Since Ancient Greece, People Have Fought for Genuine Freedom Against the Wealthy

Today, it is common for the libertarian and Christian right to claim they are fighting for freedom. But their notion of freedom has always stood at odds with the democratic cause of freedom to redistribute political power and wealth.

Liberty Leading the People (July 28, 1830), 1830, by Eugene Delacroix. (DeAgostini / Getty Images)

“Freedom is life,” declared a banner at a recent rally against public health measures taken to reduce the effect of the pandemic. Indeed, this has become a consistent theme during the pandemic, as the movement against vaccines and public health measures has claimed the mantle of “freedom.” In response, the Left has pointed out that our individual freedom relies on social solidarity, arguing that the public measures are needed to preserve our right to health.

At stake are two opposed definitions of freedom — and this conflict is not new. In her recent book, Freedom: An Unruly History, Annelien de Dijn helps to shed light on these often contradictory meanings of the term. It is a sweeping history of the idea of freedom in the West, from Ancient Greece, to our time.

Democratic Freedom

“For centuries,” writes de Dijn, “western thinkers and political actors identified freedom not with being left alone by the state, but with exercising control over the way one is governed.” As this suggests, de Dijn distinguishes between two types of freedom: “freedom from” versus “freedom to,” or, as they are sometimes styled, negative freedom versus positive freedom.

“Freedom from” is the kind of freedom most often deployed by the small-government, reactionary right. Supporters of capitalism regularly invoke this kind of negative freedom when justifying the deregulation of employment, rolling back health and safety laws or lowering minimum wages. Free market fundamentalists cite it to justify deregulating financial markets. And Christian conservatives claim negative freedom when arguing that religiously inspired bigotry should be exempt from antidiscrimination laws.

De Dijn’s thought-provoking book cuts through this rhetoric by explaining how this negative conception of freedom arose relatively recently, as a way to fight back against popular struggles for the freedom to participate democratically and actively in politics.

In Ancient Greece, and later, in Rome, freedom was defined in opposition to slavery. To be a slave was to be unfree; it meant having no say and no power over your future. When Ancient Greeks “talked about themselves as free,” de Dijn writes, “they meant that, unlike the subjects of the Persian Great King, they were not ruled by another but governed themselves.” This is what she describes as a “democratic conception of freedom.”

This is the basis of “freedom to,” or positive freedom, a conception of freedom that de Dijn traces like a golden thread through all subsequent debates over the term. After beginning in Ancient Greece, and continuing into the Roman Republic, this notion of democratic freedom begun to decline as Caesarism transformed Rome into an empire.

Much later, Renaissance thinkers like Niccolò Machiavelli revived the democratic, positive meaning of freedom. As the great eighteenth-century revolutions in America and France established new, republican governments, masses fought for “freedom to” direct their governments once more. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the movements to win universal suffrage kept the idea of democratic freedom alive. De Dijn’s narrative ends with the post–World War II period, and the transition into the twenty-first century, during which the concept of positive freedom declined slowly as neoliberalism became hegemonic.

This sweeping historical narrative is one of the strengths of de Dijn’s book. It allows her to show how an individual thinker — like Machiavelli — can be both situated in their time and also placed within a much broader historical context.

It also shows how the notion of democratic freedom has developed and deepened over time. For example, Machiavelli, took a more analytical approach to freedom in Discourse on the First Ten Books on Livy than the historians of Ancient Greece and Rome, such as Herodotus. As de Dijn demonstrates, this matters — Machiavelli’s precepts had a “considerable impact” on subsequent treatments of freedom and political institutions.

The Rise of “Freedom From”

According to de Dijn, the great seventeenth- and eighteeth-century revolutions also gave rise to a form of freedom staunchly opposed to the democratic conception favored by democratic and republican thinkers. “Freedom from,” or negative freedom, arose in opposition to the democratic, representative forms of government that were established in the United States, England, and France.

