Eco on Fascism

When I was in high school I thought Utne Reader was the bees knees and one summer I even managed to stumble through Foucault’s Pendulum all the way to the end. Didn’t understand a goddamn thing, but Umberto Eco took on the mantle of  intellectual superhero in my imagination. So picture the waves of nostalgia that came washing over me this afternoon as I rediscovered an Eco piece published by Utne, squirreled away amongst ancient file folders full of xeroxed articles.

The fall semester of 2002 I was a greenhorn grad student and I shared full responsibility with another grad  for a service-learning course on American multiculturalism called UNITAS — the twist was all the enrolled students lived together in a themed dorm. So this was at the peak of post-9/11 hysteria. Good times. Required reading included this essay that by its date, November 1995, must have first caught my eye as a freshman in college. It’s still a keeper, so I thought I’d share it with you. Here it is in precis.

Eco, Umberto. 1995. “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt.” Utne Reader, No. 72. Nov-Dec 95. Reprinted from The New York Review of Books (June 22, 1995).

Eco acknowledges that many of these traits are contradictory and representative of other kinds of despotism, nevertheless he feels it is possible to outline the qualities of an “Ur-Fascism”. I especially keep my eye out for #8.

  1. The cult of tradition. “There can be no advancement in learning. Truth already has been spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.”

  2. Rejection of modernism. “Even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements… 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. Action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”

  4. Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism.”

  5. Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”

  6. Appeal to a frustrated middle class. “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.”

  7. Obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged.”

  8. Followers feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. “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.”

  9. Life is permanent warfare. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy.”

  10. Contempt for the weak. “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.”

  11. Everybody is educated to become a hero. “The Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die.”

  12. The Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. “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. “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.”

  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.”

Would you like to know more?
 

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR 'hidden collections' grant to describe the museum's collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

17 thoughts on “Eco on Fascism

  1. You really see the enemy is too strong/ the enemy is too weak thing at work in contemporary American conservative gender politics. Like this story from today’s WaPo.

    “We are almost a minority now,” he said as the evening went on, referring to those who continue to believe that marriage should be only between a man and a woman. “And it makes it all that much more important not to listen to those who would judge us. I know we may go through persecution as we evolve into this open-minded society. But I told my son, whatever you do, don’t worry about others judging you.”

    It’s my favorite insight from this Eco piece. May it come in useful for you down the road.

  2. The fall semester of 2002 I was a greenhorn grad student and I shared full responsibility with another grad for a service-learning course on American multiculturalism called UNITAS — the twist was all the enrolled students lived together in a themed dorm. So this was at the peak of post-9/11 hysteria. Good times.

    Was this was the semester the incoming freshmen were held at knifepoint and forced to read the Quran?

  3. I had read that Starship Troopers the movie sucked. Now I am totally convinced. Heinlein’s politics were military-friendly but nothing like the facist regime the film presents — a functioning democracy with one qualification. To get a vote you had to volunteer to serve, demonstrating your willingness to put yourself in harm’s way for the sake of others, and you didn’t get a vote until after you left the service. The assumption is an idea that goes back to the Greeks and Romans: to be a citizen you have to been a soldier. Note, too: in Heinlein’s fictional universe, there are no gender or racial limitations on service.

  4. Mateo – Yes. And the Chancellor got dragged before the state legislature and they asked him for his party affiliation.

    John – Starship Troopers the movie is AMAZING. Better than Robocop, even.

  5. [T]he Chancellor got dragged before the state legislature and they asked him for his party affiliation.

    Ah, the birth pangs of the 24-hour news cycle. I am very, very rarely ashamed to be from North Carolina but that one did the trick. The whole incident was simply mind-bottling.

    Better than Robocop, even.

    Robocop is frighteningly prescient. Like my friend Eric said over at his blog last summer, RoboCop literally predicted the future.

    There’s a remake scheduled for next winter, BTW. This would normally mean less than nothing to me, but the director did Bus 174, Elite Squad (talk about riding the line between glorification and critique of fascism!), and a film involving Changon but really about the Yanomamö.

  6. My friend Chris facebooked me to say he recommends Jeff Herf’s book “Reacionary Modernism” and for film, Visconti’s “The Leopard” and Bertolucci’s “The Conformist.”

    He writes, “As an interesting sidenote, back in the day, all Marines were required to read Starship Troopers. Make of that what you will!”

  7. He writes, “As an interesting sidenote, back in the day, all Marines were required to read Starship Troopers. Make of that what you will!”

