Rene — Eco — Fourteen ways of looking at a blackshirt

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Fourteen ways of looking at a blackshirt
Umberto Eco, New York Review of Books, excerpted with permission in the
Utne Reader, Nov./Dec. 1995, no. 72, pps. 57-59
In spite of some fuzziness regarding the difference between various
historical forms of fascism, I t hink it is possible to outline a list of
features that are typical of what I wold 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.
The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the *cult of tradition*.
Traditionalism is of course much older than fascism. Not only was it
typical of counterrevolutionary Catholic thought after the French
revolution, but it was born in the late Hellenistic era, as a reaction to
classical Greek rationalism. In the Mediterranean basin, people of
different religions (most of the faiths indulgently accepted by the
Roman pantheon) started dreaming of a reelation received at the dawn of
human history. This reelation, according to the traditionalist mystique,
had remained for a long time concealed under the veil of forgotten
languages — in Egyptian hieroglyphs, in the Celtic runes, in the scrolls
of the little-known religions of Asia.
This new culture had to be *syncretistic*. Syncreticism is not only , as
the dictionary says, “the combination of different forms of belief or
practice”; such a combination must tolerate contradictions. Each of the
original messages contains a sliver of wisdom, and although they seem to
say different or incompatible things, they all are nevertheless alluding,
allegorically, to the same primeval truth.
As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth already
has been spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting
its obscure message.
If you browse in the shelves that, in American bookstores, are labeled
New Age, you can find there even Saint Augustine, who, as far as I know,
was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonhenge — that is
a symptom of Ur-Fascism.
Traditionalism implies the *rejection of modernism*. Both Fascist and
Nazis worshiped technology, while traditionalist thinkers usually reject
it as a negation of traditional spiritual values. However, 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. The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is
seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can
be defined as *irrationalism*.
Irrationalism also depends on the cult of *action for action’s sake*.
Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without,
reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is
suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust o
the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur_Fascism, from
Hermann Goering’s fondness for a phrase from a Hanns Johst play (“When I
hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such
expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,”
and “universities are nests of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals
were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal
intelligensia for having betrayed traditional values.
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*.
Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and
seeks 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
Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. that is why one
of the most typical features of this 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 time, when the old “proletarians” are
becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the
political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this
new majority.
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. Tis is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can
provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus 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 to appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must come from
he inside. Jews are usually the best target because they have the
advantage of being at the same time inside and outside. In the United
States, a prominent instance of the plot obsession is to be found in Pat
Robertson’s *The New World Order*, but, as we have recently seen, there
are many others.
The followers must feel *humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force
of their enemies*. When I was a boy I was taught to think of Englishmen
as the five-meal people. They ate more frequently than the poor but
sober Italians. Jews are rich and help each other through a secret web of
mutual assistance. However, the followers of Ur_Fascism must also 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
For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived
for struggle. Thus *pacifism is trafficking with the enemy*. This 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.
Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is
fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism
cruelly implies *contempt for the weak*. Ur-Fascism can only advocate a
popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world,
the member of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen
can (or ought t0) become a member of the party. But there cannot be
patricians without plebeians. In fact, the Leader, knowing that his power
was not delegated to him democratically but was conquered by force, also
knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are
so weak as to need and deserve a ruler.
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. It is not b chance that a motto of the Spanish Falangist
was *Viva la Muerte* (“Long Live Death!”). In nonfascist 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.
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
Ur_Fascist hero tends to play wi6the weapons — doing so becomes an ersatz
phallic exercise.
Ur-Fascism is based upon a *selective populism*, a qualitative populism,
one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but
the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a
quantitative point of view — one follows the decisions of the majority.
For Ur-Fascism, however, the individuals as individuals have no rights,
and 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 responses 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.
*Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak*. Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in _1984_,
as the official language of what he called Insoc, English Socialism. But
elements of Ur-Fascism are common to different forms of dictatorship. 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. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of
Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular
talk show.
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 blackshirts 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 — ever day, in every part
of the world. Franklin Roosevelt’s words on 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, facism will grow in strength in our land.” Freedom and
liberation are an unending task.