How Umberto Eco Tagged Today’s Fascists

Two decades after the late Italian novelist and intellectual Umberto Eco published a devastatingly specific guide to modern fascism, his definitions seem even more prescient.

Sebastian Scheiner

PARIS — Here in Europe, people know a thing or two about fascism.

It is not, as it was when Bernie Sanders was young, a term tossed around by left-wing activists to describe anyone opposed to progressive ideas, whether presidents or parents.

No, here in Europe, by various names—as Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism—it was the living, vibrant, vicious force that led directly to the most horrific global war in history. More recently, it took root and lingered as an active ideology in Latin America, providing a crude foundation for the repressive revolutions and dirty wars that raged from the ’60s through the ’80s.

Indeed, the fundamentals of fascism are with us today, in the killing fields of ISIS-land, in the madness of North Korea, and also, sadly, in battered democracies from newly militaristic Japan to xenophobic, isolationist parties in Europe. And, yes, in somewhat more subtle forms fascism can be found on the campaign trail in the U.S. of A.

When I saw last week that the great Italian intellectual Umberto Eco had died, I was reminded of a long essay he wrote for the New York Review of Books more than two decades ago. And, re-reading it now, it strikes me as an important guide to our thinking about this powerful, almost primal political force, its seductive strength and its inherent, enormous dangers.

Because fascist regimes in the 20th century all had their differences and contradictions, Eco, a semiotician whose studies of the way meaning is communicated led him to write such brilliant novels as The Name of the Rose, sought to identify, precisely, the fundamentals of what he called “Ur-Fascism or Eternal Fascism.”

When Eco published his essay in June 1995, the world seemed marginally more benign, and considerably less fascistic, than it does today. Yes, very bad things happened. The Rwandan genocide had just ended; the Balkan wars were raging. A Japanese cult had released Sarin gas in the Tokyo metro. But Communism was dead just about everywhere except Cuba and North Korea, and “terrorism” was far from being a national obsession in the United States. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had not yet been murdered, and “Middle East peace” actually seemed plausible. The Russian empire had collapsed and cosmonauts were welcoming American astronauts to their Mir space station.

Yet even then, Eco wrote, “Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes.” He warned that, “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.”

And so it has come back, and, yes, we should point the finger.

Every one of Eco’s 14 points is worth keeping in mind as we study the global political landscape today, even if chills run down our spine when the comparisons leap out at us.

These are essentially Eco’s 14 points:

The cult of tradition, the idea that a revealed truth at some earlier historical moment “has been spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.” The quasi-Quranic preachings of the so-called caliphate in the self-described Islamic State are an obvious contemporary case in point. But so is the willful, aggressive obscurantism of some political religiosity in the United States, which leads us to the next factor.

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The rejection of modernism is not the same as a rejection of technology. (Look at ISIS and the Internet). Rather it’s a rejection of the Enlightenment, of the Age of Reason, “seen as the beginning of modern depravity.”

“In this sense,” Eco wrote, “Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.

Once rationalism is out of the way, then action for action’s sake comes to be seen as “beautiful in itself” and “must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection.” Not to put too fine a point on it, Eco wrote that for the eternal fascist “thinking is a form of emasculation.”

“Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism,” Eco told us, “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.’”

In this century, in the United States, anti-intellectualism can present itself as a denunciation of “political correctness.”

For the Eternal Fascist, Eco wrote, disagreement is treason.

And eternal Fascism is racist by definition, according to Eco, it “grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference.”

One of the most typical features of historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, Eco wrote: “a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.“

In this atmosphere of irrationalism, prejudice, and frustration, inevitably there arises an obsession with a plot, and, as Eco noted, “possibly an international one.”

“The followers must feel besieged,” said Eco. “The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside.” Today, in the United States, there are Mexicans and Muslims. In Europe, Africans … and Muslims.

By the same token, the followers must feel humiliated “by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.” Thus, for instance, we hear today that America is weak, that Russia is better led, that the Chinese take the United States to the cleaners on trade deals.

At the same time, as Eco put it, “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.” We can make America great again, it just takes the right man to lead us.

This brings us to what Eco called 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. But there cannot be patricians without plebeians.” Whether he comes to power by military means (like the “caliph”) or through elections (as Hitler did) the Leader “knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler.”

For the Eternal Fascist, life is permanent warfare and talk of pacifism is “trafficking with the enemy,” according to Eco.

Then there’s the matter of official heroism, or, as ISIS and al Qaeda would have it, “martyrdom.”

“In such a perspective,” Eco wrote, “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. It is not by chance that a motto of the [Spanish] Falangists was Viva la Muerte (in English it should be translated as ‘Long Live 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.”

Part of this picture is machismo. “Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters,” said Eco. “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.”

Eco notes the prevalence of what he calls selective populism, where “citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People.”

And he concludes by warning against what George Orwell called Newspeak, the language of totalitarianism that the author of 1984 identified most closely with Stalinism but was and is common to all brands of fascism. “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,” Eco told us. “But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.”

Now, looking around the world map, there’s no real problem identifying these 14 points with the Islamo-fascism (an appropriate term here) of ISIS or even the Muslim Brotherhood. We can see it on the rise, clearly enough, in Poland, Greece, France, The Netherlands, Britain, and other European countries. It’s certainly appropriate when describing Russia’s Vladimir Putin, however much he might loathe the term.

But where does Eco’s Eternal Fascism fit in American politics? Can it be that many of the figures parading before us in this presidential campaign year appeal to the worst instincts of “the People”? Do they play on atavistic fears and resentments, frustrations and humiliations? Are they marked by their irrationalism and anti-intellectualism, their hatred of things foreign, their desire to be seen as heroes and their gun-toting machismo?

Oh, hell yeah. But I don’t need to point the finger. Umberto Eco is doing it from the grave. As he wrote more than 20 year ago:

“Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: ‘If American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.’

“Freedom and liberation,” Eco wrote, “are an unending task.”