Lea Ypi, Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History

Lea Ypi is a political theorist who has written a prize-winning memoir entitled Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History (Norton, 2021). You don’t have to be interested in political theory, philosophy–or any academic discipline–to enjoy and benefit from this book. It is an engrossing story about coming of age during an extraordinary time and in an unusual household composed of vivid characters. For the most part, the vantage point is that of a child or adolescent. The plot is compelling, and I don’t want to give that away. I was genuinely surprised by some of the twists.

It is, however, no secret that Ypi is now an influential leftwing public intellectual who was born in the extremely communist state of Albania and experienced the collapse of that regime when she was a young teenager. One might ask whether she is highly critical of capitalism today because of her formative experiences during a disastrous “transition” to a market economy. Likewise, one might ask whether other people have been anti-communist because they experienced Stalin, or Albania’s Enver Hoxha.

I think Ypi’s answer would be: Yes. Our “biographies” (a fraught word under the Albanian communist system) do shape what we think. Jailing or shooting potential critics was evil, but the Party was not foolish to distrust people whose formative experiences would lean them to anti-Communism. Our circumstances shape us.

The next question might be whether knowing that someone holds a view because of personal experiences invalidates that view. For example, should we discount Ypi’s current politics because she was influenced by extreme circumstances at a formative moment?

Here, her answer would be: No. Our fate is to live at specific times in history. The best we can do is to critically assess the world that we find and work with others to improve it. This is “politics,” in the best sense of that word. It is also “freedom.” To be free is to bring your individual experiences into a consequential public debate with other people who are different from you. That is dangerous or even impossible under a dictatorship, but it is also difficult in contexts like the contemporary European Union, where there is “no politics left, only policy” (p. 227).

If Ypi holds a general political/economic theory, it’s not in her memoir. In fact, she says that she was planning to write a “philosophical book about the overlapping ideas of freedom in the liberal and Socialist traditions” (which sounds like an attempted synthesis), but “when I started writing, ideas turned into people–the people who made me who I am.” She adds: “They loved and fought each other; they had different conceptions of themselves, and of their obligations. They were, as Marx writes, the product of social relations for which they were not responsible, but they still tried to rise above them” (p. 263).

This passage is about as abstract as this book gets. Otherwise, it is about specific people, including the narrator. But the whole memoir conveys the idea that freedom is “trying to rise above” current injustices while treating other human beings as responsible individuals with perspectives of their own.

The epigraph is a quotation from Rosa Luxemburg: “Human beings do not make history of their own free will. But they make history nevertheless.” Ypi vividly and empathetically depicts people who are not free–and who cannot see the truth objectively or independently–but who still strive to make the world better. That is her definition of freedom.

See also: Arendt, freedom, Trump; Hannah Arendt and thinking from the perspective of an agent; don’t confuse bias and judgment; some notes on identity from a civic perspective academic freedom for individuals and for groups; and a case for liberalism.