INTERVIEW | 26.06.2020

Lea Ypi on Freedom and Betrayal

Lea Ypi has an academic mind and an activist heart. She aims for an “activist political theory”, as she states in her book on global justice. This fall, she will publish two more and very different books, one called “Free. Coming of Age at the End of History” about her childhood in Albania, the other is “The Architectonic of Reason. Purposiveness and Systematic Unity in Kant’S Critique of Pure Reason”. She published widely about such topics as partisanship, freedom, and Marxism. Lea Ypi is Professor in Political Theory in the Government Department, London School of Economics, and a fellow at THE NEW INSTITUTE.

You wrote a book called “Free: Coming of Age at the End of History,” which tells the story of your childhood in Albania. What made you write this book?

This book is partly autobiography and partly political philosophy. It is a reflection on freedom, seen through the lives and experiences, the conflicts and tensions of the different characters that I came to know in my childhood. I wrote the book to understand how freedom is instantiated in different political systems – and also how it gets betrayed.

What was the lesson of your childhood in the 1980s and 1990s?

Writing this book was almost like undergoing psychoanalytic treatment. In my academic career I have been interested in in the relationship between liberalism and socialism and the ideas of freedom that underpin both traditions. I was also increasingly interested in Marx and Marxism and certain ideas of justice, solidarity and exploitation. Then it dawned on me: These ideas were all somehow already in me. I lived the first ten years of my life under communism. How did I come to defend these ideas – given my family and societal background?

Who was this young Lea, sitting in the fig tree, with a view of the Adriatic coast?

I was on the cusp of making the transition from childhood to adulthood. My personal, cognitive and emotional development coincided with the social and political development of the country, from one political system to the other. It is a story of transition, of realizing in a rather traumatic way that the two main sites of influence – the state and the family – were in contrast with each other in how they delivered ideas of freedom.

I felt there is nothing I can take for granted

The word trauma seems relevant to understand a lot of the political turmoil after the end of communism in Eastern Europe.

I was traumatized twice within a distance of seven years. The first time was in 1990. I was just a good socialist child, I loved my party and I loved uncle Enver, our communist leader. The first time I thought “this is not a free country,” was when I stumbled on a protest by mistake and I heard these people shouting “freedom” and “democracy” – on television, they were being introduced as hooligans. What are these hooligans? I asked my father? Oh, he said, you know, hooligans, they shout and make trouble, they are only in the West. We don't really have them.

When did you understand what was going on?

Slowly, within these weeks of transition, I discovered that the views of my parents were not aligned with the views in school or on television. I realized that my family didn't actually believe the same things that I believed. And I wondered: Why are they lying to me? Why are they concealing things from me? Who is right? I felt there is nothing that I can take for granted – I had to unlearn what I had learned about how great socialism was.

And the second trauma?

The second trauma came in 1997, with the so-called “shock therapy” and the liberalization effort – this idea of structural reforms that were implemented with the push from the World Bank and the IMF, to make sure that we were ready for the market economy. It is painful, they said, but it will work out for everyone. This belief collapsed in 1997 because liberalization and privatization also meant a lot of pyramid schemes: People put all their savings in them, they sold their houses, they had this massive confidence that the market would work – and eventually everyone lost their savings and the state lost control.

A breakdown of solidarity.

People were just so angry. They would loot, everybody had an assault weapon. The state no longer even had a monopoly over the use of force, to protect basic peace and basic security. There were thousands of dead people, everybody was trying to leave the country, several people drowned as they tried to make these very careless crossings. This was a double traumatic moment, an experience of disillusionment with two systems – both of which claim to be the embodiment of freedom and democracy.

Your book is written with a novelist’s mind, which slowly unfolds your very complicated family history.

I realized only later that there were early indications that something was different in my family. My first language was French. I had a grandmother who spoke French to me from the day I was born. But she wasn't French. She had never been to France. I asked: Why are we speaking French? My grandmother would say: Oh, it's the language of the French Revolution. It was only after the fall of communism that I discovered that the reason was that she came from this elite Albanian family with high posts in the Ottoman imperial administration. They were all basically aristocrats. Speaking French was almost like an identity marker for her. She had lost everything during communism, but there were some things that couldn't be taken away from her.

This cosmopolitan family history, how did it shape your academic work, writing about global justice or migration?

I approached my work on global justice with the question: What is the moral standing of states? What does national identity do? Does it mean that the claims of justice that our fellow citizens have are more important than the claims of justice to distant strangers? For me, this was intuitively wrong because I had never grown up with this kind of strong political identity. I had seen that identity was often a question of contingency and political circumstance, of class and social background as much as anything else.

You had this game in your family, everyone had a favorite fruit and a favorite revolution: Why was yours – apart from the fig – the Russian Revolution?

My mother came from a bourgeois property owning family, her favorite revolution was the English. My grandmother, even though she came from an aristocratic background, was very progressive, so her favorite revolution was the French Revolution. My father didn't have a favorite revolution because he never believed that there had been a true revolution – there were only revolutionaries, only individuals who fought against the system. His entire worldview was about being against something as opposed to being for something.

And yours?

My favorite revolution was the Russian one because we spoke about it in school. There was this very straightforward Marxist idea that history is class struggle. And there was also the sense of progressive marks of history – with every revolution, a disenfranchised group becomes enfranchised. The Bolshevik Revolution was, in this understanding of history, the most significant of all. Albania was at that point the only country that was still saying that we stand with Stalin, with this kind of pure communism that needs to be realized everywhere in the world. We were carrying the torch on behalf of that communism.

How would you describe your father?

