Eco on “Ur-Fascism”

For reasons I cannot possibly discern, The New York Review of Books has republished Umberto Eco’s 1995 essay, “Ur-Fascism,” on its website. The piece briefly recounts Eco’s own involvement with Italian fascism before moving out to reflect on the the role of fascism (and, to some extent, communism) in European politics from the 1930s onward. The essay then “peaks” with 14 features of what Eco calls “Ur-Fascism” or “Eternal Fascism.” As Eco makes clear, “[t]hese features cannot be organized into a system” as “many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism.” For what it is worth, I have tersely summarized the 14 points below, with some commentary to follow. You should, of course, read the whole essay and draw your own conclusions.

  1. Cult of tradition (“traditionalism”) that is essentially syncretistic, e.g., blending disparate religions, thinkers, philosophies, etc.
  2. Rejection of modernism (or “modernity,” Enlightenment, etc.) that leads to an elevation of irrationalism.
  3. Irrationalism upheld by “action for action’s sake”; to do is better than to discuss.
  4. Disagreement with prevailing fascist ideology is tantamount to treason.
  5. Fear of difference, manifested as racism.
  6. Appeal to a frustrated middle class, or perhaps any class undergoing hardship or humiliation.
  7. Identify of the nation defined by its enemies; this is coupled with obsessing over a plot by one’s enemies; xenophobia emerges.
  8. Jealousy toward the enemies, e.g., their wealth and prestige. But the enemies are still made out to be weak, conquerable.
  9. Life-as-permanent warfare; pacifism is for the weak and a betrayal.
  10. Popular elitism with contempt for the weak. Elitism emerges from being part of the “right” nation or class.
  11. Educated to become a “hero.” Everyone wants to be a hero; everyone wants to embody the heroic virtues of the fascist movement.
  12. Machismo.
  13. Selective populism without individual rights; the leader interprets the will and needs of the people.
  14. “Newspeak” (in a generally Orwellian sense); the limiting of vocabulary and concepts in order to undercut critical thought and engagement.

Obviously Eco’s intent in drawing up his analysis of “Ur-Fascism” is to keep us on our toes. Fascism is not an ideology of yesteryear; it is an ever-present political danger that “is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes.” Perhaps. Given that certain features of the present political landscapes of both the United States and Europe are reflected in Eco’s list, we might even say that fascism is no longer hiding; it is broadcasting itself openly for all to see (and for a select few to follow). One problem with this conclusion, however, is admitted by Eco at the outset. Some, if not all, of these 14 features of fascism can be found in numerous other political movements; and since the features cannot — by Eco’s admission — be systematized, how many pieces does a particular political movement need before it can be fairly called “fascist”? Nationalism — taken on its own — is not fascism, after all, and yet bald nationalism seems to be what’s at play in the Western political scene today. As for the other 13 elements of fascism, they can be taken or left behind; but there is a certain lack of sophistication to, say, Donald Trump and his followers which may eliminate the possibility that their thinking, longing, hopes, dreams, aspirations, etc. are connected with the “fascist worldview” Eco is trying to warn us about.

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