In her recent book Free, Coming of Age at the End of History, Albanian political scientist Lea Ypi describes how she grew up in communist Albania, physically and mentally cut off from the outside world.
His parents’ families were wealthy and cosmopolitan before the revolution and lost everything. Under the Communists, they never got rid of their upper class stigma – they called it “the biography”.
Because they didn’t want to burden their daughter with these problems, she didn’t find out until later, although she sometimes wondered why her grandmother insisted on speaking French with her.
When the communist regime collapsed in 1991, Albanians suddenly embraced the West. Ypi, still a teenager, was completely confused. Wasn’t the West supposed to be depraved and evil? But like many others, she quickly got used to the mantras of the new era. “There was no more politics, only politics,” she writes. “The aim of these policies was to prepare the state for a new era of freedom and to make people feel like they belonged ‘to the rest of Europe’.”
Books on communist delusions can be interesting reading.
But the real standout episodes of Free concern the short transition period from communism in the 1990s, when Albania swung abruptly from one system to another: from a collectivist welfare state to a European parliamentary democracy, based on pluralism and individual freedoms, and a social market economy.
Now, with the war in Ukraine raging, it’s fascinating material.
On the one hand, the Ukrainians have the same desire to belong to the “rest of Europe” as the Albanians. On the other hand, this war shocks many Europeans because it weakens the belief in progress in which they were brought up. Interestingly, it is precisely this feeling of insecurity and vulnerability that gives them a new sense of direction.
For years, Europeans thought there would never be another war on the continent, or even that they were “above” war. Many were convinced – especially after the fall of the Wall in 1989, when the West “won” and the Communists “lost” – that civilization was a linear process.
Over time, things would only get better. Other nations, including Russia, would follow Europe on this path.
Russia’s war in Ukraine partly shattered this belief. Many no longer see Western civilization as a linear process with only one direction – upwards – but as a process strewn with obstacles and setbacks. Because of this war, it becomes clear to many that the ruling elite in Russia, but also in China and elsewhere, rejects our political model and tries to undermine and destroy it.
In 1990s Albania, writes Ypi, Europe represented a certain way of life that was more imitated than understood.
“‘Europe’ was like a long tunnel with an entrance lit by bright lights and flashing signs, and with a dark interior, invisible at first. When the journey began, no one thought to ask where it ended the tunnel, if the light would go out, and what was on the other side… It never occurred to anyone to bring torches, or draw maps, or ask if someone was ever able to get out of the tunnel, or if there was only one exit, or several, and if everyone exited the same way, instead we just walked.
Is the West doomed?
In fact, it was much the same for many Europeans, although they themselves had long been immersed in this “post-historical” tunnel (as the French philosopher Alexandre Kojève once characterized the highly developed industrial countries ): we too, in our own way, market.
But today, the confidence that many Europeans had in the future and the belief that humanity and the world would improve against all odds has taken a hit.
German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz recently wrote in Die Zeit that “the West and liberal thought are no longer the only game in town, but one of many conflicting parties”.
Reckwitz sees three major trends: gradual de-globalization, an ever-stronger focus on security, and the emergence of new ideological divisions.
In the West, we increasingly talk about “democracies versus autocracies” – or, in the case of Russia, totalitarianism. They speak of national roots against a Western decadence that has lost its moral compass and is detached from traditional values.
All this woke up the Europeans. Slowly, the tunnel sensation disappears. Again there is some sense of direction. Europeans are starting to invest in their own security, in order to protect their way of life (remember the laughs when an EU commissioner received that portfolio just a few years ago?).
The enlargement process has been unblocked for the simple reason that it is becoming clearer who is European and who is not.
Yes, there are still many bitter political fights in Europe, over energy and budget deficits and ballooning debts. But this is always what European countries do when the need arises to cooperate or integrate further: it starts with a crisis, is followed by tense negotiations by member states who all have different wishes and demands. , and ends in a kind of imperfect compromise.
The latest example is Tuesday’s (26 July) agreement on a 15% gas cut across all member states
Polls show that Europeans are still not very happy with the European Union — that is, the way it works — but in the face of Putin’s brutality, they certainly feel happier in the EU . It is telling that even Eurosceptic politicians have stopped talking about exits. Instead, they want to change Europe from within.
Lea Ypi is now professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, where she teaches and studies Marxism. She is disillusioned with the broken promises of liberalism and believes her world is as far from freedom as the one her parents tried to escape from.
Many Europeans will disagree with this assessment. But they seem to agree with her, more than before, that “fighting against cynicism and political apathy is turning into what some might call a moral duty”. And this is a good thing.