The Borders of Ourselves

Naomi Klein’s Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World (Penguin, 2023) explores the dark corners of our political era and seeks hope only in the possibility for collective action, finds Jack Ferguson.

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The story begins, fittingly, at Occupy Wall Street. It was in a bathroom close to Zucotti Park in 2011 that Naomi Klein first overheard people confusing her for her namesake, and that she was forced to utter what would become watchwords in the years to come:

I think you are thinking of Naomi Wolf.

Naomi Klein is a political investigative journalist, and the author of landmark critical books like No Logo, The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything. She’s known for trenchant critiques of corporate power, the use of crises to push neoliberal policies without opposition, and the forces driving global climate change.

Naomi Wolf is a longer-established writer, who once at least had the larger profile. Her 1990 book The Beauty Myth helped establish her as a prominent face of 90s US feminism. This led to a respected career in the media and research, as well as political roles advising the presidential campaign of Al Gore.

But something started to change in Wolf’s outlook during the 21st century. She moved away from the issues on which she had built her earlier work, and towards steadily more strident and nationalistic alarm-sounding about supposed threats to the US republic. She increasingly claimed that America was a hair’s breadth away from full-blown fascism.

During the COVID pandemic, Wolf’s transformation intensified. During this time, she fully embraced the conspiracist right, becoming an outspoken opponent of basic health measures such as mask wearing and vaccinations. In doing so, she set alight to her reputation among much of her former readership, and lost many personal friends. But she gained a whole new and lucrative audience, as she was warmly welcomed into the folds of a growing global movement to play the role of ‘the liberal who saw the light’. Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World is both a personal memoir and the product of deep research into corners of the political world that many of us would prefer not to look. It attempts to make sense of the vertigo-inducing sensation that has afflicted Klein since the number of people either chastising or praising her for the actions of the ‘other Naomi’ snowballed, and her own sense of self as a public figure began to destabilise.

In the process, much more is revealed about the darkness of our political era, why our societies are failing so many of the great challenges of our times, and why public life seems to have descended to previously unimaginable levels of absurdity. The book uses the image of the doppelganger or double, beloved of popular culture, art and psychology alike, to explore the hidden Other sides from which we all individually and as societies avert our eyes. It also illuminates the way this mirroring has distorted politics, transforming radical narratives into twisted fun-house images of themselves, and leading to a breakdown in a shared sense of reality, where every potential fact can be ignored if denied with sufficient intensity.

Wolf’s personal odyssey coincides with the rise of political forces that Klein (following William Callison and Quinn Slobodian) describes as ‘diagonalist’: claiming to be neither left nor right, involving the use of language and individuals that are appropriated from a left wing or liberal background – but in fact are bent and used in order to bolster a more far-right worldview. Across the world we have seen the rise to power of leaders who use populist rhetoric, the hyping of prejudice and majoritarian grievances to claim an ‘anti-elite’ posture – all the while in practice supporting the most corrupt and kleptocratic forms of capitalism through their policies.

Conspiracy culture plays a key role in the rise of this kind of politics, giving the aesthetic experience of challenging powerful forces and asserting agency, but in a form that by its very nature can never lead anywhere, or create any kind of impactful change. Moreover, conspiracy memes frequently channel well-founded distrust and suspicion away from corporate power and political actors, and towards traditionally scapegoated groups, with notable examples including migrants, ethnic minorities, queer and disabled people.

In recent years there has been vigorous debate among political scientists and commentators as to the extent that “fascist” is the correct descriptor for figures such as Trump, Orban, Modi, Meloni or Le Pen (to name but a few). It’s an ambiguity that these characters deliberately cultivate and play with themselves, using dog whistles that allow them plausible deniability, while building coalitions with more open elements of the extreme right.

Undoubtedly, part of the reticence from some to deploy the F-word relates to the ways that figures like Klein’s doppelganger have been quick to cry the wolf of fascism when attacking real or imagined expansions of state power. Naomi Wolf spent much of the Bush administration arguing that the genuinely authoritarian policies of the period were a prelude to full on fascism, and now sees the threat of dictatorship in basic public health measures. Despite this, it does seem that we are now at the end of the folk tale – where the wolf has finally really arrived.

