14 Mix-and-Match Ingredients to Beware (from Umberto Eco)
What is fascism? I thought I knew. And I thought that the answer didn’t matter, because fascists were the stuff of history books. I was wrong. They have proliferated and, although they defy concise definitions, you can spot them if you know what to look for.
Back when I began researching the state of Christianity in 1930s and 1940s Germany, I approached my history mentor for recommendations on how to understand Nazi ideology. His answer: there was no coherent Nazi ideology. Conservative Christians, neo-pagans, pagan-Christian syncretists, and atheists banded together to plunge the world into war and to massacre much of the world’s Jewish population, along with many Roma, mentally ill people, mentally disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, and others. The National-Socialist movement came together around shared symbols, rhetoric, aggressive attitudes, and action goals, not ideology.
The overt racialized hatred and violence of Nazism in the later Third Reich are not what originally drew all Nazis to the movement in the beginning. For some, it was the economic platform of the party. For others, it was camaraderie. Or a sense of purpose. Or a job. Or to impress someone. Or for some other long since irrelevant reason. But, they embraced the hate and the violence in the end. Regardless of their original motivations, as numerous others have already pointed out, at the end of the day they were all still Nazis.
The point to underline is that these were not the cartoonish villains of Hollywood, but real people who made a series of increasingly morally irreprehensible decisions—the kind of people that any of us is in danger of becoming.
(For my purposes, I use “fascism” as a general category. Both Nazism and capital “F” Fascism under Mussolini are kinds of fascism. Similarly “democratic” below refers to being “pro-democracy,” which both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. have traditionally been, at least in principle.)
Listening to Eco
Now I have never been a card-carrying fascist. But philosopher of signs and symbols Umberto Eco once was when he grew up in Italy in the 1940s. What follows is a streamlined simplification of his 1995 essay “Ur-Fascism” (in which he, incidentally, mischaracterizes Nazism as more ideologically coherent than they were; no one is an expert on everything). The prefix “Ur-” in German could mean “archetypal,” “proto-,” “foundational,” “1.0,” “Beta,” “original,” “basic,” or, if you’re really going for a cooking analogy (and I am), “original recipe.”
If you can understand it, you should read Eco’s work instead of mine. It has aged well, to sobering effect. But I have long recognized the need for a more conceptually accessible version in straightforward English, both for teaching purposes and as a matter of civic duty. Because once I learned the warning signs, I started seeing them a lot in the U.S.
I cannot emphasize enough: my goal here is to be useful, not original. Unlike the norm in my blog posts, what follows is a summary of another’s work: in this case, Eco’s. (Any suggestions for interpretation of my own appear in parentheses, mostly in the form of crock pot analogies, or in brackets when mid-quote. To distinguish them from Eco’s words, my version of things a fascist recruiter might say appear in italics—except when in quoting Eco, in which case the italics are his own, for emphasis.)
Although Eco directly labels the undercurrent of “machismo” in fascism, he writes as a man to men regarding (assumed masculine male) fascists. This bias and implicit side-lining of other genders is among his essay’s few shortcomings. That said, for the sake of brevity and fidelity to the original text, I have summarized his gender-exclusionary observations without correcting them.
Paraphrase/abridgement/synopsis of Eco from here to end
What the Recipe Is
Fascism isn’t just one thing, because it is not unified or coherent, ideologically or otherwise. But there are numerous key ingredients that create different variations of fascism: “a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions” and a kind of “political and ideological discombobulation […] philosophically out of joint, but emotionally […] fastened to some archetypal foundations.” In short, fascism isn’t so much about core concepts as it is about emotional ways of being in the world.
(Pick a handful of the wrong ingredients and, as Carl Weathers said, “Baby you got a stew going!” And by “stew,” I mean fascism; forgiving of ingredients, like a crock pot, but unforgiving of the Other because, well,… fascism.)
Now some of the ingredients blatantly oppose one another (like cloves + turmeric?). But they are all problematic and can each serve in combination with at least some of the others to make some version of fascism (stew), which is accommodating within that narrow spectrum of ingredients. (This is similar to how crock pots are forgiving… if your goal is stew. Argue all you want, but at the end of the day, slow cooker pulled pork and chili are both some version of hot, wet protein.)
(If you know the warning signs, you might find yourself motivated to step up your political involvement or to intervene in the life of someone you know.) Now the sometimes-mutually-incompatible ingredients of original recipe fascism:
Worship, celebration, and pursuit of going back to the way things used to be. This is not authentic tradition, the real old ways, but some mythologized projection of what the past was supposed to be like. Ironically, there is often a claim of authenticity and of purity, even though this pretend set of traditions is blended together from divergent sources. Some of these ancient, trusted sources may be religious, even from different religions. (The common assertion that the Bible and the Constitution are both equally divinely inspired comes to mind.)
