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Umberto Eco’s Lessons on Ur-Fascism

The late Italian philosopher and novelist can help us understand the politics of Trump and Bernie.
Umberto Eco

“Ur-Fascism,” wrote the Italian thinker Umberto Eco,

derives from individual or social frustration. That is why 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. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois… the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.

He continued:

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. This 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.

Eco, who passed away on Friday, was familiar with his subject matter. He had been born 10 years after Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome; as a boy, he won a “voluntary, compulsory” essay contest for “young Italian Fascists—that is, for every young Italian.” The essay question was “Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?” [“My answer was positive,” he wrote. “I was a smart boy.”]

Italian fascism, Eco noted, was unlike that of its Nazi neighbor to the north. The Germans had Mein Kampf, Aryanism, and so forth, an ideological framework coherent enough to ensure that even the farthest reaches of culture could be evaluated for compliance. “There was only a single Nazi architecture and a single Nazi art.” Fascism was more pliant. It was against the King, then it was for him, then it conquered Abyssinia and made him an emperor, then it opposed him again. Its student societies, wrote Eco, became training grounds for its opponents: “New ideas circulated without any real ideological control. It was not that the men of the party were tolerant of radical thinking, but few of them had the intellectual equipment to control it.” There were divergent artistic and architectural movements, some of which manifested “exactly the reverse” of fascist ideals.

The net result was “a fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions”; Mussolini himself “did not have any philosophy: he had only rhetoric.” And, wrote Eco, what was true of Italy was true of the general phenomenon of fascism around the world: there is a common form, an “Ur-Fascism,” beneath vastly different fascist regimes. While nobody wants to bring back the fascism of old (save for a few oddballs drawn to the taboo: becoming a fascist is the Stuff White People Like version of joining ISIS), Ur-Fascism “is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes…. [It] can come back under the most innocent of disguises.” And Eco identifies 14 traits of Ur-Fascism. They’re worth reading in their entirety, as is the larger piece in which they’re embedded—Eco’s writing is witty and provocative, all the more impressive since English was but one of at least seven languages in his command. Historians of fascism would probably quibble with some of the finer points, but when the old monster is depicted in such broad strokes, we can blink and for a split second imagine we’re seeing something from the present. Eco’s Ur-Fascism has, if you will, echoes.

Take the frustrated middle class, socially humiliated, squeezed from below, with old social identities fading. Isn’t this a situation familiar today? As the editorial in the latest issue of The American Conservative, “After Neoliberalism,” opines, “That economic populism [as promoted by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders] should find a foothold in both parties after the Great Recession and eight years of lagging prosperity under Barack Obama is not entirely surprising…. A void is opening in American politics.” And the malady isn’t just economic. Our culture has experienced rapid moral shifts that expose unsteady foundations. Old sources of authority and objects of respect—police, historical greats, etc.—are pilloried. Old social hierarchies are under attack; ordinary people and their values are mocked, especially among bien-pensant elites. And the idea that hard, honest work will yield a comfortable life—the core American idea, if we ever had one—doesn’t feel true anymore. The principle distinction within the middle class is now whether sending your children to college will leave them in severe, or merely moderate, debt peonage. And the intense competition at all levels of education reflects a growing fear that hard-earned success might not help your children enjoy the same. A world of social critique and thwarted ambition is a breeding ground for nihilism in the best and worse in the worst.

Eco also saw a “cult of action for action’s sake” in fascism. “Thinking is a form of emasculation…. culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes….the critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism,” the root of the cultural maladies fascism sought to eradicate. In a world of social chaos and murky values, the fascist’s bold measures appear otherworldly, supernatural, as marks of superiority. The fascist acts “before, or without, any previous reflection”—meaning his confidence and clarity are illusions: he knows the right path forward because walking resolutely makes the path right. Thinking before acting, on the other hand, reflects weakness of character, makes someone “low energy”; when they act—if they act at all—it will be in useless half-measures. This sort of disposition would allow someone (say, a businessman with no political experience) to proclaim he will solve even the thorniest problems. Iran’s nuclear program? We’ll fix it in a week, and we’ll get them to pay us. Illegal immigrants? Gone. Trade deficits and decades of job loss in manufacturing? Fixed.

Of course, there are no perfect analogues for the Ur-Fascist in American politics, and there likely never will be. Americans are not a mystical people, yet Ur-Fascism is. Truth, for the Ur-Fascist, was revealed “at the dawn of human history,” but was shattered, hidden in a thousand sources, “concealed under the veil of forgotten languages—in Egyptian hieroglyphs, in the Celtic runes, in the scrolls of the little known religions of Asia.” The little fragments of the “primeval truth” must be pieced together from a thousand sources, some contradictory. Thus, for example, the fascist world’s weird fascination with archaeology, with Zoroaster, with the Vedas. This disposition is extremely weak in America: Hotep and Odinism are curios, not major intellectual currents. Eco:

If you browse in the shelves that, in American bookstores, are labeled as New Age, you can find there even Saint Augustine who, as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge—that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.

So unless Sanders announces he’s put a hex on the 1 Percenters through the power of crystals, or Trump declares his campaign to be a struggle against “Ahrimanic dark forces,” we’re probably not facing real ur-fascism. Similarly, few in America “crave a heroic death,” and the “cult of action” is weak. Fascists do not have 401(k)s; fascists are not entrepreneurs. But Eco’s list has value even for analyzing utterly nonfascist political trends. Consider the Ur-Fascist’s representation of the enemy:

The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies…. However, 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. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.

There is nothing that makes this error innately fascist; indeed, having lost a few wars lately, we might do well to watch out for proclamations that our nation’s foes put us in existential danger, yet can be easily crushed.

Eco’s notion of “selective populism” is also worth examining:

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, 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.

Our leaders nowadays are more likely to be heckled by the crowd than heiled by it; the radical democracy of social media means political movements have a greater danger of dissolving into a dozen tiny, fanatic sects, not falling behind a new Duce. Yet Eco thought technology could revive the Common Will, that “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.” Isn’t this the point of Twitchy on the right or about half of the “X said Y and got SHUT DOWN on Twitter” pieces on the left? Mass-scale social media enables us to find a thousand backers for even our oddest opinions; its algorithms, given time, push us to see only those with whom we agree. Ideological monocultures are the new default; finding opposing viewpoints requires constant effort. That is where Eco was wrong: writing before the Internet was social and algorithmically optimized, he could not see that the new Leader, the new interpreter of the Common Will, is the self. The crowd is back, and it is everywhere. Wherever we turn, whatever our choices, personal or political, right or wrong, the crowd will be there with us, chanting our name, shouting: Onward!

John Allen Gay, an associate managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences. He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.



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