Society and Culture

“Yet you participate in society”: in defence of “Mr Gotcha”

When this blog was launched over a decade ago, most of my articles were rebuttals of the latest nonsense I had read in the Guardian or the Independent. Those publications are, unfortunately, still around, and they are still just as wrong about most things and just as annoying as they were then, but they have since lost some relative importance. Nowadays, terrible ideas (and occasionally, good ones too) are just as likely to spread via social media, not least in the form of memes.

One of the most popular memes – and one which every reader who has some exposure to social media will have come across – is “Mr Gotcha”:

It is an unusual meme. Every other meme I can think of is readily customisable, and applicable to a wide range of scenarios – that is the whole point of them. Memes are like Rorschach Tests. Different people see different things in the same meme template. We can turn them into whatever reflects our obsessions, perceptions, and judgements. That is why they spread so easily, and why they are so easily transferable from country to country.

The Mr Gotcha meme is usually just copied and pasted, rather than customised. That is because it is only applicable to a fairly narrow range of circumstances (which makes it all the more remarkable that it pops up so often). It comes up when somebody criticises a system, organisation, or cultural practice that they are themselves somehow involved in, and when an opponent responds by holding that involvement against them, rather than addressing the substance of the critique.

In practice, the use of the Mr Gotcha meme is even narrower than that. I usually only see it when somebody posts some anti-capitalist cliché, and an opponent posts a reply along the lines of “Bet you posted that on an iPhone”, or “Posted on your new Apple MacBook, eh?”. The point of the “Mr Gotcha” meme is to make that kind of response look stupid, and ridiculous. (Or “cringe”, in modern parlance. How do you do, fellow kids?)

The idea is not completely new. There is an old West German version of the Mr Gotcha meme, which long predates memes, social media, or even the internet: “Geh doch rüber!” (Roughly “Why don’t you just move over there?”, where “over there” refers to the GDR.) Geh doch rüber was a common conservative response to left-wing criticism of West German conditions: if you don’t like it here, why don’t you just move over to the other side? At some point, left-wingers started to use that phrase ironically, to make the conservative critique sound silly, and embarrassing.

The “Mr Gotcha” meme has its uses. You can participate in X, and still raise a perfectly valid critique of X. Maybe you do not know how to fully extricate yourself from X, maybe unilateral withdrawal from X is not realistically feasible or sensible, or maybe you really just want to “improve X somewhat”. Or maybe you really are being inconsistent by participating in X, but even then, that does not automatically invalidate your critique of it.

More to the point, it is not per se hypocritical for a socialist to enjoy the fruits of capitalism. We try to make the best of the system we live in, whether we approve of that system or not. Most Soviet dissidents drove in state-produced cars, lived in state-provided housing, worked for the state, and got their groceries from a state-owned retailer. Was that hypocritical of them? (“Yet you participate in socialism. Curious! I am very intelligent.”) Of course not. What else should they have done?

Socialists do not accept the idea that iPhones, notebooks and other modern amenities are products of “capitalism”. They would argue that those products are made by workers, not “capitalism”, and that those workers would continue to make them if the company owners were expropriated. In Marxist mythology, company owners do not contribute anything useful to the production process. They just sit there, and collect the profits.

They assume, in other words, that access to modern technology is independent of the economic system. That, however, is a testable hypothesis. And it is empirically simply not true. For example, in 1989, only about one in ten East Germans had a personal computer, whereas in West Germany, the figure was already close to four in ten. Only one in six East German households had a telephone, while in West Germany, virtually every household had one. If the GDR still existed today, they probably would have a state-produced People’s iPhone and a People’s Notebook by now, but the share of the population with access to them would be a fraction of the West German equivalent.

Until not too long ago, Chile and Venezuela were fairly similar in terms of internet usage rates. But by 2017, a gap of almost twenty percentage points had opened: over four out of five Chileans used the internet, while in Venezuela, less than two thirds of the population did. That gap has almost certainly widened further since then. The two countries also used to be similar in terms of mobile phone usage, but today, less than half of the Venezuelan population have a mobile phone subscription, while Chile has more mobile phone subscriptions than it has people. And let’s not even get started on comparing North Korea to South Korea, or Cuba to Puerto Rico.