Because of such purported traditionalism’s appeal to the past as the only viable source of knowledge, those committed to it tend to be closed to new learning and, thus, anti-intellectual. (There’s nothing inherently wrong in valuing tradition, provided that one does not use it as an excuse to exclude others’ points of view, oppose learning, or otherwise oppress others.)
2. New = Bad
The flipside of traditionalism is a rejection of modern life and of modern ways of thinking, including science and rationalism.
3. “Action for Action’s Sake”
It is good to act. It is unmanly to think too much. Therefore, the best, manliest way to be is to get work done without thinking. Art, contemplation, and deliberation are for [insert homophobic phrases here]. The main task of “fascist intellectuals” is to attack contemporary culture. (This may be part of why “hot takes” work better serve the purposes of those with fascist leanings than those who aspire for careful, compassionate communication.)
4. Lack of Self-Criticism
If you ask too many questions and make too many careful observations, whether about yourself or the movement, you’re unmanly and a traitor.
5. “Fear of Difference”
If you disagree, you’re also showing that you’re different. And being different is wrong! Perhaps the most consistent common thread throughout the strands that unite the various forms of fascism is fear of the Other: “an appeal against the intruders,” (“illegals,” “traitors,” “not real Americans,” etc.). The movement “is racist by definition.” (And probably also anti-Semitic, homophobic, transphobic, etc.)
6. Fueled by Frustration
The movement appeals to frustrated individuals and social classes, whether “suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation.” Or both. (Google search “grievance” with “white,” “working class,” or “male.”)
7. National/Racial Solidarity vs. an International Conspiracy
Don’t know who you are in society? Or have a sense of your own personal value? Then find it in your citizenship. That is what makes you different from Them.
Meanwhile, They have launched a series of conspiracies against Us: “at the root of [original recipe] fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one.”
The leaders of the movement may recognize that their “followers must feel besieged” in order to cement their fervent loyalty, hence “the appeal to xenophobia,” anti-Semitism, etc.
8. The Strong/Weak Enemy
The Enemy is rich and strong. They cheat, which is why they always win. Participants in the movement “must feel humiliated” by this, for humiliation helps fan the flames of commitment.
The Enemy is also weak and poor: “the followers [of fascism] must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies,” for the attainability of the goal also helps motivate.
The rhetoric will be inconsistent on this count. So much so that, unable to perceive “objectively” the strengths and weaknesses of their military opponents, “fascist governments are condemned to lose wars.” (Despite its militarism, fascism is bad for national security.)
9. Everlasting War… But Also Everlasting Peace
Forget struggling in order to live. You must live in order to struggle. Pacifism and negotiation are for [slur]. “Life is permanent warfare.”
At the same time, because the enemy is weak and must be defeated, there must be an epic “final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world” and therefore bring peace.
So add permanent war and permanent peace to the list of things that you shouldn’t think too carefully about.
10. Elitism for the Needy Masses
The weak are bad. You should look down on them because you are not like them. Not if you are one of us: “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.” That’s the public message.
But behind the scenes, “the Leader, knowing that his power was not delegated to him democratically but was conquered by force, also knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler.” So there needs to be a strong top-down hierarchy, with him at the top.
11. Heroism + Death
You should strive to become a hero. Everyone can. Let us show you how. But the most important thing is to die like one. That is your ultimate reward.And if you feel this way, you’re likely to speed others along to their own deaths.
12. Sexual Frustration + Guns
Forever-war and heroism are tough, so why not channel your fighting energy into sex? Except that sex is difficult if you’re a man who looks down on women—which, of course, you do.
Also, you look down on “nonstandard sexual habits,” including refraining from sex. So abstinence is out.
So… if sex is difficult, why not “play with weapons”? A gun is the perfect symbolic extension of your manhood!
13. The Anti-Democratic “Voice of the People”
The rights of the individual mean nothing. The rights of the collective nation mean everything: “the People is conceived as […] a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will” and “the Leader pretends to be their interpreter.”
He thus stands opposed to the mess, compromise, and consensus-building involved in democratic processes. Fascism wears a veneer of populist inclusion, beneath which is unabashed authoritarianism.
Eco applies Orwell’s term from 1984 to fascism: “impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.” (“Fake news” comes to mind, along with the constraints of Tweets as genres of communication.)
Conclusion (still Eco)
Fascists aren’t always obvious about their fascism. They can wear many guises, including “innocent” looking ones. In many ways, what Eco calls “Ur-Fascism” will remain a perpetual danger for democracy. Unlike war, “freedom and liberation are an unending task.” (And that’s a good thing, since life doesn’t provide easy answers—no matter what fascists say. Those of us who oppose them have plenty of work to do, especially once we know what to look for.)