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Postscriptum: An Exchange with the Editors

From: Ab Imperio
pp. 61-63 | 10.1353/imp.2013.0027

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The brief discussion that followed the lecture has explicated the high relevance of the historical genealogy of the concept of freedom well be­yond the scholastic treatises of Early Modern theorists such as Hobbes, proving its high explanatory potential for the political and legal predica­ments of our time. The editors of Ab Imperio decided to take a further step, and project the model advanced by Quentin Skinner onto the region of the journal's primary specialization (otherwise, remaining outside of his general model), identifying one of the most acute problems in modern Russian society.

Ab Imperio:

For more than the two past decades, it was very typical to hear from Russian intellectuals and politicians the same optimistic mantra: the generation born after the demise of communism in 1991 would be the first truly free generation of Russians. Well, now, when those kids born in 1991 are college seniors, there is all kinds of evidence (including quanti­tatively verifiable) that this is a remarkably compliant (to put it delicately) cohort, eagerly responding to political manipulations by the regime, and strikingly underrepresented in any sorts of antiauthoritarian opposition. People who never witnessed any Soviet tightly controlled youth organiza­tions, much less participated in them and in mass rallies under ideological slogans, demonstrate a surprising degree of cynicism, partaking in deliberately antiliberal and statist campaigns and movements. Sometimes they do this for small pay (from $20 to a new cell phone), sometimes out of the fear encountering problems at college (but never of a more serious threat). If this generalizing diagnosis is substantiated enough, what is the analytical framework to analyze it?

Quentin SKINNER:

This point relates closely and complicatedly to what I was trying to talk about. You ask how I would analyze the compliance of which you speak in the post-Soviet generation. From the information you give me, there seem to be two possible explanations:

1. Perhaps they are being coerced into compliance (specifically, by be ing given money to act as the regime wants). I would treat such coercion as an obvious limitation on liberty of action, because it is an obvious way of causing people to weight their choices in a particular direction.

2. Perhaps they are self-censoring and consequently acting compliantly in the face of possible (but not, as I understand it, actually stated) threats (for example, possible threats to their position at university). I take such self-censorship to be the standard reaction to finding oneself faced by an arbitrary, and hence dominating, power whose will to do harm is an unknown quantity. Here the calculation will be of the following form: maybe noth ing bad is going to happen to me, but since the power in question has the ability to harm me, let's not take the risk. This is not an affront to liberal views of freedom, because no coercion or even the threat of it is involved. But it is the central mechanism by which freedom is limited according to the neo-Roman analysis.

Indeed, the example offers a very good way of distinguishing the liberal from the neo-Roman view of liberty. The liberal thinks that freedom of action is undermined only by actual coercion or the threat of it. The neo-Roman thinks that freedom can be undermined in the absence of any coercion or even any threat of it. The reason is that people may self-censor in the face of what could or might happen to them, thereby limiting their choices.

From the point of view of the theorist of liberty, there seem to be two other possible explanations for the compliance you describe.

3. Those who comply do not see the demands made on them as affronts to their freedom, and hence act with consent. Unless we invoke ideas about false consciousness, then I think we have to say that the demands made on them do not limit their freedom – however that value is understood – be­cause any act that I freely will can hardly be said to compromise my liberty.

4. They may see the demands made on them as an affront to their freedom [either for reason (1) or reason (2)] but perhaps...

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