The Perils Of Smashing The Past

Recalling the Italian futurists’ embrace of aggressive disruption.

Alessandro Bruschetti's Sintesi Fascista (Fascist Synthesis), 1935. (Image courtesy the Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, Florida International University)

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

VERONA, ITALY — “Move fast and break things,” the digital dictum of today’s Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, could have been penned by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and his fellow Italian Futurists. Their famous manifesto in 1909 glorified the velocity of all things industrially muscular, from cars to airplanes, that disrupted the time and space of stodgy old traditional societies. Like today’s radical technologists, they too envisioned a new transhumanism that would fuse man and machine.

I was struck by this parallel when visiting an exhibit of futurist art at the Palazzo Maffei last week in Verona. In their enthusiasm to smash the past, what the futurists didn’t see was how the broken social pieces would seek shelter from the storm by re-forming through identity politics that ended up in the fascist movements that fomented world war. That is something to ponder in our own fraught time of fragmentation.

As in Marinetti’s day, prodigious leaps in technology, science and productive capacity today herald a future humanity has only dreamt of in the past. Yet these great transformations seem to have triggered in their wake a great reaction among the multitude they have bypassed or threatened to uproot. 

As Nicolas Berggruen and I wrote in our 2019 book, “Renovating Democracy: Governing in the Age of Globalization and Digital Capitalism,” the truth is not only that both realities exist simultaneously, but that one is a condition of the other. 

The fearful and fearsome reaction against growing inequality, social dislocation and loss of common identity in the midst of today’s vast wealth creation, unprecedented mobility and ubiquitous connectivity is a mutiny, really, against globalization so audacious and technological change so rapid that it can barely be absorbed by our incremental nature. In this accelerated era, future shock can feel like repeated blows in the living present to individuals, families and communities alike. In this one world, it sometimes seems, a race is on between the newly empowered and the recently dispossessed. 

This emergent world appears to us as a wholly unfamiliar rupture from patterns of the past that could frame a reassuring narrative going forward. Rather, the new territory of the future is described by philosophers as “plastic” or “liquid,” shapelessly shifting as each disruptive innovation or abandoned certitude washes away whatever fleeting sense of meaning that was only just embraced. A kind of foreboding of the times that have not yet arrived, a wariness about what’s next, settles in. Novelists like Jonathan Franzen see a “perpetual anxiety” gripping society.  Similarly, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, citing William Wordsworth, speaks of “a strangeness in my mind,” the sense that “I am not of this hour nor of this place.”

Disruption, Insecurity And Identity

Social thinkers have long noted the relationship between such anxiety or sense of threat and the reactive fortification of identity. The greater the threat — of violence, upheaval or insecurity — the more rigid and “solitarist” identities become, as Amartya Sen noted in his seminal book “Identity and Violence. Intense threats, or their perception, demote plural influences in the lives of persons and communities alike and elevate a singular dimension to existential importance. Conversely, stability, security and inclusivity generate adaptive identities with plural dimensions. 

The lesson here is that political and cultural logic, rooted in emotion, identity and ways of life cultivated among one’s own kind, operate in an entirely different frame than the rational and universalizing ethos of economics and technology. Far from moving forward in lockstep progress, when they meet, they clash.

Historical experience has regrettably demonstrated over and over again that, when real or perceived threats abound, practical politics departs from rational discourse and becomes about friends vs. enemies; us vs. them. It becomes about organizing the survival and sustenance of a community as defined by those who are not part of it.

What is clear now, as when the Industrial Revolution accelerated during Marinetti’s time, is that history is fast approaching an inflection point. We live either on the cusp of an entirely new era, or on the brink of a return to an all-too-familiar, regressive and darker past. How to reconcile these opposite movements is the daunting summons for governance in the decades ahead.  

Governance is how communities invent and shape their destiny. It determines whether a society goes forward or backward. Like the homeostasis of all organisms, governance is the regulator, arbiter and navigator of human affairs. It processes emotions through reason as the means by which societies not only survive, but thrive by adapting to change. 

Thus, getting governance right by moving deliberatively and fixing things is the first order of business if we are to escape the fate that befell a disrupted world in the last century. 

In open societies, that means, above all, repairing the dysfunction of democracies by updating the institutions for deliberating social choices by inviting the non-electoral collective intelligence of the broader civil society into governance as a complement to elected representative bodies. Inclusiveness mediated by the reasoned practices of negotiation and compromise can dissolve division. It is the only way to find that point of equilibrium between creation and destruction that can buffer the damage of dislocation that at first outweighs longer-term benefits.

Reestablishing a common sense of belonging and ownership of the future in this way is the precondition for “taking back control.” Without that, there is little hope of reaching a governing consensus that responds to the challenges on both the near and far horizon and avoiding the kind of future the Italian futurists didn’t foresee in their own time.