Eco, Ur-Fascism, and Dogs


Jack, as news of Umberto Eco's death was breaking last night, Tweeted a link to his "Ur-Fascism" essay, which he is quite right to say is brilliant and worth (re)reading. To my deep annoyance I first came across it after I had written "Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons" and had used an ad hoc definition of "fascism" for a key section when I could have just used Eco's. 

For this revisions were invented, of course, and when reworking the essay for the book version (still for sale, by the way) I did just that. So since it's relevant to the times and a good day to honor one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, here's the revised "On Fascism" section of the title essay, in which I argue that the Sad/Rabid Puppies movements are accurately described as "fascist." 

RIP Umberto Eco.

Part Four: On Fascism

I mentioned at the outset that this was not going to be a piece that made much of an effort to convince fascists not to be fascists. Here this becomes particularly important. I am not going to bother trying to refute the arguments that Theodore Beale has made for his positions. I am assuming, at this point, that you, as a reader, are in no way on the fence about fascism, that it is not a viewpoint you are seriously considering, and that you are appalled at Theodore Beale’s beliefs and disturbed by the fact that he has influenced a major and historic literary award.

Therefore, let’s not engage Beale on his own terms. The easiest mistake to make when trying to understand fascists is to think that they are best described in terms of a philosophy—as though fascism is a set of tenets and beliefs. This is a mistake that largely benefits fascists, who are generally disinclined to actually call themselves fascists, since they recognize that, much like “Nazis,” it’s not exactly a label that does a great sales job. On top of that, fascists have a remarkably well-developed vocabulary of jargon and a propensity for verbose arguments that puts me to shame. What this means is that if you attempt to get into some sort of practical, content-based argument with a fascist, you will suddenly find yourself staring down a thirty-item bulleted list with frequent citations to barely relevant and inaccurately described historical events, which, should you fail to address even one sub-point, you will be declared to have lost the debate by the fascist and the mob of a dozen people on Twitter who suddenly popped up the moment you started arguing with him. (And it’s always a him.)

In other words, this is manifestly neither a refutation of Beale’s positions nor of fascism in general. Rather, it’s an attempt to understand the “intellectual” traditions Beale follows, both explicitly and implicitly.

As a term, “fascism” is admittedly one whose definitions have become exceedingly broad. There are, these days, few adherents to the early 20th century fascist movements headed by Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco in Italy and Spain, for instance. These days we mostly talk about “neo-fascism,” much like we talk about “neo-Nazism,” a heavily overlapping ideology that Beale can also pretty fairly be characterized as subscribing to. Even these are broad terms, often used to describe any extremist right-wing position with an authoritarian or racist streak, definitions that Beale unambiguously qualifies under.

For my part, I’m inclined towards the definition in Umberto Eco’s “Ur-Fascism” essay based in no small part on his own experiences growing up in fascist Italy, but broadened to describe subsequent movements with similar ideologies. Eco was in particular fascinated by the ability of fascism to espouse a sort of revolutionary totalitarianism that simultaneously supported (and was financed by) existing structures of power while offering populist rhetoric about the looming new order.

In light of this, Eco offers a list of fourteen characteristics of Ur-Fascism, noting that “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.” In the case of the Puppy movements, however, there are far more than just one. Eco’s list is as follows, although anyone interested in an extended definition of any particular item ought to consult the original essay.

  • The cult of tradition.
  • The rejection of modernism.
  • Action for action’s sake.
  • Hostility to analytic criticism.
  • Fear of difference.
  • The appeal to a frustrated middle class.
  • Obsession with a plot—specifically an external plot; other writers describe this as the “stab in the back myth.”
  • Focus on the “ostentatious wealth and force” of its enemies.
  • A permanent state of war.
  • Contempt for the weak.
  • A cult of heroism espousing a noble sacrifice.
  • A focus on machismo.
  • A selective (and undemocratic) populism.
  • The use of Newspeak.

By my count, Vox and the Puppies tick the overwhelming majority of these boxes; the only one I can’t really find in them is the cult of heroism (and even that appears in much of the military SF they admire and in the treatment of Beale within the community). The cult of tradition is obvious enough: it’s the entire basis of Brad Torgersen’s lament about book covers. The rejection of modernism is perhaps subtler, but is clear in Correia’s distinction between classic pulp adventure and the “literati,” by which he means work following in the new wave tradition that emerged in the 1960s with heavy influence from the formal experimentalism of early 20th century modernism. Correia’s use of “literati” also echoes many of the phrases Eco uses in describing the third point such as “degenerate intellectuals” and “eggheads,” a point that also fairly neatly covers “hostility to analytic criticism.”

