An Outsideist interpretation of Umberto Eco’s ‘Ur-Fascism’.
‘Fascism’ is a concept that any budding Outsideist in the crushing nexus of the pre-2020s will find themselves facing with increasing frequency. While those of us who value historical context (and empathy) won’t have difficulty in identifying its unsightly growths, it’s still easy to find oneself caught up in the endless war of duelling rhetorical realities regarding what counts as fascism and what doesn’t. For the Insideist, the word ‘fascism’ is a wilfully vague signifier of “badness” and thus can be slung at anything that involves the imposition of power, threat, or indeed even consequences for actions. Anything, from grassroots activists forcibly removing white supremacist demonstrators, to outspoken public criticism of art, can somehow fall into this box. This is easy because ‘fascism’ is a fuzzy notion, that doesn’t refer to a strictly defined phenomenon so much as a family resemblance between numerous historical behaviours (often differing on the level of individual ideologies). Even as a word, it’s unhelpful.
But part of the purpose of Outsideism as a thought tool is to elucidate the fundamental differences between the two competing forces, in a way that resists the usual Insideist rhetorical inversions. And it’s about time that Outsideism offer its take on how, precisely, the concept of fascism slots into its structure.
It’s very simple: Fascism is terminal stage Insideism.
If you prefer, fascism can be characterised as extreme or severe Insideism; the ‘terminal’ phrasing is just because it generally results in death. This is something that became obvious to me personally a while ago, but merits clarification.
To achieve this, I’m going to refer to a take on fascism that’s most often revered for its flexibility; instead of futilely trying to isolate a singular phenomenon which encapsulates fascism, it deals with fascism’s ‘fuzziness’ by identifying 14 key traits – any one of which might be enough to identify a family resemblance with fascist movements. (To use Eco’s own analogy – in the sense that abc is similar to bcd, bcd is similar to cde, cde is similar to def, and thus def bears a family resemblance to abc despite sharing no common components.) This 14-point list forms the structure of his 1995 essay, ‘Ur-Fascism’. It’s a quick read, and essential stuff, so if you haven’t read it, go away and do so now before you continue. For this post, I’ve used this version.
I submit that the defining impulse behind all 14 of the key traits he identifies is Insideism – the retreat inwards, the retreat from empathy, the retreat from material context, and the retreat into the self away from the Other. The fundamental link is that each of them constitutes a psychological manoeuvre to escape the crushing pressure of Outside. Thus do I rebrand them: The 14 Insideist Moves. Several of them will be self-explanatory.
THE FOURTEEN INSIDEIST MOVES
ONE. The Cult of Tradition
ECO: “In the Mediterranean basin, people of different religions (most of them indulgently accepted by the Roman Pantheon) started dreaming of a revelation received at the dawn of human history. This revelation, according to the traditionalist mystique, had remained for a long time concealed under the veil of forgotten languages—in Egyptian hieroglyphs, in the Celtic runes, in the scrolls of the little known religions of Asia.
Each of the original messages contains a sliver 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. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.”
Largely self-explanatory. Our Insides, everything we know and believe, are a construction of the past. The desire to cling onto the pre-existent, and shut down new learning, can be viewed as a move away from threatening Outside knowledge, and into the comfort of the already-known. Generally these days, the need for “traditional values” occurs because they shield us from acknowledging the needs and suffering of other people. It’s a desire to go back to ignoring, repressing, and forgetting about certain types of people, because the prospect of having empathy for them is too painful.
This easily lends itself to the fetishisation and mythification of that supposed prehistorical revelation of truth. All the better that it be ultimately unknowable and require endless interpretation; that means we can cling onto the version in our imaginations that’s most convenient for us.
TWO. Irrationalism/Rejection of Modernism
ECO: “Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism. Both Fascists and Nazis worshiped technology, while traditionalist thinkers usually reject it as a negation of traditional spiritual values. However, even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon Blood and Earth (Blut und Boden). The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life, but it mainly concerned the rejection of the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course). The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
Largely an extension of ONE and thus mostly self-explanatory – the thing being rejected is not necessarily technology or industry (certainly not power or property), but quite specifically the expansion of thought associated with the modern era – and thus, the imposition from Outside of new, complicated ways of thinking/being.
