Naomi Klein Explains the Problems With Left-Wing Silence
The author of Doppelganger wants us to find stories that can “replace the socialism of fools with the socialism of facts.”
Politics abhors a vacuum. Without credible explanations for the things that bewilder and exasperate us, people become susceptible to extremist conspiracy theories, hate, and lies. So how does truth survive? In her new book, Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World, award-winning journalist Naomi Klein describes being confused with Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, as Wolf morphed into a conspiracy-minded anti-vaxxer during the Covid pandemic. In an era of “personal brands,” Klein became absorbed in the fake worlds surrounding and sometimes coming to represent her online. Right-wing conspiracies feed off left-wing silences, she concludes. By listening to hours of conspiracist Steve Bannon’s podcasts and researching doppelgängers in history and literature, Klein uncovers why we have shadow selves, and how disinformation and conspiracy theories gain power.
Laura Flanders: I remember talking with you early on in the pandemic; you’re wondering where to be, what to do. You’ve been on a journey since then, as you say, on a trip into the mirror world. What took you there?
Naomi Klein: Like so many of us who were fortunate enough to isolate, I went online more than I usually did. In the isolation of the pandemic, I realized that so many of the external forces that tell me who I am come from the internal and the external. I went online to try to get a little of that validation. Who am I? I could scroll forever at a certain point during the pandemic and just hear the denunciations and the excommunications, and “How could she say this? How could she do this?” They were not talking about me, though they were naming me. They were talking about the person who I’ve come to refer to as my doppelgänger, Naomi Wolf, because during Covid, she became a kind of doppelgänger of herself. This is also something that might be familiar to some of your viewers and listeners, this feeling of like, “What happened to this person? I used to know who they were, but suddenly, they seem very different.”
LF: I would love to say it isn’t true any longer, but when we’ve started typing in Naomi, both of you show up.
NK: You can be horrified by it, and I was for a while—then something happened. Instead of being horrified, I got interested in the phenomenon of our interchangeability on these platforms. We’re all not really ourselves. We’re creating an avatar, a double, a doppelgänger of ourselves to represent us. AI can create deep fakes of us. I started reading books about doppelgängers. I started reading everything from Dostoevsky to Philip Roth to Ursula Le Guin, looking at the role of doppelgängers in mythology, Catherine the Great. Doppelgängers often are warnings. They’re offering us something that is hard to look at directly, so they give us a kind of mirror to look at instead. I thought, “Instead of just pushing this away, what if I draw it close? What if I really give it my attention and try to understand the messages?”
LF: You go into history and the origin of “Doppelgänger.” Where does it come from? What’s it refer to?
NK: It’s a German word, and it translates literally as double, doppel, gänger or “goer” or “walker,” right? Some of the mythology around doppelgängers holds that all of us have a double walking around somewhere. My doppelgänger is less that kind of doppelgänger. When I look at her, I don’t see myself, but other people clearly do, or they see our digital representations as interchangeable.
LF: There’s this kind of vacuum at the heart of our understanding of the world, which you could say is left by red baiting, anti-communism, and fear of talking about systems. There’s also the other side of the story, which is there’s a lot to be gained from telling certain stories and less so from others. What’s the difference? I blame the media a lot for failing to give us enough airtime to clear complex analysis like yours.
NK: In the media, the education system, capitalism is treated like the air we breathe. It’s not generally identified as a system that has its own logics. If we think about the conspiracies that I wrote about in The Shock Doctrine, like the overthrow of Allende, there was a conspiracy to overthrow Allende. It wasn’t about draining children of their adrenochrome or some sort of nefarious demonic goal. It was to protect the US copper mine sector who were angry that Allende had nationalized the copper mines, and it was US telecoms who were worried about him nationalizing the telecoms. Real-world conspiracies tend to have a more kind of a banal end goal, but they are real. We don’t learn about those systems, we don’t learn about those logics. In fact, we’re lied to. We lack this systemic analysis. Conspiracies come along and say it’s Bill Gates. It’s the World Economic Forum. I’m no fan of the World Economic Forum, but my analysis of the World Economic Forum is that it’s just a logical outgrowth of capitalism.
