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

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 politicien 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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