Some of the feedback I've gotten about my recent posts discussing the philosophy of Filippo Marinetti and the Italian Futurists (as well as the wider culture and politics surrounding the First World War) asked why I'm talking about this at all. Essentially, they want to know what this weird period of politics has to do with today.
|The problems of modern Europe seem of a completely|
different kind than what they faced a century ago, but
the peace built from those old wars laid the groundwork
for contemporary struggles.
There are a lot of very important differences between Marinetti’s era and ours. Most of the world's population lived under the colonial control of European states. It's weird for people of my generation to conceive that, for example, India and Pakistan were British territories, or that most of northwest Africa literally was France.
As well, Germany was a monarchy, and had only recently come to exist as a single country. Marinetti refers to his support for a recent Italian war: the conquest of Libya, having taken the territory from the Ottoman Empire. Also, Turkey didn't exist; instead, there was a government called the Ottoman Empire whose capitol was Istanbul. There was no country called Saudi Arabia, and that territory was barely conceived as being important at all, just a huge desert wasteland.
The international rivalry that threatened to tear the world apart with constant, recurring wars was between Germany and France, two mortal national enemies who could never have found common ground for peace unless one was under the other's heel.
Regarding the political institutions that shape global politics, our world is categorically different. But there are two ways that the society and politics of that era matter for understanding our own conflicts.
Both these philosophical analyses of historical developments have their roots in my favourite paraphrased saying of John Dewey: the solutions of today are the problems of tomorrow. The European Union, and its financial and monetary union of disparate national economies on that small continent, is the solution to the most intractable problem of early 20th century politics: the conflict between France and Germany.
Their economic, monetary, and institutional entwining means that the prosperity of one depends on the prosperity of the other. The French and Germans were forced to become partners simply because the international institutions they were part of made cooperation more useful to them than the domination of one over the other.
Economic union was supposed to have done this for all the countries of Europe, but this project faced two problems. Few other European countries developed the same industrial strength as France and Germany, so were vulnerable to diverse economic problems. Spain had a fragile home equity foundation, Italy had a perennially corrupt and semi-authoritarian government and an economy dominated by mafia, and Greece’s solvency depended on debt financing.
Understanding the generations-long conflict between France and Germany, and the trauma, violence, and terror it inflicted on hundreds of millions of people, lets us understand why such a radical new institution of Europe seemed necessary. Monarchies and empires were transformed into banks and finance organizations.
Another aspect of the problems arising from solution to horrifying problems is the modern power of finance and corporate interest over the power of states. For a liberal democrat in Marinetti's time, the state was the biggest threat to freedom.
The most influential understanding of totalitarianism was a state government that had absolute control over its population through conceiving of a nation as a collective, and individual citizens as parts.
This was Friedrich Hayek's defence of democracy: to be free was to escape the control of the state, whether it was a security service, a tax agency, or a welfare and employment office. It was a natural conclusion of liberal thinking in response to the totalizing, collective politics of the era. And it shaped all the neoliberal political movements that designed the international institutions of our own era.
New liberal politics and economic theories did help prevent Western democratic countries from twisting themselves into collectivist dictatorship, but they also created the problems of global impoverishment and disenfranchisement that define the political struggles of our own era. . . . To be continued.