Eternal fascism:  Umberto Eco on the malaise that never goes away

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Umberto Eco’s essay on ‘ur-fascism’, or eternal fascism, appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1995. Benito Mussolini’s memory in the national psyche was still painful, and there were many who wanted to forget about it and ‘move on’. That made Eco want to get to the heart of the notion of this terrifying phenomenon, and he did so quite brilliantly.

His conclusions are as relevant now as they were then. Eternal fascism, he concluded, has many different forms. There was Mussolini’s fascism, there was Nazism and in Spain Franco’s hyper-Catholic Nationalism. Argentina and Chile have experienced what we would term fascist regimes, and they all tend to have certain features in common, some of which – worryingly – we also see in supposedly democratic governments.

Eternal fascism never goes away

So Eco made a list of the recurring themes of ur-fascism. This is my take on it.

  1. At the heart of ur-fascism is a cult of tradition based on revelations, supposedly made at the dawn of history. And these messages often contradict each other. Fascism is always ‘syncretistic’ in that it merges differing ideas. What matters is the vague primeval truth to which fascists always allude. Fascism rejects the Enlightenment, which holds that reason allows humankind to advance learning, a central feature of any civilised country. Many Conservatives reject the notion that the study of British history is a never-ending progress. Rather they believe that the noble story of the nation’s past somehow ‘exists’ and is something of which every patriotic citizen must be proud. Those with a more nuanced take on our often not so glorious past are ‘traitors’ – “You hate your country!” 
  1. The rejection of the spirit of Enlightenment, epitomised by The Wealth of Nations (1776) and The French Revolution (1789), is a rejection of the modern world. Trump wanted to make America great again, to return to some golden age in the past. Brexiters dream of an age when an ‘Englishman’ could be proud. The past was better and rationalism is considered depraved. Fascists claim to hate global capitalism, which they don’t, but what they really dislike is liberal democracy.
  1. Culture wars are part of every fascist movement. For fascists, action is based on feeling rather than reason. Since democracy encourages, and indeed relies on, reflection and critical attitudes, ur-fascism distrusts the intellectual world. Universities are feared and many fascists only want vocational subjects to be taught. When the Argentinian junta came to power it immediately closed the philosophy and sociology departments in the universities, these being seen as hotbeds of radical thinking. Liberal intellectuals are accused of betraying ‘traditional values’. 
  1. Due to its illogical and contradictory nature, ur-fascism must reject analytical criticism. Disagreement becomes treason. ‘Lefty lawyers’ who challenge the government by insisting that the law be correctly interpreted and respected fall into this category of “enemies of the people”.  
  1. Disagreement is a sign of diversity, so fascists fear that and whip up our innate fear of difference.  Every fascist regime stirs up fear and loathing of intruders, so fascism is always xenophobic and racist. The Rwanda deportation plan is classic ur-fascism. 
  1. Fascism plays on the feelings of frustration and perceived humiliation of those who feel their place in the world is precarious, or who have seen a drop in their status. The prosperous (but very parochial) boomer middle class of the English provinces supposes that it is humiliated and threatened so Brexit appealed to this group, just as it also appealed to those citizens of the provinces who really were disadvantaged. 
  1. Identity politics is central to fascism. Many people feel that they lack a real identity. This is particularly true of the most vulnerable and least well educated. Fascism tells them that their identity and reason d’être can be derived from the good fortune to be born in the best country in the world. This gifts them an innate superiority. One has only to look at the Twitter feeds of Brexiters with their flags and claims to be “proud Briton … love my Queen and country … love Boris … support the armed forces … hate lefties and woke … love Europe but hate the EU … Remoaners blocked … etc”. Fascism is always nationalistic, although claims to autonomy by minority national groups, like the Scots and the Catalans, are dismissed out of hand. 
  1. The syncretism of ur-fascism is evident in what I call the “victim/tough guy narrative”. This embodies George Orwell’s concept of doublethink – the power of holding two contradictory beliefs. For the Nazis, the Jews were portrayed as both inferior and amazingly powerful. Ur-fascists ensure that their followers feel humiliated by the power of their enemies, whilst at the same time convincing them that the nation to which they belong is the greatest and can overwhelm its enemies. Somehow the enemy is both too weak and too strong! This, in a nutshell, explains why Johnson’s EU negotiations have gone so badly. “We are sovereign equals, the greatest, and we are being bullied”. All at once.
Totalitarian Leaders - CC BY-Sa 4.0
Totalitarian Leaders – CC BY-Sa 4.0
  1. Fascism requires that life is lived for struggle, so the struggle must go on. However, as we here in Britain are discovering, no country can prosper if the fight is never ending. Conservative policy is to keep up a war of words with the EU, which unites their followers and diverts attention from the country’s real concerns – and solves nothing. 
  1. Ur-fascism is a form of ‘popular elitism’ based on the cult of the charismatic leader who despises and abuses their underlings whilst persuading them that he or she loves them and they belong to the best people in the world. Familiar?
  1. In ur-fascism we are all heroes of the struggle. This is what Johnson meant when he claimed that Brexiters were like the Ukrainians in their fight for freedom. In reality of course, it is the gullible masses who pay the price.
  1. Fascism is obsessed with sexual matters, hence the endless machismo and disdain for women and differing sexual habits. The current obsession with the supposed threat posed by transgender persons is an example of this and it is no coincidence that Johnson has joked about “tank-topped bum boys”. 
  1. The emotional response of a selected group of citizens is presented as the will of the people and plebiscites are a useful tool. For Margaret Thatcher, quoting Clement Atlee, referendums were “the device of demagogues and dictators”, a sort of selective populism which was used to manipulate the masses on single issues on a single day, after which the leader then sets him or herself up as the final interpreter of the ‘common will’. The populism of referendums is bound to clash with parliamentary democracy, and we end up with a situation in which populist politicians question the legitimacy of parliament because it goes against the supposed ‘will of the people’. Johnson’s attempt to prorogue parliament is an example of this.
  1. Populism speaks newspeak. “Take back control”, “breaking point”, “Make America Great Again”, “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” – a limited vocabulary and elementary syntax. Such language limits critical reasoning and, of course, stirs up emotions. 

Umberto Eco must have the last word:

We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again. 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.”

Ed: As an aspiring linguist I’m intrigued as to why Umberto Eco, an Italian, should have used a German prefix, ‘Ur-‘, meaning ‘thorough’, ‘absolute’ or even ‘original’, to denote generic fascism.

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