On Italy’s Liberation day: Umberto Eco and Ur-Fascism

Every April 25th Italy commemorates the end of both Mussolini’s regime and the Nazi occupation of the Country: the date, made into a national holiday in 1946, corresponds to the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale Alta Italia (CLNAI – National Liberation Committee of Upper Italy)’s proclaiming the insurgency of all Italian territories then still under (partial) control of the German occupants and the Italian fascists.

Photo: Italian Resistance leader – and later President of the Republic – Sandro Pertini’s speech in Milan, April 25th, 1945 (source).

Following a domino effect which I regularly, and happily, experience as (heavy) reader, it was after having read young Italian writer Giorgio Fontana‘s Morte di un uomo felice (a compelling novel on Italy’s so-called Years of lead) and Babele 56 (an inspiring collection of interviews with immigrants living in present-day Milan), that – thanks to a post on the writer’s own blog: La normalizzazione dell’antifascismo (The normalization of anti-fascism) – I came across late Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascism article (The New York review of books, june 22, 1995).

                  Photo of Giorgio Fontana from his blog.

Read today, Eco’s thorough analysis of ur-fascism and its features does not only strike for its lucidity but, sadly, for its prophetic character as well, all the more so given the (Italian and international) media’s and politicians’ puzzling reluctance (justly addressed by Fontana in his post) to use the word ‘fascist’ when commenting on the alarmingly ever-growing number of movements, parties, attitudes, incidents and crimes which, although recognizably fascist in nature, are usually only labelled as (extreme-right) ‘populism’, ‘hooliganism’ or ‘excesses’.

Needless to say, the whole essay by Eco is absolutely worth reading (passages from its Italian translation, published in Eco’s Cinque scritti morali, are available at punk4free). Here follows some excerpts though, which are whether especially relevant to present-day attitudes to universities and critical thinking or strikingly topical in relation to 2017’s fascisms (italics are mine):

«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 […] But in spite of this fuzziness, I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it. […]

3. The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.

Photo of Umberto Eco from the New York Times’ obituary for the Italian writer and scholar.

4. 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.

5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural 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. […]

13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political 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. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg 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. Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments […] 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».

About blognostrumuva

blog voor de Collectie Romaanse Talen van de Universiteitsbibliotheek van de UvA (universiteit van Amsterdam)
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