Losing Philosophy to History, Research Time, 19/06/2015

One of the pivotal figures in the Utopias project is Filippo Marinetti, an Italian artist, poet, punk provocateur, and dedicated Fascist. Well, he was more of a dedicated fascist than a dedicated Fascist, for reasons I want to talk about today. 

Mussolini's power base wasn't just in the
totalitarian vanguard like the Futurists,
but also the military elite of Italy.
I’ve come across many conflicting accounts of just how much Marinetti supported the actual Fascist party of his country, Italy, and its dictator, Benito Mussolini. Many describe Marinetti as having been a loyal member of the Fascist party until his 1944 death. There are differences between them on the level of his dedication. 

Some describe him as a longtime propagandist, others as a supporter who fell from prominence during the Second World War thanks to his failing health, the failing military campaigns of Fascist Italy, and the paranoia of an authoritarian regime under pressures it couldn’t survive.

Doug Thompson, the translator of my Critical Writings collection of Marinetti’s essays, describes a different story. It’s a more fractious, difficult, relationship of Marinetti and the Futurist art, politics, and culture movement with Mussolini and the Fascist movement. 

It comes down to a single, simple idea. A politician, even such an authoritarian as Mussolini, can only progress through compromise and building difficult alliances. A philosopher need only depend on his own skill as a writer and the power of his concepts.

After the First World War, Marinetti grew involved with Mussolini’s Fascist party as a fellow traveller in building a political culture that would put the entire population of Italy on a constant footing for war and expansion. But for Marinetti, the total mobilization of the population would have a very specific purpose in mind. 

I find it strangely perverse to see the energy for positive social revolution – a vibrant creative spirit in expression, art, and ideas, in revolt against a staid old conservatism – channelled into the totalitarian reorganization of society. The transformative industrial technology emerging at the end of the 19th century – trains, cars, highways, the first airplanes, petroleum’s entire industrial revolution – would forge humanity into its own form. The mass man, person as cog in the machine.

It’s unnerving to understand that this terrifying ideology really existed. But it’s the same revolutionary impulse powering it. It’s a vision of a new kind of society, understanding the social, political, and technological powers that new model of life improves and makes possible. It’s the faith that this vision is superior. 

And the faith is grounded in real, material developments. It isn’t the blind faith of today’s religious right, the faith of the Christian climate change denialist, an assertion of proud ignorance. Rapid transit, mass electrification, the surge in economic productivity that did, in fact, lift literally billions from poverty took place because of the social revolution in thinking that made it possible.

If you ever wondered what punk energy looked like when
it was fascist, it looked like Filippo Marinetti, who
himself looks like a Toronto hipster.
Marinetti’s vision of politics simply said, let’s do it as fast as possible, with a violent wave of conquest that will free all people by mobilizing us as war machines. 

Yet to do it, he had to make allegiances with other powers. With people like Mussolini, whose own allies were old guard nationalists and social conservatives. Even though he adopted the Fascist banner, and Italy incubated the purest ideology of global totalitarianism, Mussolini could never have fully implemented mass mobilization. 

Because Marinetti’s ideas informed the dominant political movement of the time, the new imperialist movement after the First World War was totalitarian. But in the social networks of the Italian elite, not enough people could dig out of their 19th century mind-sets. The old nobility and old bourgeois were too entrenched for Marinetti’s philosophy to uproot. No concept, no matter how terrible, can directly move people who can’t think.

Mussolini built a terrifying authoritarian dictatorship, a military state whose goal was to be the new Rome. Marinetti wanted more than that, a mass mobilization so powerful that Rome itself would have been ruins compared to his triumphant Futurist Italy.

Reading Marinetti can be like staring into an abyss.

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