The ‘Noble Lie’ of a Democratic West

Interviews with Volodymr Zelensky, Keir Starmer and Sam Harris strip away the illusion that we control our political system, writes Jonathan Cook.

Approaching Big Ben and the House of Parliament, London. (PxFuel)

By Jonathan Cook

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.

The British Museum’s Enlightenment Room. (Victuallers, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

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?

Consciences Salved

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.

Clueless Leaders

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.

There are two reasons that lie was necessary.

Zelensky’s government was elected on a platform promising to heal a long-running civil war with ethnic Russian communities in Ukraine’s east that served as a major trigger for Moscow’s invasion.

Nonetheless, Zelensky soon jettisoned his mandate. He stepped up provocations by continuing the crackdown on the rights of Russian speakers and their political parties, and by appealing to NATO to supply Ukraine with nuclear weapons. In continuing the Ukrainian establishment’s flirtation with the West, he inflamed a situation that could lead only to greater confrontation and eventually war.

But the other lie, the one he has now partly conceded, is no less ugly. He preferred that his population remain ignorant of the threat of war both so Kyiv would not come under pressure to change course and, as he says in the interview, so Ukraine’s economy would not suffer as people evacuated to safer areas and investors pulled out their money.

The ‘Noble Lie’

The interview has gained no traction with the Western media – and for good reason. In the interview, Zelensky has publicly revived the idea of the “noble lie.”

The perversity of his claim about saving Ukraine’s economy should be instantly obvious. Its economy lies in ruins following Russia’s invasion. Through his provocations, Zelensky did not stop Russia from seizing Ukraine’s industrial heartlands in the east. He ensured it.

The only way he could have staved off Moscow’s attack — as both he and NATO knew — was to have abandoned his public quest to incorporate Ukraine into the Western military bloc. It was that very venture, after all, that thrust Ukraine deep into civil war in the first place. Neutrality for Ukraine was the only rational policy a Ukrainian elite, concerned about the welfare of ordinary Ukrainians, could have pursued. Nonetheless, Kyiv conspired with NATO in a game of “poke the bear.”

Why did Zelensky 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 E.U., one designed to enrich and empower Ukraine’s elite, NATO deceived Zelensky that it would have Ukraine’s back if Russia attacked. Ukraine’s posturing, as Zelensky’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 President 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 anti-Semitism 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.

Jonathan Cook is an award-winning British journalist. He was based in Nazareth, Israel, for 20 years. He returned to the U.K. in 2021.He is the author of three books on the Israel-Palestine conflict: Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish State (2006), Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (2008) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (2008). If you appreciate his articles, please consider offering your financial support.

This article is from the author’s blog, Jonathan

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

18 comments for “The ‘Noble Lie’ of a Democratic West

  1. Ian Stevenson
    August 31, 2022 at 18:37

    The question is that Zelensky ‘knew’ Russia would attack. I looked at a number of commentators early this year who thought Russia would not attack. They said Putin would not want to try to rule a resentful country of 40 million, They had the experience of Afghanistan and of the Warsaw pact. They said Russia would alienate the world by launching an invasion.
    Putin said he would not invade.
    There were Ukrainians who told Synder, the American scholar, that an attack was unavoidable. In the week before the Biden white House forecast invasion. I was sceptical and wondered how he would explain away the non-invasion.
    But invade he did. From diverse sources., clearly he was not expecting a long campaign either .
    Was the stalling of the campaign due to preparation ( they were pretty sure about an attack) or because they had enough forces to hold up an over confident invasion.
    So was Zelensky doing what a number of leaders have done -trying to pretend all is well, not to panic the population and make a post facto justification?
    The other question is -was it a limited objective. The Donbas region and coastal area? Or most of the country? Putin now seems to be saying, it was always a limited operation. OTOH the Russian media was saying Ukraine was now ‘back home’ and would be de-Nazified and new rulers appointed.
    As always with history we shall get closer to the answers with time.

  2. August 31, 2022 at 10:48

    An interesting article, although it buys in to the pejorative description of governments that oppose neoliberalism imposed through neoconservatism, referring to them as authoritarian or totalitarian, when almost all really authoritarian/totalitarian governments (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the UAE, etc.) are firmly in the so-called, “democratic” camp. But for that, the conclusions and analysis seems right on point.

  3. Guy St Hilaire
    August 31, 2022 at 08:42

    A well thought out explanation of what has happened to democratic principles.We have reached a time when everything and anything is permissible in order to win .The corruption is seething and is now obvious to anyone that cares to look .
    I do believe that the phrase that the emperor has no clothes ,has never been more appropriate and I weep for the future should a large part of humanity remain asleep.

  4. Peter Loeb
    August 31, 2022 at 07:51

    A brilliant article.

    That America is a “democracy” is a sacred illusion, a fiction. “Democracy” was opposed in the 18th
    century America as Blacks and Indians were excluded from all rights. “Democracy” is always used as a rhetorical
    justification for everything we (and the “democratic societies”) do. It is the feeling of superiority that this
    provides for all we do as Cook maintains above. It was the primary reason expressed by FDR for our
    militarization in his speech of May 16 1940. It and the presumption that there is a “free people” were
    the cornerstone of President Truman’s address and the Truman Doctrine of 1947. Of course, people
    who live in “democracies” —you and me— are superior in every way to everyone else!

