In 1904, Prince Pyotr Mirsky was appointed Minister of the Interior by Tsar Nicholas II, after the previous Minister of the Interior, Vyacheslav von Plehve, had been assassinated by Jewish revolutionaries. This was a volatile time in Tsarist Russia, as trust in the system was at a low. Liberal reformers wanted what they thought the West had in terms of political freedom. Revolutionaries were conducting terror campaigns in order to undermine the tsarist system.
For his part, Mirsky was both a reformer and loyal to the Tsarist system. In his role as Governor-General of Vilna, which is modern day Lithuania and Belarus, Mirsky implemented liberal reforms like granting political rights, ending the pogroms against the Jews, and allowing a degree of autonomy to ethnic minorities. In his role as Minister of the Interior, he granted freedom of the press, freedom of religion and increased the power and authority of local self-government.
Mirsky was not a reformer because he had dreams of creating a liberal paradise to replace tsarist Russia. He was a reformer because he worried that the lack of reform would result in more radicalism, like the sort that had claimed the life of his predecessor and the life of the Tsar’s grandfather. For Mirsky and his supporters within the system, liberal reform was a way to address some of the issues of the people, while also maintaining the legitimacy of the tsarist system.
Uncertain times always product men like Mirsky. He was not the only reformer around Tsar Nicholas before the revolution. There were others but all of them failed to arrest the process that eventually led to revolution. Reformers were around the King Louis XVI and among the aristocracy prior to the French Revolution. They failed for the same reason Mirsky failed. There were men who feared reform would go too far and there were those who feared reform would not go far enough.
This is what should come to mind while watching Elon Musk try to navigate his way through the current crisis. Musk is a reformer at heart. He bought Twitter because he thought it was drifting away from its essential purpose which is to allow for free and open debate about the issues of the day. His inhospitable takeover of the company was driven by a genuine concern for what is happening in the West. Like all reformers, Musk fears what could happen if current trends continue.
It may seem a bit odd to compare Musk to Mirsky or any of the other reformers who existed in revolutionary times. After all, Musk is the world’s richest man. In the managerial age, however, that only buys a seat at the table. The nine other men in the top-10 richest list are worth five times Musk combined. Apple has a hedge fund that is ten times the wealth of Musk. Blackrock controls trillions in assets and has unlimited access to the highest reaches of government.
While Musk may be the world’s richest man and the most famous of the plutocracy, he is just one voice among many. The managerial elite is thousands, and the managerial class is millions of people. This new class is analogous to the aristocratic classes that existed in 18th century France and 19th century Russia. The best Musk or any liberal reformer can do is influence the people in the system. This is what Musk is attempting with his mild reforms of Twitter.
In this illiberal age, Elon Musk has appointed himself to be the minister of speech on-line and is attempting to roll back the reactionary controls that were put in place by the ruling class over the last decade. While Twitter is not the internet of old, Musk has rolled back much of the censorship. He still bans certain accounts, mostly as a way to tell the reactionaries that his reforms will not go too far. Otherwise, he has had a light hand on the censorship of his platform.
This is where that old revolutionary vice shows its jaws. The side that fears the reforms will go too far has successfully organized an advertising boycott. State sanctioned pressure groups like Media Matters have organized other pressure groups to harass companies that were advertising on Twitter. Those companies dropped their ads, resulting in a fifty percent decline in ad revenue. Musk has been forced to hire a girl boss approved by the reactionaries to be his new CEO.
Meanwhile, the other jaw of the vice sees what is happening and assumes Musk will eventually be brought to heel. Open sites like Gab continue to flourish, building on the alternative platform model. Amusingly and a bit ironically, the hard-core censors are abandoning Twitter for the opposite reason. Mass media companies, no longer assured of artificial reach on Twitter, are also jumping ship. Musk is facing the same dilemma all reformers face when taking the middle position.
On January 22, 1905, soldiers of the Imperial Guard fired on demonstrators in Saint Petersburg as they marched towards the Winter Palace. Hundreds were killed and thousands were arrested in what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. Mirsky denied having any role in it, but he was blamed by his conservative opponents, as well as the radical opponents of his half-measures. Mirsky did the honorable thing and resigned from his office and retired from politics.
In the end, Mirsky was like all prior reformers in that he was both right and wrong about what was happening. He was correct that radicalism was spreading due to the inability of the system to address the issues of the times. He was wrong in thinking that the solutions to the problems of the system could be found in the system. Just as there was no saving King Louis XVI and the old order, there was no saving Tsar Nicholas II and the system that made him possible.
This is where liberal reformers like Musk find themselves. On the one hand, they are correct in fearing a rising tide of radicalism. He rightly sees that it is driven in part by the abuses of the ruling class, of which he is a part. The trouble is the system cannot withstand open debate. It cannot risk questioning the shibboleths that sustain the moral framework at the heart of the managerial system. In the end, reformers will be crushed by that old vice that has destroyed prior reformers.
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