Politics of Liberty

The notion of “liberty” is often used to legitimize Western imperialism and state-sanctioned violence. At the same time a motive and a motivation, an abstract ideal and a rationale for pulling triggers, “liberty” in the West is a privilege for some and a death sentence for others. Unsurprisingly, “liberty” is propagated as starkly lacking in “the East” – while commentators rarely reflect the same critical eye back on the systematic inequality that plagues the “West” and emanates violence from its military industrial complexes.

Against this backdrop, the workshop “Politics of Liberty” explored the following questions: What notions of “liberty” manifest outside of an East vs West ideological divide? What does it mean to disarm Western propaganda of “liberty” as an imperial weapon of capitalist expansion without replacing it with yet another oppressive system? And what does it mean to work in the shadow of imperialism from both “the East” and West while creating transnational solidarity for a more just and inclusive world?

We approached these questions by starting from our own understanding of “liberty”. We discussed biographical experiences that shaped our ideas of liberty. These included experiences of crossing the border to East Germany in Berlin, the Romanian Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Our ideas of the meaning of “liberty” are influenced by the context in which we grew up, as well as the age and agency we had when historical events happened. From experiencing the 1991 Gulf War as a child in the US, to protesting in Gezi Park as a young adult, from growing up with the US funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, to participating in a community radio station (which are called “free radios”/Freie Radios” in German).

We also discussed the meanings that different words for “liberty” or “freedom” have in our own native languages, and how their meaning is related to our social and cultural histories. We learned that in Rumania, the word “liberty” is strongly linked to the Romanian Revolution of 1989, while in Turkey, “liberty” has been a popular name for children since after overcoming the coup of 1980. We also learned that in German and Turkish, there is only one word for “liberty”, while in Japanese there are two additional words, one centering on the individual, the other on the collective.


2041 is an interactive scenario of a future, which reflects our ideas about liberty and speculates about a world in an optimistic and maybe sometimes wishful way of thinking. Play it here (link).

The Visuals are generated from the story itself by using a text-to-image AI model that generates images given a set of text prompts.


Credits for ‘2041’: Laura Burtan, Aslı Dinç, Shintaro Miyazaki, Çağrı Taşkın. Image Credits: Aslı Dinç.



What does liberty mean?

In the the post-colonial, post-cold war, post-Arab Spring world, what does liberty really mean? During the Cold War the world was divided in to an imaginary space of the so-called “free” west vs. the oppressed East. Increasingly, we see how the world liberty and liberate intertwine with freedom and being free and are weaponized and used to justify invasions, war, resource theft and more. Yet it seems that in order for someone to be free someone must then not be free.

In this context, what does liberty mean and do we need a new definition of the word? One that focuses on the maximum amount of people having access to the maximum amount of rights?

Libertas, Liberty/Freedom, Liberté, Freiheit

Acropolis in Athens, Greece

The word liberty, in English comes from the French word liberté, which in turn comes from the  Latin “libertas.” This concept has its roots in the Greece and Roman antique (about 800 b.c until 600 a.c.).

In Roman mythology, a goddess personified “Libertas”. The Statue of Liberty also is a representation of this goddess, but with a candle and a “tabula insata” inscribed the date of the Declaration of Independence (July 4th, 1776) in her hands and bestowed upon the United States by French citizens to not only celebrate her impending centennial but also the end of slavery.

Libertas comes from the latin word liber- or free – and it invokes the state of being free in the sense of not being a slave and was a precondition for the legal condition of a Roman citizen. Libertas was a privilege reserved to members of the wealthy upper class. If you lost your freedom due to war or being sentenced to death, you lost your privilege to be treated as a person and were regarded  as a thing from then on. In attic democracy already, the privilege of political participation was open to free men only (only about 30% of the populations of Athens). Women, slaves and foreigners were excluded. 

Following the 1066 Norman invasion of England, the new Norman overlords speak Latin and Old French while the English continue to speak Old English (which derived from German): the English language ends with the particularity of having two words to describe largely the same thing: freedom- which comes from freiheit in German and liberty which derives from liberté in French. In many languages, such as  German, there is only one word for freedom, “Freiheit”.

Enlightenment in Europe and North America

In the Age of Enlightenment, the term freedom is one of the key concepts. The French Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and later the founding of the USA were shaped by a new understanding of freedom.

The “Age of Enlightenment” dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Besides the idea of liberty, the movement included ideas as progress, toleration, fraternity and the separation of church and state.

Many of the most important figures behind the American Revolution associated themselves to Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson incorporated some of the ideas of Enlightenment in the “Declaration of Independence” in 1776:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson

Later, these ideas belonged to the basic foundations of the United States Constitution in 1787 as well.  

The ideas of Enlightenment paved the way for the political revolutions in the 18th and 19th century, such as the French Revolution. Movements like liberalism and communism also had their roots in Enlightenment.


Original texts Declaration of Independence, Constitution of the United States: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs

Enlightenment and Slavery

Our contemporary use of the word liberty stems mainly from the Enlightenment as do many of the problematic aspects of the word.

The English conception of liberty, which focused greatly on individual liberty, was also easily espoused to the burgeoning market capital system. John Locke proclaimed the natural right to  “life, liberty, and property”. Thus linking property and possessions to the state of being free. Yet it only takes a bit of research to recognize that John Locke was an investor who held stock in slave trading firms active in the then American colonies.

In French englightenment, thinkers such as Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire were anti-slavery. However, Rousseau, with his “bon sauvage” also fetishized the non-western state of liberty in ways which helped to satisfy arguments that slavery, subjugation and colonization would render such people free. 

Notably, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States was inspired by both Locke and the French philosophers and yet was not only a slave holder, he was the father of some of his slaves. Yet, this same man wrote one of the most important lines in what is considered to be “free” in his statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” These words he wrote as an enslaved man held the candles for him to write.

List of texts, a brief description and originals:

  • John Locke: Two Treatises of Government (1689/1690)  “life, liberty, property”- Father of liberalism- focus on the identity and the self–involved in the slave trade/colonialism Royal Africa Society. Natural right to: “life, health, liberty, and possessions.”, Original text: https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/locke1689a.pdf
  • 1789 – Declaration of the Rights of Man: Combining the anglo-american concepts of individual liberty and the conceptions of “Les Lumières” of broader social contract (freedom of religion, etc.), original text: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rightsof.asp

Liberty, Freedom, Slavery, and Escape

To believe, as I do, that the enslaved are our contemporaries is to understand that we share their aspirations and defeats, which isn’t to say that we are owed what they were due but rather to acknowledge that they accompany our every effort to fight against domination, to abolish the color line, and to imagine a free territory, a new commons.

It is to take  to heart their knowledge of freedom. The enslaved knew that freedom had to be taken; it was not the kind of thing that could ever be given to you. The kind of freedom that could be given to you could just as easily be taken back. Freedom is the kind of thing that required you to leave your bones on the hills at Brimsbay, or to burn the cane fields, or to live in a garret for seven years, or to stage a general strike, or to create a new republic. It is won and lost, again and again.

It is a glimpse of possibility, an opening, a solidification without any guarantee of duration before it flickers and then is extinguished

Hartman, Saidiya: Lose Your Mother: A Journey Across the Atlantic

Knowledge of freedom is (in) the invention of escape, stealing away in the confines, in the form, of a break. This is held close in the open song of the ones who are supposed to be silent”

Moten, Fred; Harney, Stefano: Blackness and Governance. In: Id.: The Undercommons. Fugitive Planning and Black Study, pp. 45-57, p. 51. https://www.minorcompositions.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/undercommons-web.pdf

Liberty, Freedom, and Colonialism

The very duality of the freedom of one group of people versus the real and perceived lack of freedom of others has also been used to define and justify slavery and colonialism. Liberation, whether through christianity or civilization, and both is a central theme in the modus operandi used by Western countries to justify their subjugation and colonization of what were perceived as lesser countries, whether those be countries in the Global South, lands previously held by non-white indigenous peoples or even among Europeans, such as in the annexation and domination of some countries over others.

