Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Umberto Eco, Ur-Fascism and the present-day United States

In the modern-day world where the left call their conservative counterparts fascist for being populistic, and the right call their liberal opponents fascist for seizing the sphere of public speech, it’s very confusing to understand who’s who and what such as ambiguous term as Fascism actually means.

In order to resolve the contradiction, I decided to consult an author who has always held an undeniable authority in the sphere of intellectual discourse – Umberto Eco, and his famous essay ‘How to Spot a Fascist’. Umberto Eco himself has grown up under the regime of Mussolini, so he’s certainly familiar with Fascism at first hand.

However, after reading the essay, I was left with more questions than answers. It seems that the modern world (or, at least the present-day United States) has ended up in quite a perverted place in history, where all agents dominating political sphere on the both sides of political spectrum utilize methods that can be called oppressive: either through discourse, or through a direct political action.

Umberto Eco claims that Fascism doesn’t have a single essence, an ideology or philosophy on its own, as each regime is vastly different from others. The ultra-catholic regime of Franco in Spain was vastly different from the republican Fascism of Mussolini, which in turn was very different from the neo-Pagan Nazism of Hitler.

However, Umberto Eco states that all fascist regimes still have a number of traits in common. He then identifies 14 features that can be attributed to the so-called Ur-Fascism (‘eternal’ or ‘primordial’ fascism):

– Cult of tradition, rejection of modernity, condemn of culture in favor of action

– Non-acceptance of criticism, encouragement of conformity, appeal to the majority of population (regardless of what social class it currently constitutes)

– Xenophobia, a state of permanent war and invention of fake enemies

– Constant reference to ‘the people’ and their ‘common will’, popular elitism

– Cult of heroism and death (‘Viva la Muerte!’), machismo

– Invention of a ‘Newspeak’

So, according to the characteristics listed above, can we for instance label Donald Trump as fascist? Yes and no. Yes, because he definitely uses machismo and xenophobia in his political discourse, and perhaps indulges into invention of fake enemies. Then, can we call the US Democratic Party fascist? Again: yes and no. Obviously, it doesn’t use the aforecited ideas in its political rhetoric. However, it definitely takes advantage of some fascist political methods: fostering of conformity, non-acceptance of criticism, and invention of its own Newspeak.

Fun fact: checking the present-day Russia against the list, you get a 10/14 match. Just saying.

What’s however particularly interesting in the essay of Umberto Eco is its conclusion. Eco writes about his memories from the morning after the Italian Fascism has officially collapsed:

‘My mother sent me to buy a newspaper. I went to the nearest newsstand and saw that there were newspapers, but the names were different. Moreover, after a quick glance at the headlines, I realized that every newspaper said something different’

So he concludes:

‘Freedom of speech means freedom of rhetoric’

‘The message celebrated the end of dictatorship and the return of freedom: freedom of speech, of the press, of political association’

Well, this final argument seriously outweighs the previous points outlined in the essay. It presents perhaps one essential feature of Fascism, without which it could never be considered a despotic and oppressive regime: suppression of political freedoms.

Imagine two examples. First: a populist political party that uses some of the 14 points from above in its rhetoric in order to appeal to majority of people. At the same time, the party acts in accordance with all principles of democracy and respects all basic freedoms: freedom of speech, press and associations. Let’s call this party ‘fascist in words’.

Now imagine another case: a political party that doesn’t have a populist rhetoric, but suppresses many essential democratic principles and political freedoms: censors the speech, bans people from public discourse for saying a wrong thing, controls majority of the press, and expresses hostility towards political associations that go against its official agenda. Let’s call it ‘fascist in deeds’ or ‘fascist in action’.

It’s hard to say which party can be defined as more fascist here according to the official definition of Umberto Eco, however there’s no doubt which one is more totalitarian, despotic and oppressive. Fascist rhetoric versus fascist action – this is what we have come to in the 21st century.

In the end of the essay, Umberto Eco gives a warning to the future generations by saying that Fascism doesn’t always come in black uniforms, manifesting swastika signs and speeches about reopening Auschwitz:

‘Alas, life is not simple. Ur-Fascism can still return in the most innocent of guises. Our duty is to unmask it and to point the finger at each of its new forms – every day, in every part of the world’

So, beware.

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