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Silicon Valley Take Note: Authoritarian Dictators Are Exactly What They Appear To Be

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Should Silicon Vally tech moguls be cozying up to Donald Trump? This is just one of very many questions people are asking in the wake of the surprising accession to power of the new US president.
The story of the iconic early 20th century Irish-Italian wireless entrepreneur Guglielmo Marconi is instructive in this regard.

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Marconi was at the height of his fame and glory in 1922 when a little-known upstart political outsider by the name of Benito Mussolini was asked to form a government by Italy's King Victor Emmanuel II. Marconi, by then, was one of the most visible figures in the world; certainly one of the few Italians whose name was a household word, almost everywhere. He was admired, even revered, as the man who had imagined and made possible mobile, long-distance, wireless communication.

His system was responsible for saving more than 700 lives on the doomed Titanic, which was, fortunately, equipped with a Marconi transmitter that allowed the ship to get word that it was sinking out to a neighbouring vessel. His London-based company was working with governments and corporate clients around the globe. Thanks to wireless, diasporic populations could, for the first time, keep in touch with their families by "marconigram" for a fraction of the cost of a cable "wire." A new popular entertainment medium, radio, had been developed on the basis of Marconi's technology -- which had also played an important role in the recent Great War.

Mussolini, on the other hand, was almost completely unknown outside of Italian political circles. A former socialist journalist and organizer, he had built a following based on the legions of war veterans who had contributed, sometimes at great cost, to a victory which now seemed to bring them little concrete return. The Italian political establishment seemed unable to re-build their post-war economy, and many Italians felt they were being short-changed by the new world order taking shape in the wake of the Paris Peace Conference where Italy had been treated as the least significant of the "big four" victorious powers (the others being, of course, the US, Britain and France).

In 1919, Mussolini had formed a movement he called the Fasci di Combattimento (loosely, "combat beams"). In national elections that year, the Fascists elected only one member to the fractured Italian parliament but Mussolini was not dismayed and began the process of turning his movement into a political party. Its goals were unclear but in the chaotic and unstable political situation of Italy, Mussolini's championing of law and order and national pride began to resonate with a large part of the population. In the 1921 elections, the Fascists' parliamentary group swelled to 35.

There were established parties with much larger deputations but none of them proved able to sustain a government. In October 1922, after Mussolini's supporters staged a so-called "March on Rome" (less than 30,000 people took part but the numbers were later hugely inflated to create a mythology of victory) the King invited Mussolini to form a government. A large portion of Italy's elite were relieved as one of Mussolini's few strong platform points was anti-union, anti-socialist. Marconi was in London looking after his company business and he was one of the first prominent Italians abroad to send congratulations to the new leader. Mussolini realized that he would need this type of support to gain credibility outside the country. He invited Marconi to meet him in Rome, promised him all sorts of favours, and began showering him with important appointments. Marconi was named head of the National Research Council, president of the Royal Academy and honorary chairman of the British branch of the Fascist Party.

Marconi had complex personal reasons for aligning with Mussolini. He had always been attracted to political power. He was an Italian patriot. And he was beginning to tire of his increasingly fraught and precarious situation in the UK, home of his global corporate headquarters. Most important, he actually believed Mussolini was giving him an important role to play. Marconi was one of the few people in Italy who could speak his mind to Il Duce. Mussolini used him as a sounding board and appeared to listen. Marconi naively believed he had some influence.

By 1932, it was clear that Marconi was window-dressing for Mussolini's increasingly authoritarian and brutal regime. When the Royal Academy nominated its first Jewish member that year, Mussolini refused to accept the nomination (as the Italian constitution empowered him to do). Marconi, who had transmitted the nomination in his role as president of the Academy, said nothing. When Mussolini insisted that scientific research be marshalled towards the fuzzy goal of building a fascist society, Marconi tried to convince him that research should be independent of politics but he publicly acquiesced. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935 Marconi was one of his most vocal boosters. He was publicly humiliated when the BBC -- which Marconi had a hand in founding -- refused his request for air time to explain Italy's colonial policy. He travelled to the U.S., China, Brazil and elsewhere on Mussolini's behalf, suffering the perplexing spectacle of saluting fascist supporters everywhere he went.

In April 1936 he got out of a sick bed to host the Nazi minister Hans Frank (later executed at Nuremberg) on a visit to Rome. Marconi joined in the public applause of Frank's legalistic explanation of Nazi race theory and called for closer ties between Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany. A few months later, he privately mused to a visiting British MP that he thought war in Europe would be a terrible blunder. Then -- conveniently, in July 1937 -- he died.

The leaders of today's technology companies can learn a lot from Marconi's story. But possibly, ominously, the most important lesson they can take away from it is to tread cautiously, if at all, when invited into the den of an authoritarian populist dictator.

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Author Marc Raboy

Dr Marc Raboy's Marconi: The Man Who Networked The World, is nominated for the RBC Taylor Prize. He recorded a video about Marconi for this blog.

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