How to Spot a Fascist
by Umberto Eco
Reviewed by Terry Trowbridge
The British publisher Harvill Secker sells a book titled How to Spot a Fascist by the Italian essayist Umberto Eco (Eco, 2020). Spot is very short for a book, consisting of three brief essays, a total 51 pages in length, and not even big pages. Little pages. Pocketbook pages. Remember pocketbooks? Spot is a pocketbook. Even thinner, though. As a paperback, Spot is very practical.
We live at a time (AFP et al., 2022; Desiderio, 2022; Grim, 2022; Kaczynski and Steck, 2022; Kirby, 2022; Klein, 2020; Lardner and Smith, 2022; Tilles, 2022; Tharoor, 2022), when many of us would gladly disconnect from the internet. Some of us would gladly do so because the Internet of Things is a network of surveillance devices (Birchall, 2017; Bruder and Maharidge, 2020; Farivar, 2018; Jacobs et al., 2014; Pasquale, 2015; Schneier, 2016; Wu, 2011, 2016; Zuboff, 2019), and the Internet is owned, operated, and populated by human and corporate persons who are self-described Fascists, or contracted to work for Fascists, of one sort or another (Burley, 2017; Daub, 2020; Down, 2017; Golumbia, 2016; Kersplebedeb, 2017; Levitsky and Zibalt, 2019; Liu, 2021; Ross, 2017; Wylie, 2019).
This sad, alarming situation is a simple truth. And if the minority, some of us, wants to avoid Fascists from now on, then some of us will need a tool that fits in a back pocket, in the crevices between backyard fenceposts, under a carpet, can be easily tossed out of a backpack and into a sewer grate if police detain us (Hanson, 2015; Nagle, 2017). We live in the Postpandemic Era (whether the actual Covid pandemic, as a fact situation, is over or not). Some of us need a thin, palmable, sleight-of-handy, analogue technology book, because others of us are actually self-avowedly, reflexively self-labeled, and openly, properly, fascist Fascists.
If only Umberto Eco had given us a pair of goggles titled Here, Spot Fascists. The three essays inside Spot are not simple checklists. They will not help a reader to identify a Fascist as directly as, say, the essay “Who Goes Nazi?” by Dorothy Thompson, written in 1941. Dorothy Thompson wrote an essay with criteria that a reader could directly apply to a person in their social circle, a character on tv, a singer’s lyrics at the local bar, an overheard conversation between CBSA employees at a border crossing, the tablet apps of someone siting next-to on a plane, a Tinder profile, or almost any other example of a person who needs to be sorted quickly into Fascist/Not-Fascist categories. Dorothy Thompson’s 1941 essay was first published by Harper’s Magazine back then, and now it is available online, conveniently accessible by most devices pinging the Internet of Things.
If Umberto Eco wanted to print an essay on Litmus papers, then his Italian newspaper editors, and the editors at Harvill Secker, would have done so. Eco believes that Fascism takes different forms in different contexts. From that premise, readers can infer that a list of over-prescriptive criteria has the potential to be deceptive by underestimating the varieties of soils from which Fascism can grow. Criteria that rely on archetypes, like Dorothy Thompson’s do, are limited because “Who goes Nazi?” presumes the reader will observe a moment when a person has to choose to be either Fascist/Not-Fascist. Pop-psychology is abundant with checklists, because diagnosis is a chore that can make other decisions more efficient. But Eco’s essay is not about the decision to collaborate, nor about efficiency. Eco’s essay is about generative theories of Fascism: the kinds of false dichotomies Fascists try to force people to resolve; their recruitment rhetoric; their mobilization campaigns; who Fascists exclusively reward and promote in society. Thompson asks “Who goes Nazi?” whereas Eco explains when, where, how, people are given the choice, and therefore, by whom. Eco is nearly writing as a Communication Studies theorist. Whereas Thompson’s essay is about the receivers of Fascism, Eco’s essays are about the senders.
First essay: First half
The first essay, “Ur-Fascism” (1-29), is divided into two parts. In the first section (1-16), Eco reflects on his childhood experience of a multiplicity of Fascism’s forms in Italy, under the government of Benito Mussolini, as the metaphorical city of Ur, from which subsequent Fascist societies are patterned. In the second section, (16-29), Eco enumerates a list of 14 elementary characteristics of Fascism.
