Mar 5

🎧 Lea Ypi on Freedom

Lea Ypi and Yascha Mounk discuss what it means to be truly free

Yascha Mounk
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Lea Ypi is a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics. She is the author of Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, about growing up in Albania, Europe’s last Stalinist outpost, and the political convulsions that followed its transition to capitalism.

In this week’s conversation, Lea Ypi and Yascha Mounk discuss childhood in the shadow of totalitarianism, the perils and pitfalls of post-communist states’ rapid transition towards capitalism, and how states can maximize freedom for their citizens.

This conversation was recorded on February 9th, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Yascha Mounk: You're a distinguished political theorist, and you've just written a memoir about growing up in Albania at the end of communism. What was your childhood like, and how do you think that should inform how we think about the world today?

Lea Ypi: When I grew up in Albania in the 1980s, the country was very isolated. It was nominally a communist country, or rather a socialist country that aspired to be a communist country. And there was an important distinction between those two in the terminology. By the time I was growing up it had fallen out with almost all other socialist countries in the world, as well as all other capitalist countries in the world. It accused the United States and Britain of being imperialist, but it also accused the Soviet Union, China and Yugoslavia of being revisionist.

And so the claim was that this was one of the last purist, socialist countries in the world, with a mission to carry forward, which was to realize global socialism. It was very isolated: it produced everything inside, there was a very high degree of censorship and of suppression of dissent. It was a very closed society, it was really dangerous to travel, and children were heavily indoctrinated. Part of the story in my book is about growing up in this very isolated, heavily indoctrinated society, in which you grow up believing the ideological categories that you're offered by the state and by various educational institutions.

Mounk: I feel like there are different stages in the development of communist regimes. Early on, there are many true believers in the general population. And later on, it feels like most of the adult population has realized the ideology is a bunch of lies. Presumably, as a kid, you're somewhere in between.

Was there a sense, even when you were little, that what you were being taught didn't add up to reality? 

Ypi: I was personally a full believer, and I was a committed socialist. I became a Pioneer eventually. I was committed to the socialist cause and aware of the sacrifices that we were told the country needed to make for the sake of the ideals, and willing to make those sacrifices. But there were nevertheless glimpses in my childhood in which I doubted my parents’ commitment. And part of it had to do with the general context in which most people were alienated by the system and dissatisfied.

But part of it had to do with the fact that I grew up in a very special family, in the sense that this was a family of political dissidents on one side, and former property owners on the other. So it was a family of what was called a “class enemy,” basically. My parents had, most of the time, lied to protect me and didn't tell me about what they thought and who they were, and what kind of background they had. But there were glimpses throughout the years in which I was growing up of something being strange about my family and about my parents. One of them was that my grandmother, who came from an elite family of high officials in the Ottoman Empire, spoke French to me. And I didn't know why she spoke French until things changed. She revealed that the reason she was speaking French to me was that she had this kind of upper class identity that was carried through the language even though that was not actually the language of her family. She wasn't French, had never been to France, and so on, but it still somehow shaped her own identity and she wanted to transfer this. 

Another example is when the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha died. I remember being really upset and seeing the funeral on television and seeing lots of people crying—scenes of wailing women pulling their hair, and soldiers in tears, and so on. It seemed like the whole population was grieving. And yet my parents were talking about the funeral music, and making comments about who the composer of the music was. These things are very early memories. I was about five and a half at the time, and the dictator had died. This was one of my first political memories, in which the first thing that occurred to me was, “How can it be that I am so upset, but my parents don't seem so upset about this complete loss for our nation and the death of this founding father of Albanian socialism?”

Mounk: My parents grew up in a communist country, Poland. Their parents were true communist believers, and they had been in prison for being communist activists in their 1920s and 1930s. And they were part of the regime at this point, but one of my mother's earliest memories—and she must have been exactly the same age at that time, which is, I believe, five or six—was the death of Stalin, and her coming home from school, deeply upset by this news, and her father telling her, “You shouldn't shed a single tear for that swine,” and he was actually a communist. It's a similar disjuncture.

Ypi: Exactly. I think that if I had been a bit older, my parents might have been more willing to share their secrets, but because you have such a young child, you don't want to break it too early because the child can then become a liability and they become very dangerous if you're in this very censored environment. They weren't sharing this kind of feeling. They weren't saying, “Oh, you shouldn't be sad,” but they were definitely not showing any kind of disappointment themselves, or sadness, or sense of tragedy, which I felt they should as good comrades in this socialist state. So there were these moments of not quite full awareness, but just doubt and mystery, and wondering whether everything was as it looked.

