| Doppelganger A Trip into the Mirror World | MR Online

‘Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World’ – book review

Originally published: Counterfire on March 28, 2024 (more by Counterfire)  |

The collapse of ‘politics as usual’ has led to some strange and unpredictable outcomes. The Donald Trump phenomenon is one—as indeed is the gerontocracy which now competes for political power in the U.S. Another is the rise of conspiracy theories on a wide scale—often blamed on social media but stemming from greater social malaise and given impetus by the covid pandemic and lockdowns. Another is the growth of far-right parties often led by ‘charismatic’ figures with backgrounds in broadcast media, attracting people who might once have supported traditional left organisations. All are signs of the crisis of neoliberalism.

| Naomi Klein Doppelganger A Trip into the Mirror World Allen Lane 2023 399pp | MR Online

Naomi Klein, Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World (Allen Lane 2023), 399pp.

Naomi Klein’s new book deals with these and many other issues. Its title comes from the German word meaning a person’s ‘double’ and its initial hook is the idea of Klein’s own double ‘the other Naomi’. The other is the U.S. feminist Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth and Fire with Fire, two influential books in the 1990s. These were respectively a critique of the notion of ‘beauty’ within capitalism, and an advocacy of ‘power’ rather than ‘victim’ feminism. Wolf’s feminism fitted with mainstream Democrat Party politics, to the extent of advising then President Bill Clinton.

So the fact that people tended to confuse Wolf with Naomi Klein, Canadian author and activist, of a similar age and both of them middle-class north American Jewish, was, initially, not too troubling. What happens, however, when ‘the other Naomi’ becomes fascinated with conspiracy theories, is lionised by right-wing media and increasingly vocal about, for example, opposition to the covid vaccine?

It’s here that Klein becomes increasingly alarmed that people confuse the two of them, and that she therefore might be blamed for saying things that are very far from her own beliefs. So Klein gets increasingly, on her own account, obsessed with her doppelganger and tries to grapple with the politics behind her views and how they can take hold. In the course of her research, she watches right-wing videos, studies what Steve Bannon has to say, and looks for explanations for why this is happening.

I feel it’s important to say here that I’m unconvinced by this theme of the book. It’s a big stretch to bring in all the politics and analysis that Klein does bring in, and often very convincingly, by using her doppelganger as the hook. It’s also a stretch to use the same idea to discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict, although her political points on this are very good. So to me the connections or otherwise between her and Naomi Wolf are the weaker parts of the book. She has however made an impact, not least in preventing people confusing her with Wolf (at the top of the latter’s Wikipedia page it says not to be confused with Naomi Klein)!

It also tends to make the book somewhat discursive and unfocussed. Or rather, the main focus tends to be reduced to the question of the doppelganger, instead of the wider questions that Klein does address. That both reduces the impact of some of her arguments and also tends to make the book slightly irritating, to this reviewer at least. Which is a shame because there is much in this book that is valuable, however, and that Klein approaches with an honest and sensitive take on what are difficult problems for the left.

Weaknesses of the left

The first is the left itself. Why are so many working-class or lower middle-class people taken in by the conspiracy theories and why has the left failed to win them? Naomi Klein’s lengthy interrogation of the politics of the right produce some interesting results. She is critical of a left which claims to be inclusive and caring: ‘But left movements often behave in ways that are neither inclusive nor caring … we also don’t put enough thought into how to build alliances with people who are not already in our movements.’ (p.126).

And when discussing the far-right Steve Bannon and his attempts to appeal to those well to his left traditionally:

… he sticks, fairly judiciously, to the issues where there is most common ground: hating Biden, rejecting vaccines, bashing Big Tech, fearmongering about migrants, casting doubt on election results (p.127).

This is in contrast to the left:

Important disagreements need to be hashed out, and many conflicts that arise in progressive spaces are over behaviours that, when unchallenged, make those spaces unwelcoming or dangerous for the people they target. But it’s not a great secret that plenty of people routinely go too far, turning minor language infractions into major crimes, while adopting a discourse that is so complex and jargon-laden that people outside university settings often find it off-putting—or straight-up absurd (p.127).

