The recently departed conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton famously said that conservatism is grounded on the idea that “good things are easily destroyed but not easily created.” Alongside this view is a strong Burkean notion of trusteeship, that, rather than replacing things and tearing them down, people of any age have a duty to build upon and preserve tradition.
The development of cities under liberal democracies and neoliberal economic policies during the post-war epoch has contradicted this notion of organic growth. Central planners and developers made cities places which are disjointed, sprawling, stark, and inhospitable. Scruton, in a 2012 essay for the American Enterprise Institute’s “Society and Culture Outlook” series, fleshed out his theory on a “new urbanism.” It reflected on the issues with urban modernity and its detrimental effects on self-reliance and community. In its stead, the piece upheld less sectional and auto-friendly cities like Rome and Florence, with their roots in antiquity.
Scruton would find a fast friend on this issue—if not an unlikely one—in the 21-time Grammy Award winner Kanye West. The artist recently embarked upon a quirky and visionary presidential campaign, for which he has released a public a manifesto of sorts. It revealed a worldview which was surprisingly traditional, even for a rapper turned neo-gospel icon.
Philosophically, West is strongly implied to believe that families are the smallest social unit, rather than individuals, which cuts against the grain in a society so focused on individual pursuit of happiness and pleasure. Though more traditional, arguably, in the Western tradition, the overwhelming tendency since the Enlightenment has been towards a sometimes passionate, but often near-sociopathic celebration of the individual. In his music, West has also pushed back against this limited ideal of life. From the anti-materialism of “Everything we Need,” the embrace of family and divine worship in “Closed on Sunday,” or the general sense of faith, devotion, and cosmology throughout the album “Jesus is King,” West seems to be reclaiming a more “conservative” vision of human flourishing.
In a video from last year, speaking to a journalist at his Calabasas Ranch, West proclaims that, “we need to be in control of our own minds, our own food, our own health, and our own families.” This is a strong value- and health-driven contrast to contemporary American society’s notions of autonomy and dedication to the free pursuit of commodities and lifestyles. West’s conception of the good life seems to be centered not on a notion of various, self-constructed perceptions of happiness, but rather on objective truth and meaningful living.
It’s no surprise that a man raised in Chicago and residing in Los Angeles, a metropolis sprawling over 500 square miles, through adulthood and celebrity is critical of the urban environment. Interestingly, West’s criticism is quite similar to that which Roger Scruton directs toward a much smaller, planned city in England: Milton Keynes.
Scruton promotes the idea that community and the family are what people most need to thrive but that cities have instead been designed to promote “more problems” in the service of creating “more industries.” Scruton said that “people flee from city centers because they do not like city centers. And they do not like city centers because they are alienating, ugly, and without a human face.” Here, Scruton explains how the “problems” facilitate industry: certain spaces are designated for labor, others for sleep, and a few—as a necessary concession for a minimal standard for leisure and comfort—to recreation. Despite any development incentives or tax breaks, this is the case, and West understands that “people live forty-five minutes away” so that they can “spend more time in traffic” and produce wear on vehicles. He intuits that it is not a good arrangement for living, but a fantastic one for industry and liberal capitalism.
As a contrast, West proposes a better paradigm of urbanism where “the church is the center of the community,” followed by schools, community gardens, and what he calls “cafeterias”—presumably restaurants and small businesses. This has more in common with the city centers of Rome, Paris, and other European cities which Scruton celebrates than it does with West’s own environs: American metropoleis.
West also proclaims that “Rome is the true Silicon Valley of humanity” and that “many of the ideas that we need are from thousands and thousands of years ago.” So really, West espouses reclaiming custody of ideas which are old and proven by time. This is no different, in terms of scale, than Scruton’s ideal of a trusteeship of civilization: growth and change should be organic and developed from within a tradition, not centrally planned or wholly innovative.
Such a fondness for old ideas has led Scruton to evaluate past and present while Kanye has seen that the traditional paradigm of living is far more conducive to the good life than progressive innovations. Deviations from that paradigm have, Scruton wrote, “had disastrous social consequences.” They have created a demoralized workforce, “unvisited city centers, crime-ridden neighborhoods, and vandalizing of public space.” In the long term, what some call “progress” presents more disadvantages than its short-term conveniences are worth. West wants to return to a better way.
West tried to make his dream real with the “Yeezy Home” project. If an utter failure in the end, this project was a valiant attempt to erect a more traditional municipal arrangement: where home is home, and social and economic strata live in proximity, rather than in highly specialized areas, out of touch with one another. Inspired by humanitarian work he did in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian, West hoped to replace atomized communities which had been destroyed by the forces of nature with vibrant, humane communities.
Architects and planners can and do criticize West. We can also chuckle at the fact that he modeled the homes loosely off of the one “Luke Skywalker grew up in” in Star Wars. But West’s designs and construction materials were largely organic. The project eschewed modern architecture’s increasingly linear and unornamented brutalism, in favor of organic and free-flowing homes. While this style may not have been “traditional” in the aesthetic sense, it seized upon an idea that cities and living spaces should be humane.
In all, West’s urbanism is fascinating, and hopefully, he will continue to develop his vision in the future. He is correct that our cities are not made for “living” but for economics. His outlook is a refreshing one, particularly considering its emergence from the most materialistic segment of America’s hypermaterialist popular culture.
Featured Image: Kanye West meeting with Donald Trump in the White House in photo (2018) via Wikimedia Commons.
Leo Thuman studies Political Science and Economics at Case Western Reserve University. He also writes and does policy work. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.