LF: So then that brings us back to Covid, because there was no clear story for what was really happening, and an awful lot of time online.
NK: In the attention economy, engagement is the path to monetization. There’s little else that will generate more engagement than telling people that the jab is going to kill them or is already causing a genocide. I mean, that’s a good way to get clicks. The conspiracies themselves are an industry in a way that we haven’t seen before because of the attention economy.
LF: What do we do about that? You describe, and it rang so true, that when you hear a story that makes sense, you get excited.
NK: It’s to instill panic. When people are panicked, they can’t think straight. We have a right to be mad, but we should do our best to get out of that panic state and to get into a more lucid state.
LF: Time is a measured thing in the attention economy. Lies, as they used to say, can travel around the world before the truth has got its boots on.
NK: It’s easy to feel helpless, because we don’t control these social media platforms. Very often we think that the solution to this is deplatforming. What I’ve seen is that that actually supercharged the movement. People wear it as a badge of honor. Wolf was suspended from Twitter for about a year until Elon Musk brought her back, and the first thing she tweeted was, “Deplatformed 7 times; still right.” This is currency in conspiracy culture. How many times have you been deplatformed? That’s how right you were, because the powers that be don’t want you to be heard. There are also what I call mirror world platforms. When you get deleted from Twitter, you go to Gettr. When you get deleted from YouTube, you go to Rumble and so on.
I am less interested in how we control speech and much more interested in how we drain conspiracy culture of its energy, of its power. It’s not about changing Steve Bannon’s mind, but it is about looking at why he has such a following.
What stories can we be better at telling that replace the socialism of fools with the socialism of facts? I do think that we can do that better. There’s a moment where I felt like, “Well, can I write an article about Bill Gates without it not just fueling this?” And the conclusion I come to is absolutely, we must write about Bill Gates, we must write about Davos. We must not cede this territory to conspiracy culture because if they are the only ones who are talking about the hoovering up of wealth during the pandemic—if RFK is the only one talking about how billionaires massively enriched themselves during the pandemic and he’s hitching that to all kinds of dangerous and untrue things—then we are in very bad shape. I believe that right-wing conspiracy feeds off of left-wing silences and we need to step up.
LF: The other side that you lay out so interestingly in the book is, since when did we only have one self? You identify a lot of this in No Logo and it’s sort of been updated.
NK: It’s not fun being confused with somebody who’s spreading all kinds of dangerous medical misinformation. I actually feel weirdly grateful for the experience because it has taught me to hold on to myself a little less tightly, which I think we all honestly need to do if we’re going to do real collective work. We live in this age where we’re told that we have to optimize ourselves, even if we don’t use that language. The pressure that we’re putting on the self I think is part of why we’re seeing so many people crack. It’s our income; it’s our retirement; it’s our safety; it’s our lifeboat. It’s an illusion, because we cannot protect ourselves from the forces that we’re up against. Our only hope of protection is through collective work and collective movement building. We can either try to respond by armoring up, or we can embrace it and say, “Well, if everything I’ve done to build up my public self can be undone because countless people are confusing me with someone else who is doing things I am horrified by, well, I may as well just give up,” and there is joy in giving up.
LF: It also takes people to buy into the bait-and-switch, into the confusion. That’s where I come at the end of your book: We all need to connect better in person or at least remember what we know about people. How do we connect in a way where we’re not so vulnerable to lies about one another, where we actually believe what we know to be true about Naomi Klein, that she is not about to be sitting there with Steve Bannon.
NK: We have to be real about the fact that we don’t know each other just by following each other on Twitter. It’s also true we make mistakes, and that we’re very quick to believe the worst about people. I think we need to look at this from a systemic point of view. These are people who believed the lies capitalism told them that all they needed to do was play by the rules, make their money, protect themselves, protect their families. Suddenly, they were being told that they lived in a community and in a society and they had to care about all kinds of people, including people who didn’t look like them, and I think that that made a lot of brains break. On the other side, a lot of people embraced it. So many people had been waiting to be asked to check in on their neighbors and form mutual aid networks. I’m just worried we’re forgetting that.