Yanis Varoufakis’s dispatches from an alternative present must be read, reviews and precis will not do. It’s a tough read, not so much a novel, as a meditation on the technical and social impasse we appear to have arrived at. The potential for instituting real change provided by the pandemic is being squandered; investors are making a killing on the markets, while the real economy is disintegrating. It’s enough to send anyone down a rabbit hole. This is precisely what Varoufakis has done, eschewing the sunlit uplands of our old socialist utopias, and the guilty pleasures of dystopian nightmares, he has opted for an extremely difficult struggle with our options, our fundamental desires, and our potential.
Consequently, in this book there are wormholes and fantastical machines, realisations of the merger between bio-tech and info-tech predicted by Yuval Harari in his brief history of tomorrow, Homo Deus. In Varoufakis’s novel, the protagonist, Costa, invents a potentially perilous device which permits a tight group of old friends, to communicate with an alternative reality in which they each have an alter ego, or doppelgänger, who share their DNA. Names have to be changed in order to prevent confusion; Iris, in Our Now, is paired with Siris, in Another Now, and Costa, with Kosti, and so on.
This is not an altogether successful device as weighty discussions ensue, and complex accounts of banking, markets, and share dealing in Our Now are compared with rather more benign versions of these institutions in Another Now. The people-friendly banks and markets of Another Now have been brought into being by a range of cyber-rebels and their dedicated networks who succeed in suborning the institutions of capitalism with a kind of counter reality of benign markets, benign banks, and special funds which guarantee the welfare of everybody. The society of Another Now is not perfect, many problems remain, however it is decidedly better than Our Now.
And yet . . . and yet . . . it turns out that Another Now continues to deliver less than is hoped for, because the aspirations of Iris in Our Now is for a world without exchange, without surrender to the market, and she discovers that this dream has been sold for what she regards as a ‘mess of potage’. Rather like the gay libbers of old, who boldly wanted nothing to do with equality, but have ended up with marriage, and a warm welcome to share in the confinements of heterosexual life, rather than liberation, the citizens of Another Now have been short-changed.
To be sure, the cyber revolutionaries of Another Now have vanquished capitalism and the capitalist class. They’ve succeeded in corralling us within a new world of benign exchanges. It turns out that this is not good enough for both Iris-Siris, because her deepest aspirations for emancipation have been sequestered, if not entirely crushed. Iris continues to hanker after the communism of Jean-Luc Picard and the starship Enterprise, and when offered the chance to slip through the portal to Another Now she says:
“I prefer to stay in Our horrid Now rather than live in a much better version of it that only makes the prospect of a Star Trek communism further away.”
Siris agrees, and unbeknown to her double, Iris, slips through to Our Now, changes her name to Catherine Beaumont and assumes the role of a retired professor from a community college in Austin, Texas. She has no regrets, “This Now, is my natural habitat – it’s so bloody awful that I feel alive and usefully dangerous.” Just as Dorothy discovers that her journey along the Yellow Brick Road leads only to the charlatan in the Emerald City, Iris-Siris finds her way back, if not to Kansas and Aunt Em, then to the reality of Our Now.
I do not read this as a counsel of despair from the rebel economist – a dismal scientist indeed – but as an injunction to think well beyond alternative realities, a suggestion that we aspire to authentic breaks with Our Now rather than settling for the commercial pastiche achieved by the cyber-rebels of Another Now.
The inspiration of this book is neither utopian or dystopian, it is an attempt at something radically different from either genre. It is not a good novel, but its confusions must be weathered, because like all good books it gives one a lot to think about.
You must read Varoufakis’s Dispatches from an Alternative Present to see what you make of it.
Yanis Varoufakis’Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present, London: The Bodley Head, 2020 is available now. To order a copy go to Penguin.