In Doppelganger, Naomi Klein enters the world’s “alter ego lands”

Naomi Klein’s Doppelganger is a personal story, but the ambition is grand – and important. Most liberals avoid and shut out weird post-Covid conspiracy theories, but Klein tries to face and understand this disturbing underworld.

If you know who Klein is, you’re probably aware of this Canadian author’s other popular books, No Logo (1999) and The Shock Doctrine (2007), where she relentlessly attacks neoliberal capitalism and corporate globalization. She’s also a climate activist.

Doppelganger, released in September 2023, is something else – and yet quite similar. While telling the story of her namesake, the feminist-turned-conspiracist Naomi Wolf, the author uses her experience of constantly being confused with the “other Naomi” as a stimulus for an inspired meditation on the so-called Mirror World.

If this sounds a bit Neil Gaiman-like, fret not – the book really is quite a fantastical contemplation, but it is also an intricate investigation of modern online culture and all its consequences in real life. It turns out there’s a doppelganger for nearly everything.

A mirror for everyone and everything

To Klein, it’s Wolf, as she keeps telling us. To vaccine and mask mandates implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s health and wellness influencers complaining about a genocidal “hygiene dictatorship” and urging you to refuse your jab and trust your body.

To Twitter, it’s X, turned by Elon Musk into a pseudo-social cloaca where multiple creeps, hustlers, and state-sponsored accounts now regularly regurgitate their smelly contents.

To every rich white person who may personally condemn discrimination, racism, the “extermination of the brutes” in the Americas and Africa, pollution, and poverty in the Global South, there’s a doppelganger-type extension, a second body, an evil twin who is guilty of fueling all that.

We can go on and on, and Klein certainly does – for instance, to her, Israel is the doppelganger of the colonial project, specifically settler colonialism, seeking to “tame the wild frontier” of Palestinian territories.

She’s also keen to stress that Israel itself occupies a bizarre psychological space as both victim and perpetrator – the idea is especially interesting now, during the ongoing clashes between Hamas and Israeli forces.

"The book is an intricate investigation of modern online culture and all its consequences in real life. It turns out there’s a doppelganger for nearly everything."

However, Klein, who is Jewish, also devotes a bunch of pages to deconstructing several myths about Jews, sadly alive even today – many still roar about the Jewish attraction to socialist and communist ideology, for example.

“Jewish interest in the theoretical side of what we now call Marxism – with its sweeping and scientific explications and analyses of global capitalism – is an attempt to compete with those conspiracy theories that have dogged our people through the ages,” retorts Klein.

“That all the thousands of pages of theories and manifestos are, partly at least, a long procession of Jews banging their heads against the brick wall of history and saying: No, your money problems are not the result of Jewish ‘shysters’ ripping off hardworking ‘goyim’ – they flow from a system that was designed to extract maximum wealth from working people. And that system is not called the ‘Illuminati’ or the ‘Elders of Zion’ – it’s called capitalism.”

She also quotes Abram Leon, a Belgian leftist, who was killed in Auschwitz but wrote while in hiding that Adolf Hitler cleverly directed societal discontent “at a chimera the Nazis called Jewish capitalism,” even though what should have been targeted was capitalism as a system.

One can agree with Klein, and one can, of course, disagree too. The US and the rich certainly deserve contempt at times.

But I think it’s safe to say that it’s extremely cringy when excited zoomers of the year 2023 are employing Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America,” written in 2002, where the former head of Al Qaeda says that America provoked 9/11 by supporting Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Almost any piece of American history could be used to prove a point, but you choose bin Laden?

The MAGA crowd knows Big Tech

Now, of course, Cybernews is a news website focusing on cybersecurity and general tech, and so far, I haven’t really mentioned anything related to modern technology trends. But bear with me.

Just like the Nazis in the 1930s, Stephen Bannon and his international network of bigots are also ranting at an imaginary cabal of “globalists” as if it could be cut out from the structures that “created and protect the global billionaire class intact,” says Klein, who clearly thinks Bannon is a threat that America needs to pay attention to.

