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Liberal Violence: Reflecting on Umberto Eco’s Ur-Facism 25 years on

Jacob Rose

The title of this essay is misleading. While this short piece will examine the message of Eco’s work a quarter of a century after its publication, it will primarily hope to push you toward a new belief. That is, a reassessment of the place of political violence within liberalism. If this essay fails to turn you over to my point of view, I hope that at the very least it will make you question some of your long-established beliefs about liberalism. I will examine a number of ‘liberal’ works and thinkers and hope to explain what about their work we might find to be ‘liberal’. What (I hope) this short essay will not do is to posit what aspects of liberal philosophies are more recognisably liberal with others, and how aspects of these philosophies become more or less liberal depending on what one defines as ‘liberalism’. An essay that did that would simply be an essay stating that the history of liberalism takes a different course if the goal posts of liberalism were changed: this is a tautology. Instead, this essay will argue a very simple point, and one that I have already mentioned: that liberalism may at times invite citizens to commit violence or kill in its name. 

Part 1

State-on-state violence

The obvious circumstance in which liberalism would allow its followers to commit violence is in times of war. Eco’s essay is adamant of this. In speaking of the ‘liberation’ of Italy from the fascists, Eco fondly remembers how almost magically the fascists seemed to begin slipping away, until one day they had all vanished. Their disappearance was accompanied by the appearance of a new lexicon of liberation, and physical signs of ‘freedom’ of ‘speech’, press and political association. Eco recalls that while the universal fascism of the regime attempted to project everywhere onto society a model of homogeneity, the ribbons of the partisans had many colours. We must accept that the reality of what that disappearance means, and that it does nothing to change our reflections. That is to say, as Eco remembers the mental and physical signs: of newspaper clippings, political parties, and African-American soldiers offering him western confectionary, he is fondly remembering the products of the fascists’ obliteration. They were driven northward by allied armies, hunted by partisans and eventually eviscerated by Anglo-American weaponry or hung from lampposts and beaten to death. This was essential, and it produced the freedom Eco remembers. 

But this is clearly too limited. Only a few would deny that destroying the external fascist enemies of somewhat-free states is an obligation if one wishes to protect the rights that liberalism gives. Support for violence against enemies outside is too narrow, and too obviously an essential part of liberalism, as it is an essential part of any government. We ought to now turn to violence against members of the state within.

State-on-individual violence

Most readers would generally be comfortable in supporting the ‘harm principle’ of Mill. That is, when considering when taking action against an individual is permissible, it is right to apply a moral philosophy that interrogates whether our intervention would prevent harm to others. 

This is clearly not watertight. When in 2005 Cressida Dick gave the order for officers to blow Jean Charles de Menezes’ head off as he went about a normal day boarding the Victoria Line, we can see that this rationale for intervention is never watertight. But this objection, like many, is an aesthetic one. That is, objecting to the intervention that killed Menezes’ ought to be an objection to the facts of the matter, in this case the false intel that suspected he was a terrorist, and not the matter-of-fact: that of killing terrorists to prevent imminent attacks is right. 

In this sense, bastardising the harm principle seems to be fair use of Mill’s thought experiment. If action is to be taken against an individual, it ought to be only upon a reasonable reflection that the individual’s actions will cause harm to others (and not just themselves). It would be illiberal to intervene, especially with violence, if an individual’s actions would do no harm to others. Given most articulated forms of liberalism suppose a right to freedom from harm; it would presumably be equally illiberal not to intervene in cases where harm would arise.

Ignoring Mill’s caveat that the principle only applies in ‘civilised communities’, this context of violence is too narrow for our essay to end here. Few would argue that the state is out of place to intervene against the actions of individuals if those actions were to cause harm. Fewer people still (perhaps only those with religious or otherwise altered moral compasses) would argue that this intervention should not be proportional. Just as it would be wrong to imprison petty thieves, it would be wrong to give domestic abusers ASBOs. Thus, we must now take this logic and examine actions of violence that are always political, and are committed by actors who are not the state. 

