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What We Call Freedom Has Never Been About Being Free

Annelien de Dijn’s new book looks at how the modern conception of freedom emerged as an antidemocratic reaction by elites who wanted to curtail state power.

By Daniel Steinmetz-JenkinsTwitter

October 29, 2020

Annelien de Dijn.(Courtesy of Harvard University Press)

The political right today is marked by a deep conviction that its freedom stands imperiled everywhere. Social distancing measures and face mask requirements, conservatives argue, impinge upon their personal freedom; baking cakes for gay marriages or providing contraception insurance for employees violates their religious freedom; university safe spaces and political correctness censor their freedom of speech in the classroom; expanding health care undermines their liberty. Each of these ways of thinking about freedom is connected to the idea that the state must be curtailed in order to safeguard individual rights.

However, this idea of freedom, argues the political historian Annelien de Dijn in her new book Freedom: An Unruly History, is not only a relatively recent invention but must be seen as an antidemocratic reaction to the American and French revolutions, which replaced rule by traditional elites with broadly popular governments. Seeing in popular control a threat to their class interests and property rights, conservative critics launched an ideological campaign against this democratic conception of freedom. As an alternative, they invented the idea that political freedom was to be found in protecting individuals by limiting the sphere of government. Hence the origins, de Dijn concludes, of how we conceive of freedom today and why it means something different for conservatives and liberals.

I recently spoke with de Dijn about her new book. Along the way, we discussed the relationship between democratic socialism and political freedom, the relationship between freedom and today’s populist movements, and how to make sense of the right’s appeal to political freedom. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: Freedom: An Unruly History is a very ambitious book. In roughly 400 pages, you set out to provide a history of political freedom in the West that covers well over 2,000 years, from the ancient Greeks until the present. I am intrigued by what motivated you to write this book. You said the idea came to you because of Barack Obama’s presidency and not Donald Trump’s. That’s interesting, since there is a cottage industry devoted to the crisis of liberalism and democracy on account of the Trump presidency. Why then the Obama administration?

Annelien de Dijn: My interest in the history of freedom was sparked about a decade ago, when the Obama administration attempted to reform the health care system, which sparked a fierce backlash. Thousands of Americans took to the streets to march against Obamacare, claiming that it posed a mortal danger to freedom. I found that very puzzling. How can you say that expanding health care—a measure supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans—is something that undermines your liberty? More generally, why insist that every attempt by the government to improve the lives of its citizens diminishes their freedom? Where did this individualistic or even nihilistic conception of freedom come from? When looking for answers to these questions, I discovered that there was no good recent overview of the history of freedom in Western political thought, so I decided to write one myself.

That said, I think that the questions that originally spurred my research remain just as relevant today as they were a decade ago, when I started writing the book. If the US response to Covid-19 has made anything clear, it’s that this anti-government way of thinking about freedom is still quite prevalent—which makes it very difficult to implement any meaningful progressive change. In that sense, there’s much more continuity between the Obama and Trump eras than it might seem at first sight.

DSJ: The bulk of your book is devoted to showing that, until the early 19th century, men and women—including ancient Athenian democrats and Roman plebeians, early modern Florentine humanists, and American and French revolutionaries—associated political freedom with popular self-government. What you mean by this is that until relatively recently, political thinkers in the West identified freedom with a people’s ability to exercise control over the way they are ruled. What can contemporary readers glean from “the liberty of the ancients,” specifically regarding what plebeians saw as the political danger posed by patricians?

AD: If you take the long view, it becomes clear that our current way of thinking about freedom—being able to do what you want without state interference—is actually a fairly recent invention. For centuries, people in what we now think of as “the West” identified being free with exercising collective control over government. They had what I call a democratic conception of freedom: A free state was one in which the people ruled itself. To them, the key to preserving political freedom was staving off elite domination, not establishing mechanisms to patrol the boundaries of state power.

In ancient Athens, most public officials were chosen by lot, and they were in office for only short periods of time. This meant that any male citizen, no matter how obscure their birth or how lowly their station in life, had an equal chance of attaining high office. In addition, Athenians received a stipend to attend the popular assembly, where all important political decisions were made. This way, even poor citizens were able to participate in the often day-long meetings, as they were compensated for their loss of income. These and similar measures ensured that political power remained in the hands of ordinary citizens, as is illustrated by the fact that rich Athenians often grumbled that their city was ruled by the poor and for the poor. Indeed, Athenian elites were so hostile to the political regime under which they lived that twice they tried to overthrow their own democracy, although both times they were beaten back.

