Ur-Fascism cover

by Umberto Eco, 1995.

Eco's prose has left me in the dust on occasion in the past. I missed so many references, or failed to keep up with the relentlessly nested layers of meaning, that I was simply holding on for the ride. This essay matches Eco's characteristically dense, intellectual prose, studded with foreign phrases, and references to contemporary thinkers, historical movements and causes and revolutions and dictatorships, and their antecedents. But it is short, and perhaps in contrast to the flourishes of brilliance that comprise his fiction, this is a factual piece, and is written to be understood rather than to dazzle. It begins by establishing Eco's credentials to speak on this topic, with the first of several entrancing first-hand indications of what it was like to grow up as an intellectual young child in Italy under Mussolini, and the revelations that followed at the opening up of his world at the end of WWII.

He differentiates between the truly totalitarian fascism of, say, Nazism, which subordinated all of life to the state, with the looser, less coherent Italian fascism, noting that this did not derive from any increment of tolerance, merely the absence of a sufficiently encompassing underlying philosophy. Despite this, it is the Italian mode, which was the first right wing dictatorship in modern history, from which subsequent dictators seem to have drawn most stylistic inspiration, and from which our generic term of "fascism" derives.

The last half of the essay describes how fascism means different things in different contexts, but the various incarnations through history have exhibited sufficiently overlapping sets of symptoms as to glean a family resemblance. Eco enumerates 13 identifying traits, noting that the presence of even one of them can be sufficient to allow fascism to coagulate around it. Mostly for my own benefit, (with my own parenthesised observations) they are, briefly:

  1. Fascism incorporates a cult of tradition. This can be deployed as an automatic refutation of any undesirable new ideas, enshrining in their place the immutable wisdom of a mythical past. In addition, traditionalism undermines the perceived value of learning in itself - pre-emptively thwarting troublesome intellectuals. This anti-intellectual received wisdom, in order to provide whichever justifications are required of it, requires the syncretistic combination of various ancient beliefs. As a result it must tolerate contradictions. Indeed, the more stark they are, the better they serve the purpose of selecting followers who will obediently think whatever they are told.

  2. The rejection of modernism. This is a powerful recruiting tool, enabling the fascist to leverage any dissatisfaction of the populous, laying claim to the emotionally appealing universal solution of a regression to simpler, happier times, while simultaneously rewinding societal progress in equality or liberty. While Nazis and fascists love their technology, this is a superficial tool, used in support of a deeply regressive project, namely the restoration of power to those with the strength and the will to take it. This irrationality goes hand in hand with anti-intellectualism.

  3. Value vigor and action above reflection. Thinking is emasculation. Culture is suspect insofar as it aligns with any sort of critical theory or values. Regard centers of analysis or learning such as libraries or universities with suspicion for harboring - or even indoctrinating - people of opposing political viewpoints. Again, this is deeply intertwined with (1) & (2), and its prevalence pre-emptively defuses any kind of mainstream understanding or critique.

  4. All of the above make it inevitable that any given fascist regime will be rife with internal contradictions. While modernity achieves its intellectual prowess through the nurturing of diverse thought, fascism cannot possibly withstand any critical analysis. Hence, disagreement is treason.

  5. The fascist appeal to popularity exploits and exacerbates the natural fear of the other, and hence is always inherently racist. Expect demonization of immigrants, foreigners, other nation states, as well as other marginalized groups, taking advantage of whatever local contemporary biases and fears might be present.

  6. The above exploitation takes the form of an appeal to the frustrations of the middle class - or whichever class can be most useful and readily mobilized by persuasion that their problems are caused by some identifiable other.

  7. Modernity genuinely does disintegrate traditional social bonds, along with sources of identity and meaning. Fascism's solution to this is to unify the disaffected under the only remaining banner common to them all, that of patriotism and nationalism. This unity is strengthened by emphasis on the country's enemies, and especially by conspiracy theories of secret international plots against the nation. Followers must feel besieged (as Trump advised the January 6th crowd that "America is under siege"). Eco makes special mention, in the U.S, of Pat Robertson's The New World Order, but potential sources of conspiracy are innumerable.

  8. Followers can be riled into frenzy of humiliation at their enemies' wealth or power. Jews control the world and its money. Instead of coastal liberals, refer to coastal elites. But at the same time, the instinct to action requires that enemies can easily be defeated. Hence enemies are simultaneously too weak and too strong. Herein lies one of fascism's greatest weaknesses, responsible for several lost wars, in that it is constitutionally incapable of objectively assessing an enemy's strength.

  9. Goad followers into violent action with rhetoric not just of a struggle for survival, but by declaration that life is struggle, and hence pacifism is conspiring with the enemy.

  10. While fascism appeals for the participation of the population by promising empowerment for the majority, its naked power lust is a fundamentally aristocratic endeavor. The leader takes power from those too weak to oppose him, disdaining both conquered rivals and the subjugated population. Power struggles within the Party are vicious, and the party rides roughshod over the citizens, who likewise are leagues above the disenfranchised. The hierarchy is strict, steep, and ruthless. Elitism abounds, as does fear of losing one's status.

  11. The redress of modernity's threadbare social fabric, by emphasizing nationalism and strength, further erodes interpersonal solidarity. Each individual must becomes their own hero. Strong, independent, and utterly without recourse in times of need. The cult of the hero is intimately entwined with a cult of death. Having only the narrow causes of the nation and the Party to live for, the hero yearns for a heroic death - or, better, to demonstrate their power and status by sending others to their death.

  12. The preeminent will to power, so often frustrated in an aristocratic, dog-eat-dog social order, manifests alternately in things like machismo, disdain for women, and phallic fetishization of weapons. Repressed insecurity breeds an outward contempt for unconventional sexuality, including chastity.

  13. Under fascism, the people have no innate rights, and hence no material preferences or expression. Instead, the leader pretends to interpret the Will of the People. This charade requires the party apparatus to select and amplify some emotional response of the people, and present it as representative, so that the party can be empowered to act on behalf of that supposedly majority. Consider the amplifications of manufactured outrage about culture war issues, so that elected representatives are empowered to act decisively on their own preferences, against the majority of the population's wishes. This leads directly to confrontation with institutions such as a parliament. Fascism will therefore cast aspersions on any properly functioning parliament's legitimacy.

  14. All fascisms make use of their own varieties of NewSpeak, using an impoverished vocabulary and syntax, in order to limit the instruments for critical reasoning. This may appear in apparently innocent forms, from schoolbooks to popular talk shows.