• Chris Clarke

Why we want to see the strings...

Updated: Dec 28, 2018

The below extract comes from Chapter Nine. It looks to understand why the Puppet Master is an attractive belief system for so many, not just on the populist left, but in many parts of society. It sets out four potential factors.

The Puppet Master is an article of faith for many on the populist left, and has a strong appeal beyond this. Several instincts draw people to the myth.

Instinct to speak for the masses

The first explanation is the desire to feel you’re backed by ‘the people’. Majority support is something all politicians and activists feel they have at points. In some cases, they claim this with good reason. But in others it’s a tactic to build momentum, or just wishful thinking. This instinct to speak for the masses has a solid psychological foundation. The false consensus bias, for instance, based on 1977 research, concluded that we “systematically and egocentrically” assume our own choices chime with others’.[i]

Populist movements rely on this belief far more. They often emerge from the fringes by latching on to widespread fears, claiming to be the only ones who care about them – and to speak for the ordinary, silent majority in doing so. This is despite being in electoral minorities and facing opposition from large parts of the population. They use the idea of an undemocratic, inauthentic elite to make this jump.

Research by Amsterdam University finds that a willingness to believe obvious answers are suppressed by the establishment is clustered at the political extremes, from where populism usually originates. The study’s author, Jan-Willem van Prooijen, writes that[ii]

Our findings establish a link between political extremism and a general susceptibility to conspiracy beliefs. Although the extreme left may sometimes endorse different conspiracy theories (e.g. about capitalism) than the extreme right (e.g. about science or immigration), both extremes share a conspiratorial mind-set, as reflected in a deep-rooted distrust of societal leaders, institutions, and other groups.

This correlation reflects an instinct to speak for the masses which has been frustrated. Those on the fringes feel their views are incontrovertibly in the interests of the population. And yet democracy exposes the lack of appetite for their ideas.[iii]

This creates a cognitive dissonance, making the idea of a far-sighted Puppet Master appealing. It represents an alternative explanation, which says the rest of the population subconsciously agree, but have been brainwashed or silenced. The myth lets you satisfy the instinct to speak for the masses, without taking the steps required to broaden support.

This doesn’t mean we should always trust the wisdom of crowds, or that fringe opinions are substantively wrong. It just means they’re wrong in their Puppet Master explanation of why their arguments haven’t become government policy. It requires them to think harder about whether their policies are practical, or how they can persuade the public.

My opinion, for instance, is that private education is harmful. I’d never send my child to a private school, and would favour complete abolition. However, I accept that there’s a spectrum of opinion, which I’m at the far end of. Even if many ordinary people say they dislike private schools, they’d often send their children there if they got the chance (or support others’ right to do so) – based on values differences, or on ideas about parenthood and free choice. And this is before you get into the practical challenges of abolition. So, I don’t think private schools’ continued existence is because elites have crushed the people’s will – even if I still think I’m right that we should get rid of them.

Puppet Master beliefs are attractive to anyone whose ideas are unpopular. However, the instinct to speak for the masses is especially seductive for the left – which sees itself, historically, as being on the side of the majority. Instances where elites are unseated by the people – such as the French and Russian revolutions – are viewed as left-wing events. In particular, we on the left are uncomfortable with being at odds with what the working-classes want (hence the patronising idea that poorer people vote for right-wing parties as a result of a ‘false consciousness’).

This means we often rely on Puppet Master explanations, despite the conditions being very different to 1789 or 1918. Even though we’re living in a sophisticated democracy with a complex class structure (as opposed to a despotic monarchy or a society where only a handful can vote), the instinct to unanimously rise up against an overlord remains attractive.[iv]

Instinct to blame ‘the system’

The second draw of the Puppet Master is the instinct to blame ‘the system’. This is the left’s conflation of a desire to ‘blame society’ with the desire to blame a Puppet Master who allegedly runs it.

As mentioned, one distinction between left and right is between ‘systemic’ and ‘direct’ reasoning. Systemic thinkers blame wider, structural factors; direct thinkers hold individuals culpable. The former therefore tends to say problems are ‘society’s fault’, subscribing to John Locke’s ‘blank slate’ analysis, and emphasising nurture over nature. This is central to why many left-wingers – myself included – are drawn to progressive politics. The fact, for example, that prisoners are disproportionately from certain socioeconomic groups suggests that life chances definitively alter where people end up.[v]

However, it’s a short journey from believing issues tend to be ‘society’s fault’ to believing they’re ‘the fault of those who run society’. The preference for structural explanations can mutate, in the hands of populists, into the assumption that every social problem is engineered. This transgression is what I mean by the instinct to blame ‘the system’. Populists often slip from blaming our socioeconomic structure to blaming the plutocracy said to be controlling it.

