The Old Testament is a blueprint for ur-fascism


Umberto Eco’s essay in 1995 outlines 14 characteristics of national political systems around which what he called ur- or eternal fascism may congeal.

I have found three of these features at work in the Old Testament:

a) a cult of tradition: that implies a rejection of modernity, an ‘irrationality’ based on myth of origin and destiny:

 … people of different religions … started dreaming of a revelation received at the dawn of human history. Each of the original messages contains a silver of wisdom, and whenever they seem to say different or incompatible things it is only because all are alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth. As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning.

and b) elitism, a sense of being a chosen race, supreme over all others.

Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak. Ur-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism.

and c) Life as permanent warfare: there can be no peace until the enemy is defeated:

For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare.

I have read optimistic interpretations of the Old Testament that claim to fnd messages of non-violence, well being for all, and even of ways of ensuring national security; at the same time I have read accounts of so-called messianic zionism for which the OT provides messages of elite supremacy and (genocidal) settler-colonialism.  By drawing from Lacanian theories of human subjectivity I suggest in this essay that the OT is a blueprint for an ideology that subjectivises the human-of-faith in the God of the OT to a ideology and regime that demands irrationality (origin and destiny myths), elitism, and permanent warfare, that the OT is an ideological blueprint around which fascism can congeal, and around which fascism has already congealed for Hebrew-Israeli apartheid and genocidal political policies.

As a first principle:

The relevant biblical narratives of the past are not simple history, but reflect the religious and political ideologies of their much later authors.

See: Prior, M ‘Confronting the Bible’s Ethnic Cleansing’ chapter in ‘Burning Issues – Understanding and Misunderstanding The Middle East: A 40-year Chronicle’ pp 267-290.

To be as clear as possible, there is ‘virtual unanimity among scholars that, for example, ‘the model of tribal conquest as narrated in Joshua 1-12 is unsustainable’. That is, the OT should not be relied upon as if a history of actual events let alone to justify ethnic cleansing of an indigenous population as if a divine imperative or command. The Zionist and literal reading demands belief in an Israelite invasion of Canaan commanded by God to annihilate the Canaanites, however, the historical evidence suggests this is a myth: for example:

The Iron Age settlements on the central hills of Palestine, from which the later kingdom of Israel developed, reflect continuity with Canaanite culture, and repudiate any ethnic distinction between Canaanites and Israelites.

For an academic and moral critique of the way the OT is used to support Zionist oppression in Israel-Palestine (as well as oppression in South Africa and Latin America) see Michael Prior’s “The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique” (Sheffield, U.K., Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.) Prior, a catholic priest who sadly died in an accident in 2004, was a fierce, erudite and eloquent critic of the way the Bible has been used to justify racism, xenophobia and ethnic cleansing in Palestine by both zionists, as well as even mainstream Christian theology. Prior states that:

Nor can the Shoah (Holocaust) be appealed to credibly to justify the destruction of an innocent third party …. I have been led gradually to situate Zionism within the category of xenophobic imperialism so characteristic of the major European powers towards the end of the 19th century.

Priors moral stance is that Zionism is a pernicious ideology, now embraced by religious elements, that promotes ethnic cleansing that is fundamentally immoral and cannot be excused by any claims of needs for a Jewish State, or recall of the Shoah (Holocaust).

… the interpretation of biblical traditions that advocate atrocities and war crimes had given solace to those bent on the exploitation of new lands at the expense of native people.

Developing Prior’s work, this chapter explores how such an ideology, of great fascist potential, takes such a firm grip on the psyches of so many. I suggest that this ideology works in part through the way all humans seek a sense of self  – by responding to an ideological political Law, or Big Other, expressed in language that decides what is a good thing.  Thus, in the OT this Law, in the name of God or Yaweh,  instills fear by establishing inadequacy in the reader (a sinner), who then desires security, and who then can only establish a (flawed) sense of identity by taking on board, as if a command that cannot be disobeyed, the demand to sacrifice the self, and to defeat the enemy that must be found,  in the name of the greater good of the chosen race.

The quest for surplus grace is embodied in the agitated gait of the neurotic religious fundamentalist.

In The Name of the (God)Father, to destroy the other is a good thing because you are not only weak sinners but also the chosen few, and your destiny is to be persecuted. To face and suffer violence is good for you because you are a sinner and lack grace, but your sin/lack makes you unsure of your identity and envious of others, makes you seek more identity-security in a kind of nationalist-ethnic holy congregation, and this identity of precarity/security also demands ever-surplus grace and surplus security through ever more devotion, more sacrifice, and more militarisation and attacks against the enemy – which is justified by imagining the other always as enemy – the other ethnicity, arbitrary or convenient, that is imagined to seek your total destruction.

This is how the Israeli State and the alt-right, nationalists from the right in US/UK/NATO justify their calls for the ‘eradication of terror’ by the presumption that these so-called rogue states want to “destroy us, our freedoms, our way of life …. ” For example:

Within weeks after the 9/11 attacks, surveys of American attitudes show that this presumption was fast congealing into a hard reality in the public mind. Americans immediately wondered, “Why do they hate us?” and almost as immediately came to the conclusion that it was because of “who we are, not what we do.” As President George W. Bush said in his first address to Congress after the 9/11 attacks: “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

This language literally works to construct an (always inadequate) identity or subjectivity for the already oppressed populace that is made even more precarious and therefore willing to be used as political pawns under the illusion they are working for their security. This is kafkaesque in its complexity and a Foucauldian subjectivisation in which we are subjugated by our objectivisation and objectivised in the constitution of our subjectivity. For Lacan this ideological formation of sense of identity is always unsatisfying as we are always less than fully self-aware. (Striving to re-experience what we never had in the first place – the result of a retroactive imagined fantasy).

