July 19, 2024

Another Better “Now” – Yanis Varoufakis’ Metaphysics Of Morals (Paul Tyson)

The year 1627 saw the publication of short and incomplete work of fiction by Francis Bacon in which he imagined a previously undreamed of scientific and technological future.

The book he wrote was called The New Atlantis. Some time back I read this astonishing little novella. While it was a cracking good read, you could not describe it as a literary classic or a carefully thought out ideological manifesto. In contrast, Thomas More’s Utopia is both a literary classic and a powerful thought experiment in radical political and commercial ideals.

Yet, of these two texts, Bacon’s imaginative sketch carried the true prophetic vision. Rather than a great work of literary fiction or an ideological tract, Bacon gave us a future shaping imaginative classic of the first rank. For what Bacon did with astonishing effectiveness was imagine something entirely new and make it seem both desirable and possible.

Now, 400 years later, Bacon’s vision has become technological modernity in ways that pushed well past the techno-priesthood utopia he dreamed up early in the 17th century. Of course, the shadow side of the future he imagined was not seen by Bacon: the nuclear bomb, other weapons of unspeakable horror, lethal drones, climate change, cyber-crime, financial fabrication crimes (CDOs), profoundly invasive (and pervasive) commercial and political surveillance, media and algorithmic mass manipulation of unprecedented power, etc. Even so, it is hardly fair to lay responsibility for our techno-abuses on the Elizabethan silk’s heavily ruffed shoulders.

Yanis Varoufakis’ Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present is of the same genre as Bacon’s New Atlantis. Such works cannot be judged on literary or ideological grounds. So let me say a few things about the literary and ideological signatures of Varoufakis’ sci-fi narrative by way of a prologue that seeks to acknowledge and then set these matters aside.

Techno-Utopian Hyperliberalism

First, let us consider ideology implicit in the narrative. The characters in the story are largely situated in the progressive university cultural milieu of the radical Marxist/feminist, the John Stuart Mill flavored hyper-liberal, and the jaded techno-utopian. This, unsurprisingly, is the milieu that Varoufakis himself moves in. In this context it is predictable that one of the key characters in this book is a lesbian who has occasional sex with men just to show how entirely free from all conventionally oppressive power relations and conformist stereotypes she is.

I am not interested in making any comment on human sexuality, but clearly this sort of radical identitarian individualism and assertive normative constructivism is in some ways helpful to the narrative. For the ideas Varoufakis is playing with are genuinely non-conformist to the political, economic and (hence) cultural norms of our present now. The thought experiment Varoufakis is engaged in is not trying to tweak or sustain our existing order, he really is thinking of another politico-economic reality to the present. So there is a narrative reason why his characters are elite radical non-conformists.

And yet, framing the narrative in über-progressive terms presents its own problems as this celebration of convention-busting non-conformism will be strange, even distasteful, to most people who do not move in Varoufakis’ radical Leftist milieu. Indeed, this chosen use of a progressive shibboleth in the narrative is needlessly alienating for those very readers who Varoufakis most needs to persuade; the conventional majority. After all, it is not radical progressives who – one would hope – need imaginative priming for another now.

But whether one likes or dislikes the radical cultural assumptions of Another Now’s progressive narrative, the story itself should be seen as the carrier of ideas that are ‘bigger’ than the author’s own progressive commitments. This is not to say that Varoufakis could separate his big vision from his own deeply held existential commitments, but – at least speaking for myself – one can benefit from the big vision Varoufakis is putting forward via this narrative, without being his ideological comrade.

The sci-fi elements of the story also, are fun, but they too are carriers of imaginative ideas; ideas that have no connection with quantum physics, neural science, the philosophy of mind, or to naïve progressive scientism and its dystopian inversion. In this book the sci-fi is a narrative tool, it is not the thing itself.

Second, let’s consider the vision itself.

Varoufakis wants us to try and dream up a world where money and governments serve human and natural realities, rather than the other way around, as it presently is. Essentially, Varoufakis is claiming that we have this power shaping capability in our hands, if we will but use it, and that we should prepare ourselves for the opportunity which the pending collapse of the prevailing world order will very shortly present to us. The world missed a key opportunity in 2008, if we miss the next opportunity we may well be calling a dystopian nightmare down on our heads that will make the 1930s look like a picnic.

