Illustration by Maria-Ines Gul

Lea Ypi: ‘I have never been a standard liberal’

The political theorist on how to carve out freedom wherever one can
April 7, 2022

When Lea Ypi—a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics—set out to write a book on freedom for a general audience, she never intended for it to be a memoir. But the topic presented some tricky questions: what does it mean to possess or lack freedom? What economic system confers the most freedom on its citizens? How have the answers to these questions changed over time?

Ypi didn’t want to produce a book full of abstract ideas. And as she searched for examples to ground her arguments, she noticed how often she returned to her own life growing up as a child in communist Albania—and later as a teenager who witnessed the country’s conversion into a market economy in real time. As she interrogated these opposing systems and their respective promises, Ypi became obsessed with discovering the true nature of freedom. Her adolescence became a perfect framework in which to present her thesis. 

Ypi views the status quo in modern Britain with scepticism

“I felt this tension between these different ideas,” she tells me. Her mother—someone of libertarian sensibilities—saw the system in communist Albania as an obvious impediment to her liberty. But when Ypi considered the capitalism that replaced it, she became suspicious of a system that engendered drastic inequality. Ypi decided that the liberalism of the west was not necessarily a silver bullet. Entrenched inequality could be as much an obstacle to freedom—societal or personal—as anything else. 

“Writing this book became a project of archaeological recovery,” she says. Throughout the memoir, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, Ypi discusses western artefacts that penetrated a hyper-isolated eighties Albania. There is a memorable argument between neighbours about the ownership of an empty Coke can—an episode that throws into sharp relief exactly how cut off from the world Albania was at that moment in time. 

It is an incident that feels particularly poignant in the light of Ypi’s recent writing about the Russia-Ukraine conflict. “Isolating Russia,” Ypi wrote in the Guardian, “won’t bring Europe peace.” As Albania retreated from the rest of the world throughout the 20th century, the isolation allowed for political elites to tighten their grip on dissenters and grow more paranoid. “This experience has been on my mind as I followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Ypi says.

She has often felt at odds with her peers. “I have never been a standard liberal,” she tells me. In that respect she differs from many of her academic colleagues, whose outlooks are often defined by a shared faith in liberal institutions. But Ypi views the status quo in modern Britain with scepticism. She describes the patent inequality she sees on a bus journey from luxurious Knightsbridge to run-down Harlesden. “It is not clear to me why this is the image of a free society.” 

Towards the end of our discussion, Ypi tells me about how Metallica, the heavy metal band, took off in early nineties Albania. “Something about them really resonated,” she explained, “something about the rejection, about the screaming of liberation.” As a teenager, when it was too dangerous to venture out at night, Ypi and her friends would hold parties in the daytime, smuggling in cognac and cigarettes, listening to Metallica. “That was our way of feeling free.”

Even in spite of the vertiginous changes Albania underwent in the nineties, and even in spite of the competing mores that took hold of the country, one thing seems hopeful in Ypi’s writing. The instinct to discover and carve out freedom wherever one can—and in whatever form possible—is an indefatigable one.