The great Italian writer foresaw the risk of “TV populism”—a far Right in plainclothes, possessed by conspiracy theories in the internet age
Who are Italy’s enemies? The question, from a New York taxi driver, left the late Umberto Eco feeling non-plussed. His fellow Italians, he realised, had the unusual distinction of anathemising their compatriots. In Inventing the Enemy, his 2008 collection of essays, the academic best known for his global best-seller, The Name of the Rose, reflected that nations and people rely on enemies for self-definition. They will go so far as to invent them, to haunt our minds as ugly moral degenerates, dark mirrors confirming our virtues. Interested parties can manipulate this psychological need; truly understanding the enemy is “the prerogative of poets, saints, or traitors”.
It was also the prerogative of this Italian medievalist and semiotician, making him our best guide to the far Right’s resurgence. Eco, born in 1932, was always more than an academic turned best-seller. He wrote comic pieces, analyses of pop culture, and erudite academic works alike. Yet three topics which recur across his work—the far Right, conspiracy theories, and communications—make him an unsettlingly prescient guide to the controversies of today. His childhood in Mussolini’s Italy and the Second World War was formative. While his family’s evacuation from their hometown of Alessandria spared them the heavy bombing the Piedmontese town suffered, Eco witnessed the brutal conflict between fascists and partisans. The fact that Italy never expurgated itself of its fascist past with the same thoroughness as Germany did not escape him, and certainly informed his sense that the horrors of his youth could return—as indeed they did, to an extent, in the Years of Lead, when communist and fascist terrorists warred with each other and the state.
Eco also studied medieval philosophy and literature at the University of Turin, penning his thesis on Thomas Aquinas around the time he lost his Catholic faith. From the first he was acquainted with a time when men believed fantasies lurked over the horizon as a matter of course.
While involving himself in the mass media (an early job after graduating was with the Italian state broadcaster) he was profoundly critical of it and its attendant consumerism. Influenced by Roland Barthes and the Frankfurt School, he turned to semiotics, the study of language and symbols, merging academic erudition with a popular, often humorous, touch. His works looked at “The Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno”, Italy’s most popular quiz show host, as well as the film Casablanca and porn. This ability to straddle elite and mass culture made Eco one of the sharpest analysts of our times.
One of Eco’s few purely political works was Ur-Fascism, written in 1995. In it he warned fascism could someday return, aided by our failure to recognise it. Its proponents would reappear, not proclaiming their desire to reopen Auschwitz or reestablish the blackshirts, but in “plainclothes”. To aid identification, Eco listed 14 characteristics of “Ur-Fascism”:
1. Syncretic traditionalism: adherents gather and interpret signs from disparate sources to discover the concealed “Truth”.
2. Rejection of modernism: Enlightenment rationalism is seen as the source of human depravity leading to embrace of irrationalism.
3. Action for action’s sake: the point is the act not the consequences. Intellectual reflection and criticism is despised, the intelligentsia is the betrayer of traditional values.
4. Disagreement is treason: syncretistic irrationalism cannot withstand critical analysis so cannot allow it.
5. Difference is feared, be it of opinion, race, or other. The initial appeal of fascism is always found in fear of difference.
6. Fascism derives from social frustration, usually from the middle class.
7. Fascism appeals to people who feel deprived of a clear social identity emphasising their national identity above all else. This leads to obsession with plots against the nation, fuelling xenophobia and fear of internal subversion. Jews are the perfect enemy, seeming alien even when locals.
8. Enemies are alternately cast as strong and weak, arousing in turn humiliating envy and contemptuous belief that they can be overwhelmed.
9. Life is permanent warfare: promoting an “Armageddon complex”.
10. Popular elitism: every citizen is part of a chosen people superior to others, members of the movement are superior to them, and the movement’s leaders are superior to them. Inferiority is despised as weakness, so leaders hold their followers in contempt.
11. A cult of heroism tied to a cult of death/sacrifice; this usually results in other people’s deaths.
12. Machismo, fuelling disdain for women and “nonstandard” sexual practises.
13. Selective populism: there are no individual citizens with individual rights and opinions, only “the People . . . expressing the Common Will”. As this is a fiction, the Leader pretends to act as “the People’s” interpreter and rails “against ‘rotten’ parliamentary governments”. Again, Eco prophetically warned of a future “TV or Internet populism” where “the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People”.
14. Newspeak: the movement uses impoverished language whose crudity impedes critical thought.
No single characteristic makes a movement fascist, but a fascist movement need not conform to all of them. Today these characteristics are re-emerging in the the tactics used by President Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte and Viktor Orbán among others. This essay, and Eco’s work on communications and conspiracy, lets us understand these trends as interconnected phenomena: the current surge in political polarisation and nostalgia is intrinsically tied to the far Right, and explains their actions once they gain power. The characteristics Eco listed above make the far Right uniquely willing to play on the powerful human tendency to invent enemies to define themselves against, be it China, the US, India, or Europe immigrants, LGBT persons, feminists and minorities—all are grist to the far Right’s mill. Cast as existential threats, thanks to what Eco terms the far Right’s “Armageddon complex”, they are used to rally people to a political identity based on violently purging contaminants from the body politic to rebuild a more moral “traditional” society. Notably Poland’s Law and Justice Party and Orbán in Hungary apply the language of “invasion” to migrants and LGBT individuals alike.