By contrast, today we tend to put more faith in countermajoritarian institutions as a way to preserve liberty. We tend to think that our freedoms are best protected by institutions such as the Supreme Court—a council of elders supposedly above politics. That’s because we have come to think that democratic majorities, not elite rule, are the real threat to liberty. This would have been very strange to the ancient Greeks and Romans. They believed that individual rights and liberties were mainly threatened by autocratic kings or arrogant elites.

DSJ: The major argument of your book is that the liberty of the ancients was eclipsed in the early 19th century by a new modern conception of freedom. What is this new understanding of freedom, and how did it come to pass?

AD: In the 19th century, political thinkers in Europe and the United States began to reject this ancient democratic conception of freedom in favor of a different way of thinking. Freedom, many came to argue, was not a matter of who governed. Instead, what determined whether you were free or not was the extent to which you were governed. The smaller the government, the freer you were—regardless of who was in control.

This new way of thinking was triggered by a conservative backlash. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, the democratizing movement booked increasing successes, as rule by traditional elites was replaced with more broadly popular governments in both Europe and North America. In the longer run, the promise of democracy also came to be extended to hitherto marginalized groups, such as women and Black men.

But the victories of these democratizing movements also created a powerful counterreaction that would lead to a major shift in thinking about freedom. Democracy, conservatives argued again and again, would not bring freedom for all. After all, even in the most democratic states, power was never exercised by common consent. Rather, in a democracy, the majority of the community ruled over everyone else. If you really cared about freedom, conservatives continued to argue, extending popular control over government was therefore superfluous and even counterproductive—it would lead to majority tyranny. Hence, the only way to preserve freedom was by limiting the sphere of government as much as possible and by empowering countermajoritarian institutions, such as an independent judiciary, to protect individuals against majoritarian overreach.

When they talked about the tyranny of the majority, it is important to note, conservatives were not primarily thinking about the oppression of vulnerable minorities, such as religious or ethnic minorities. Rather, the majoritarian tyranny they feared above all was that of the poor over the rich; they dreaded democracy’s redistributive potential. Writing in the wake of 1848—when revolutionaries attempted to introduce manhood suffrage in continental Europe—the British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay spoke for many conservatives when he warned that democracy was incompatible with liberty, as “the poor would plunder the rich.” Democracy, he thought, would “destroy liberty, or civilization, or both.”

Similarly, the countermajoritarian institutions that conservatives put so much stock in were primarily meant to protect property rights against popular politics. William Howard Taft, for instance, the Supreme Court’s chief justice from 1921 to 1930, spoke for many of his colleagues when he explained that it was up to the federal judiciary, the “bulwark of the liberty of the individual,” to protect individuals against “the aggression of a majority of the electorate”—notably by zealously defending their property rights.

In short, the idea that freedom depends on the limitation of state power was invented by conservatives to defend elite interests against the rise of democracy. And liberals in the US today tend to be in favor of measures that would enhance ordinary people’s control over their political and economic lives—but they rarely talk about that in terms of freedom. That’s because they have bought into the conservative definition of freedom as an absence of state intervention.

Yet this has been obscured in textbook histories, where this shift in thinking is often attributed to long-standing trends in European history. Thus, it is often claimed that the growth of religious tolerance in the West—itself an unintended consequence of the Reformation—sparked the emergence of a new way of thinking about liberty as identical with private independence. Another popular narrative attributes the shift in thinking to the emergence of a market economy in the 17th and 18th centuries. This supposedly led to a more enlightened conception of liberty centered on the notion of individual rights that needed protection against state interference. But in fact, neither the Reformation nor the transition to a market economy had much impact on the debate about freedom.

DSJ: How would you respond to the concern that writing a history of political freedom solely from the perspective of the West is to partake in a long scholarly tradition in Europe and the United States that ignores or trivializes conceptions of freedom outside of that sphere?