Individual-on-individual violence

Placing political violence against citizens by citizens within the liberal paradigm will act as the third and final segment of this essay’s examination of (somewhat) non-controversial behaviour. There exists a number of proto-liberal and liberal thinkers one could draw on to justify contexts of citizen-on-citizen political violence as being ‘liberal’. I will present and briefly examine one: Nicolas de Condorcet.

Although Condorcet detested violence, his Equisse of human nature and subsequent essays on liberty present a moving and powerful case for liberalism as borne from the individual. At a crucial moment during the French Revolution, when Rousseaun contract theory and Sieyes’ ‘will of the majority’ were being married to the language of political identity and ‘security’ by Saint-Just and Robespierre, Condorcet’s philosophy made the case for rights as being created independent of the status of the individual they protected. However obvious it may be to us now, we can imagine the liberalism of Condorcet as being like a circle surrounding all individuals, the boundaries of which ought never to cross: as this would be an unjust or non-consensual infringement of someone’s freedom. At a time where Robespierre and his allies cried that the continued life of any king could never be just, Condorcet’s philosophy rebutted that whatever abuses Louis had committed, and regardless of whether he was no longer king, he was still a citizen. 

His 150 page Equisse recognised that liberty was part of an unending chain of the progression of human nature. Condorcet saw that these freedoms were an inalienable product of one’s humanity. It is for this reason that above all liberal or proto-liberal thinkers I could have chosen; I have chosen to examine Condorcet. It is also why his liberal philosophy so obviously justified political violence against private citizens. 

In his essay on slavery, the climate of French salons in the final decade of Bourbon rule comes out in his writing: he urges immediate action and emancipation, but encourages moderation and dialogue. The mechanical implications of his philosophy say otherwise. Unlike Mill, unlike Hobbes and unlike many others, Condorcet recognised the absurdity that slavery could be justified by predicating freedom on either natural law, or theories of liberty that relied on ‘reason’. This is to say, that unlike most European natural law theorists following Grotius’ tradition, the Scottish Enlightenment traditions, or even Catholic Pietists, Condorcet found that your ability to recognise and use reason was not the pre-condition for liberty. Human life itself was.  In Condorcet’s philosophy, if you are enslaved by some force, for no reason other than being born into a plantation on a European colony, your basic humanity is being held from you. 

Moreover, the humanity of all men is being inhibited somewhat, as the chain of progression of human nature is being halted by the fundamentally illiberal act of enslaving another human being. 

What does liberalism offer us when this common humanity is suppressed? As a slave you have no recourse to vote for anti-slavery candidates: you cannot vote. You typically have no recourse to third party protection from violence or rape, after all you are not a person, but property. Your situation, or if you be free, the situation of your fellow man, is abominable, inhuman, and perhaps unchangeable by peaceful means. I could go on, but I’ll conclude this section here, as I think my point is clear. In acting out of one of the few irrefutable ‘moral’ obligations – that of protection your own humanity – you are permitted, and perhaps even obliged, to act with the only recourse you have: violence and force. Indeed, if there is any notion of shared humanity, any individual who is free is perhaps equally permitted and obliged to commit political violence against such oppressors. 

It is because of this argument that this essay wholeheartedly supports the Haitian slave revolt. Moreover, recently it was reported by Al-Jazeera that hospitalised Malak Haider al-Zubeidi had passed away, an Iraqi victim of domestic abuse set on fire and tortured by her husband. Even if it were not for the lawlessness in regions of war-torn Iraq, few could argue against the fact that in some societies across the world, there is little opportunity for recourse to the authorities for women and migrant workers. If you could prove, which would likely not be hard, that the patriarchal (or other) power structures in these government were reflected in power relationships among citizens, then violence against the aggressors would be political violence against tyrants. Thus this essay would wholeheartedly support violence against such aggressors, as it would be liberal to do so. 

Perhaps therefore Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature was on the right track: the violent impulses we have as citizens, against other citizens when they subjugate others, are natural. When we learn of human trafficking rings on the Ten O’clock news, we know it to be wrong, always, and it angers us immensely. This anger, and the occasional violent impulses it creates are what ought to compel us to action. It is vital we recognise such actions, if they be violent, and if they be just, as actions of political violence. Political violence is not consigned purely to the political sphere. Anywhere that man in his natural state is subjected, without reason, at any level, our human and liberal responses of violence become political acts.