In his focus on Mussolini’s regime as Ur-Fascism, Eco differs from recent historiography of Nazism. Eco’s generation of political philosophers tended to connect Fascism, as modernity’s totalitarianism, to millennia of European antisemitism and the totalitarian philosophies of ancient Greece (Arendt, 2006; Popper, 2020; Sloterdijk, 2012). Historians writing around the 2010s, parallel to time to Eco’s essays in Spot, including Baranowski (2011), and Ross (2017), compile evidence that Nazism’s components were current in imperial German society and government since the consolidation of Prussia and Germany in 1870. Likewise, Eco diverges from political theorists who follow Antonio Gramsci, who presents Mussolini as the culmination of a longstanding internecine party politics from before the consolidation of Italy (Gramsci, 2014, 44-120). Although, the content of Eco’s list of 14 characteristics does harken back to Gramsci’s early theories of hegemony and hegemonic power.
Eco does not analyze the historical record. He uses his childhood experiences of Mussolini’s Italy, and then his observations over several decades of postwar Italian social evolution, in which the legacy of Fascism was imbricated with ideologies of liberal democracy, NATO, and the EU. Historians are useful for preventing Fascism from re-emerging in democracies. Eco’s approach, however, is exactly what some of us need to navigate a world where Neo-Nazis are already in control of public order, have been in control of public institutions for a few years, and will be in power for a few years more.
Eco’s reflexive theory based on his own experience of Fascists is that they are ahistorical ideologues. “There is only one Nazism,” he writes, “On the other hand, you can play the Fascism game many ways, and name of the games does not change” (Eco, 14). For Eco,
Eco offers two characteristics of Fascism by which Fascists of any shirt can group together, accreting around any person, event, or philosophy with totalitarian overtones (16). One: A Fascist subscribes to any combination of Eco’s 14 elements, and excluding any elements does not disqualify their devotion to Fascism. Two: Fascists contradict themselves, replaces elements that at the core of their rationalizations instantly, because Fascism is always syncretic. Fascism’s syncretism means that Fascists always contradict themselves and each other.
Eco offers an abstract image like a spectrum, or patina, of potential Fascisms. If there are 6 elements of Fascism, a, b, c, d, e, f, then there can be four kinds of Fascism:
Note that the first and last set of Fascist principles have no elements in common. And, within each set of principles, any can contradict any others. Eco gives an example of Italian Fascists who both supported the royal family and aspired to a republic (11), or who were atheists who justified their arguments with the will of God (9), appealing to followers who simultaneously espoused both prongs of their intellectual dilemma without ever attempting to resolve them.
Scholars of Fascism generally agree with Eco. A wise reader, however, will realize that Eco’s “Ur-Fascism” cannot be used to win arguments in the public debate, nor in legal venues. Fascism’s syncretism defies two basic laws of sentential logic, Aristotle’s Law of Identity (x is x) and Aristotle’s Law of Non-Contradiction (x is also not not-x). Readers can witness the multiplicity of Fascism as Fascists spread throughout a nation. However, as soon as they identify one person as a Fascist, [abc], their own accuracy impedes their own, and other’s, ability to identify Fascist [bcd]. Furthermore, [def] uses public discourse to separate themselves from images of [abc]. Carl Schmitt, one of Nazism’s early proponents and latecomer post hoc opponents, remarks on this Fascist switcheroo. Schmitt knew that Nazism would rise unimpeded by the forensic arguments of courts, and the debating forms of liberal democratic legislatures (Schmitt, 2007). Liberal democracy relies on logical argumentation, without which institutions fail. Nazism exploited that weakness – a weakness that is a strength in all scenarios except when opposing syncretism of Fascists. Eco’s reflexive theory of Fascist power is practical for an individual to recognize Fascists, but not necessarily practical to use persuasively in public arguments typical of liberal democratic modes of deliberative democracy.
First essay: Second half
Eco’s 14 elementary characteristics of Ur-Fascism (16-29), are pithy and attended by examples. What matters to a book review is not to repeat the list, but to point out the danger that Eco fails to explain.
