Lea Ypi: Ideas of freedom across a historical rupture

In this wide-ranging conversation with Ferenc Laczó, Lea Ypi discusses her new memoir Free: Coming of Age at the End of History and how the people who populate its pages help her connect historical experiences with philosophical thought; how she experienced and dealt with the rupture of 1990 that forced her to reassess her childhood; how that rupture placed her country, Albania, on a seemingly new trajectory with liberal-sounding concepts soon filling the conceptual void that emerged; how the new regime violently collapsed in 1997, just when she was about to graduate from secondary school; and how she relates to the overlapping ideas of freedom in the liberal and socialist traditions.

Below you can listen to the podcast or read the transcript.

Ferenc Laczo: You mention in your epilogue to Free that you were going to write a philosophical book “about the overlapping ideas of freedom in the liberal and socialist traditions” but that when you started writing “ideas turned into people,” and the book ended up being about the people who made you who you are. The book also recurrently plays with the idea of biography and refers to its clear importance, but also partly unfathomable meaning, to a child in pre-1990 Albania. Let me formulate my first question in a general way: what does it mean to discuss ideas via people and how do the characters in the book and their biographies help you reflect on those overlapping ideas of freedom?

Lea Ypi: As you say, it started out as a project about the idea of freedom in the liberal and socialist traditions. One of my long-standing convictions has been that, while many people think about socialist ideas as promoting concepts of equality and justice and of liberal ideas as being focused on freedom, I have always tended to read the socialist tradition from Marx onwards as promoting the same ideas of freedom that are philosophically at the core of liberalism. It just radicalizes them even further and, in some ways, shows the limitations of liberal theories and the way in which, for example, concepts of freedom get applied in a limited and exclusive way to particular categories of people. The socialist tradition, on the other hand, radicalizes this idea of freedom and connects the freedom of the individual to the freedom of the collective, and sees this relationship between the individual and the collective in a more dialectical way.

I also wanted to write about socialism and liberalism in a way that didn’t separate the historical experiences of these systems from the way in which they are discussed in philosophical thought. So often, especially in normative political theory, which is what I’ve mostly been working with, we tend to engage with ideas as just ideas, thinking about the abstract merits and limitations of different worldviews. But I’m also interested in the history of philosophy and in history, more generally, and so I’ve always been curious to see how ideas get reflected in institutions and how institutions sometimes either betray or depart from the original intentions embedded in the promotion of these ideas. So, I wanted to write about both liberalism and socialism in a way that wasn’t completely divorced from particular historical and institutional setups.

I wanted to write about both of them in a way that was not blind to the historical experiences inspired by these ideas, and so when I began to think about the failures of democracy in the case of socialism or the failures of the promise of freedom in the case of liberal theories and institutions, the more my mind turned to concrete examples from the country I grew up in.

The project then became one of trying to connect these abstract philosophical thoughts with the concrete realities that I had known, and of which I had not really thought about philosophically up to that point. Although, in some way, having grown up in a socialist state, the ideology and the concepts had always been around me. The ideas had been embedded in me from a very early age because school was highly politicized in Albania during socialism, and so I was familiar with the concepts and with the ideas of freedom and liberalism that we work with philosophically. And there were of course also the ideas of civil society, liberalization, or opportunities for everyone that were part of the discourse in post-1990 Albania.

So, every time I thought about how these ideas get institutionalized, I had examples from my life and the people that I had met seemed to promote one version or the other of the different conceptions of freedom which were embedded in these systems. At that point, I thought it would be interesting to try and write this book in a way that would be as accessible as possible and that would tell the story in a way that is not abstract and detached from history, politics, or real-world institutions, but also doesn’t do it in a way that assesses the institutions or ideas in complete separation from real people. I felt that doing it via a biographical route was a productive way, insofar as it enabled me to connect examples and lived realities with these more abstract thoughts.

That’s fascinating. I also wish to ask you a bit about the voice you’re using in Free because you mentioned at one point, and I’m quoting, “five years after the fall of socialism, episodes of our life back then had become part of the repertoire of amusing family anecdotes. It didn’t matter if the memories were absurd, hilarious, or painful, or all of these at once.” My impression was that much of your book is written in precisely this kind of mood as well, combining the absurd, the hilarious, and the painful in an impressive and slightly unusual way. Would you agree with this perception of mine, and would you care to comment more generally on the voice you are using in the memoir?

Yes, I think you’re right that the voice conveys all the different realities that surrounded me at the same time, but this is in part because I made a very conscious effort of not having a unique authorial voice super-imposed on the other characters in the book.