Mounk: This basically went on until the regime's collapse, when you were still relatively young. What was that moment like, when this sort of obsolete political regime, whose claims were no longer believed by the population, collapsed? Presumably there was an intense promise of a better future to come. What was that like for the country and what was that like for you at the time?

Ypi: It was very strange for me, because it was this moment of almost trauma, in the sense that you grew up believing in the system. You grew up as a committed young socialist, and you think that your future is going to look a certain way, and will be embedded in the future of this socialist country. And then that country, from one day to the next, is not there anymore. 

This was exacerbated by the fact that my family revealed the political identities that they had concealed throughout my life. That was a moment of the veil of ignorance being lifted in a way. And at the beginning, it was really confusing, because it's very hard; one set of categories is taken away from you, and then you're offered a new set of categories that you've never thought about, or you never identified with. And that initial moment was one of confusion and fear, but also one of not trusting my parents and the adults around me, in the sense that they'd lied to me for all this time. 

I was 11 when things changed. The first months were months of great hope, and the first years were, I think, years of progressive disappointment. At the beginning, there was a sense of freedom that had finally arrived, that opportunities were present that hadn't been available for half a century—which is a good chunk of Albanian history, because Albania only became independent in 1912. There was a sense that finally you are in a political system that can realize everything that you wanted, everything that my parents' generation had wanted. But that was coupled with the sacrifices that were required by the reforms that came to Albania, and that were needed to turn the country from a very isolated society into an open, functioning, liberal democracy, with capitalist markets, and so on. There was a set of political reforms and economic reforms that needed to be undertaken, which came with a cost that was acknowledged by everyone, but worth bearing in the name of realizing these liberal freedoms.

Mounk: Tell us a little bit about why that didn't work. I want to understand the set of choices that was available then, and what the consequences were. But I think, first of all, we need to understand the case for why this was a bad idea. 

For people who don't know the history of Albania so well, or the history of other parts of the post-communist world, what were the real costs that people bore after this moment of “shock therapy?”

Ypi: You have a country that has developed in the last fifty years with this idea of the West as the place where all the dreams are realized, and it's just not working here. So the first thing people do when they can leave is to leave, because under communism, they couldn't leave; emigration was really harshly punished. That was one part of the problem, this big wave of emigration, which meant also loss of human capital, and collapse of the states on all these fronts where you need human capital to sustain institutions and to make sure that they work. The second one was, I think, the waves of privatization of state enterprises, and closing down factories, and so on, in an environment where people actually don't know a lot about how privatization works and what it means to take responsibility and how markets effectively function, because they just haven't been trained to think about free market society and to think about the economy in a certain way. They come from having this completely closed economy (of central planning and all that) to the exact opposite, with not much in between. 

I think that transition—which happened very abruptly with the idea that people will learn these concepts and they will internalize this ideology, and then it will somehow work and deliver on the ground—was actually exactly what didn't work and which led to huge costs, and also people making investments that were fraudulent. Albanians began to invest all their money in these financial companies in the form of pyramid schemes or Ponzi schemes, where you would be promised a very high return for investments. They put all their savings in these financial components, because they had been told that capitalism is about saving money, and then investing it in a clever way, and then it delivers for you (and there are these institutions that kind of look after your money and so on, which at some abstract level is true). But obviously, you also have to have some knowledge of how markets work and what kind of guarantees and insurances you need, and so on. 

So the sense of lack of social security—which was in part the result, I think, of the collapse of these previous socialist structures—led people to make these investments in this very cowboy way and which then completely backfired because these companies completely failed to deliver. Two-thirds of people had invested there and lost their savings. Some people had sold their houses to have money to save in these companies. And this led to a complete collapse of the state, whereby people got really angry with the government because they were expecting their money back after having failed in these investments and started looting weapons. And in 1997, there really was a collapse of the state in the sense that it wasn't just that the markets were failing, but also the political authorities; and the state's capacity to even ensure its basic function, which is to have monopoly over the use of force, was not there anymore. Everybody had weapons, and everybody was shooting, and it was dangerous to even be outside because you might get killed by a blind Kalashnikov bullet. This is the period in which I was growing up.

Mounk: If you want to tell the story of a place like Poland, you would say that shock therapy came with genuine dislocation and suffering, a drop in living standards for a couple of years, and then slowly, the economy grew. Today, a country like Poland is much more affluent than it was in the past. It looked as though democratic institutions had stabilized. Obviously, democracy in countries like Poland is now really under attack, and we can ask how connected or disconnected it is to that original moment of shock therapy. 