And most of the action takes place online, of course – in the Shadow Lands, which is what Klein calls these conspiratorial corners of the internet.

An entire doppelganger-ish ecosystem exists online – when someone is pushed out of progressive mainstream conversations or communities for saying something hurtful, hateful, or ignorant. Liberals celebrate, but these people don’t disappear just because we can no longer see them.

Don’t like X? There’s a copycat site, Gettr, that’s seeking to attract right-wingers (although getting banned from X is now basically impossible).

Right-wingers have an alternative to X. But do they need it, really? Image by Shutterstock.

YouTube “censorship” has an alternative on Rumble, Instagram’s doppelganger is Parler, and if GoFundMe doesn’t want you to raise money for a Freedom March, GiveSendGo, “The #1 Free Christian Fundraising Site,” will lend you a helping hand.

This version of the online world may not like facts and truth too much, but it’s a collective. It’s alive and kicking, and that’s what Klein actually – and surprisingly – praises Bannon for, and argues that the cancel culture really helps his lot.

“While most of us who oppose his political project choose not to see him, he is watching us closely. The issues we are abandoning, the debates we aren’t having, the people we are insulting and discarding,” writes Klein.

The Bannonites even discuss what they call “Big Tech Warfare” – a dystopian future where rich tech executives buy genetic upgrades for themselves and their kids. Again, this is a neglected issue with cross-partisan appeal, and it’s highly strategic to pick up resonant issues your opponent has left unattended.

Klein says surveillance capitalism and the AI revolution were able to “sneak up on us” with little debate, and now our personal data is routinely sold to third parties and can influence everything from loan eligibility to what job postings we see.

Bannon’s goals aren’t wealth and equality for all, Klein stresses, but again, he sees all that and is smart enough to focus precisely on very real fears of Big Tech. The problem, then, is the sad fact that once an issue is touched by “them,” the liberals conclude that the issue is almost untouchable.

The American far right is pretty united, Klein says – unlike large parts of the left: “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.”

“When entire categories of people are reduced to their race and gender and labeled ‘privileged,’ there is little room to confront the myriad ways that working-class white men and women are abused under our predatory capitalist order,” writes the author.

People as brands in the attention economy

I have to say I found Klein’s ideas about social media and our online avatars especially interesting – maybe because I’m myself tempted to consider social media guilty of disfiguring the world’s mental health.

Klein writes of singular personality disorder as the most important sector of the attention economy, requiring that each person becomes a brand. Everyone curates and packages their social media accounts and profiles to make them “look good.”

To some, it’s just play. They don’t care. But to most, packaging themselves and their lives into a consumable commodity seems almost unavoidable. The problem is the partitioning between real people and this thing they want others to see is another form of doubling, Klein says.

“My students have grown up with an acute consciousness of having an externalized double – a digital double, an idealized identity that is partitioned from their ‘real’ selves and that serves as a role they must perform for the benefit of others if they are to succeed,” says the author.

If you’re active socially and, say, reacted dramatically – but inwardly – to the Black Lives Matter marches, you must have felt the pressure to post something pro-BLM on Instagram because otherwise, others would assume you to be a racist. That’s what one of Klein’s students told her.

But isn’t there something wrong with a culture that values public performances of a virtuous self more than anything you might actually do IRL? How do we even know what is real and who can be trusted?

While the online avatars hustle and spin, we’re forced to ask which of these opinions are genuine and which are for show, what is authentic and what is clever advertising or, once again, an exercise in branding.

Here’s another quote from one of Klein’s students: “If every human is supposed to define and defend themselves as a fixed, rigid brand, then humanity itself is being made less human – less capable of changing and evolving, even in the face of pressing ecological and political crises.”

Klein wholeheartedly agrees – according to her, personal branding hurts our ability to think and adapt to changing circumstances, and this is extremely important today when our planet, our shared home, is about to burn.

That’s actually Klein’s singular advice – unsurprisingly, a supporter of organized labor ends this eloquently written lullaby (an intense one) with a call for collective organizing. Coming together and working for meaningful change makes us braver, more connected, and more hopeful.