Matthew Effect versus Puppet Master
Below is an extract from Chapter Eleven. This comes from the section of the book about the flaws inherent in the Puppet Master, and sets out the third and fourth of four arguments against the myth. These are closely related.
Self-perpetuation (the Matthew Effect)
The third thing the Puppet Master fails to account for is the Matthew Effect. Otherwise known as ‘accumulated advantage’ or self-perpetuation, this describes the process where the rich get richer and the poor poorer. It’s attributed to the Gospel of Matthew:
“For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”
Self-perpetuation features in the small, everyday ways we exercise choice: buying an album by a band we’re familiar with; hiring the better-qualified applicant for a job; choosing to live near friends; allowing ourselves a trivial act of nepotism. It applies to bigger things too: inheritance being passed down the generations, or the disproportionate purchasing power of larger companies. These things repeat themselves, replicating and amplifying inequalities that already exist – especially if multiplied many times over, as others make the same choices.[i]
This is the main problem with unfettered capitalism: all things being equal, things become less equal. Most types of economy are subject to some level of accumulated advantage, of course. But the less planning or intervention there is, the more unfairness capitalism breeds. Over time, small differences become big ones; success breeds success and failure failure. A place like London evolves over a generation, into a mega-city – creating a gap with ‘the rest’ that feels insurmountable.[ii] The people doing well find it easier to continue doing well, by making the same mundane, vaguely selfish choices we all make. Property and poverty are handed down; wealth and deprivation repeat themselves; sand shifts along the riverbank, sweeping money into already deep pockets, exaggerating meanders, creating ox-bow lakes.[iii]
Globalisation magnifies the scale of this. Existing advantages are given a transnational dimension, reducing the potential for regulation and increasing the size of potential audiences. A modern tech entrepreneur accumulates and hoards advantage quicker than innovators of the past. A corporation can choose where they base themselves and sell to more markets. A house in London gains value at unparalleled speed, as the city becomes globally sought after.
These problems with capitalism are set against its ability to generate wealth from which everyone can benefit. So, the goal for social democrats is to keep a degree of capitalism, but to intervene regularly enough that inequalities are stymied.
But the key point is that self-perpetuation is emphatically not a case of an ugly watch in a beautiful field. It’s organic. Capitalism at its worst doesn’t impose rules from above; it removes them. What’s strange about the Puppet Master diagnosis is it delegitimises this sophisticated, structural critique of accumulated advantage, and instead imagines capitalism as an authored process. Thus, many on the populist left miss the most powerful argument against the system they’re criticising – that it’s chaotic, untameable and amoral.
Of course, there’s no question a few wealthy people try and use the influence money brings to secure their position. Those who do best out of capitalism are usually more sympathetic to it. And one consequence of unfettered free markets is that they create monopolies and cartels. But these things are marginal compared to the locomotive power of the system itself. Indeed, even if a beneficiary of capitalism wishes to take on the role of Puppet Master and wield influence, they remain beholden to the diametrically opposed commercial need to ‘give the people what they want’.
When we look at Piketty’s inequality charts sloping gradually upwards – or at London’s incremental rise at the expense of mill towns and seaside resorts – it seems clear that the chief problem is an economic free-for-all, not a hidden dictatorship.
For a more detailed example, let’s return to the media – specifically Rupert Murdoch. In the eyes of left-wingers, Murdoch embodies the Puppet Master. He’s seen as unaccountable, coercive, self-interested and right-wing. The left’s preferred description of Murdoch is as a media ‘baron’ – a despot crushing his serfs.
I’ve already argued against the assumption that figures like Murdoch are the shapers of opinion, as the Puppet Master claims. And we’ve seen how titles like The Sun, rather than brainwashing the public, change their editorial lines to reflect and magnify concerns. But let’s consider why Murdoch’s power exists in the first place.
The daily readership of The Sun is over a million. This compares favourably to The Morning Star, Britain’s only explicitly communist paper, which has 10,000 to 15,000 readers. While The Morning Star doesn’t have the marketing budget of The Sun, it’s available wherever the demand exists. The left-of-centre Mirror, meanwhile – which is probably a fairer comparison – still has only half The Sun’s readership.
No one is forced to buy The Sun or banned from buying other papers.[iv] The success of the Murdoch press isn’t down to manipulation of the populace. Rather, The Sun is a consumer product in a poorly regulated sector – the result of supply-and-demand economics. It emerged in the 1960s to fill a gap in the market left open by The Mirror, and established dominance thanks to a strong voice and identity. The paper reflected and reinforced the perspective of a new social tribe – upwardly mobile, working-class, C2, self-employed, non-unionised, socially conservative, ‘no nonsense’.
