Reimagining Nations and Tribes within and across Transnationalities

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Reimagining Nations and Tribes within and across Transnationalities

  • November 26, 2020
  • By Admin: Osman
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By Abdulkadir Osman Farah, PhD

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“When tribesmen once come together, a sort of electricity is formed by their collecting which quickly transports to an extraordinary degree of exaltation. Every sentiment expressed finds a place without resistance in all the minds, which are very open to outside impressions; each re-echoes the others, and is re-echoed by the others. The initial impulse thus proceeds, growing as it goes, as an avalanche grows in its advance.

                Durkheim, 1915. ” Germany Above All”: German Mentality and War;

                The  Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.      


Today, the Westphalian blindspot of public-sphere theory is hard to miss. Whether the issue is global warming or immigration, women’s rights or the terms of trade, unemployment or the war on terror, current mobilizations of public opinion seldom stop at the borders of territorial states. In many cases, the interlocutors do not constitute a demos or a political citizenry. Often too their communications are neither addressed to a Westphalian state nor relayed through national media- the problems debated are inherently trans-territorial and can neither be located within Westphalian space nor be resolved by a Westphalian state.”

             Trans-nationalizing the Public Sphere, Nancy Fraser, 2014.    


In our time, one of the dominant issues- we are told- is “to make the nation great again”. But what is a “nation” and what makes truly great again?  Is “nation” simply an ethnic, empirically given collectivity wedded to the pursue of mundane power, wealth, and prosperity? Is this all there is? Are there not transcending goods like truth, rightness, and beauty, as Plato and others have taught.” 

             Fred Dallmayr, German-American comparative political theorist- 2020 


“We contacted people, texted them, knocked doors and invited them to mobilize in winning the election. This feels great. But in the parking lot, I saw people with stickers “Make America Great Again” pasted in their car windows. It is rather scary.”    

           Mulki, transnational community activist, Virginia, US- November 2020.


“Trump lost the American election because he is a German-American. His core supporters are American-Germans.  Biden won the election because he is an Irish-American.  His core supporters are Irish-Americans.”

                  Guled, transnational community activist, Aarhus, Denmark, November 2020.

Competing trans-nationalisms  

With persisting political disagreements and recurring, and seemingly irreconcilable rivalries, for most people, the world remains a fragile and an imperfect place. Individuals, as well as societies, continuously struggle with countless limitations and disappointments. Under such existential uncertainties, socio-political processes often occur in strategic dialectical conditions and platforms. This is almost in line with Hegel’s positive dialectical conception, which he argued is necessary for a society’s integration[i]. In contrast Odorno conceptualizes a different negative dialectics- inaugurating disillusionment and eventual disintegration[ii].

Departing from situated socio-political conditions and moving towards more complex transnational social contexts, social forces intensely compete for political power at multiple levels; local, national and transnational. For the restrictive constituents, power remains an end in itself, by mainly maintaining and deploying hierarchy, favorably sustaining status quo while preventing possible unfamiliar prospects. For the more accommodating constituents, power remains purposeful as means to an end, in largely attempting to transforming the society from below and from the middle- and in accordance with changing socio-political circumstances. For most groups, cherished particularistic prioritization could evolve to irretrievably abusive extremes, potentially fostering conflicts and even devastating transnational wars. Often in more pragmatic and inclusive societies, people remain conscious in not falling from such cliff- mainly through their recognition and accommodation for balanced dialectics- thereby forestalling extremisms and potential collapse. With the existence of, more or less, transparent discursive transnational civic spheres, the public continuously discusses and reflects existing and emerging opportunities beyond the narrow individual group preoccupation of unidimensional determination and hegemony. Some might consider it as the decline of individualism in mass society …. In which – there is (there will be) an increasing to and from between the tribe and the mass; within a defined matrix, a multitude of poles of attraction are crystallizing. In both of these images, the glue of the aggregation- which we could call experience, is the lived sensitivity image[i].   Bourdieu agrees with the idea of increased tribalization or neo-tribalization of modern mass societies and their politics. But he suggests that the tribal networking stratifications occur unconsciously through dominant institutional and hierarchical socio-political structures in the society. This evolves into a situation where even the dominated unconsciously internalize and sustain prevailing diverse socio-political inequalities and asymmetries[ii]

