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The Despair of Freedom


While autocrats around the world seek to combat freedom, liberals consider the principle of freedom as a market economy with as few regulations as possible. It is time for the left to save liberalism from itself and demonstrate that freedom should be the central core value of any progressive policy.

In an interview about his book ‘ Liberalism and Its Discontents,’ Fukuyama recently admitted that Vladimir Putin is one of the greatest enemies of liberalism. With this observation, Fukuyama is indeed correct – this is made evident not least by the fact that the Russian president pointed out in 2019 that liberalism should be considered an unnecessary doctrine. However, it is not necessary to look to Moscow to realize that liberalism – and thus the value of human freedom – is under attack. The increasingly noticeable shift to the right in Europe underscores that the normative foundations of liberalism are at risk of erosion. That autocrats are not particularly inclined towards the value of freedom is a commonplace. However, what is interesting is how (perceived) liberals and libertarians are increasingly betraying liberalism itself. The victory of Javier Milei in Argentina clearly illustrates this fact. Milei, who sees himself as part of the tradition of anarcho-capitalism, plans with his party ‘La Libertad Avanza’ (Eng.: Freedom Advances) nothing less than complete destabilization – one might even say: destruction – of the Argentine welfare state. During his election campaign, Milei unabashedly announced his intention to reduce the number of Argentine ministries from 18 to 8. Particularly interesting are those contradictory elements that characterize Milei’s entire demeanor: With a particularly pronounced authoritarian gesture, Milei advocates for a concept of freedom that starts from the basic premise of an atomized individual devoid of any social structural contexts. To put it somewhat polemically: for Milei, freedom means the ability to choose under which bridge one wants to sleep. Milei’s entire public appearance seems to represent not only what Carolin Amlinger and Oliver Nachtwey recently aptly – based on the authoritarianism research of the Frankfurt School – termed as libertarian authoritarianism. According to Amlinger and Nachtwey, authoritarian libertarianism is characterized, in contrast to traditional authoritarianism, by a diffuse concept of human freedom, which elevates the ego to the dictate of its own actions – and defends this dictate in a particularly authoritarian manner against demands for social solidarity – be it the call for a just welfare state or, as during the pandemic, the demanded consideration for the well-being of other people. Against the background of these observations, the question arises – to refer to the name of Milei’s party – to what form of freedom (if one can sensibly use the term freedom in this context at all) Milei’s political actions intend to progress. Or, to put it more concretely – and detached from the Milei case – does the thesis advocated by ordoliberal thinkers like Friedrich August von Hayek, that the free market and individualism represent the best bulwark against tyranny, still hold today? In ‘The Road to Serfdom,‘ Hayek points out that it was precisely the promise of greater freedom proclaimed by socialism that ensured the flourishing of state authoritarianism:

‘There is no doubt that the promise of greater freedom has become one of the most effective weapons of socialist propaganda and that the belief that socialism would bring freedom is genuine and sincere. But this would only increase the tragedy if it turned out that what was promised us as the road to freedom was in fact the highway to slavery. Undoubtedly, the promise of more freedom was responsible for the fact that more and more liberals were attracted to the socialist path, that they did not recognize the conflict between the basic principles of socialism and liberalism, and that the socialists often succeeded in appropriating the name of the old party of freedom for themselves. Socialism was accepted by most of the intelligentsia as the apparent heir to the liberal tradition: It is therefore not surprising that the idea that socialism could lead to the opposite of freedom seems inconceivable to them.’

The question that one is inclined to ask in light of Hayek’s analysis, regardless of the fact that state socialism indeed represented a form of authoritarianism, is rather: Is it not the liberals themselves whose misconceptions of human freedom liberalism needs to be saved from? And should it not subsequently be the task of the political left to revive the enlightening potential of liberalism?

At this point, we come to the core problem. In the year of Kant, it seems more than reasonable to ask whether the autonomous subject imagined by Kant, which is capable of using its own reason and subsequently basing its actions on laws which it was able to give itself through its own understanding, does not already contain the regression typical of neoliberal discourses of responsibility within itself. This assumption must be clearly contradicted: Erich Fromm, in his groundbreaking work ‘Escape from Freedom,’ astutely pointed out that freedom is automatically associated with guilt – exemplified by the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise after they tasted from the Tree of Knowledge. Indeed – a fact that even progressive forces cannot ignore – the value of freedom, and thus the promise of liberalism, lies precisely in the responsibility imposed on all individuals by virtue of their dignity in their own actions. It is particularly worth recalling that, according to Kant, human beings are made of crooked timber – meaning freedom and thus the capacity for morally correct action cannot exist without the inclination towards evil. Erich Fromm aptly expresses in this context that it is precisely original sin and the accompanying expulsion from paradise that made human beings free. In this regard, Fromm writes that the history of humanity begins with an act of disobedience: 

‘When Adam and Eve still lived in the Garden of Eden, they were a part of nature; they were in full harmony with it and had not yet transcended it. They were in nature like the embryo in the womb. They were humans and at the same time not yet. All of this changed when they disobeyed a commandment. By breaking their bond with the earth and mother, by cutting the umbilical cord, they emerged from pre-human harmony and were able to take the first step towards independence and freedom. The act of disobedience set Adam and Eve free and opened their eyes. They realized that they were strangers to each other and that the outside world was alien to them, even hostile. Their act of disobedience destroyed the primary bond with nature and made them individuals.’

In short, humans are living beings capable of transcending the natural conditions of their own existence and thus possess an awareness of their own actions and self. This consciousness – as Fromm’s insightful analysis suggests – could only be gained through an act of disobedience and a consequent form of guilt. Or, to express it with Hannah Arendt: The principle of natality (birth) not only represents a central element of human existence but a fundamental condition of human freedom itself. According to Arendt’s interpretation, the natality of human beings is paradigmatic of the fact that they – in the light of their own freedom – can begin something new; and for this new thing (be it a political revolution or, more everyday, the decision for a new stage of life), they bear responsibility. Thus, both the potential and the impotence of human freedom become apparent: freedom enables humans as subjects (and entire societies) to create something new. However, for this new thing, which can also fail at any time, humans bear sole moral responsibility. From a progressive perspective, it is worth returning to what Fromm already recognized – the social conditions must be arranged in such a way that people can make meaningful use of their freedom. At this point, it seems appropriate to conclude by stating that human freedom can only be saved if both the blind spots of liberalism and those of socialism are subjected to ruthless analysis: While liberalism constantly upholds the principle of individual responsibility but forgets that specific social conditions are necessary for people to truly make use of their freedom, authoritarian state socialism fails to recognize that the value of freedom should not be seen as contradictory to that of communalism. On the contrary, freedom is the ultimate value of all human action. Undoubtedly a curse, but nonetheless a blessing at the same time.