This one is quite interesting when viewed in light of how many modern neo-fascists insist on themselves as the true arbiters of ‘rationality’ and ‘realism’. Certainly, very few of them would reject the ideas of enlightenment, reason, and scientific development – in theory. But they would most certainly find excuses to dismiss the current versions of those things as lies and a corrupt plot (let’s not get ahead of ourselves on the list…) in the event that they failed to say the desired things about, say, the climate, gender, or race. Meanwhile, in the eternal search for white identity, here and there you’ll find appeals to a sort of mythic pre-rational view of life, maybe involving a fetish for Vikings or something. One of the many shambling contradictions of the fascist (Terminal Insideist) existence is that juxtaposition – belief in one’s own superior intelligence, set against a desperate, craven need for the simplification of thought.
THREE. The Cult of Action For Action’s Sake
ECO: “Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes.
[…] The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.”
Again largely self-explanatory (retreating from the development of thought = Insideism), although the relationship of Insideism to action deserves to be articulated more than it has been so far. In the (admittedly fairly deterministic) Outsideist view, actions we take are essentially automatic behaviours done from mental necessity. Insideism means refusing to think about, critique from an outside perspective, and thus doubt, one’s own actions prior to taking them – rather, to take the comfortable route of continuing one’s own automatic behaviour uninterrupted – hence, Insideist action is predominantly harmful. It’s action taken while wilfully ignorant of the context and the consequences.
Why, then, does Terminal Insideism find this action not merely necessary but ‘beautiful’? We risk jumping ahead in the list again, but…Insideism is also the psychological process of reaffirming to oneself that Insideism is acceptable. It’s a self-perpetuating mechanism that exists to increase comfort. So, more and more, opportunities to perform that reaffirmation – and increase that comfort – become pleasurable, and take on the quality of desirability that is “beauty”. This is how we end up with sadistic forms of social interaction, but that can wait.
FOUR. Disagreement is Treason
ECO: “No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.”
(To recap omitted sections: Eco refers to the ‘syncretism’ of fascism as the way in which it cobbles together often contradictory traditions.) This is yet another mostly self-explanatory entry, and unlike the past three I won’t spend several paragraphs explaining. Insideism develops its own rigid and fundamentally arbitrary forms of ‘political correctness’ to protect its flimsy internal structure.
I would, however, refer you to the way Terminal Insideists also project this removal of nuance onto their own perception of their enemies’ ideology. Outsideist views, based upon context, a multiplicity of viewpoints, and material detail, are rooted immovably in nuance and the working through of disagreements…but Terminal Insideists are fixated on the idea that it’s all terrifying, oppressive dogma. FOUR is one of those points that Insideists are liable to throw back at their opponents, citing the dogpiling and massive criticism that occurs when a public figure – even a previously liked one – says, for example, something dehumanising about a marginalised group. I would suggest the closest thing to Outsideist ‘dogma’ is the reality of common human dignity and empathy, and what distinguishes this from Insideist dogma is that it mandates the constant growth of thought and referencing of reality, rather than the shrinking of thought and abandonment of reality. Disagreement on the matter of basic human dignity constitutes not a treason against the ingroup and ideology, but if anything a “treason” against human existence.
FIVE. The Natural Fear of Difference
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.”
Self-explanatory. Fear of difference = fear of Other = fear of Outside. Invariably results in the dehumanisation of the outsiders. Leads to the obsession with ‘being invaded’ and the reframing of compassion as ‘suicide’.
Something important to note is the naturalness of that fear, at least under our current way of living/being. On this blog I’ve tried to stress that Insideism is something of a natural and inevitable psychological phenomenon – if Terminal Insideism is just a continued extension of this natural behaviour, it follows that fascism is in its own way a natural development. More on that later.
SIX. The Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class
ECO: “Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
Fascism preys on feelings of frustration that are isolated from context. The frustration that comes from social inequality and suffering creates a need for comfort, and primes people to fall towards Insideism – not to delve into the complicated and uncomfortable material contexts that created their situation and implicate everyone, but to fall back on the simplistic explanation that identifies an Outside enemy.
