Interviews with Volodymr Zelenskiy, Keir Starmer and Sam Harris strip away the illusion that we control our political system rather than it controls us
As westerners, we are deeply attached to the idea not only that we live in democracies but that our way of life is economically, socially and morally superior to that of citizens in authoritarian states.
Following on from these two assumptions is a further one – today held less consciously, for the obvious reason that it smacks a little too uncomfortably of racism – that we, as the people who fought for and created our democracies, are superior to those who did not.
Our largely unexamined premise is that modernity and democracy grew out of the particular circumstances of a western Enlightenment. A combination of rationality, a superior culture and richer public sensibility provided the soil in which democracy, uniquely, could flourish.
But what if that is nonsense? What if we have the story all wrong?
It was, after all, an earlier idea of an enlightened, rational west that justified colonialism – resource theft from the “dark continents” across the seas. Industrial processes that were the flowering of that enlightenment made feasible, for example, the slave trade: the design and building of huge vessels to carry humans as cargo, the development of technologies to help those ships ply precise routes across vast oceans, and the production of ever more powerful weapons to subjugate “inferior” dark-skinned peoples.
What if it was not a superior morality but callousness and self-interest that brought about democracy? We were simply first off the blocks in the race to strip the planet of its riches.
What if the constant influx of wealth plundered from around the globe provided greater latitude for western rulers to gradually indulge the demands of their publics for a slightly bigger share of the spoils, a slightly bigger voice in how they were ruled? Western elites found it simpler to buy domestic consent rather than exact it by force.
What if our democracies are built not on reason and virtue but greed and depravity?
Okay, you concede. But that was then, not now. Once ordinary people managed, through struggle, to win the vote, the nature of western societies changed. Out of privilege, cruelty and inhumanity was born a new democratic spirit of fellow feeling and accountability, and an appreciation of the rule of law. Foreign policy became more compassionate, ready to champion the underdog, the oppressed. The west helped to found international institutions and a respect for international law.
But what if that is a useful fiction too? What if democracy succeeded in the west chiefly because it proved an efficient way to manage the perceptions and expectations of the inhabitants of states that, through colonialism, had come to control and dominate the world’s resources?
We are told the story we need to hear. Unlike those living under authoritarian rule, we are implicated in the actions of our leaders. If they commit crimes, they do so in our name and with our implicit blessing. We must believe we are the Good Guys because to think otherwise – when we elect our rulers – would make us directly responsible for the suffering of others. In a world of depravity and selfishness, the right to vote does not so much liberate us as serve as an albatross on our necks.
Western elites – more so than their authoritarian counterparts – have understood the need to salve the public’s conscience, and the apparent willingness of the citizenry to collude in the deception. The narratives the public are exposed to are designed to avoid cognitive dissonance, a pricking of conscience, or a loss of faith.
Through the establishment media, our rulers tell us they have our interests at heart at home, and that they are protecting us from madmen and fanatics abroad. Domestic politics either reassures us of the establishment’s benevolence or encourages us to become bickering tribalists, pitted against each. Meanwhile, we are kept in a state of constant alarm over affairs out of sight, in foreign lands.
And if we want change, we are told, we can always vote for the other party, even if in practice nothing fundamentally alters whichever party is in power.
If that was not obvious already, it is becoming ever more so as the central narrative weakens. The crises of late capitalism – the resource depletion strangling growth, the acceleration of climate breakdown, the resulting slow-motion economic collapse – are signposts to a future the media finds it ever harder to distract us from.
As these crises deepen, our rulers look more clueless, more inept, whichever side of the political aisle they hail from. It is the politicians and billionaires who look distracted, incapable of addressing what seems evident to an ever expanding section of the public.
The cost-of-living crisis cannot be blamed on Russian president Vladimir Putin indefinitely. China cannot be held permanently responsible for the failure to do anything to mitigate environmental degradation. But at least for a little longer, pestilence and war – or the threat of war – still manage to claw at our attention.