But other countries who experienced shock therapy did not go through this moment you were talking about where everybody suddenly has a Kalashnikov. Explain to us what's similar in the experience of these different countries and what specifically in Albania would lead to the collapse of state authority, because that seems to me not shared by other countries that adopted shock therapy.

Ypi: I think the main difference is the fact that there wasn't a kind of ingrown dissident movement. For better or worse, in a lot of these other East European countries there was much more margin of political dissent. Even within an oppressive society, even within a society with great political censorship, there was still some margin for expression. If you think about [the Polish trade union] Solidarność, for example, that's one case of having a movement that is trying to change things and to democratize from within. This effort to democratize doesn't completely come from the outside. In Albania, none of that was possible, because society was so isolated. And because censorship was so high, and the cost of dissent was so high, it was different in that sense. That meant that when the categories changed, they changed completely overnight, without having had any kind of learning process or any experience of maturing into having an opposition or having a democracy with conflicts of ideas, or exchanges or debates. 

I think the level of the debate was perhaps different and less sophisticated, more crude than some of these other countries, which I think—and this may be more my interpretation or my speculation—tells the story of how certain categories had been appropriated in this kind of blind ideological way during communism, because they were just brought and enforced by the state, and then were appropriated with equally blind ideological commitments afterwards in 1990. The one set of beliefs went, and another set of beliefs came in, but without much on the ground by way of democratizing efforts, and without much debate on what should be taken or how we should process this. How does this connect to our country? I think there was a sense of political immaturity and democratic immaturity.

Mounk: The title of your book is Free, which I take as partially describing that moment of liberation, but partially ironic, in that the promised freedom did not, in fact, set most people free. 

How should we think about what makes somebody free, and how we can build a society today in which people will be more genuinely free?

Ypi: The title of the book is Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, and the title is partly ironic and partly aspirational. It's partly trying to capture the ideals of freedom that were there in the ‘90s, and the idea that there was this great promise, and society will change fundamentally, and people would be all free, on the one hand, and on the other, the irony of noticing how there are different forms of unfreedom in different systems, both of which come with their own ideological presuppositions, which both make it difficult to actually see whether freedoms are really realized for everyone. The book goes through different conceptions of freedom and through different characters to explain these commitments. Through my mother's character in the book, for example, I tried to talk about this liberal idea of what I call negative freedom—the idea that you are free to the extent that the state doesn't tell you what to do, where to go, what to wear, to the extent that you enjoy freedom of thought and freedom of association, and basically all the quintessentially liberal freedoms that were missing during the socialist period. Then I have this other character in the book, my father, who had a more social idea of positive freedom, which is that it's not enough to be free from something—you also need to be free to do something and to flourish and to realize your potential.

In that sense, the structures that came and were in place in the second part [of the transition] after 1990 (through this kind of liberal, capitalist institutions) weren't directly oppressive in the sense that there wasn't an agent that was making people unfree. But there was a series of unintended consequences that came together and created forms of one might call the more structural oppression, which meant that there were a lot of people who didn't have a job, or had to leave their country, or were living under constraint, who also weren't fully free in the way they had been promised they would become. 

I guess my philosophical reflection on all this is to try to look beyond state ideologies and systemic ideologies that tell you, “This is what freedom looks like,” and to recover a sense of what I call “moral freedom,” which is conveyed in the book through my grandmother's character—the freedom to choose between good and evil and to make that the foundation of social criticism. That's the kind of freedom that my grandmother always insisted on, having gone through different systems in her life and having had this life of, first, great privilege and wealth, and then loss of everything, being deported in camps, and so on. She always insisted that there is something that no system, however oppressive, can take away from you, and that’s human dignity. When human dignity is there, you know that there is a kind of freedom, which is moral freedom, which is not reducible to any of these ideological slogans. But it’s really important to know that it’s there, because it becomes the foundation for how you want to realize social relations and how you can criticize society.

Mounk: We have three conceptions of freedom on the table: negative, positive, and this idea of moral freedom. One debate within the literature on political philosophy is about what we should aim for: negative freedom or positive freedom. There's a famous article by Isaiah Berlin criticizing the idea of positive freedom as being dangerous in various ways, as potentially justifying totalitarian regimes like communist ones; it can inspire a collectivist spirit, which actually comes at the cost of individual negative freedom. There is, I think, a deep question about whether we should prioritize negative liberty over positive liberty. But in thinking about this question in the context of something like the history of Albania or Central Europe, I wonder whether the conflict between those two is as stark as we sometimes want to suggest. 