“Ur-Fascism can still return in the most innocent of guises. Our duty,” he correctly invokes, “is to unmask it and to point the finger at each of its new forms – every day, and in every part of the world” (28). But we already know that Fascism depends on its opponents doing so, because identifying polyphonic syncretism is rhetorically no different than a naïve boy crying wolf. “Freedom and liberation are never-ending tasks. Et this be our motto: ‘Do not forget,’” rallies Eco. But the democratic skills of critical thinking, reflection, public debate, promulgation of laws, social change, while possible only by learning about Fascism, all break down in public confrontation of Fascists when Fascists are already part of the judiciary, the news media, the legislature, or public education.
There is no reason to counsel a complete retreat from Fascism. However, some of us might, for whatever contingency, need to choose avoidance rather than public conflict. To that end, Eco’s How to Spot a Fascist is a life-saving tool for some of us to avoid Fascists when we choose to avoid them. Liberal democracy is easily exhausted by Fascism. As institutions are transformed or diluted, as pandemic supply gaps are not refilled, some of us will become exhausted.
Second essay: Controlling information
The second essay in Spot, “Censorship and Silence” (31-43), examines two ways to censor information. Censors can silence information, which is straightforward omission or deletion. Censors can also use “noise” defined as “the superimposition of information” to conceal or make targeted information disappear (32). Eco sees noise as a form of social change as well as a mechanism for further social change. Previously, censors avoided causing “deviant” (or unwanted) behaviour by not talking about it. Around 2011, when “Censorship and Silence” was first published, censors chose to avoid talking about deviant behaviour not through silence, but by talking “a great deal about other things” (34).
Eco’s principal argument is that news media, the core distributors of information in Western democracies, amplify irrelevant but true stories. Irrelevant but true stories are impossible to disprove, but merely because their innocuous content is shared, it insinuates that there is further story to investigate. In Eco’s estimation, tell an important truth, and censors will struggle to silence the responses. Tell an irrelevant fact, however, and censors will share all the many attempts to find significance where there is none. Free speech is coopted to manufacture consent for intransigence through irrelevant dissent and useless analyses.
The advent of social media changed Eco’s estimation of noise. He observes that between smartphones and instant messaging apps, people generate their own noise, superimposing irrelevant information even about themselves, over their own experiences. Smartphones and instant messaging had, by 2011, established a new noise culture of self-narrating one’s own life experiences into irrelevance:
Combined with a plethora of information online and the worthless information generated by app users, Eco concludes that new psychology and morality of noise means that, “There are people now who cannot live away from noise” (Ibid.). In light of “Ur-Fascism” that means there are now people who never have to be recruited by Fascists. They need the capacity for unprincipled syncretic discourse in order to eat, sleep, learn, play, work, mediated by instant messaging and other platform apps (see also: Wu, 2016, 180). Eco proposes that they thrive only on the censorship of excess information and propaganda, and somehow, not on experience or facts.
To conclude “Censorship and Silence” Eco offers an oxymoron created by controlling censors, an oxymoronic fact invented in the age of Mussolini and amplified in the era of social media platform capitalism (Schwartz, 2022; Srnicek, 2016). Eco asserts that, “It is in silence alone that the only true powerful means of information becomes effective – word of mouth,” (42). Eco believes that consent to be ruled can be manufactured, but choice is determined in conversation unencumbered by advertisements, popups, extraneous comments, or audience participation. “In losing the condition of silence, we lose the possibility of hearing what other people are saying, which is the only basic and reliable means of communication,” (Ibid.). Eco’s new psychology of noise means there are millions of unreliable people who might never be capable of reliable communication. Eco’s morality of noise seems to imply that can be articulated in the terms of Marshall McLuhan (McLuhan, 1995, 161-169), there is a counterhegemonic morality that requires cold media, without active input, and used only on condition of active listening rather than active replying amid constant editing and linking of content (see also: bissett, 2004, 38, 2008, 116-126).
