Have you spent countless hours searching for the origins of individualism in the philosophical treatises of the Western Canon? Reading Kevin MacDonald’s Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition may make you think this was wasted time: the origins of individualism lie in the pedestrian world of family life. Individualism is not an idea, a concept, or a philosophical insight, but, as explained in Part 3 of my extended review of MacDonald’s book, its essence lies in “the cutting off” of the Western family “from the wider kinship group”. And this cutting off was started by illiterate northern European hunter gatherers during the last glacial age in the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods. In chapter four, the subject of this article, MacDonald continues his analysis of the “familial basis of European individualism” in response to those who argue that this family was a by-product of individual family ownership in the Middle Ages.
In what follows I will bring out the salient features of MacDonald’s argument, how incredibly different was the Western family, while raising questions about the degree to which we can reduce the essence of Western individualism to family patterns. I will use MacDonald’s argument that Sweden stands as the most extreme case of the Western individualist family to suggest that there are other key principles of individualism which are actually absent in current Sweden. A key principle of the liberal ideal is the realization of the variety of individual personalities, along with institutions that encourage such variety, unpopular opinions and the freedom to advocate them openly without reprisals. By this criteria, it is hard to identify Sweden as a liberal nation notwithstanding its individualist family patterns.
Individualistic Families in the Middle Ages
There has long been “a consensus among historians of the family that the family structure of northwest Europe is unique.” The consensus is no longer, as MacDonald notes, that this family was a by-product of modern capitalism; it is that Europe’s peculiar family patterns were already observable in medieval times. We have seen in Part 3 of my analysis of MacDonald’s book that he goes “back to prehistory” to explain the primordial “evolutionary/biological” basis of this family. In chapter four, which we are currently examining, he attempts to refute the consensus argument that the Western individualist family sprang out of the manorial system of northwest Europe where land ownership was centered on singular family holdings rather than on kinship groups.
- monogamous marriages
- marriages at a relatively older age than the married teenage girls we see in non-western world
- similar age of husbands and wives
- a relatively high proportion of unmarried individuals (women in particular)
- household settlement independently of parents and extended families
- rather than marrying a close kin or cousin, exogamy prevailed
- marriage based on individual choice and romance rather than arranged
Because MacDonald presses this incredible contrast between Western and non-Western family patterns, he sometimes uses expressions which may give the misleading impression that, for him, the Western family was “cut-off” altogether from kinship networks. But his point is that there were substantial differences in degree of kinship connections, and that these differences existed within Europe as well. It is not a matter of absence or presence of kinship networks. This becomes clearer in the next chapter, as we will see, when he acknowledges in full the additional, and indispensable, “cultural” role of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages in breaking down to a higher degree extended kinship networks and thus reinforcing the individualist tendencies already present.
Is Contemporary Sweden “Individualist” and “Liberal”?
|Who is more individualistic and liberal, the feminist or the nationalist?|
It is not as if MacDonald does not recognize the presence of moral communities which regulate the beliefs of its members and limit dissent in the West. As we will see later, this is a key component of MacDonald’s thesis: the very same cultures that minimized in-group kinship ties engendered powerful moral communities to sustain their individual egalitarian behaviors in opprobrium to individuals who did not play by these rules. But if we agree that there is more to liberalism than individualistic families, and that allowing for the realization of the variety of individual personalities and freedom of expression are essential traits, it may be a stretch to call Western societies today, the same ones that prohibit any criticism of diversity, liberal. Expression of one’s inner potentialities and highest talents, in competition with others and against pre-reflective norms, is central to the liberal ideal of freedom.
Although some socialistic measures such as equality of opportunity are consistent with liberal thinking, the egalitarian ideal is not. The fundamental drawback of socialism is that it opposes human variety and divisions, the reality of human conflict and disagreement. Socialism seeks harmonious, well-satisfied citizens well-attended by a nanny state within an ordered whole in a state of happy coexistence. But a cardinal principle of Western liberal thought has been that variety, the right to think for yourself, and to strive in a state of competition with others, is good, for it awakens human talents, allows for individual creativity, and discourages indolence and passivity. Sweden however is striving for egalitarian conformity and uniformity of thought.
While equality before the law, equality of individual rights, including the socialization of education and health care, is consistent with liberal thinking, there is an internal logic within the egalitarian ideal that runs against individualism. The end of egalitarianism is to make all individuals as alike as possible in their attainments, their thoughts, and their standing in society. As John Stuart Mill said, the chief goal of a free society should be the expansion of the expression of individuality, which requires competition of ideas, liberty of opinion, a free press, right of free assembly — the very same traits that are being denied in Sweden and the West at large. Just because we are witnessing in the West indulgent self-expression, disdain for marriage, narcissistic behaviors, breakdown of family patterns for the sake of personal greed and narcissism, it does not mean that Sweden has not become an authoritarian state that is anti-liberal and anti-individualistic.
The West may well be in the worst of all possible worlds, a very weak ethnic identity, breakdown of family relations, confused gender identities, regulated by a nanny state with everyone behaving increasingly alike in their conformity to diversity and lack of individual daring and originality against PC controls.