By Michael Towsey
Book Review – Another now – Dispatches from an alternative present, by Yanis Varoufakis, Published: The Bodley Head:London, 2020, ISBN: 9781847925633.
Yanis Varoufakis is best known for his book, Adults in the Room. He was for a brief period in 2015 the Greek finance minister. Adults in the Room is an account of his battles with the European central banks as they attempted to impose crushing austerities on Greece in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. According to the publishers’ summary, “In this no-holds-barred account, Varoufakis reveals all: an extraordinary tale of brinkmanship and backstabbing that will shake the economic establishment to its foundations.” Well, of course, the book did no such thing, but we ought not be surprised at the heart of darkness that lies at the core of European finance.
In Another Now, Varoufakis offers a more optimistic view of the future, one in which capitalism as we know it has been defeated by a global mass popular movement. The title of his book leads the reader to believe that we are about to share Varoufakis’ vision of what could be and should be. But it is more complicated than that.
Varoufakis reveals his vision of the future through a science fiction device, two worlds, our now and the other now which split from one another around the time of the global financial crisis. An our now computer geek develops some remarkable technology (the details will spoil it for you!) that brings him into contact with himself in the other now. Enter a few of his diverse friends, who also have alter-egos in the other now and the stage is set for numerous discussions from different points of view about how other now defeated capitalism and how its economy works.
The dominant enterprise in other now is similar to a cooperative although Varoufakis seems careful not to use that word. Businesses are owned by their employees who are the shareholders – “one person, one share, one vote”. In such a system, there is no longer any need for share markets and so a major source of speculative instability in capitalism has been removed. Private banks are abolished, replaced by one central bank that is publicly owned and operated in the public interest. There is a social dividend (a guaranteed basic income) which has eliminated poverty. Money still exists as a medium of exchange and global trade is also mediated by a global currency, the Kosmos.
There is a lot of technical detail as Varoufakis fleshes out how the local and global economies operate but it gradually becomes clear that at the heart of other now is a market-driven utopia! Power is decentralized though markets. Varoufakis recognizes that markets need oversight, and in other now that oversight is provided by citizens committees. For example, each country’s central bank is managed by a citizen’s monetary assembly. In fact, all business, trading and financial activities are regulated by citizen’s committees. Power is a prominent issue in this book, as it should be, because power corrupts. Other now decentralizes power through a system of markets and committees where no one individual or group can dominate decision making. How is that ensured? All economic information is public, and the membership of regulatory committees is continually rotated by computer algorithms that ensure a fair representation of all members of society. Other now puts a lot of reliance on algorithms that randomize and rotate the members of the various important committees required to manage an economy. This constant stirring of power prevents cabals becoming entrenched.
I suspect that the economist Mancur Olson (1932 – 1998) would have liked other now. Olson was concerned with the rigidities, cabals and collusions that gradually become established in stable societies and that lead to institutionalized rent-taking. He pointed to Germany and Japan who were able to build their destroyed economies so quickly after World War II, while the victor’s economy (the UK) languished in the rigidities of class and privilege. More generally Olsen was concerned with the contradiction “between the colossal economic and political advantages of peace and stability, and the longer-term losses that come from the accumulating networks of distributional coalitions that can survive only in stable environments.” Olson is talking about unhealthy institutionalized systems of rent-taking that sequester wealth to their own members without producing anything. As rent-taking arrangements become more entrenched, productivity declines.
Olson was sometimes accused of promoting revolution, but he is at pains to point out that what he is really promoting is open competition. For a productive economy, governments must promote competition and prevent interest groups from forming rent-taking coalitions. “There is no substitute for an open and competitive environment.” It emerges gradually that other now has succeeded in creating such an environment. Consider, for example, land ownership in other now. All land is owned by local councils and leased. All commercial land is auctioned annually using an on-line auction room. At the beginning of every year, the current lessee must make an offer of how much rent they are prepared to pay. “Anyone offering to pay a higher annual rent for a property than its existing occupier had the right to take it over”.
I find this description of other now’s approach to land ownership unsettling. It solves the rent-taking problem identified by Olsen but at what cost to security and peace of mind? Not to mention the transaction costs. People cannot always be looking over their shoulder, watching for when the next competitor will make a move. This is not psychologically sustainable. Human mental peace requires some degree of future certainty, and this is achieved through cooperation and long-term agreements. Competition certainly plays a useful role in achieving human potential. It also frustrates the formation of rent-taking coalitions if universally applied, but stability derived from cooperative agreements is the foundation on which competition is most effective. In short, a healthy society requires cooperation and competition in balance.
