How Lea Ypi Defines Freedom

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In February, 2020, the Albanian-British philosopher Lea Ypi found herself in a closet trying to write a book about freedom. Ypi, who is a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, had just started a yearlong research fellowship in Berlin when the world went into lockdown. Libraries closed. Seminars were suspended. Unable to go outside, her three young children colonized the family’s apartment as their playground, and she retreated to her closet to work.

Ypi studies political definitions of freedom, and lockdown gave her ideas new weight. The privations of the early pandemic brought back memories of her childhood in Communist Albania. Ypi found some irony in the fact that, in Western Europe, the heartland of liberal democracy, individual autonomy was being restricted in the name of social good. The sense of impending transformation brought on by the pandemic reminded her of witnessing the fall of Communism in Albania as a child in the early nineteen-nineties. At moments of rupture like these, Ypi told me when we met earlier this year, “ideas of freedom and society are tested.” People began questioning the framework of their world, and the future, however briefly, seemed up for grabs. Ypi had intended to write a straightforward treatise on liberal and socialist concepts of political freedom. The cascade of memories set off by the pandemic changed her mind. She decided, instead, to write a memoir.

The next year, Ypi published “Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History,” an account of growing up in Albania during its bruising transition to a multiparty system. “Free” is the intellectual history that Ypi had envisioned, exploring the political traditions of liberalism and socialism, but it tests these ideas against twentieth-century history. The book is given shape by the collapse of the nearly five-decade-long period of Communist rule in Albania and the country’s first multi-party election, which took place in 1991. Like many post-Communist governments, the new Administration adopted a program of economic “shock therapy.” By 1997, when Ypi was in her last year of high school, the country was in a state of emergency. Schools closed; financial institutions went bankrupt; anger at government incompetence skyrocketed; amid the civil unrest, shootings were a daily occurrence. Protests gave way to street fighting, and estimates suggest that at least half a million weapons were looted from military depots.

In the early pages of “Free,” the child Ypi is innocent of the forces shaping her world. The point of view is deceptive: by the end of the book, the promises and disillusioning reality of both socialism and liberalism are laid bare. Since being published, “Free” has been translated into twenty-nine languages and become a best-seller in many countries, including the U.K., Germany, Iceland, Norway, and Spain. When I met with Ypi in a hotel lobby, in Orange County, where she was delivering a talk, she had just landed after days of events on the East Coast. (“The book simply exploded,” her Californian host told me.) Her blond hair was casually pinned, and she wore a green cotton top and black culottes with unfussy elegance. “I didn’t think that people were going to be immediately interested in Albania,” Ypi told me over a Niçoise salad. She ate with gusto and without pausing her animated speech. Perhaps, she speculated, the response to her book reflected deep anxieties about the state of the world. “You have these collective failures and attempts at collective renewals,” she said. She cited the pandemic, the climate crisis, and widespread political dysfunction. “We’re at the point where our institutions are not really sustainable. Something needs to be done, but we can’t quite find the strength to build alternatives.”

In Vivian Gornick’s 1977 book, “The Romance of American Communism,” Gornick complains of the “oppressive distance” that crept into the voices of many writers, including those who used to be Communists themselves, when they turned to the subject of Communism. Under the guise of objectivity, such writers, Gornick writes, operated with the patronizing assumption that the Communists “were infantile while we are mature; as though we would have known better while they were incapable of knowing better.” Ypi is the rare post-Communist writer who works through the wounded past of the project of socialism without reflexively dismissing her younger self’s sincere beliefs. Instead, she demands that her readers take the collective attempt of twentieth-century socialism seriously and see its failures and hopes as a mirror of our own. “People tend to think of liberalism and socialism as complete opposites. In fact, historically and philosophically, they are both attempts to think about freedom,” Ypi told me.

