As Italy awaits its first post-fascist leader, Umberto Eco’s 1995 essay on “fuzzy totalitarianism” comes once again into focus.

Above: “Chi non è pronto a morire per la sua fede non è degno di professarla — Mussolini” (“those not ready to die for their faith are not worthy of professing it”). No one has ever bothered to erase a Mussolinian aphorism from the main square in Gaiole in Chianti. Photo taken by me earlier this month.

Italian politician Giorgia Meloni, whose party won the lion’s share of votes in elections on Sunday and who is expected to be elected as prime minister in coming weeks, is widely being called “Italy’s first post-fascist leader” and “Italy’s first hard-right leader.”

The epithet is owed in part to her anti-immigrant, anti-liberal (read anti-woke), and protectionist polices — spiked with a dash of conspiracy theory, Euroscepticism, and anti-globalism (sound familiar?).

The moniker is also owed to a symbol — an avatar if you will — that appears in iconography for her political party, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, a lyric borrowed from Italy’s 1847 national anthem): the Fiamma Tricolore or Tricolor flame that was adopted by the Movimento Sociale Italiano (Itaian Socialist Movement), the post-World War II incarnation of the fascist party. For all intents and purposes, her party is the current-day expression of that political platform, worldview, and aesthetic.

Never before today — almost 100 years to the day that Mussolini marched on Rome and seized power from the monarchy — has MSI fielded a prime minister.

For Italians born during the fascist era, the thought of a seated post-fascist government is practically, well, unthinkable. It’s as if Italy is finally having its Trump moment (many of my Italian university-era friends have called it that): the unthinkable has come to pass.

In the light of Italy’s election on Sunday, I’m not the only one who was reminded of Umberto Eco’s famous 1995 lecture at Columbia University, later published by the New York Review of Books, “Ur-Fascism” (and later translated into Italian as “Fascismo eterno” or “Eternal Fascism”). That essay is where he coined not only the term “Ur-Fascism” but also “fuzzy totalitarianism,” an expression that has taken on new and urgent meaning with Italy’s shift toward the hard right.

Here’s a link to read it in its entirety.

In the first part, he describes what it was like to grow up during fascism in Italy (he was born in 1932). It reads like the opening sequence of a Fellini movie, replete with comedy, redemption, and salvation.

In the second part, he offers “a list of features [14 of 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.”

Those bullet points have been frequently cited in the Trump era. But to read them in context, prefaced by his memories of growing up under fascism, gives the essay renewed meaning and relevance. I highly recommend it to you.

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