Enlightenment in Germany

Immanuel Kant (1724- 1804) is the most important philosopher in Prussia during the era of enlightenment. “Was ist Aufklärung?“ ( „What is Enlightenment?“) is one of the most important texts in the context of enlightenment in Europe. Kant wanted to abolish church and state paternalism. He thought that people should be given the freedom to use their own intellect. This idea finds its expression in the sentence “Sapere aude!” (“Dare to be wise!”) in “What is Enlightenment?”.  

Immanuel Kant believed that perpetual peace could be gained through universal democracy and international cooperation. Most of all he is known for his theory of “Categorical Imperative”:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

Categorical Imperative by Immanuel Kant

The “Categorical Imperative” can be described as a duty to be wise and moderate for everyone.

Immanuel Kant believed that perpetual peace could be gained through universal democracy and international cooperation. Most of all he is known for his theory of “Categorical Imperative”: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” The “Categorical Imperative” can be described as a duty to be wise and moderate for everyone.

Kant is criticized for being racist. Nevertheless, Kant’s point of view seems to have changed in the last years of his life. In “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch”, he ultimately rejected racial hierarchies and criticized European colonialism. 


Discussion about Kant and racism:



Nazi-Dictatorship, End of World War II and Some Kind of a New Beginning

Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote an analysis of the errors in the idea of enlightenment, referring to the rise of Nazi-Power in the 1920ies and 1930ies in Germany. Adorno and Horkheimer managed to flee from Nazi-Germany in the 1930ies and were in exile in California. They composed “Die Dialektik der Aufklärung” (“The Dialectics of Enlightenment”) mainly in the 1940ies.

One of the main ideas in the book is: “Myth is already enlightenment and enlightenment reverts to mythology”. Both state that something fundamental had gone wrong in the modern West, not only since the Nazi-deathcamps.

On the other hand, the United Nations General Assembly accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 in Palais de Chaillot in Paris, France. 48 members voted for the UDHR, none against (8 abstained and 2 did not vote at all).

The UDHR is regarded as a milestone, as it makes no reference to a particular culture, political system or religion. It’s values still refer to enlightenment and the Code Napoleon. The right to life and the prohibition of slavery and torture were amoung the fundamental rights that were declared.

Even though the UDHR was not legally binding, it was incorporated in regional human rights instruments, national constitutions and international treaties. And it led to the International Bill of Human Rights, which came into force in 1976.


  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Declaration_of_Human_Rights

Cold War Rhetoric

The Wall of Berlin
The Wall in Berlin

Talk about “liberty” and “freedom” featured prominently in Western Cold War rhetorics. Freedom and/or liberty became tools of marking Western states as homes of freedom and liberty, the so-called “West” as “the free world” and Soviet Satellite states – or more precisely their populations – as yet to be liberated from Soviet power.

But most resistant movements in the so-called East did not center their politics or their rhetorics around liberty or freedom. In Poland for example, solidarity and worker’s rights were way more important for the resistance movements of the 1980s, e.g. in the independent worker’s union Solidarność (solidarity). In the GDR resistance movements, demands for change, democracy, democratic forms of socialism, and freedom of movement were more central than Cold War concepts of freedom/liberty.

War on Terror rhetoric

During the so-called “War on terror,” liberty was once again one of the central motifs in US politics – but mostly in relation to “security“ Liberty was once again seen as something to be promoted and exported to the new East and others, for example the people of Afghanistan or Iraq were often imagined as either yet to be liberated and freed – or – marked as threats to security/terrorists (potentially to be killed by drone strikes).

“West” / “East”

Eastern Europe” is usually understood as a collection of countries that were formerly part of the socialist bloc and became independent states in the 1990s. It can be seen as a definite political and regional entity, which does not refer to spatial arrangement, but rather to a set of signifieds. Eastern Europe is an “idea” that has its own history (the history of an idea, not a part of the world), a tradition of construction, imagery and vocabulary. This construct exists in opposition to the idea of ​​Western Europe (and the West in general). Eastern Europe is produced as Other, and this production has a long history dating back to the 18th century [5].

