Naomi Klein identifies some of the economic and social factors that fertilise the ground for right-wing conspiracy theorists, but doesn’t explain how they can be overcome, argues CHRISTINE THOMAS.
Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World
By Naomi Klein
Published by Allen Lane, 2023, £25
Canadian writer Naomi Klein is best known for her anti-capitalist and climate crisis books, some of which have been reviewed in previous issues of Socialism Today. Her latest book, Doppelganger, is much more personal, inspired by the mainstream and social media world constantly confusing her with US writer Naomi Wolf. This wasn’t such a problem when, in the early 1990s, Wolf was “inspiring women to become feminists”. However, with the advent of the Covid pandemic, Wolf’s evolution took a disturbing turn for Klein, becoming a renowned peddler of Covid conspiracy theories.
Even in her first book, The Beauty Myth, Wolf had been promoting the idea, like many 90s feminists, that ‘the patriarchy’ was attempting to undermine women as pay back for the gains that feminism had made: “Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that [women] will buy more things if they are kept in the self-hating, ever-failing, hungry, and sexually insecure state of being aspiring ‘beauties’”. But, as Klein rightly comments, “playing on those insecurities does not constitute a plot to keep us down, as Wolf was suggesting, it’s just an example of plain old capitalism doing its thing, finding new and novel ways to commodify every aspect of life”.
Covid transformed these early signs of mistaking commercial opportunism for conspiracy into dangerous ideas, with Wolf taking on the mantle of prominent ‘misinformer’ and ‘misinfuencer’, and, whether consciously or not, becoming an ally of the far right, in particular through her association with US alt-right guru Steve Bannon. As an anti-capitalist, Klein was understandably appalled that she was being tainted in this way, but also curious about her ‘doppelganger’, finding herself pulled further and further into what she describes as the ‘Mirror World’.
In between the personal testimony, copious cultural references, and somewhat rambling and scattergun narrative, her delving into this world provides some useful insights into how conspiracy ideas can take a certain hold. Unfortunately, however, while raising interesting points, she never really addresses how deeply or not those ideas go, and her attempts at explaining how they can be combatted fall short of the mark.
In her book, Shock Doctrine (2007), Naomi Klein exposed the way in which capitalist corporations and states ruthlessly profit from disasters. In Doppelganger she explores the affect a state of shock – “experiencing a sudden and unprecedented event for which we do not yet have an adequate explanation” – can have in shaping consciousness and outlook. The Covid pandemic, argues Klein, was such a shock-inducing event, leading to confusion, isolation, fear, loss of identity, and creating an environment in which conspiracy theories could flourish.
Of course, as Klein says, “conspiracies have always swirled in times of crises”, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US being one recent example. But how widely and deeply they resonate will be influenced by the socio-economic and political context of the crisis event and the “post-shock states of confusion”. The pandemic “melded with economic upheavals and climate disasters”: another crisis in an unstable, insecure, and unpredictable world, in which neoliberalism and individualism had flourished at the expense of collective struggle.
In Fire with Fire, published in 1993, and described by Klein as a “power-feminism” manifesto, Naomi Wolf herself had popularised and become a prominent spokesperson for individualist ‘post-feminist’ ideas which dominated when neoliberalism was at its peak, entreating women to change themselves rather than collectively fight for a radical overturn of the structures that underpin women’s oppression. Individual women just had to see themselves as empowered rather than as victims in order to obtain an equality that was in their grasp.
However, from her exploration of the ‘Mirror World’, Klein is careful to make a distinction between the far right with its “political endgame”, marrying conspiracy with anti-immigrant, ‘anti-globalist’ and ‘anti-woke’ rhetoric; Wolf, who she supposes is motivated mainly by “a desire for attention, for ego gratification, for cash” – and as a ‘liberal’ gives credence to the far-right pretence that they are ‘beyond left and right’; and those ordinary people who have been influenced by the false ideas that both have spread. The pandemic aroused or amplified genuine fears about the world, “rooted not in fantasy but reality” and so all those who bought into those ideas shouldn’t simply be dismissed as fascists or crazy, as some on the left have done: “conspiracy theorists get the facts wrong but often get the feelings right”.
Conspiracy theories themselves, argues Klein, are “both symptoms of confusion and powerlessness and tools of division and distraction that benefit elites”. Those sowing misinformation and baseless claims for political ends exploit and fuel real fears, identify issues “normally the territory of opponents”, and often absorb “the language and postures of the oppressed”. Klein points to the “brokenness of structures” – trade unions, ‘close-knit’ neighbourhoods’ – and the promotion of individual over collective solutions to problems, whether economic or social, as some of the factors underlying the fertile ground for conspiracy theories to take root and grow when the Covid pandemic struck.
