Mirror, Mirror

Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World by Naomi Klein. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $30.
The cover of Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World

For Naomi Klein’s admirers, and I count myself among them, there would never be any risk of confusing her with Naomi Wolf. For nearly a quarter century, Klein’s work has offered clarifying conceptual frameworks to understand the workings of power, guided by an investment in movement politics and an unapologetic anticapitalism. She has the capacity to make socialist principles accessible—meme-able even—without moralizing or sacrificing rigor. She also has a canny knack for capturing the zeitgeist, crystalizing ideas attuned to a given historical moment that serve to galvanize activists as much as scholars. Naomi Wolf, on the other hand, is a lightweight third-wave neoliberal feminist turned antivax conspiracist. But for those who haven’t followed Klein or Wolf closely and are absent-mindedly scrolling through their social media feeds, it’s understandable that they might blur together. As Klein acknowledges, they do share superficial similarities beyond their first names: both are Jewish women of roughly the same generation known as authors of Big Idea books that criticize elite power. In her new book, Doppelganger, Klein explores her increasing fixation on “other Naomi”—a shadow self she is perpetually mistaken for—as Wolf becomes an unhinged purveyor of conspiracies during the pandemic. 

For Klein, this is unnerving. She worries about her self-brand—embarrassing because her brand is anti-brand. Is Klein indistinguishable from, or substitutable for, this bad “other”? The question is more serious than it might sound at first. How will the socialist principles that Klein has fought for her whole life gain traction if they can so easily blur in people’s minds with the fact-free right-wing populism of her double? Wolf, in other words, is a proxy for a larger problem, which Klein calls her feeling of “speechlessness” from the sense that “words and ideas have undergone a currency devaluation, a crash connected, in ways we have barely begun to understand, to the torrent of words in which we are swimming on [our] screens.”

To better understand this problem, Klein examines Wolf’s alternate reality—full of conspiracy theories about 5G and COVID vaccines—which Klein calls “the mirror world.” She makes sense of this reality partially through the concept of projection.  Notably, both Theodor Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality (1950) and Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1964)—probably the two most referenced texts diagnosing the far right in postwar America—understood the authoritarian personality through this psychological mechanism. For Sigmund Freud, projection is not merely seeing aspects of yourself in others. Instead, it is disowning unconscious traits that you cannot accept in yourself and attributing them to others. Once these disavowed traits are projected onto a bad other, you are permitted to indulge in those very traits as if it is a legitimate response. In Hofstadter’s words, “The fundamental paradox of the paranoid style is imitation of the enemy.” Or, in the words of the French theorist of propaganda, Jacques Ellul, “The propagandist will not accuse the enemy of just any misdeed; he will accuse him of the very intention that he himself has and of trying to commit the very crime that he himself is about to commit.” 

Like Adorno, Hofstadter, and Ellul, Klein uses projection as a way to understand the right wing’s motivations and interpret its rhetoric. When Hillary Clinton announced that Trump was Putin’s puppet in the final debate before the 2016 election, Trump answered: “No Puppet. You’re the puppet.” This seemingly absurd response portended a new logic to political discourse that has only intensified in the years since. In response to every accusation, the right has said, “Not me, you,” often appropriating the exact same signifiers and inverting their meanings. When mainstream media sought to explain Trump’s shocking victory through “fake news,” referring to targeted disinformation on social media sites, Trump parroted the term and applied it to the mainstream media. When the #MeToo movement pointed out how many abusers groom their victims, the right started accusing liberals of “grooming” children through “gender ideology” smuggled into Disney films and public-school curricula. In both cases, the words have now been so completely absorbed by right-wing media that they are hard to disentangle from that association. 

They (the right) project, and we don’t. Were it so simple. Klein knows that something doesn’t sit right with this diagnosis. After all, a villainous “They” is essential to the logic of projection. As she puts it, “Doppelganger stories are never only about them; they are always also about us.”  Through references to art and literature about doubles, Klein explores the existential implications of this statement, but the heart of the book is not about self and other in a primal sense, but about left and right (and center) in our current media ecosystem. The mirror world is not just their world but also our world; it is a name for the media logic that we all feel trapped in.

Published in 1999, Klein’s first book, No Logoarrived shortly after the Seattle WTO protests and became a key text for the alter-globalization movement. From the beginning, she was focused on political economy and wanted to get beyond superficial criticisms of mass culture (such as, she briefly noted, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth), which ignored class and labor conditions. This narrow culture war discourse, she argued, plays into the hands of corporations as they exploit progressive politics to remake themselves as lifestyle brands while also opening the door to distractions such as the cynical right-wing backlash against what was then called “political correctness.” 