According to de Dijn, the period of Terror under Maximilien Robespierre, during the great French Revolution spurred the development of negative freedom, and was in large part motivated by fears among the elite of a democratic redistribution of wealth.

After this, the negative conception of freedom grew and developed during the 1800s, into the twentieth century, in which it was upheld by thinkers like Isaiah Berlin, who, according to de Dijn, “introduced a new idea: that negative liberty was the very essence of Western civilization.”

This development of “freedom from,” was not entirely valueless, however. It points toward a paradox at the heart of democratic freedom — namely, that the majority can oppress the minority. De Dijn points out an example of this problem early in her book, by recounting how the ancient Athenian democracy decided democratically to execute the philosopher Socrates.

In the name of protecting minorities against the majority, however, “freedom from” has allowed minoritarian tyrannies to grow and prosper. This helps explain why negative freedom is particularly useful to property owners with access to extraordinary economic power that most people lack.

To illustrate the point, de Dijn cites an early antidemocratic tract from Athens, the Constitution of the Athenians. Although the author remained anonymous, historians refer to them as “the Old Oligarch.”

In this text, the author claims that Athens’s poor majority ruled in their own interest and used the state to redistribute wealth, so that the poor “become wealthy and the wealthy poor.” Indeed, in Democracy: A Life, Professor Paul Cartledge argued that Athenian democracy is best understood as an example of Lenin’s idea of the “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” and represented a more democratic conception of freedom.

The comparison is apt. At the height of Athenian democracy, the state redistributed wealth to further democratic participation. The Athenian republic ensured that the working poor were able to participate in democratic decision by paying them to attend citizens’ assemblies. The Athenians also experimented with other forms of democracy, including election by sortition (that is, by lottery). Citizens elected to government roles received recompense, allowing them to leave their everyday jobs for the duration of office.

Importantly, de Dijn traces how the Old Oligarchy — which was overthrown by Athenian democracy — feared the redistributive power of political democracy. From the time of Ancient Athens until today, this fear has been a constant in reactionary thought.

Human Rights

There’s one obvious lacuna in de Djin’s book, linked to both types of freedom she traces: namely, the role played by human rights, since the end of World War II.

The Declaration of Human Rights includes both positive, democratic freedom and negative “freedom from.” For example, Article 21 states that everyone has “the right to take part in the government of his country” which, as we have seen, entails a democratic conception of freedom. By contrast, Article 17(2) states that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property,” which imposes restraints on popular government in line with “freedom from.”

On a broader level, the idea of human rights deeply informs contemporary discussions of freedom. Typically, those fighting undemocratic, repressive governments have drawn on the rhetoric of human rights — for example, in Putin’s Russia. Increasingly, however, the reactionary right and Christian conservatives claim to defend freedom against democratic, representative governments. For example, they claim that taxes or laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people are a violation of their freedom to property and conscience, respectively. These developments have further influenced the way the Left thinks about freedom, and de Dijn’s historical narrative would have benefited by including them.

To de Dijn’s credit, however, she is at pains to highlight the limitations of historic forms of freedom. She makes it clear that historic political systems built around democratic freedom still excluded many people. For example, the Athenian Republic denied freedom to slaves, women and non-Athenian men.

Freedom: An Unruly History is an excellent book that captures the sweep of more than twenty-five hundred years of Western debate about the nature of political freedom. Of course, this scope precludes a detailed focus on any one historical period. At the same time, however, de Deijn’s long view helps ground differing — and deficient — conceptions of freedom in the political realities upon which they arose.

This historic breadth helps show that although an antidemocratic, elitist form of freedom may now be ascendent, this is a relatively new development that arose in opposition to the unprecedented expansion of democratic freedom and representative government from the 1600s onward.

This makes it clear that we will only win economic freedom if we win greater political freedom. And although this means overcoming “freedom from,” de Dijn reminds us that we can only build stronger political freedom if we extend it to minorities — excluding, of course, the ultra-wealthy.