Pluralistic: Naomi Klein’s “Doppelganger”

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If the Naomi be Klein
you’re doing just fine
If the Naomi be Wolf
Oh, buddy. Ooooof.

I learned this rhyme in Doppelganger, Naomi Klein’s indescribable semi-memoir that is (more or less) about the way that people confuse her with Naomi Wolf, and how that fact has taken on a new urgency as Wolf descended into conspiratorial politics, becoming a far-right darling and frequent Steve Bannon guest:

This is a very odd book. It is also a very, very good book. The premise – exploring the two Naomis’ divergence – is a surprisingly sturdy scaffold for an ambitious, wide-ranging exploration of this very frightening moment of polycrisis and systemic failure:

Wolf once had a cluster of superficial political and personal similarities to Klein: a feminist author of real literary ability, a Jewish woman, and, of course, a Naomi. Klein grew accustomed to being mistaken for Wolf, but never fully comfortable. Wolf’s politics were always more Sheryl Sandberg than bell hooks (or Emma Goldman). While Klein talked about capitalism and class and solidarity, Wolf wanted to “empower” individual women to thrive in a market system that would always produce millions of losers for every winner.

Fundamentally: Klein is a leftist, Wolf was a liberal. The classic leftist distinction goes: leftists want to abolish a system where 150 white men run the world; liberals want to replace half of those 150 with women, queers and people of color.

The past forty years have seen the rise and rise of a right wing politics that started out extreme (think of Reagan and Thatcher’s support for Pinochet’s death-squads) and only got worse. Liberals and leftists forged an uneasy alliance, with liberals in the lead (literally, in Canada, where today, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party governs in partnership with the nominally left NDP).

But whenever real leftist transformation was possible, liberals threw in with conservatives: think of the smearing and defenestration of Corbyn by Labour’s right, or of the LibDems coalition with David Cameron’s Tories, or of the Democrats’ dirty tricks to keep Bernie from appearing on the national ballot.

Lacking any kind of transformational agenda, the liberal answer to capitalism’s problems always comes down to minor tweaks (“making sure half of our rulers are women, queers and people of color”) rather than meaningful, structural shifts. This leaves liberals in the increasingly absurd position of defending the indefensible: insisting that the FDA shouldn’t be questioned despite its ghastly failures during the opioid epidemic; claiming that the voting machine companies whose defective products have been the source of increasingly urgent technical criticism are without flaw; embracing the “intelligence community” as the guardians of the best version of America; cheerleading for deindustrialization while telling the workers it harmed with “learn to code”; demanding more intervention in speech by our monopolistic tech companies; and so on.

It’s not like leftists ever stopped talking about the importance of transformation and not just reform. But as the junior partners in the progressive coalition, leftists have been drowned out by liberal reformers. In most of the world, if you are worried about falling wages, corporate capture of government, and scientific failures due to weak regulators, the “progressive” answer was to tell you it was all in your head, that you were an unhinged conspiratorialist:

For Klein, it’s this failure that the faux-populist right has exploited, redirecting legitimate anger and fear into racist, xenophobic, homophobic, sexist and transphobic rage. The deep-pocketed backers of the conservative movement didn’t just find a method to get turkeys to vote for Christmas – progressives created the conditions that made that method possible.

If progressives answer pregnant peoples’ concerns about vaccine risks – concerns rooted in the absolute failure of prenatal care – with dismissals, while conservatives accept those concerns and funnel them into conspiratorialism, then progressives’ message becomes, “We are the movement of keeping things as they are,” while conservatives become the movement of “things have to change.” Think here of the 2016 liberal slogan, “America was already great,” as an answer to the faux-populist rallying cry, “Make America great again.”

When liberals get to define what it means to be “progressive,” the fundamental, systemic critique is swept away. Conservatives – conservatives! – get to claim the revolutionary mantle, to insist that they alone are interested in root-and-branch transformation of society.

Like the two Naomis, conservatives and progressives become warped mirrors of one another. The progressive campaign for bodily autonomy is co-opted to be the foundation of the anti-vax movement. This is the mirror world, where concerns about real children – in border detention, or living in poverty in America – are reflected back as warped fever-swamp hallucinations about kids in imaginary pizza restaurant basements and Hollywood blood sacrifice rituals. The mirror world replaces RBG with Amy Coney-Barrett and calls it a victory for women. The mirror world defends workers by stoking xenophobic fears about immigrants.

But progressives let it happen. Progressives cede anti-surveillance to conservatives, defending reverse warrants when they’re used to enumerate Jan 6 insurrectionists (nevermind that these warrants are mostly used to round up BLM demonstrators). Progressives cede suspicion of large corporations to conservatives, defending giant, exploitative, monopolistic corporations so long as they arouse conservative ire with some performative DEI key-jingling. Progressives defend the CIA and FBI when they’re wrongfooting Trump, and voting machine vendors when they’re turned into props for the Big Lie.

These issues are transformed in the mirror world: from grave concerns about real things, into unhinged conspiracies about imaginary things. Urgent environmental concerns are turned into a pretense to ban offshore wind turbines (“to protect the birds”). Worry about gender equality is transformed into seminars about women’s representation in US drone-killing squads.

For Klein, the transformation of Wolf from liberal icon – Democratic Party consultant and Lean-In-type feminist icon – to rifle-toting Trumpling with a regular spot on the Steve Bannon Power Hour is an entrypoint to understanding the mirror world. How did so many hippie-granola yoga types turn into vicious eugenicists whose answer to “wear a mask to protect the immunocompromised” is “they should die“?

The PastelQ phenomenon – the holistic medicine and “clean eating” to QAnon pipeline – recalls the Nazi obsession with physical fitness, outdoor activities and “natural” living. The neoliberal transformation of health from a collective endeavor – dependent on environmental regulation, sanitation, and public medicine – into a private one, built entirely on “personal choices,” leads inexorably to eugenics.

Once you start looking for the mirror world, you see it everywhere. AI chatbots are mirrors of experts, only instead of giving you informed opinions, they plagiarize sentence-fragments into statistically plausible paragraphs. Brands are the mirror-world version of quality, a symbol that isn’t a mark of reliability, but a mark of a mark, a sign pointing at nothing. Your own brand – something we’re increasingly expected to have – is the mirror world image of you.

The mirror world’s overwhelming motif is “I know you are, but what am I?” As in, “Oh, you’re a socialist? Well, you know that ‘Nazi’ stands for ‘National Socialist, right?” (and inevitably, this comes from someone who obsesses over the ‘Great Replacement’ and considers themself a ‘race realist’).

This isn’t serious politics, but it is seriously important. “Antisemitism is the socialism of fools,” its obsession with “international bankers” the mirror-world version of the real and present danger from big finance and private equity wreckers. And, as Klein discusses with great nuance and power, the antisemitism discussion is eroded from both sides: both by antisemites, and by doctrinaire Zionists who insist that any criticism of Israel is always and ever antisemetic.

As a Jew in solidarity with Palestinians, I found this section of the book especially good – thoughtful and vigorous, pulling no punches and still capturing the discomfort aroused by this deliberately poisoned debate.

This thoughtful, vigorous prose and argumentation deserves its own special callout here: Klein has produced a first-rate literary work just as much as this is a superb philosophical and political tome. In this moment where the mirror world is exploding and the real world is contracting, this is an essential read.

I’ll be Klein’s interlocutor tomorrow night (Sept 6) at the LA launch for Doppelganger. We’ll be appearing at 7PM at the @LAPublicLibrary:

Livestreaming at:

Source: Pluralistic: Naomi Klein’s “Doppelganger”

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