You associate negative freedom with capitalist liberal democracy and positive freedom with something like the communist regimes. And I certainly agree that we have a lot more negative freedom today than we would have done in the communist era. It's not at all clear to me that we have less positive freedom in the vast majority of liberal democratic states today than people did in communist regimes. 

The first question I have is, if we grant that we should aim for maximizing positive liberty—or at least that should be a very important component of what a good society would do—is it actually clear that that is an argument against contemporary capitalist, liberal democratic regimes, or could there be a case that these countries are actually better at providing the basic ingredients of positive liberty [such as the kind of affluence that allow you to make a lot of choice and lead to human flourishing] than the alternatives we have available?

Ypi: I think there's a form of thinking that I resist when this argument comes up, which is beholden by the status quo, as it were. It says, “Okay, let's look at what we have, and compare what we have, or what we had historically and think, ‘Where do you want to be? Do you want to be in Albania, or the United States? Do you want to be in North Korea, or Germany?’” I don't know. One can make these arguments. But I'm not the kind of person that has the expertise to make those arguments. I am a critical theorist. So I'm someone who just looks at the society in which they live and asks, “How can I improve on the problems that I see?” What can I learn from different kinds of criticism from different societies that I'm exposed to, from different knowledge, different kinds of knowledge as well, to try and make things better for everyone?” For me, it's not, “Are the injustices in contemporary capitalist societies less concerning than the injustices of communist societies in the past? Or are these systems better or worse than each other in their historical manifestations?” Because for me, that is a kind of backward-looking approach that holds you back when you're thinking about the future and how you can improve the societies that you're in. 

To go back to your question about positive and negative freedom, I also don't think that it's as clear cut. Albania clearly lacked negative freedom, but I don't think it had much positive freedom, either, actually. It might have had the Isaiah Berlin type of positive freedom where the state provides for certain things, but at such a high oppressive cost that it's being delivered for some people, but not to others. To me, if you don't have a democratic society, if you don't have real democracy, then you also don't have positive freedom, actually, so none of these things can be delivered. They're all connected to each other.

And likewise in Albania, you didn't have negative freedom. But you also didn't have that much positive freedom either. But I would say that also about the capitalist societies that we live in now, if you have very high inequalities in these societies, you don't have positive freedom, but you also don't have negative freedom. What positive freedoms you have affect how you exercise your freedom of thought, or your freedom of association; they affect the kind of epistemic skills with which you approach being a democratic agent, and so on. So if you are concerned about what I said earlier—this kind of moral freedom and how it reflects in democratic relations—it seems to me that what you should aspire to is a kind of ideal society that delivers on all of these scores, and that tries to construct social relations in such a way that you can create institutions that are able to deliver on that. That's where the critique begins, with, “How is democracy performing? Is it offering equal representation?” If it's not offering equal representation, then are these systems authorized and justified in the same way for everyone? Once you have this radical democratic critique of a society that you live in, then the question of what you know from the past and what do you know about these societies in the past is a source of learning and orientation for the future, but it's not really something that you can hold on to by saying, “I'd rather be like Japan than I'd rather be like South Korea and North Korea or something like that.”

Mounk: Yes, but I think that concession that you made at the end is an important one. I didn't mean to suggest that because we have both more negative and more positive liberty today in Britain or the United States than people in Albania did in 1983, that we should be happy and not criticize our own society. But I think when you're trying to reflect on how to put in place the political and economic institutions (and perhaps the social and cultural norms) that allow people to be free in a meaningful way it's very important to observe how different historical constellations have allowed people to live. 

You're not making this sort of simplistic claim that somehow there's more positive liberty in Albania in 1980, or something like that. But if the criticism of our society is that we don't do a lot to allow people to have positive liberty, it is important to think about the extent to which we have positive liberty today, and to look at what kind of institutions have historically allowed people to have very low or medium levels of positive liberty, because that'll give us very important information about how to create a society in which people can have more of it in the future. 

So the point of that comparison is not to say, “Shut up and be happy.” It is to say, “Well, what sets of institutions can actually allow us to give people the resources to live a self-determined life in a meaningful way?” And it seems to me that on that front, political theorists—of which I am one, at least by training—have a tendency to think that somehow our societies don't care about positive liberty, and don't give us the foundations for it, when actually, while there are absolutely ways in which our societies can improve on that front, we are, compared to most historical societies, doing pretty well at it. And unless we understand that, we're going to go pretty wrong in how to create a society that allows people to live a self-determined life in a more substantive way.

