[A much larger and politically challenging version has appeared in Economic and Political Weekly, 14 July, 2018]
Ur-fascism: Eco, Chomsky, Nandy
Badiou’s paranoia about global rise of fascism is shared, in a variety of forms, by other influential authors. A full review of this problematic literature is beyond the scope of this short, polemical essay. Yet, at least a quick mention must be made of Umberto Eco’s celebrated piece on what he called ‘Ur-Fascism’ (Eco 1995). It is possible that Badiou and other ‘continental’ authors possibly draw their inspiration from Eco. In this very problematic yet manifestly absorbing piece, Eco readily agrees that Nazism and the attendant form of fascism was a unique historical phenomenon. Even the historical context of Italian ‘fascism’—his topic—did not really qualify as fascism by Nazi standards. Eco warns that historically incorrect use of the concept of fascism might actually pave the way for ambiguous, even opportunistic, ascriptions:
It is worth asking why not only the Resistance but the Second World War was generally defined throughout the world as a struggle against fascism … for FDR, “The victory of the American people and their allies will be a victory against fascism and the dead hand of despotism it represents.”
The conjunction of ‘fascism’ with the ‘dead hand of despotism’ enabled America and its allies to continue the ‘struggle’ for freedom and democracy across the world; apparently, the struggle included the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Ngasaki against fascist Japan. Chomsky throws furtherlight on FDR’s concern about fascism and the dead hand of despotism it represented: in 1937 when FDR was the president of US, ‘the State Department described Hitler as a kind of a moderate who was holding off the dangerous forces of the left, meaning the Bolsheviks and the labor movement’. Thus, Eco is fully justified in opposing the use of the notion of fascism beyond its original context.
Nonetheless, Eco’s otherwise salutary and deeply human essay begins to get problematic with his suggestion that, when he was growing up as a boy in Mussolini’s Italy, his personal experiences reflected that unique historical moment. Thus, his aim in the essay is to form a literary record of the experience of fascism. In that sense, Eco’s aim is not really to engage with the actual social history of Nazism. His goal is artistic, in the literary mode. According to Eco, fascism, like any other ruling order, can be so experienced, because
behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives. Is there still another ghost stalking Europe (not to speak of other parts of the world)? Ionesco once said that ‘only words count and the rest is mere chattering.’ Linguistic habits are frequently important symptoms of underlying feelings.
Thus, even if Eco warned us earlier about not venturing beyond the original example of fascism, his experience of linguistic and cultural habits during the fascist period suggests to him, after over half a century, that the ‘ghost’ may still be ‘stalking’ the globe. This is not the place to examine these loaded remarks for their empirical and conceptual validity. I just wish to point out a few incongruities.
First, as Eco himself narrates the story of Italian fascism, it was not a well-organized ideology at all with a master text and the like. The rule of Mussolini, for Eco, was basically aggressive corporatism, and had little resemblance to Hitler’s rule of Germany. According to Eco, much of what was articulated in the name of fascism, including Mussolini’s own writings (such as ‘Doctrine of Fascism’), was not meant to be taken seriously. So, which ‘feelings and thoughts’ are to be identified to suggest the specific form of the Italian regime rather than the obscene reactionary behaviour of, say, British skinheads or the Bajrang Dal in India? How is reactionary behaviour related to specific forms of fascism?
Second, and more fundamentally, even if some cultural habits etc. were displayed prominently during a certain rule, how do we link these habits to the historical basis of the regime itself? Suppose that Mussolini was fond of humming Brahms because his mother did so; assume further that followers of Mussolini started humming Brahms too. Will the musical habit of humming Brahms, or even the cultural habit of imitating the leader, signal the onset of fascism? For a real example, Eco emphasizes the fact that Mussolini’s goons wore black shirts. Does the mass cultural habit of wearing black shirts signify advent of fascism? In that case, does it follow that the Ku Klux Klan in US fails to qualify as fascist because its members wear white robes instead?
Third—the reason why I mentioned Eco’s piece in the context of my detailed criticism of Badiou—fascism is essentially a very specific economic phenomenon accompanied by a certain form of class-war; it is just facile to think that such material bases of a social order are causally reflected in the linguistic and cultural habits of the society. After all, Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler basically spoke the same German language. Cultural and linguistic habits of a community typically have a much larger historical—in fact, evolutionary—spread than the emergence and disappearance of specific political regimes. For example, it is often said that fascism is associated with subjugation of women. Following our descent from chimpanzees, rather than from bonobos, it is hard to find a social form where such an association is missing. So, the relation, if at all, between the actual power-plays of the regime and the deep-rooted cultural practices of a community can only be tenuous. In India, for example, classical Oxford-style liberals, Parisian postmodernists, and Hindu fundamentalists, all flaunt the greatness of ancient Indian culture.
Apart from cultural and linguistic habits, Eco also mentioned ‘obscure instincts and unfathomable drives’ as sure manifestations of fascism. Such features usually belong to an individual and are thus studied in individual clinical psychology. In an influential essay, Ashish Nandy (2002) applied these disciplinary tools to portray an individual called Narendra Modi. Nandy pointed out that Modi appeared to be a ‘classic, clinical case of a fascist.’ On the basis of a prolonged, ‘rambling’ interview with Modi in the early 1990s Nandy elaborated on the ‘clinical case’ as follows in an oft-cited passage.
