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The West's false image of reality is collapsing

From the disastrous US presidential debate, to the exposure of Israel as a genocidal state, false narratives can no longer hold up against the pressures of reality
Protesters gather outside of a Biden rally in Madison, Wisconsin, on 5 July 2024 (Jim Vondruska/Getty Images/AFP)
Protesters gather outside of a Biden rally in Madison, Wisconsin, on 5 July 2024 (Jim Vondruska/Getty Images/AFP)

Dating back to tsarist Russia, the Potemkin village is a figure of speech for a representation of reality that is quite different from the truth. 

During the 1940s, Nazis and fascists applied this concept to conceal their crimes and misgovernance. For younger generations, the notion was probed in the excellent film The Truman Show.

For years, western democracies built their own Potemkin village to support policies and narratives that were divorced from reality. Today, they frame everything as an epic struggle between democracy and autocracy.  

But their Potemkin village is slowly collapsing. The signals seem unequivocal. 

The latest was the US Democratic Party’s sudden realisation - after the disastrous presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump - that the former is clearly, and increasingly, unfit to run in the November election.

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Biden’s apparent cognitive lapses have been a topic of public discussion for years, even as people inside and outside his administration, supported by complacent media, have concealed this fact. Now, their trick has now been discovered, and they are panicking. The Economist’s lead article last week was worth more than 1,000 words; its first sentence explicitly used the term “cover-up”. 

The misrepresentation of reality was mercilessly summarised in the Wall Street Journal: “They’ve deceived and gaslit us for four years, all in the name of ‘democracy’ … [The Democrats] evidently thought they could get away with promoting the fiction of Mr. Biden’s competence. In perpetuating that fiction they were also revealing their contempt for the voters and for democracy itself.”

Travesty of democracy

How is it now possible to criticise and smear the so-called populists when they point to a system committed to preserving its own power? The “usual suspects” will not be able to excuse themselves again by saying they must save US democracy from Trump, when what they are practising is a travesty of democracy. 

Those who are still able to discern can legitimately ask: who is in charge? The inescapable answer is a bunch of big donors and Washington bureaucrats. This is not liberal democracy, but, for all intents and purposes, hypocritical oligarchy.

An illiberal oligarchy has shaped a hyper-financialised economy, producing a staggering global debt and toxic inequalities. It is now in its final stage

Unfortunately, gaslighting and deception is not limited to the flawed American political system. In last month’s European Parliament elections, voters conveyed a clear message of discontent to their leaders. 

They were ignored by EU leaders, who hastily agreed to reconfirm Ursula von der Leyen as president of the European Commission. As if this was not enough, they selected Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas - whose declared aim is to break the Russian federation into different states, divided along ethnic lines - to be the high representative for foreign affairs. An endless conflict between the EU and Russia is all but ensured. 

With EU leaders barricaded inside their Potemkin village, the UK Labour Party last week won around 33 percent of the vote in national elections, with turnout at around 60 percent. The party has been assigned more than 60 percent of the seats in parliament. Under leader Keir Starmer, Labour received millions fewer votes than it did under the smeared (and later expelled by Starmer) Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 - and yet, the result was portrayed as a Labour landslide.

In France, a centre-left coalition that disagrees on everything but stopping the far right has smartly prevented Marine Le Pen’s National Rally from leading the next government. The result, for now, is a blocked parliament. How could the neoliberal party of President Emmanuel Macron rule alongside France Insoumise leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who asks for the recognition of Palestine?

Deception and gaslighting 

In Germany, the “traffic-light” coalition polls at around 30 percent, and it continues to carry out contradictory policies to simultaneously re-militarise and de-industrialise the country. In Italy, the far-right Brothers of Italy have succeeded in ruling only by bowing to the Potemkin village’s representation.

Meanwhile, after more than two years of false narratives on the effectiveness of sanctions against Russia, Europe has seen the World Bank upgrade Russia from an upper-middle-income country to a high-income country.

And after two years of catastrophic predictions on the existential threat that Russia poses to Europe, alongside massive increases to European military budgets - all of a sudden, buried in one sentence in a New York Times article, we find a US intelligence assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin never intended to expand the current conflict beyond Ukraine.

When it comes to deception and gaslighting, the Middle East region is no exception. Since 7 October, there has been only one narrative: Israel has the right to defend itself, period. Decades of ruthless Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands are ignored.  

Since its creation, Israel has never hesitated to defend itself in the most ruthless ways, and western democracies have never substantively objected. Now, the Israeli Potemkin village has also begun to collapse. Even western publics are realising that Israel’s “right to defend itself” is nothing but a license to carry out massively disproportionate vengeance. 

The obsessive representations of “the most moral army” in the world and “the only democracy in the Middle East” - allegedly struggling on our behalf against terrorism and Islamic extremism - are giving way to the realities of war crimes and genocide, with allegations reaching the world’s top legal institutions.

Growing challenges

As the military arm of the Potemkin village, Nato shows no hesitation in making the case for the necessity - or even the inevitability - of a direct confrontation with its rivals, even at the risk of a Third World War. Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, whose forthcoming departure will not provoke the shedding of tears, recently accused China of instigating the biggest conflict in Europe since the Second World War.

The Financial Times also published an enlightening backstory last week about the tense 2018 Nato summit, where Trump threatened to withdraw the US from the alliance if its other members did not raise their GDP percentage dedicated to military spending. Only tiny Luxembourg dared to challenge him, speaking volumes about the backbones of the other European Nato leaders.

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Since the 1980s, with the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions, traditional liberalism has given way to neoliberalism. An illiberal oligarchy has shaped a hyper-financialised economy, producing a staggering global debt and toxic inequalities. It is now in its final stage. 

Hopefully, after more than four decades, individualism and selfishness will give way to a more supportive structure in our societies, where the needs of the community prevail over those of individuals, regardless how powerful they are. Finance could finally return to serving the real economy, and not the other way around.

The poisoned mindset according to which oligarchical financial elites and high-tech CEOs exclusively own the skills and assets to manage this complex world are increasingly being challenged by US and European publics, and more widely by the Global South. This is, incidentally, the real reason why the managers of the West’s Potemkin village so loathe China, Russia and their ilk, who have rejected the fools-based international order.

Even before the great power competition, this is an intellectual debate. Palantir CEO Alex Karp recently commented on the campus protests against the Gaza genocide by saying: “If we lose the intellectual debate, [we] will not be able to deploy any army in the West, ever.” Why is a successful high-tech billionaire advocating for an unchallenged capability to deploy armies?

These people won the intellectual debate in the 1970s and 1980s, with tragic consequences. Let’s hope they do not win it again.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Marco Carnelos is a former Italian diplomat. He has been assigned to Somalia, Australia and the United Nations. He served in the foreign policy staff of three Italian prime ministers between 1995 and 2011. More recently he has been Middle East peace process coordinator special envoy for Syria for the Italian government and, until November 2017, Italy's ambassador to Iraq.
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