In previous articles in Socialism Today we have written about the impact of the ‘Great Recession’ of 2007-2008 in changing the consciousness and political outlook of millions of working and middle-class people internationally. Bailing out the banks and financial institutions at the expense of ordinary people; the brutal ‘age of austerity’; a yawning chasm between the rich at the top and those struggling to keep their heads above water – all fuelled a scepticism of and anger at ‘elites’, at ‘the 1%’, at ‘the establishment’, and the beginning of a questioning and rejection of capitalist ideology and institutions. It reinforced an alienation from political parties, including those once considered the collective representatives of working people which, in the decades from the end of the post-war boom, had moved towards embracing neoliberalism as the only economic policy on offer: a process speeded up after the collapse of the Stalinist states in Russia and eastern Europe from 1989 – completing their transformation into outright capitalist parties.
In many countries the initial fallout from global economic crisis drove a turn towards collective struggle, sometimes on a mass scale, such as the 32 general strikes in Greece at the time of the 2011 euro crisis. When Klein writes that “our movement never won power”, however, she is referring mainly to social movements such as Occupy Wall St, which were also a reaction to the economic crisis and its aftermath. She has very little to say about trade union struggle or the new political left parties and organisations that exploded into existence in the turmoil of the post-recession period; Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, the movement around Bernie Sanders in the US, Corbynism in Britain, which were all symptoms of a searching for left anti-capitalist and even socialist solutions to a world in crisis.
However, where the political vacuum had not been filled in the wake of the ‘bourgeoisification’ of traditional workers’ parties, or where the new left parties and movements failed to provide the alternative that people were seeking, either in opposition or in government, this created an opening for right-populist forces to emerge and grow. It’s significant that a section of working-class and middle-class people who initially supported Sanders in the US when he stood for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 then switched to Donald Trump after Sanders had endorsed Hillary Clinton and refused to organise an independent stand against both big business parties.
So when Covid struck, for some people who already had a deep-seated mistrust of those in power and could see no collective or credible alternative explanation of what was happening, the arguments that Wolf and others were making before and during the pandemic – that creeping authoritarianism, for example, was in danger of tipping the US into a fascist police ‘surveillance’ state – could gain some purchase. Imposed from above by a political class divorced from the concerns of ordinary people, ‘vaccine passports’, along with mandatory masks and lockdowns, could be framed and accepted as grave attacks on individual liberty and freedom, ushering in a Nazi-style two-tiered society in which those who refused the Covid vaccine were designated as second-class citizens, denied basic rights.
Similarly, Wolf and others “began tapping into deep and latent cultural fears about the many ways that previously private parts of our lives have become profit centres for all-seeing Silicon Valley giants”. So Big Tech mining our personal data to make money stoked fears about how the information on vaccine apps could be exploited by ‘those who hold the power in society’. In the same way, years of safety concerns surrounding Big Pharma prioritising profits over people’s health – not least the opioid crisis in the US, which has killed more people than the Covid virus itself – were magnified under the pandemic, fuelling anti-vaxxers. Far-right conspiracy theorists were able to exploit these genuine fears, argues Klein, because “there was weak resistance amongst progressives to the way vaccine manufacturers were profiteering from the pandemic”. Thus, what was in reality “pandemic opportunism” became reframed as a planned plot by the pharmaceutical companies and other big corporations to control, and place at risk, bodies and lives.
Klein quotes the European Commission’s definition of conspiracy theory as “the belief that certain events or situations are secretly manipulated behind the scenes by powerful forces with a negative intent”. However, as Klein points out, this leaves out the most important factor: whether or not the theory in question is true or false. In the 1970s the US, through the CIA, backed a conspiracy to overthrow Allende, the socialist president of Chile. This is just one example of many where US imperialism has either covertly or overtly intervened to overthrow a government or individuals threatening its economic or geopolitical interests. Capitalist governments, state apparatuses and corporations conspire to cover up scandals and the consequences of their actions. The system really is rigged. “Power and wealth conspire to protect themselves. It happens in public, and it happens in private. It happens in the spotlight and it happens in the shadows”. It’s not such a great leap therefore to believe that Covid was a ‘bioweapon designed by the Chinese to cull us’, or that the pandemic was a hoax, or that shadowy globalist elites and institutions had fabricated it in order to bring about a ‘Great Reset’.
Klein writes that the Covid pandemic threw up a disparate alliance of “strange bedfellows”: the traditional right; QAnon; alternative health subcultures; neo-Nazis; concerned parents; small business owners etc. Protests and demonstrations sprang up in many countries, some large, some pitifully small. Klein mentions one of the more substantial protests, the three-week ‘Freedom Convoy’ of truck drivers which began in her home city of Ottawa, spreading over the border to the US and, to a lesser extent, to Europe.
