Ambivalence of the Сoncept of Freedom in the Narratives of Neoliberal Theory
Article by Kateryna Leliukh
Abstract: In this essay, I will examine the concept of freedom in modern political reality, which is currently dominated by neoliberal theory. The topic is particularly important to me because of the frequent use of the term “freedom” in political terminology in the political narratives of Independent Ukrainian state, especially since the full-scale invasion of Russia to Ukraine on 24th of February 2022. I am also interested in the way the term is used to justify various issues that require ideological support of all possible types of values depending on the political goals of its adapters. Due to the numerous ways and approaches to the definition of the term, some of which sometimes can be contradictory to one another, I believe that in some cases the concept of freedom becomes ambiguous and uncertain. I will provide examples of this below.
Keywords: neoliberalism, Ukraine, freedom, narrative, post-truth
Just Another Word
The Difference Between Freedom and Liberty
To begin, I want to emphasize that, despite the fact that the ideas of freedom are a crucial part of liberal theory and are even embedded in the term itself (the Latin root “liber” means “free”), the concept of freedom has a much broader meaning than its ideological expression and was created much earlier. For example, one of the first recorded uses of the word “liberal” occurred in 1375, when it was used to describe the liberal arts in the context of an education desirable for a free-born man (“Liberalism,” 2022). At the same time, “freedom,” despite being often equated with liberalism in political discourse, has a much more ancient history and has been discussed by philosophers such as Aristotle. Even the pioneers of the modern understanding of freedom, such as political economist John Stuart Mill, argued that there is a clear difference:
Freedom is primarily, if not exclusively, the ability to do as one will and what one has the power to do, whereas liberty concerns the absence of arbitrary restraints and takes into account the rights of all involved. As such, the exercise of liberty is subject to capability and limited by the rights of others (Mill, 1869).
The Field for the Misappropriation
Even a brief history of the term demonstrates that “freedom” is a complex, multi-layered term that can be easily confused with its derivative conceptions. This breadth of meaning creates a field for misappropriation and the possibility of its usage detached from its primary meaning for the service of ideology, regardless of whether it is right-wing or left-wing. In “A Brief History of Neoliberalism,” David Harvey cites cultural critic Matthew Arnold, who thoughtfully observed, “Freedom is a very good horse to ride, but to ride somewhere” (Harvey, 2005, p.6). The allegorical expression means that “freedom” as a concept is incomplete in any political discourse without additional predicates. Thus, well-known and acknowledged political freedoms, such as freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of choice, and freedom of speech, have clear definitions, while the sense of freedom itself can be interpreted differently depending on the specific situation.
Examples of Usage of the Term Freedom in a Modern Political Context Case of the “9/11” Events and Iraqi War
As noted by Harvey (Harvey, 2005), the ideas of freedom appeal to anyone who values the ability to make decisions for themselves. The recent history, often considered as the “previous chapter” of modernity, shows the variety of examples of movements for which freedom was the central value: dissident movements in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union before the end of the Cold War, the student protest in Tiananmen Square, and the student movements of 1968 that took place in many parts of the world and demanded greater freedoms of speech and personal choice. All of these are remembered by individuals with a neoliberal political point of view as justifications for standing up for these freedoms in present-day political realities. To me, the importance of fighting for the ideas of these vital movements is undeniable. However, does standing up for them in modern times always have the same meaning as before?
The idea of freedom played a vital role in neoliberal US history at the beginning of the second millennium. The first contradictory example of the usage of the term “freedom” occurred when US President Bush on the first anniversary of the 9/11 tragic event wrote, “Humanity holds in its hands the opportunity to offer freedom’s triumph over its age-old foes” and that “a peaceful world of growing freedom serves American long-term interests, reflects enduring American ideals and unites America’s allies” (Bush, 2002). Despite the flourishing of civic freedoms in the US from the time of publication of the article until this year (Freedom Index by Country 2022), if we analyze the speech closely, we can realize that the usage of the notion of freedom in this specific case is clearly ambiguous.
The image below shows a map of the freedom index by country. The research and conducted and co-published by the Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute, and the Liberales Institut at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. The index comprises 12 categories: rule of law; security and safety; movement; religion; association, assembly, and civil society; expression and information; identity and relationships; size of government; legal system and property rights; access to sound money; freedom to trade internationally; regulation. (Freedom Index by Country 2023, n.d.). At the bottom of the image, there is also information on the United States specifically, which places the country in 15th place in human freedom ranking.
Figure 1. Freedom Index by Country 2023, United States.