My father came from a family of intellectual elites – and when the communists came to power, my grandfather went to prison and my grandmother was deported. My father basically grew up without his father. In the liberal, post-communist years, my family was in some ways rehabilitated and ended up on the winners’ side. My father became the CEO of the Port of Durres and was responsible for privatizing projects and sacking a whole bunch of people in the name of modernizing and saving costs. It was something that was really heavy on his conscience, he just couldn't accept it.

In your book, your parents represent different ways of thinking about freedom.

Yes, my mother was always much more committed to liberalism and capitalism, understanding all the shadows and all the compromises that need to be made. She embodies the classical liberal idea of freedom – a negative idea of freedom, where no one tells you what to do, no obstacles stand in the way and that’s all it takes to be a free human being. My father was committed to a different way of understanding freedom, positive freedom – not freedom from, but freedom to.

You seem to be skeptical of both simple concepts of freedom and of democracy.

I am skeptical because I see how ideology and propaganda work and how they work in different systems. You get presented with certain concepts and the media writes about them in a certain way, or the schools talk about them in a certain way, or the political institutions are introduced as reflecting these ideas – but the lived reality of the people who surround you is very different and sometimes opposed to how these ideals are presented.

For example?

Just think about freedom of movement. Under communism, we didn't have freedom of movement because we weren't allowed to leave the country. Suddenly, we were told we were free. But then it turns out that people died, crossing the Adriatic, trying to get to Italy. That's not really freedom of movement either – the freedom to exit doesn't mean anything if you don't have the freedom to enter. I became aware of the deep paradoxes of how this word was used and of the fact that it could be used in a very ideological way, in different systems, to talk about something that was ultimately a failure of a realization of that idea.

This was in the 1990s, almost 20 years before the refugee crisis of 2015. In 2016, you co-edited a book called “Migration in Political Theory.” How did your experience shape this work?

I have a quite radical view about freedom of movement: Whether you die because you were shot at the border trying to leave a country or whether you died because your dinghy sinks trying to enter another one – you're dead. And when you are dead, well, you can’t be free. The liberal system promised but failed to realize freedom. I don’t think it can occupy the moral high ground when it comes to thinking about freedom.

I don't believe that democracy and capitalism are compatible.

Do you attempt to save the word freedom for the left?

You could say that. But it's not the premise of my arguments. I am interested in freedom as a moral concept and in ideas of agency and responsibility. I am interested in the Kantian conception of freedom – you are free in so far as you are a moral agent. To live in a free world is to live in a world in which people don't instrumentalize and brutalize each other. This philosophical core is neither left nor right. But when you think through how to institutionalize that, you end up with a very radical democratic conception of what kind of institutions are able to realize freedom. And it turns out, in my view, that a capitalist system can't have these institutions.

Why is that?

In capitalism, you have deep asymmetries of power and distribution and of ownership structures. You have a globalized system where the agency of a particular country is hindered because of how international institutions work, because of power relations, because of the legacy of colonialism, because of all the failures of the international order – how it was instantiated and how the state system is connected to the historical development of a capitalist system. The radical democratic ideal is not at all reflected in institutions that are committed to capitalism at this legal, constitutional, or political level. I don't believe that democracy and capitalism are compatible.

You call the framework of your thinking “moral socialism” – what is this?

In my work, I try to recover the moral core of Marxism by going back to the Kantian idea of the self-sufficiency of reason. It is in the tradition of the Neo-Kantians and Austro-Marxists who were an interesting group in the early 20th century. They were anti-capitalists, but they weren't historical materialists. They started with this philosophical idea: What does it mean to realize freedom?

Is this the connection between the two books you will publish this fall: "Free" and "The Architectonic of Reason," about Kant?

Definitely. Kant’s project is on the unity of reason, constantly engaged in a dual fight against both skepticism and dogmatism. I try to answer the question: What is the authority of reason? And how does reason learn from its own mistakes, how can it be both the source of authority and also the source of critique? I ended up with Kant going backwards from Marx and Hegel. And then going forward again, trying to understand how this is reflected in institutions and how it helps to think of history.

How does this tie into your interest in political progress, a project you will work on at THE NEW INSTITUTE?

I am interested in thinking through the idea of progress, not necessarily as a sort of set of values and concepts, but rather as an idea of learning from the trials and failures of the past – seeing history as the piling of mistakes, but also as a process from which we can learn when we think about the future. This was very important to me when I wrote “Free.” I wanted to talk about the history of socialism and the history of liberalism, with the right critical lens, beyond some of the superficial assessments and simplifications that are commonly heard and to reflect on that history as a source of moral learning.

You call this “activist political theory” – can you explain that term?

I use this term to talk about a particular way of thinking about the role of intellectuals in a political world that is marked by conflict. There are different interpretations of what justice requires, about the role of theory and the right way for theorists to engage with these processes in the real world. It is a dialectical process – after you have the theory, this again feeds back into the institutions. The idea is that the activist political theorist is engaged in a way in which an artist is or can be politically engaged and stimulate reflection to raise the standards of social critique.

Your autobiography "Free" is beautifully written and ventures into the realm of art. Was there something that you learned writing this book that surprised you?

It sounds very trivial: But I learned that the past never goes away. There is still this girl haunted by her past. I had moved out of Albania. I had left the country many years ago. I was writing for an international audience. And I never thought that what I was writing was actually so deeply connected to my background and my experiences in Albania and my family life. What I discovered was sort of the Genesis of my thought, in the context of this little Albanian seaside town. It could explain basically everything I say and write. This was a discovery, not necessarily a pleasant discovery.

Could you complete this sentence: For me, this is personal because –

– because history is always personal.


Lea Ypi is Professor in Political Theory in the Government Department, London School of Economics, and a fellow at THE NEW INSTITUTE.

(The interview was edited for length and clarity. You can watch the recording of the whole conversation here.)

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