What is fascism?

From Umberto Eco’s ‘ur-fascism’ June 22 1995

Eco compares the concept of fascism with Wittgenstein’s concept of a game, with what Wittgenstein called a ‘family resemblance’ between games, but many different forms.

1 2 3 4

abc bcd cde def

“Suppose there is a series of political groups in which group one is characterized by the features
abc, group two by the features bcd, and so on. Group two is similar to group one since they have two features in common; for the same reasons three is similar to two and four is similar to three. Notice that three is also similar to one (they have in common the feature c). The most curious case is presented by four, obviously similar to three and two, but with no feature in common with one. However, owing to the uninterrupted series of decreasing similarities between one and four, there remains, by a sort of illusory transitivity, a family resemblance between four and one.
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. Take away imperialism from fascism and you still have Franco and Salazar. Take away colonialism and you still have the Balkan fascism of the Ustashes. Add to the Italian fascism a radical anti-capitalism (which never much fascinated Mussolini) and you have Ezra Pound. Add a cult of Celtic mythology and the Grail mysticism (completely alien to official fascism) and you have one of the most respected fascist gurus, Julius Evola”.

And ….


If you browse in the shelves that, in American bookstores, are labeled as New Age, you can find there even Saint Augustine who, as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge – that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.

Traditionalism and syncreticism

Here, the feature of fascism is both syncreticism, a combination of even contradictory belief systems as well as the assumption of an already existing primal truth being progressively revealed.

By the by, here, we can think of an area I have written about: Evidence Based Medicine’s rhetorical justifications for population based diagnostic disease screening technologies. These justifications are syncretistic, for example, the belief that all screened-diagnosed cancers are ‘real’ cancers, whilst knowing that many are overdiagnosed and harmless. There is an assumption here that there is a primal truth, the cancer as lethal threat, that can be progressively revealed by diagnostic technologies.

This begs the question: Is EBM an aspect of contemporary life and technology around which fascism can. and perhaps is already, coagulating?

Irrationalism and the rejection of critical analysis

Although technology can be worshipped, at the same time it can be used in an atmosphere where critical analysis and rationality are suspect, accused of degeneracy. It is bad form to point out contradictions in the justifications for the way technology is used. For example, it is bad form to point out the irrationality in defining a diagnostic tests as a gold standard when this is a) commonly understood to mean 100% accurate, b) when it may be far less than 100% accurate, c) when it is claimed to mean ‘the best available’, and d) when this claim is used rhetorically to squash criticism of the test’s use. An example of this in medicine would be the ‘gold standard’ screening mammographies and biopsies used in breast cancer screening programmes, which are only between 60 and 40% accurate.

Action (as if) for Actions Sake

This is an interesting one, the cult of action: “something must be done”, is clearly here today in 2020. Today, these actions have the cover scientific blessings of the experts in power. These experts are in power because they have been appointed by the ruling classes as the experts to be believed. Their thoughts are valued as if empirical, sensed, demonstrable and scientific fact. These actions have some (apparently desirable) effects that provide added justification (for example, the prevention of some cancer deaths) that precludes the valuation of other, harmful, effects (for example, overdiagnosis, the mis-diagnosis and treatment of false positive and so harmless ‘cancers’). In this cult it is considered blasphemous to suggest that it would be better to do nothing, that is to say, to not act, or to not offer cancer screening tests in population based programmes.

A fear of diversity

For Eco, 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.

This is also interesting because the appeal of fascist cults might be an apparent claim for democratic socialist inclusivity, whilst actual membership of the cult, in practice, proves to be both exclusive of and fearful/aggressive towards outsiders.

The persuasion to obey, as if moral and mandatory, population-based programmes, rules, or customs, treats each individual only as a member of a collective – to the extent that each individual should be, and is assumed to be, prepared to sacrifice his or her life for the sake of the collective ‘life’.

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