Jul 012019
Satirical sketch from German broadcaster ARD

London Mayor Sadiq Khan caused controversy recently by likening US President Donald Trump to the “fascists of the 20th century”. Far right leaders in different EU countries have similarly been accused of being fascists. But how can you tell if the accusations are justified, or simply tasteless name-calling?

Italian writer Umberto Eco was born in 1932, 10 years after Mussolini came to power in Italy. grew up under a fascist regime. In 1995, he wrote an essay for the New York Review of Books with the title Ur-Fascism or Eternal Fascism. After describing his own experience, he noted that there is some ‘fuzziness’ about what fascism actually is.

Nonetheless, he proposed 14 typical indicators of Ur-fascism. In whichever country you live, you may wish to keep these indicators in mind to be able to recognise when political leaders are drifting towards fascism. As he noted when introducing them, “it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”

Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts 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.

Umberto Eco, 1995

1) The cult of tradition

According to Umberto Eco, this new culture had to be ‘syncretistic’ – not only the combination of different forms of belief or practice but also tolerant of contradictions. “Each of the original messages contains a sliver of wisdom, and whenever they seem to say different or incompatible things it is only because all are alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth.”

“As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.”

2) Rejection of modernism

In more recent times, we have seen various political figures around the world campaigning against globalisation. At the time Umberto Eco was writing, it’s effects were less obvious and the internet had yet to be widely used. For him, “the rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life, but it mainly concerned the rejection of the Spirit of [the French Revolution in] 1789 (and of [US Independence in] 1776, of course). The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity.”

3) Action for action’s sake

“Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. … culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism … .” So if you hear political leaders pouring scorn on experts, the intelligentsia, the establishment or modern culture for “having betrayed traditional values”, these are an indicator of fascism.

4) Disagreement is treason

“No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.” If you see people being harassed or accused of ‘treason’ or ‘betrayal’ for criticising or disagreeing with ‘the truth’, this is an indicator of fascism.

5) 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.” Across Europe, various political leaders have played on public fears of immigrants for, for example, taking jobs, living off public services, etc. This too is an indicator of fascism.

After a weekend in which London Mayor Sadiq Khan highlighted the stabbing of two teenagers, President Trump criticised him, retweeting an apparently Islamophobic tweet by far right personality Katie Hopkins.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary and Tory leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt defended President Trump’s attack on Sadiq Khan. Others have pointed out that London’s murder rate is still relatively small compared to major US cities.

6) Appeal to social frustration

According to Umberto Eco, the presence of “a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation” provides ripe territory for fascism. In such a context, it may not be long before a political leader appears and attracts popular attention by promising to take quick and radical action (whether or not that action will address the crisis or humiliation).

To take the example of the UK, Politics Home took a look recently Inside the meteoric rise of the Brexit Party. It concluded that the Brexit Party’s appeal is based on the “frustration” with “the establishment” for having failed to deliver Brexit following the 2016 EU Referendum (a poll in which it was unclear what voters voted for). That result, in turn, reflected the frustration of many ordinary people with the lives they were obliged to lead due to poverty, inadequate funding for the NHS, etc.

7) Obsession with a plot (possibly international)

“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. … 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 …”.

In previous posts, I have drawn attention to Rabindranath Tagore’s warnings about Nationalism. Political leaders sounding the alarm about a plot or conspiracy by foreigners, or by people who are from a minority (possibly a religious one) may stir hatred or fear of these minority groups. This may be the most commonly-seen indicator of fascism.

Looking again at the example of the UK, as Ian Dunt observes in his analysis of the rise of the Brexit Party, “… almost everything [Nigel] Farage [MEP] says is a conspiracy theory. A Remain parliament stopped Brexit, he says, … . May herself is branded a Remainer, … . So either MPs are secretly pursuing a Remain plot, or the prime minister is. 

“Note how both outcomes – Brexit happening and Brexit not happening – are a betrayal by some form of Remain conspiracy, either in parliament or Downing Street. We hear these lies so often we start to accept them as normal, but once you question them it is clear what they are. They’re conspiracy theory. … “

“That’s the headline conspiracy, but Farage has another one for almost every aspect of society. At one recent rally he insisted young people opposed Brexit because of the “constant bias, prejudice and brainwashing” in British universities, and then insisted educational institutions were systematically marking-down students who supported leaving the EU. … “

“Who can you trust? No-one. What information can you rely on? None at all. There’s just the party and its leader, who offer you emotional reassurance without any intellectual component for you to evaluate it. Your capacity for individual judgement is whittled away. The trust is not based on testable propositions, like policies and argument, but on feelings.”

Ian Dunt, The Brexit party is a post-politics entity – politics.co.uk (9 May 2019)

8) The enemy is both strong and weak

“The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. … However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.”

In the UK, the central message of the official Brexit Party website is “Change politics for good”, with a video of a well-attended rally playing behind it (in much the style as Leni Reifenstahl’s documentary ‘Triumph of the will’ filmed at Hitler’s Nuremberg rally in 1934). If you turn on the sound, you will hear stirring, orchestral music rising to a crescendo as their Leader makes his point and people rise to their feet in slow motion to give him a standing ovation.

