Not Caesar, Mussolini
Among the more powerful factions of the Mojave Wasteland, Caesar’s legion is easily the one that stands out most. Named, organized and equipped in the spirit of the historical Roman Empire, the legion presents itself as an antidote to the chaos of life in post-apocalyptic America. Their military is rigidly organised, their territory is safe, and all swear allegiance to Caesar (real name Edward Sallow). Their means so pragmatic, their rhetoric so logical, one could be forgiven for not seeing them for what they are: fascist thugs. For it is not the aforementioned Roman Empire that inspired the political makeup of the legion, but that much more recent Italian authoritarianism, Mussolini’s fascism. The legion is probably one of the better examinations of fascist ideology in fiction of its times; whether this is intentional on the developers’ part is irrelevant.
Now, I know that the term “fascist” has been diluted somewhat since the 40’s; it has been used to describe every shade of the political spectrum and has been reduced to a shorthand for “bad.” It does, however, have an actual definition and usage in political philosophy, and remains an important term in media criticism. Rather than designating a specific mode of government, fascism refers to a mode of political organizing. In short, it is a pragmatic movement, characterized by its unprincipled opportunism and its creation of in-groups and out-groups. The process of defining outsiders and insiders is repeated every time an outside force is neutralized. For the purposes of this analysis, I will use Umberto Eco’s fourteen defining features of Ur-fascism. Ur-fascism is Eco’s name for the political philosophy, stripped of symbols and cultural signifiers. I will delineate the legion’s adherence to this mode, then explain why, of all the contenders in this post-apocalyptic war, the legion is the only definite “bad guy.” So often video games try to equivocate their internal politics by painting everything so deep gray that one could easily think this was the case here; the legion’s rhetoric and comments from outsiders can make the legion seem a sensible choice in this world. Yet Obsidian Entertainment refuses the gray brush here, and explains, in short, why even sensible and polite Nazis are bad.
Eco’s first characteristic is Ur-Fascism’s cult of tradition, or rather the veneer thereof. Fascism takes from historical tradition whatever message it wants to spread, molding and shaping it into a syncretic traditionalism. Looking deeper at the Legion’s Roman inspiration, it becomes apparent that said inspiration is only skin deep, mere artifice to hide the authoritarian folly of the leader. The name itself becomes an interesting example of this: The Legion. Not Rome, New Rome, the empire or any other name that might imply an interest in the social organization of such a world. The Legion implies that this, despite all posturing to higher ideals, is merely a militarist, destructive force, meant to conquer, assimilate and repeat. For Caesar’s legion, and historical fascisms, this process is not the means to an end: it is the end. To repeat this process ad nauseam, until nothing is left but the leader. As Eco and other historians of fascism point out, fascist movements require an external enemy; there is no resting point for fascism. Once one group has been eradicated, the need for an enemy means that a new “outsider” needs to be defined, otherwise an internal one will suffice. This leads to the implosion of any fascist movement on a long enough timeline. In this instance, the name of the organization belies what they really seek, even unknowingly. Militarism and the creation of out-groups will come back later in the analysis; for now, let’s proceed to Eco’s second characterictic of Ur-Fascism.
The syncretic traditionalism espoused by fascistic movements also forces a refusal of modernity and progress. Historical fascisms have had an admiration for scientific achievements, especially those that could further their imperialist ambitions; social progress, on the other hand, was squarely associated with the enemy. This is why nazi antisemitism was comorbid with misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and hatred of the political left in general. While none of those things were unique to Germany, they stand out particularly in contrast to the Weimar Republic’s politics (Inter-war Germany). One must not forget that the biggest Nazi book-burning targeted the Institut fürr Sexualwissenschaft, which specialized in research pertaining to the LGBTQ community. Caesar’s virtual fascists take this refusal of modernity to heart; most of their criticism of other factions within the game world centers around their perception of social progressivism as profligate- a borrowed term from latin, and a synonym of degenerate. This word, degenerate, is significant: it is often used by fascist movements to smear their adversaries. Its implications of decadence and downfall are not accidental; fascists are obsessed with what Roger Griffin calls “palingenetic ultra-nationalism.” This, in short, is the belief that “our people” are ancient, fated to rule the world, but have been on the decline for some time, this decline being blamed on external, evil influences. When Caesar’s Legion calls for the removal of “profligates,” they are drawing a distinct line between themselves and historical fascisms.
Eco’s third, fourth and fifth point all share representation within Caesar’s Legion, in the form of the heavily stratified, autocratic organisation of the Legion. Individuals are discouraged from questioning orders, to the point of committing suicide if ever captured by the enemy. Because, as Eco puts it, action for action’s sake is a sign of strength, criticism is a sign of “degeneracy,” and disagreement with any aspect of the system, particularly the leader, is tantamount to treason. The Legion’s focus on martial pursuits illustrates this tendency quite well; soldiers are bred, born and raised to act without question, to kill at Caesar’s order, and die for the cause.
Criteria six, the appeal to a frustrated middle-class, does not apply here, as society has already collapsed within the Fallout universe. However, point seven, rabid nationalism, describes the Legion quite well. Considering the cult of personality surrounding Caesar, the subordination of everything to the needs of the “state,” one would be blind not to see this as post-apocalyptic nationalism. That the Legion eradicates those cultures it conquers is also significant; by destroying allegiances to one’s original culture, it forces idolization of the Legion and its leader even on those it subjugates. This forced identification with the Legion as a nation also illustrates another aspect of fascism Eco didn’t touch on, namely its unprincipled opportunism. Since fascism depends on mass movements but aims to install a relatively small group in power, it often assimilates its “enemies” in order to achieve its goals. These fair-weather allies will eventually be cast back as outsiders once they are no longer needed.
Characteristics nine, ten, eleven and thirteen are all interested in its militaristic aspects. The Legion itself is based on the idea of a struggle for survival; specifically, a violent struggle for survival. As many acknowledge within the game, once the Legion conquers everything, their armies will simply turn on each other; this echoes the idea of a life for struggle that Eco put forth. We can see this in the Legion’s organization; specifically, that everything the Legion does is done to shore up their expansionist efforts. Every one of their “settlements” is in fact both factory and military camp. This is all that the Legion requires anyway; why bother making anything else? Of course, their larger territory includes a larger economy; but as is recognized within the Legion, said economy is bent to the whims of the Legion’s constant warfare. That they let trade flourish in their territory is not an indication of any liberal tendencies; the Legion simply needs trade to feed its war machine. Points ten and eleven refer to popular elitism and heroic education. The former refers to the idea that each member of the ideal nation is superior to all others, and the latter follows in educating everyone into heroes. The idea of supremacy and heroism mesh within the Legion, giving birth to an army of warriors that will run to their deaths, all in a vain quest for glory. As many members of the Legion’s upper strata recognize, these soldiers’ lives are expandable in pursuit of their goals. Point thirteen refers to the idea that the leader speaks for all; his word is the word of the people, and since Caesar wants war, the people want war.
The final point I will be inspecting is number fourteen: fascist “newspeak.” In Fallout, the Legion’s members all use borrowed terms from Latin: Ave, Vale, profligate, decimation, etc. This has two main effects: distinction from outsiders and identification with insiders. If all members of the Legion sound, to outsiders, like they speak another language, it reinforces the distance there is between them. As such, the mere act of speaking to outsiders becomes nearly impossible- reinforcing the isolation of Legion members from the world. Identification with insiders helps reinforce this and creates a sense of community among them so as to strengthen the movement and isolate it from outside influences. This results in a monolithic state, bent on destroying all others and running to its own end.
But, in the end, why are they the bad guys? Their roads are safe and their members well-fed; but, in the end, societies cannot be maintained in a state of war for eternity. Aside from the self-defeating cycle of destroying outsiders, then creating new outsiders to destroy, the Legion’s social structure is not meant to maintain a society in the long-term. One can imagine a million micro-rebellions happening within its bounds from the start. However, no need to even imagine a million- one suffices. Whether it comes from disgruntled generals, slaves or even the legionaries themselves, it will eventually happen. Inertia applies even to political systems, especially to those that wish to “stabilize” the world into an immutable monolith. Or, echoing my introduction: the antidote to chaos is not to freeze everything in place.