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Saturday, 17 December 2011

Umberto Eco on Eternal Fascism.


In the essay Eternal Fascism: Fourteen ways of looking at a Blackshirt, Umberto Eco outlines a list of features that are typical of what he calls Eternal Fascism, it is a force which remains in plainclothes today and won't necessarily come out sporting a Swastika for us to spot easily. It could easily take a far more innocent guise. The world is too complex for history to repeat itself and we have to uncover Eternal Fascism for all to see wherever it may hide. He stresses that the features cannot be organised into a single coherent system and there are contradictions between the different features. Eco also notes that the features are typical of other kinds of authoritarianism. Even one of these features is enough for a fascism to coagulate around it, so we find the reason that there are various differences between the Fascist movements which have come and gone. There are differences between the neo-fascist groups of today and the Fascist movements of the 1930s, the English Defence League is not the same as the British Union of Fascists though it shares certain features.

Umberto Eco rightly refers us to the words of FDR in 1938: "If American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land." It should be noted that the democratic system was never betrayed in the US, as the liberal critics of George Bush accuse him of the destruction of the Constitution. There is some truth to the claims of a debasement of old-fashioned liberal principles of freedom and rights. But the political system in the US was designed not to be democratic, nor to be autocratic, rather it was constituted as a polyarchy. This is what Alexander Hamilton called "moderate government" as the Golden Mean between dictatorship and democracy. To be more exact, the political parties can take turns running the state in the favour of the particular interests in which they are ensnared. It was James Madison who held that the government "ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority." The stagnation of American politics combined with economic turmoil leaves the population angry, fearful and confused - this is ripe territory for Blackshirts!


First comes the cult of tradition. Traditionalism long precedes fascism, it was typical of counter-revolutionary Catholicism in the aftermath of the French Revolution and it first emerged in the Hellenistic era in reaction to classical Greek rationalism. In the Mediterranean basin, people of different religions (most of the faiths accepted by the Roman pantheon) started dreaming of a revelation received at the dawn of human history. The revelation had long been concealed in forgotten languages, from Egyptian hieroglyphics to the Celtic runes and beyond to Asia. We can only persist in the interpretation of the obscure messages. The primeval truth could be procured from these ancient messages, each with a sliver of wisdom, and help compose a new culture. It would be a syncretistic culture in the sense of a combination of different forms of belief and practice, which would require a tolerance of internal contradictions. This is where the combination of Paganism, Christianity and race myths come together in Fascist states. It's also the reason that Fascism seeks to posit itself as the Third Position between capitalism and socialism.

So there can be no advancement of knowledge as truth has already been spelled out once and for all. Umberto Eco takes the example of Saint Augustine, not a proto-fascist at all, but points out that it would be symptomatic of Eternal Fascism to combine Augustine with Stonehenge. From a Marxist perspective we may note the importance of traditionalism to Fascism as superstructural to the economic conditions which fostered the regimes of the 1930s. As Terry Eagleton argues, Fascism is a last-ditch attempt on the part of monopoly capitalism to abolish the contradictions which have become intolerable. The traditionalist feature may imply a rejection of modernism, but the Fascists did not regard technology as a negation of tradition. Rather the Fascists were focused on the construction of an alternative modernity beyond the class struggle with a narrative of blood and soil. The Third Reich was proud of its industrial achievements, though the praise for modernism was only the surface of an ideology based on blood and soil. The emphasis is really on the master race, the sublimity of death and self-abnegation.

Umberto Eco notes that the Fascist finds action as beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, reflection because thinking is a form of emasculation. Action is placed above thought. To be more precise it is reaction rather than action. One of the principle differences between a socialist and a Fascist is that the former acts whereas the latter can only react. This is where the propensity for political violence comes from, it takes the reactive form and often seeks to justify itself along such lines. The violent reaction is always justifiable to defend and secure the fatherland. This is the logic which remains in the background of the kind of 'protests' that the former football hooligans of the English Defence League hold. Originally the EDL were the violent wing of the British National Party and it remains in line with the tradition of fascist groups since the British Union of Fascists took to the streets and raised havoc. It is out of this irrationalism that culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with academics, critical attitudes and intellectualism in general.