Her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, exposed a different way that grassroots democratic politics get diverted by capitalist imperatives. Written during the “war on terror” and on the eve of the financial crisis, the book shows how the neoliberal economic policies that destroyed the postwar social safety net and radically exacerbated inequality were made possible by the opportunistic use of crises, which allowed unpopular policies to be rammed through without debate. The Shock Doctrine may not be a conspiracy theory as we typically use the term, but it is a theory about how real conspiracies are possible.  

To understand the difference, it’s helpful to look back at how the idea of “conspiracy theories” has evolved. Before the term was in common currency, it was used by Karl Popper in the 1940s and ’50s to distinguish bad from good theory in the social sciences. For Popper, “the conspiracy theory of society” referred not to unverifiable speculations about hidden sinister schemes so much as theories that explained political events in terms of who they benefit rather than their unintended consequences. Popper was a liberal thinker attempting to discredit Marxist thought and depoliticize social theory more generally. But as the term came into more common circulation in the ’60s, especially after the Kennedy assassination, it took on a different valence than Popper’s definition while retaining the largely pejorative connotation. To call something a conspiracy theory is to attempt to discredit a critique of power, and it bears remembering that from the beginning, the term was used to undermine not only the far-right paranoid fantasies of McCarthyists and the John Birch Society, but also the legitimate “paranoia” of Black Power groups, who, of course, had very good reason to be suspicious of the FBI and CIA. It shouldn’t be an insult to say that Klein is a conspiracy theorist in the Popperian sense. She stays focused on systemic analysis rather than merely blaming evil individuals, but she also tells us to follow the money and see how people in elite positions exploit crises to benefit themselves. 

This Changes Everything came in 2014. “This” was climate change, and “everything” was a global economy subject to the profit motive. As if in response to the famous phrase associated with Fredric Jameson, “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” Klein responded: Yes, but what if how readily we can imagine the end of the world today due to our knowledge of climate change is precisely an opportunity to end capitalism? It is a good hook. Klein converted the urgency of this crisis into an opportunity—shock doctrine from below. But what if “This”—an awareness of the causes and future effects of climate change—has barely changed anything? Klein confesses that her message, “We can still prevent the worst but only if we act NOW,” has become hard to maintain after being repeated for decades.

Each of these books has an unresolved thread that gets taken up in Doppelganger. With No Logo, Klein found herself self-branding as the face of anti-brand activism; with The Shock Doctrine, she was unwittingly giving conspiracy theorists a concept that would later justify outlandish ideas about the pandemic; This Changes Everything made her question what makes change possible. Meanwhile, after the Trump years, the pandemic, and after energy had died down following the massive grassroots movements on behalf of the Sanders campaign and the protests for racial justice, Klein felt anxiety and helplessness creeping in. Enter Naomi Wolf and the mirror world. 

Klein uses “the mirror world” loosely and playfully, but the term is most resonant when it taps into the dynamics of contemporary media culture. One way we might understand it is as the realm of experience that the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called “the imaginary.” This is where ideology reigns supreme because we lose sight of the larger social structure. There is only our ego always under threat from others, and therefore dualism without dialectics, either good or bad, friend or enemy, liked or not liked, 0 or 1. The major social media platforms are structured around this addictive logic. Mark Zuckerberg called Facebook an empathy machine, but its dominant affects are more likely resentment, narcissism, and paranoia. Working in this register has earned Wolf a large following.

Social media platforms turn us into what Michel Foucault called entrepreneurs of the self—curating our own brand in large part through an endless series of binary operations in a valorization system that mimics the logic of financial markets. We curate the borders of me and not me, or, as Klein puts it, our digital double and its others. This leads to ever more strident political posturing at the expense of political analysis. The content of social media is often politics but the structure of it is fundamentally depoliticizing. The pile-ons or cancelations that result have much more to do with the logic of platforms than any specific ideology. The right has tried to create the meme of a censorious Maoist left or liberal cancel culture, all the better to justify censoring them in turn.  

As I read Klein’s book, I came across a tweet by her former Intercept colleague Glenn Greenwald: “Anti-establishment/pro-establishment is a more important metric than Dem v. GOP.” Greenwald’s tweet encapsulates what Klein, following William Callison and Quinn Slobodian, calls “diagonalism,” a position that sees all power as conspiracy. Greenwald’s sleight of hand is to set up a false binary opposition when neither of these oppositions is a good metric for politics. As Klein shows, both are obfuscating, and both are immensely powerful on social media, which thrives on binary oppositions. In this mirror-world logic, either you are swept up in the Blue versus Red, MSNBC versus FOX, polarized media that Greenwald is not wrong to be scornful of, or you reject the establishment and elites in a totalizing way that, as in the case of Wolf (or Greenwald) shows, often means finding common cause with the right. 