As if in recognition of this problem, the more liberal parts of the establishment media have suddenly rediscovered “class war” and popular revolt. Not to champion it, of course, but as a warning, a clarion call to their counterparts in the conservative media to lobby governments – for which they are the public relations arm – to advance policies that will dissipate the mood of rebellion and return us to the dying status quo. The illusion of benevolent democracy must be maintained at all costs.
There are differences between open and closed societies, to be sure. One of the most notable is that, in the west, closed minds are not imposed on the populace, as they have to be in authoritarian regimes. Instead, they are cultivated and nurtured through consumption of the establishment media.
The strength of an open society has lain not in its openness. The west has been as closed to honest self-reflection as the most subjugated, inward-looking societies. Its superiority has been located in an unchallengeable faith that people in the west are free and uniquely well informed. It is such zealotry and self-righteousness that has empowered western states to pursue goals, good and bad alike, with such determination and efficiency.
Equally, the manufactured zeal of western publics has long made it all but impossible for most of us to see past the trees to the wood. It is why too many of us have accepted so credulously that we are spreading humanitarian goodwill abroad through our militaries’ bombing campaigns, and why we are so indignant when foreigners prove ungrateful to receive our incendiary offerings.
Awakening from slumber
For western governments, democracy works well – so long as the gods of growth can be placated. Which is why our recent wars have targeted, first, disobedient states that sit on the oil needed to lubricate our economies and, more recently, rival superpowers jostling for control of this rapidly diminishing resource.
As wars become harder for the west to win, as the gains are increasingly outweighed by the losses – as today’s rocketing fuel and food prices neatly illustrate – western publics are stirring from their slumber. Even the constant tweaking of Meta-Facebook and Google’s algorithms cannot quite keep at bay the harsh reality.
An interview with Volodymr Zelenskiy, the hero-president of “democratic” Ukraine, the leader so beloved of the western establishment media, is a case in point. He now admits that, throughout Moscow’s build-up of soldiers on Ukraine’s borders early this year, his government lied both to its own people and to western publics. Kyiv said Russia would not invade, even as Ukrainian officials knew full well it was about to.
Why did Zelenskiy ignore all the warning signs from Russia and lie to his people about invasion? Because, in the same way he deceived his people to maintain a cosy relationship with Nato and the EU, one designed to enrich and empower Ukraine’s elite, Nato deceived Zelenskiy that it would have Ukraine’s back if Russia attacked. Ukraine’s posturing, as Zelenskiy’s new interview helps clarify, was built on a double-layered deception. A “democratic” lie built on a “democratic” lie.
The claim that lying to Ukrainians was the right thing to do because the economy was supremely important – more important than their survival – should be familiar to us. After all, western governments engage in just such “noble lies” every time they tell us that endless economic growth is possible on a finite planet, and that the health of democratic societies depends on precisely this kind of unsustainable growth.
Their perverse order of priorities was briefly revealed when they bailed out the bankers whose greed and recklessness had brought about a near-implosion of the global financial system in 2008.
Afterwards, western governments no more pursued a rational and enlightened policy than they had beforehand: they refused to take control of the failed banks, just as earlier they had refused to place a limit on the bankers’ cupidity and the games of Russian roulette played with the nation’s wealth.
Instead, governments raided the public coffers on the basis of a “noble lie” that the rapacious, private banking sector was “too big to fail”. During the crisis there was not even a slowing down of what had amounted to decades of wealth redistribution from the poor to the elite. That trend has accelerated faster since.
In fact, the “noble lie” is to be found everywhere in the western system of rule. A clip has resurfaced of Sir Keir Starmer lying to TV audiences, and more especially to his own Labour party members, as he campaigned to win the leadership race to replace Jeremy Corbyn in the wake of the party’s defeat at the 2019 election. Starmer was painfully aware that Corbyn had been ruthlessly targeted by the establishment for sounding a little too serious about changing the status quo.
To win support from Labour members, Starmer made a series of promises that included nationalising major public utilities that had been disastrously privatised by the Conservatives. Once he had won the leadership race, he quickly abandoned those pledges and anything else that echoed Corbyn’s programme.
It is hard to be sure from Starmer’s evasiveness and blushes who he was more afraid of as he faced the TV cameras: the party faithful he was intentionally deceiving, or the billionaires who he presumably feared might misread his lie for an actual intention and seek to bring him down, as they had just done Corbyn. In the clip, Starmer looks caught in the headlights, trapped between the lie necessary to get ahead and the truth needed to remain at peace with the establishment.
Glitch in the system
Occasionally, the “noble lie” is inadvertently unmasked by its exponent – as it is here, by one of the west’s most celebrated and articulate rationalists. The American philosopher and popular podcaster Sam Harris presents himself, and is widely seen, as the poster-child for Enlightenment values. He is one of the most prominent and intractable opponents of religion, and a high-profile advocate of the thesis that the west is engaged in a civilisational war with Islam, one pitting secular rationalism against a dangerous religious fanaticism.
Harris proudly admits in this Youtube interview not only that Joe Biden had to win against incumbent Donald Trump in the 2020 election but that everything and anything had to be done to engineer that victory. Because the stakes were so important, Harris confides with an irrepressible grin, an elite conspiracy was required to hide from voters issues that might damage Biden during the campaign.
Most notoriously, the New York Post revealed that a laptop belonging to Joe Biden’s son Hunter had been hacked and that it contained evidence of corruption, including the family’s financial ties to Ukraine and China. Mention of the story was quickly crushed by social media outlets – not least so there would be no pressure to debate the significance of the allegations in the wider corporate media.
The story was effectively blacked out just as American voters were deciding which of the two candidates was best qualified to lead the country. It was interference in the electoral process by Silicon Valley far more gross than any supposed “Russian disinformation”.
Harris points out that Trump’s supporters saw these developments as “a leftwing conspiracy to deny the presidency to Donald Trump”. And he wholeheartedly and enthusiastically agrees: “Absolutely, it was. Absolutely. But it was warranted… It was a conspiracy out in the open.” (Note that both Trump’s followers and Harris mistake the neoliberal establishment for the “left”.)
As Harris concedes, he is not revealing anything new. Aside from Trump’s supporters, a small band of independent commentators, such as Glenn Greenwald, pointed out what was happening in real time. Greenwald was pushed out by his employer, The Intercept, a publication he had played a central part in founding, to silence him too.
Through his admission, Harris exposes the “noble lie” at the heart of western democracy. Yes, through struggle, the wider public eventually won for itself a vote. But establishment power adapted to guard itself from the popular will – or what is now termed “populism”. Only those prepared to maintain the system to the ruling elite’s best advantage were ever supposed to be elected.
That is why in the United States, the imperial hub of the democratic west, the choice is narrowly controlled by two large institutional parties, themselves dependent on wealthy donors. The public is supposed to choose between two politicians who have worked their way up through the ranks, and been vetted each step of the way, for their willingness to obey the logic of elite power.
Any glitch – a Corbyn who wishes to curb the power-establishment’s grossest privileges, or a Trump whose narcissistic impulses risk destabilising the status quo or discrediting it entirely – has to be dealt with outside this rigged democratic framework. Smear campaigns – fabulous conspiracy theories, whether about antisemitism or Russian collusion – are designed to bypass the democratic will and restore elite control.
Those glitches are not going away, however. They are symptoms of the system breaking down. Anger at uncontrollable rises in the cost of living, the growing menace of climate breakdown, the expansion of permanent wars to maintain access to the very resources fuelling the climate crisis will produce more glitches.
The “noble lie” cannot save democracy. A more urgent question is whether the democracies we have will be worth saving.