a revolutionary culture, are absent in his tale. His decision may have been a novelistic expedient—the story moves faster with these swift and dramatic social changes. And too, he’s an economist, not an anthropologist who would be cognizant of daily life, like Ursula Le Guin.
The demise of Occupy across the US was expedited by Obama’s coordinated nationwide crackdown using local police, so the movement never had a chance to evolve. And this is the story of many popular revolts. They get crushed, and power attempts to erase memories—a hundred years ago by fiddling with photos, burning books, and, most effectively, killing participants. Today we have corporate media performing that task. Power, however, never totally succeeds. The slow development of a culture of rebellion is built on those defeats.
Varoufakis decision to dismiss the development of a culture of rebellion in his utopia, is equalled by his neglect of the dire social implications of climate chaos. Yes, the worst corporate befoulers of the environment are financially attacked in his novel, but that’s only one aspect of the chaos entrained by their extractive practices. What about land and forest reclamation? Feeding and housing the millions of starving climate immigrants? Who will pay to correct the acidification of the oceans or, for that matter, where will potable water come from as aquifers increasingly run dry?
The marketplace propels the engine of growth, it is certainly not the place to fund reclamation. And if the state needs to rectify corporate despoilation, what sort of common wealth will be left to distribute to the citizenry?
These issues are far beyond the scope of Another Now, however, there is a saving value to the vision of economic democracy outlined by Varoufakis. He describes an insightful speculation of what would constitute an economic platform to deal with the issues of climate chaos. His utopia creatively contributes, in a far better way than a dry academic analysis, to a possible route out of the economic quagmire impeding rebellion. And in this way, Another Now follows the history of utopian novels: they arouse critical thought which can spawn oppositional movements. For example, Edward Bellamy’s Nationalist Clubs, there were 162 of them in 1891, formed as discussion groups after he published Looking Backward, and they were significant in leading to the progressive movement at the turn of the century. Maybe dreaming is not a waste of time.