Umberto Eco and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Over twenty years ago, in The New York Review of Books (June 22, 1995), Umberto Eco wrote of the difficulty of deciding whether a contemporary political movement is fascist:
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.
To break through the quandary of how to identify fascism on the contemporary scene, Eco turned to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances for help.
Family resemblances. Wittgenstein is a notoriously difficult philosopher, but his family resemblance idea isn’t, at least not on a first pass. Think of an actual family. Family resemblances are traits more or less shared by most who belong to a family, but not necessarily everyone. Most everyone in a family might, to a greater or lesser degree, have big noses, buck teeth, and a tall and lanky build–but maybe not all. Some may have two of these traits, or one–or even none. Someone in the family may share, instead, another characteristic trait (small ears). But when you put the family members side by side, the resemblances jump out at you.
Wittgenstein broadened this simple observation to everything we might seek to define. By replacing the search for definition with the search for family resemblances, Wittgenstein bypassed the narrowing constraints of traditional essentialist definition (all family members have trait x or they’re not part of that family, period; all fascists have trait y or they’re not part of the fascist family, period). Wittgenstein brought a lighter touch to the identification of a thing than, say, a medieval thinker like Thomas Aquinas might have. Essentialist definition could, Wittgenstein claimed, be fruitfully substituted with a search for family resemblances.
You might thus say that, for Wittgenstein, what is essential gets replaced by what is interesting, as when Lionel Abel (1910-2001), an early contributor to Partisan Review, in an interview from the mid-1990s, said this about the Russian revolutionary and author, Leon Trotsky:
He had a literary verve which was unmistakable. He was a great journalist. And the intellectual power of his criticism of the Stalin regime . . . [is] accepted nowadays as justified, that he was right. But we didn’t know he was right. We knew he was interesting. And, in a way, if you lived in the Village [Greenwich Village in New York City in the 1930s], what was interesting was right. Certainly, the uninteresting was wrong. I’m not willing to altogether give that up, even today.
Traditional definition can be limiting in ways that block broader insights and generalizations. But by looking for interesting family resemblances, and deploying a lighter touch in definition, one might see fresh patterns, comparisons, and contrasts. Umberto Eco did this in his attempt to identify fascist resonances in the present. He wasn’t seeking an essentialist definition of fascism, or one grounded in the details of politics in the first half of the 20th century, thereby excluding from the designation fascist all those not belonging to that period. Instead, he tried to tease out family resemblances among movements throughout history that mark them, for Eco, as akin to the fascism he knew in the 1920-40s. Eco coined the term Ur-Fascism (Eternal Fascism) for the sort of fascism he had in mind; a fascism that he sees as emerging in different places and times.
Ur-Fascism. In his original essay from 1995, Eco identifies in some detail fourteen things he takes to mark a contemporary encounter with Ur-Fascism. Let’s lay them out in digest form, so as to absorb them at a glance. If you want more detail, of course, the original essay is here. The phrases and sentences in quotation marks are Eco’s:
- The cult of tradition gets wed to the occult in a way that tolerates the contradictions between them. The past provides revelation, and directs followers to a nostalgic Golden Age, but only in hints and in creative interpretive syncretisms. “Saint Augustine…as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge–that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.”
- There is a rejection of the Anglo-French Enlightenment tradition of reason. Eco calls this the fascist dismissal of “the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course).”
- There is distrust and resentment of intellectuals. “Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes.”
- There is impatience with making careful distinctions, maintaining coherence in sustained argument, and arguing civilly. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism….For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.”
- There is fear of diversity. Ur-Fascism “seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference.”
- The movement’s energy is derived from “a frustrated middle class.” This middle class is “suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups….[T]he fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.”
- National identity is besieged by enemies from within that are sinister and engaged in criminal conspiracy. “[A]t the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one.”
- There is bitter resentment of opponents, and thus an incapacity on the part of fascists to judge their enemies rightly. Fascists at once underestimate and overestimate their opponent’s actual capacities, and resent them for their wealth, cunning, solidarity, and power. “Followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies,” and yet they repeatedly misjudge them as “at the same time too strong and too weak.” For this reason, fascists “are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.”
- Enemies must be vanquished utterly. Solutions must be final. There is no living with the enemy. “Life is permanent warfare” that brings about “an Armageddon complex.”
- Mass elitism. The fascist group consists of the best people on Earth. Are you a member? If not, you’re looked down upon. There is open contempt for outsiders and the weak. (This may be a reaction formation against aristocratic attitudes directed down toward the middle class.)
- The cult of heroism and heroic death is celebrated. “[E]verybody is educated to become a hero.”
- Machismo. This extends not just to “war and heroism,” but to a “will to power” in “sexual matters,” a “disdain for women,” and a playing “with weapons…[as] an ersatz phallic exercise.”
- Populism trumps democracy and rights. The Leader channels the People; individuals don’t have rights or agency that exceed the will of the People. “Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter.”
- Language is corrupted. Language games that cloud or prevent critical thought, such as the language of Newspeak instituted by the English totalitarian state in Orwell’s 1984, or the insular, epistemically closed, rhetorical world of the talk radio host, are deployed. “Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”
Donald Trump and Ur-Fascism. If you accept Eco’s criteria for what constitutes Eternal Fascism, and you’ve got Eco’s fascist family traits list out in front of you, it’s pretty evident what jumps out: Donald Trump’s movement can be reasonably thought of in fascist terms and he is its tangerine Jack-in-the-Box. I’ll thus approach a conclusion to this blog post with a passage toward the end of Eco’s original essay that I take to be at once a prophetic and chilling prediction of the coming of a movement like the one Trump leads:
To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremburg Stadium. 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.
This is a pretty impressive prediction. At a time when the Internet was at the barest fraction of its existing size, Eco saw that it might function one day as a kind of electronic Nuremburg rally; a gathering place for the followers of a would-be Mussolini. Breitbart Virtual Stadium. Hmm.