Over twenty years ago, in 1995, Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum) wrote an essay about fascism for The New York Review of Books.
Eco grew up in fascist Italy, and in his essay he asks why the term “fascism”–something originally applied only to Benito Mussolini’s Partito Nazionale Fascista–has been genericised to refer to any far-right authoritarian state in a way that, for example, Nazism has not. The whole essay is worth reading, but the tl;dr is that Eco identified fourteen key elements that make up what he calls “Ur-Fascism”.
The elements are:
- A cult of tradition, i.e. the lionization of a (usually imaginary) Perfect Past, with accompanying rhetoric about returning to it.1
- An accompanying rejection of modernism. In other words, if it didn’t exist in the Perfect Past, then it’s suspect and needs to be denounced.
- A furor of action for action’s sake. Everyone must be doing something–or seen to be doing something–at all times. “Non-actions”, which include intellectual and academic pursuits like thinking and reflection, are denounced.
- The idea that disagreement is treason. Fascism cannot stand up to scrutiny, so scrutiny must be eradicated.
- This extends into a deep-rooted fear of difference, because difference is implied disagreement.
- This is then all frothed up in an appeal to a frustrated middle class. Weren’t things better in the Perfect Past when we were all the same? Wouldn’t you like to get back to that? If only there weren’t someone stopping you…
- Leading, of course, to an obsession with a plot. It can be an external, international force, or something internal; minority ethnic groups (specifically and historically, Jews) are great because they’re both internal and external. Also, in most cases it’s easy to argue they weren’t present in the Perfect Past and, thus, by definition their presence is both modernist and different (see #2, #4, and #5).
- The perpetrators of the plot (#7) need to be presented in such a way that the frustrated middle class (#6) feels humiliated by their ostentatious wealth and force. However, the frustrated middle class must still be made to feel they can overcome the plotters via overwhelming numbers, leading to the idea that…
- … pacifism is trafficking with the enemy and that life is permanent warfare. However, this battle is presented as winnable: when it is, the plot (#7) will be eliminated, and the Perfect Past will return.
- Because life is war and “all people” (#6) are warriors, there must also be contempt for the weak, manifesting as a popular elitism. That is, “the people” (#6) are The Best… even as they exist in a deeply hierarchical structure of overlords and underlings.
- But because “everyone” (#6) is The Best (#10), everybody is educated to become a hero. To die for the cause is the most noble end.
- The culture of #9-10 manifests as an obsession with machismo, where Men are Men and Men and Heroes.
- The notion of individual rights is replaced by a selective populism. Since The People (#6) is homogeneous (#4), there is no need for “rotten” parliamentary governments. The only thing that drives government is The Voice of The People, as received by the Leader via interpretation of the Perfect Past.
- Finally, the Ur-Fascism speaks (its own variant of) Newspeak. “Ten dollar words” are the domain of intellectuals (#3), progressives (#2), and foreigners (#5). Eloquence and complexity of language are denounced.
The point of Eco’s list is that the Ur-Fascism it describes is adaptable. That is, fascism manifests in so many different ways because it can manifest in so many different ways–or, rather, dressed up in so many different ceremonial robes–while still retaining its essential fascist character.
Also remember that Eco was writing this in the mid-90s, primarily about the wave of fascism that spread through Europe in the mid-20th century. Any similarities to any more modern examples I’ll leave up to the reader to decide for themselves…
- Although Eco’s analysis is much more interesting than I’ve made it sound here. Basically, he’s not talking so much about a return to a traditional past so much as a state where “there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.” It’s a slight difference, but it does matter, and ties in to things further down Eco’s list. [↩]