Anti-establishment politics without a critique of capitalism or some guiding egalitarian principle accounts for the lure of Trumpism and conspiracism and will remain seductive as long as mainstream liberalism takes the side of the establishment in response and there is no readily available left alternative. As Klein argues, the right wing’s mirroring of the mainstream only works because mainstream liberalism has ceded so much ideological territory to the right. As the right in the Trump years claimed the distrust of the CIA and FBI for their side and in the COVID years claimed the distrust of tech and pharmaceutical companies, the centrist liberal media has sometimes found itself taking indefensible positions in opposition. 

Though Klein tends to emphasize how much the right is a funhouse mirror version of left-wing common sense, her insights into the failure of mainstream liberalism to confront its own tendencies toward projection and imitation of the right is one of the most important contributions of the book. It extends well beyond the examples she offers. Klein stays clear of #Russiagate, but the popularity of endless speculative Twitter threads on Trump’s secret ties to Putin by self-appointed experts not only undercut the very real politicization and mass mobilization of large swathes of American public during the Trump years against systemic racism and sexism and for immigrant rights, but it also gave an implicit mirror world credence to the most absurd QAnon fantasies.

Klein has fun with some of Wolf’s more bizarre horror movie fantasies—“People [who are vaccinated] have no scent anymore. You can’t smell them”—but the most important dividing line between her and her doppelganger is a political distinction. Wolf is a cautionary tale about the lure of conspiracy in the attention economy but also about liberalism itself. Wolf, Klein points out, was never left wing. When she was still a respectable figure within the liberal intelligentsia, she fully embraced capitalism in her brand of proto–Lean In feminism. There’s both an epistemological issue and a political issue with the sort of conspiracy theories sold by people like Naomi Wolf, and those two issues sometimes get conflated. But the message of the Trump years should be that the fact-checkers won’t save us. 

That’s why I hesitated when Klein evokes the nineteenth-century claim that anti-Semitism is a “socialism of fools” and proposes that Jewish communist intellectuals pursued instead a “socialism of facts.” And when Klein speaks of the conspiracy theorists getting “the facts wrong but the feelings right,” I was reminded of right-wing hack Ben Shapiro’s favorite jab, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” I only mention his slogan to point out that claiming #TeamFacts says nothing about your immunity to sophistry, let alone your politics. Klein is referring to feelings of distrust at the unfairness of the system, but a feeling of hatred also drives right-wing conspiracy theory discourse, which is channeled into blaming that unfairness on a demonized group. (Lacan, for one, argued that the way out of the imaginary servitude of the mirror world is not knowledge or awareness but love.) Klein’s emphasis on facts runs the danger of falling into an uncritical resistance lib narrative that places the believers in science against the dupes. The bad people need not always be idiots, though it feels good to think they are.   

More profoundly, within the margins of Doppelganger is a plea for the left to reclaim the mantle of a universal egalitarian principle. Universalism has become hard to articulate in the mirror world. (See: “All Lives Matter.”) But universal human equality must be defended not at the expense of some group deemed not fully human, an exception, but beginning from the counting of those who have not been fully counted. This, after all, is what Black Lives Matter means. And this is the lesson Klein derives from the history of anti-Semitism and Zionism in one of the most powerful chapters in the book. Klein gets to the heart of the problem with the creation of Israel, forcefully arguing that it was as if settler colonialism and the “right to discriminate” were believed to be justified as “reparations for genocide.” In opposition to this, she emphasizes the repressed history of Jewish activists, like Rosa Luxemburg, who saw anti-Semitism not as absolutely unique and eternal but as a cause for solidarity with all oppressed groups.

Doppelganger is being pitched as Klein’s most personal book, one that dives into the strangeness of our current world, following Klein down the rabbit hole and into the mirror world. But the book is not a radical departure from her previous work. The use of the first person and the entwining of personal experience with original research and political theory has been a rhetorical component of all her books. Even during a crisis of faith and in a more introspective mode, Klein never loses her bearings, and her core convictions never feel under threat. We never quite feel Klein go all the way down the rabbit hole; she peers into it, watches attentively, and takes copious notes. 

That said, Klein’s consistency of vision is one of her great strengths. This is not finally a recapitulation of the “post-truth” thesis, which says the mirror world is our only option. Klein has always had a talent for finding resources for hope in the face of an otherwise grim diagnosis of our current moment. Doppelganger is a book about her hope wavering. To preserve it, she suggests that we need to acknowledge our own complicity in the mirror world. It’s a necessary step toward giving up on salvaging our brands in favor of building solidarity through ideas in common. An escape from the media feedback loops of projection can only be a collective one built on an unconditional conception of equality—which will always come in conflict with the capitalist system.

Nico Baumbach is professor of Film and Media Studies at Columbia University.