Most of Another Now is devoted to the unfolding of Varoufakis’ vision of a market utopia after the demise of capitalism. Why do I consider it utopian? Because it depends on the effectiveness of regulatory bodies consisting of ordinary citizens who are regularly rotated (by objective computer algorithms) to prevent the entrenchment of power. The dependence on the benevolent and rational outcome of people power is the utopian bit.
Then suddenly on page 176, three-quarters of the way through the book (and here unfortunately, a plot spoiler is unavoidable), we learn that all is not quite well in other now. They have expelled the demon of capitalism, they have decentralized economic power, but they are still struggling with the “imperialist psyche” in another form: Patriarchy. Citizens committees are caught in another kind of collusion.
But before we can come to terms with what this means in other now, another bombshell is dropped. One of thecharacters declares that the very concept of a market is fundamentally flawed. The mechanism that other now depends on to decentralize power is itself problematic. Says one of the characters, “Markets dissolve what makes us human”. This hints at another long-standing strand of socialist thought which argues that the very existence of money and markets destroys human dignity.
A succession of political economists since the 18th century, most famously Marx, have described how the market mechanism requires both humans and nature to be objectified, commodified, and packaged into exchangeable units having economic value. In the 20th century, the Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi argued that the power of the state was required to enforce the commodification of humans and nature, which is otherwise quite unnatural to the impulses of life. The power of markets, he said, changed how humans related to each other and to the natural world.
The modern economic market is a powerful institution. It is hard to imagine how modern society could function without them. Yet socialist writers continue to call for the formation of a gift economy. In one such moneyless vision, people would work in cooperative and coordinated voluntary organizations informing each other shortages etc. “People would need to be motivated by generous and sympathetic benevolence to others”.
We are now getting to the heart of a long-standing socialist dilemma: its troubling dependence on utopian idealism. The ethical roots of socialism lie in the humanist tradition, with its egalitarian impulse and belief in the fundamental value of a human life well-lived. This is a noble impulse, which is why the socialist quest will never die. But the historical roots of socialism lie in materialism and herein is a problem. According to the materialist mind-set, since matter is the substance of life, all personal and social problems have a material fix. Engels, for example, believed that human character and well-being are determined first and foremost by material circumstances. By appropriately adjusting those circumstances, human beings can in some sense be made equal. Hence the famous slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. It sounds good, but there is a lot riding on this. Not only is providing everyone with the necessities of life expected to realize the socialist egalitarian vision but also something more – the seeds of social conflict are eliminated and the imperialist psyche withers away.
It is certainly reasonable to argue that a more egalitarian distribution of wealth contributes to a better society. But to believe that material sufficiency starves the imperialist impulse is naively utopian. It was possibly an understandable naivety in 19th century Britain when much social strife stemmed from mass poverty. But the 20th century has shown that it is not so simple. Varoufakis is more concerned with power than poverty, but I was left confused with how other now deals with the imperialist impulse in the human character.
The essence of the utopian argument (and of its naivety) is the belief that the human character can be perfected without sustained internal personal struggle; that external political struggle is sufficient to bring about a more equitable distribution of wealth and power and a better world. After so many pages of explaining the external systems in other now, Varoufakis hints at the deeper internal psychological issues and then drops them. Consequently, his vision of other now is a less convincing contribution to the socialist canon than was promised. He ignores the interplay of economic, moral, and existential values and he ignores the universal but internal struggle between altruism and imperialism. Yet, this is what is required to avoid falling into the utopian trap.
Ultimately, this book is somehow disappointing. It is not brilliant science fiction – it does not have to be. But it leaves too many unanswered questions – what is the author trying to say and where does he stand in the numerous debates between his characters? His other now depends on a marriage of citizens committees with computer algorithms to yield regulatory wisdom. But then he admits to the persistence of the “imperialist psyche”, a demon that has plagued the socialist dream since well before Stalin. And then he alludes to that strand of socialist thought that believes money and markets are the real source of social evil and alienation. Is this what Varoufakis believes? We are left with no idea. Yet, for all my dissatisfaction with Another Now, it provoked me enough to write this review! It offers much food for thought, which is a good reason to read a book.
And what of the characters themselves? Well, in the end, they — but it is time to stop before another plot spoiler!
 See the essay On Productivity in France and in Germany, 5 January 2017, in Thomas Piketty, Time for Socialism, Yale:London, 2021, for charts that illustrate how the UK economy lagged behind that of Germany and France after World War II.
 Mancur Olson (1932 – 1998), The Rise and Decline of Nations, Yale University 1982
 Ibid, page 233
 Page 137, Another Now.
 Karl Polanyi, (1886 – 1964) The Great Transformation: The clash between fundamental value and financial value. Farrar & Rinehart, 1944.
 Terry Leahy, The Gift Economy in Life Without Money – Building Fair and Sustainable Economies, Edited by Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman. Published by Pluto Press in Nov 2011, Paperback ISBN: 9780745331652