The outcome of the recent controversial US election confirms such dialectical and relational socio-political processes. For months, if not years of intense counter mobilizations from below and from the middle, diverse transnational communities in the US contributed to the electoral defeat of Trump and his allies. At the same time, the outgoing eccentric president statistically gained substantial historic electoral support, including appeal to members of the marginalized transnational communities- also those with immigrants and refugee background[i]. This socio-political ambivalence suggests that the prevailing transnational mechanisms of social, political, and economic domination and imbalances preceded and might outlast the turbulent Trump era. The issue is therefore not about an isolated irrationally erratic political leader, who coincidently entered the top political scene and might well disappear into the margins again. It is rather the consequences of a pervasively existing social grievances maintained through diverse transnational, generational, and ideological cleavages.

Such processes emerge from complex interrelated mechanisms sustained firstly by elite preoccupation with dominant neoliberal economic platforms. Such elites emphasize economic prosperity and often couple it with diversified transnational migration restricting policies. Secondly, traditional demographic and generational gap in policy priorities as well as latent ideological differences prevail in societies. Thirdly and consequently an emerging political elite pursues and forms new alignments and realignments. Under such circumstances, major parties with their trusted allies, congregate around strong charismatic leader eventually embracing populist policy praxis. The leadership then insists on delivering and pursuing concrete policies- mainly targeting migrants and minorities.  

It is often, but not always, senior citizens and politically dominant social groups that resist progressive transnational social and political transformations. At the same time, the same groups prefer maintaining favorable transnational economic gains and investments. Most such people mainly long for the past and worry about the future- not only in ideological terms but also in cultural aspects. In their social and political lives, they often long for continuity, cohesiveness and recognizability in the society. Such priorities then trigger the actions and the consolidations of political parties responding to such demands in bringing strong leaders and restrictive policies into the equation. In response, transnational communities join progressive younger generations, intellectuals and cultural personalities countering such tendencies in reversing the shift. Eventually, the two groups might moderate demands and meet somewhere at the middle with compromise (potential synthesis) until new forms of cleavages emerge.

American political disenchantment  

In November 2016, a real state dealer and a TV show presenter became the head of the most hegemonic state in the world. Observers explained the sudden rise resulting from decades of corporate labour outsourcing, distant and often un-empathetic political elites, as well as presumed mass migration from distant cultures[iv].Others connect the drastic transformation with the general “late modernity” crises in which “ignorant armies clash by night” in maneuvering towards sensitive unexplored territories[v]. In practice, the surge with and around Trump’s ascension to power ushered a new form of transnationally destabilizing charisma and praxis somewhat different from Max Weber’s traditional charismatic authority[vi]. This could well be a new form of charisma authenticated by the assertion of transnational conspiracies and post-truth politics in contradiction to what Habermas framed as a legitimate communicative “claim validation[vii]. It could also be the result of “Increasing anxiety among high-status groups rather than complaints about past treatment among low-status groups. Both growing domestic racial diversity and globalization contributed to a sense that white Americans are under siege[viii]. This might also well be a manifestation of the so-called “rural rage” targeting presumably non-responsive transnational liberal elites[ix]. Such political leader could also emerge from the increase of committed social forces mixing elements of transnational fascism with transnational authoritarian populism[x]– that some have levelled as “the menace of authoritarianism”[xi]. Inevitably such complexities constitute deep justification, as well as legitimation, crises in not just within the US’s political establishment and social formation but also politics within and around the world[xii].