Why is Terminal Insideism attracted to a frustrated middle class? It’s because that position is at just the right level of isolation from context – the limitation of its historical perspective is ideal. They’re cut off in both directions: from the struggles and suffering of those in the classes beneath them, and from the mystic and opulent world of the ruling classes. They’re just low enough to feel suffering and resentment, but not low enough to have real empathy for the underclass. Terrifying Outsideness on all sides.
I’m reminded of how current neo-fascists seem to believe that their enemies are both a secret cabal of wealthy influential elites, and the monstrous “swarm” of little people.
SEVEN. Obsession with a Plot
ECO: “To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside.”
(For modern forms of neo-fascism, this might possibly be better adapted if you substituted ‘country’ for whiteness. The function remains the same.) The Insideist need for an Outside enemy extends into conspiracy thinking, something referred to in the ‘What Is Insideism?’ video as “fake people theory”. This is the creative, imaginative aspect of Terminal Insideism, whereby isolated contextless nuggets of information (and bullshit) are synthesised into grand, fantastical, mythic narratives that hinge on the total fakeness of anyone designated One of Them. These also reframe the theorists (and their related Insideist movement) as heroes with the task of shattering a false reality, the nature and extent of which is constantly in flux and growth depending on what contradictory information the Insideist is currently facing.
I’ve started to think of these conspiracy theories as gods, to which facts, truth and people are ‘sacrificed’. Upon their absorption into the god’s web, people and information become “explained as fake” and thus their existence is forfeit.
They are Insideist gods; articles of faith that demand unbroken control over their followers’ thought, which their followers eagerly surrender in their need for salvation from the monsters of Outside.
But enough of that.
EIGHT. Simultaneously Too Strong and Too Weak
ECO: “The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.
However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.”
This can be linked to Insideism fairly easily. Any objective, material evaluation of “the enemy” would risk shattering the cartoon vision of them that exists in the Insideist’s head – it might even result in having empathy for them, and that’s a no-go. The psychological apparatus that divorces the Insideists from the reality of their ‘enemies’ is what allows their perception of the Enemy to be in constant superposition, constant flux, to whichever version is the most comforting at a given time.
EIGHT is one of the points that generally doesn’t quite 1:1 translate to our 2017 understanding of neo-fascist groups, but there are always parallels to be found. I might point to the President of the United States’ claims that he’s being unfairly victimised by the media (his principal enemy) for his behaviour, juxtaposed simultaneously with his notion that he is somehow defeating and circumventing the media by continuing to embarrass himself with his behaviour. But that would be almost unfair. Maybe a better example is expressed by the Insideist rhetorical device of the ‘crybully’ – someone who’s a manifestation of sensitivity, weakness and emasculation, yet through this very fact wields untold oppressive power.
Here’s a danger spot. EIGHT is another point that Terminal Insideists might sling back at their opponents – admittedly I haven’t seen anyone do it myself yet but better safe than sorry – pointing to the way that leftists and justice-oriented groups will both mock them for being pathetic internet cowards, and yet also claim that they pose a threat to marginalised communities and must be shut down (perhaps citing instances of white nationalist terrorism). Surely these two viewpoints are irreconcilable! Now we’ve worked out who the REAL fascists are!
Well, no. It’s not that the two are in opposition, so much as they simply refer to different types of people in the same camp who supplement each other. Terminal Insideism is deeply appealing for the fundamentally impotent and cowardly, who fear facing the complex reality of their fellow humans, but also holds attraction for the unstable and violent – i.e. those impotent and cowardly people who happen to be bold enough to enact their own destructive fantasies.
NINE. Life is Lived for Struggle/Armageddon Complex
ECO: “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. This, however, brings about an Armageddon complex. Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world […]”
The permanent struggle to crush enemies is a struggle to eliminate empathy, and retreat from understanding. Insideism positions the individual as facing a constant battle against the horror of their fellow humans – something which we Outsideists understand as the battle to preserve ignorance and antipathy – and, through its comfort-building mechanism, frames this battle as the most important and most valuable aspect of life. The possibility for mutual understanding must be foreclosed against from the start, mainly via the dehumanisation of the Enemy.