Because it was a book about freedom and because it ended up being a book about freedom explored through this biographical way of writing, I didn’t want to be paternalistic in the way in which I was exploring ideas through characters.

When you’re writing a biography there’s always a risk of imposing on other people your views or interpretations, or even being judgmental on why people hold certain ideas and I wanted to avoid that.

I also knew I was writing on a very controversial topic, one that was going to be especially controversial and potentially divisive in Albania: how we assess the legacy of socialism and liberalism and how we think about these two systems in connection to each other. I knew it was going to be difficult for those that I was writing about to engage with this project in the way in which I wanted them to, which was as open-mindedly as possible. So, to me it seemed like a natural choice to write the book without this grown-up, academic, intellectual feel, but rather to try and stand back as much as possible as an intellectual and to let the characters speak for themselves – each of them presenting their ideas of freedom, their yearnings, why they did certain things, why they were committed to certain views, what they found was a betrayal in certain cases, how they felt about oppression, and all these things.

So, to talk about the voice of the book, it is written from the point of view of a young girl who is at the cusp of making this transition from childhood to adulthood, and in a way, whose personal, cognitive, and emotional evolution coincides with the evolution, or rather the revolution of the country, from one political system to the other. It is a coming-of-age story, both for the individual and for the country and in both cases, it’s a relatively traumatic coming-of-age story. In the personal case it’s traumatic because you tend to learn these ideas of freedom and personal responsibility from the social environment in which you grow up, but in this case the main sites of influence, the family and the state, are in contrast with each other, so they have different ideas of what it means to lead a free life.

As I explain in the book, I grew up in this dissident family without knowing it, so I was equally subjected to the formative influence of both the state and the family. I was taught to be a good citizen and a good pioneer, but on the other hand at home I never knew that my ancestors, my grandfather, great-grandfather and so on, had all been dissidents positioned on different sides of the political spectrum for different reasons, and my family had had to suffer the repercussions. And, of course in a society that is divided by class, whether it’s socialism or liberalism, which social class you come from shapes the opportunities you have in the future. In my case, it was extreme because the social influences were very different.

This is also why I think this young girl who is coming of age is pulled in different directions, because of these different forms of influence that she received. And it is also why in the book there is no unified interpretation of the purposes and of the motives of the different characters, and there’s a conscious effort not to offer that unified interpretation. Rather, the way in which the book is written is to show how these different stories shape the self-understanding of someone who grows up in a context where different things are going on all at once, and who is trying to make sense of how these different things do or don’t fit together.

Let’s zoom in on one of the crucial moments of the book. Towards the end of the first half, the conflict between your country and your family, if I may put it that way, is brought to light. You write, “the patterns that shaped my childhood, those invisible laws that had given structure to my life, my perception of the people whose judgments helped me make sense of the world, all these things changed forever in December 1990.” So, you used to be a firm believer in a sense, who also belongs to a culturally, and one should say politically, distinguished family, with your grandmother originally speaking to you in French rather than Albanian to take just one example. You were 10 or 11 when you discovered the history of your family, including the fact that you are the great-granddaughter of a former prime minister of the country, so your family suddenly became a source of doubt and you, in a sense, had to reassess your own life at the age of 10 or 11. I would like for you to tell us a bit about how you look back and reflect on the life strategies that members of your family followed in your early youth, that is to say the 1980s. How would you recall that great moment of rupture in your biography, and how do you assess its consequences?

The question about consequences is a very difficult one, because I feel that we absorb the consequences of these traumatic moments that we face in our childhood throughout our lives, and we respond to them in different ways at different points in time. In a way, the book is one response to that and perhaps the reception to the book will shape a different kind of response, and what has been going on in my philosophical research since I started working with ideas is a different kind of response yet again. What I remember from that time is a lot of confusion about what I was being told, and the fact that I was subjected to these different stories about what was going on in school and at home.

I remember this very distinctive moment where we used to talk to our moral education teacher in school about the protests, and what was going on in the country at the time, including the movement led by students at the University in Tirana, and she called them hooligans, and the state TV was calling the protesters hooligans as well. Then at one point I realized that my parents weren’t calling them hooligans, and in fact they had explained to me earlier that hooligans were people who were doing horrible things in stadiums and were violent thugs and gangs and so on. They didn’t seem to have any political motivation, other than disrupting the civil order, but then I noticed that in my family, my parents and my grandmother, were calling them something different. This was the lead up to this revelatory moment in December 1990.

