And The Weak Suffer What They Must? by Yanis Varoufakis

27384105Yanis Varoufakis was the Greek Minister of Finance for five months in 2015,  for the left wing anti-austerity party Syriza, before resigning over the result of a referendum on a further financial bailout (he was against).  More than that, he was and is a successful academic economist.  He had already thrown his oar into the EU debt crisis with what he called A Modest Proposal, co-written with a former British Labour party MP and an American ecnomist.  That proposal appears in the appendix of this book.  While he was writing up a popular account of the crisis and his proposal, he suddenly found himself elected and playing a much more active role in the proceedings.

With all that in mind, this is hardly an unbiased account, and Varoufakis does plenty of the dramatics and grandstanding that he is known for.  At times in the book he presents himself as naive and well-meaning, but you feel he would have to be impossibly so (and completely unaware of the history he describes in the book).  Aside from this dis-ingenuousness, he is a very compelling writer.  The topic is dry but his graphic style of writing makes it exciting – for instance, he describes Greece’s series of debts and forced loans as “fiscal waterboarding”.  It is over the topic, but he’s a passionate man.

He starts, after a childhood story, with an explanation of the Nixon Shock and Bretton Woods.  Both of which were new to me.  From there he builds a picture of inter-country finance and the problems with currency exchange (more interesting than it sounds).  He then traces the history of the Euro through the antagonism and scheming between the French and German governments, and between the German government and the Bundesbank.  There are plenty of broad brush statements, which would be an interesting discussion in and of themselves – for example, suggesting that the removal of powers from democratic organisations to technocratic ones is the cause of our current poor crop of politicians.

With the ongoing news of Trump’s economic moves against Turkey, one thing that stood out was that all this financial “co-operation” so often read like war by other means.  The author plays up to this, of course, taking his title from Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War.  It was a bit depressing to read about the open anger and plans to “punish” countries as an example to others.  I know these are generalisations and there are factions and factions within the EU and within national governments.  Varoufakis is very much on one side of the argument and I kept thinking that it would be interesting to read a book from the other point of view; but perhaps it wouldn’t.  Varoufakis is a very, very good writer.

The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham

61blm-ko2bzl-_sx325_bo1204203200_There’s sometimes a bit of a paradox as you look closer and closer into an event or period in history.  The end of the Roman empire can a great example of this – classically it was thought that the empire (and indeed civilization) came to a crashing halt under waves of barbarian invasions, but as historians have looked more closely at the years, decades and even centuries after they see all sorts of continuity.  Often the same type of people were running things, often using the same methods.  People living through these world changing events may not have realized they were quite so defining.  Yet living standards did fall, economically things declined, the quality of items found by archaeologists drops.  How do you trace a middle path that can account for both sides of the argument?

For Chris Wickham, you do it very carefully.  In this book Wickham tries to summarize european history between 400 and 1000 A.D. (including the Byzantines and Islam) while constantly stressing that there is no overarching story or end point.  At times this begs the question, why put it all together in one book?  But Wickham does piece together certain themes throughout the book – the influence of Rome on these successor states and how they continued or broke away from the old ways of doing things.

Despite all the ambiguity, Wickham seems authoritative (on Latin Christendom at least).  The range of anecdotes, analysis and information is breathtaking; and where there is nothing to go on, Wickham is explaining that as well.  The painstakingly precise style means that it isn’t always an easy read, but it does feel worthwhile.  It may help that my podcast listening had recently taken me to Patrick Wyman‘s podcasts, and he stresses very similar continuities.

Perversely, the sheer scale and depth of the book actually helps.  A look into the political procedures of one kingdom might be dry and difficult to follow; but repeated over multiple kingdoms, regions and cultures it starts to become understandable.  This comparison seems to justify Wickham’s scope for the book:  Why include Islamic empires?  Why even include outlying regions of Europe like Ireland or Scandinavia?  Because these shine light on the successor kingdoms to Rome that could otherwise be the focus of a more conventional book.