“Freedom to roam in this building and think what you want is what we will always want to fight for.”
These words spoken in the Royal Festival Hall from its creative director echoed throughout the evening during a conversation between three rockstars of the Left.
Many thanks to Apolonia who generously invited me along with her to the event. I have done my best to record and summarise what was said but if I have misquoted anyone, I do apologise. For the full video of the event see below or go here.
It is Monday 16th November on London’s South Bank. A filled-to-capacity festival hall is the venue for a conversation between philosopher Slavoj Zizek and the former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, titled “Europe is Kaput. Long Live Europe!”
Chaired in a relaxed manner by philosopher Srecko Horvat, the early part of the conversation would be dominated by the terrorist attack in Paris just three day previously. Following that, capitalism, refugees, the EU, TTIP, and lots more were touched upon. Later in the evening, to audible gasps and excitement, Julian Assange would join the discussion via a video feed.
As expected, the conversation was lively, the opinions passionate and diverse, but there was also a lot of humour and disagreement on the best course of action for the Left. It was a scattershot and undisciplined affair but in many ways that was the joy of the evening – just seeing three masters of their field interact in a relaxed and humorous way.
Although it was something of a coup to get Assange to join the conversation, it did slow down the interaction, and his monotone (yet thoughtful) personality disrupted the banter between Zizek and Varoufakis.
Jumping straight into the events in Paris on the 13th November 2015, both Zizek and Varoufakis advocated a measured response. Varoufakis cautioned against, “Fighting darkness not with light but darkness.”
Zizek was critical of the Left not taking a strong enough stance against opposing views. He said, “The Left’s silence on condemning Islam is damaging. Need to critique and find common ground.” While on the topic of intervention in places like Syria, he said, “Should we intervene or not? We have already intervened.” Later Zizek urged us to get away from the idea that just because people suffer, it doesn’t mean they understand the suffering of others. It doesn’t. For me this was one of the most thought provoking points of the night.
Talking about the refugee situation and the response to immigration, Zizek dislikes the rhetoric of thinking of immigrants as ourselves. “What if our neighbour is not like you?” said Zizek. Do we not help them then? Another excellent point, I have to say.
Zizek used the image of a cupola (a dome shaped structure on the top of a building) to describe how the West views terrorism. Within the cupola it is an occasional threat, whereas outside it countries experience these attacks and brutalities daily. The West watches these regular attacks from a distance safe inside the cupola.
There was a brief discussion of how people have added the French flag to their profile on social media. Varoufakis and Zizek offered different opinions on this. Varoufakis advocated not to challenge such a popular action with cynicism, but add to it. Zizek did take the cynical view on this.
Moving away from the Paris attacks, Varoufakis had a number of choice lines on Europe, including, “Fences and borders in the name of security breed insecurity. Fences and walls create tensions and divisions. The fences on Greece’s border with Turkey, for example, created increased profits for smugglers.” He added, “Europe + Foreign + Policy = Greatest Joke in Town” And, “Real Europeans understand identity is one thing, nationalism another.”
On the state of the EU, Varoufakis said this: “The EU as it is is detrimental to Europeans. Yet with fragmentation the UK will be dragged down [regardless of them being in or out]… There are two options: Either democratise the EU or face catastrophe.” He described ways in which the EU could improve: “ The EU is like a secret society. How about live streaming all meetings? … It should redeploy the Euro Bank. It will take two to three months to do. Give cheques to families to feed themselves. This might seem unrealistic but they already do that in the USA. They’re called food stamps.”
Varoufakis finished by quoting Tony Benn’s questions to the powerful:
“What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you? If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”
It was after this topic that Julian Assange appeared via video feed. For the next few minutes he would dominate proceedings before chair Horvat bought Zizek and Varoufakis back into the conversation.
Assange went straight into talking about the Middle East, saying USA planned to overthrow the Syrian government. They pushed to increase the paranoia of Assad to make them overreact. He said Libya is known internally as Hillary’s War as Hillary Clinton pushed hard for it, while the US generals opposed it. He showed the chilling video of Hillary Clinton laughing at the news that deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had been killed. ‘We came, we saw, he died,” she joked.
Assange went on to say, “ISIS’s aim is to cause a crackdown on Muslims in the West. To eliminate the grey Muslims. We’re in an awful time. I don’t see Europe’s interaction with Muslims going anywhere good. There is no alternative dream. In the past we had Communism and Marxism. We need some sort of new Christianity in the west.”
Next, Assange turned his attention to international trade. He said TTIP, TPP and Pfizer are a triangle with the West inside and the East outside. They want to create a new economic network. The most ambitious undertaking since the EU. Will lock in a more radical form of neo-liberalism.
Varoufakis later added that, “TTIP, etc, are not about free trade. Everyone wants that. Who wants slave trade? They are about patenting, labour standards, environmental standards – control. These decisions will shape the future and they are being made without us knowing about them.” He also thanked Assange for turning Big Brother on its head. Having firsthand access to documents reveals a different world than we see in the media.
Broadening out the topic, Varoufakis described capitalism as, “an inefficient way of using resources,” before adding the Left has failed in critiquing capitalism. He feels, “turning technology [E.g. 3D Printer] against the powers that be gives us a chance… I choose to be optimistic. Hope feeds hope. No evidence for this, yet evidence that without hope, despair reigns.”
Assange responded that he was pessimistic about the world situation. “The analytical part of the mind is better engaged through pessimism. Once you understand it you can construct,” he added, more hopefully.
Later Assange talked about Silicon Valley. “The intellectual worldview of Silicon Valley is frightening,” he said. “Hi-tech liberalism is dominating. The ferocity of Silicon Valley merged with capitalism. Geo-politics of the world is influenced by Silicon Valley. They think they can manage it better… China is adopting this world view. The Chinese way becomes doing the same thing themselves and employing Chinese people.”
Zizek remarked, “Wikileaks makes it impossible for ordinary people to ignore. They can’t pretend they don’t know.” Varoufakis then joked, “After capitalism The Matrix becomes a documentary.”
This brought an end to the main part of the discussion. Next, the Q&A.
The first audience question was about Bernie Sanders chances of winning the Democratic Party Primary Election. While Assange said he had next to no chance, Varoufakis added that in a way Sanders’ has already won. He has had an effect. It is not futile to get 10% or 20% of the vote. Hillary Clinton has been made to alter her public statements on TTIP, something Sanders is against.
Assange broadened out the topic. “When the world was stitched together with the internet, we expected global intellectualism to increase. Yet groups have become further defined… Islam has become more Islam… Catalans more Calalan.”
Varoufakis advised people that the way to change things is to select a modest point and win. That’s considered more dangerous. He continued, “The nation state used to be a good place to start when defining borders. Sovereignty has disappeared so now either expand the state or hide behind it… We should stop this cold war against China, take Europe, and then the world.”
Overall then an enlightening evening and I would recommend seeing any of the speakers if the opportunity arises. There is a reason they are so prominent in their field and in this time when a thousand battles on a hundred fronts need to be mounted, an inspirational thinker goes a long way.