Untimely Observations

A Potemkin Village of Individual Delusions


When a Russian general wanted to fool an Empress, he constructed fake villages that showcased an idyllic life for their inhabitants and concealed the less pleasant actuality. Culturally, the world has accepted a Potemkin village as the concept that those in power can craft a fake reality in order to dissuade oversight.

However, we live in a postmodern age. Starting with Nietzsche’s critique of language in On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense, and accelerating through French interpretations of that idea, postmodernism is defined by the lack of a narrative. There is no one truth. There is no king. There is no culture. There is only personal whim and group need.

What makes this fascinating is that it induces us to create our own Potemkin villages. Like a good salesperson, the postmodern state tells us all about our “freedom.” This fills our heads with visions of joys, pleasures and distractions. We then do what we are told is necessary in order to achieve that end.

As time goes on, we realize this world is a Potemkin village in that it is false functionality that isn’t even needed. To include everyone at the office, we have divided jobs into tiny roles. Because we have made tons of regulations, so that anyone can just follow the instructions and do almost any job, it is a mind-numbing maze of the stuff that makes life least fun: paperwork, explaining difficult concepts to disinterested people, confrontation, waiting. How many of these jobs are necessary? How many could we combine into one, and send everyone else home? And yet money is freedom, so we all want them, which makes them pay less and thus, makes each one require less engagement from us.

What about our great society? Its art is a wasteland. Its culture is products for the distracted. While there are many good people out there, they appear as a minority while we circumnavigate the selfish, distracted, delusional, resentful and hopeless cases who wander around like ghosts. Where are the great joys of this life? Were all of those good things part of the Potemkin village?

Yes: they got us to look in the wrong places. Joy does not come from social interaction, nor from owning things. Work is not what other people tell you to do, but what you notice needs doing. Public behavior is not about what you can get, or get away with, but how to make sure you get what you give, and thus that you give enough to have goodwill wherever you go.

Once upon a time, we had a single society. Appearance fit reality because the purpose of that society was to tie parts of reality together using concepts of divinity and natural order. Then our egos rose up, and we decided that we wanted no order to rule over us, even a natural and detached one, and so we came up with a civilization based on every person doing what they want. We sold it to each other with Potemkin images, symbols, language and concepts.

It ended up being fake like all other such illusions. We believed because we wanted to, and now in the span of only two centuries we have seen our societies go from elegant to crass, our people from stout-hearted to craven and resentful, and our daily experience of life from real to a fake and meaningless repetition. Clearly, we outsmarted ourselves.