Apologies, but work on my little blog series on Re-reading Foucault’s Pendulum in the Age of QAnon has been delayed by a family emergency and the all-absorbing news of the barbaric Russian invasion of Ukraine. Like many of you, I have been glued to CNN and the various print media this last week, in a quest to wrap my head around what is happening, why, and what it means for a suddenly changed and (on the heels of Covid and January 6) increasingly dangerous world.
But the dreadful situation has also induced me to take a moment for a relevant detour in this series, and to recommend a couple of works that I have found incredibly helpful, not only for providing much needed context for the current crisis in Ukraine, but also for illuminating the vicious nature and role of propaganda, conspiracy theories, and “Big Lies” in our current politics in this Age of QAnon.
First, there is (speaking of Foucault’s Pendulum) Umberto Eco’s seminal and prophetic essay “Ur-Fascism,” first published in the June 22, 1995 issue of The New York Review of Books.
In this essay, Eco relates his personal experience of growing up in a sea of fascist propaganda in Mussolini’s Italy, his youthful discovery of the lies behind the propaganda, and the lessons he learned about the nature of fascism. While remarking on the diversity of the variant forms of fascism, Eco concludes by delineating a list of fourteen “features,” as he calls them, “that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”
This is the list, in a nutshell, with a bit of commentary (in parentheses) when the “feature” Eco delineates dovetails with the current Russia-Ukraine crisis:
- The cult of Tradition. “Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.” In our current crisis, this features plays out in Putin’s drumbeat that Ukraine has always and must be part of a Greater Russia.
- The rejection of modernism and the modern world. (Putin’s complete rejection, not only of what he calls “Western decadence,” but also of the modern Western values of democracy to which the Ukrainian people aspire.)
- The irrational cult of action for action’s sake.
- The assertion that Disagreement is treason. (Putin’s arrest of thousands of Russians peacefully protesting the war in Ukraine.)
- The fear of difference and diversity. (As with above, Putin’s oppression of political and social elements that diverge from his vision for Russia.)
- The appeal to a frustrated middle class.
- The obsession with a plot that defines national identity. (Putin’s obsession that the West/NATO is constantly plotting to destroy Holy Russia.)
- The sense that followers feel humiliated by the wealth/strength of their enemies. (Putin’s apparent distress, remarked by a number of commentators, that the West and especially pro-Western Ukraine are significantly more prosperous than authoritarian Russia, which, but for its nuclear arsenal, would be considered a minor power.)
- The ideology that life is about struggle, that pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. (See #4 above.)
- The belief in aristocratic and militaristic elitism/contempt for the weak. (Russia’s kleptocratic system of billionaire oligarchs siphon off the wealth and power of the Russian masses, for whose welfare there is little regard.)
- The cult of heroism/death.
- The cult of machismo. (Putin’s incessant macho posturing—images of him shirtless on a horse, or showing off his black belt in martial arts. After all, a Strong Man needs to appear Strong.)
- The belief that the People are “a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will.” (This has nothing to do with representative democracy. Rather, Putin insists that he represents the true Will of the Russian people, no matter how they vote or protest. Hence, his use of fake information against his own people as well as his enemies, especially by way of social media, while repressing all media representing divergent views.) Eco writes, “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotion response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.” [Remember, this is 1995]
- The prevalence of Newspeak and “an impoverished vocabulary” that limits “complex and critical reasoning.” (Russia’s wholly false propaganda that the invasion of Ukraine is for the purpose of “de-Nazifying” a democratic Ukraine; that they’re there to liberate a persecuted Russian minority; that Ukrainian civilians are not being targeted.)
It stuns me to think how many (all?) of these “features of Ur-Fascism” are present in both modern American politics and the ideological forces in Putin’s Russia that have lead to the current horror in Ukraine.
For some important backstory on this whole distressing business, I highly recommend the work of Yale historian, Timothy Snyder.
Probably best known for his recent bestseller, On Tyranny, as well as for his many recent appearances on American media, Snyder has spent the last twenty-five years studying Russia and Eastern Europe, and in particular, Ukraine. His commentary is knowledgeable and penetrating, and he has the rare capacity as a historian to see “the bigger picture”—how, in an age where conflicts are often reduced to matters of economic and social pressures, ideas, especially in our age of viral social media, can play a critical and often overlooked role; how popular myths, conspiracy theories, and propagandistic national narratives—Big Lies–repeated endlessly, can change the course of history.
In particular, I’d like to recommend Snyder’s 2018, The Road to Unfreedom, his study of how the whole Russia-Ukraine nightmare has been intimately connected with American politics since at least the 2016 election.
In this book, Snyder discusses not only Putin’s playbook for interfering in American elections (the same playbook he tried to use in Ukraine, and failed), but more importantly, what Snyder calls “the politics of eternity,” a politics for “translating facts into narratives,” which could almost serve as a #15 to Eco’s Ur-Fascism list. Or even a kind of overarching summary of them all.
Here are a couple of quotes from Snyder’s 2018 book, never more pertinent than now, which I hope will encourage readers to investigate further. They will also serve as a sort of lead-in to the next part of this series:
Russia in the 2010s was a kleptocratic regime that sought to export the politics of eternity: to demolish factuality, to preserve inequality, and to accelerate similar tendencies in Europe and the United States. This is well seen from Ukraine, where Russia fought a regular war while it amplified campaigns to undo the European Union and the United States. The advisor of the first pro-Russian American presidential candidate [Paul Manafort] had been the advisor of the last pro-Russian Ukrainian president. Russian tactics that failed in Ukraine succeeded in the United States. Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs hid their money in a way that sustained the career of an American presidential candidate. This is all one history, the history of our moment and our choices. (p. 11)
The fascism of the 1920s and 1930s…had three core features: it celebrated will and violence over reason and law; it proposed a leader with a mystical connection to his people; and it characterized globalization as a conspiracy rather than as a set of problems. Revived today in conditions of inequality as a politics of eternity, fascism serves oligarchs as a catalyst for transitions away from public discussion and towards political fiction; away from meaningful voting and towards fake democracy; away from the rule of law and towards personalist regimes. (p. 16)
Next time, what this all has to do with QAnon.