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from the September 2020 issue

Now Trending: How to Be a Fascist

Reviewed by Jamie Richards

In Murgia's book, fascism is presented as a form of semantic sleight of hand whereby anything goes under the right terminology.

These days, there could be fierce competition over who could write the book on “how to be a fascist”—if we could agree on what a fascist is. Michela Murgia’s lapidary definition, depicted in a Forrest Gump caricature on the cover of the original Italian edition, is “fascist is as fascist does.” While historians have found fascism notoriously difficult to define, and there exist numerous volumes analyzing its historical roots, the myriad forms of its present resurgence warrant a closer look at what it means in reference to the political spectrum today, and how we might recognize its features not only in our governments but in ourselves.

Admirers of Murgia’s work in English may be surprised to see this political turn. Accabadora (2009; English translation by Silvester Mazzarella for Counterpoint Press in 2011), the only one of her many works to appear in English to date, is a beautiful, brutal family novel telling a story of traditional life in her native Sardinia. It focuses on an “accabadora” or “mercy killer,” and positioned Murgia as a worthy successor to the island-region’s early twentieth-century Nobel laureate, Grazia Deledda. Yet in Italy it is common for writers to be publicly active in politics, and Murgia’s activism has taken the form of other works of engaged nonfiction, television and news commentary, even once campaigning for political office. Her unflinching outspokenness on hot-button topics has made her a target for base vitriol from lowly trolls online and respected cultural figures in the media alike—unfortunately, a familiar situation for women in the public eye.

Her latest venture in this vein is the satirical pamphlet How to Be a Fascist, the product of a series of talks given throughout Italy and published originally in 2018. The book is divided into thematically oriented chapters outlining different features of fascism as they apply to the modern world. But Murgia isn’t simply providing an overview. Moving between first-person singular and plural throughout, the narrator takes on the persona of a fascist acolyte writing “against democracy,” an “irredeemably flawed system of government,” claiming that fascism is its best replacement—an idea already, instinctively, familiar to the masses. In her mordantly provocative account, fascism is not quite a political system or set of principles but rather a method: a way of rallying a public into blindly ceding their power, and most frighteningly, calling this state of things a democracy nonetheless: “By manipulating the tools of democracy, we can make an entire country fascist without ever mentioning the word fascism.”

Various political issues and talking points of the current moment are invoked: social media and the news, immigration and xenophobia, gender and feminism, and protest and police violence, which, while referring to the Italian context, are generic enough to fit most Western nations. Leveling the charge of “fascist” at anything and everything, from upholding homophobic ideas of the traditional family to propagating rape culture to mistrusting journalism to both-sidesism, could be seen as a weak point of the book. It does start to feel somewhat grab-bag, but Pier Paolo Pasolini’s statement, from one of the last interviews before his brutal murder, during the Italian “Years of Lead” (which bear some resemblance to our own time), is well taken: “I consider consumerism to be a Fascism worse than the classical one, because clerical Fascism didn’t really transform Italians, didn’t enter into them. It was a totalitarian state but not a totalizing one.” In other words, nominal fascism is not as significant as its more insidious forms, which pervade every aspect of life. The attributes that Murgia singles out and critiques are warning signs and indications of it.

Where Murgia’s insights shine brightest, though, is in her attention throughout the book to fascism as a phenomenon of language, which she calls “the most malleable cultural infrastructure we have.” Fascism is presented as a form of semantic sleight of hand whereby anything goes under the right terminology: one woman’s misogyny is another’s tradition, one citizen’s dictator is another patriot’s president—fascism as language game. In this sense, fascism is a method of spreading false consciousness, creating straw man enemies through rhetorical gestures that appeal to the folksy and common-sense sensibility of a supposedly suffering populace. Translator Alex Valente’s work in reconstructing an English-language network of referents is impressive, with inspired solutions like “gay agenda” for “ideologia gender” or “armchair activists” for “radical chic”—which may seem like radical departures to those unfamiliar with the source-language context, but in fact reflect an intimate knowledge of both sociopolitical contexts and a dexterous use of their buzzwords. And in what would otherwise read as a slightly awkward translation, we can hear all the echoes of bombastic, semi-sensical Trumpese: “If we can convince even a single person who believes in democracy every day, we can live again. And live greatly.”

While Murgia’s principal referents are Italy and Italians, one could easily apply the book to other national contexts. The English version ensures this by redacting most of the specific references to Italian culture that would not have immediate resonance elsewhere, from mentions of Antonio Gramsci and the partisan anthem “Bella Ciao” to Italy-specific holidays and the Italian constitution (see Valente’s illuminating exposition of his work, Translating Fascisms). Many readers, especially translators, might balk at gutting a source text’s identifying material: it is an Italian book. And yet the priority is clearly interpellating readers into reflecting on their own situation, not seeing political extremism as exotic or distant but as an imminent danger than must be acted upon. In a few instances, the satirical references have been adapted: for example, rather than claiming that Italians had no role in the orchestration of the Shoah, in the English-language version Murgia’s fascist narrator pines for the old days of empire and its role in civilizing the savages; or in a brilliant translational move, an elitist linguistic concern about the disappearing subjunctive in present-day Italian is recast as a preoccupation with correct usage of personal pronouns in English:

“Fascist language, if you think about it, is more democratic than political correctness, because it never makes anyone feel inferior, even though many supporters of democracy will feel superior to it anyway. Don’t take it personally, but rather thank them, at least to begin with. Every time one of them demands the use of refined idioms or diplomatic speech, maybe calling us unrefined or ignorant, they’ll be handing us the chance to show to the people that democracy is more concerned with filling their mouths with the right pronouns than with enough bread to eat. Let them do it: this is the only way for armchair activists to learn that there is no society in a world that prioritizes pronouns.”

The relatively staid Italian concern regarding the correct use of sophisticated grammar is here transformed into a much more ideologically charged issue, one that significantly departs from the original point but does so in keeping with the logic of the text and in order to make a stronger one. In translation terms, this is textbook “skopos theory”—where a text’s aim takes precedence over individual units of meaning—and it is put to noble use here.

There’s no denying that there are more rigorous analyses of fascism, but this book is not meant to be an introduction or a history—it is an indictment and a call to action. What the book lacks in precision, it makes up for in rhetorical flair, and in this sense, it successfully appeals to a general readership. The book’s concluding “Fascistometer” might seem gratuitous, like a parody of a teen magazine personality quiz, but it also provides a summary of the book in bullet-point and a way to check oneself or start a discussion with family and friends. By comparison, the “F Scale” from The Authoritarian Personality, developed by Theodor Adorno et al. in postwar California, is scarcely more scientific. In both instances, it is not a matter of whether we are fascist, but how much. Murgia’s manual, even sliding over the surface, translates fascism into a thoroughly contemporary phenomenon, where democracy is not a given, but a continuous struggle.

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