So the entire educational system underwent a Nazification in the Third Reich, with the employment of major academics such as Martin Heidegger to purge Jewish teachers and implement the desired curriculum. This suspicion of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Eternal Fascism. Hermann Goering was fond of a phrase borrowed from Hanns Johst "When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun" as well as expressions such as "degenerate intellectuals", "eggheads", "effete snobs" and the description of universities as "nests of reds." The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in an attack on the rampant decadence of modern culture and charge the liberal intelligentsia with the betrayal of traditional values. The point of Fascist propaganda was to tap into the irrational drives of the masses and utilise them against particular groups. The propaganda techniques to do so were picked up from the American public relations industry, which was based on the ideas of Sigmund Freud as applied by his nephew Eddie Bernays.

To make distinctions is a sign of modernism and to give into the current of depravity which began with the Enlightenment. The rejection of the modern world was dressed up as a kind of anti-capitalism, but it is the Enlightenment which is the source of decay in the modern world and Eternal Fascism rejects it on such ground. The Nazi slogan "Think with your blood!" comes to mind. The scientific community praises disagreement as a way to further pursue greater knowledge, but the disagreements we may have are treasonous for Fascists because it is a sign of diversity. We should remember the nationalist emphasis on unity and purity which opposes such liberal pluralism as a subversive or destructive influence on the nation. Thus the strange fixation on Pagan rituals, leader worship and Nordic blood myths. The rejection of the Enlightenment in Fascism is what distinguishes it from Stalinism. By contrast, Stalinism considers itself a part of the Enlightenment tradition comes in the form of the show trials held as part of the purges. The suggestion of shows trials for Jews in the Third Reich is unimaginable because there isn't even a semblance of a just society in Fascism.

Eternal Fascism seeks consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the fear of difference and of the Other. The subversive influence of an alien race or culture becomes the principle target of Fascism. The point is to stamp out the forces which have undermined the nation and unity in society. It is racist by definition. The Nazi schoolbooks founded an impoverished vocabulary as well as an elementary syntax in order to limit the instruments of critical thought and inquiry which could undermine the regime. Even boardgames and children's books were produced to further anti-Semitic attitudes among the population. George Orwell invented Newspeak in 1984 as the official language of English Socialism. The elements of Eternal Fascism are common to different forms of dictatorship. Newspeak can even take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show today. With the shock jocks of the Right we find that the words 'socialism' and 'National Socialism' have been emptied out so that Obama can be called a socialist and a Nazi. The meaning of words are intentionally blurred and we see the same thing in Fascism.

The most typical feature of Fascism is the appeal to a frustrated middle-class, which had suffered through the crises of capitalism and intense feelings of political humiliation as in the Weimar Republic. The threat of working-class movements such as trade unions and leftist organisations is also a source of agitation in this instance. The possibility of revolution becomes genuine and the capitalist class begins to get desperate. Eco holds that once the proletarians are petty bourgeois and the lumpenproletariat are marginalised totally from politics then fascism will find its audience in a new majority. The audience have to be humiliated in socio-economic terms as well as political terms, it could be a war but not necessarily. The wealth and force of the enemy is defined in such terms. The Fascist is convinced of his ability to overwhelm the enemy through harsh measures, violence is never out of the question. A continuous shift in rhetorical focus maintains that the enemy is at once too strong and too weak. The inability to evaluate the force of the enemy clouds the capacity of Fascism to win wars.

To people who have been deprived of a social identity, Eternal Fascism offers a clear privilege that we were born in this great country. This is where nationalism comes into the picture, which we might be described as palingenetic (as Eco does not recognise) in that Fascist Italy was the reincarnated second Roman Empire and the Third Reich was the First and Second Reich realised as an alternate modernity. The idea of a rebirth is common, it feeds into a self-pitying and disordered view of the imperial past of the European powers. The nation can only define itself through the exclusion of the Other and the same can be said of the national identity. The Fascist mind is obsessed with an international plot which is taking place and must be stopped for the good of the nation. The people have to feel besieged and under attack in order to flock around identity-markers such as religion and nationality. The plot has to appeal to race hate, the most base instincts of hatred and it relies on the gullible cynicism of the individual to buy into a conspiracy theory in the first place. The plot must be insidious and almost invisible, which is why Jews are perfect given that they are inside and outside at the same time.

