MERA25's political theater

Baruch Gottlieb
6 min readDec 26, 2021

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In 2015 I was a supporter of the movements which brought Syriza to power in Greece. It seemed like an effective model of political transformation under contemporary conditions was being elaborated. With Syriza rose the profile of little-known economist who dared to speak the truth of economic power, Yanis Varoufakis. Having watched many of Varoufakis’ economics lectures over the years and was impressed with his canniness, I was excited to see him emerge as an unlikely minister of finance for the chronically downtrodden economy of Greece. The debacle which followed, rather than putting things in perspective, only emboldened Varoufakis who set out an even more ambitious and unrealistic plan to reform Europe with DIEM25.

I was there at the Volksbühne for the launch of DIEM25 and can still feel my bewildered dismay at what transpired there. The Volksbühne at the time was embroiled in a tumultuous battle over its legacy and its place at the heart of Berlin. Internatational art-world star curator Chris Dercon had just been hired to refashion the icon of radical theatre in Berlin, and bring in a “world-class” program to replace the dreary, dreadful almost unbearably urgent productions which had been its mainstay, a tradition energetically maintained by the outgoing director Frank Castorf. DIEM25 turned out to be cut from the cloth of the Dercon clan. Well-meaning, earnest and, in the end, because it unwilling to seriously solidarize with the people it meant to speak for, vapid. Brian Eno’s pompous fanfare sounded like the opening to royal pageant, the voices on the stage, mostly celebrities of various stripes, the vibe was chummy and posh. Of course nothing became of DIEM25. Nevertheless I stayed interested in the project, hope springs eternal as they say. So it was with only the faintest expectation that I clicked on the video of the MERA25 launch at Kino Internationale on Thursday.

Their platform has a lot of good stuff in it, but as a proposal for a national party in Germany, its vague and unconvincing. The event started again with a tone-deaf info-graphic “artwork” by Varoufakis’ wife, global art star Danae Stratou. The first words which appeared on the screen “what are you afraid of?” is not exactly the way to brace weary hearts for a struggle against the powers that be. This focus on what they are against is symptomatic of movements who are unwilling to associate themselves to a real legacy of struggle which is being upheld with increasing success around the world today. No mention of Nicaragua, Honduras!, Cuban doctors and vaccines, Chinese belt and road… no… Europe! Europe is in danger from the right, and must right again to righteous heights!

What’s in a name? MERA25, the meaning of the sequence of four letters was never explained (I guess you had to know already aren’t you on the mailing list? Is it a Greek word of something?) You think German voters are going to vote for a party with a foreign name? The inability of the group behind this project to come up with an appropriate name for its party is telling. Here I will help you out: how about “Mitburgerschaft für ernsthafter und realistischer Aufstieg?”

The program itself is fine. The presentation of it, though leaden and humourless, delivered a few promising angles to reach a broad public, the promise of good pensions, for example would surely fly. Reception in the crowd was wan, if friendly and encouraging. But many proposals, like that of mutualizing mega-landlords and forcing profitable companies to distribute dividends to the public aren’t much more that what Germans call “Zukunftsmusik”. Ok, everybody can agree, MERA 25 is the party of reasonable well-meaning people, unlike the bad people running things. And they are “rebellious” too! Reasonable rebels! Rebels of reason! The terrible question no-one seems to want to face is how reason will defeat power.

This is the story of Varoufakis’ political career, an exercise in futility of performatively and ineffectively speaking truth to power. The apotheosis of this is when he tried to explain to German finance minister and ECB kingpin Wolfgang Schäuble that increasing austerity in Greece was going to be counterproductive not only for Greece but for Europe as a whole. Schäuble fixed earnest Yanis in his jaundiced eyes and told him how many fucks the ECB and the powers that be give for the people of Europe, it is all about the bottom line. Though this situation has not changed in the least, Varoufakis is gearing up to slam his handsome head against the same iron dome again, understandably with somewhat palpably waning enthusiasm.

Now don’t get me wrong, I admire Yanis Varoufakis. He is a good economist and a righteous populist for the left, but he is not a canny politician. By this I mean, he understands well where systemic injustice lies within the legal framework of a state, but he doesn’t acknowledge that changing the rules won’t defeat the enemy. Only defeating the enemy will allow any rules to be enforced in the interest of the many. As Bernie Sanders showed, for all the wisdom and vision of your platform, targeting the 1% will not bring you to power, unless you are a part of something larger.

Nobody cares about Europe as the pinnacle of wisdom rising between the US and China to offer a eco-Keynesian third way for the world. It is not convincing anyone and will not win any canny “working people” over to wave off Europe’s persistent dependence on Global South production with a nod to “post-colonialism”. If the situation is as dire as even Varoufakis seemed to be at pains to affirm, no parliamentary reform, crowdfunded at that, is going to be able to withstand the cynical no-holds-barred counter messaging from the deep-pockets right.

The déjà vu must be creeping up on Varoufakis. His opening remarks were uncharacteristically faltering. His chummy jibes about how we must all be cray cray for imagining we could start a party fell flat. But if nothing else, Varoufakis is a crowd-pleaser, and he quickly switched on the charm and the energy and gave the audience what they had come to see. Varoufakis paced the stage with aplomb excoriating the elites which hold back the reasonable voice of the people. But after a while, his verve began to wane and Varoufakis’ permitted himself a little narcissistic mise-en-abysme, dramatically threatening to sink any enthusiasm which may have welled up in the audience during his performance. “I think we will not succeed, the planet is finished, I will soon die… but we should still do this… because it is fun!” Ah yes… fun! That is what is going to galvanise the long-humiliated German working class. I am sure convincing them to vote for MERA25 is going to be fun. Well for the people like Varoufakis, for whom this “party” is really just an excuse to party, it really is fun. People take him seriously not because he is effective, but because he can reassure his tiny listenership that they are not the only cray cray.

The contradictions evidently sapping his characteristic ebullience, Varoufakis could barely huff out his motto “Carpe Diem” at the close of his monologue. This was followed by a slightly hesitant, hardly rousing applause, and a couple of shouts of “bravo!” mixed in seemed oddly appropriate. This was theatre, a performance, performance politics at a time when electoral politics is incapable of addressing urgent problems. Misunderstanding the democratic deficit as a lack of the correct messaging to catalyse the dissatisfaction of the people and overcome the inertia of the ruling class, MERA25 is dead in the water, and everyone who was there knows it. There will be no canvassing. All those who really have political intentions and who adhere the policy platforms proposed that night should better spend their time flooding the SPD who are actually in power. The future of social-democratic politics in Europe must be in solidarity with the rising economies of the South, explicitly defying the hegemony of the US and global financial elite on relations with Russia and China. Only this position will be able to summon the crowds needed to contest for supremacy in parliamentary elections and provide a viable alternative to the appeal to the right in Europe. Carpe Diem!

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