Less touched on by Klein is the way this political diagonal also extends into the left itself, as political figures purporting to put forward a left programme concede ground to reactionary ideas. Whether it be Keir Starmer wrapping himself in the Union Jack, Jean Luc Melenchon speaking of migrants “stealing bread from French workers”, or the anti-immigrant stance of Die Linke politician Sahra Wagenknecht, this is also a widespread phenomenon. In the process, the shared meaning of terms like left and right is further broken down, resulting in ever greater confusion, disorientation, and vulnerability to conspiracy, racist or far right narratives.

Perhaps the most egregious modern example of this appropriation of liberatory language for reactionary ends is the many ways in which the COVID conspiracy movement abused the memories of movements for racial justice. Frequent wildly inappropriate comparisons were made to the Holocaust and Civil Rights era, while anti-maskers shamelessly stole the dying words of Eric Garner that became a slogan of Black Lives Matter: “I can’t breathe.”

This dovetails with a discussion of the ways that racial and ethnic identities introduce a further, imposed level of doubling, where individuals are forced to face the identity that racist societies ascribed to them, as described eloquently by W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin. No matter who an individual is in themselves, or what work they have done to create an identity in defiance of stereotypes, “you will always stand in as a representative of your despised group. You are not you; you are your ethnic/racial/religious double, and you can’t shake that double because you did not create it.”

Klein reflects on the ways the historic legacy and continued presence of antisemitism has impacted her own Jewish identity, and how traumas inflicted on a group continue to be lived and re-experienced across generations. She recognises that this form of doubling may be part of the explanation for her own doppelganger, as a society still riven by antisemitic tropes conflates two prominent writers named Naomi under the racist image of a ‘striving Jewess’.

A genealogy of most popular apocryphal conspiracy theories of course leads right back to such antisemitic lore, which is continually recast and updated for changed conditions. Myths of Jewish economic control, the ‘socialism of fools’, are the grotesque doppelganger of genuine critique of capitalism. Klein even suggests that the presence of so many key Jewish figures in the historic socialist movement may be related precisely to a desire to elucidate the real causes of class oppression, and to expose false scapegoating.

Klein identifies the psychological impact on everyone of living in a society where the values of corporate capitalism have penetrated into the deepest parts of ourselves, our bodies, and our relations to others. She made her name and, in an irony she notes, established her own personal brand, with the publication of No Logo, a 1999 attack on the ways corporate culture was growing to dominate all spheres of life. Twenty-four years later, she is horrified to note how this process has gone further than she ever thought imaginable.

Revealingly, she highlights the origins of the term ‘brand’ in the burning of identifying marks into the skins of slaves, creating an identity for them to be recognised and exploited. Personal branding remains a violent process today, as people learn to package and present themselves and their most intimate traumas as social currency.

The desire for a ‘perfected, optimised and quantified self’ drives people to create their digital doppelgangers online, and to work obsessively on their body through exercise and diet. But the dark mirror of this ‘self-improvement’ is the potential for it to flip into a rage at others who don’t share these pre-occupations, who are hated for being fat, perceived as lazy or with a poor diet. Many COVID sceptics believed their regimen of body work would protect them and, conversely, they resented being asked to make sacrifices for those they considered ‘less healthy’ than themselves.

Fundamentally, Klein argues that the COVID pandemic caused a wave of cognitive dissonance, due to the fact that it exposed the lies on which our societies had built previous decades’ politics. Instead of atomised, rationally calculating individuals, we were revealed as inevitably entangled beings, with obligations to each other and all of the living world.

It’s here that she’s able to find a small amount of hard-rationed hope. In softening the borders of ourselves, we open the door to the possibility of achieving change through collective action, and changing ourselves through our interactions with others, as was seen for example by the mutual aid efforts during the pandemic. More than this, we can open ourselves to the non-human kin with which we share the planet. As Klein concludes:

Time to loosen the grip of various forms of proprietary pain and selfhood, and reach toward many different forms of possible connection and kin, toward anyone who shares a desire to confront the forces of annihilation and extermination, and their mindsets of purity and perfection.