The freedom referred to in the quote is opposed to the so-called “age-old foes,” and from that, the reader can understand that freedom here is not an abstract concept, but a territory, to which the author attributes its qualities (literally, the United States). Another concerning usage of freedom in the quote is the statement that the free world, by which the author probably means the countries with a high index of civic freedoms, for some unspecified reason, should serve American long-term interests. The latter assumption is more likely to appear as a pretense for world domination rather than as a plea for the universal rooting or establishing of civil liberties.
Freedom as a concept was also used by the US administration as an ideological tool to justify the pre-emptive attack on Iraq and the forceful establishment of a neoliberal state on its territories. According to textbook neoliberal theory, the majority of the enterprises there were subject to privatization, thus “freed” from state control, but at the same time, the labor market was under strict regulation, strikes at key sectors were forbidden, and the right to form unions was restricted. In that way, the idea of freedom imposed in the economic means did indeed create a better way for the development of individual freedoms, but the restrictions on the same civic rights for creating labor gatherings served as the other end of the stick and a contradictory obstacle to the justification of the rhetoric of freedom.
Case of the Political Manifestation in Ukraine after Revolution of Dignity
Another example that I’d like to refer to was seen by me and many other Ukrainians in the main square of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. During the Revolution of Dignity of 2014, the building of the former Trade Unions at Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square was destroyed during the protests against the former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, whose political decisions had a clear feature of authoritarianism. Notably, there were several casualties during the fire in the building in the winter of 2014, which later gave it special historical importance. After the events, during the period when the building was under renovation, it was fully covered with a poster that depicted chains broken and an inscription “Freedom is our religion.” This was unlikely in the Ukrainian realities of that time, but the poster didn’t point to any author, political party, or other group whose idea was to put it in the place considered to be the most central of historical centers of Ukraine one can imagine.
The poster raised a lot of questions about the meaning of the phrase and its relevance in the mentioned time and space continuum. Is freedom a religion for everyone? What kind of freedom are we talking about? Who is the addressee of this message? To me personally, all these questions remained unanswered since the source of the message is barely tracible, so it’s difficult to understand, how to interpret the message correctly. But what I can clearly admit is that the situation, when the general public doesn’t question the appearance of such a poster at the main square, can tell a lot about the society itself. From that one can conclude that the Ukraine of 2017, being a young vibrant democracy with lots of inner and outer unsolved issues, despite having one of the most ancient and deep-rooted histories in Europe is still searching for the key meanings that can describe its modernity. And the possibility of anyone anonymous to give a specific definition to certain events or ideas can point to ambiguity regarding their meanings, which are present in society and give a clear understanding of the historical and economic circumstances under which such things occur.
General Concepts Disguised under the Notion of Freedom
The abovementioned examples demonstrate how the notion of liberty can be substituted in direct political speech and manifestations, but the misappropriation of the term is not limited to what is embedded in the number of “componential” neoliberal ideological concepts, which are often hidden from surface comprehension. For instance, the ideas for which neoliberalism is criticized the most, such as lack of labor protection, an illusion of choice, glocalization, perpetual migrant crises, weakness of the institutions and others. Thus, the illusion of choice can be misinterpreted and justified as a freedom of choice, the destruction of the system of trade unions as a liberation from previous socialistic practice, glocalization as a freedom to insert cultural particularities in the universal scope while ignoring some of its vital features, etc.
What is especially worrisome is that it’s not only freedom as a concept that can be used for specific hidden agendas in current neoliberal realities. It appears that in the period of post-truth, the more abstract the political concept is, the broader the field for misappropriation, ideologization, or simply manipulation in its usage. I am personally convinced that the only remedy for this phenomenon is popularization of informational hygiene, critical thinking, and quality education on the origins of commonly used political concepts. But that is the topic for another study aimed to finding out the dynamics of the development of the political culture and education.
The conclusion of this essay is clear and supported by evidence: the concept of “freedom” should be approached with caution. This is because the use of the term is often influenced by political interests and can lead to the spread of post-truth, fake news, and miscommunication, particularly in the digital media space. When encountering the word “freedom,” it is important to consider its negative connotations and to question the reasoning behind its usage. Adopting a critical and questioning attitude towards messages containing the word “freedom” will help individuals better understand the true nature of the message and ensure they are not misled.
Freedom Index by Country 2023. (n.d.). Retrieved November 5, 2022, from
Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford University Press
Mill, J., S. (1869). Chapter I: Introductory. Retrieved from https://www.bartleby.com/130/1.html
Liberalism. (2022). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from
Bush, W. (2002). Securing Freedom’s Triumph. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/11/opinion/securing-freedom-striumph.html