At this point in the essay, I will summarise the point we have reached: In both its theory and its history, liberalism can be the justification of political violence against external enemies, internal enemies, and even private citizens. 

Part 2

Locke and the ‘state of war’

Now we will turn to the far more unorthodox form of political violence that I will argue is still liberal: political violence against any actor within the confines of democracies, when recourse to the third party of the state appears to be possible.

John Locke’s Second Treatise provides one of the richest justifications of such action, and is conveniently one of the most popular (albeit early) liberal thinkers. You will at this point have to excuse my jumping-between very different time periods and contexts: I never claimed this was a history essay. The crucial part of Locke I want to examine is found in his justifications for rebellion. One of the most important ways in which Locke departs from Hobbes, Pufendorf, or like-figures, is in recognising that there is no freedom in simply escaping the ‘state of nature’. To Locke, life may at times be ‘shorter’ and more ‘brutish’ within a state than it might be without. Locke challenges the right of the absolute sovereign. He suggests that even when the state does not face a greater external enemy, the sovereign is capable of doing so much ill that to remain obligated to them would contravene your own internal obligation to survive. In this very dressed down account of Locke, I want to present to the reader the very obvious point that rebellion or action against the state may at times be justifiable. But this again is too limited.

So I may really hone the point of this essay, and begin drawing it to a close, I want to examine what Locke says about the moment that the justifications of obligation are dissolved. In Locke’s words, this is when a sovereign begins to act with ‘tyrannical’ power. By his own lengthy definition: when you or any individual is subjected to a state of slavery without a justifiable reason. At this moment where the sovereign becomes the tyrant, the ‘state of war’ now exists between you and the sovereign. In fact, it exists between everyone and the sovereign. But what is crucial about Locke’s state of war, is the universality and inevitability of its declaration. You do not enter the state of war against the sovereign, as Locke sees it, but rather they have entered the state of war against you. This small difference is essential, and is one of the most fascinating and perhaps progressive aspects of an otherwise anachronistic model of liberalism. 

I want to use my essay to translate this language of the sovereign entering a state of war against you, onto to the modern day, free from the anachronistically strict allowances for rebellion that Locke provides. To protect the liberties that modern liberalism affords us, we can no longer rely on the eventual possibility of all-out rebellion. It is also for this reason that I do not need to define what ‘liberalism’ is, or its assigned ‘liberties’ and freedoms are. Rather, I am merely arguing that at the moment your once-liberal state subjects you or others to a form of tyrannical power, as decided by the laws and conventions erected partly by you as an individual, you might want to consider a state of war as having been declared by your government against you. In a round-a-bout way, I am advocating here for a loose model, which any individual may apply to their own state, and not a set of strict guidelines for violence. 

Recourse to violence and the ‘tyranny of the majority’

I want to stress that my argument is not black and white. It may be in your judgement whether an infringement of your liberty justifies violence, but it must be a very reflective and informed judgement. 

Ask yourself: Do you still have recourse to peaceful means? Does the oppression you or others suffer actually justify violence as a proportional response? Is it clear that whatever oppression you are currently be subjected to will not stop unless you act? Are you or those subjected in a minority of opinion, interest, or subgroup of the state?

The last of these questions is often practically the most important. We often hear the phrase ‘tyranny of the majority’, but rarely is it used in the context discussed. For instance, you may be in the minority of opinion by being within the economic right, and feel that excessive taxation to pay for social care is an abuse of your right to property. Conversely, you may feel government policy has stretched pensions thin and squeezed social care through austerity. In both of these cases, almost none of the discussed qualifications of ‘tyranny’ have been met. The discussion of tyranny must revert back to the thoughts of Locke, Condorcet, Mill and numerous others. These ideas may be updated for the modern age, but they must still discuss tyranny in terms of ‘inalienable rights’, peaceful recourse, and the rings of liberty that surround individuals. If you could quite realistically win an election or push a petition to change a policy, you are not living under tyranny.

