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The Cunning of Freedom:
Saving the Self in an Age of False Idols

by ryszard legutko
encounter, 200 pages, $25.99

Thomas Mann’s 1929 novella Mario and the Magician describes the performance of an ominous hypnotist at a seaside resort. The magician entertains his gullible audience by placing individuals in a trance before making them humiliate themselves by dancing ludicrously on stage. The setting is Italy, seven years after Mussolini’s March on Rome, and the story is often understood as an allegory of fascist dictatorship.

Victim after helpless victim succumbs to the magician. A critical turn occurs when one “gentleman” claims that he can challenge the illicit power of the tyrant, who is therefore eager to crush him:

It escaped nobody that here a heroic obstinacy, a fixed resolve to resist, must needs be conquered; we were beholding a gallant effort to strike out and save the honor of the human race.

Yet the would-be hero soon fails, one more slave to the cruel master. The narrator comments:

If I understand what was going on, it was the negative character of the young man’s fighting ­position which was his undoing. . . . Between not willing a certain thing and not willing at all—in other words, yielding to another person’s will—there may lie too small a space for the idea of freedom to squeeze into.

This fictional scene written nearly a century ago seems remarkably contemporary in light of Ryszard Legutko’s The Cunning of Freedom. Legutko describes the repressive aspects of current political culture in the West: censorship, “cancel culture,” and the growth of surveillance networks both public and private, with a shrinking distance between the two. Even as Western countries continue to regard themselves as realms of freedom—in contrast especially to the unfree adversary, the Chinese dictatorship—we face homegrown pressure to conform ideologically, as heterodox views incur the threat of sanctions. Do we still live in the “free world”?

Having survived the decades of communism in Poland, Legutko is alert to the durability of totalitarian behavior in regimes that call themselves liberal. One can hear a similar anxiety in Germany these days. Though communist East Germany formally ended when its territory was incorporated into liberal-democratic West Germany, continuities exist between the old East and the new “Berlin Republic,” including a structurally weak parliamentary opposition and the lack of a press bold and critical enough to challenge Chancellor Merkel. Throughout the world, we observe how the state of emergency associated with the pandemic has justified the peremptory elimination of freedoms we once took for granted: freedom of assembly, of worship, of travel. Meanwhile, cancel culture puts limits on freedom of speech.

The Cunning of Freedom is the right book for this menacing juncture. Legutko ­diagnoses the weaknesses endemic in Western culture, arising from our misunderstanding of freedom. He offers pointed observations about our contemporary culture and political environment, which he characterizes as a “tyranny of liberalism.”

That provocative oxymoron forces a consideration of what we mean by “liberal democracy.” Carl Schmitt long ago identified the tension between liberalism and democracy, between individual rights and majoritarian rule. For Legutko, the fundamental problem is somewhat different. Does the “liberal” in “liberal democracy” mean the defense of individual freedom against the tyranny of the potentially totalitarian state?

Such has been the promise, especially in Central Europe, which witnessed the end of communist rule. Yet increasingly, “liberal democracy” has come to mean the endorsement of the political platform of cultural liberalism. It has become a motto of conformity. Whether alternate views are permissible in liberal democracy is increasingly unclear. Should non-­liberal thoughts be sanctioned? Would a “conservative democracy” be permissible—or even, as Viktor Orbán has phrased it, an “illiberal democracy”? For the European Union, this is an eminently political problem, played out in the struggle between Brussels on the one hand, and Warsaw and Budapest on the other. Legutko does not delve into the specific policy details of this Kulturkampf, but he does explain the philosophical foundations of the existential conflict at the heart of today’s Europe and the West.

Legutko analyzes three different constructions of freedom, their philosophical significance, and the failures of their realization. He begins with the idea of “negative freedom,” according to which freedom is “absence of coercion.” Legutko reminds us that this is a distinctively modern view, one that depends on fictions of isolation, as in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or the states of nature described by Hobbes and Locke. It holds that humans are properly ­unconstrained, and that only outside of social constraint can they enjoy happiness. Such a view tends to regard all social bonds with suspicion.