For me, what really brought home the fact that this was a regime that needed to change was seeing on TV the Secretary of the Albanian Labor Party (i.e., the former Communist Party) declare that we would from now on adopt political pluralism and have free elections. For me, this was all very strange because I had always assumed that we already had free elections: we had elections, we had lists of candidates and I had always seen my parents vote. When you live in a system deeply embedded in the categories of that system, with no possibility of questioning them and extremely limited spaces of dissent, it’s very hard as a child, but perhaps also as a teenager, to question the basic structure in which you grow up. You don’t think, “well, this is unjust,” or “it’s not right that we can’t travel outside of Albania” and you don’t know that there is lack of freedom. Censorship is precisely that: it’s the concealing of the opportunities to speak freely and you end up thinking that whatever is being said is the truth. As a child you don’t know what’s not being said and there are also different aspects of freedom as it applies to children compared to how it applies to adults.

For children, there are certain things which have to do with physical spaces, or with trust in grown-ups, or with your personal relations with neighbors, friends, school, or whatever, which gives you a very different perception of what freedom consists of compared to adults who need a different set of opportunities to exercise free thinking, for example.

What I remember from the time is this moment of confusion and concern about why adults seemed to hesitate all the time, then I noticed that they were hushing or closing the door before speaking, or listening to the radio and turning it off when I went into a room. Increasingly during those months, I noticed that something strange was going on.

Then in December, when the whole system collapsed, my parents revealed this truth that they felt was their truth, and they said that it was my truth as well. It was very hard to know who to trust because I had not experienced first-hand the oppression and persecution which they had experienced, and I had not experienced it in part because they had been so good at protecting me from it.

They had created this shelter of protection which had worked in the way in which they wanted it to work, but which then, because things changed so radically, made it very difficult for me to engage immediately with what they were saying and to just believe the fact that we lived in an oppressed country. Eventually, within the next few months, I adjusted. I believed what I was told, I believed that this was my family and because I had a very good relationship with my grandmother, I trusted her when she explained the reasons for why they had to conceal this truth from me.

I don’t know what this does to one’s identity in the long term. Perhaps it cultivates a kind of skepticism about what you take to be the truth and a tendency to think that something is always different from how it appears, that there is this dualism between appearance and essence, which might well have played a role in my later interest in philosophy.

We definitely want to talk about that as well, but first I wanted to talk a bit more about the second half of the book which focuses on the 1990s. You mention in the narrative that people were turned into victims at the time – all the survivors were, so to say, declared as winners and none as perpetrators, so only ideas were left to blame. As a result of that, entire categories of thought disappeared practically overnight, you claim. At the same time, you draw several remarkable parallels between pre-1990 and post-1990 ways of thinking in Albania, not least of which was the way shock therapy was conceived, again much like the dictatorship of the proletariat before it, as a kind of last great sacrifice that needed to be made. Would you care to comment on how these liberal-sounding concepts ended up filling the conceptual void after 1990?

The starting point is this very difficult and complex web of responsibilities. One thing that I feel we don’t talk enough about in these post-transition contexts is the way we often blame dramatic changes, oppression, and injustices that were perpetrated in different systems to the actions of particular individuals. We just say, “it was the dictator,” or “it was his circle,” or, “it was the party elite”. We don’t realize that no system survives with pure oppression. There is a very large degree of complexity for the system to work in that way and for such a long time. It needs to find ways of stabilizing itself, in part also to cope with the different moments of crisis that it faces.

If you look at the history of Albania, which is just one example, it is a history of constructing these different alliances with different powers at different points in time. It starts with the alliance with Yugoslavia, and then there is the Soviet Union, then a break with the Soviet Union during the de-Stalinization campaign, a new alliance with China and then a break with China. At each of these junctures, the party faces an internal debate and a struggle, which is also a power struggle, about which route to take. Now I think what enables particular elite groups within those party coalitions to prevail and to assert their will is the complicity of outsiders, the people outside the protected circle, and what goes on in society, more generally. It’s the same thing with spying. I feel there is no oppressive society that really works by sheer oppression. For it to work, it needs to also have something else, and that is collaboration with and cooperation of different individuals.

The problem is that when there is a regime change, as there was an Albanian 1990s, it’s very difficult to disentangle that web of complicity, because you have people in your family and in your wider circle who might have been involved, and justice comes at the price of reconciliation. There often seems to be a choice that needs to be made between historical justice in terms of explaining who is responsible, who is a perpetrator, who is the victim, and making amends for that, and having a society in which there is reconciliation and an effort to create dialogue by saying “the past is the past, let’s think about the future”.

This explains partly why I write that people turned against ideas, because they couldn’t really turn against each other more than they had already done. It was easier if ideas became the target – the dictatorship of the proletariat or Marx or whatever – and books were destroyed, and indeed literally burned in 1990.