An example of this is the analysis of Noam Chomsky, an anarcho-syndicalist with a campus following. Central to Chomsky’s writing is the idea that people are receptacles for ‘propaganda’ – with their positive impulses massaged into acquiescence by the powerful. In his 1988 book on the topic, Manufactured Consent, he portrays governments spoon-feeding their corporate agendas to populations who swallow them whole.[vi]

According to Chomsky, “powerful societal interests” successfully “influence the public in the desired direction.” They “fix” the policies we take for granted, and “shape and constrain” news output. They do this through the “selection” of “right-thinking personnel” and the “provision of experts to confirm the official slant.” They “allow some measure of dissent from journalists” and even plant occasional negative stories about themselves (which Chomsky calls “flak”) to disguise their pre-decided goals.[vii]

Keen not to blame individuals, Chomsky suggests journalists are decent people, oblivious to their role in drop-feeding propaganda. Yet his language constantly stresses wilful intent. Someone, after all, must be ‘manufacturing’ the consent. And the less people are actually involved – with even senior journalists exonerated – the more ingenious the clique who are responsible must be.

In doing this, Chomsky doesn’t identify a ‘systemic’ explanation for how the media works. Rather, he encourages the ‘direct’ idea of a far-sighted elite, injecting their ideology into a passive society. Indeed, underpinning Chomsky’s work is the notion that Locke’s blank slate provides a blank canvass, onto which ‘elites’ project their agenda. His central idea is that humans have creative, cooperative latent impulses. But, as things stand, these impulses are instead shaped by ‘the powerful’.

‘The powerful’ are the only ones immune to external influence. They’re not blank slates, onto whom society has also imprinted a set of values. Nor do they have creative, cooperative impulses. They simply prey on the malleability of everyone else. Or, if these elites are influenced by surroundings, then the difference between how they’ve turned out (ruthless, autonomous, hyper-competent) and how everyone else has (gullible, incurious, decent) is staggering.

Chomsky’s assessment is towards the thicker end of the Puppet Master wedge. But it shows how the instinct to blame ‘the system’ inadvertently conflates a complex, systemic analysis (‘we’re all more heavily influenced by our environment than we realise’) with a direct, culprit-driven one (‘the masses are influenced by their environment, and are preyed upon by an elite which is not’).

Instinct to deconstruct

The instinct to deconstruct describes the left populist emphasis on critique. This originates from academia and from forms of post-materialism.[viii]

Academics tend to gravitate towards left-liberalism[ix] as do students.[x] This manifests itself in university towns having, some say, become Labour’s new “heartlands.”[xi] And it raises the question of why intellectualism and liberal leftism go together? It is in artistic and humanities fields like Drama and English where the slant is by far the strongest. So, regardless of whether you argue that left-wingers have more logical arguments – which I do – the idea that intellectuals are more left-wing because they’re more scientific doesn’t explain the phenomenon.

Part of the reason comes, again, from the tendency towards systemic causation. Someone drawn to life as a history professor, for instance, would be drawn to systemic analyses.

But beyond this there’s a separate factor, which is the instinct to deconstruct. This is especially common in arts subjects. These disciplines build less on evidence or existing consensuses. Rather, they reward the independent thought of those who use creative arguments to disrupt the mainstream view. This crops up most in the fields most predisposed to be left liberal, like English and Philosophy – which often seek unconventional readings, sometimes using paradigms like new wave feminism, Marxism, post-colonialism, queer theory or psychoanalysis.

These critical theories assume that authors impose the narratives of the powerful, or that history has been told by the victors. Intellectuals take pride in seeing through these narratives, and this instinct to deconstruct leads them not only to question received wisdom, but to play an important political role. Suspicion of the mainstream has at points caused an educated avant-garde to oppose injustices which others accepted, such as during the civil rights process.

Yet this comes with drawbacks. The instinct to deconstruct takes more pride in subverting than in finding alternatives; it isn’t, by definition, constructive. Viewing society as a ‘construct’ or the public mood as a ‘state apparatus’ can lead us away from the truth, converging with Puppet Master thinking. When applied to everyday politics, this can mean society is seen as an ‘authored’ object to be critiqued, with governments regarded as omnipotent, carrying the same autonomy over their work as a Flaubert or Dickens.