 Their binary opposition began as a result of the post-war conference in Yalta in 1945, when the leaders of the USSR, Great Britain and the United States, that is, the so-called “anti-Hitler coalition”, divided their zones of influence in Europe. It was then that the metaphor of the “iron curtain” was introduced by Theodore Roosevelt and began to mean an ideological and physical break between the socialist countries and the rest of Europe. Binarity intensified as the Cold War progressed. The opposition between capitalism and communism, which, it would seem, should have been removed after 1991, is being updated again, but in new de-ideologized terms (including such as Eurasianism).” 

Former West and New East by Olga Sosnovskaya, Alexey Borisenok.

EAST / WEST “liberty” crisis on the border

Liberty: but not for all / unpacking

“We will not hold anyone back. We are not their final destination after all. They are headed to enlightened, warm, cozy Europe.,” Lukashenko said, according to the official Belta news agency.

Belarus government: the body of migrant is treated as a tool for the purposes of hybrid war — by subversive affirmation the concept of “liberty”.

The press service of the National Airport “Minsk” drew attention to the fact that the airport fulfills its main task – the provision of the entire range of airport services, including passenger services. Therefore, the airport cannot confirm whether there were migrants in their transit zone, as well as tell how much time they spent there and for what reason foreigners could not fly to their country.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/10/latvia-and-lithuania-act-to-counter-migrants-crossing-belarus-border

There is an unexpected tendency, in that much of the media who are engaged in the protest movement in Belarus from a “liberty” standpoint are xenophbic in their position vis-à-vis to refugee crises on the Belarus-EU border.

Еўрарадыё | Еврорадио | Euroradio:

Singing Belarus: How can an artist abroad not lose his sense of homeland? Over the last year, a significant number of creative people – musicians, actors, artists – have had to emigrate. Abroad, they, like other Belarusians, are faced with a situation where you first need to arrange a life, and then think about creativity. Do creative people have the opportunity to continue their work abroad? Is there any interest in Belarusian culture abroad? What awaits Belarusian culture if repressions continue? Musician Pyotr Klyuyev answers these and other questions.

Despite that people involved in such media are being forced to leave Belarus and thus as they become refugees themselves they cannot express solidarity with other refugees — mainly black and people of colour —  who are in Belarus now.

Еўрарадыё | Еврорадио | Euroradio:

“Football with migrants” started on the border of Belarus and Lithuania. The State Border Committee of Belarus claims that the border guards “recorded an attempt to aggressively expel” migrants from Lithuania. “However, the Belarusian border guards did not violate the state border,” the committee said. But if the migrants somehow got to Lithuania, it means that the Belarusian border guards have already committed a violation by releasing them. “Is it different”?

Credits for ‘Towards a Changing Definition of Liberty?’: Susanne Braun, Abiol Lual Deng, Katrin M. Kämpf, Nicolay Spesivtsev.

What We Learned

While the West has played politics with “liberty”, successive centuries of violence have laid bare the transactional nature of this loaded term.
The cultural etymologies of those on the peripheries of great power struggles have often and repeatedly witnessed instability and even violence in the face of hegemonic exports of freedom-based propaganda.
But is liberty a tangible notion or an internalized state? Is it more akin to a commodity or a community? Is it a destination or a journey?

As examined, perceptions surrounding the theories of liberty, liberal orders and liberation are dependent upon language, history, culture and ideology. A great challenge of the 21st century will be to challenge new modes of western imperialism, free cultural narratives from the black box East, while forging new paths of liberty that stay insulated from different actors seeking to colonize new modalities of liberty in the same old ways.

The ‘Politics of Liberty’ workshop consisted of Susanne Braun, Laura Burtan, Abiol Lual Deng, Aslı Dinç, Katrin Kämpf, Mathana, Shintaro Miyazaki, Nina Pohler, Nicolay Spesivtsev, and Cagri Taskin.

This project was conceived at the Berliner Gazette’s annual conference 2021 entitled BLACK BOX EAST.

All text and images: Creative Commons License 4.0 (CC-BY 4.0).

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