As a child, Ypi, an ardent Young Pioneer, was taught that she lived in the freest place on earth. Albanian Communist Party doctrine held that their country’s citizens were not only free of capitalist exploitation but practiced a purer form of socialism than their comrades in the Soviet Union and China, whose regimes the Albanian government dismissed as revisionist. Her day-to-day reality told a different story. In “Free,” she writes of how the adults around her spoke in coded language and exchanged meaningful glances; her childish utterances about forbidden subjects were sometimes met by her family’s censorious panic. Even everyday tasks required unusual stamina: lines to buy groceries were so long that-shopping for food could take a whole day. Material deprivation had a psychological impact. Ypi’s mother prized an empty Coca-Cola can so much that after it disappeared she accused a close friend of stealing it.

After the transition to liberalism, Albanians were better off in some significant ways. They had extricated themselves from the restrictions of Communism. They no longer needed to perform fealty to Stalin and Enver Hoxha, who was the former Albanian Prime Minister, and started to talk about their religions again. But, in other ways, Albanians remained unfree. Without robust financial or political institutions, the country was at the mercy of the acutely under-regulated market economy put in place by its new government. Many people lost the bulk of their savings in pyramid schemes. Material poverty persisted. Well-paying jobs were hard to come by. A political candidate had to borrow Ypi’s father’s socks to finish off the respectable look he was going for.

Ypi’s parents had different views of freedom. Her mother, Doli, who was a secondary-school teacher, believed in an individualistic, libertarian kind of freedom. She watched the soap opera “Dynasty” to admire the interior decoration and attempted to style her hair in the fashion of Margaret Thatcher’s. She also styled her politics the Thatcherite way: to her, Ypi writes, “the world was a place where the natural struggle for survival could be resolved only by regulating private property.”

Ypi’s father, Zafo, had a more socially oriented vision of freedom. He was an engineer in forestry management and followed politics with great interest, often borrowing world events to narrate their lives. Ypi was born, in 1979, prematurely and had to stay in an incubator for months. At one point, her chance of survival was fifty per cent. Zafo joked, in reference to the hostage crisis in Iran, “About the same as the American diplomats in Tehran.” Zafo’s grandfather had briefly served as Prime Minister in the early nineteen-twenties, and Zafo’s father, a lawyer active in social-democratic circles, had been imprisoned by the Communist government for fifteen years. As a result of his family background, Zafo had been banned by the Party from studying math in university, but the experience didn’t poison his commitment to egalitarianism. He embraced international freedom struggles, enthusing over the news of the end of apartheid in South Africa, and was contemptuous of consumerism. When he saw a person begging for money, he would empty his pockets, telling his daughter that deprivation wasn’t a personal failing.

Soon after the country’s first multi-party election, in 1991, Zafo was laid off from his forestry job—the new Administration wasn’t prioritizing planting trees, and his office was set to be closed. After a long period of unemployment, he found work at the country’s largest port, which was soon to be partially privatized. As the general director, he struggled with the actions he was asked to take to keep the enterprise profitable. Firing workers and depriving them of their livelihoods shattered him more than being unemployed himself had. “Socialism had denied him the possibility to be who he wanted,” Ypi writes. “Capitalism was denying it to others.”

Doli weathered the transition to post-Communism more successfully than her husband had—she joined the Democratic Party of Albania and served as a leader of a national women’s association. She kept busy organizing reform campaigns and seeking restitution of her family’s properties—which had been confiscated by the Communists—in court. Unlike Zafo, Doli didn’t believe in people’s fundamental goodness. “That’s why she was convinced that socialism could never work, even under the best circumstances. It was against human nature,” Ypi writes. Reluctant to trust other people or the state, she preferred to take matters into her own hands and keep other people’s power to interfere in her life to a minimum. When a visiting French feminist activist asked Doli how she dealt with sexual harassment, she replied that she always carried a knife. As a young woman, she had to rely on hitchhiking to commute to teach at a remote village school. Once, a truck driver placed a hand on her thigh. She issued a warning: a tickle by the tip of the knife. Under Communism, Doli had the gumption to raise a flock of chicks in their bathroom in order to secure a reliable supply of eggs for her family. During the unrest of 1997, when Albania’s Democratic Party started to hand out guns for self-defense, she tried to convince her husband that they could use one. Zafo didn’t want a firearm at home, but she insisted that owning a gun could be a deterrent.

