Charlie Chaplin in a still from his film 'The Great Dictator', a satire of totalitarian regimes. (Photo by Popperfoto / Getty Images)
Artillery Row Books

The implied fascist

Roland Elliott Brown reviews How to be a Fascist by Michela Murgia

How to be a Fascist is an Italian work of satire, Swiftian in spirit and Machiavellian in form. Its unreliable narrator is a salty, chauvinistic, intermittently amusing antihero who purports to explicate a “method” that links modern-day “populists” with “our historic role models” in Axis Europe. He tries to tempt the reader away from healthy democratic self-restraint through such flippant provocations as,

  • Democracy is hypocritical because, while it involves conflicting opinions, it “still insists on rejecting violence as a way of doing politics, which makes as much sense as training tarantulas by only feeding them lettuce”.
  • Democracy doesn’t let you doesn’t let you administer justice through beating or torture. “If you were to catch a pedophile molesting a child and you want to find out if there are any accomplices, your hands are tied: you can’t use electricity or sharp objects, or blunt ones, either; there’s no way you can threaten their family […] if democratic extremists always had their way, leaving the perp tied up and naked in a room in the company of a single mosquito would be enough to get Amnesty International involved”.
  • Being a populist is like wooing an ugly girl, who will give herself to the first boy who flatters her, tells her that others have been idiots to ignore her beauty. “Have you ever noticed that pussy isn’t democratic, either? Not everyone has a chance, only those who go for it.”
How to be a Fascist, by Michela Murgia Translated by Alex Valente Pushkin Press

His appeals to the undemocratic id raise associations that may or may not be the author’s own. His ideology, he tells us — in what may be a lowbrow nod to Albert Camus’ The Plague — is like herpes: “primary organisms…teach us the most”. His case for belittling parliamentarianism and undoing local autonomy might recall Russian ways from Lenin to Putin. His strategy of polluting the information space so as to demolish hierarchies of merit calls to mind Russian state media and the design follies of Twitter and Facebook. His characterisation of his ideology as a Trojan Horse recalls Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s infamous comment on how democracy is like a tram — you ride it to your destination and then get off. His advice on giving enemies insulting nicknames is, to English-language readers at least, pure Donald Trump. (But in the main, he’s Eurocentric; he has little to remind us of, say, the most blood-soaked dictator of our time: Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.)

If Murgia wants to imply a link between the Axis powers and “populism”, she ought to take history more seriously

Murgia has fun flirting with her own shadow — she confesses in a “disclaimer” that she has thought some of her antihero’s thoughts aloud — “though not all of them and not always” — during “cold, superficial, angry, ignorant moments”. The notion of a fascist antihero or antiheroes — though it’s been attempted with greater ambition in works like Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones and Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas — still feels ripe for exploration. Yet any author should beware the too-consciously-constructed archetype. Murgia’s fascist is an awkward Frankenstein’s Monster, whose seams are over-visible. He appears to write both from places were people have grown touchy about the presence of refugees (think Italy and Germany), and from lands so unwelcoming and economically troubled that hardly anyone would want to move there (Poland or Hungary). He is a villain, in other words, without a particularly convincing origin story.

The book is, in any case, more an “of-its-moment” political pamphlet than a work of literature. It first appeared in Italian in 2018, when the “populist” Matteo Salvini was Italy’s interior minister, and the “hipster fascists” of Rome’s Casa Pound group — openly “nostalgic” for Benito Mussolini — were said to have brought far-right themes to the fore in time for Italy’s 2018 general election.

Now, Murgia’s English-language publisher, Pushkin Press — an outlet that specialises in tastefully-curated, mostly-European works-in-translation — has released the book in time for the US 2020 election. While one can sympathise with the fact that fascist ghosts may be restless in the former lands of the Axis, the salient question may be whether this narrative will “translate” at all for readers in the English-speaking world, where historical consciences are rather differently laden. 

In England, George Orwell set the standard for dismantling fascist (and Soviet) narratives about the failings of “bourgeois” democracy, and it’s impossible to read this book without thinking about how Murgia measures (or doesn’t measure) up. While parts of her fascist’s narrative hint at the Orwellian — his assertion that “rewriting memory must be the final step in the reclamation process” recalls Nineteen Eighty-Four — his programme for manipulating free speech in his favour — “keep demanding that the principle of freedom of expression must apply to the fascist method too” — suggests Murgia has gone in for a naive and modish faith in censorship and hate speech laws as tools for keeping society decent. Contrast that with George Orwell’s penetrating review of a freely-published 1939 translation of Mein Kampf — one Orwell described as “edited from a pro-Hitler angle” no less — for a sense of how knowing the enemy can stiffen spines against totalitarianism.

If Murgia wants to imply a historic link between the Axis powers and contemporary “populism”, she ought to take history a good deal more seriously than she does (why, for example, do the Holocaust and modern-day antisemitism emerge as mere afterthoughts?). But this is not that sort of work. Her villain is a historic lightweight, resembling more an online “edgelord” of the “feels good, man” variety than someone with the ideological conviction to shoot naked pregnant women over ditches. Indeed, her satire seems stuck in a vain and trivial present, concerned more with the jargon of the “culture wars” than with, say, a spiralling civilian death toll in Syria. The Axis link sits un-argued; should a reader raise doubts, he could always be dismissed as saying, “It Can’t Happen Here”. But in the event that it doesn’t happen here — that democracies do rally against the men of no restraint — it won’t be because this trendy pamphlet provided much of a prophylactic.

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