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6 September 2023

Naomi Klein’s mirror world

The writer and activist on being mistaken for a conspiracy theorist.

By Sophie McBain

For 16 years after the Canadian activist Naomi Klein published No Logo (1999), the polemic against brand culture that propelled her to fame, she didn’t dare enter a Starbucks. She feels lucky that the book preceded social media. Even so, a photograph of her drinking a Diet Coke featured in a Canadian gossip column and reporters sifted her bins for branded products. “I felt incredibly scrutinised. In my head, I had to be so careful,” she told me when we met in London. But then, she added, a strange case of mistaken identity had helped her to let go.

Klein, 53, looks the same as when I interviewed her for the New Statesman almost ten years ago – same caramel highlights and neat blowout, the chic, understated dress of a newsreader – but is visibly more relaxed. That day in 2014 she was promoting her bestseller on the climate crisis, This Changes Everything, and she made a joke about being confused with Naomi Wolf and “dealing with people who are pissed off with [Wolf] – rightfully so at this point”.

This was only the start. As Wolf, the author of The Beauty Myth, moved ever deeper into conspiracist, alt-right circles, bizarrely, people found it ever harder to keep their Naomis apart. At first Klein was anxious and defensive, but “at a certain point you realise it’s very funny”, she told me. “When you realise that no matter what you do, a not insubstantial number of people are going to believe that you are spreading these wild theories, that you wrote a book about your vagina… it’s a message that you have to take yourself less seriously.”

By 2019, a poem did the rounds on Twitter: “If the Naomi be Klein/You’re doing just fine/If the Naomi be Wolf/Oh, buddy. Ooooof.” And then, during the pandemic, Naomi confusion peaked. Klein had moved from New Jersey to rural British Columbia with her young son and her husband, the film-maker Avi Lewis. Like most people she felt scared and isolated, and was also despairing about the climate crisis and feeling “very, very politically depressed”, having worked on Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign.

Wolf, on the other hand, was enjoying a surge in online popularity as a Covid denier who compared the vaccine roll-out to mass murder. On right-wing news outlets, she accused the global elite of using the pandemic to usher in mass surveillance. It was as if, Klein observed, she had lifted ideas from Klein’s 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, “fed them in a bonkers blender and shared the thought-purée with Tucker Carlson”. Klein became curious, and then obsessed: how had this liberal feminist become a regular guest on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast? She listened to War Room compulsively and began research on doppelgangers – reading Carl Jung, Philip Roth, and Dostoevsky.

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Klein’s new book, Doppelganger, starts somewhat brazenly as a study of Wolf, an attempt to trace her strange ideological journey, but builds into something bigger, exploring the bifurcation of our modern politics, the emergence of a conspiratorial mirror-world built on “alternate facts”, where neo-Nazis and new age wellness gurus have found common cause.

Klein discovered that the closer you look at a doppelganger, the better you understand yourself. She saw how populists such as Bannon and conspiracists such as Robert Kennedy Jr co-opt the ideas of the left. RFK Jr’s public messages are “a mimicry of what the left once was or should be. It’s anti-corporate, it’s anti-war, it’s suspicious of monopoly, the CIA. But it’s not offering anything. It’s not part of a movement that is working for collective change. It’s just that these really powerful ideas have not been used by the left lately,” she said. “I think the left is in a very confused state right now. There’s a vacuum that’s being filled.”

[See also: Why climate despair is a luxury]

Klein is concerned that instead of building an inclusive movement, the left has become ensnared in identity politics, treating minor infractions as major crimes and speaking in a jargon-laden language that alienates people outside university campuses. “I’m not dismissing identity politics,” she clarified. “All I’m saying is we must find ways to be in coalition with each other.”

Klein believes that the rise of figures such as RFK Jr should inspire renewed energy from the social democratic left. “If you’re a fake populist it’s much better to run against a corporate centrist [such as Biden] than it is to run against a real populist, because they reveal you as a fraud. They’re organising Amazon workers and nurses, and you’re just there talking and blaming immigrants,” she said.

Klein’s writing is always bold, ideas-driven and sweeping in its analysis. But Doppelganger is also a deeply personal book, one that traces unexpected connections between our divided politics and our rupturing modern identities – the pressure to cultivate personal brands and curated online personas. She writes movingly about raising her son, who is autistic, and of her painful interactions with other parents who simply cannot accept their child’s autism: if only they could extinguish the autistic traits, they seem to think, they might uncover the real son or daughter who has been stolen from them. Klein was conflicted about writing on this subject, and worries about her son, who is now 11, reading it, but it is politically salient: RFK Jr and others like him have built their online bases by falsely claiming a link between vaccines and autism.

While writing the book, Klein contacted Wolf several times for an interview and received no response. By June, she still hadn’t heard from her, although Wolf tweeted in response to the announcement of Doppelganger that “gosh I’m confused for @naomiklein continually but I’m too busy I fear to write about it”. The two women have met. When Klein was 20 she interviewed Wolf, then 28, about The Beauty Myth for her student paper, and the two stayed in touch for a while. It’s another unexpected connection: Klein acknowledges that meeting Wolf helped her realise that she might become a writer, too.

Alongside her writing, Klein teaches climate justice at the University of British Columbia. “I always say to my students, BC will break your heart because it’s so beautiful. But we are here witnessing the felling of the last great trees, we are witnessing the die-off of the salmon runs, we’re witnessing the starving of the orcas,” she told me. She takes her students on walks along the western Canadian coast, where the mountains touch the sea and you might see the sleek monochrome form of an orca breaking the surface. She warns that they will experience terrible loss, but that they cannot give up trying to avert climate catastrophe.

Among her current students – who spent formative years stuck at home, learning remotely – Klein is noticing a shift. “There’s been a real hangover and it’s starting to lift. Campus organising was dead, but things got so bad with the cost of living, rent and food, that they had no choice but to organise, and they are starting to find each other.” She argued that one reason that Sanders’ campaign failed, alongside other left-wing insurgencies such as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership in the UK, is that these movements had done too little grass-roots organising. “I had arguments with friends who were more serious socialists than me… who were sceptical of the Bernie campaign, saying, ‘You know you have to build your base, right?’”

Now, she was noticing more local activism and community organising, a determination to address inequalities rather than merely document them. “I hope the left is not as moribund as it may appear,” she said, “I think there’s a lot happening under the surface. It’s that slow organising of tenants, organising workers, organising debtors, so that when there is another opening it’s not all going to devolve into a series of podcasts.”

Doppelganger” is published in hardback by Allen Lane. Naomi Klein will be speaking at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall in London on 24 September.

[See also: How rising sea levels are reshaping the world]

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain