The Scathing Portrait of the Pro Fascist in 'Disco Elysium: The Final Cut'

How self-pity and humiliation are weaponized first against critical thought, then society at large.
May 7, 2021, 1:00pm
Screen Shot 2021-04-01 at 14
'Disco Elysium' screenshots courtesy of ZA / UM

Detective Harrier “Harry” Du Bois is a sad, broken and hateful kind of animal. He spouts racist and misogynist drivel at every opportunity, flies into drunken rages and fantasizes about the violent death of Revachol’s perceived enemies. At least, that’s how I chose to play him.

It’s not often that a game provides us with a choice like this, and the reason seems obvious: it’s a minefield that in most cases is better left alone, and even if there’s justification for it, demands a lot of both sensibility and skill from designers and writers.

Advertisement

But there’s another reason: Pop culture has always been enamored with the spectacle of fascism, where the individual dissolves into the faceless mob. “Everyone is sure they know what fascism is,” historian Robert O. Paxton wrote in his book The Anatomy of Fascism. “The most self-consciously visual of all political forms, fascism presents itself to us in vivid primary images: a chauvinist demagogue haranguing an ecstatic crowd; disciplined ranks of marching youths; colored-shirted militants beating up members of some demonized minority.” You’ve seen these images yourself, countless times, in countless films and games. They mean to depict fascism, but they lack any insight into the individual fascists who make it a mass movement. As Paxton argues, focusing on the spectacle of fascism, its leaders and demonstrations of power, means buying into fascist myths and aesthetics, effectively presenting fascist propaganda in the place of grounded description.

Screen Shot 2021-04-08 at 14.30.32.png

The true uniqueness of Disco Elysium, then, is not that is allows us to roleplay as a fascist, but that it completely rejects these displays—and that’s especially true since the Final Cut update which fleshes out the political ideologies. In Disco Elysium, there are no faceless masses to fall in line with, no leader to obey, no “enemies” to beat up in the streets. Instead, it focuses on an often-neglected stage of fascism, when it takes nebulous shape in the mind of the individual, long before regimes, movements, or even fully formulated ideology. Harry the fascist is ordinary, pathetic, boring; or, in Idiot Doom Spiral’s words, “pretty low concept”. His fascism is primitive, confused, mostly isolated; a kind of boiling primordial soup from which more developed and more dangerous forms of fascism might emerge.

This also means that Harry’s fascism is intensely personal and self-serving, and this is where Disco Elysium’s depiction excels. At every turn, the game exposes the obvious psychological functions of Harry’s beliefs. Much of what goes on in Harry’s mind, regardless of whether we choose to play him as a fascist or not, is rooted in a desire to escape a painful past; mainly a haunting breakup several years prior. Seeking either “sweet oblivion” or to become “a different kind of animal,” many of the possible roleplaying choices are rooted in his desire to forget, evade or reframe the past. Whether self-destruction through drug abuse, fantasies of superstardom or visions of impending doom; it’s all in the service of not wanting to face the past, and the disastrous effects Harry’s continuous failure to do so has had on his life.

Advertisement

The seeds are already there, and if we choose to steer Harry towards fascism, we highlight that part of his personality that feels abandoned and left behind, humiliated and betrayed by his ex-lover and the world as a whole. Half-aware of his own failures and responsibilities but deathly afraid to face them, fascist Harry flees into self-pity, fueled by a fantasy of the good old days, taken from him forever. Fascism, being marked, according to Paxton, by a need to compensate for humiliation, promises easy solutions to someone like Harry. It’s a crutch to prop up threatened masculinity, a rhetoric to shift blame for personal failings to ominous outside forces. Given Harry’s unhealthy obsession with his ex-girlfriend, it is no surprise that in one of his imagined conversation with his stomach, it claims that fascism is “mostly about trusting your gut” and “boils down to” hating women.

Screen Shot 2021-04-08 at 14.33.35.png

Before semi-coherent state doctrines and pseudo-intellectual justifications, there’s gut instincts and knee-jerking. It is precisely this “immature”, underlying stage which Umberto Eco called, in an essay of the same name, “Ur-Fascism” (or “eternal fascism”). Eco wrote that “even though political regimes can be overthrown, and ideologies can be criticized and disowned, behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives.” By laying bare the psychological and emotional base which provides fertile soil for fascist ideas, Disco Elysium goes a long way towards illustrating Eco’s idea of ur-fascism.

This is especially true of the “political vision quest” for fascism. The aim of the quest, as Harry’s gut puts it, is to go “back to the time when the sun had not yet vanished, when it was still setting into the sea. The time of the Suzerain, the time when love was still possible.” To solve this difficult problem, we are tasked with talking to several characters who are all markedly different kinds of fascists and reactionaries; the Racist Lorry Driver; Gary “the Cryptofascist” and conspiracy theorist; Measurehead the pseudo-scientific race theorist; and royalist veteran René Arnoux. Naturally, the joke is that none of them can help Harry or even want to, but the quest goes far beyond mocking his stupidity.

Advertisement

The quest is interesting for several reasons. For one, it goes against the image of fascist uniformity by showing it as a messy melting pot of crackpot ideas, many of which are at odds or even outright incompatible. And yet, Harry is quite ready to draw “wisdom” from any and all of these sources. Eco identified this wildly incoherent mix-and-match syncretism as one of the defining aspects of (ur-)fascism. Taking fascist Italy as an example, Eco describes the regime’s ideology as “a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions […] that was able to combine monarchy with revolution, the Royal Army with Mussolini's personal milizia, the grant of privileges to the Church with state education extolling violence, absolute state control with a free market.” Disco Elysium realizes that despite their incompatibility, the world view of, say, Gary the Cryptofascist is as much a symptom of ur-fascism as that of the reactionary royalist. Both are part of a potential breeding ground for the more familiar, later stages of fascism.

Screen Shot 2021-04-08 at 21.35.04.png

The political vision quest culminates in a strange moment, half epiphany, half disillusionment, that exposes the vapid nihilism and incoherence at the heart of fascism. After Harry’s failure to find out how to rewind time to the good old days, his gut confronts him with the “devastating” truth: “Love… time… Revachol… It’s all shit.” It declares that facing that darkness and “shoot[ing] the past in the head” is the only path that leads to salvation: “You will be free to love Revachol like no one has ever loved her. You will be her champion, and she will be *faithful* to you. If you can just make this last sacrifice, you will *finally* know happiness.” In other words, Harry’s gut argues that the sentimental preoccupation with a glorious past and its lost ideals stands in the way of Harry’s quest to fulfil his fascist dreams of nationalist purity.

Like everything Harry’s gut says, its final speech is incoherent nonsense; if the idealized vision of past national purity and glory is a lie, what exactly is fascism supposed to restore and purify? And yet, if we move away from a literal level, it makes a different, irrational kind of sense. Eco wrote that “fascism was philosophically out of joint, but emotionally it was firmly fastened to some archetypal foundations.” The gut’s speech resonates with some of the “archetypal foundations” so central to fascism, such as purification through violence, extreme sacrifice, heroism and what Eco called the “cult of action for action’s sake.” The knowledge that all of his supposed ideals are “shit” ironically only strengthens Harry’s resolve and dedication to fascism. After all, “it takes a true kingsman to summon the *will* to face reality in all its darkness.” In the end, Harry adopts a new identity, complete with a new, unchangeable facial expression, or rather mask: he becomes the “noble sufferer” carrying a painful burden for a nation exposed as “shit”. Harry, just like his facial expression, has become stuck. As the quest comes to an end, Harry finds himself in a personal and ideological dead end with nowhere to go and without the sense to turn back. In that darkness, he finds the only kind of solace he can conceive of: hollow and (self-)destructive.

Harry’s ultimate moment of clarity is at the same time the final unmasking of fascism as a self-serving farce devoid of any ideals, however base. Too cowardly to face himself or his past except through meaningless metaphors of violence, struggle and annihilation, Harry instead continues, in Hannah Arendt’s words, “dreaming the stupid dream of producing the void.”