Modern ideas about freedom emerged from an anti-democratic backlash, says historian

Today, the concept of freedom is often associated with limited government and freedom from state inference. But historian Annelien de Dijn argues it's a relatively new idea in the longer history of thinking about freedom — one that emerged from an anti-democratic backlash to the Age of Revolutions.

Annelien de Dijn says freedom as limited government emerged to 'defend the interests of privileged elites'

People wave flags and hold signs as part of a so-called freedom convoy, protesting COVID-19 mandates, makes its way through downtown Ottawa on Jan. 28, 2022. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

*Originally published on March 20, 2022.

The word "freedom" has been used for so many different political ends, it can be hard to tell what it means anymore. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly told world leaders Ukrainians are fighting for their freedom — while Russian President Vladimir Putin claims to be invading the country to "liberate" Ukrainians. 

Protesters occupied Ottawa for weeks as part of a "freedom convoy" — but many Ottawa residents said the protests deprived them of the ability to move freely around the city. 

Throughout history, people have associated multiple — often contradictory — ideas with the word freedom. But in the West, the concept is now most commonly associated with limited government, according to historian Annelien de Dijn.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivers a video address to senators and members of the U..S. House of Representatives in Washington, U.S., on March 16. (J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters)

She argues this is a relatively recent definition that emerged as part of an anti-democratic backlash to 18th-century revolutions. 

"Our way of thinking about freedom emerges, I would argue, in a very profound way to defend the interests of privileged elites," said De Dijn, a professor of political history at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and the author of Freedom: An Unruly History, told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed.

Annelien de Dijn is professor of modern political history at Utrecht University. (Harvard University Press/Submitted by Annelien de Dijn)

Democratic freedom vs. civil liberty 

In ancient Greece, people associated freedom with whether you lived in a democracy or not — rather than with the size of the government, said De Dijn.

That concept helped drive revolutionaries during the American and French revolutions, who fought to break free from monarchies and institute self-government.

"But that immediately creates a huge backlash, and a backlash that is usually described as the counter-revolution," said De Dijn. "And it's really those counter-revolutionaries … who invent this new way of thinking about freedom: freedom is not democracy, it's not self-government, but it is minimal government."

Thinkers like German philosopher Johann August Eberhard claimed that political liberty was less essential than "civil liberty."

An artist's rendition of an execution by guillotine in Paris during the French Revolution. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"Political liberty is having ordinary people participate in government. But civil liberty … means being able to do what you want as an individual without the government interfering with you," said De Dijn. 

"The claim is that by introducing democracy you're actually going to undermine civil liberty. Because a democratic government, in the worst-case scenario, leads to anarchy, chaos and bloody oppression." 

When the French Revolution turned into the Reign of Terror, it strengthened the argument that democacy would lead to anarchy. But even in cases where democracy didn't lead to violent anarchy, it was still seen as dangerous.

John Trumbull's 1775 painting of The Battle of Bunker Hill, a key battle in the American Revolutionary War. (Yale University Art Gallery)

"The fear of these counter-revolutionaries is that the majority — which they identify with the rule of the poor people in society — will use their power to redistribute wealth," De Dijn said. 

The backlash also came from the new political movement of liberalism, which tried to chart a third way between revolutionaries and monarchists.

A key figure in that movement was Swiss-French thinker Benjamin Constant, who defined freedom "as peacefully enjoying your life and your possessions," said De Dijn.

These new definitions of freedom were fiercely contested — both by suffragists, who fought for women to be able to participate in democracy, and by burgeoning socialist movements, which argued true freedom came from democratizing politics and the economy. 

But after the Second World War, many of those voices fell silent. During the Cold War, De Dijn said it became risky for western left-wing thinkers in the self-proclaimed "free world" to be associated with socialism. 

Behind the Iron Curtain

Lea Ypi grew up in Albania — the last Stalinist country in Europe — as a true believer in the system. But in 1990, she was walking home from school when she heard chants of "freedom and democracy" in the streets. 

"[I thought] we already had freedom and our problem was how to give it to the rest of the world," Ypi said. 

She had heard about protests in other countries in eastern Europe — but had been told the protestors were just "hooligans" from the West, trying to cause trouble.

She took shelter behind a statue of Joseph Stalin, and wrapped her arms around it. 

"My moral education teacher had told us that one of the things that made Stalin really special was that he smiled with his eyes.… As I looked up to see whether Stalin really smiled with his eyes, I realized that Stalin had been decapitated," said Ypi, who is now a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, and the author of Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History

Lea Ypi is the author of Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History. (Penguin Random House/Stuart Simpson)

As communism collapsed and Albania transitioned to a multi-party system, 11-year-old Ypi learned that her family had actually been profoundly unfree. "The family had been singled out as a family of dissidents," she said. 

She also discovered the horrible truth behind a series of cryptic conversations her parents had about what different relatives were studying in university.

"Every family member that was sent to study somewhere … that was code language for going to prison," said Ypi. "The different things they were convicted of were the names of the degrees." 

If someone was studying "international relations," it means they had been imprisoned for treason. Relatives who "dropped out" had killed themselves in prison. Those who were "expelled" had been executed.

After the system fell, Ypi lived through a radical redefinition of freedom. But this new kind of freedom also came with costs. 

"Unemployment [rose] very quickly as the state got involved in these waves of privatization and shutting down of state enterprises," said Ypi. People were encouraged to invest in the free market, and two-thirds of the population put their savings into pyramid schemes, which collapsed in 1997.

In a capitalist system, "the consequences of these decisions are naturalized," said Ypi. "Nobody intends to make anyone unfree. And yet hundreds of thousands of people don't have a job. And if they don't have a job, they can't make a living. And if they can't make a living, they can't eat, they can't survive," she said. 

"So … there's an inconsistency in how we understand freedom."

Rethinking freedom today

In Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History, Ypi writes that her world is "as far from freedom as the one my parents tried to escape. Both fall short of that ideal." 

She argued that in the wake of the Cold War, the limitations to the dominant Western conception of freedom have been harder to see.

"This idea that there was an eastern unfree world that lost and a western free world that won … obscures all the problems that these Western societies themselves have," said Ypi.

"Think about the treatment of minorities in all of our societies. There are a number of people who live their entire lives in these societies not feeling free."

As a child in Stalinist Albania, Lea Ypi grew up believing she lived in a free state. When the system collapsed in 1990, she lived through a radical redefinition of “freedom.” She speaks with Nahlah Ayed about the contested meaning of freedom today and her memoir Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History. *This episode originally aired on March 8, 2022.

De Dijn said she's noticed many people become "uneasy" with how the concept of freedom has been defined by protesters opposing lockdowns and other COVID-19 restrictions, and argues this could be a moment to re-open some of the debates about freedom that were shut down by the Cold War.

"We have started questioning, do we really want freedom just to mean being able to do whatever you as an individual want?" she said.

"[Freedom] is an emancipatory ideal if it is properly understood. That's why I think we need to resist this right-wing capture after the concept of freedom by returning to this older democratic concept of freedom."

Written and produced by Pauline Holdsworth.

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