Ypi: I want to push back against that. My worry with that argument is that it makes you complacent about the system in which you live. It makes you see only the good sides of the institutions that you're a part of. Part of the success of liberal capitalist institutions has to do with democracy, freedoms, constitutional promises, and so on. But a lot of it was also established against the background of very severe forms of historical injustice, which don't feature in this liberal narrative of progressive development of positive institutions. 

When you assess the wealth of the United Kingdom, or the wealth of France, or Western Europe, and so on, it's very hard to separate the historical legacy of these institutions and how they were constructed, and the environment in which they have operated—how they've interacted with other parts of the world; how they constructed an international system that was shaped by very important power asymmetries—from what you just said, which is a more positive aspect of more democratic rights and freedoms, constitutional promises, and so on. If you look at liberal capitalism as an integrated system which has both a political form and an economic form, the story that you tell about the combination of these political and economic elements isn't always a positive story. But if you take what I see as a slightly more complacent approach to say, “Well, these are still better than what we had, and what they have in these other parts of the world,” there is a risk that by telling that story you're not looking at the more negative aspects and the darker sides of liberalism and capitalism. If you were to say, “Actually, the ideal is a democratic society that really works for everyone, that really realizes freedom for everyone” (and that takes that the scope of that claim is a global one, not just the claim for France or Germany or core Western countries) that gives you a more radical, perhaps, but also more critical—and, I think, more productive—approach to how you think about these societies.

Mounk: How can we build a world in which people will have negative liberty, positive liberty and this moral liberty that you've talked about?

Ypi: I think that that comes from democratizing structures at every level: at the economic level, but also the political and international levels. So I think the answer is, first of all, to think about the world as a unit of concern, and not just particular states. When you're thinking about the development of particular countries, you don't just focus on the claims of those particular countries, but you also see how that country relates to other countries in the world and to the development of other countries, and what it has done to either contribute to that development or hinder it.

In my view, states are really important units of decision making, but they're important units of decision making from an instrumental perspective, in terms of what they enable, what they give you. When they work, they give you the coercive apparatus which enables you to make laws. In ideal cases, they give you a coercive apparatus that has also some degree of accountability and transparency, and can be justified democratically, which enables you to make democratic laws. And it also has a kind of education system and a social ethos that enables you to realize these laws in a certain way. 

For me, the state is really important, because it's a tool for realizing these democratic global justice concerns that I have. But I don't think of states as being themselves inherently ethically justified units. I think a state is an entity that is there at a particular point in history, but no longer there at another point in history—it wasn't always there, and will not always be there, just like capitalism. These are contingent creations. They enable you to solve particular problems at specific points in time, but they don't always solve the problems. When there is a crisis, you need to think about how you can change things so that you can move forward. 

So the scope of the claim is cosmopolitan. It's the idea that, for freedom to be delivered to everyone, it needs to be considered as applicable to a unit that is the world. If you care about moral freedom, that can't be restricted to realizing the moral freedom of only your own fellow citizens. It needs to be about everyone in the world. And that is, of course, a very complex work of both politics and policy. But at the level of ideas and the level of vision of the world, I think it starts with this requirement to open up spaces for democratic scrutiny, wherever you see that there's an asymmetry in the use of power.

Mounk: I want to understand what it would mean to be in a society in which people have more moral liberty. Since this is something which, as I understand it, is available to all of us even under challenging circumstances (even under genuinely tragic circumstances), what does it mean for individuals to exercise moral liberty under nonideal circumstances?

Ypi: In nonideal circumstances, it means to retain dignity in the way I have explained: there is a moral space in which nobody can interfere. When you're asked to do things, when you're asked to obey unjust rules, you resort to that inner moral authority in refusing to either cooperate or to be complicit. There's always a margin of moral agency with which you exercise that will to prevail over circumstances. My grandmother is a good example. There were points in her life where she had to make decisions and moral choices. We have this kind of moral freedom, and that moral freedom is the ground for social critique. But what we don't have is a political world that reflects moral relationships between human beings. I'm interested in Kant, and in this Kantian idea of “the Kingdom of Ends,” the idea that you live in a world in which people aren't just being instruments for each other; they're not just being used as tools. The moral agency of everyone is a condition for the development of the moral agency of everyone else; it's a kind of moral world of integrated moral ends. And I think that the Kantian ideal of the Kingdom of Ends gives you an ideal of a political society. If it were to realize that ideal of moral relations, it would also realize freedom in its full form—not just in this kind of inner moral freedom form, but also freedom as externalized in the relationships of people in a more reciprocal way.


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