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Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco: A Practical List for Identifying Fascists


Fascism is present even in the most progressive democracies; some points for identifying its component parts.

The word “Fascist” is used with great ease and lightness in our own time. It’s applied as a kind of “cult insult.” Someone or something is Fascist when trying to impose arbitrary laws or rules on others. In recent history, Fascism was a mystical ideology and political movement, one founded by Benito Mussolini in Italy during the period between the two world wars. By extension, the word has been used to refer to Nazism and other totalitarian movements. What do contemporary “Fascisms” have in common with the historical ones?

The question was taken up by the recently deceased Italian novelist and semiotician, Umberto Eco, who plunged into the word “Fascist” to clarify some of its implications. Eco distinguished this, for example, from Hitler’s Nazism, although he conceded that the “fascist game can be played in many ways, and the name of the game doesn’t change.”

In an essay published in the New York Review of Books, Eco distilled the 14 typical elements of “Ur-Fascism or Eternal Fascism,” while warning that, “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.”

  1. The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”
  2. The rejection of modernism. “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. The cult of action for action’s sale. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
  4. Disagreement is treason. “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.”
  5. 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.”
  6. Appeal to social frustration. “[…] one of the most typical features of the 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.
  7. The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”
  8. The enemy is both weak and strong. “[…] 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.”
  9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”
  10. Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”
  11. Everybody is educated to become a hero. “in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”
  12. Machismo and Weaponry. “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 Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.”
  13. Selective Populism. “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.
  14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”

In reviewing these points, it’s difficult not to think of current “television dictators,” in which politicians exercise a selective populism instigated by xenophobia, and in which the same political class is chosen from an elite of charismatic and photogenic people. This is presented without any preparation in critical thinking nor in the art of governance. Fortunately, the rise of any new form of totalitarian power has always arrived accompanied by renewed forms of resistance, and in which difference and collaboration predominate (in place of indifference and collaboration-ism). We hope there’s time to learn from the past so as not to repeat its mistakes in the future.


*Image: A history of Rome (1919) by P. V. N. Myers / Creative Commons

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