Its ‘About’ page begins by claiming that “Our success is the way we are turning anger into hope”, before promising “A democratic earthquake” and “A brighter future for Britain”.

9) Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy

Having identified enemies, Umberto Eco suggests that, for Ur-Fascism, life is permanent warfare and lived for struggle. As a result, pacifism is regarded as “trafficking with the enemy”.

He also notes that no fascist leader has succeeded in reconciling the contradiction that finding a “Golden Age” after defeating the enemy and controlling the world in a final battle would undermine the principle of permanent war.

10) Contempt for the weak

“Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party.”

By this Umberto Eco refers to elitism as being a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology. Ur-Fascism advocates becoming members of the party – a “popular elitism”. As Umberto Eco puts it “… the Leader … knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler.”

The revelations by Channel 4 that Nigel Farage received £450,000 and rent-free accommodation in Chelsea after the 2016 Referendum, while portraying himself as a man of the people, would appear to be a sign of such contempt for the weak.

11) Everybody is educated to be a hero

“In every mythology, the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. … .In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.”

12) Machismo and weaponry

“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 sexual8habits, from chastity to homosexuality).”

Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson all seem to have this in common.

Umberto Eco also notes that “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) Selective populism

“In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have apolitical 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.”

Since deciding on her interpretation of the result of the 2016 EU Referendum in the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May has maintained that that was and remains “the will of the people“.

Umberto Eco predicted, in this paper from 1995, that “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People. … Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.”

14) Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak

“Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in 1984, as the official language of Ingsoc, English Socialism. But elements of Ur-Fascism are common to different forms of dictatorship. 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”

For some years politicians have played on the tendency of the media to pick up on soundbites. As a result, politicians are no longer expected to make eloquent speeches. Instead, they tend to use a series of soundbites when asked to give speeches or interviews.

So perhaps we are already in the era of Newspeak. We are certainly in the era of “fake news”, in which it has become difficult to recognise what is truly fake and what is real.

Shortly after Umberto Eco’s death in February 2016, Lorraine Berry analysed Donald Trump’s campaign against Umberto Eco’s 14 indicators. As you will see, her conclusion then was that Donald Trump is a fascist, but not a Nazi.

Ian Dunt’s analysis of the rise of the Brexit Party points to a number of similar issues. The table below analyses these issues against Umberto Eco’s 14 indicators:

Contemporary UK example of each of Umberto Eco’s characteristics of fascism
May 312017

As Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas pointed out this evening: “The first rule of leadership is to show up”. Apart from Theresa May, the leaders of all the major political parties (plus UKIP) took part this evening in the only televised Leaders’ Debate of the UK General Election campaign. Amber Rudd, whose father passed away on Monday, was obliged to represent the absent Conservative “leader”.

Looking back a year ago, during the EU Referendum campaign, Theresa May sat on the fence and only eventually emerged to support the Remain campaign.

David Cameron resigned after the Referendum. As the Conservatives’ main Leave campaigner, Boris Johnson appeared to be the most likely successor to lead the Conservative Party … until Michael Gove stepped into the race, somewhat treacherously. With these two safely out of the way, Theresa May became the Conservative leader and Prime Minister without any election.

This reminded me of the rise of the “hero” of the BBC’s House of Cards political series, Francis Urquhart – although there was at least a leadership election in the fictional story.

UrquhartNot feeling guilty, I hope. If you have pangs of pity, crush them now. Grind them under your heel like old cigar butts. I’ve done the country a favour. He didn’t have the brain or the heart or the stomach to rule a country like Great Britain. A nice enough man, but there was no bottom to him. … So let’s not indulge ourselves in any squeamishness — alright? Because this… is just the start.

Theresa May then appointed Leave campaigners David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox to take care of Brexit and the UK’s international relations. As their campaign had been based largely on undeliverable promises, it was a bit like leaving the Keystone Cops to reorganise the police force.

Before doing that, she could have called a General Election to obtain a democratic mandate. But she didn’t.

After doing that, she could have launched a debate in Parliament about what to do in the light of the Referendum. But she didn’t.

Instead, while sterling continued to trade around 10% below its value before the Referendum, she did nothing. Eventually, she started repeating the meaningless phrase “Brexit means Brexit”. Perhaps she wanted to put people into a trance … .

She also fought a court case to require Parliament to decide on launching the Article 50 procedure, and not just her. When she ultimately lost at the Supreme Court, she rushed a back-of-the-envelope Act through Parliament.

Then, a few days after triggering the Article 50 negotiations, she called a General Election. She presented herself as a ‘strong and stable’ leader and taunted her opponents as the ‘coalition of chaos’.

Meanwhile, the Keystone Cops have shown little evidence of having a plan.

Some pointed out on social media that someone else had once promised strong and stable leadership back in the late 1920s. And people voted for it.

All this and various U-turns during the election campaign so far suggest that Theresa May is far from strong and stable. Rather, she seems to be cold, calculating, controlling, secretive and closed. Together with the Keystone Cops, they look like the real coalition of chaos leading the UK over the Brexit cliff, while forcing the elderly to pay for their social care and axing free school lunches for primary schoolchildren … although they would offer children free breakfasts – kind of.

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