It is perhaps too easy to argue the case for fear of difference, given Beale’s impassioned racism and sexism. But it is worth emphasizing this point simply because of its sheer importance to Beale. Few topics animate him more than immigration and the horrors of diversity. He repeats the statement that “diversity + proximity = war” like a personal mantra, a fact made all the more ironic by the small detail that he repeatedly describes himself of being of Mexican and Native American heritage, and yet lives in Italy as an immigrant.

Moving on to the appeal to the frustrated middle class, we are brought once again to Torgersen’s bizarre essay about book covers, which is framed almost entirely in these terms. It is an appeal to a middlebrow crowd of readers who nominally feel left behind by current trends in science fiction. But one might also locate it in the Gamergate movement, which Beale is also heavily involved in, and which also frames itself as a consumer revolt among largely middle class geeks.

Both also demonstrate an obsession with a plot. A key component of the Puppies’ narrative is the idea that the Hugos have, in recent years, fallen into the hands of a mysterious cabal interested only in leftist message fiction. The specific contours of this cabal are endlessly fuzzy, based on nebulous accusations of vote trading and collusion that somehow got things hundreds of nominations despite leaving no clear evidence of campaigning (the closest anyone has found are a few people noting that they have eligible work, which is a far cry from the Puppies’ organized campaign to control the entire ballot), but that is, of course, the point of these nebulous plots.

The characterization of this cabal also nicely fits the criteria of point eight, which Eco frames in terms of “a constant shifting of rhetorical focus” such that “the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.” For all that Beale’s narrative relies on the idea that there’s a cabal in control of nearly all major publishing houses, the entire mainstream media, and, of course, the actual Hugo Awards, his descriptions of his enemies always focus on making them pathetic and weak. Beale’s treatment of Teresa Nielsen Hayden, an editor at Tor Books (a company generally labeled as the enemy by the Puppies) is indicative—on the one hand, she and her husband are treated as powerful puppet masters within science fiction; on the other, Beale refers to her constantly as “the Toad of Tor” and makes fun of her weight. (That also largely checks off “contempt for the weak.”)

The idea of life as permanent warfare, meanwhile, is absolutely central to Beale’s ideology and rhetoric. For Beale the struggle over the Hugo Awards (or, for that matter, video games) is nothing less than a battle for the very soul of western civilization, which is under constant attack in the modern day. Beale talks endlessly of “4GW,” or fourth-generation warfare, a mode of modern, decentralized warfare carried out as much in the media as on conventional battlefields.

This militarism also points towards machismo, and indeed Beale readily displays what Eco describes as “disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.” But this tendency goes far deeper: it’s visible in Correia’s initial formulation of the Puppies in terms of excessive emotion, for instance, clearly a suggestion that such science fiction is insufficiently manly. Perhaps its most blatant expression, however, is unsurprisingly Beale’s in his division of “Blue SF and Pink SF.” No points for guessing which one he thinks is good.

This leaves only selective populism and Newspeak. Both are relatively straightforward cases. The selective populism of the Puppies is baked into the entire system. Indeed, it’s the central paradox of their entire argument. Their justification is that the action-heavy pulp science fiction they espouse is more popular than the stuff that Hugo voters have actually been voting for. The entire argument is that Torgersen and Beale are single-handedly proclaiming the true popular taste. (And indeed, Eco writes at length about the way in which this populism is always hostile to a real democracy such as the Hugos.)

As for Newspeak, one need only look at the myriad of jargon terms and mantras spun by Beale and Torgersen. Indeed, Torgersen specifically coined the term “CHORF” (Cliquish Holier-than-thou Obnoxious Reactionary Fanatics, apparently) as an insult to throw at his political enemies at the start of the Sad Puppies campaign. Beale, meanwhile, is awash with slogans that he repeats endlessly: “Diversity + Proximity = War,” for instance, or “SJWs always lie.” Or, for that matter, things like “Blue” and “Pink” SF. To affiliate one’s self with the Puppies is very much a matter of learning to speak like them and repeat their platitudes.

So that’s thirteen out of fourteen markers displayed by Beale and the Puppies—a tally that would seem to put the question of whether they can fairly be described as “fascist” beyond any real contention. All the same, it is also worth exploring the ideas of Christian dominionism and neoreactionaries, so as to get a firm idea of Beale’s precise flavor of fascism.