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AD: There’s a growing body of scholarship on non-Western political traditions, which clearly shows that freedom was not just a Western concept. To give but one example: The Wajo’, an Indonesian seafaring people, attached a lot of importance to political freedom, as Anthony Reid has shown. According to their 18th century chronicles, the Wajo’ thought of themselves as free by birth. They were also quite clear about what that meant: In the Wajo’ community, no one should interfere with people’s wishes, there should be freedom of opinion, and people should be able to go hither and thither as they wanted.

So by focusing on Western political thought, I by no means want to suggest that European and American thinkers were the only ones to talk about freedom. But at the same time, I think it’s also really important to critically investigate our own tradition. Freedom is not just a lofty ideal; it’s also a powerful political weapon, a weapon that can be wielded to destroy political opponents and block legislative change.

One of the reasons why freedom is such a powerful political weapon is because of widespread assumptions about who we are and where we come from. In the United States, and to a lesser extent in Europe as well, people still tend to be raised on triumphalist narratives about the age-old Western tradition of freedom. One of the major goals of my book is to challenge such narratives by showing that there is far less continuity in our way of thinking about freedom than it might seem at first sight.

DSJ: Let’s turn to contemporary politics. There is a growing democratic socialist movement in this country. What lessons can be drawn from your book on the historical relationship between democratic socialism and the modern conception of freedom, especially since they emerged around the same time in the early 19th century?

AD: Socialist parties emerged in Europe at the end of the 19th century in response to growing economic inequality, while new political movements with similar goals, notably populism and progressivism, came into being in the United States. These movements were very critical of conservatives’ claims that freedom can only be achieved by minimal government. They dismissed this as a false freedom; it was the freedom of the rich to suppress the poor. As Marx and Engels put it, laissez faire thinking allowed only “the exploitation of the many by the few.” This was not freedom but “bourgeois freedom”—the freedom of a single class.

But that doesn’t mean that socialists or populists were anti-freedom. Quite the contrary—they aimed to revive and radicalize the older democratic conception of freedom. They argued that freedom required collective control over government, and hence they consistently pushed for measures that would democratize the political systems under which they lived. The German Socialist Party, for instance, was the first major political party in Europe to call for universal suffrage, including women’s right to vote. But socialists, populists, and progressives also agreed that popular control over government wasn’t enough. In order to preserve freedom for all, democracy should be extended from the political to the economic sphere; otherwise people would remain dependent on the goodwill of the rich.

That brings me to a more general point. There’s a widespread idea in the United States that socialism leads to unfreedom, that it is a totalitarian ideology, “alien to our culture and values,” as Donald Trump expressed it. But in fact, socialists, populists, and progressives saw themselves as the heirs of the American and French revolutionaries, who in turn had echoed the ancients. To them, freedom was about collective control over government, and the danger was minority tyranny. The socialist politician Jean Jaurès, who was also a respected historian, proudly declared, “We are the party of democracy and the Revolution.” Similarly, across the pond, Franklin Delano Roosevelt argued that the goal of the New Deal was to “restore to the people a wider freedom” by destroying economic tyranny and “to give to 1936 as the founders gave to 1776.” Bernie Sanders, in other words, is 100 percent correct when he reminds us that freedom is a socialist value, as long as we keep in mind that he’s referring to the older democratic conception of freedom.

DSJ: You take aim at the political scientist Yascha Mounk’s book, The People vs. Democracy, which you argue claims that freedom today is being threatened by the illiberal views of “the people.” Mounk’s book, along with dozens of others, make up what the scholar Jan-Werner Muller describes as the “democracy defense industry.” What do you make of this literature, specifically given the long-standing anti-populist tendencies that reduce freedom to the concerns that elites have about security?

AD: Ever since Trump’s election, political commentators like Mounk have been trying to convince us that our democracies are in trouble because of the rise of something they call “populism.” According to Mounk, 2016 shows that our freedom is threatened by the illiberal views of “the people,” but that analysis seems profoundly mistaken to me. Trump lost the popular vote, by a lot, and he is one of the most unpopular presidents ever. To characterize him as a populist just seems bizarre. Also, US democracy was arguably in crisis long before 2016. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson warned us as early as 2005 that wealthy elites, through their capture of the Republican Party, had managed to rig the political system. This has enabled them to push through policies that benefit the ultra-wealthy, despite being widely unpopular among the public at large. In other words, it seems pretty clear that the main problem of US democracy is minority rule, not anything like populism.

