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A note on politics

Alexander’s outlook has definite implications when applied to society. It rejects the idea of imposing concept and image on reality, and so is anti-constructivist. It favors particularity of position and so is anti-egalitarian and anti-inclusivist. It accepts that patterns that reappear in a variety of traditions very likely have something to them that rationalism should not be allowed to trump. And it treats both subsidiarity and hierarchy as necessary features of any acceptable system.

His thought is therefore decisively antiliberal. Not that he says that or even hints it or shows signs of being aware of it. The closest he comes is where he suggests that the randomness of modern house design, its utter lack of strong centers, “reflects a lack of center in the modern idea of the family.” [p. 155] Such a situation makes practical sense. His highest concern is evidently the good life and how the built environment might facilitate it, but he’s operating in an intellectual setting that denies the possibility of objective goods and consquently makes freedom and equality the highest political standards. In such a setting it’s very hard to speak in a way educated professional people will find acceptable without making accommodations, very likely even internally.

He avoids the problematic political implications of his thought by ignoring the issue of equality, and by identifying the good with “degree of life” (as I’ve suggested) and degree of life with freedom. Specifically, he says that “the best environment would be one in which each person can become as alive as possible,” and then, after comments about being “vibrant” and reaching one’s potential as a human being, claims that “each person naturally does everything possible, to be alive … It is the thing a person most naturally aspires to, and seeks.” [p. 374] Promoting the good life thus becomes identical to promoting freedom, and so becomes an acceptable social goal in the present intellectual setting. He further fuzzes the issue by defining freedom as “the ability a person has to react appropriately to any given circumstance” [emphasis in original], where italicizing “appropriately” apparently makes it mean “in a way that promotes the human good.”

To my mind it’s an interesting case study of how people accommodate the dominant ideas of their age, even (or especially) when those ideas are stupid and destructive. You don’t contest them on the issues the representatives of those ideas care about, like power, politics and PC, but rather on points they don’t care about that are more fundamental, like the good, beautiful and true. You buy the right to be radical about A by leaving alone accepted pieties about B, C and D. To all appearances it’s worked: people may have the feeling Alexander’s work is retrograde or whatnot, but a recent academic discussion of its political implications mostly played up the democratic popular-input angle (which also apply to tradition simply as such) and found it fitting to compare it to feminism, environmentalism, gay lib and the like.