Christian dominionism is a simple enough idea—it’s a strand of Christian theocracy, generally associated with American Protestants, and reasonably characterized by Beale’s statement, “I believe that any civilized Western society will be a Christian one or it will cease to be civilized... if it manages to survive at all.” (Note that “if it manages to survive at all” displays one of the key characteristics of dominionists, namely their apocalyptic bent.) And it’s a strand of thought Beale has long-time affiliations with: his father, the jailed tax protester Robert Beale, worked for Pat Robertson’s 1988 Presidential campaign; Beale got his start in publishing with a series of apocalyptic Christian novels under his own name. (Robertson, fittingly, is namechecked by Eco in explaining the obsession with a plot.)

Neoreactionarism, on the other hand, is a newer school of thought also known as the Dark Enlightenment. This is a strange school of thought that combines an intense cultural conservatism with an extreme and tech culture-inspired libertarian streak. In its view, the enlightenment and liberal democracy (“pseudo-democracy,” in Beale’s parlance) were a disastrous wrong turn away from monarchic, aristocratic, and feudalist forms of government, an error maintained by the all-encompassing Cathedral (essentially a distributed and leaderless conspiracy that constitutes the general consensus that democracy and human rights are good ideas). It believes that a return to monarchy is necessary—an overtly capitalist dictatorship in which king and CEO become, in effect, the same thing, guiding the citizenship (who have no rights save the right to leave, not that, in this line of thought, there’s anywhere to go) through cold, impersonal, and very specifically masculine reason with the sole point of increasing the profitability of the state. It’s spectacularly disturbing, and deserves to be the subject of another book entirely, which, to be fair, I’m writing.


Which also seems as good a time as any to mention that the last sentence is technically inaccurate, as I finished my first draft of Neoreaction a Basilisk this week. Putting it aside for a week or two while I finish beating "Fearful Symmetry" into shape, then will be doing a revision pass and getting it out to a few preview readers in anticipation of a late spring/early summer Kickstarter.


Dadalama 4 years, 11 months ago

I think Umberto Ecco's definition of fascism is the only modern one that makes sense.

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Tom 4 years, 11 months ago

Mightn't it be easier to call it the political instrumentalisation of sexual repression? That pretty much covers everyone from Mary Whitehouse to the Japanese Red Army. Eco's definition doesn't allow a way to address the problem of moderate fascism (since all these individual points may be harmless - not radically harmful at least - or politically universal "in moderation" (socialist Yugoslavia, say) whereas (as I seem to recall) Marcuse's theories of sexual radicalism make for a broader picture of the necessary persistence of repression and the problem of excess repression.

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Max Curtis 4 years, 11 months ago

Loved this section of the book, and using Eco's definition is a savvy choice. My only issue is you talk about "staring down a thirty-item bulleted list" and then a few paragraphs later include a fourteen-item bulleted list.

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Dadalama 4 years, 11 months ago

still not as bad as two chapter fives!

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Jarl 4 years, 11 months ago

I've checked his math, Phil, he's right. This book is a halfway measure! We're gonna need at least 16 more bullet points if we're gonna fight fascism.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 4 years, 11 months ago

Ha. Yes, I suppose I should have numbered it.

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Jeff Heikkinen 4 years, 11 months ago

It would have made the subsequent discussion a bit easier to follow. That seems like a much better reason than the arguable appearance of hypocrisy, which is more of a mildly amusing side note than a serious criticism.

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Ozyman.Jones 4 years, 11 months ago

Sure... but that definition would include a lot of other ideologies considered outside Fascism... 3rd Wave Feminism would tick ten or eleven of these, depending on how you define the terms.

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Shannon 4 years, 11 months ago

It's really disturbing how many of these the Trump Campaign ticks - I counted at least 11 of 14.

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SW 4 years, 10 months ago

If you haven't seen this (Ezra Klein's new site, not a Puppy thing) article already - - you'll probably be interested in reading it.

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Zammo 4 years, 11 months ago

Any political movement that was backward-looking enough to genuinely reject modern culture would be necessarily a bit harmless- it'd look like the Amish. In Jeffrey Herf's book "Reactionary Modernism", he writes well about the problem with Nazi Germany- a culture with a reactionary ideology but using the very latest gadgets, weapons, media, bombs etc.

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