About four years later, in early November 2020, majority of US electorates denied Trump securing a second term in office. Instead they elected Biden- a conventional political veteran. Different peoples have different explanations on what the outgoing administration particularly meant for transnational encounters and connections This was an administration with a president who, with the notorious slogan of making “America Great Again”, reignited an ultra-national exclusive agenda. The controversy, as Dallmayr suggests, relate to the perception and conception of unilaterally proclaimed national supremacy. Americans, similar to other societies, long for prestige and esteemed national status. This might not, however, succeed- considering the complexity and diversity of the American society. Obviously, this is a society that, since its formation, has been a transnational nation- probably the most trans-nationalized society in the world. Almost all Americans, except probably natives, originate from somewhere else. In addition, this is also a country, more or less, inhabited by people who, themselves or their ancestors, mostly escaped from persecution and poverty among other nations and societies. Gradually and resolutely this is also a society that succeeded in creating a sort of a nation that, at least formally, most of its citizens could identify with. A society that traditionally provided opportunities in what Americans occasionally and metaphorically refer to as an American “dream”. Comparatively, unlike in other nations, Americans, despite persisting social and political cleavages, insist on hyphenated complex identities. At the same time most are, at least until recently, open for qualified migration of peoples seeking resettlement in America. The attraction of the imaginations and aspirations of diverse nations across the world might have enabled the American society in substituting, particularly since WWII-the declining European colonial powers for global dominance.

However, for Jeffery Sachs, America suffers from debilitating internal and external policy deficiencies. Currently, the US sustains over 70 expansive military bases scattered around the world. This makes the country committed in perpetual wars that threaten both America and the rest of the world. Internally, the American society remains among the most divided and unequal societies in the world, often under severe public deficit and systemic inability in addressing basic health concerns, education and empowerment challenges. Sachs further argues that if national exceptionalism should have ever existed it should be classified as an Scandinavian exceptionalism. The Nordic societies have, according to Sachs, in exemplary fashion, balanced the marked with reasonable societal equilibrium. However, through their relatively resent experiences of migration anxieties, the Scandinavians confronted democratic limitations, which Sachs considers as a temporary or transitional phenomenon which the Nordic societies will eventually resolve[xiii].

Experimental socio-political realignments   

Unlike Jeffry Sachs, classical socio-political theorists such as Alexis de Tocqueville insisted on American political “exceptionalism” particularly in comparison to what they categorized as a more traditional, bureaucratic and predictable European political systems. In furthering this thesis, Seymour Lipset concretizes the American exceptionalism on how the welfare state and the two-party political system function. Comparatively, he contends, the US maintains the ideas of a weak state control over the economy and society, low welfare spending, the absence of a strong working-class movement or for that matter a labour party. Lipset adds that, though substantial power coincides with the executive presidential power, the constitution separates powers in delegating substantial decision-making capabilities to the legislative and judiciary branches of the state[xiv]. For over four decades ago, Lipset and colleagues also analyzed political extremism in the American society, suggesting that such priorities and concerns mainly rest on what they referred to as simplistic understanding and approach to complex causal relations- by exaggerating a single phenomenon on the expense of rigorous analysis of complex interactions and interdependencies in the society[xv]. The current America therefore seems somehow paradoxical. On one hand, it is a nation that due to prevailing existential national aggregate concerns, might consider entertaining new forms of tribal constellations. On the other, this is a highly hyper-trans-nationalized nation within itself hosting citizens representing the globally known traditional and current tribes. Therefore, the idea of a distinctive, socially and materially better organized, singularly dominant tribe, with what Ibn-Khaldun coined as substantive asabbiyya[xvi], might unlike other countries, not succeed within the American society.  

Nonetheless, it was not the Americans that pioneered the prevailing restrictive policies combining economic liberalism with selective and strategic transnational migration efforts. In recent years, much smaller and relatively more homogeneous European countries like Demark led the way. Since 2001, successive Danish elections consolidated centre-right policies. Consequently, the Danish state pursued policies contributing to international coalitions engaging diverse global conflicts. Domestically, authorities differentiated constituents supportive towards restrictive migration policies and those preferring more inclusive migration and integration policies. Such policy restrictions also reflect demographic and generational differences in the society- as well as how different social groups imagine and deal with emerging social cleavages.