  5. John Danziger
    August 31, 2022 at 05:58

    Clarifications such as these should be welcomed. J

  6. John Danziger
    August 31, 2022 at 05:49

    Penetrating and insightful. J

  7. John Speier
    August 31, 2022 at 02:03

    Mr Cook this is a masterful encapsulation of the political and power dynamics here in the US and UK. The revolution commensurate to save the earth’s biome and human population suffers under open war and lies, let alone what we can anticipate when the next Bernie or Jeremy arises. Thank you.

  8. August 30, 2022 at 18:42

    Superb, but it was not necessary to link the current examples of egregious corruption and imperial capitalist collapse with the entire project of western civilization, enlightenment, science, rationality, and theoretical democracy.

    That broader criticism diverts from the power of the examples – especially the Zelenski statements – and misses the collapsing nature of the current moment (a downward trend logically related to a superior prior position) and may not be true.

  9. Afdal
    August 30, 2022 at 18:03

    Despite this article’s attempt at the start to trace the origin of Western democracy, it still missed a critical piece of history. The Ignoble Lie is that elections have anything to do with democracy in the first place. For over two millennia since the death of Aristotle and the end of the Greek Classical period all the way up into the Renaissance, “democracy” was understood to mean a government by random lot. Conversely, electing public officials was considered a fundamentally oligarchic institution. You can look all the way back to some of the earliest dictionaries in Europe to still find an echo of this understanding. In fact, it was figures in the American Revolution and French Revolution and early figures in their new states that played a critical role in distorting and inverting the meaning of this word to stand for its historic opposite today. The idea that elections are democratic is the most heinous political lie of the last couple centuries and every time you begin a discussion about democracy you are doing yourself a disservice if you begin from that principle.

  10. Jeff Harrison
    August 30, 2022 at 16:29

    There seems to be a common misconception that the definition of a democracy is one where you vote for your government. Not so. In an oligarchy, you vote for your government but as was done in Venice, one simply controlled what choices you had. Only oligarchs on the ballot? No problem, you can democratically elect an oligarch. Pretty much the same is true in many theocracies. Iran for example has a very lively democracy but you can only vote for theocrats.

  11. BP
    August 30, 2022 at 16:28

    Democracy arose from reaction to the abuses of capitalism, not because of capitalism.
    This is well described in Fabian Scheidler’s book “The End of the Megamachine: A Brief History of a Failing Civilization”.
    An absolutely fantastic book.
    Democracy came about because of Marx’s ideas of class struggle. Ironic isn’t it?
    Now the very west that is so proud of these ideals have been leading the effort to reverse them.
    How do new ideas or the truth get through when all of our effort is devoted to war and controlling people’s thoughts?

  12. Arkady Bogdanov
    August 30, 2022 at 16:18

    Wait. When did we get democracy?

  13. August 30, 2022 at 15:53

    This is a good article save not putting “democracies” and “democracy” in quotes. This is because I can’t think of a single democracy in this world and referring to the US or any European nation as one seems to me to indicate an ignorance of history, especially the monetary history, the story of power. I guess it depends on how one defines democracy but I define it as a system of government in which every citizen is equitably represented in making public policy. We not only have no democracies, we have no sovereign nations. We are ruled by a global financial dictatorship that controls the money and banking systems. The politically active ‘power elite’ are the executive arm of the ‘ruling class’, which dominates public policy using the power of money. We live in a plutocracy. We must change the money system to a public function serving the general welfare if we want democracy. By doing that we can get the debt parasite of capitalism off of our backs. The Greeks acknowledged 10 centuries before the CE that the most vital prerogative of democratic self-governance was to issue the money. It should not be a private for-profit business, especially one that we never acknowledge or recognize or challenge! Instead we focus on the symptoms, never the disease.

    • September 2, 2022 at 10:04

      Exactly right! To see a viable alternative to a monetary system, please see the work of Jacque Fresco and The Venus Project. hxxp://

  14. IJ Scambling
    August 30, 2022 at 15:27

    “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.”)”

    “The noble lie” is palatable to those who believe in their innate superiority and right to dictate to others, and it follows that “the righteous cause” obviates a need for honesty or serious questioning. Also recall, “the least untruthful truth” (James Clapper, former Director of the NSA).

  15. John Smith
    August 30, 2022 at 14:22

    This article makes the notable misassumption that the leaders of our governments are in fact truly elected by their respected citizenry when, as is abundantly documented, more often than not their winning of office is obtained either through bribery and/or vote manipulation.

  16. Valerie
    August 30, 2022 at 13:44

    We don’t know the half of it all, really. The sad thing is, we have no say either.

  17. Henry Smith
    August 30, 2022 at 13:22

    Excellent article – sadly and depressingly all true.
    Democracy has served our oppressors well !!

Comments are closed.