Rehabilitating the other F-word

As we step into the bright sunlight in central Florence, a young man blasts by on a Vespa from which he has removed the muffler.

Wincing from the deafening racket — which is causing evident pain to all the passers-by — my companion says to me, “Questo, questo è il fascismo.”

Now that is fascism.”

That day in 1973, Carlo Francovich had found a teaching moment to explain something profound to me, his young American student.

Professore Francovich knew what he was talking about. In his obituary, the New York Times called him “a leader of anti-Fascist partisans in Florence in World War II and a prominent historian of Italian unification.” *

Does it seem to you like hyperbole to call a kid on a noisy motorbike a fascist?

The word fascist is pretty much banned from conversation these days, but there is no real synonym — you can be authoritarian without being fascist, for example. I think we need to understand fascism. I also think we need to call it by its name when we encounter it.

Carlo Francovich offered us a simple definition of fascism:

The need to believe that you are superior to everyone else. By extension, so must be your nation, your race, your tribe.

This superiority makes you strong, and it gives you the right — no, the duty — to make the weak submit to your will.

While Fascist Italy is not the only place and time that this worldview has taken control of a previously democratic government, it was the first. People who lived through Italian fascism have something to teach us about its essence.

A classic discussion of the meaning of fascism comes from Umberto Eco, writing in the New York Review of Books back in 1995. Himself a child of Mussolini’s Italy, Eco points out that, “Italian fascism was certainly a dictatorship, but it was not totally totalitarian, not because of its mildness but rather because of the philosophical weakness of its ideology… Mussolini did not have any philosophy: he had only rhetoric.”

Eco then distills the essence of fascism:

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.

The article is rich and long — it is, after all, an essay by a renowned philosopher and semiotician in the NYRB. (That said, it is totally worth reading.) Courtesy of Paul Bausch, here is a summary of Eco’s list of characteristics of fascism:

  • cult of tradition
  • rejection of modernism
  • action for action’s sake
  • disagreement is treason
  • fear of difference
  • appeal to a frustrated middle class
  • obsession with a plot
  • enemies are portrayed as both too strong and too weak
  • pacifism is trafficking with the enemy
  • contempt for the weak
  • everybody is educated to become a hero
  • machismo via weapons
  • selective populism
  • use of an impoverished vocabulary

Remind you of anyone?

Remember, Eco underscores that this list is like those that the CDC publishes to help diagnose certain diseases, where several but not all of the symptoms will be present.

I admit, though, that the current situation in the U.S. evokes every single one of these characteristics.

Aw, come on, you might be thinking: Trump isn’t Mussolini, the specifics are all different.

The beauty of Eco’s thinking, to me, is that his list details where fascism comes from, not where it leads. A police state is a consequence of fascism, not its prerequisite.

I’ll leave you with another citation from Eco’s essay.

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. 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.

Do you think it’s time to give permission for judicious use of the f-word?


* Francovich never spoke to us about his experiences, even when we asked, but we found out from his colleagues.

I write about UX, languages and politics—only when I have something new to say. Designer of great user experiences. An American abroad in Québec.