Edinburgh Book Festival: Our democracy is not what it once was

Economist Yanis Varoufakis, who served briefly as finance minister in the Greek government in 2015, is one of this year's Guest Selectors at the Book Festival, programming four events on the theme of 'Killing Democracy?' On Sunday evening, in an interview with Ruth Wishart, he offered his personal thoughts on its demise, and its possible resurrection.
Yanis Varoufakis emphasised winning over the Rights voters. Picture: Edinburgh Book FestivalYanis Varoufakis emphasised winning over the Rights voters. Picture: Edinburgh Book Festival
Yanis Varoufakis emphasised winning over the Rights voters. Picture: Edinburgh Book Festival

He began with a history lesson. It was the Greeks, after all, who invented democracy, but the system that flourished for a few decades in ancient Athens was a very different beast to the one we experience today. “For the first and last time in the history of the world, [in ancient Greece] we had a regime where the power rested with the poor, because they were in the majority,” Varoufakis said. Today’s so-called liberal democracy, by contrast, has its roots in the Magna Carta. “The idea behind it is to keep the demos [Greek word for ‘the people’] out of the decision-making process, while making them feel that they have been consulted.”

Varoufakis is one of those rare individuals for whom the articulation of thought is both swift and easy, however complex the issues involved. He went on to range across subjects such as the relationship of the individual to the collective, the all-pervasive nature of 21st-century “technostructures”, and the situation which precipitated the 2008 financial crash.

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2008, he said, was “our 1929”, which makes the times in which we are currently living “a postmodern 1930s” characterised by the rise of “nationalistic new fascism”. His response has been to found the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), a pan-European group which aims to reform the EU. But he emphasised the importance of respecting and winning over – not demonising – those who vote for the Right.

Earlier, the broadcaster Sally Magnusson talked about making the transition from journalism to fiction writing with the publication of her first novel The Sealwoman’s Gift. It was a difficult move for a person “trained not to make stuff up” but, in time, she found a story worth exploring: the historical tale of the people of the Westman Islands, off the south coast of Iceland, who were kidnapped by corsairs in a savage raid in 1627, and taken to Algiers where they were sold as slaves.

Drawing on the Icelandic sagas, with which she grew up thanks to the translation work of her father Magnus Magnusson, she tells the story of an Icelandic woman who finds herself transported across the world, separated from her husband and family, and sold into the service of a Muslim aristocrat, whom she charms by telling stories.