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The Freedom To Be Free

On Hannah Arendt and European ideals

Hannah Arendt. Source: here.

“My subject today, I’m afraid, is almost embarrassingly topical.”

“My subject today, I’m afraid, is almost embarrassingly topical.”, argues Hannah Arendt, one of the most influential political thinkers of the 20th century, as she opens her essay named “The freedom to be free”. In what contains more than just a catchy title, Hannah Arendt reveals here the sheer complexity of both historical and philosophical ideas of political freedom.

And, indeed, she was right: questions of individual freedom and democratic aspirations have resurfaced in public debate amid the pandemic, and now the war. Plunging myriads of European citizens into socio-economic uncertainty and precariousness, both have had severe implications for our understanding of democratic governance in times of upheaval: empirical evidence suggests that, in the face of crises, young Europeans’ opinions shift towards radical positions. 53% of young Europeans place more confidence in authoritarian states than democracies when it comes to addressing the climate crisis, for instance.

Enlightening the history of freedom

That socio-economic crises can sway public sentiment is surely not a novelty. In this vein, it is of utmost urgency not only to retrace the origins of this observation but to understand their entrenchment in our democratic understanding of freedom.

Hannah Arendt provides us here with a historic portrayal on the various definitions of political freedom and their implications for democratic societies. To do so, she begins with decisive events in an age in which freedom was claimed on the European continent – the age of Enlightenment.

Deciphering the dimensions of freedom

In her elaborations on the French Revolution, Arendt disentangles two dimensions of political freedom former dissidents fought for. First, the negative freedom from oppression – inalienable rights – which result from a process of political liberation, yet do not constitute the veritable content of freedom. Second, the positive freedom to participation in society, thus to political identity. While liberation remained a condition for freedom, “it is difficult to see where the desire for liberation, the freedom from oppression, ends, and the desire for freedom, to live a political life, begins”. The former also allows a non-democratic form of government – the latter merely exists in a democracy.

To free the people to be free

Yet, according to Arendt, what was even more pressing than the freedom from oppression under the Ancien Régime was a dimension much more tangible; a lucid observation of matters that were much closer to the individual’s reality of life than the novel ideals of democracy: people’s sheer misery, that is, absolute poverty and famine.

Arendt posits here that the failure of the French Revolution, compared to the American one, lies in this very difference: the late, and yet so fatal realisation that the freedom to be free preceded the freedom from oppression, and that – first of all – it consisted of the freedom from want. It was thus a matter of material misery, not primarily political disenfranchisement and democratic will, that nurtured the revolutionary spirit.

On the true taste of freedom

In this vein, the arrival of the peuple in Paris, brutally exposing the unbearable despair of the masses, led to an unprecedented effect: it “liberated the poor from obscurity, from nonvisibility.”

Henceforth, it had become evident that not only freedom itself, yet also the freedom to be free had hitherto been a privilege of a few. And merely those few who had witnessed the freedom from both want and fear were capable of conceiving “a passion for public freedom, to develop within themselves [this] goût pour la liberté”, thus the true taste of freedom.

The French Revolution’s failure

In this vein, it seems that the French Revolution was doomed to fail: suddenly, its leaders, from Robespierre to Mirabeau, were confronted with a novel duty of liberation, the duty “to free them to be free” – an entirely different vocation which they did not reckon with. Subsequent revolutions, for instance, Germany’s in 1848, had adopted this idea of surmounting class struggle, addressing the “social question”.

Inevitably, the notion of freedom to democratic participation regressed to the negative freedom from poverty. Hence, the sans-culottes, a movement that had emerged during the French Revolution which emphasised this fundamental difference, rejected the denounced “meaningless” pathos heralded by the Proclamation of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: “The Republic? The Monarchy? I only know the social question.” (La République? La Monarchie? Je ne connais que la question sociale.), as Robespierre declared. He henceforth defined the purpose of government to be the bonheur, the well-being of the people. – Shouldn’t this ideally apply to every government?

That, however, also constitutes a breeding ground for despotism, as Arendt analyses. The apparent indifference towards the form of government, whether democratic or not, entirely undermined the democratic vocation of the Revolution’s commencement, according to Arendt. Indeed, the legitimacy of power does not build on the ambition to emancipate the people from material constraints, that is, the freedom from need. Arendt seems to express that the freedom to be free is a necessary, yet not a sufficient condition for a truly free political life.

Welfare must not be the purpose, but the objective of government

In current times of economic precariousness and uncertainty, when the freedom to be free seems imperilled, democratic ideals can appear dangerously futile and meaningless as people demand practical policy that responds to their individual reality of life. These sentiments are not inherently antidemocratic but reflect the need for communication and proximity to citizens. And yet, they are the sentiments that can give rise to narratives with populist, and perhaps antidemocratic tendencies. With the rise of far-right Marine Le Pen in French election polls before the presidential elections amid the war, this observation has become manifest.

In this vein, promises to free the people to be free do not suffice to revive democratic aspirations, to uphold the veritable goût pour la liberté : welfare of the people must not be the purpose but the objective of the government. This nuance is an integral part of our democratic understanding of political freedom. Precisely, the latter does not stop, but only begins with the freedom to be free.

Placing Arendt’s spirit into a European context

In a European context, it is therefore a matter of great concern that 55% of young Europeans stated in a Eurobarometer survey that they do not understand much about the EU. This notion seems to be confirmed by yet another piece of data: merely 32% of young Europeans think that the respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law is the main asset of the EU.

Special Eurobarometer 500 - First Results, Future of Europe

Survey requested and co-ordinated by the European Commission’s and European Parliament’s Directorates-General for Communication

Fieldwork: October-November 2020

The sudden resurrection of European ideals

Yet, ever since war has befallen Europe, European ideals, located the heart of the EU’s raison d’être, have gained salience. That peacekeeping, the rule of law, and freedom constitute an inherent part of our democracies has been clearly reaffirmed.

What we need to derive from Arendt’s essay, however, is that considerable fluctuations of socio-economic living standards amid the crisis may endanger our current aspirations – that the European taste of freedom is not an unconditional one and that it can be severely impaired by what translates into economic data on inflation, economic stagnation, and redistributive effects of the latter. Many European leaders have therefore asserted that, in addressing the atrocities of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the variable of popular support cannot be taken out of the political equation.

Materialising ideals: Forging a more tangible Europe

So far, European efforts to uphold the necessary condition have been extraordinary – the mutualisation of debt to finance Europe’s recovery plan being one illustrative example. But Europe is likewise in desperate need of Hamiltonian moments from which the second, sufficient condition will be satisfied. It therefore does not come as a surprise that officials such as Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni put great faith in the Conference on the Future of Europe and the European Year of Youth 2022.

Efforts, here, are visible but have not been materialised yet. Whether these initiatives will bear fruit in the years to come or not, European ideals will need to remain tangible to pass the comprehensive stress-test they have been subjected in the past decade. Otherwise, the true taste of freedom might fade.


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