by David Safier
When I wrote the post, Mobs and mob psychology, Mike Bryan took me to task for being naive. He wrote in a comment:
reason it felt so unfamiliar is because you were experiencing the
populist irrationalism that is the raw material of fascistic movements . . . You don't
hang out with enough white supremecists, fundamentalist Christians, and
right-wing conspiracy cultists to recognize their vibe. Welcome to the
new Republican Party.
Mike included a link to a 1995 essay by Umberto Eco, Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt. And since Mike pays my salary [a tired joke I somehow never get tired of repeating. In fact, I'm in his debt for giving me a ready-made forum, complete with an established website and existing audience], I read the essay.
My Jewish heritage teaches me to be ever vigilant of signs pointing to a recurrence of the frightening birth pangs of Nazi Germany. But "signs" are not the same thing as reality. Many incipient fascist-tinged movements either die or remain eternally marginalized.
Is the recent incarnation of the conservative movement as a screaming, irrational mob the real deal, something to be feared in the long term, or is it a momentary spasm that will wear itself out of its own accord? I don't know. I hope the latter and fear the former.
"History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme," Mark Twain said (or at least the line is attributed to him. It's certainly witty and insightful enough to be part of his endless list of quotable lines). So is this a moment where history is rhyming in a real and dangerous sense, or are we overemphasizing the importance of these deranged know-nothings who have kidnapped the national conversation?
Here are some excerpts from the Eco essay where he lists the features of what he calls "Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism." I'll let each of you make your own call.
[The "tradition" is a combination of a number of contradictory belief systems.] 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.
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. . . .
2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism.
. . . 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).
3. 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. . . .
5. . . . 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 definition.
6. Ur-Fascism 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. . . .
7. 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.
. . . 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 the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot
must also come from the inside. . . .
10. . . . 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 in the world, the members or the party are the best
among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of
the party. . . .
13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say.
. . . 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. . . .
14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. [Newspeak is a term from Orwell's 1984]
. . . 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.
Because my excerpts are fragmentary, they do damage to the coherence of Eco's argument. In context, his concepts have a more logical basis than the way I have presented them.