When Elites Threaten the Future: Peter the Great, Democracy and Climate Change

by Tristan on September 4, 2010

in Activism, Climate science, Ethics, International relations, The media

In late 17th century Imperial Russia, Peter the Great sought to modernize his country – adapt the modern ways of the west, and put down the old backwards which held his country in the dark ages. A major force for backwardness in his kingdom were the Boyars. The Boyars were the highest rank of the ancient feudal aristocracies in Russia – dating back to the 10th century. They grew their beards long, liked their streets narrow and were opposed to the adoption of Western ways and new technology.

From Russian Project

Peter’s solution was to establish the Table of Ranks. The Table of Ranks disconnected the titles of the Aristocracy from the land they possessed and from their lineage – it was now tied directly to services they performed for the Empire. Instituting mandatory civil service for the Aristocracy was beneficial in two ways – first, the nobles were highly occupied trying to one-up each other to increase their rank, so as to be less able to organize their common forces and threaten the authority of the monarch. And second, it provided Peter with an army of bureaucrats organized in hierarchical institutions which he set himself atop, which could organize and carry out the westernizing reforms that would bring Russia into the modern European world. As a side benefit, it inculcated the idea of meritocracy into the Russian noble mindset.

As an event in the course of history, Peter’s move to subjugate the Aristocracy to the monarch’s power and vision is not at all an uncommon. Ivan the Terrible had instituted a similar reform – but instead of creating mandatory service, he simply slaughtered the high ranking Boyars and replaced them with lower standing peasants, who would therefore be loyal directly to him. The democratic reforms in the United Kingdom were an example of the opposite event – the Aristocracy forming a united front against the monarch and demanding democratic reforms which empowered them against the absolute power of the king. And it could be argued, and I in fact would argue, that in the case of the rise of democracy – it was the Aristocracy demanding democratic reforms who were the modernizing, liberating force.

However, today, the Aristocracy is not a modernizing, liberating force. In western countries it has organized itself into a structure which privileges short term private gain over long term public gain, or even long term survival. By rationally pursuing their self-interest, corporate executives destroy the world for their children and grandchildren. They prefer to maintain their traditions than allow the world to survive – they are as backward as Peter’s Boyars, but more powerful, and more organized. Business lobby funded public relations campaigns condemning global warming as a liberal scam has weakened the ability of politicians to take the decisive action necessary. Business funded public relations campaigns such as this one promoting oil sands development are business as usual for a structure which allows people to move up through the ranks only by doing all they can to destroy the world for short term profit.

If Peter the Great were to return, perhaps a new table of ranks could reform the capitalist executive class into the scientifically literate bureaucracy we need to reform the world economy into line with the laws of ecological sustainability. However, today’s leaders are weak by imperialist standards – bound and baited by the new boyar’s lobbies which write policy and laws for them. The near complete failure of Obama’s attempt to modernize America’s health care system is an example of what happens when a politician tries to put the state’s best interests ahead of short term business interest.

What forces, then, could restrain the Aristocracy’s destructive structure? I think only an enlightened popular struggle – one which understands both the realities of climate change and business elite driven democracy – can set the conditions for democratically elected leaders who actually could deal with our backward facing business aristocracy and set policies which could bring human economies into line with the survival of the species. In some ways, such leaders would appear similar to Obama (in terms of grassroots campaign support, and some of the centrist liberal rhetoric) – but the central difference needs to be campaigns based on policy rather than empty slogans.

The cultural shift required to empower such possibilities should not be underestimated. I believe such a shift will require two basic transformations: first, the portion of the elite which is free enough to advocate for the survival of the species must recognize the structural forces behind inaction and climate denial. Second, popular movements advocating peace, climate justice, and alter-globalization must negotiate the existing cultural environment to reduce their alienation from the general public. The role these groups can play in providing an alternative to big-party politics is too important to squander their credibility on petty battles with the police.

If these conditions came to be in place, new leaders may be able to reign in the new boyars through policy and legal changes. If they do not, the current elite will likely continue to improve its control on public opinion, and delay action on climate change until disastrous effects are no longer avoidable.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan September 4, 2010 at 12:59 pm

However, today’s leaders are weak by imperialist standards – bound and baited by the new boyar’s lobbies which write policy and laws for them.

It isn’t just the lobbying power of the private sector – another major factor blocking systematic reform is the way in which power is distributed among policy-makers today. The U.S. Senate is an extreme example, where Wyoming has the same representation as California. Nobody is in the position of being able to reform the system in a dramatic way, because most of the people involved in it are happy with the status quo.

The same is true to a lesser extent in Canada. Our Prime Minister is a lot more influential within the domestic political system than the U.S. President is. Still, achieving major reforms (especially any requiring constitutional change) is extremely difficult, given the degree to which power is spread around among the provinces and other entities.

Milan September 4, 2010 at 1:02 pm

When it comes to checks and balances, it is illustrative to look at fairly extreme cases like China and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has always had a fair deal of respect for property rights. As a result, London is a twisted patchwork. By contrast, the Chinese have more of the Baron Haussmann in them, and are happy to knock down whatever structures interfere with their big designs.

Much of the time, having a restricted government is a good thing – look at the insane campaigns the Chinese government undertook during the 20th century, and the suffering that caused. Sometimes, though, having a concentration of power allows for quicker decisive action in the face of a key problem, provided those bearing the power have the necessary level of concern and policy-making skill.

Tristan September 5, 2010 at 7:27 am

“it is illustrative to look at fairly extreme cases like China and the United Kingdom”

Sure – but people look at examples like this all the time. I think it’s at least, if not more interesting, to find examples from other periods of history.