The Old Testament has formed the basis for both a supremacist and even genocidal messianic Zionism (see link for good overview of Messianic Zionism called ‘The Ass and the Red Heifer’ by Moshé Machover a Jewish UK academic), whilst others have tried to draw hopeful instructions for the faithful out of messages of social justice, faith and even national security – to guide political policy in more egalitarian and just ways for all men.

Drawing from an essay by a colleague on the CPT Palestine team (inspired by the teachings of Gordon Brubacher), JB, I have laid out a psychoanalytic approach to the OT text, which contradicts the interpretation of the text as egalitarian instructions for the faithful in how to guide policy for the well-being of all, and also contradicts faith itself in the violent messianic Zionist (and Christian Zionist) traditions. I lay out a third way of reading the OT.

This is my reply to Julian:

The key issues for the psychoanalytic reading are a) the identity or subjectivity of the reader; b) what are the invisible ‘Laws’ in the text (not said), that determjne the good or right values to hold; c) what is universal – man as a subject of ideology (subjectivised by ideology); and d) the invisible presuppositions behind a surface reading ? (See here for an introduction to the idea of a psychoanalytic reading)

For example: after Adam takes a bite of the tree of knowledge:

A surface reading might be that God is annoyed because he has been disobeyed and man is always desirous to know more – at any price. But at a deeper level – who is this God anyway? what does this behaviour represent? – is it moral inertia – i.e. disregarding the goodness of something, or a moral choice where ‘To Know is good, or even, to obey and to know is good?

A commonly understood or surface reading may situate man’s search for identity in terms of his/her disobedience to a greater more knowledgeable Good or God. However, this would exclude the possibility, or even make invisible the possibility that man’s lack of full self-awareness is all there is, and make invisible the possibility that individual choice of which (symbolic) Law to obey remains within the gift of the individual, albeit within limits. and is not something granted or ordained by a ‘God’. From JB:

“But no. Peer pressure. The man simply goes along, with the kind of moral inertia which plagues humans in community because they just do what others do. In verse 17 God will say: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife [and disobeyed me] . . . .”

The OT has been interpreted, with a view to finding a guide to western political policies on eg so-called Islamic terrorism e.g. in Afghanistan, Iraq/Iran, Syria or Israel/Palestine, on the presumptive basis that western politics are so-called democracies justified in seeking a ‘national security’, by eradicating terrorism.

But, these presumptions may be in error: I suggest that so-called western democracies are really corporatised dictatorships with no real political choices about political-economic structures. Consider this quote from JB’s essay:

“The United States has been great in large part because it respects understanding and discussion of important ideas and concepts, and because it is free to change course. Intelligent decisions require putting all the facts before us and considering new approaches. The first step is recognizing that occupations in the Muslim world don’t make Americans any safer — in fact, they are at the heart of the problem.”

But, what does the word ‘great’ mean here? – thinking of the recent settler-colonisation and genocide of the indigenous Indians, (a process being repeated in Israel today and pay-rolled by the USA), and slavery.

Literary criticism:

A reading from a standpoint of faith, maximizing well-being for all, and national security, is problematic f or me on three levels. First, faith encourages irrationality one of Umberto Eco’s catalyst for ur- (or eternal fascism, second, a utilitarian approach is not specific enough (like a phrase ‘Justice for All’) that can justify ignoring or not valuing the oppression of marginalized groups, and third, national security as a concept to be valued presupposes that nationalism and nation-states are a good thing, to be secured, whereas nationalism is a major cause of xenophobia and oppression of the other and ethnic minorities. For an illuminating account of The State and its Historic Role, by Peter Kropotkkm in 1896, see here.

The standpoints above, faith, wellbeing for all and national security, seem to invoke a literal surface reading albeit with some liberal-minded re-interpretations (e.g. Feminist or eco minded). But these hide or make invisible the possible interpretation of the bible as a manual for the ideological slavery of mankind to a religious sovereignty. Which makes invisible humankind’s universal lack of full self-awareness; and, the role of religion in separating man from his/her authentic reality.

From the meta-narrative: this interpretation is closer to a psychoanalytical reading as it looks at the bible’s impact on the psyche of the reader. Here, the bible seems to be interpreted as displacing a God the all powerful protector onto the human’s capacity to make choice based on the well-being of others. Thus:

“The power of God is in the voice of conscience within the human heart, calling people to accountability for their actions. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Or in modern English idiom; “Where are you at, Elijah? The question is for all people of all times.”

This is closer to how I would feel the name God: as the power to make choices, albeit always within a framework limited by socio-economic structures and cultural norms.

An example of the paradoxical social injustice that results from following a biblical text that preaches social justice is the presence of signs on Shuhada St. In Hebron, erected by settler-colonisers, aimed at God knows who, which claims the Torah as espousing charity and kindness. When, as is clear, Shuhada St. is a symbol of Zionist genocidal settler colonisation (cite Ehrenreich), the opposite to charitable or kindly.

Think about the ‘failed violence’ of the flood – is this ,as JB suggests, to show the faithful that violence doesn’t pay? Is the flood violent? Doesn’t it pay? It could be a ‘kind’ of rebirth but … is it to remind man that he is a sinner, and will always deserve to be at risk – of natural disaster, God ordained disaster, fate or simple accident, or of oppression by others.

Or. could the failed flood be an indication that, signify to man that man should remember he is, and will always be, a sinner, vulnerable, at risk from the hatred of others, and in need of sovereign security: Gods ‘guidance and protection’? In other words it signifies the importance for man of obedience to the rule of God.

Finally as Eco wrote: 

These words, “freedom,””dictatorship,” “liberty,” – I now read them for the first time in my life. I was reborn as a free Western man by virtue of these new words. We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again. UrFascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. 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.Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.”

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