Often mastering and deploying the digital technology through social media and other electronic platforms, younger generations transnationally mobilize, normally for more inclusivity in the society, better education as well as employment opportunities. The elders traditionally remain loyal voters in contributing to the transformation and consolidation of power in the society. On their part, the youth are less engaged in politics- particularly in actual voting pattern. Nonetheless, the youth remain mobilized through grassroots interacting within and around educational institutions. Within Denmark, among transnational communities, as well as the wider public, relatively better educated youth, mainly in the metropolis, are becoming more vibrant in public debates and substantive economic sectors, gradually impacting mainstream discourses and policies.

Additional differences between the US and Denmark also include existing diverse political regimes. The US system privileges duopoly, while for instance, most European societies maintain multiparty systems. Apart from providing platforms for expanded public representation, societies moderate through multiple parties allowing civic engagement to flourish, while preventing the rise of authoritarian figures. The issue is therefore not just what critical actors in state institutions do, but also what members of particular parties with diverse policies undertake. In Denmark, so far, the norm has been a coalition formation with multiple co-governing political parties. These parties, occasionally independently and sometimes collaboratively, vigorously campaign and compete for parliamentary seats divided in proportional system. In the past, small parties at the centre had major intermediate role to play. Such parties defended transnational human rights, refugee protection and generally the persistence of democratic transparency and accountability in the society. Since 2001, the elites have broken  such consensus- with the implementation of restrictive policies on among other issues migration and integration.


As Nancy Fraser (in promoting expanded fairness and balanced trans-nationalized public sphere) implies- without transparent de-territorial public sphere, decent human rights opportunities, environmental protection, gender balance, democratic as well as basic freedom rights might not be properly addressed-let alone secured. Instead with diverse non-committed aligning and realigning elites/tribes, operating through mutually exclusive conflictual presumed national spheres, the world might see more suffering as well as more societies qualifying as “the externalization society”. Such societies do not hesitate in consolidating and prevailing, not through legitimate processes of mutual collaboration and balanced exchanges with others, but through the expense of other mostly lesser privileged nations and societies[xvii].


[i]Hegel, G. W. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1977) Translated by A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[ii]Adorno, T. W. (1973) Negative dialectics (Vol. 1). A&C Black.

[iiii]Maffesoli, M. (1995) The time of the tribes: The decline of individualism in mass society. Sage.

[iv]Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice (Vol. 16). Cambridge university press.

[v] election 2020: Why Trump gained support among minorities, Ashitha Nagesh-BBC News

[vi]Alberta, T. (2019) American carnage: on the front lines of the Republican civil war and the rise of President Trump. New York, NY: Harper.

[vii]McManus, M. (2020) Brexit, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Post-modern Conservatism Across the Globe. In The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism (pp. 167-209). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

[viii]Joosse, P. (2018) Countering Trump: Toward a theory of charismatic counter-roles. Social Forces, 97(2), 921-944.

[ix]Montgomery, M. (2017) Post-truth politics?: Authenticity, populism and the electoral discourses of Donald Trump. Journal of Language and Politics, 16(4), 619-639.

[x]Mutz, D. C. (2018) Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(19): E4330-E4339.

[xi]Berlet, C., & Sunshine, S. (2019) Rural rage: the roots of right-wing populism in the United States. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 46(3), 480-513.

[xii]Finchelstein, F. (2019) From fascism to populism in history. University of California Press.

[xiii]Giroux, H. A. (2017) The public in peril: Trump and the menace of American authoritarianism. Routledge.

[xiv]Milstein, B. (2020) Justification Crisis: Brexit, Trump, and Deliberative Breakdown. Political Theory, 0090591720968596.

[xv]Sachs, J. D. (2018) A new foreign policy: Beyond American exceptionalism. Columbia University Press.

[xvi]Lipset, S. M. (1996) American exceptionalism: A double-edged sword. WW Norton & Company.

[xvii]Lipset, S. M., & Raab, E. (1970) The politics of unreason: right wing extremism in America, 1790-1970 (Vol. 5). New York: Harper & Row.

[xviii]Baali, F. (1988) Society, state, and urbanism: Ibn Khaldun’s sociological thought. Suny Press.

[xix]Lessenich, S. (2019) Living Well at Others’ Expense: The Hidden Costs of Western Prosperity. John Wiley & Sons.