On this Klein is absolutely right and it is one of the weaknesses of the left in the past decade or so that it has become far too much defined in this way. She talks about a fairly broad left, but these methods have permeated considerable sections of even the far left and is both a reaction to and a contributory factor of the left’s isolation from working-class people.

She continues:

Moreover, when entire categories of people are reduced to their race and gender, and labelled “privileged”, there is little room to confront the myriad ways that working-class white men and women are abused under our predatory capitalist order… (p.127).

In such situations, what Klein calls the ‘mirror world’ of the right-wing conspiracy theorists can become attractive to working-class people, because it seems to take them seriously and to provide apparently compelling, if false, answers to their problems. This leads to related questions of why people are attracted to conspiracy theories and is it right for liberals for simply dismiss them as ignorant or duped by figures like Bannon or Trump?

The conspiratorial world

It’s important to point out here that some ‘conspiracy theories’ may not be such at all, but may be true. Currently, the BBC has been denouncing press reports in other countries about the Princess of Wales as ‘conspiracy theories’ but it still may turn out that these stories of affairs or potential divorces are based in fact. We know that governments do lie, that they cover up, are prone to corruption, and that multinational companies do act against the interests of ordinary people, the environment and social wellbeing. When we have seen such major conspiracies as the plan to take us into an illegal war with Iraq, it’s not surprising that there is widespread and justifiable scepticism about politicians.

As Klein says of the widespread conspiracy theories around covid, people like Bannon love them because ‘they reliably shift attention away from the scandals we know about and that many have already painstakingly proved, and focus us, perennially, on something more explosive, something that is just on the verge of being proved (The election really was stolen! The vaccines really are killing babies! And doctors!) but never quite yet.’ (p.225).

In fact, she argues, there was no need to invent conspiracies about vaccine apartheid when rich and poor countries had such different access to them, or to talk about covid internment camps when prisons or Amazon warehouses were seeing the virus rip through them.

Klein says that her main difference with Wolf is that she has a critique of capitalism whereas Wolf is a liberal whose feminism meant advancement for people like her and not for wider systemic change. She is incapable therefore of seeing the world other than through the lens of individual heroes or villains. That’s a good point, but it’s also true that too much of the left has adopted a great deal of the liberal agenda. The uncritical adoption of identity politics has tended to see class as just one other element of oppression rather than to see it as the central dynamic of capitalist society. This not only tends to underplay the role of working-class people as a collective, it also misdirects the left as to the real agency of change.

The present conflict in Gaza obviously occurred after the book’s publication. Klein has been, like many Jewish people, a staunch and vocal opponent of what is supposedly done in her name as a Jewish person. In Doppelganger she devotes some argument to questions of Jewishness, anti-Semitism and the role of Israel. She recounts some of the history of left-wing Jews and praises the young Trotskyist Abram Leon, who died in Auschwitz and whose book The Jewish Question is still so relevant to socialists today. She is also quite brave in her criticism of Zionism.

She describes Leon’s analysis, ‘Leon was arguing that class solidarity between workers, across ethnic lines, was the primary competition and threat to the Nazi project’ (p. 294). This debate was, however, ‘murdered midsentence’ (p.295) by the Holocaust. Instead Zionism became the dominant ideology for Jews. ‘Zionism’s offer after its ideological competitors were drastically weakened was simple: rather than trying to defeat anti-Semitism by getting at its roots, we will hold a gun to its head and force it into submission’ (p.295). This marks a more serious analysis than the ideas of doppelganger or mirror world would suggest, since those cannot give us a clear view of the Palestine conflict.

As you might be aware from this review, the book is quite hard to condense given the wide variety of topics it contains. There is much in it that is valuable and thought provoking. It is a pity therefore that too great a portion of it is shoehorned into a thesis which tends towards introspection and subjectivity—and which doesn’t quite fit the themes it addresses. That means finding the nuggets of real value in the book requires also reading quite a lot that is much less engaging.

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