In “Free,” Ypi inclines more toward her father’s expansive, socially oriented view of freedom than her mother’s more narrowly individualistic one. But the true anchor of the book is her paternal grandmother, Nini, who helped to raise Ypi and who would scold her in French when she misbehaved. Nini grew up in extreme privilege—her uncle was a pasha in the Ottoman Empire, and she met her husband at the Albanian monarch King Zog’s wedding—but she lost everything early in life. After the Communists took power, in 1946, many of her family’s politically influential friends were killed, her husband was sent to prison, and she had to work in labor camps. Even when she was suffering from political persecution and people close to her were dying by execution or suicide, Nini remained convinced of her own moral agency. “Regardless of the changes of circumstances and the oppression around her, she thought she’d always been morally free to act in a responsible way,” Ypi said.

As a scholar, she has come to see her grandmother’s focus on moral agency to be akin to the Kantian idea of freedom, a subject Ypi has been researching and teaching for more than a decade. Kantians like Ypi reflect on the distinction between “negative freedom”—a person’s preferences void of social context—and “positive freedom,” which involves making decisions based on reason, setting aside one’s immediate cravings. In America, “the land of the free” and “beacon of democracy,” people often think of freedom as an entitlement, not as something that must be realized and preserved in concert with others. At a talk in Chicago earlier this year, she reminded her audience that democracy is a “demanding ideal.” Our current system, she went on, “is not really democracy: we have constellations and configurations of interests that are very powerful . . . you have a world where strong states shape the fates of weaker states. You have countries where stronger citizens with more money shape the fates of weaker citizens.” When I met her, she told me, “I want to get away from this idea that, because you have an election, democracy is secure. It’s not a finish line.”

Ypi sees “an obvious discrepancy between the ideology of freedom and ideal freedom.” In the absence of the real thing, the word is often invoked as a license to disregard the well-being of others: to refuse to wear masks during a COVID surge; to flaunt civilian ownership of assault weapons at a time when mass shootings outnumber the days of the year; to voice anti-trans rhetoric that fuels real-world violence and suicides. Ypi has a refreshing insistence on the responsibility that freedom entails. “There’s a dimension of freedom that’s not just about satisfaction, but it’s about placing your desires in a moral context and in the context of relationship to other people, and saying, ‘Well, what makes sense for all of us?’ ” Ypi told me. In a 2019 article for the New Statesman, she echoed Plato’s warning, in “The Republic,” that the demagogue, the “man of the people” in thrall to his desires and whims, is a perennial threat to democracy. Failure to work toward the freedom of others, she pointed out, leaves the door open to populists like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.

Ypi’s education in political philosophy began in 1997, when, aided by a scholarship, she arrived at the Sapienza University of Rome. At university, her housing was provided for, and the cafeteria meals were subsidized, but she lived on about a hundred dollars each month. If she wanted to cook, there was no budget to eat meat or fish regularly. Instead, she would buy pouches of powdered tomato soup. She still remembers walking by the chocolate aisle week after week, longing for a Côte d’Or bar. It was not in the budget. There was no one to tell her what to think or what to do, but, without money, life was full of constraints: she couldn’t afford to go to the movies, hang out with friends at bars, or take a German-language course.

Her classmates, fair-minded aspiring philosophers, often came from well-off families. Though they espoused left-wing political ideas of equality, “it was always about the problems of the world, outside of them,” Ypi said; their blindness to their own advantages and to Ypi’s deprivation was striking. “I really resented them. How do you not see that poverty is such a constraint on someone’s life?” she said. Before she left for college, she had promised her father not to study Marxism. But her experience of the forms of unfreedom that persisted in liberal societies eventually pushed her to reëngage with the tradition of socialism. During her pursuit of a Ph.D., she began to explore “the possibility of reconciling Kant and Marx” and their common ground in society’s search for freedom.