Varoufakis prods us towards this incredibly important imaginative enterprise with a series of truly game re-writing yet at least technically feasible speculations; abolishing private banks, abolishing the stock market, full transparency for power, abolishing organizational and political hierarchy, full individual control of personal data, and other such wild visions of an alternative reality.

The basic insight is that money and power are entirely human inventions, and if they are not working to at least most people’s benefit, there is nothing stopping us from re-inventing them differently. The tendency of cultures and life-worlds to construct certain ways of handling wealth and power over time, and then treat those ways as if they are immovable features of natural reality which we must simply adapt to, is emphatically denied by Varoufakis. This denial is the equivalent of screaming ‘wake up!’ to sleepers in a hotel that is on fire; it is exactly what we need to hear and heed, right now.

In Australia, where I live, there is no sign that any one in politics has either the economic smarts or the moral courage to do anything other than keep the ship of state following a now stopped pre-2008 gulf-stream, as if global people displacement, Covid-19, climate change, an ungovernable FAANG, US/China tension, a plague of demagogues, and an unsustainable system of international finance and power had not happened. Patch the walls of the Titanic with fiscal duct-tape and keep the band playing “stay safe” and “when everything gets back to normal” as if they really mean it, seems to be all our so-called leaders can come up with.

Varoufakis is right; the time to think outside the box, to honestly face the fact that normality cannot come back, and to take responsibility for trying something that simply hasn’t been done before, is NOW. To that end, this book – whether you find Varoufakis’ speculations hopeful or horrifying – is exactly the prod we need. Where is our imaginative courage to think not about how to win (or just survive) within established parameters, but to re-think the parameters themselves?

If you don’t like what Varoufakis puts forward, put something else forward, only it must recognize that the post-1980s global world order is in terminal decline. We need to imagine a new frame of operational normality and a viable way of getting there from here. This is what Varoufakis is trying to do. This can only be done with imagination and courage. This is an enterprise we all need to get involved in.

Varoufakis’ Metaphysics of Morals

Finally, then, allow me to briefly engage with the moral philosophy, the metaphysical commitments, and the (anti) theological assumptions that guide Varoufakis in his attempt to imagine genuinely good alternatives to a broken now.

Given the rude things Varoufakis – in Popperian moments – has said about Plato in the past, I hope he will not be offended if I point out how Platonic his mode of thinking is. What scholars call the ‘Socratic dialogues’ of Plato are characterized by their apparent aporia; they don’t seem to arrive at an Answer. But like Plato, there is a lot going on for Varoufakis when he does not ‘solve’ a problem. This is because the most important things in life are not sums or engineering problems that can be mathematically or instrumentally solved. As Socrates ironically points out in Parmenides “all we need is a true measure of value” (knowing full well that trying to quantify quality is an impossible endeavour).

Varoufakis is aware that he – and probably all modern progressives – has an unsolvable problem. As a committed progressive atheist, metaphysically committed to a non-metaphysical immanence, there is nothing transcendent about ‘The Good’. Human morals are human constructions that ultimately have naturalistic (i.e., non-moral) sources, and are ultimately defined by amoral natural necessities (expressed or denied as power and interests).

Varoufakis also recognizes the inherent human capacity for mischief – something perhaps akin to the idea of original sin – but there is no God that is (in Plato’s terms) the Goodness Beyond Being who might source transcendent moral reality itself, and there is no inherent sacramental human dignity (in Christian terms) that gives intrinsic value and significance to us all, however fallen we may be. So universal human rights and non-violent solutions to clashes of interest are simply asserted as Good, along with the assertion that personal morality pluralism (moral individualism) is also Good.

But… at one point in Another Now a character speaks of Odysseus being tied to a mast so that he can hear the Sirens without being destroyed. The mast – it is explained – represents the Good that does not move, that is not a function of personal interests. But where in the entirely naturalistic cosmos is such a mast? Is Kantian duty simply manufactured out of sheer syllogistic rationality? Is moral truth simply culturally manufactured out of nothing, and then wilfully projected onto the human world?