Being a socialist does not mean that you are not allowed to use an iPhone or a notebook, but it is just empirically true that if your fashionable opinions were actual policy, you would be significantly less likely to have an iPhone or a notebook (alongside many other things) in the first place. And it is legitimate to point that out. Technological progress is not independent of the economic system. It varies widely between economic systems, and capitalism is streets ahead of the competition. So of course there is a certain absurdity in trendy Western anti-capitalists using the fruits of capitalism to slag off that very system. Mr Gotcha has a point.

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

10 thoughts on ““Yet you participate in society”: in defence of “Mr Gotcha””

  1. Posted 21/08/2022 at 20:48 | Permalink

    I was expecting some kind of philosophical discussion but all I got was the typical “socialism is when empty shelves” and biased reduction of leftist positions. Terrible article. People in “economics” tend to be real zealots though.

  2. Posted 21/08/2022 at 20:49 | Permalink

    Free-market and “think”-anything, tank or otherwise, is an oxymoron. This looks like more of a cult.

  3. Posted 16/11/2022 at 23:03 | Permalink

    Shamefully anti-intellectual piece of analysis without a single academic source. Only the hubris of the author acts as mode of legitimation for the argument.

  4. Posted 13/01/2023 at 09:14 | Permalink

    Your comparison of the GDR with the position of modern socialists is disingenuous. GDR was a dictatorship and actively propagandized against democracy. Socialists, however, want more democracy, not less.

    On top of that, I think most socialists criticize social inequality, climate injustice and rampant exploitation and death caused by capitalism, so you’re kind of playing into their hands by admitting that you find it more important for people to have iPhones.

  5. Posted 25/01/2023 at 22:18 | Permalink

    Woof. Such an apt explanation of the criticism and then the rebuttal was like… two examples. Two examples that completely ignore the fact that the world is capitalist and groups that try to defy that get ostracized from participation within the rest of the global economy. If almost everyone involved in a system follows one school of thought and there alimited resources, even if a minorty introduces a better school of thought, societies are, by definition, cooperative. If people arbitrarily or stubbornly refuse to cooperate, that mibority isn’t going to go anywhere. A team of 9 mediocre soccer players is still gonna beat 1 great player.

  6. Posted 04/02/2023 at 17:28 | Permalink

    “Technological progress is not independent of the economic system. It varies widely between economic systems, and capitalism is streets ahead of the competition.”

    Are you sure you’re accounting for confounding variables here? China and the Soviet Union managed to produce more space stations than the West, and in fact China has independently produced its own space station whereas capitalist nations have had to rely on making small contributions to the ISS, or not having a space program at all.

    Perhaps you will say that this is a bad example, since China “isn’t really a socialist country”, but that just highlights how the successes of nominally socialist countries are treated as happening despite the economic system, just as the crimes of capitalist countries are not attributed to the economic system that produces them.

    Nevertheless, I respect your right to hold and publish your opinion, and even more respect your openness to be challenged about it. Thank you.

  7. Posted 14/05/2023 at 05:22 | Permalink

    So, just to be clear, you are identifying “socialism” as the doctrine that “we should improve society somewhat” — and you’re *against* it?

    If that is socialism, I am very much for it. You have made a new convert to the cause, comrade! I will now go off and learn all the words to The Red Flag.

  8. Posted 26/05/2023 at 02:28 | Permalink

    its not a “meme”
    its from a comic and it has an author, which I cant help but notice you didnt even attempt to credit lol

  9. Posted 16/07/2023 at 06:19 | Permalink

    Kinda dumb to suggest that iPhones, telephones, personal computers etc are necessities. Neccessities are food, healthcare, housing, etc. Better to compare on these metrics. Far better to have fewer people with iPhones so long as everyone is fed and housed than far more people with iPhones but a significant minority homeless. But I wouldn’t expect a free market think tank to view these human rights as important for the great unwashed.

    Also the vast majority of revolutionary technologies are paid for by the public, either through a state funded department, a university that receives public funding or a private business that receives tonnes of subsidies. Truly revolutionary technologies are both risky and can take a long time to come to fruition – both things that private investors are not exactly thrilled about. Capitalism ‘innovation’ is 1000 clones of Candy Crush or Apple removing the headphone jack.

  10. Posted 17/08/2023 at 11:21 | Permalink

    This is a terrible excuse for an article. To have had such a lengthy education and still place the failure of Cuban or Chilean communism on communism and not US imperialism and anti-communist sentiment around the globe is just sad.

    It seems your many years at university only instilled a further dogma in you and you need to do a little thinking for yourself.

    Agreeing with a hyperbolic character written with the express purpose of being ridiculous and not realising the indictment that is on your opinion is also pretty wild.

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