He had the same mix of puritanical rigidity, narrowing of emotional life, massive use of the ego defence of projection, denial and fear of his own passions combined with fantasies of violence—all set within the matrix of clear paranoid and obsessive personality traits. I still remember the cool, measured tone in which he elaborated a theory of cosmic conspiracy against
India that painted every Muslim as
a suspected traitor and a potential terrorist. I came out of the interview
shaken and told Yagnik that, for the first time, I had met a textbook case of a
fascist and a prospective killer, perhaps even a future mass murderer.
It is important to note that Nandy made these highly technical remarks—‘puritanical rigidity,’ ‘ego defence of projection,’ ‘paranoid and obsessive personality traits’—in 2002, more than a decade after the said interview took place, after the world was made to witness the pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat when Modi was its chief minister. In that sense, Nandy’s remarks have at best a post-facto ‘predictive’ value, speaking empirically.
When Nandy interviewed Modi, Modi was just a pedestrian, mid-level, right-wing activist among hundreds of others. Setting aside the issue of why Modi in particular was picked, from among a large number of qualified candidates sharing similar beliefs and attitudes with Modi, it is reasonable to assume that the ‘textbook case’ could well apply to hundreds of fellow sanghchalaks in the RSS, unless the disciplinary methods championed by Nandy are able to relate such dark traits to very selective individuals ostensively picked by such clinical psychology. Indeed, even a casual inquiry in the labyrinths of urban dungeons teeming with contract killers, drug mafia, prostitution rackets, gangsters, addicts, and the like, could well reveal hundreds of thousands of ravaged individuals with such personality traits. From such psychological studies, will Nandy make a forecast of an entire army of mass murderers waiting in the wings? Why aren’t they showing up periodically? Why is it that only Narendra Modi turned out to be the preordained one?
I must hasten to add that I am not trivializing the monstrous killings conducted under Modi’s rule and the danger to democracy posed by his advent to power. Just the opposite in fact (Mukherji 2014). The historical gravity and the political meaning of the genocide are in fact trivialized if we are asked to focus instead on the eye movement, the tone of voice and the linguistic habits of an individual, no matter how intimidating his behaviour. In any case, to return to the topic in hand, tracing the source of a calamitous historical phenomenon like the emergence of fascism to some ‘paranoid and obsessive personality traits’ of an individual is at best politically suspect in that it misses out on the tumultuous material events that gave rise to fascism with its catastrophic consequences. I return to Modi and his rule briefly in the next section.
It is interesting that, from a very different direction, some of Noam Chomsky’s recent views are also problematic in the perspective on fascism I am trying to develop. In a discussion some years ago (Hedges 2010), Chomsky observed that the general politico-economic situation in the US ‘is very similar to late Weimar Germany; the parallels are striking.’ He gave two basic and related reasons: economic deprivation of large masses of people and loss of faith in the parliamentary system.
As with many liberal observers, Chomsky reports that the ‘American dream,’ that fostered much faith and hope in the American political system in the 1950s and 1960s, has progressively eroded for vast number of people. This is specially the case with white blue-collar workers whose post-war prosperity was the driving force behind the earlier boom. With much recent damage and closure of US-based classical industrial structure, wages and standards of living have fallen rapidly since the 1980s. The situation has been aggravated with astronomical rise in the wealth of the top 1% as American capital moved abroad to off-shore domains of cheap labour. Naturally, as low turn-outs in national elections show, large sections of wage-earners have lost faith in the political system that is viewed as serving only the rich.
These are well-known facts for several decades by now despite much effort in the mainstream media to conceal them. In fact, the general spread of these facts is not restricted to the US alone as the phenomenon has progressively affected much of the rest of the world, especially the earlier rich countries in Europe and Asia. The current scene in the US reminds Chomsky of the last days of the Weimar republic because
not [only] that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.
Similarly, for the US, Chomsky predicts darkly that
There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force … I don’t think all this is very far away.
From this grim vision of an imminent future, Chomsky concludes, ‘it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election.’
However, Chomsky notes that the ‘United States is the world power.’ The US continues to be not only the most powerful economy in the world, it has an absolute military control over the planet. Consequently, the ruling classes of US will not want any drastic change in the reigning political order even if sections of the relatively impoverished people express some resentment. This is the basic difference with the late Weimar republic. The other big difference is that there is not even a remote threat of communist take-over; in fact, there is not even the prospect of classical European social democracy in US. As Chomsky himself observed in another discussion, the recently popular democrat Bernie Sanders can at best be viewed as a ‘new deal democrat’; as subsequent events proved, Sanders is very much a friend of corporate America. Even then the establishment preferred Clinton over Sanders.
The recent election results validate the preceding picture. No doubt, a somewhat deviant character Donald Trump won the elections with electoral college majority, even if he lost the popular vote. The entire military-industrial complex aggressively backed Hilary Clinton who won the popular vote. As for Trump, he is at best a republican outsider, not the ‘crazy’ insider Chomsky had in mind in 2010. Finally, with some irony, Chomsky remarked in his 2010 discussion that ‘The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen … Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers.’ Fortunately, as a well-known real estate tycoon and an accomplished crook, Trump doesn’t qualify either; Trump will have to perform on the model of earlier distinguished crooks. Speaking literally, the only political leader of stature in US today who meets Chomsky’s conception of a fascist as an ‘honest, charismatic figure’ is Bernie Sanders.
(To be continued)