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3 November 2021

Lea Ypi: “The freedom that liberalism brought was only for some people”

The acclaimed author on growing up in communist Albania, the cost of “shock therapy” and why she’s a “Kantian Marxist”.

By George Eaton

At the outset of her memoir Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, Lea Ypi recounts a close encounter with Stalin. As an 11-year-old unsettled by anti-regime protesters in communist Albania in December 1990, she threw her arms round a statue of the man her schoolteacher had described as “the spirit of the world on a tank”. When Ypi looked up, she noticed, to her horror, that “the hooligans had stolen Stalin’s head”.

This decapitation and the protesters’ incessant chant of “freedom, democracy” forced a personal and political reckoning. “I had never given much thought to freedom. There was no need to.”

Over the ensuing pages, Ypi recalls the dark family secrets that emerged as the regime founded by Enver Hoxha crumbled. At school she had been taught to despise her namesake Xhafer Ypi, the country’s former prime minister, who served as justice minister under the fascist Italian protectorate established in 1939. Only later did she learn that this reviled quisling was her great-grandfather.

Her family were secular Muslims in the world’s first officially atheist state. She learns the building that housed the ruling party’s headquarters had once belonged to them. On one occasion, as they walked past, her mother looked up at a fifth-floor window and remarked: “He shouted, ‘Allahu-akbar!’” This, it transpired, was the dying cry of Ypi’s other great-grandfather as he plunged to his death to avoid torture.

These experiences inspire a moving and profound reflection on the nature of freedom that avoids either liberal triumphalism or Stalinist nostalgia. Ypi is most concerned with the futures that were lost in between.

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“The story is now told as one of overnight shifts, that everybody [in Albania] wanted this new society and they wanted these new freedoms. I think at the time it wasn’t clear at all that they actually knew what they wanted,” Ypi, 42, told me when we recently met at a café near the London School of Economics, where she is a professor of political theory.

“They knew they wanted more democracy, they wanted more political freedom, but nobody had actually signed up for the free-market capitalist project that they got… The direction of the change owed as much to intervention from the outside as it did to a genuinely authentic project from within.”

Ypi is fiercely critical of the economic “shock therapy” imposed on Albania by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. More than half of the population, including her pro-reform family, lost their savings after the collapse of pyramid schemes in 1996-97. The resulting crisis triggered a civil war that formed an apocalyptic backdrop to her final-year school exams (a bomb hoax disrupts her last paper).

To her evident delight (and surprise), it is a narrative that has resonated: Free, published on 28 October, has been longlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction and has received laudatory reviews. “One of the reasons that I wanted to write this book about the Nineties was to make people realise that there were alternative ways of doing this transition, which wouldn’t have brought all these costs and sacrifices,” she said.

[see also: Michael Sandel interview: “Joe Biden has broken with neoliberalism”]

Rather than adopting a narrow focus on negative liberty – freedom from interference by other people – Ypi is preoccupied with positive liberty: the freedom to act upon one’s will and to flourish.

“The freedom that liberalism brought was only freedom for some people,” she said. “During communism, people couldn’t leave the country because they would be shot at the border, and then suddenly freedom of movement was introduced. But people don’t have money to travel or they don’t have a visa, and then they undertake these really dangerous crossings and die on the way [as thousands did while fleeing Albania during the civil war]. In one case you can’t get out, in another you can’t get in, and you just die in both cases. Or when people lose their jobs, they’re equally unfree as they were for different reasons before.”

What is her response to those who argue that, nevertheless, establishing multi-party democracy in Albania represented unambiguous progress?

“The problem for me is not the multi-party system, it’s a multi-party system in a capitalist society. You can have a lot of parties but if they represent the interests of the elite it’s as good as having one,” she replied. In the case of Albania, “the one thing parties couldn’t question is the fact that this was the way in which change needs to happen: we need the shock therapy, we need to make these painful sacrifices now, there is no alternative”.

Ypi describes herself as a democratic socialist (she is a Labour Party member) and, more specifically, as a Kantian Marxist. “It’s a kind of Marxism which is centred on this idea of relating to other people as ends in themselves,” she explained. “Kant shows you what the potential is: you have reason and you are a moral agent and you can create a world that is moral. And then the Marxist story complements that with a critique of the societies in which we live.”

For Ypi, the heart of Marxism is not the dogma of dialectical materialism but the notion that capitalism makes humans unfree. “You’re alienated because you’re always thinking of yourself as a commodity and you are always an instrument to someone else making money.”

Ypi, a rooted cosmopolitan who speaks six languages, moved to the UK in 2009 from Italy, having studied philosophy and literature at the University of Rome. In view of the current goods shortages, I noted, some have wryly compared Brexit Britain to the former Eastern Bloc. “It’s a kind of parody version of it, it’s a little bit exaggerated to say the shortages are similar. But they remind you that even on the things on which a market economy promises to deliver, it doesn’t deliver.”

How does she respond to those on the left who argue that Brexit is a necessary crisis – an event that could precipitate an overdue change in the UK’s economic model?

“Why would the left want to do that in a way that is completely detached from how the left in Europe thinks? For me the left is a quintessentially internationalist movement… In Albania we had this kind of nationalist Marxism, which is obviously a much more crude version, and you can see what that kind of nationalism does to you, it closes you off from the rest of the world.”

Does the rhetoric of national sacrifice deployed by Boris Johnson – suggesting that the present shortages are merely the birth pangs of a brighter future – ever remind her of Hoxhaist propaganda? “Every system capitalises on an ideology, every system mobilises certain ideas to produce consent… You need a promise of liberation in the future.”

Ypi is moved by the struggle of individual humans against the remorseless forces of history. In the case of her parents, she laments at the end of Free, “when their aspirations became reality, their dreams turned into my disillusionment”.

What, if anything, gives her hope today? “I’m a Kantian, so I don’t need to see hope to be hopeful! If you’re a Kantian then being hopeful is a moral duty.”

Ought implies can, as Kant put it – if it’s a moral obligation, it must be possible.

“Optimism is in some ways intrinsic to the nature of reason,” said Ypi. “I’m philosophically committed to the idea that there is something in the human being that defeats nihilism and defeats cynicism. It’s a question of helping other people discover it – and see that they have this inner potential.”

[see also: Dehenna Davison: “If you go to conference you see just how gay the Conservative Party is”]

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This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained