Let me state from the outset that this essay is not pointed at any particular political party or candidate in the United States. I write it, not as a political scientist, but as a Catholic deacon who is trying to understand the current state of American political life; consider this a small reflection undertaken as part of my own formation of conscience.
I have written it also as a retired Navy Commander who has had a longstanding interest in the nature of leadership and in the styles of leadership exercised in any human institution. I have written elsewhere, for example, on authoritarian leadership in religious institutions. Therefore, I ask that readers not assume
or presume anything other than I find it fascinating on its face and that I do believe there are characteristics discussed herein that warrant our reflection during the current election cycle here in the United States (not to mention its possible applicability to other nations as well).
To explain a bit more, my generation was born shortly after the end of World War II. As a child growing up in the 1950’s, I was always fascinated by the history of that war, especially since most of our parents and their families and friends had gone into the service and fought against the Axis powers or took jobs here at home which supported that effort. One of our uncles was a paratrooper in the “Band of Brothers” who jumped into France on D-Day, and his letter to his brother following D-Day had a strong impact on all of us. (I’ve blogged about this before.) One of the first term papers I ever wrote in high school was on the history of D-Day itself, with Uncle Joe’s letter contributing significantly to the effort. The question which fascinated me as a child and continues to haunt me to this day is this: How could an otherwise brilliant people such as the Germans, to take just one example, come under the spell of someone like Adolf Hitler? Couldn’t they see and understand what seems so obvious to everyone today? What did they “miss” about him? More important, if they could “miss” Hitler, what would prevent other intelligent people from missing the boat in the future? “It could never happen here” just doesn’t seem to cut it, in light of Hitler and the German people; I’m sure they thought the same thing.
So it was interesting recently to come across a 1995 essay by Umberto Eco, the great Italian author (The Name of the Rose), scholar and philosopher, entitled “Ur-Fascism.” Written for the New York Review of Books (22 June 1995), it may be read in its entirety here. It is on the points raised in his article that I want to reflect now. Eco ends his article by writing,
Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances – every day, in every part of the world. [Emphasis added.]
Eco begins his article by recounting his own wartime experience as a boy in Italy during the final years of the war, and his own growing awareness of what was happening around him. He then writes,
I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it. [Emphasis added.]
So, taking him at his word, let’s consider his fourteen “features” of fundamental (“ur“) fascism. Notice well his caution that these do not constitute a coherent system of thought and action, but his final caution is apt, that just one of them needs be present to create a bloody (“coagulate”) fascism. Here is his list. I offer them in his order and with his emphases. For some of them, I simply report them as written; with others, I offer modest commentary.
CHARACTERISTICS OF UR-FASCISM ACCORDING TO ECO
- The Cult of Traditionalism: Don’t Let Reason Get in the Way
Eco points out the first feature of Ur-Fascism is a cult — worship — of tradition. This of course does not deny the importance of tradition itself, as I read him. Rather it is a question of emphasis and loss of balance: when this emphasis on tradition is taken to an extreme that it becomes traditionalism, an extremist point of view. Traditionalism taken to this extreme is found in other times, cultures and systems beside Fascism, of course. In fascist hands, however, traditionalism becomes focused on past glories, past identities, past expressions of truth understood in radical opposition to various forms of rationalism and rationalistic thought. Eco points out that such a response is ancient, reflected in various schools of thought that reacted negatively to classical Greek rationalism. In fact, perhaps the best way to think of this traditionalism that Eco is talking about would be as a kind of Gnosticism. As a result of this worldview, there is no need for new learning, and it reflects an extreme anti-intellectual stance: “Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message,” Eco writes. So, Ur-Fascism would contend mightily with those who suggest that there might be other points of view to consider: this would explain frequent criticism of “intellectual elites” and others who not only seek to uncover the Truth that has existed for all time, but who might also suggest that this Truth might be understood in various ways under differing circumstances. In short, the Fascist says, “We know the Truth, so don’t listen to the ‘intellectual elites’ who will only confuse you.”
2. The Rejection of Rational Modernism: “All that is New is Bad”
For this reason, Eco says that this extreme Traditionalism carries with it a rejection of all that is modern. Here we Catholics need to be cautious with the terms. I do not believe that Eco is using the term “modernism” as we sometimes see it used in late 19th and early 20th Century ecclesial discussions of “Americanism” and the like. Here I believe Eco is speaking far more broadly about anything that is “modern” and at apparent odds with “Tradition.” Eco explains:
Even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon Blood and Earth (Blut und Boden). The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life, but it mainly concerned the rejection of the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course). The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.
3. Irrationalism: Cult of Action for Action’s Sake
Such irrationalism is based on what Eco calls “the cult of action for action’s sake”. The fascist sees action as good in itself and therefore action is taken “before, or without” any prior reflection. In the fascist view, thinking is a form of emasculation.
Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.
When we hear candidates today making promises of immediate action upon assuming office, are we listening to echoes from the past? References in stump speeches to “real Americans” over against those “who live in ivory towers” reflect this kind of radical dichotomy between action and contemplation. It seems to me that the real indicator of Ur-Fascism here would be the demonizing of the opponent, making “the intellectuals” into an enemy.
4. Disagreement as Treason
Eco’s words on this point need no explanation:
The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.
Several election cycles ago, someone published a piece — I can’t remember who or where — that pointed out the increasing use of American flags as backdrops to political speeches during rallies. If one candidate showed up in front of four flags, the other candidate would go to ten, and on and on. The implication is clear: if you agree with me, you are a patriot “like me,” but if you disagree with me, then you are unpatriotic and probably a traitor. The more heated the rhetoric and the optics, even if the word “treason” itself isn’t used, the more this association is made.