Tyranny realised

But what if you are a Tribal Amazonian, fearing that the majority-elected Bolsonaro may soon pursue ethnocide against you? In this case, your fears of the state entering a state of war against you are perhaps far more justified. Will the possible forthcoming ethnocide be an unbearable infringement of your inalienable rights? Most likely. Do you have anything resembling the political power to topple him peacefully, against the tide of his majority support base? Absolutely not. Are peaceful NGOs campaigning for your cause internationally likely to succeed? This I can not answer, but if they can not, the state may well be entering a state of war with you. 

It is at this point that we have arrived at the point of my essay. Taking the example of Brazil, we may elaborate on my point one last time. The citizens who elect, by a majority, figures like Bolsonaro, have rights. They exercise those rights in electing him. But their rights mean no more than others, and in a case of right versus right, the majority does not win because of its numbers. It wins, as in any case you may ever call liberal, only when it is most justifiable. This justification can not be utilitarian, as this would never conform to liberalism. It must be a justification predicated upon the inalienable rights of man that are a product of his humanity. In the case of Brazil, if there be an ethnocide of Amazonian Tribesmen, the majority of free Brazilians who voted for this policy, would not exist as its justifications. Their ring of freedoms, in Condorcet’s vision, would be unjustly impeding the ring of the Amazonians. I reiterate, that the size of one’s ring does not make it any more right

Conclusion

I will conclude this essay by returning to Eco’s essay on fascism. The overwhelming message of which is one of caution, rather than celebration. The fascists, Eco warns, have not yet been defeated: perhaps they never will. Among a number of unnervingly accurate predictions for our internet age, Eco warns that the Ur-Fascists (universal fascists) of the future will be subtle. They will not come dressed in black or brown coats. They will not call themselves fascists; they will not be as brazen in their traditions. They will be hard to spot, but they will return all the same. He warns they will shift their emphasis from grandiose speeches and performances to whip up populist support, to using an impoverished vocabulary that appeals to the ‘real-speak’ dreams of many. They will come from a different class we have seen historically, and they may have different aims. But they will still be fascists. 

This point is perhaps his greatest warning to us all. My guess is that Eco is subtly reflecting on the brutal murder of Aldo Moro at the hands of Italy’s Red Brigades. In justifying their murder as being the sentence of a ‘court of the people’, they had proven that fascists, and enemies of liberality, will come in any form. Moreover like many fascists, from the Italians and Germans of the 1930s, to Erdogan and Bolsonaro in the modern day, they will often be elected. The sadness that permeates Eco’s work ought to haunt us today. That is to say, in defeating some of the fascists of old, the bloodiest war in human history had to be fought. Within it, millions of non-combatants murdered. Often you will hear some well-intentioned ten year old ask: ‘why didn’t we just kill Hitler before he started the war?’. After reading this essay, I don’t want you to mock this child next time you encounter them, nor cast the question aside with a glib ‘it’s complicated’. The answer is, of course we should have killed him. Even without the benefit of foresight, I hope anyone who appreciated the arguments of this essay would have seen this long before 1939. 

We often like to believe that the worst of mankind is consigned to history. Our ugliest episodes are behind us. I hope this is right, I suspect it is not. In 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was ratified, reflecting mankind’s shared desire that the unspeakable inhumanity of the war and its’ genocides would never be repeated. 46 years later, South Africa hosted its first multi-racial elections, the newly-launched ‘Yahoo!’ published some of its first email bulletins celebrating Brazil’s World Cup victory, and half a million Tutsi’s were butchered by their neighbours after being incited to do so by Rwanda’s political leaders and radio-hosts. The following year genocide returned to Europe, following years of inactivity over the Balkans. 

So do not simply turn away from the prospect of violence as a means to advance liberalism. Wherever there is a deprivation of humanity, by a state or individuals, and where there is no peaceful recourse to a higher power, perhaps our enemies’ fates are sealed. If all the conditions to justify violence are met, it does not matter whether the enemies of humanity sit in guerrilla camps or in deputies’ chambers. After all, I want the main take away of this essay to be a simple one. When a grandmother with a soothing voice repeats to you the age-old idiom that ‘violence is never the answer’, I want you to do one thing, and in a smug, sardonic tone. Reply that ‘sometimes it is’.