Legutko describes libertarianism and multiculturalism as attempts to render society more capacious. In both, a belief in negative freedom motivates an attack on any substantive or inherited life-world. This, ­however, opens the door for an expansive government, which promises to make us ever freer but in fact achieves the opposite:

All political projects that neglect human nature and disregard the lessons drawn from centuries of political experience have to compensate for their lack of realism by a disproportionately high degree of intervention in both the social fabric and in human minds.

Negative freedom, with its fantasy of an original statelessness, turns into a Trojan horse, a vehicle to introduce unconstrained social engineering.

In contemporary liberal discourse, rights and dignity allegedly go hand in hand. Yet Legutko shows how freeing an individual from social constraints undermines any genuine capacity for dignity, which is found in fulfilling our obligations to others. Instead of something achieved by noble acts, dignity has become a license for irresponsibility:

Today dignity-based rights serve as justification for base activities that no morally sane person can defend. Dignity . . . should be about the high and sublime, not the low and vulgar.

Legutko urges his readers to take seriously the programmatic efforts by the state and related institutions to restructure identities and social relations:

The changes in question are not just harmless examples of political frivolity. In some respects, they have gone well beyond what totalitarian regimes planned to achieve using the most brutal means possible.

Legutko explores paths of resistance, offering an appeal to “defend ­society” (to use the phrasing of ­Michel ­Foucault, a very different thinker) against the apparatus of intrusive control. The possibility of any such defense depends on the integrity of traditions, obligations, and loyalties that precede political mandates, ­because

the key to freedom is a richness of deeply rooted social practices that are too diverse to be codified by written laws and formalized procedures, and stem from a combination of social groups and classes, occupational and professional associations, and complex interactions of old and new ­communities.

Legutko also criticizes “inner freedom,” the proposition that we have an authentic self with a unique identity and a mandate to express its distinctiveness. This emphasis on the self turns unexpectedly into conformism and identity politics. There is no guarantee of a firm authenticity. What Christopher Lasch called our “narcissism” leads instead to the discovery of an internal emptiness: from Hume’s cynical conventionalism to James’s episodic selves and Sartre’s nothingness. Existentialists ventured that revolt and freedom could ensue from that nothingness, but Legutko claims this is disproven by Sartre’s own political dogmatism and attraction to totalitarian positions and terrorism (for example, his introduction to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and his own fascination with the German Baader-Meinhof group).

Whereas negative freedom means the absence of constraint, “positive freedom,” discussed in the second part of the book, involves the “­qualities and conditions needed to achieve important aims.” One of these aims is self-governance, the ability to restrain one’s passions. The liberal argument for negative freedom begins by asking why the individual is free. (Answer: the original lack of constraints inherent in the state of nature.) In contrast, the argument for positive freedom asks what the free individual might strive to accomplish in the world.

Legutko draws on Aristotle here, exploring different paths to achievement—the philosopher, the entrepreneur, the artist, the aristocrat. In contrast to negative freedom, in ­Legutko’s view these positive agendas are not irremediably flawed. Each represents a plausibly admirable path toward the free realization of valid goals. Yet in each case, Legutko describes how these aspirations are in various ways frustrated by the social institutions that should be encouraging them. Aristotle’s ideal of philosophical contemplation, to take one example, is not well-served by the contemporary university, with its celebration of skills rather than thought and conformism rather than curiosity.

Positive freedom is difficult to realize today. Yet negative freedom and inner freedom both lack the strength to mount resistance to external pressure; instead, they seek refuge in convenient ideologies. The genuine alternative, retrieving a strong sense of self, would require reviving a metaphysical, cultural, and religious tradition that is disappearing below the horizon.

In Mario and the Magician, it is not the elite “gentleman from Rome” who topples the tyrant but rather the thoroughly unheroic eponymous hero, a humble waiter, a deplorable of his day, who has the integrity to strike a blow for liberty. As our ­leading institutions are compromised by ideological policing, administrative monitoring, and surveillance networks, it is our turn to defend freedom.

Russell A. Berman is Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University.

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