Conspiracy theories flourish as reason and expertise are dismissed, actively promoted by the far Right. They not only conjure up ideologically necessary enemies, but also drown out critics they cannot rationally rebut. Eco wrote in Censorship and Silence (2009) that one could censor by noise as well as silence. While the latter keeps certain topics from being discussed, the former simply drowns them out. Eco wryly stated if he ever heard that some terrible crime he had committed was to be revealed, he would immediately plant a bomb to distract attention.
The far Right has recognised and weaponised this tactic. Steve Bannon said that he didn’t need to destroy the media, just “flood the zone with shit”. The 2016 election saw conspiracies claiming Hillary Clinton’s involvement in corruption, murder and child trafficking. In the Philippines, Duterte’s election campaign in 2016 benefitted from an explosion of fake news. Eco ’s 1978 essay Falsification and Consensus argued the best way to disrupt complex systems was not by violence but by feeding them false information. Much of this has emerged in the form of conspiracy theories.
In The Open Work (1962) Eco made the now widely accepted argument that readers could interpret literary works as they saw fit, regardless of authorial intention. Conspiracy theories did exactly this, promiscuously reinterpreting and appropriating symbols to make their own meaning, but for absurd (even dangerous) ends. He explored this in his second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), in which the main characters, who make money by publishing books on the occult and conspiracy theories, create an uber-conspiracy theory combining all others as a joke. As his characters design their uber-conspiracy they anatomise conspiracies generally. They share the belief that some great truth exists, suppressed by a mysterious malevolent force. This truth can only be discovered by a collection of disparate signs. Therefore, believers in one conspiracy often turn to others in search of more information. This makes the uber-conspiracy very plausible to the lunatics they inadvertently attract. Eco maintained that certain themes and claims are endlessly recycled across different conspiracy theories. People are inclined to believe things that sound like what they have heard before, and are remarkably unfussy about transposing events or motivations to different peoples and places. The truth of these observations is borne out by the current “Q” conspiracy theory in the US. On /pol/, a far-Right forum on the 4chan online messaging board, an anonymous user known only as “Q” posts screeds connecting Robert Mueller’s investigation into the “Russiagate” scandal, George Soros, Satanism, the assault on the US consulate in Benghazi and Planned Parenthood. Q’s many followers scramble to unravel their statements like occultists reading the kabbala.
These self-confirming tendencies surfaced in Eco’s most famous work, The Name of the Rose. Monks anticipating the Apocalypse see signs of it in each new murder. Similarly, in his later novels, Foucault’s Pendulum and The Prague Cemetery, the main characters fall victim to the very conspiracies they invent—obsessed with fantasies that fulfil their psychological needs. This found its echo more recently when Trump pressured Ukraine’s President Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden: the American President seemed to both believe some scandal existed and ask that one be invented.
But how has a fringe phenomenon become mainstream? Once again Eco’s early hopes of a more democratic relationship between culture/media’s consumers and producers seems to have come back to haunt him. In 1967, Eco penned the essay, “Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare”. He argued that while the audience could not control media content or transmission, they could control how they interpreted it. He advocated creating networks that allowed the audience to discuss what they had seen and come to their own conclusions. The idea influenced counter-cultural movements like culture jamming, which subverted advertisements by ironic alteration. These tactics are not exclusive to the Left, however. Today’s far Right is also counter-cultural, setting itself against existing institutions, seeing the media, universities, courts and parliaments as lost causes or compromised. Far-Right supporters form networks on social media where news is reinterpreted into evidence of the conspiracy they “know” exists. They also show impressive sensitivity to the media’s weaknesses. When the far Right claim, semi-ironically, common symbols such as the OK sign and the Facebook “trash dove” as their own, they garner media attention and force liberals to worry about previously innocuous signs.
Does Eco still offer hope? His prediction in Falsification and Consensus that certain forms of subversion would be so socially destructive that taboos would form against them now seems too optimistic. Online anonymity has drastically reduced the social costs of distributing false information. Eco’s views evolved with the internet’s spread. An early enthusiast for computers in 1997, he worried that the internet’s democratic potential could be subverted by an influx of inexpert new users vulnerable to manipulation by the savvy. Our age of tech monopolies and influencers has borne him out. In 2015 Eco complained that: “Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community . . . now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.” He called upon news organisations to employ specialists dedicated to assessing the reliability of online information: something that Facebook and Google are now belatedly moving to do.
As a semiotician and theorist of translation he was all too aware of how precarious truth could be. However, he affirmed its importance. In his novels his conspiracy theorists are authors of their own destruction, becoming too at odds with reality to function. Yet there is comfort to be drawn from his insight, in Ur-Fascism, that the fascists’ greatest weakness is an inability to objectively assess their enemies. But Eco will not be around to interpret new developments: he died in February 2016—just months before the victories of Duterte, Brexit, and Trump. He would have savoured the irony.