The Sun’s success self-perpetuates, creating a virtuous commercial circle. This at points led The Sun (and Murdoch) to claim they could swing elections. But this was based on the commercial advantage they’d accumulated. It was ultimately reliant, however obvious Murdoch’s right-wing, pro-Brexit leaning was, on readership. (The Times, for instance, also a Murdoch title, backed Remain, in recognition of its more pro-globalisation audience). Once papers cease to reflect how readers feel, their power departs. This may now be happening with The Sun, as circulations dwindle for all papers, and their core demographic shrinks.[v]
Attitudes to Murdoch ultimately show the misdiagnosis underlying the Puppet Master. Believers in the myth envisage The Sun as a mouthpiece for capitalist elites. In fact, the paper represents capitalism at its most reckless and volatile, driven only by consumers’ most immediate concerns. The law of accumulated advantage means it grows its brand, furthers its reach, and reinforces the existing state of affairs.
As explanations for how markets works and why they’re flawed, the idea of the Matthew Effect is at odds with the Puppet Master. The steady accumulation of profits through the forces of supply and demand? The elevation of global celebrities or brands or media outlets? The opening up of wealth gaps in an unregulated economy, thanks to a million unregulated choices and habits? These anarchic facets of capitalism are downplayed by those who re-imagine capitalism as an authored system.
In 1966, five years before John Lennon sung ‘Imagine’, The Beatles released ‘The Taxman’ on their album Revolver. The lyrics, written by George Harrison, reflect his frustration at taxes for the super-rich brought in by Harold Wilson’s government. The song adopts the persona of HMRC, confiscating hard-earned money. It represents the state as punitive, untrustworthy and unaccountable – a Puppet Master, in effect. “If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street… If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet… Don’t ask me what I want it for (Aahh Mr Wilson).”
Revolver is supposed to epitomise 1960s counter-culture and non-materialistic, anti-establishment values. Sung by individuals who’d consider themselves anything but conservative, it’s an insight into the Puppet Master’s fourth flaw: its capacity to undermine collective responsibility, by encouraging us to imagine we’re the oppressed underdog. The fable undermines notions of social contract and economic contribution, inviting us to be angry at the plutocracy above rather than check our privilege.
This is partly about basic hypocrisy. Given that they oppose elitism so vocally, it’s galling to see Diane Abbott or Shami Chakrabarti sending their children to private school, or Len McClusky borrow from his union to buy a £700,000 flat.
In reality, radicalism requires self-sacrifice – not just from elites but from everyone better-off than average. Academics point out the “bitter pill” that “to raise significant revenues in a progressive fashion would require not just higher taxes on the super-rich, but also higher marginal income tax rates for middle and upper earners.”[vi] Likewise, truly egalitarian policies require downward mobility as well as upward. In a socialist society many of the children of the left-wing middle-classes would end up in low-status jobs (albeit better paid, with better services, and more opportunity for their own children).
The Puppet Master myth pretends this isn’t true. It passes the buck ever-upwards. The 40% rail against the 10%, who rail against the 1%, who rail against the 0.1%.[vii] As one columnist puts it, being elite is “something that happens to other people.”[viii] Even George Harrison, a member of a band ‘more famous than God’, was able to imagine himself as the little guy, guarding his pennies from a mercenary overlord.
The collective responsibility flaw links to self-perpetuation. If we accept the self-perpetuation argument, we see inequality as the sum of a million tiny acts of myopia or self-interest – magnified and reinforced by a system which needs more intervention and redistribution. For this to change, those with above average privilege need to do less well; to accept collective responsibility. But if we don’t accept the self-perpetuation argument, we fall for the idea that we’re the downtrodden 99%, ruled by a Puppet Master who has done this to us.
This delusion appeals to our meritocratic instincts.[ix] Few today like to think they were ‘born with a silver spoon’, and those who’ve lived comfortable lives often pretend they haven’t. The Puppet Master, with its distinction between selfish, all-powerful 1%ers and oneself – the self-made 99%er – offers a way of re-framing things.
You’ll often, for example, hear a progressive graduate, who comes from the most privileged 20% or 30% of society, bemoan the Oxbridge dominance of their industry. They’re right to complain about this dominance, which is a disgrace. But less often do you see the same person reflect that they’re blocking the way of the 80% or 70% who are far more deprived. Likewise, sending your child to private school probably feels more acceptable if you imagine you’re the underdog – trying a give your offspring a fighting chance against a rigged system.
Again, we see the consequences of this with student fees. The two-fifths of our population who attend university view themselves, generally, as closer to the left. Many have been supportive of Corbyn’s Labour, with its anti-elite rhetoric. This group is also from the more privileged parts of society (and usually go on to be much higher earners). But often they don’t view themselves as such.[x]
In the 2017 election, Labour courted students, with its promise of free higher education. The undertones of the campaign invited middle-class students to believe they were among the many against the few, with tuition fees a Puppet Master imposition. This led to a manifesto which wasn’t actually very egalitarian – taking from the richest decile, but giving straight back to the second and third richest deciles.[xi] The Puppet Master myth encouraged society’s ‘haves’ to believe they were ‘have nots’ – instead of considering where resources were really needed.