The need to kill and destroy things instead of understanding them links back to the idea from THREE of destructive Insideist action as desirable; it’s merely that taken to its logical conclusion.
TEN. Popular Elitism
ECO: “Ur-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. But there cannot be patricians without plebeians. In fact, the Leader, knowing that his power was not delegated to him democratically but was conquered by force, also knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler.”
The very essence of Insideism requires elitism; the implicit admission that the Insideist is on some level superior to those of the Other and the Outside (who do not merit understanding or empathy, but rather implicit contempt). And yet, because this is operating not only on group level but on individual level, individuals are invariably encouraged to position themselves above their peers, participating in the construction of a narrative within which they are the destined protagonist. For people with power, this manifests as contempt for those who are weaker.
The fundamental contradiction of everyone in the group being the best, while simultaneously everyone is viewed with contempt by everyone else, is the kind of thing that’s easy with Insideism because no-one ever has to stop and think about the absurdity.
ELEVEN. The Cult of Heroism
ECO: “In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm.”
The fetishisation of the individual narrative over the communal reality invariably leads to the myth of the hero. The hero is a fundamentally Insideist concept.
That’s perhaps not an easy step to take. I have my personal heroes. We all know or have perhaps heard of people who we see as heroes, because they demonstrate exceptional kindness, bravery, self-sacrifice, and dedication to the common good of people. These people are valuable, both for the good they do and also as examples for us all.
But the idea of these people as a special ‘hero’ class of human, who perhaps completed a specific quest, and are possessed of an aura of mythic importance as a result? This requires a decontextualising of them. You need to discount the means by which that person was an inevitable product of history, a consequence of the mix of social factors in their community, and you need to discount the fact that their “quest” or “achievement” was not a linear narrative with a neat endpoint but merely part of a much larger tapestry with inevitable hidden horrors.
In those cases where we can uncritically call what they represent ‘goodness’, if we’re swearing fealty to truth, we cannot pretend that such goodness was borne of itself (or borne from the self). We can’t hold up the idea of specialness as an example for people to emulate, because that encourages them to fetishise their own narratives instead of understand the tapestry of the community and world in which they exist. Narratives that fetishise ‘heroism’ as a personal property unto itself are dangerous, inherently Insideist, and in the worst cases Terminally Insideist.
(As the word narrative has been appearing more and more, it might be worth linking here to Prester Jane’s in-depth discussions of Narrativism and the ‘inner narrative‘, which deal with specific forms of Insideism from a different angle, and shine a great deal of light on the danger of a self-centric personal narrative that positions the individual as hero.)
ECO: “This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. […] the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.”
When the heroism fetish meets Terminal Insideism’s fetishes for battle and harm, a death fixation is the result. Death is one of those funny little things – the truth about it will forever be Outside to us, but our imaginary notion of what it means can be whatever we want. As such, Insideism will assign all manner of values to death, as long as it doesn’t have to actually think about dying. (Fixating on death is also helpful for ignoring and devaluing the material realities of life.) These days, most Terminal Insideists – at least Western ones – aren’t crazy about the idea of a heroic death, though they certainly are in love with the idea of risking death in a heroic battle. If you’re in America this probably involves guns. But first and foremost I can say, I think with some certainty, that modern Terminal Insideists are more in love with the idea of other people dying.
ECO: “Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.”
Much of this is self-explanatory. The intrinsic fear of the female, the feminine, the queer, the trans, and the gender-nonconforming, is all classical Insideism (the feminine being the original, archetypal Other, and everything else being down to historical constructions). The sexual angle which you may well have seen smeared all over the internet, wherein the man’s individual domination of the woman is fetishised to the exclusion of any interest in the woman’s pleasure or interiority, is just another manifestation of that Insideist fear of caring.
