As in love, so in politics: the first cut is the deepest. Lea Ypi was twelve years old on December 12, 1990, when socialism ended in Tirana. That day, everything changed and nothing changed. « The same human beings who had been marching to celebrate socialism and the advance towards communism took to the streets to demand its end », Ypi writes in her memoir, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History. « The representatives of the people declared that the only things they had ever known under socialism were not freedom and democracy but tyranny and coercion. » The party became a party, one of several options at the ballot box. « The Party had gone, but it was still there », Ypi writes. « The Party was above us, but it was also deep inside. »
What does freedom mean? « Can you think of a more depleted, imprecise, weaponized word? » the American critic Maggie Nelson wonders in the opening lines of her collection of essays, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint. The « word itself », she writes, is beguiling, its meaning « not at all self-evident or shared », such that it tends to operate « more like ‘God,’ in that, when we use it, we can never really be sure what, exactly, we’re talking about, or whether we’re talking about the same thing. » The etymology is clarifying: In his comprehensive history of debt, published in 2011, the late anthropologist David Graeber explains that the English word for « free » was inherited from the old Germanic root for « friend », « since to be free meant to be able to make friends, to keep promises, to live within a community of equals. » To be free meant to be in public, to be part of the political world. « This is why freed slaves in Rome became citizens: to be free, by definition, meant to be anchored in a civic community, with all the rights and responsibilities that this entailed. »
We’re a long way from Rome, and a long way from Tirana in 1990, though perhaps not so far as we may once have believed.