Know the Danger of Your Own Times, Research Time, 20/07/2015

You might wonder what exactly I find so interesting in Filippo Marinetti and the Italian Futurists, why I keep writing them, and why I decided that Marinetti’s ideas would make such an interesting focus point for my next book. There are a lot of ways I came to the decision, but here’s one aspect of that, based on what I was reading a little while ago.

Marinetti is describing the sickness of his culture, Italy in the years on either side of the First World War. The moneyed political classes spend most of their time accumulating wealth with little effort, or else arguing in parliament with an insomniac intensity about different versions of laws that all amount to the same oppressive foolishness.

I'm not the first person to say the economic pressures
working people face today are of similar calibre as
during the Great Depression. From a pro-unionization
protest among Walmart employees, December 2014.
The working classes, meanwhile, are put under deeper and heavier stress by an economy where the labour of most people is valued less and less every day. People can’t apply their intelligence to anything creative, socially valuable, or even mentally stimulating and interesting for very long. They have to spend all their energy hustling for enough income that barely covers their basic subsistence. 

His Italy’s mass cultural products are juvenile, pandering entertainment based on cheap jokes and tired stereotypes. So many people’s artistic tastes are decaying into idiocy, while it becomes increasingly difficult to produce and distribute genuinely progressive, radical art. This is despite an explosion of new forms and channels of media.

Described in these terms, the circumstances sound pretty familiar to most of us. Most of us in Western countries find an unstable work environment, where many have to hustle between internships, freelance work, and their actual jobs just to sustain enough income that we can live comfortably. It’s difficult to find the time to contribute to larger projects in society between all the work many of us have to do just to make a decent living.

Marinetti was talking about a society whose unemployment rate was skyrocketing, and where many war veterans returning from the Alpine front found themselves adrift.

Our own cultural products are increasingly fragmented, with many of the most popular things amounting to little more than humour at stereotypes, though I admit I’ve been falling behind some aspects of mainstream entertainment simply because I can’t be bothered to care. Is Duck Dynasty still on TV?

A modern Marinetti, pushing an avant-garde movement across the arts, would probably have a better shot at finding an audience, simply because of the extra reach of the internet. Where the Marinetti of the 1900s wrote plays and manifestos, a Marinetti of the 2010s could write and direct films or web series, and what else is a blog but a space for a constantly updating manifesto.

Political ideas that are not considered absolutely
horrifying were once totally mainstream, to the point
of becoming mundane, so boring that a Royal would
parrot their images.
It’s ridiculous to say that Marinetti’s world is the same as ours. Not only are the actual political systems of the world incredibly different, but even what’s politically conceivable is alien to a 2010s sensibility. I may write tomorrow about some of Marinetti’s Futurist proposals in economics that sound like walking contradictions to a modern ear. But his era and ours share a commonality in important ways.

His people and so many in the modern West face an impasse between a world of conflict, cultural fragmentation, and economic depression, and a world where we’re crawling out of these disasters. The problem is that we can’t tell which path will truly be successful, or which paths will require us to pay prices for our progress that are much too high. 

His was an era of genuine fascism and totalitarianism, after all. Those politics were so mainstream that even royals would play around with the imagery. But we have our own mainstream horrors. It could be the reach of violent religious ideologies so far that people will murder through these imageries in places as random as Chattanooga. Or it’s the sadly successful everyday racism and bigotry of Dylann Roof or the Trump campaign.

There’s a multi-front conflict the size of the First World War ongoing right now, only instead of Europe (for now), it’s across the Middle East. Instead of the French side of the Rhineland, the Italian Alps, the Russian Front, and the Bolshevik-Menshevik civil war, there’s instead the Syrian revolutionary war, the ISIS insurgency, the Houthi uprising, and the Libyan civil war. 

Marinetti is a spectre of that old era that serves as a warning to us. Reading him, you feel his punk spirit. However much he inveighs against his Europe’s radical left for their utopias of perfect equality and material abundance in communist paradise, he’s a utopian with a bizarre vision that can be eerily seductive. A society whose politics and education system are designed to build artistic geniuses who are also heroic warriors dedicated to expand their nation’s empire.

He’s the demonstration that even within the most admirable and exciting ideas, there’s a kernel of political poison that can destroy everything you loved.

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