Ian Parker in The New Yorker (Photo by Davide Monteleone):
Varoufakis, a mathematical economist with a modest academic reputation, had become a popular writer in Greece. When the snap election was called, he interrupted his professorship at the University of Texas, flew home to Greece, and launched a ten-day election campaign whose sole expense was the cost of gas for his motorcycle. He was running for parliament, with the aim of becoming the finance minister in a Syriza government. The vote was held on January 25th. Syriza doubled its number of seats in parliament, and Tsipras formed a government in coalition with a small right-of-center party that shared its opposition to the troika’s terms. Varoufakis was elected with a larger share of the vote than any other candidate, and he was named the finance minister. His only previous experience of representative office was as the (white, Greek) leader of the Black Students’ Alliance at the University of Essex, a British institution, in the late seventies. Privately, he asked himself, “What have I done?” On his blog, he borrowed some thoughts of defiance—and, by implication, certain failure—from Dylan Thomas. “Greek democracy today chose to stop going gently into the night,” Varoufakis wrote. “Greek democracy resolved to rage against the dying of the light.”
A few years ago, Varoufakis told Yorgos Avgeropoulos, a documentary filmmaker, that the difference between a debt of ten thousand euros and one of three hundred billion euros is that only the latter gives you negotiating power. And it does so only under one condition: “You must be prepared to say no.” Upon his election, Varoufakis used the less than ideal influence available to a rock climber who, roped to his companions, announces a willingness to let go. On behalf of Tsipras’s government, Varoufakis told Greece’s creditors, and the world’s media, that his country objected to the terms of its agreements. This position encouraged widespread commentary about Greece following a heedless path from “no” to default, and from default to a “Grexit” from the euro currency, which might lead to economic catastrophe in Europe and the world.
It was as if Christopher Hitchens had woken up one day as Secretary of State. Varoufakis was no longer writing elegantly prosecutorial blog posts about Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the I.M.F.; he was meeting with Lagarde. Within days of Greece’s election, an academic with Marxist roots, a shaved head, and a strong jaw had become one of the world’s most recognizable politicians. He showed a level of intellectual and rhetorical confidence—or, perhaps, unearned swagger—that lifted Greek hearts and infuriated Northern European politicians.