Permanent warfare is an inevitably given the nature of Fascism. Life is lived for struggle, pacifism is treason. The consequence of this is an Armageddon complex as enemies have to be defeated, so there must be a last battle or final stand to make and then the movement will have total control of the world. This implies an era of peace and unity afterwards, which stands in contradiction to this doctrine and no Fascist leader has ever succeeded in solving this problem. This doctrine of perpetual war fits in with the popular elitism of Fascism, as it is fundamentally aristocratic and militaristic to the extent of holding contempt for the weak. Each citizen belongs to the best people in the world, but the members of the Party are the best of the citizens and each citizen should join the Party. There can be no patricians without plebeians. The leader knows that the position he holds was stolen and not given to him through the democratic process (though there are exceptions, Hitler being the most infamous), it was the weakness of the masses which allowed him to seize power - this applies even to cases where the Fascists came to power via the ballot box.

The masses need a ruler in this conception, so the view of people differs greatly from the liberal view of human beings as having rights and freedoms - and by extension the political impact of the citizenry in quantitative terms. So the individual often falls in line with the community, as we see with so-called 'safe seats'. Of course, Eternal Fascism rejects the claim of individuals to such rights and the People are a monolithic entity which expresses the common will. No doubt the liberal protection of individuals and minorities from the whims of the majority feeds into fascistic conspiracy theories. No large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Fascist leader becomes their interpreter. As marginalised from the political process, individuals no longer act as citizens but take on the role of the People as a theatrical fiction. Umberto Eco foresees that the future internet version of this populism may take the emotional response of a selected group of individuals as the accepted Voice of the People. The masses are manipulated under Fascism, not disdained as they are in conservative thought.

Out of a qualitative populism, Fascism takes a stand against the "rotten" Parliamentary model and the governments which have been formed as a result of them. There are hints of Eternal Fascism in the doubts raised by politicians of the Parliament's legitimacy, that the government does not represent the Voice of the People as Umberto Eco puts it. Richard Seymour notes that for the Fascist the political system is vulnerable to viruses. So the problem is not capitalism as such but super-capitalism, as Mussolini noted, which should be contrasted with the heroic capitalism of the 19th Century. Of course, heroic capitalism became super-capitalism eventually as it grew decadent. The explanation for the inherent contradictions and destructive capacities of capitalism can be displaced onto a cabal of some kind. It could be the Jews, the Freemasons, the Communists or even a bit of all three as in most cases. This is a very similar logic to the claim that there is a liberal elite which has poisoned American society.

Everyone is taught to be a hero in a strict sense, as the exceptional being which becomes the norm in Fascist ideology. The cult of heroism is joined at the hip with the cult of death. It is not by chance that a motto of the Spanish Falangists was "Viva la Muerte!" which means "Long Live Death!" This motto may have been borrowed from the Iron Guard in Romania led by Corneliu Codreanu who considered Hitler "soft" when it came to the Jews. The view of death maintained by the Fascist is in contrast to the standard views of death, that it is to be faced with dignity and it leads to a better place etc. The Fascist hero craves a heroic death, to the point of impatience, because it is the best reward for having led a heroic life. In this impatience then the Fascist will send other people to die in droves. As a consequence of the impracticality and difficulty of ceaseless war and a heroism based on death the Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters.

The cult of the masculine leader and the heroic death retreats to the bedroom. This is the origin of chauvinist machismo complete with misogyny, as well as intolerance of sexual habits which do not fit into a certain set of standards (from chastity to homosexuality). Mussolini famously said "War is to man what maternity is to woman." Ultimately, even sex is a difficult game to play - the Fuhrer was a masochist in the bedroom who left behind a string of relationships which ended in suicide - and so the Fascist tends to games with weapons as Eco notes "doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise." Plato maintains that the tyrant lives the life of dreams, where there is no conceivable 'crime' that we can commit and we can follow our desires to their end without consequence. The tyrant becomes what he was in his dreams, eating forbidden fruit and killing at a whim. Nothing is off the table, from incest to mass-murder. Dreams become reality for the tyrant. Perhaps these words were prescient of the indulgences of Fascist dictators.

1 comment:

SgtMD said...

Exceptionalism plays a role in forming a fascist state. Herman Hesse mentioned the popularity of exceptionalist thinking in pre WW1 Germany in his book Demian. We are starting to see shades of the same kind of exceptionalist attitudes here at home in the USA. Fascist rule not far away?