The rage of the people turned to objects because it couldn’t really turn to people who thought differently or who had been collaborating with the system, and it couldn’t really turn to the truth of the social relations either. Which is why I think that the result was an entire system of thought that collapsed without being questioned and was replaced by a new system of thought which was meant to be the promise of this new liberal era, and which was then also endorsed without being questioned.

The same faith and belief in these categories that we had with the dictatorship of the proletariat, all these messianic concepts that served to mobilize consent in socialism, were replaced by alternative concepts that served to mobilize consent in liberalism, such as civil society, free markets, or the idea that the transition will be painful but hopefully brief the more radical the interventions are. This sounded very much like the request the socialist party made about how we must make sacrifices, and their repeated emphasis that we must be aware of the difficulties, we must be aware that some individuals will suffer as a result of these consequences, but it will all be worth it in in the name of a greater idea.

I feel like the transition in the 1990s took a similar path and shape, insofar as there were these new ideas that were supposed to deliver freedom, and yet it was very obvious that it wasn’t working for a lot of people.

In fact, for the vast majority of people at that point it wasn’t working, whether it was because people were taking their savings and putting them in fraudulent financial schemes, which turned out to bankrupt the country, whether it was because everyone wanted to leave and there were massive consequences: brain drain, high unemployment, the rise of all kinds of traffic (sex, drugs, and so on). All of these phenomena were clearly negative repercussions of the way in which the transition was managed. Of course, the transition wasn’t the only factor: some problems had been carried forward from the previous economic crisis of the 80s. Still, the request to go through these reforms and the awareness that these were going to be very painful reforms, but that it was all worth it, in the name of this great idea, felt very much like the kind of horizon of liberation during socialism, it’s just that the liberators were now different.

You write in the book that when aspirations of members of your family became reality, their dreams turned into your disillusionment and that, unlike them, you came to equate liberalism with broken promises, the destruction of solidarity, the right to inherit privilege, and the turning of a blind eye to injustice. Would you say that you noticed different aspects of Western liberal capitalist societies because of your early years prior to 1990? Is there maybe some special sensibility you would claim to possess, having been raised under a different kind of political regime and socioeconomic system?

I don’t think I had the sensibility at the time, and I don’t think I had the intellectual categories to make sense of what was going on. In a way the interpretation that this was a failure of liberalism, the failure of structural reforms or the consequences of shock therapy, all these things weren’t clear to me at the time. I think what was clear to me was the discomfort of daily, ordinary life: for example the fact that my best friend had disappeared and wasn’t there anymore while horrible things happened to her, or the fact that I couldn’t go out and be free to hang out with my friends in the evening, or that my parents kept saying, “you need to be careful, otherwise you’ll be harassed on the streets,” or, “it’s going to be dangerous” or “there’s drug dealers.”

Another example that I describe in the book is the first time I traveled in the West with my grandmother. The discourse had shifted from being told that we could not travel because our state didn’t let us travel or we didn’t have a passport, to discovering that having the passport wasn’t enough, you also needed a visa for which your own state was not responsible and that turned out to be the responsibility of another state. Suddenly it turned out that, after all these impediments to freedom of movement which we had internalized when we were told that we couldn’t travel because we weren’t allowed to travel, we also could not travel because another state would not allow us to travel. This is a similar form of constraint on freedom of movement.

Or, to take another example related to travelling, in Albania we had grown up with all these queues and scarcity of goods and the craving for goods from the West. Then you go to the West, and you realize that all the goods are there, but you can’t actually buy them because you don’t have money to buy them. I remember thousands of little examples like that in which I felt that something was not right in the world in which I suddenly found myself. But I don’t think that at the time I necessarily perceived it as the failure of the system, or the failure of different categories connected to that system.

I do remember though, very clearly, when my father was working at the Port of Durrës. At one point he was a CEO there. He was in charge of modernizing and delivering structural reforms which effectively meant that he had to lay off a lot of people. He felt very uncomfortable with that, and he brought it up in those terms. I remember him telling me, “We have been told that there are all of these experts from the World Bank and the IMF that need to advise us on structural reforms and the experts are asking me to fire 100 workers at the port. But actually if I just refuse to have one of these experts, his salary is the same amount as these hundred laborers that I’m being asked now to sack because of cutting costs.” So, he himself clearly perceived this dilemma.