5. The Fear of Difference/Racism
Yet again, Eco is succinct and on point:
Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.
As we continue confronting racism in our country (and around the world), fear against “others” whether this is expressed through language about race, immigration, or terrorism. Fear is a normal enough emotion, but language and policy that “exploits and exacerbates” fear of the other (Eco: “the intruders”) crosses the line into fascism.
6. Individual or Social Frustration
Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.
In our own day, this would seem to be reflected quite obviously in the growth of certain movements, such as the “Tea Party” and in our ongoing debates about immigration policy, especially in light of a struggling and “frustrated middle class”. Such groups make the claim that they speak for this angry and disenfranchised middle class.
7. Nationalism and an Obsession with “Plot”
Certainly, sometimes people are out to get us! Terrorists have made that terribly, tragically, and repeatedly obvious. However, look what Eco points out:
To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. . . . At the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.
Consider that opening clause: “to people who feel deprived of a clear social identity.” Do we experience that reality in our society today? When people feel powerless, forgotten, disenfranchised, it is easy to look for that which will give a sense of power, belonging, and identity. Therefore, anything or anyone who threatens that identity will become the enemy who is “besieging” us. Political rhetoric which creates, emphasizes or exaggerates “the plot” against “our people” quickly crosses into fascistic language and behavior. Here again, we see that fear directed against the “other” which we saw earlier, this time writ large.
8. Humiliation by Others
The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. . . . However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.
What a fascinating observation! People are to feel humiliated. I was particularly struck by the notion of humiliation by the force of enemies. When we discuss foreign policy today, especially on strategies about how to deal with ISIS and other forms of terrorism, people often complain of being powerless: how can a superpower be apparently powerless in dealing with such a threat? In the heat of political debate on this issue, we hear echoes of Eco’s “continuous shifting of rhetorical focus” in which the threat is characterized as too strong on the one hand, or too weak on the other. His conclusion is stunningly apt: a fascist government will always lose because “they are constitutionally incapable” of an objective evaluation of the threat. After all, if we could evaluate objectively, there would no longer be the humiliation the fascist seeks.
9. Life Lived for Struggle
For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare. This, however, brings about an Armageddon complex. Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world. But such a “final solution” implies a further era of peace, a Golden Age, which contradicts the principle of permanent war. No fascist leader has ever succeeded in solving this predicament.
Have you ever known a person who is always in some kind of struggle, no matter what is going on in their life? Some years ago in the cartoon strip Li’l Abner, artist Al Capp introduced a character named Joe Btfsplk who was always down on his luck and with a rain cloud always over his head. In fundamental Fascism, struggle is not something that is transitory leading to an eventual peace, but rather struggle is the point of life. It is no coincidence that Afolf Hitler’s prison manifesto was titled Mein Kampf: “My Struggle”!
In political rhetoric we hear from many candidates about “war against” this or that: drugs, terrorism, whatever — but the war is never won. Most people want there to be a victory in these struggles so that we can live in peace; the fascist mindset, however, wants to keep the struggle going.
10. Populist Elitism
Ur-Fascism [advocates] a popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. [The fascist leader] also knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler.
We have had many political conversations over the last twenty years or so about “American exceptionalism”, which risks easily crossing over into Eco’s notion of belonging “to the best people of the world,” while demonizing opponents (including opposing political parties). Notice the implied cynicism about the character (“weak”) of the people; only the Leader can save them. He is their strong-man, their Hero.
11. Heroism is the Norm
With these ideas of life-as-constant-struggle coupled with populist elitism, it is not surprising that what will be valued most is “heroism”: the people want and need a hero, and they are themselves called to become heroes. Reading Eco, I was reminded of German philosopher Friedrich Nietsche and his concept of the ubermensch (Super-man); his philosophy had direct influence in Hitler and others.
In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the
hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. . . . In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.
12. Transference to Sexuality
In light of our highly sexualized society in general, and the often reported sexual improprieties (and sometimes outright crimes) on the part of certain politicians, Eco’s point here is insightful:
Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the UrFascist hero tends to play with weapons – doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.
13. Selective Populism
For Ur-Fascism. . . the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. . . . There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People. Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments. . . . Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.
I was immediately struck by Eco’s remark about the internet. Consider how politicians and political parties today rely on social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like. This “internet populism” risks becoming taken as the true and proper voice of the all the people. Couple this with the general frustration and dissatification of most Americans with the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the Congress, we should probably be alert for the odor of fascism (Eco: “we can smell Ur-Facism”).
14. Impoverished Vocabulary and Newspeak
Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in 1984, as the official language of Ingsoc, English Socialism. . . . But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.
American politics has always been jingoistic, using words as slogans representing movements, goals and objectives. Eco’s point here, though, is well worth considering: when does language become a weapon in the constant war, a weapon designed to control and coerce? What is the language of our public discourse these days? I think most of us would agree, regardless of political affiliation, that what passes for cultured discourse today is a far cry from that of our predecessors.
CONCLUSION: Where to go from here?
My point, as I stated at the outset, has been to review the characteristics of fascism as presented by the late writer, Umberto Eco. I do so with no agenda in mind than to offer a cautionary message. This is not about Republican versus Democrat, liberal or progressive versus conservative, Trump versus Clinton. It is about a worldview. There are other worldviews, of course, and as time permits I may attempt similar essays about them.
For deacons, I submit that the next step is to compare and contrast ideas such as these with the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, especially those directly related to political life. We need that as part of our own formation of conscience but also as we attempt to help others. That task exceeds the scope of this particular essay, however. I hope to turn my attention to such an effort in the near future.
I conclude this essay with a final, well-known quote from Umberto Eco. It seems an appropriate summary statement of his comments on ur-fascism:
“Nothing gives a fearful man more courage than another’s fear.”