This pattern appears elsewhere. Studies find that Corbyn fans are no more economically redistributive than supporters of centre left candidates. They do, however, believe they’re more left-wing. And they’re more drawn to anti-state, anti-establishment thinking.[xii] The consequence is that privileged believers in the Puppet Master shake their fists at the power above, and egalitarianism is ditched in favour of faux radicalism, creating a sort of left nimbyism. Those who receive inheritances can feel they’re underdogs. Gentrifiers in London indulge artisan tastes while railing against the ‘social cleansing’ of their area. Libertarianism takes the place of social justice.
This doesn’t mean that if you’ve got a privileged background or expensive tastes you forfeit the right to want a fairer society – nor that you should be judged by an impossible, puritanical standard. That sanctimony is part of what this essay is attacking. What it does mean, however, is that you require a more coherent and self-aware diagnosis than the Puppet Master. Blaming all-powerful elites cannot be your way around the realities of a radical agenda.
Would we really be willing to miss out on university to make way for a poorer person who deserved it more? Would we really forgo a foreign holiday, so our income could be invested in international aid? These are the questions of socialism. They would, of course, be starkest when asked of the super-rich. But they’re dilemmas for anyone with more to lose than to gain from a meaningful redistribution process. It doesn’t make us immoral to feel compromised by these questions. But the problem with the Puppet Master narrative is it distracts us from them altogether, diverting the blame elsewhere and creating a socialism which is low-cost and guilt-free.
[i] “Are cities more liberal? Of course: all your liberal mates moved to one,” writes Jonn Elledge, in exploring this idea at a geographical level. The claim is backed up by evidence that certain ‘Big Five’ personality types predominate in different areas – and that this is becoming more extreme over time. US research finds a significant political divides between transient and non-transient groups, meanwhile – with those who stayed in their home towns more likely to back Trump. Similarly, UK work by the Centre For Towns finds that smaller settlements have become older in the past four decades, and larger cities have become younger. These changes come, crucially, via a steady accumulation of everyday decisions.
[ii] Jonn Elledge describes the growth and over-funding of London in precisely these terms. He shows how, once the capital had gained a small advantage, it made economic sense to continue to focus investment on building on that advantage. His explanation represents a distilled form of the Matthew Effect, with a series of small, incremental, pragmatic choices slowly building the advantage of one city over the rest. See ‘Here’s why London gets so much of Britain’s transport funding’, City Metric, Jonn Elledge, 2015.
[iii] Inheritance tax is a particularly acute example, showing how an infinity of tiny choices rack up to create large inequalities. Raising inheritance tax significantly would be the right thing to do, but is immensely unpopular (described by the Fabians as “toxic”), and is also as well as hard to implement. It’s thus a prime example of an issue where there is no omnipotent Puppet Master, but rather a steadily growing advantage, driven by the day-to-day gut instincts of a large swathes of the population.
[iv] When coverage of Labour and the Tories is not weighted for circulation, the differences between the overall number of positive and negative stories is not particularly large. According to Loughborough University analysis, the 2017 election campaign saw two weeks where Corbyn received worse coverage than May, one week where May received worse coverage than Corbyn, and two weeks of level pegging. Once you weight for circulation, the gap gets bigger. But this is in itself an acknowledgement that consumer choices are a factor in the bias of newspapers.
[v] As Tony Blair points out, papers are operating in a shrinking market, hence they’re becoming “more partisan, more fragmented, only feeling [they] can survive by capturing a core constituency of support and keeping it in a permanent state of anger and grievance.”
[ix] As Piketty notes, “democratic modernity is founded on the belief that inequalities based on individual talent and effort are more justified than other inequalities – or, at any rate, we hope to be moving in that direction.” Now, despite the fact that inequality is moving back towards 19th Century levels, there’s still a strong cultural belief in merit and talent. Capital, p.241.
[x] Tim Bale suggests Labour joiners under Corbyn are predominantly “younger, more educated urbanites”. Everything from pro-Corbyn chants at Glastonbury to Labour’s surprise win in Kensington and Chelsea backs this up. Indeed, the segment Labour reached out to with its higher education policy was what Bale terms ‘educated left-behinds’, a group with reasonable prospects, who nevertheless feel a sense of “relative deprivation” compared to their expectations.
[xi] The 2017 manifesto prioritised the removal of student fees over unfreezing welfare. The IFS demonstrated the impact of this in the long-term on different income groups, with the highest earning future graduates benefiting the most.
[xii] Findings about Corbyn supporters’ overestimation of their own radicalism are drawn from the Party Membership Project. This compared pre-2015 Labour members with the post-2015 joiners who had led the Corbyn surge. Much the same goes for students. While they’re more culturally left-wing, those at university are actually less egalitarian than average on basic questions like the minimum wage, the top rate of tax and redistribution of wealth. See ‘Today’s students are left-wing, but less so on economic issues’, YouGov, Anna-Elizabeth Shakespeare, August 2015. Research into Sanders backers, meanwhile, revealed that they were less likely than Clinton supporters to favour the concrete policies that Sanders had offered (i.e. a higher minimum wage, increasing spending on healthcare or higher taxes).