One would naturally assume that a book about Western individualism would start with a definition of the term and then provide some examples of how this concept exists in the West, but not in other civilizations. After all, it is a term that is used in various ways and it also carries moral connotations. That is not the case with Kevin MacDonald’s latest book, Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition. Instead, it is left to the reader to figure out what the author means by individualism.
There is the first challenge in understanding the main assertion of the book. The claim at various points in the text is that individualism is unique to the West. This is the result of the people who settled in the lands we now think of as Europe. They possessed qualities that made it possible for them to adapt to the harsh climate of Europe, but the climate also selected for those qualities. These behavioral traits are also the basis for what we think of as individualism, however defined.
It is an established fact that the variations in climate and geography create different selection pressures on the life in different regions. Cold climates select for life that can survive in cold climates. Rainy climates select for life that can exist with extremely high average annual rainfall. These selection pressures apply to humans, which is why we can observe the great diversity of people. East Asians were selected for, so to speak, the climate and geography of East Asia.
The first three chapters of the book cover the migration of people into Europe and what we know about the organizational structures. Europe was initially settled by hunter-gatherers with an egalitarian culture. Then nomadic people with an aristocratic warrior class came in from the east. MacDonald argues that the genetic basis for egalitarianism and meritocracy is in these original people. This is not an argument from science, but rather an argument from inference.
It cannot be emphasized enough how marriage patterns and family formation helped define what we think of as the West. The rapid decline in cousin marriage, for example, is arguably the great leap forward for Western people. It naturally lead to the evolution of alternatives to narrow kinship in human cooperation. MacDonald does a good job summarizing how these mating patterns were brought to the West with the aristocratic people who migrated from the East.
In the next chapters the focus shifts to culture and history. Chapter four is about European family formation. The focus is entirely on Europe, so the reader is left to guess why this differs from the rest of the world. Chapters five and six are about Christianity in Europe. Chapter seven focuses on British idealism and then chapter eight focuses on moral communities. These chapters are a long summary of how individualism, however defined, shaped Western history.
Chapter eight is an interesting chapter in that he finally gets around to providing a definition of individualism. He states at the opening that individualist societies are based on the reputation of the individual. Group cohesion depends on the members judging other members on an individual basis. Each member also accepts that he will be judged by society as an individual. This contrasts with other societies where membership in a tribe or clan is the basis for judging people.
This gets to the major flaw in the book. It needs an editor. The parts are here for a straight line argument that individualism has genetic roots and that it was selected for in European people. As humans adapted to the harsh northern climates, they adopted social structures that rewarded the behaviors necessary to survive as a group in the areas we now call Europe. While we cannot locate an “individualism gene” we can infer it through things like marriage patterns and family formation.
This would make for a nice, crisp two hundred page book. Instead, these bits are spread over five hundred pages, mixed with material that is highly debatable. People familiar with the history of the early church, for example, will scratch their head at the assertions made in chapter five. The section on Puritanism often seems to contradict what he said in early chapters about individualism. A professional editor could have pointed this out and forced a rethinking of these chapters.
Another problem with the book is that it is not really about individualism so much as a way to support his theory of group evolutionary strategy. As a result, he reduces group behavior to individual motivations. This sort of reductionism is common among older right-wing writers for some reason. That generation has always had a fetish for assigning base human desires to the behavior of groups. For some reason, emergent behavior lies beyond their intellectual event horizon.
The final criticism of the book is that it fails to explain why individualism has led the West to the verge of self-extinction. It has become an article of faith in certain circles that Western individualism is the cause of decline. Some argue that it makes it possible for tribal minority groups to exert undue influence on society to the detriment of the majority population. If so, then why now and not a century ago or five centuries ago when the West was far more fragmented?
The counter here is that this is not the point of the book. Others will need to pick up from where the book leaves off to make those arguments. The trouble is the book ends with a chapter on individualism versus multiculturalism. That and the intended readership is the sort of people talking about how individualism is at the root of the current crisis in the West. Given the bulk of the book is a review of Western culture, it is logical that this topic should be addressed.
The question in every book review is whether the book is worth reading. Just as every child deserves love, ever book deserves reading. Despite the structural flaws, the book does a good job describing early Europeans. The section on moral communities is probably the best chapter in the book and the most relevant. That is a good reward for slogging through the chapters on religion. The final chapter is a good summation of the White Nationalist worldview, for those interested.
Overall, it is a mixed recommendation. The first three chapters are well worth the time, even though they could use some editing. The chapter on moral communities is another good use of reading time. The chapters on religion will be exasperating for those who have a good religious education. Overall, it fails to deliver on the main topic and its role in the current crisis, but it provides a lot of interesting material that is being carefully avoided by mainstream writers and thinkers.
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