Furthermore, the Aristotelian Law of Identity and Law of Non-Contradiction can also be invoked. The forensic arguments that liberal democracy’s courts require, and that liberal democratic regulators require from their participating citizens, cannot survive an endless flood of perpetually updated, misdirected content. Meaning is taken seriously by democratic institutions, or at least, meaning is presumed in their public discourse. Arguments are given time, and other limited resources, by democratic institutions. Democracy is impoverished and forestalled by noise.
Some of us must take time away from the morality of noise, and repair our wounded psychologies. Some of us have to avoid Fascists, because word-of-mouth shared between people who indulge in silence (Fascists cannot abide Eco’s kind of silence), is itself a way to defeat censorship and thereby oppose Fascism. Where two or three are gathered in the name of word-of-mouth, there is Umberto Eco in the midst of them.
Third essay: -exit
Spot’s third essay, “We Are European” (45-51), argues for maintaining the European Union. Like in “Ur-Fascism” Eco appeals less to historical or empirical arguments, opting to concentrate on appeals to shared experiences that he has participated in during his lifetime. As one of Europe’s most important essayists in the past century, Eco has maintained a constant presence, helping to create Europe’s culture while reacting to events along with other Europeans, his voice translated and shared with them daily (Editors, 2022; IDU, 2022). His appeals to commonly held experiences are not without demonstrated merit. Even when individual Europeans or their institutions have disagreed with Eco, there is no question that Eco has been a present conversationalist who was united with them because of that conversation.
Eco warns against trusting any person or collective effort attempting to divide Europeans. He asserts that, “From 1945 onward, almost without realising it, Europeans began to feel that they belonged not only to the same continent but to the same community, despite the many inevitable linguistic and cultural differences,” (Eco, 46). Eco observes that sense of common community looks different from the perspective of different regions and creeds, but nonetheless is recognizable to all, and the sense is being actively perpetuated by border-crossing educational, financial, cultural, and familial practices (46-47). Eco warns that economic instability breeds distrust (46-47). But he warns that European community is threatened more by “intolerance” of migrants and marginalized EU workers:
European political parties that unite under their own right-wing banner, and that are dubbed “far right” by news media, all share economic distrust, intolerance of “non-European nationals” and anti-Semitism in their platforms. They coordinate rallies, websites, legislation, and election campaigns on those obsessions (among others). To which Eco responds, “We must be aware that new forms of conflict obsess us, even when we do not perceive them in all their magnitude and importance” (48).
Some of us who read How to Spot a Fascist are Canadians. Our Canadian awareness of conflicts driven by distrustful and intolerant obsessions is important to the future of Europe, as well as the future of Canada. There is only one contextual detail that a Canadian needs to know while reading “We Are European” that can explain what Canadian and European fascism have in common: Stephen Harper was Prime Minister of Canada from 2006 to 2015. Afterward, he became the Chairperson of the International Democrat Union. The IDU is an election campaign contractor exclusively for far-right European political parties (Canadian Press, 2019; Geddes, 2018; Harris, 2019).
Meanwhile, Canadians cannot forget that while Harper is in Europe chairing the IDU, he presided over a simultaneous transition to digital media and online policing, while destroying millions of cultural and scientific documents held by Canada’s archives (Kingston, 2015; Narwhal, 2014; Nikiforuk, 2013; Sowunmi, 2014). While he was Prime Minister of Canada, Harper repeatedly got the cooperation of Canada’s surveillance and signals intelligence, CSIS and CSEC, to illegally spy on Canadians. Whenever the federal justices tasked with warrant oversight discovered one of Harper’s illegal surveillance operations, Harper had Parliament change the Canadian laws in omnibus bills, legalizing his otherwise illegal surveillance, and thereby expanding it (Forcese and Roach, 2015; O’Reilly, 2015).
Are we European? Maybe. Some of us recognize a shared community united by our shared intercontinental political leadership. Those of us who do, need to seek out paperbacks like Umberto Eco’s How to Spot a Fascist as a necessity to avoid Fascists from now on.
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Terry Trowbridge is a PhD candidate in Socio-Legal Studies who is spending the pandemic isolated and vaccinated as a plum farmer on the shore of Lake Ontario. His chapbook reviews have appeared in Hamilton Arts & Letters, Studies in Social Justice, and Episteme.