After Albania transitioned to liberalism, and people were free to leave, the country experienced an exodus of economic migrants seeking livable wages, but a better future didn’t exist for many of them. Some drowned during the journey at sea to Italy. Others, like Ypi’s childhood friend, whom she called Elona in “Free,” worked near a train station in Milan, trying to make a living through sex work after running away from home at thirteen years old. Back in 1991, in the spring, Albanians were warmly welcomed refugees. By that summer, they were shunned as “illegal immigrants.” “There was so much racism against Albanians in the nineties in Italy,” Ypi said. Once, on the train in Rome, she offered to carry a bag for an elderly woman, who thanked her and said, “There are so many Albanians around stealing bags!”

It has been twenty-six years since Ypi left her home country. Since then, xenophobia has become politically legitimated in many parts of Europe. Far-right nativist parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly National Front) and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, have moved from the fringe to the mainstream. Last year, Suella Braverman, who was then the British Home Secretary, told Parliament, “If Labour were in charge, they would be allowing all the Albanian criminals to come to this country. They would be allowing all the small boats to come to the U.K. They would open our borders and totally undermine the trust of the British people in controlling our sovereignty.” A week after Braverman’s statement, Ypi questioned why the right was so fixated on Albanians, on the conservative-leaning talk show “Good Morning Britain.” “It’s not just a problem about the Albanian community. It’s a problem for Britain. You begin to disintegrate the multicultural project of integration if you start to treat minorities like this,” she said, her amiable debate-team-champion energy metabolizing into controlled anger. During the fourteen years she has lived in the U.K., her brother was never able to get a visa to visit. In 2015, when Ypi gave birth to her second child, immigration authorities also denied her mother. (A few years later, when Doli tried again and repackaged herself as a wealthy homeowner visiting to shop at Harrods, her entry was permitted.)

Since her appearance on “Good Morning Britain,” Ypi has received more than a hundred messages on social media from the Albanian diaspora, sharing immigration woes and feelings of anxiety at work and school. She has become their rare representative with a platform, which she has used to amplify their voices. “The UK’s immigration system does not find criminals—it creates them. It projects criminal intent well before any criminal act has occurred,” she wrote, in the New Statesman, pushing back against Braverman’s rhetoric. Ypi thinks that economic migrants should be seen as akin to refugees or political-asylum seekers. The lack of employment opportunities that drive them to leave their home countries are almost always the result of historical oppression and exploitation. Politicians should frame economic migration as “an implication of global injustice,” she says. If freedom of movement is a right worth defending, she argues, liberal societies can’t condemn countries like North Korea that prevent citizens from leaving while closing their own borders and imprisoning immigrants.

Ypi is a polyglot—she speaks Albanian, French, Italian, English, German, and Spanish—but the two languages that she finds herself travelling back and forth between most often are literature and philosophy. As a girl, she wanted to be a writer and composed poetry about repression, frustration, and freedom. After the fall of Communism, a French TV crew making a documentary about the transition filmed the eleven-year-old Ypi coming home from school. In the film, she walks between drab low-rise buildings on a path covered in rubble. “I’ve been lucky in my misfortunes,” she tells the reporter. Then she reads one of her poems in French. “Man inherits the earth with pleasure and sometimes with misery,” she recites. “It’s not God, but man that will destroy.”

In those years, as the outside world disintegrated, Ypi found refuge in reading. After the transition, the history textbooks that she and her classmates had used under Communism were discarded. It took some time for new ones to be published; for one thing, there were no printers in operation or paper to print on. Ypi’s mother unsealed a trove of books—literature, philosophy, law, and art history—that had been stored out of sight in the family attic. The books, which had belonged to her grandfather, who studied in France in the nineteen-thirties, were musty and yellowing, and many pages showed signs of being nibbled by mice. A French encyclopedia introduced her to Plato, Nietzsche, and Sartre. She binged on Dante, Shakespeare, Balzac, Maupassant, and Proust, and loved to “spend time with the Russians”: Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy. “I created a parallel identity through these books and these characters,” Ypi said. Thirty years later, the names of characters in classic novels roll off her tongue as if they were old friends: she identified with Thomas Mann’s Settembrini for his “reason, hope and belief” and loved Turgenev’s Madame Odintsova for being rational even in her emotions.

Academia had slowly killed the literature in her, Ypi told me. “You enter this realm of abstract concepts, but you lose the human side of it because you are generalizing and abstracting all the time,” she said. “It is hard to write simple. What I like about literature is that it’s a very democratic thing. You open up avenues for people to engage with their problems.” Trying to write strong characters forced Ypi to argue with her own ideas. “You create an alternative theory in your mind” in order to inhabit a particular character, she told me. Then that character “challenges you,” and “you become the worst critic of yourself.”

Writing “Free” forced Ypi to see her mother from a new perspective. Doli was never a touchy-feely mother. When she became active in politics, she didn’t have a lot of time for Ypi. “She was really giving a lot to the public sphere,” Ypi said. But, after Ypi had her own children, she has tried to balance her roles as a mother and a professional, and has come to understand her mother’s no-nonsense approach to child rearing.“I started to see more of the constraints in her life as opposed to my entitlements,” Ypi said. Without extensive help raising her children, Doli had to focus on meeting their concrete needs. She still expresses support for her daughter in the form of finishing tasks on Ypi’s to-do list and is skeptical of Ypi’s work in philosophy. She thinks Ypi is a utopian who plays “word games” and who doesn’t understand “the real world.” “My mom is just really skeptical of humans,” Ypi told me. At moments, she wavers and thinks that maybe her mother’s skepticism is right.

Many commentators seem to find it easier to appreciate Ypi’s critique of Albania’s Communist past than to engage with her equally severe critique of present-day capitalism. “I am with her mother on this,” a Financial Times journalist who interviewed Ypi writes, while acknowledging that Ypi’s “contemporary questions are well worth asking.” Still, Ypi doesn’t feel dismissed. She knows her writing pushes back against ideas that people take for granted. “Sometimes they don’t want to be challenged too much. They want to still feel safe somehow,” she said. In the first book of theory that she published, in 2011, a meditation on global justice and political agency, she presents herself as a philosopher in the “activist mode.” She isn’t content simply to observe things as they are. Instead, she wants to drive debates on how to change them. “Nothing was feasible until it was because somebody had the courage to go out there and articulate it and make it happen,” she said.

When I chatted with Ypi on Zoom a few weeks after our first meeting, she asked to postpone the call so that she could finish dinner. She hadn’t eaten all day. In her kitchen, a yellow sign indicates how chaotic her life can get. It says, in Albanian, “Look after your comrade during work.” That day, she had two other interviewers calling from Finland and Spain, one photo shoot, and a work meeting before going to her children’s school concert. Her husband, a political scientist, also travels a lot. “Our house is like a hotel lobby. One is coming with a suitcase, and the other is going,” she said. She keeps the trips short—part of the balancing act of the scholar-author-mother.

I asked Ypi if she felt free, and she returned to her grandmother’s concept of freedom. “It’s something that reveals itself when you act responsibly,” she said. Her hectic routine is punctuated by moments of harmony, as when her children, inspired by her work, have told her that they want to be writers like her. She wants to raise them in the way that her grandmother raised her, teaching them to act responsibly and to be critical of their privileges. Come Christmas, she tells me, she tries to choose presents that will make her kids neither entitled nor deprived. “Being a moral agent is very demanding,” she said. “But then everything is hard. And the cost of not trying is higher.” Her principled hope brought to mind an anecdote she shared when we first met. Americans are so enthusiastic in their greetings, she observed. In Albania, people often answer the question “How are you doing?” with “I keep pushing.” ♦


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