The pleasure that comes from subjugating empathy (beyond that which is purely sexual and into that which involves, say, hurting people with weapons, or verbally abusing them) is a manifestation of that social sadism we mentioned earlier; the act of ‘dominating’ another living thing helps to reify the self-belief that it’s okay to not be affected by their suffering, and thus increases comfort. (Even moreso when combined with that contempt for the weak we mentioned earlier; they deserve to be hurt, damn it!)
THIRTEEN. Selective Populism
ECO: “In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. […] Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction.”
This is an Insideist move because it involves the abandonment of the material aspects of the populace, and the existence of different kinds of people with equally valuable lives, in favour of a convenient and comforting imaginary value which can be adapted to one’s own desires. Every Insideist wants to believe that their opinions reflect “the people”. Outsideists know that in fact, nobody’s opinions do. (To be fair, “quantitative” liberal democracy as we understand it doesn’t do a lot to help prevent this.)
ECO: “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”
A particularly prescient point from 1995. The assistance of technology in helping us form our own, isolated ideological worlds, diminishing the need for physical tangibility, has made it intensely easy to decontextualise individual voices or groups from their wider Outside world by omitting information.
FOURTEEN. Impoverished Vocabulary
ECO: “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”
Largely self-explanatory – simplifying language helps to simplify thought, eliminate nuance, dodge self-criticism, and avoid empathy. Insideism deals in slogans and repeated buzzphrases, things that ‘sound right’, to take the place of independent analysis. “Your Enemies are fake people. Therefore, things they do are not good. If you see them, just say ‘virtue signalling’. It’s intelligent, we promise.” Naturally, it isn’t. But first and foremost, spamming memes like ‘cuck’ is easy where thinking and empathy are difficult. (Tweeting endless repeated phrases is also easy where actually doing your job is terrifying.) It’s easy to make too much of Eco’s FOURTEEN in a context where no-one’s actually legislating this kind of language, but it’s worth observing the way it has its roots in the natural linguistic tendencies of Insideism – the Insideist move away from complex articulation.
Mind you, FOURTEEN could be another danger spot – specifically because Eco specifies, “Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak”, and as Orwell’s 1984 is the iconic cultural signifier of an oppressive thought regime, anything invoking it is material to be used as ammunition without real attention to detail. So, while again I can’t testify to examples of this, I picture legions of Insideists launching accusations of ‘Newspeak’ against the worlds of critical theory, gender, sexual and racial theory, which routinely confront them with new and scary terms they really don’t want to understand. So it’s worth quickly checking in and reminding ourselves that Orwell’s Newspeak doesn’t actually just mean “new things that you speak”, but language that exists to limit critical thought, rather than demand more expansive and multifaceted conceptions of it. But this is such a flimsy point it barely warrants rebuffing, really.
ECO: “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.” Freedom and liberation are an unending task.”
This gets at something quite crucial. If Insideism is a natural phenomenon that we’re all at risk of being sucked into due to our condition of being human, then fascism – severe Insideism – is simply what happens when we sink too far down that slope. Insideism is the path of least resistance. We are all subject to its gravity. What awaits at the bottom is our doom and the doom of all others.
What that also means is that, in order to resist this pull, we can’t simply stand still. We have to apply active force in the opposite direction, lest the inertia of normalcy drag us down into the fascist hell lurking right beneath our feet.
Anyway, this lays it all out on the table. As far as we’re concerned, fascism is Insideism.
To escape fascism, pursue Outsideism. Everywhere, in everything. Fascism can sneak up on you regardless of what you call your ideology, or where you think you lie on the spectrum; but if you are sufficiently Outsideist – adhering to the fundamental pro-empathy value – you will always be safe. Listen to individual testimony. Understand the feelings of social groups. Don’t stand by and allow harm to be done to the vulnerable. And I mean the legitimately vulnerable; don’t allow reality to be warped – maintain a commitment to the material information, methodological rigour, and a fundamental awareness of the need to understand others’ perspectives as valid and human – you will never be lost.
And don’t lose hope either. Insideism is the ideology of denial, and by extension so is fascism. Denial’s final enemy will always be reality, and reality has a habit of asserting itself quite bluntly.