But if that is so, then what makes one system of human values – say competitive individual power maximization – any less human, any less true, any less good, than universal love and compassion? As much as post-metaphysical (i.e. Kantian) Marxists think they can replace theory with praxis, as much as high human glory can only be realized when Man worships Himself and this alone defines true progress and true liberation, as potent as the intuition of the rightness of egalitarian justice is to the Marxist, in a flatly materialist cosmos there really is no such thing as moral truth (ask Hume). Morality itself – as Freud and Foucault well saw – become tools of power and social control if we live in a purely materialist cosmos.

And this is where Varoufakis’ political, economic and morality engineering speculations can produce aporia, angst and even genuine moral dread. The dictatorship of the proletariat has violently forced people to be free in the past. The social engineer, particularly when seeking to re-configure the distribution networks of power, will need power, and herein lies a perennial risk of violence, corruption and (possible worst of all) administrative inhumanity. Varoufakis sees this, and whilst his technical vision is bold and sweeping, he remains cautious and appropriately nervous about how any attempt to really shift power around will pan out.

The freedom of Varoufakis’ fertile mind to imagine the as yet not known, combined with his awareness that the most serious moral risks are always involved in re-engineering structural power, is inspiring and illustrative of a deeply morally sensitive, power concerned humanism. Yet something Marxist progressives have never appreciated is that the supposed oppressive false consciousness of the transcendent vision of moral truth native to the religious sensibility, is not going away.

Peter Berger, among others, has pointed out that as a matter of empirical fact, the secularization thesis (that religion will simply wither away as societies ‘advance’) is a dud. And whilst the religious sensibility’s firm mast is as equally prone to producing violent reforming zealots capable of unspeakable moralistic and ideological atrocities, just like Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Hitler’s bureaucratic executioners, and Stalin’s purges, these atrocities are human rather than religious or materialist or nationalist problems.

Yet there is, at least, a metaphysical logic and a practical integrity to the belief in a genuinely transcendent moral Good. This, I think, Varoufakis – and any morally committed humanist – also needs, but he really cannot have this as a naturalistic materialist.  

As is probably evident, I am a theologian. I have read all of Varoufakis’ popular books, and found them astonishingly illuminating as insightful political economic histories, and as clear expositions of some of the most opaque economic and institutional mysteries which are embedded in the very structures of our prevailing life-world. His humanism also is inspiring, and his ability to think of possible ways around impossible obstacles within the existing dynamics of power gives hope where otherwise I would not know how to conceive of a non-double-bind stance.

In Another Now Varoufakis has laid some of his moral and philosophical commitments vulnerably before us, and shown how they are integral to the kinds of creative possibilities he is imagining and cautiously trying to create. And here I find that the difference between any genuinely religious understanding of moral reality and the progressive materialist commitments guiding his own moral thinking, is a real difference.

The difference here is not simply ontological, it is also teleological. As Aquinas puts it, the ultimate end of humanity cannot be fulfilled in this life; we are human precisely in that our goal and fulfilment is ever beyond and above ourselves (we cannot make our own mast). Yet, though Varoufakis is an avowed immanentist, in some ways he also maintains an unrealizable teleology in his thoughts on love.

The love that one of his heroines hungers for but, can never obtain, is of a total harmonious giving of all to the other. Strangely, Varoufakis’ lesbian heroine sounds like Augustine, and maybe, she has read Arendt who also leans on Augustine. For, to Augustine, the thing that ultimately defines us is our love. But the love of glory for the Self defines the central common object of worship in the fallen City of Man, and the love of God – who is love – and then the love of neighbour as oneself, defines the central dynamic of worship in the City of God.

But it is worship that is missing from Varoufakis’ account of the direction of moral reform that should shape our technical imagination for a real new deal; a new deal shaped not only by the genuine prudential interests of sustainable human and natural reality, but by a genuinely transcendent moral reality that is honored above all interests; a God who is Goodness Beyond Being, and who is Agape.

Another Now is a fascination exercise in imagining a different set of technical mechanisms that would enable a fundamental re-configuration of power, wealth, and our relation to our fellows and nature. But what I find most helpful about this text is the way in which Varoufakis knows that (despite what I said in the first review) moral, metaphysical and theological commitments are inseparable from practical power and will always be (for better or worse) integral with any attempt to imagine and engineer a better now. It is a now where money and power serve genuine human and natural realities, and where the high telos of our humanity can breathe freely and deeply.

Dr Paul Tyson is a Senior Research Fellow and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, at the University of Queensland, Australia.

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