European tribalism

One of the weird things you notice about many people in Europe or those who have moved elsewhere is what can only be called a strange type of tribalism. You know the picture: Germans are neat and tidy, if somewhat authoritarian; the Dutch are stingey, even more than the Scots; the English are repressed and don’t wash; the French are arrogant; Italians are corrupt; Greeks are lazy; Turks are losers; Serbs are thugs; Russians are alcoholics; Finns are quiet and carry knives; Swedes are ‘easy’; Arabs are dirty terrorists who oppress women; Australians are primitive and uncultured and the country has roos on every street and doesn’t have ATMs, etc (add others).

At another level, you usually find in everyday conversation that a person is identified by their country of origin: ‘the German across the street’; ‘that Chinese women at the shop’; ‘you mean that Turkish man?’ And on it goes.

Why? Given that I come from a family of European background, I have grown up with this in some way or another. I would suggest that it has to do with the fact that Europe is this weird collection of tiny countries, with myriad languages and ethnic groups – tribes really. (Forget that fact that it impossible to find a pure Dane or Dutch person or Spaniard …) So the way you map the world is in terms of ‘national’ identifiers. As soon as you can name a person’s background, you have him or her pegged into a certain behaviour – as if one’s place of birth has a direct bearing on one’s psychological makeup.

I came across this at a different level in a debate in Bulgaria last year. The others in the group wanted to argue that the definition of a ‘nation’ is ‘one ethnic group’ and ‘one language’. That position quickly becomes unstuck in, say, Canada or even Belgium, let alone an immigration nation like Australia. But they held to it. I was reminded of the debate in Russia before the Revolution and afterwards concerning the ‘national question’, which was tied up with language and ethnic identity. But why was it a ‘national’ question? Same reason, since nation, language and ethnic identity seemed to be inseparable.

How to make sense of this skewed perspective on the world? Apart from the primitiveness of a European perspective on the world, I keep being reminded of Igor Diakonov’s observation in his Paths of History. Viewed from a global perspective, European history and attitudes comprise a huge anomaly that has somehow been asserted as a norm. Maybe it’s time we recognised the anomaly for what it is.


12 thoughts on “European tribalism

  1. I’m sorry but I feel that this post is not up to your usual standard, which is, of course, very high.

    Of course, I agree with you that your list of stereotypes is absurd. But I hope you won’t mind me asking what this shows.

    Does it prove that national identity doesn’t exist? Or that it’s unimportant?

    I’m afraid that using the term ‘tribalism’ doesn’t help. After all tribes do have a real existence is some places.

    London is very cosmopolitan so one gets to deal with people from all over the world on a daily basis. In my work place Brits are a minority, and have been for years. Currently Italians are the largest single group. Needless to say, they don’t fit the stereotype. The same can be said for the other half-dozen or so nationalities. We all get at least as well as when the only groups were English, Welsh, Scots and Irish. Having said that, there are differences. And they do matter. Communication and expectations are real issues.

    1. It’s the spurious connection between a social-psychological state and one’s ‘national identity’ that is the problem. But it seems particularly germane to the collection tiny countries in Europe, as a way of mapping the world.

      1. I’m afraid you’ve lost me there.

        By the way ethnic origins have very little to do with national identity.

        See Defoe

        He made her first-born race to be so rude,
        And suffered her so oft to be subdued;
        By several crowds of wandering thieves o’errun,
        Often unpeopled, and as oft undone;
        While every nation that her powers reduced
        Their languages and manners introduced.
        From whose mixed relics our compounded breed
        By spurious generation does succeed,
        Making a race uncertain and uneven,
        Derived from all the nations under Heaven.
        The Romans first with Julius Cæsar came,
        Including all the nations of that name,
        Gauls, Greeks, and Lombards, and, by computation,
        Auxiliaries or slaves of every nation.
        With Hengist, Saxons; Danes with Sueno came,
        In search of plunder, not in search of fame.
        Scots, Picts, and Irish from the Hibernian shore,
        And conquering William brought the Normans o’er.
        All these their barbarous offspring left behind,
        The dregs of armies, they of all mankind;
        Blended with Britons, who before were here,
        Of whom the Welsh ha’ blessed the character.
        From this amphibious ill-born mob began
        That vain ill-natured thing, an Englishman.
        The customs, surnames, languages, and manners
        Of all these nations are their own explainers:
        Whose relics are so lasting and so strong,
        They ha’ left a shibboleth upon our tongue,
        By which with easy search you may distinguish
        Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English.

        No Roman now, no Briton does remain;
        Wales strove to separate, but strove in vain;
        The silent nations undistinguished fall,
        And Englishman’s the common name of all.
        Fate jumbled them together, God knows how;
        Whate’er they were, they’re true-born English now.
        The wonder which remains is at our pride,
        To value that which all wise men deride.
        For Englishmen to boast of generation
        Cancels their knowledge and lampoons the nation.
        A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction,
        In speech an irony, in fact a fiction;
        A banter made to be a test of fools,
        Which those that use it justly ridicules;
        A metaphor invented to express
        A man akin to all the universe.

  2. What seems to be unique to Europeans is that their tribalism is connected to the nationalistic ideology that you noticed at the debate in Bulgaria. By that, I mean the idea that nation=language=ethnicity, an idea that was propagated in concert with the invention of the modern nation-state (in Europe, not coincidentally). Only when nation-states were formed could European peoples settle colonies across oceans (first Spain and Portugal; then England, France, and the Netherlands; then Sweden; then Germany and Belgium; then Italy). Before that, there was no political organization capable of imperialism on such a costly scale (navies aren’t cheap, after all, so previous naval powers did little but trade and set up new city-states). When those European nation-states found themselves unable to colonize other lands (or had lost their empires), they often went facist (e.g., Hungary and Portugal having lost empires, Romania and Greece making up for never having empires). Facism, of course, being the extreme form of the idea that one state = one nation = one language = one ethnicity.

    1. Well connected! I also wonder whether the idea and practice of the welfare state – as a ‘national’ entity – is connected here. Further, in its transplanted forms, such as Quebec, you get efforts to foster the ‘birth rate’. What they really want is more Quebecois to counter the immigrant ‘flood’.

    1. I had a very good discussion on this, not with M. Renan (whom Marx and Engels critically appreciated), but with a colleague in Ukraine. She pointed out that when Ukraine first became independent, they tried to establish an ethnic state, but that soon became problematic, so there was a conscious shift to what they call a ‘political state’.

  3. Regarding the connection between fascism and the welfare state, I think Stalin said something to the effect that social democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism. Isn’t the base for both social democracy (welfare statism) and social chavinism or national socialism (i.e. fascism) the petty bourgeoisie?

  4. And, can’t we say that, as “totalitarianism” is an ideological means of confusing communism and fascism/Nazism (i.e. communism and anti-communism), similarly nationalism is an ideological means of attaching especially the rural middle-class, peasants, to the bourgeois state, and democracy an ideological means of attaching the urban middle-class, the petty bourgeoisie, to the bourgeois state?

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