Of course, there’s more to politics than achievable, costed recommendations. Re-examining assumptions is key. But the instinct to deconstruct must itself be interrogated. Conspiracy theories correspond with “lower analytic thinking and … greater intuitive thinking,”[xii] and if the desire to ‘see the strings’ morphs into Puppet Master thinking for its own sake, it loses its ability to probe. It ends up as little more than a way to affirm we’re part of a critical vanguard, set apart from the ‘sheeple’ who think what they’re told.[xiii]

Developed nations tend to be moving towards the post-materialist notion of “a society in which ideas count for more than money.”[xiv] Cultural capital and the ability to critique will come with increasing social value in the future. The challenge is to create questioning societies, but ones which remain open-minded – rather than being guided by an alternative, Puppet Master orthodoxy.

Instinct to see a pattern

The final factor is the human willingness to read intent and connection into events.[xv] When it comes to politics we’re all inclined to pick out a more coherent pattern of cause and effect than exists; to imagine, as Douglas Jay put it, a Prime Minister “pulling great levers, issuing edicts, and shaping events.”

The aforementioned work by Amsterdam University describes conspiracy theories as “comprehensive explanations for distressing events that are hard to make sense of otherwise.”[xvi] Others have found that an ‘intentionality bias’ – a view that bad things are done deliberately – is primal to humans.[xvii] It’s harder to see past these instincts than to embrace them and join the hunt for culprits.[xviii]

During extreme adversity, this is acute. Andrew O’Hagan’s book-length post-mortem of the Grenfell Fire, The Tower, describes how pervasive narratives of guilt were after tragedy:[xix]

All over the community, to believe the official figures was to align oneself with the obvious criminals. ‘Accident’ was a banned word: more than anything people needed to believe there had been a cover-up. A final body count could not be countenanced because it would place a limit on the scale of the outrage.

This went way beyond the victims. High profile left populists alleged a cover-up, or claimed that the fire was deliberate[xx] – a particularly reckless instance of Puppet Master thinking.

Another example of the instinct to see a pattern is the ‘omission bias’ – the tendency to judge harmful actions more harshly than harmful inactions.[xxi] For governments, the reality is that inaction is a form of action. But Puppet Master believers assume leaders do harm for no reason – rather than that they choose the negative consequences of doing something over the negative consequences of doing nothing.[xxii] This is especially true when the omission bias joins forces with another aspect of cognition, the ‘Nirvana fallacy’; this is the tendency to idealise a single, perfect solution – with any outcome that falls short blamed on malevolence.[xxiii]

There are countless other biases. ‘Pareidolia’ means we see shapes where none exists. The ‘clustering illusion’ means we identify patterns in random sequences. The ‘illusory correlation’ makes us assume things are linked. The ‘anecdotal fallacy’ leads us to extrapolate from a single event.

These demonstrate our brains’ aversion to randomness. They explain why, for example, onlookers see Margaret Hodge’s daughter working for the BBC, link this to Hodge’s criticism of Corbyn, and conclude that the system’s rigged.

Even at a milder level, this weaves venality into each imperfect fudge. PFI under Labour was an uneasy – perhaps flawed – compromise, to satisfy a population who wanted “Swedish-quality public services for American levels of taxation.”[xxiv] But the instinct to see a pattern connects several extra dots – e.g. the fact Alan Milburn consulted for a private health company many years after – to interpret PFI as cynical profiteering.

Most voters, regardless of their leaning, assume a greater level of agency from politicians than exists. This is partly because this is how it’s presented to them: those in office take full credit for successes, claiming they were part of a clear, coordinated plan; opponents present all errors as deliberate and gratuitous.

Populists, though, are usually more susceptible because, for all the reasons identified, they rarely make it into government. Hence, they never have their instinct to see a pattern tempered by the arbitrary and incoherent reality of office.


[i] This is based on a 1977 study which concluded that participants’ “estimates of deviance and normalcy … are systematically and egocentrically biased in accord with [their] own behavioural choices.” ‘The “False Consensus Effect”: An Egocentric Bias in Social Perception and Attribution Processes’, Lee Ross, David Greene, and Pamela House, Stanford University, 1976.

[ii] Van Prooijen adds: “we asked to what extent participants believe that societal problems could, in principle, be easily solved… Both extremes believed more strongly in simple political solutions than moderates did.” ‘Voters on the extreme left and right are far more likely to believe in conspiracy theories’, Jan-Willem van Prooijen, LSE Politics and Policy blog, February 2015.

[iii] One 2016 study reports that those who feel socially excluded or rejected are more likely to be drawn to conspiracies and superstitious beliefs – a finding with implications for minority political interests. ‘The dark side of meaning-making: How social exclusion leads to superstitious thinking’, Damaris Graeupner and Alin Coman, Department of Psychology, Princeton University, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 69, March 2017, Pages 218–222.

[iv] It is no surprise that The Occupy Movement, one of the most significant left-wing protest movement in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, reverted by instinct to this language, adopting the slogan ‘We are the 99%’.

