This contribution is based on the closing remarks at the First RECET History and Social Science Festival “Transformations of Freedom,” 24 June 2022.
At our first RECET History and Social Science Festival, “Transformations of Freedom,” we discussed the different – and often contradictory – meanings of “freedom” in our times.
Over the last few decades, ‘freedom’ has been invoked at key historical junctures: the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 have been celebrated as a ‘breakthrough to freedom’. The fall of state socialism has gone hand in hand with the triumph of liberalism, a doctrine of freedom with many different facets: political liberalism and liberal democracy, but also economic liberalism, better known as ‘neoliberalism’ – a contentious term, which has been extensively analyzed and polemicized by its detractors.
There are thus many different dimensions of freedom which, ideally, would complement each other but, more often than not, complicate each other. Freedoms don’t necessarily lean on each other; they can be decoupled. Take the case of Hungary, which we discussed on the last day of the festival, where an open economy coexists with an increasingly closed society. There can be economic liberalization without democratization.
Over the past decades, we have also learnt that freedoms are reversible. The illiberal turns of governments in Central and Eastern Europe provide ample evidence in this regard. Hard-won freedoms are being contested and eroded from within: the freedom of sexual and other minorities, the freedom of women to have control over their own bodies, and also the freedom of movement. The latter is being denied to refugees at the external border, but is an increasingly damaging and divisive issue within the European Union as well. Brexit was, among other things, about the resistance against the free immigration of East European citizens.
But of course, the Russian war in Ukraine is the most dramatic assault on freedom, depriving an entire country and its people of every freedom imaginable. It has brought the struggle for freedom back on the agenda in a very emphatic way; as the physical struggle of a nation for its survival and freedom as a sovereign nation.
In an interesting twist, the Ukrainian struggle has also restored nationalism as an ideology of liberation after having been associated by liberals with the populist right-wing agendas of autocratic states. Once the Empire strikes back, nationalism returns to the agenda with a force, as a harbinger of progressive and liberating rather than backward and oppressive causes.
The other existential challenge of our time – the climate crisis – also complicates our understanding of freedom. To combat it, we must restrain our collective appetite for consumption, thus restricting one of the cornerstones of neoliberalism: consumer freedom. It challenges our freedom to drive or to fly anywhere, anytime. Some of us might ridicule the objections we hear to such controls, but for many, consumer freedom is the bedrock of a free society. Thus, the state may not limit this freedom, lest it gain too much power over us. The stiff resistance to a general speed limit on the German Autobahn is but one example.
What are the alternatives to such limitations, though? The destruction of our habitat would certainly curtail human wellbeing on a massive scale – as already made evident by the increasing severity of climate disasters across the world. By extension, the destitution and havoc brought on by the crises will curtail freedom, too. Resulting migration will certainly put additional pressure on the already precarious freedom of human movement, even within Europe: as major southern European cities threaten to become uninhabitable, climate refugees may soon not be limited to the ‘Global South’.
To be clear though: not every restrictive state measure, not every act of regulation is an attack on freedom or a step toward an ‘eco-dictatorship’. Take the fight against the Ozone hole, which was the major global ecological challenge of the 1980s. This fight was won by outlawing hydrochlorofluorocarbons on a global scale. Engineers found other solutions to cool our refrigerators, and the ozone hole is shrinking.
Against the long-predominant neoliberal mantra of deregulation, we may thus see the return of (state!) regulation as a guarantor of freedom, rather than its opposite. In that sense, a ‘transformation of freedom’ is indeed on the horizon, with the aim to secure the freedom and well-being of future generations.
Jannis Panagiotidis is a historian and scientific director of RECET at the University of Vienna. His research focuses on transnational migration history, with a special interest in post-Soviet migration.