So the interesting question here is: Why do so many centrists deny that reality? Why do they feel the need to attribute democracy’s crisis to “the people” and its supposedly illiberal tendencies? I think the answer to that question must be sought in long-standing trends in Western political thought, notably in a deep-rooted tendency to depict majoritarian tyranny as the primary threat to freedom. It’s time we start seeing that for what it is: a specter raised by privileged elites afraid to lose their position. If history teaches anything at all, it’s that individual rights and liberties are far more likely to be threatened by elite rule than by popular government.

DSJ: The book gives the impression that you side with the premodern conception of freedom, given its anti-elitist, democratic tenets. And yet the book repeatedly shows that women, slaves, and others were excluded from those plebiscite movements attempting to check the power of the hereditary elite. There is an analogue with today’s right-wing populist movements, which are pursuing a political program that appeals to the discourse of democracy against D.C. politicians, Wall Street interests, and Davos elites, while promoting nativism, xenophobia, and racism. Might freedom’s unruly history shed light on this?

AD: It is indeed true that throughout the centuries, self-proclaimed freedom fighters often ended up replacing old power structures with new hierarchies, notably of race and gender. Today, we remember the Atlantic Revolutions of the late 18th century because they introduced new and more broadly popular governments, thus heralding the age of democracy. Yet many of the revolutionaries who protested most loudly against the metaphorical slavery to which they were subjected by haughty kings and arrogant elites either owned slaves or were involved in the slave trade.

At the same time, it’s important to note that such hypocrisies were consistently challenged by marginalized groups, who were able to turn the revolutionaries’ own words against them. As the abolitionist and civil rights activist Frederick Douglass put it, “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it.”

What I think this shows is that words and ideas matter, even though they are by no means all that matters. If you can turn your opponents’ words against them, that helps to bolster your case. Of course, it would be naive to think that pointing out moral hypocrisy suffices. A war was required to put an end to chattel slavery in the US, not simply Douglass’s moral appeal. At the same time, wars aren’t just fought with weapons but also with words.

Yet what we’re witnessing nowadays is something different altogether. Today, those complaining most loudly about oppression tend to be the relatively privileged. White people complain that they are being disadvantaged vis-à-vis Blacks and immigrants, straight men believe they are being discriminated against in the workplace because of their gender, and religious groups grumble that they are victimized by secular culture. These privileged groups mimic the discourse of the marginalized, but the grievances they complain about aren’t real. It’s ludicrous, for instance, to carp about affirmative action in higher education when legacy admissions continue to mostly benefit white students.

DSJ: Your book spends a good bit of time talking about the relationship between the history of Christianity and political freedom. Today, conservative evangelical and Catholic-owned businesses regularly appeal to freedom of religion in the attempt to refuse their employees insurance coverage for contraception, such as with the Hobby Lobby case, or to refuse creative services for gay marriage ceremonies, such as with the Masterpiece Bakeshop case. Historically speaking, how do you understand this paradoxical appeal to freedom for the purpose of exclusion?

AD: Throughout the ages, Christian thinkers spent quite a lot of time reflecting on what it meant to be free. To many of them, freedom was primarily an inner condition; it was the freedom to subject oneself to God’s will instead of to sin. But I think that appeals to religious freedom today, as in the Hobby Lobby case, are primarily inspired by another and more modern tradition: the conservative tradition identifying freedom not with an inner condition of spiritual freedom from sin but with an absence of state intervention.

As such, the Hobby Lobby case provides yet another example of how notions of liberty and rights are used today to thwart any progressive change. The Affordable Care Act is a law with broad democratic support that makes coverage of contraceptives mandatory. When the Supreme Court decided to give corporations an exemption to this mandatory provision of contraceptives on religious grounds, it basically said that corporations can ignore democratic majorities and do whatever they deem fit. In other words, notions such as religious freedom today are invoked not to protect vulnerable minorities but to allow powerful private actors to ignore democratic rules.

Daniel Steinmetz-JenkinsTwitterruns a regular interview series with The Nation.  He is an Associate Professor in the College of Social Studies at Wesleyan University. He is writing a book for Columbia University Press titled Impossible Peace, Improbable War: Raymond Aron and World Order.


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