[v] The same goes for imbalances at the top of society – e.g. the fact 70% of judges are private school educated, compared to 7% of the population. Unless you believe this is the result of the inherent intellectual superiority of the upper-classes, you’re forced to conclude that circumstances and socio-economic structures are a key determinant. This leads to the conclusion that many problems can be solved through intervention in – and reform of – that system, so as to deliver more equal rights and opportunities, and fairer outcomes.

[vi] Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward S Herman, Noam Chomsky, 1988, p.1.

[vii] Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, p.xi-xii.

[viii] Macron strikingly claims that “post-modernism was the worst thing that could have happened to our democracy,” for example. Others also blame the rise in contemporary left populism post-modernism, and on its undermining of the Enlightenment focus on reason and logic.

[ix] There isn’t a great deal of UK data on this, but studies suggest the majority of US academics define themselves as ‘liberals’. The disparity is as high as 72% on the left and 15% on the right, according to a 2005 report. ‘College Faculties A Most Liberal Lot, Study Finds’, Howard Kurtz, Washington Post, March 2015. See also ‘Professors moved left since 1990s, rest of country did not’, Sam Abrams, Hetrodox Academy, January 2016.

[x] ‘College students’ commitment to activism, civic engagement reach all-time highs’, UCLA, February 2016.

[xi] ‘Rebuilding Labour Britain’, Jonathan Rutherford, Fabian Review, January 2016.

[xii] ‘Analytic thinking reduces belief in conspiracy theories’, V Swami, M Voracek, S Stieger, U S Tran and A Furnham, Cognition, Volume 133, Issue 3, December 2014, Pages 572-585.

[xiii] As Labour commentator James Bloodworth puts it, conspiracy theories are “a pale imitation of critical thinking.” Research, meanwhile, finds that conspiracy theories are often attractive because they provide a way for people to feel special.

[xiv] ‘Materialism and post-materialism’, Our World In Data.

[xv] “People need to detect existing patterns in order to function well in their physical and social environment; however, this process also leads them to sometimes detect patterns in chaotic or randomly generated stimuli.” ‘Connecting the dots: Illusory pattern perception predicts belief in conspiracies and the supernatural’, Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Karen M. Douglas, Clara De Inocencio, Universiteit Amsterdam, Department of Experimental and Applied Psychology, August 2017, p.332.

[xvi] ‘Voters on the extreme left and right are far more likely to believe in conspiracy theories’, Jan-Willem van Prooijen, LSE Politics and Policy blog, February 2015.

[xvii] ‘It’s no accident: Our bias for intentional explanations’, Evelyn Rosset, Cognition, Volume 108, Issue 3, September 2008, p.771-780.

[xviii] An everyday example of this process in action is the fact that drunk people are more likely than sober people to assume someone who knocks into them has done so deliberately.

[xix] The Tower, IV. The Narrative, Andrew O'Hagan, LRB, 2018.

[xx] Lily Allen advanced the idea that the true numbers killed in the Grenfell disaster was being covered up. “It might be a conspiracy, but it’s about corruption,” she said, adding that numbers were being covered up “for a reason.”

[xxi] Research finds, for example, a “bias to favour omissions that cause harm” over “commissions” that cause the same level of damage. Omission and commission in judgment and choice, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Spranca, M., Minsk, E., & Baron, J. (1991). 27, p.76-105. This relates to a wider debate about the merits of ‘doing’ versus ‘allowing’ harm.

[xxii] Academic Norman Geras, a defender of the Iraq War, refers to this as the “two modes of opposing the war”: “Some who opposed the war did so, explicitly, in an all-things-considered spirit, allowing something to the reasons of those who supported it – and in particular to the reason so important to many of us, namely, that to see off a regime that had so bloodily oppressed its own people for so long would be no bad thing – but believing that a combination of the reasons stacked against the war was overriding. But others who opposed the war did not do this. They took, rather…the route of ‘all about oil’, and of…democracy-as-mere-pretext, and of ‘Bush’s poodle’, and of the anti-war view as being ‘silenced’, and of ‘we marched but you didn't listen’… Anything and everything, in short, which might conceal the circumstance that, whatever could be said against the war, there was one glaring point on the other side of the scale: the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein.”

[xxiii] The ‘Nirvana fallacy’ is a psychological phenomenon, described by pluralist writer Ian Leslie as being common among populist movements. It’s based on a single, ideal scenario, which “stops you from doing the hard, gritty thinking about how to improve the world we have… Faced with a series of complex, imperfect options, you overleap them to reach the sunlit uplands of an ideal scenario.”

[xxiv] ‘Wanted: a tax and spend policy that makes sense’, Patrick Diamond, The Guardian, 2014.