The key idea I am trying to communicate in this post is that we should stop thinking of business as merely “private power” but as a significant portion of the contemporary Aristocracy, which is caught in a centuries old struggle for power with the monarch/emperor/executive.

This is imperfect of course – one way it can be improved is by including legislative representatives themselves in the notion of Aristocracy. This isn’t strange at all – democratic legislatures were traditionally filled with lords, or representatives of business power.

As for how the United States political structure is set up – it was originally conceived as a way to protect the moneyed elite from the power of the popular masses – who would, if they had the chance, surely support land-reform which would disempower the feudal-esq aristocracy of the time.

I’m not trying to conceive of the elite as an aristocracy just so I can disparage them – rather so I can articulate the struggle for power, and so I can use exemplary cases like Peter the Great’s table of ranks as a model for the radically of aristocratic re-structuring which might be necessary for a well governed future.

Tristan September 5, 2010 at 7:32 am

“it is illustrative to look at fairly extreme cases like China and the United Kingdom”

I would suggest that China’s economic growth is largely due to the Chinese executive determining the optimal relationship between the government and aristocracy for maximizing profit. The state protects the elite from labour and environmental regulation, and the elite provide the efficient allocation of capital which the state failed to perform on its own. Also, the elite become the bad guy in exploitative factories, whereas the state remains the good guy providing basic needs for poor towns. All this without granting too much power to the elites – Bejing can still shut down 5000 factories overnight when they decide things need greening up.

The UK, on the other hand, is at the centre of the western financial meltdown because it could not control its financial elites – who rely on public bailouts as insurance against their risky investments, and against systemic risk.

Milan September 6, 2010 at 1:34 pm

The key idea I am trying to communicate in this post is that we should stop thinking of business as merely “private power” but as a significant portion of the contemporary Aristocracy, which is caught in a centuries old struggle for power with the monarch/emperor/executive.

The key issue I was trying to express is a direct response to this. In societies like Canada, there is no person remotely powerful enough to curb the modern ‘aristocracy’ in the way Peter the Great did. Our minority Prime Minister struggles to get rid of the long form census. (Yes, it is a dumb policy, but it does illustrate how little power he has.) Imagine him trying to assume control over Canada’s business elites…

Tristan September 8, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Sure – I totally agree. In fact, I think I said as much in the article above. That’s why I described what I think is the set of political conditions in which a leader could curb the oil fed boyars.

Tristan September 8, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Also, I think it’s appropriate to call the current aristos “Boyars” because, as in the time of Peter the Great – their desire to continue their old traditions threatens the future. And threatens it much more radically – instead of simply being opposed to new technology, they are opposed to the reforms required for the survival of the species.

Milan September 8, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Giving one individual, or a group of individuals, enough power to overcome the elites that want to protect the status quo would create major dangers – the same dangers that inevitably arise from real monarchies.

In one sense, that danger is less than the danger posed by climate change. In another sense, however, the dangers are coupled given that there are no guarantees that autocratic rulers empowered to deal with climate change would actually focus on that and succeed.

Tristan September 8, 2010 at 10:25 pm

Is a return to autocratic rule what I’ve suggested?

“What forces, then, could restrain the Aristocracy’s destructive structure? I think only an enlightened popular struggle – one which understands both the realities of climate change and business elite driven democracy – can set the conditions for democratically elected leaders who actually could deal with our backward facing business aristocracy and set policies which could bring human economies into line with the survival of the species. In some ways, such leaders would appear similar to Obama (in terms of grassroots campaign support, and some of the centrist liberal rhetoric) – but the central difference needs to be campaigns based on policy rather than empty slogans.”

“I believe such a shift will require two basic transformations: first, the portion of the elite which is free enough to advocate for the survival of the species must recognize the structural forces behind inaction and climate denial. Second, popular movements advocating peace, climate justice, and alter-globalization must negotiate the existing cultural environment to reduce their alienation from the general public. “

Milan September 9, 2010 at 2:15 pm

The problem is a structural and strategic one.

Right now, there are powerful groups that are profoundly opposed to fighting climate change. One response is to try to strengthen groups or institutions that say they want to take action on the issue. Unfortunately, there isn’t much guarantee that they would actually do so if they got power.

In theory, voters could throw the bums out. In practice, voters don’t behave as though they really want climate change solved.

Tristan September 9, 2010 at 7:18 pm

“In practice, voters don’t behave as though they really want climate change solved.”

Elections are effectively staged. The investors decide who is elected.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Investment_theory_of_party_competition

The voters could “throw the bums out” under the set of conditions that I described above:

“I think only an enlightened popular struggle – one which understands both the realities of climate change and business elite driven democracy – can set the conditions for democratically elected leaders who actually could deal with our backward facing business aristocracy and set policies which could bring human economies into line with the survival of the species. In some ways, such leaders would appear similar to Obama (in terms of grassroots campaign support, and some of the centrist liberal rhetoric) – but the central difference needs to be campaigns based on policy rather than empty slogans.

The cultural shift required to empower such possibilities should not be underestimated. I believe such a shift will require two basic transformations: first, the portion of the elite which is free enough to advocate for the survival of the species must recognize the structural forces behind inaction and climate denial. Second, popular movements advocating peace, climate justice, and alter-globalization must negotiate the existing cultural environment to reduce their alienation from the general public. ”

I’m not advocating “throw the bums out” to be replaced by other bank funded bums, but the politicization of the voters, and the de-stupidification of the elite (who certainly don’t all hate their children as much as their actions suggest).

The problem is, the elite usually, and for good reason, sees its best interest in the de-politicization of the electorate. A stupid populous is the easiest to trick into slaving away for them (imagine if voters demanded a rational housing strategy – where would the giant pool of money go?). In the case of climate change, however, the elite and popular masses, probably for the only time ever in history, have a properly common interest.

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