    It goes on and off all of the services’ professional reading lists, usually for the junior officers. My friend Eric’s brother Michael has a post about ST over at their blog, too! Great minds, Matt.

  8. Query: Matt, Mateo, have either of you read the book? Taken note of the author’s biography or the time at which it was written? Even Eric’s brother Michael’s post is based entirely and illustrated with scenes from the movie, which Heinlein fans, at least those I have known, consider a travesty.

    That Marines were required to read the book (not see the movie) is hardly surprising. Heinlein was an Annapolis graduate, writing during the Cold War, and much of the starship trooper training he describes was lifted straight from Marine Corps training. And the philosophy class is far more subtle than the crude, fascistic parody that the movie presents. One memorable bit begins when a student offers the proposition, “Violence never settles anything,” to which the instructor replies, “Tell that to the Dodo or the city fathers of Carthage.”

    We may start from the assumption that to settle something is to reach a verbal agreement that allows both sides to walk away peacefully. We take no note of C. Wright Mills’ classic observation that unless a shared vocabulary of motives can be found, the only alternatives are fight or flight. We may not like Mao Tse-tung’s “Power grows out of the barrels of guns” or Justice Holmes view that the laws of all nations are grounded in a monopoly on the legal use of force, but can we deny the force of their arguments? We admire the moral courage of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but avert our eyes from their martyrdom and the fact that it was soldiers who integrated high schools in Little Rock and the University of Mississippi.

  9. Query: Matt, Mateo, have either of you read the book? Taken note of the author’s biography or the time at which it was written?

    I’ve never read anything by Heinlein. I know RH loved cats, created fictional worlds in which the institution of incest was normalized, and said that no war had ever been won by a Department of Defense after the Department of War was renamed thus.

    That Marines were required to read the book (not see the movie) is hardly surprising.

    As a big sci fi fan I know that some people automatically consider anything within the genre as risible. I haven’t read the book so I can’t give any opinion as to its individual merits. I assume the fact that services have asked their junior officers to read it is reflective of its use as a touchstone for discussions of small unit combat leadership. That seems unproblematic to me. Now, I have observed amongst literature majors that fictional works are sometimes taken as proxies for reality. That always strikes me as problematic.

    We admire the moral courage of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but avert our eyes from their martyrdom and the fact that it was soldiers who integrated high schools in Little Rock and the University of Mississippi.

    Guardsmen, more specifically. Says this proud son of a former NCNG officer. ☺

  10. Matteo, I read lots of Heinlein, probably the whole oeuvre, when I was in my teens and twenties. Now when I return to the books, it is partly sentimentality and partly a reminder of how much the world as envisioned by SF writers back then has turned out very differently. Heinlein could, for example, imagine a world in which Brazil was a global superpower and starships driven by antimatter torches could approach the speed of light, maintaining communication with Earth via telepathy. But the starship navigators still used slide rules. He remains an interesting writer because of the way he bridged the world views of hippies and military veterans.

    A round of applause for the NCNG.

  11. Heinlein could, for example, imagine a world in which […] starships driven by antimatter torches could approach the speed of light, maintaining communication with Earth via telepathy. But the starship navigators still used slide rules.

    Sort of (but only sort of) a subtrope of Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better.

  12. Totally different context. The book was written before the invention of calculators, let alone personal computers and cell phones. Besides, whose kinetic weapons are we talking about, slingshots, boomerangs, bows-and-arrows, Bushmaster rifles, rail guns? We anthropologists are supposed to pay attention to stuff like that before we start analyzing tropes.

  13. But returning to Matt’s original post. How many of Eco’s fourteen points apply to anthropology itself? One and two for sure, at least in the way other cultures are conceived. Any others?

  14. The book was written before the invention of calculators, let alone personal computers and cell phones.

    Certainly before microprocessors, certainly not before the invention of the handheld calculator.

    How many of Eco’s fourteen points apply to anthropology itself? One and two for sure, at least in the way other cultures are conceived. Any others?

    Seven, at the very least.

  15. And probably nine, though that one seems to be pretty common amongst professional academics in general rather than academic anthropologists in particular. At the risk of getting the stink eye, there are other vocations in which years of skills acquisition and apprenticeship do not result in cushy financial circumstances—jazz musician and museum conservator come to mind—but not all of them have the same institutionalized moaning found amongst academics. (Not saying that all academics moan. Am saying that other academics are unlikely to call you on it if you do.)

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