II. The Unending Task

Yesterday I wrote about Orwell’s 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” where nationalism meant a manner of thinking that could attach itself to more than just a state. Orwell says he chose the word because it was “the nearest existing equivalent” to the phenomenon he wanted to describe.

Fifty years later, in 1995, famed Italian author and literary theorist Umberto Eco wrote his own reflections on the same kind of thinking, or a variant of it, that he called Ur-Fascism, in which he asked “Is there a ghost stalking Europe (and other parts of the world)?

Although focusing on a specific cluster of beliefs, Eco understood it partook of that wider mode of thinking to which Orwell referred.

Even though political regimes can be overthrown, and ideologies can be criticized and disowned, behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives.

He starts with a question.

It is worth asking why not only the Resistance but the Second World War was generally defined throughout the world as a struggle against fascism. If you reread Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls you will discover that Robert Jordan identifies his enemies with Fascists, even when he thinks of the Spanish Falangists. And for FDR, “The victory of the American people and their allies will be a victory against fascism and the dead hand of despotism it represents.” Why was an expression like fascist pig used by American radicals thirty years later to refer to a cop who did not approve of their smoking habits? Why didn’t they say: Cagoulard pig, Falangist pig, Ustashe pig, Quisling pig, Nazi pig?

He answers in typical erudite fashion, and it’s worth reading the bulk of the essay.

Fascism became an all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a fascist regime one or more features, and it will still be recognizable as fascist. Take away imperialism from fascism and you still have Franco and Salazar. Take away colonialism and you still have the Balkan fascism of the Ustashes. Add to the Italian fascism a radical anti-capitalism (which never much fascinated Mussolini) and you have Ezra Pound.

Eco goes on to identify 14 characteristics of Ur-Fascism.

I should be clear at this point that I am employing Eco’s words in support of a thesis he did not make. As an Italian who grew up under Mussolini, he was interested in the genus fascism as distinct from its various species, whereas I am interested, as Orwell was, in the entire family of thought of which fascism is a genus.

From our historical standpoint, it’s clear that the various and diverse species of authoritarian thought are rather like weeds. Some of them look very different from one another, and no matter how many times you pull them, they keep growing back — which is why I am comfortable excising from Eco’s essay those characteristics that apply to the family as a whole rather than fascism in particular. (Not every genus has the Right’s emphasis on machismo, for example.)

The first of course is Appeal to Social Frustration. These movements do not rise in a vacuum but rather at times of economic or political uncertainty, when the middle and working classes feel eviscerated or powerless. This signals a failure of democracy, and so the solution, to double-down on democratic reforms, strikes people as counterintuitive.

Amid disillusionment (with democracy and politics more generally), there arises an urge for Action Over Reflection. Because this kind of thinking doesn’t resist scrutiny, it is quite hostile to critical thought, while at the same time borrowing criticism’s cloak. It criticizes everything and everyone, in fact — except itself.

To keep its adherent from sinking into reflection, it agitates them continuously. What it does, it does in groups, and what it does is primarily attack anyone who disagrees, for Disagreement Is Treason. They are never that blunt. Rather, it is argued that any step away from the consensus is a step back, thereby enabling the enemy to step forward, with the result that every single issue a purity test and every nuanced disagreement a betrayal.

This applies broadly. A feminist can’t read Bukowksi, except to mock or criticize him. So, too, a conservative the Koran. I once knew of a church back in Oklahoma that was deeply suspicious of musicals. (I never could figure that one out.)

Since everyone who is not with us is against us, there is an immediate Obsession With Plots. Saboteurs, both foreign and domestic, are hiding in every bush, and every enemy act, particularly if its successful, is prima facie evidence of a plot: Russian interference, a secret cabal of pedophiles, Syrian terrorists, whatever.

This Enemy is Both Strong and Weak. On the one hand, it represents an existential threat. On the other, it’s doomed to fail. I remember seeing this clearly for the first time under the Presidency of George W. Bush, whom the New York Times assured me was such an idiot that he couldn’t speak English properly (more on the obsession with language in a minute), and yet he was somehow masterminding a global oil-based autocracy.

Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter both assured conservatives that liberals weren’t even worth talking to, thus insisting on a Popular Elitism while at the same time arguing that one of the principle reasons the enemy wasn’t worth talking to was because they were elites. The message was clear. “You should only listen to us.”

If you do, you can become a hero, because Everybody is Educated to Become a Hero. After some inculcation process — if it’s not a century-old treatise by a dead economist, then it’s White Fragility — you’ll not only see the enemy everywhere, you’ll see that they are literally out to destroy us. And that makes you the hero, because we can’t win without you.

Finally, Newspeak — a characteristic that probably deserves its own post. Since we reason in language, the way to control reason is to control language. Hence, all of these movements display an inordinate obsession with controlling what can be said. Words like Nazi and Marxist are redefined so as to create false associations or otherwise grease the mental machinery and make it easier to think in absolutes.

On the Left, words and meanings are often proliferated so as to water down their value and turn all thought into a kind of porridge. On the Right, it’s a stricture. On defense of purity, words and meanings are often restricted, neologisms especially, and there is usually some canon upon which we are to stand upright.

We might roll our eyes today at authoritarian Left demanding “sensitivity” edits, such as removing the N-word from Huckleberry Finn, but there is a very long history on the authoritarian Right of, for example, blocking “salacious” content from comic books or popular music.

Eco ends as Orwell did.

On the morning of July 27, 1943, I was told that, according to radio reports, fascism had collapsed and Mussolini was under arrest. When my mother sent me out to buy the newspaper, I saw that the papers at the nearest newsstand had different titles. Moreover, after seeing the headlines, I realized that each newspaper said different things. I bought one of them, blindly, and read a message on the first page signed by five or six political parties. The message celebrated the end of the dictatorship and the return of freedom: freedom of speech, of press, of political association. These words, “freedom,” “dictatorship,” “liberty,”—I now read them for the first time in my life.

We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again. Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It 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… Freedom and liberation are an unending task.