Umberto Eco: Ur-Fascism

by Bob Schwartz

Celebrated Italian author and scholar Umberto Eco (1932-2016)  published an article in 1995 entitled Ur-Fascism .

Eco grew up during the time of Mussolini. In the article, he jumps from memories of that experience to describe some varieties of fascism and other types of totalitarianism. Not all are well-defined fascism, he says, but he does identify the core characteristics of what he calls Ur-Fascism.

I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would 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.

Eco goes on to list 14 features of Ur-Fascism. This is the excerpted list; please read the article for an expanded explanation. And as you read it, please consider which of those features you might be seeing now.

1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition….As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning.

2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism….In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.

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, any previous reflection.

4. No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism.

5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference.

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. This is the origin of nationalism.

8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies….Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.

9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.

10. 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.

11. 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.

12. 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 with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.

13. 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, 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….Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments.

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.

Eco closes with this:

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 Black Shirts 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—every day, in every part of the world.