I’ve always been a big fan of Umberto Eco’s writing, and at a fairly young age I came across his essay “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt”. Even then what I liked about it was the attempt to describe a broader pattern for a specific historical phenomenon. I’ve seen it used (by myself, included) as a checklist I could use to trump people lobbing accusations of Fascism. “That’s not fascism, this is fascism!”

But it’s wrong, I think, to treat it (or anything else, really) as some sort of canonically useful bad-guy-identification template. Eco was trying to describe a broader Ur-Fascism and he came close, but he was too close to the specific Fascism of his time, and his essay reflects that in some anachronistically specific characterizations of a broader phenomenon. I won’t go into specifics, because i think it’s fairly obvious, but it does highlight the current lexical problem we face.

The phenomenon he was perhaps trying to describe (Ur-Fascism) still doesn’t really have a good name, but let’s just describe it roughly as: the populist empowerment of a profiteering class of murderous (inter)national warlords. “Shitheads”, if you will. His essay contains many things that are probably pretty close to a broader indicator that things are headed this way. Others, though, are too specific to fascism as it emerged in the 20th century from right-nationalism in ways that isolate it as distinct form the leftism of the time. In the last ~100 years, though, things have changed. The relatively liberal democratic republics have joined with socialist communality into something new, different, and markedly less liberal: the modern “democratic socialist something something” nation state that we’d recognize today. “Corporatism”, in particular, is no longer a uniquely “fascist” phenomenon, but is rather the norm, with corporations as we know them being entrenched government-sanctioned entities. The world has moved far beyond the time of fascists vs. commies vs. anarchists vs socialists, but nonetheless we still frame things in these terms. That people still refer to “corporatism” as an indicator of nascent fascism instead of a fundamental element of the status quo goes to show how disconnected modern rhetoric is.

“Fascism”, in particular, still gets thrown around a lot as a sortof catch-all epithet, with varying degrees of nuance/understanding as to what that actually means. In many circles, it amounts to something as broad as “controlling, violent dickhead”, a characterization that would include Stalin as easily as it would Mussolini. Nonetheless, because of the historical association of 20th century fascism with right-nationalism, today’s left seems to see themselves as immune to (or worse, the antidote to) the phenomenon of fascism. But the manipulation of human failings that led to the rise of historical monsters are not unique to the right or the left.

As long as we let ourselves be useful idiots whipped up into violent frenzies along anachronistic (or modern!) ideological lines, there will be new “fascists” that emerge. But they won’t look like Hitler, or Mussolini. They may not even look like Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton – the growth of the modern nation-state is such that a strongly charismatic figurehead may not even be necessary to unleash the next wave of genocidal terror on the world. (For that matter, the mass harm inflicted on the world’s human population may not even resemble the overt violence of the past, either.)

I am not sure if we need a new word for what we used to call “fascism” or not. My friend rev suggested the more on-the-nose “totalitarian gleichschaltung”, but it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Maybe what we call it doesn’t matter as long as we recognize it, but I believe (as Eco did) that words matter, and when I see people advocating mob violence in the name of “anti-fascism”, it’s a sign that we have a real problem of lexical confusion on our hands!