How Lea Ypi Defines Freedom

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.

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