Of course, the people around me had different understandings of what freedom required and different ideas of how to live in a free society, but they also noticed that something wasn’t right, that things weren’t going well. Yet, in the case of my family, there was a sense of acceptance of the new world, in a way. They were convinced that they had left behind the worst, that socialist Albania was the worst thing that could have happened to them in their lives, and they had good reason to think that way, and now everything else was considered a small sacrifice that needed to be made on the way to realizing this dream of freedom. I guess for me it was more a question of just noticing that this promised freedom was actually not really being delivered at any point.

To me it had looked like it was there under socialism, but clearly turned out not to be for my family, and I was convinced of that eventually, and then during liberalism my family was convinced that we were going to have it very soon, and I just didn’t see it coming.

I couldn’t bring myself to believe in it.

Of course, the clarity of articulating this as a tale of different systems, and different systems that failed for different reasons and betrayed people for different reasons wasn’t there at the time. What I remember was the raw experience of things not being right in either of them.

You close the book with your graduation from high school during the Albanian civil war in 1997 and with your choice to study philosophy at an Italian university. In this context, you refer to your socialist friends from your student days, who basically did not really think that your own experiences back in the 80s could in any way be significant to their own political beliefs. How do you relate to that lack of concern with East European experiences? How did you relate to it then and how would you relate to it now? And more generally, why did you choose to close your narrative around your 18th birthday and with the decision to emigrate and to study philosophy?

To the first question, I thought of it then and I still think of it now as symptomatic of a tendency dominant in the liberal, left-liberal, and possibly also left-Western socialist way of thinking about the end of the Cold War, and related ideas of the “end of history”. The tendency is to relate to the history of countries or groups who don’t share a straightforward liberal trajectory by thinking of themselves as a kind of moral liberator ready to free people and countries from their backwardness and plight.

I was concerned by these reflections and reactions, in part because I always thought that in Albania people knew a lot more about the West than the West knew about Albania, and in general I believe there is a lot more knowledge in small countries about dominating countries or hegemonic countries than the other way round.

In the end this is very unfortunate because hegemonic countries end up making decisions that are very important for the history of small nations. And yet, the small nations have epistemically much more awareness about what goes on around them, even though they have very little say in how these decisions are made.

The story of the left was for me disappointing because I thought there could have been a more productive way of engaging with the history of East European socialism, Albania included, even though it had a slightly different trajectory from other East European countries. Which was to think of that history as a source of moral learning and as a lived experience that could be relevant when thinking about socialism. I thought it was important to ask questions about why it failed, why it led to this glaring lack of democracy, why it produced this entrenched bureaucratization, why it turned into this very severe censorship of dissent, of freedom of thought, and all the freedoms that people were craving. I felt that by disengaging from all those questions it was very hard to learn anything from these experiences.

But by removing the experiences from the table as though they were just contingent failures due to the backwardness of these countries or to the uniqueness of their context or whatever, it felt as though the tendency was to think that history could never be repeated. I had a feeling that the liberal, I guess hegemonic, countries in which the Western left was active had this claim to know better and claim to do better, which I think is very dangerous. I think it is very dangerous to think about the future without awareness of what the past has produced because I think it makes one vulnerable to repeating the same mistakes.

The second question about why the narrative ends on my 18th birthday: in part because it’s a coming-of-age story, so it ends with the protagonist’s maturity, since 18 is the age of maturity. Secondly, because it coincides with the year 1997 and the collapse of the belief in the liberal set of market freedoms and political freedoms: 1997 was a catastrophe for Albania, and it showed to me the failure of structural reforms to deliver not just basic welfare, but even basic order. There was a collapse of the state in Albania that year. The state just didn’t have the monopoly over the use of force. It had lost legitimacy, but it has also lost the ability to maintain order and peace in a very minimal way. You couldn’t go out because you risked being killed by a Kalashnikov bullet.

There was a parallel between 1990 where there was a collapse, and 1997 where there was another collapse, and you could compare these situations if you had lived through both. You could also see how, as I wrote in my diary, in 1990 there seemed to be hope, and in 1997 even hope had been lost. Because what other alternative system of ideas do you look to if you’ve tried socialism and you’ve tried liberalism, and neither of them had worked? It seemed like a good summary of the lived realities that I wanted to document.

The third reason is that after going to university, my thoughts took a different shape. The experiences were different, the thought processes were different, I could articulate much more clearly my views with the use of theories and abstract categories and so on. My studies in philosophy of course helped with that. But I didn’t want to let any of that determine the narrative in Free.

I wanted the narrative in Free to be as free as possible from those philosophical constraints which would have required a stronger intervention of the author in the text, and so it made sense to stop just before those experiences which brought greater philosophical awareness.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Hannah Vos.

Contact Us