It is significant however – although Klein doesn’t deal with this – that nowhere did any of these heterogeneous movements succeed in coalescing into lasting coalitions or political forces. This doesn’t mean, of course, that they haven’t been politically exploited by the far right in particular, or that similar movements could not be sparked again, given the underlying grievances and anger, but they are clearly volatile and fluid, and do not provide a stable social base.
This volatility has already been evident in the rise, fall, and rise again, in some cases, of right-wing populist parties. Where they have succeeded in harnessing some of the working and middle-class rage at insecurity, inequality and austerity, this has not for the most part equated to deeply rooted support for their anti-immigrant or other policies, but a desire to ‘shake up the system’, a desperate searching for solutions to searing economic and social problems that are not on offer from establishment parties. When right-populist parties are tested in government and found wanting, support can dissipate as quickly as it grew. This has been the case, for example, with the Freedom Party in Austria. In 1999 it obtained nearly 27% of the vote, falling to 10% after it went into a coalition government with the OVP, then up again to 26% in 2017, down to 16% in 2019 after a political favours scandal and now, after Covid, are leading in the opinion polls. The roots of right-populist electoral support are shallow and ephemeral, but with a continued absence of a political alternative from the left, the seeds for a right-populist revival will remain.
Klein is correct in her analysis that the kernel of anti-system, anti-elite sentiments underlying the spread of conspiracy theories during Covid is an indication that had an anti-capitalist political alternative been on offer those ideas could have been cut across. She outlines the kind of programme that such a movement could have fought for during Covid: greater investments in public health systems; proper protective gear at work; adequate sick leave; “establishing a democratic, noncorporate media – through public broadcasting and community access to the airwaves”; and control of Big Pharma. But, she writes, “unfortunately, there was never a truly mass organizing strategy to push for that kind of ambitious agenda”.
She laments that unprecedented state intervention during the pandemic – “an extreme and historic deviation from every major public policy trend of the last half century” – the rediscovery of community solidarity, that “we were a society after all”, and the applause for “those whose lives and labor had been most systematically devalued, discounted, and demeaned before the pandemic” were not, as she had hoped, a catalyst for a movement that could bring about structural change. But in exactly the same way she writes that she and others had held out the hope that “the [2007-08] crash could catalyze a democratic revival and a new era of left power, one that would discipline corporate might and empower flailing democracies to address our many surging emergencies, including the climate emergency”.
Because Klein has no real understanding of why “our movement never won power” she manages somehow to be simultaneously pessimistic and naively optimistic about what is possible. She urges us to imagine a different world, to “analyse underlying systems that build and uphold power in our word”, and to have a “structural critique” of capitalism, but she has no “organising strategy” for linking that analysis to ‘acting’ and building a movement that can fight for systemic change, even though she recognises that this is necessary.
She has nothing to say, for example, about trade union organisation in the workplace during Covid to enforce safety measures – such as we saw in Britain on public transport and in schools – which gave workers confidence in their own strength and was a foretaste of the cost-of-living strike wave which followed. She does mention in passing “unconventional union organizing at corporations like Amazon and Starbucks”, but it’s clear that she sees trade unions and the working class as just one of many different forms of collective organisation, and not one that has a pivotal role in building a struggle that can ‘win power’ because of its place in the capitalist production process and its potential collective power.
Path to power
Klein is critical of the fragmentation of social and political movements, calling for the building of alliances, and is scathing about the divisiveness of identity politics; when “entire categories of people are reduced to their race and gender, and labelled ‘privileged’,” because then “there is little room to confront the myriad of ways that working-class white men and women are abused under our predatory capitalist order, with left-wing movements losing many opportunities for alliances that would make us stronger and more powerful”. And yet she has no analysis of why alliances failed in the past.
She writes about the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement, which in the late 1990s and early 2000s was a precursor of social protests like Occupy Wall St, mentioning in particular Italy. But where is the critique of Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), one of the first new left parties, which split from the Italian Communist Party when it began its transformation into a capitalist party after the collapse of Stalinism? No mention of the fact that under its leader Fausto Bertinotti the party completely tail-ended the ‘no global’ movement, stating that it wasn’t the role of the PRC to give political direction but to instead follow exactly what the movement itself wanted. With no programme or strategy for fundamental system change the ‘no global’ movement inevitably declined, as did the PRC itself after forming a government with capitalist parties; paving the way for the rise of the populist right, having justified its participation in the government as the only means of blocking them!
Klein also writes about her personal involvement in Bernie Sanders’ second attempt at becoming the Democratic presidential candidate in 2019. “We felt so powerful on the campaign trail”; “we didn’t pull it off”, but “we learned a critical lesson: an election is too fleeting and unstable a container to hold a message as important as ‘Not me. Us’”. The critical lesson should have been that Sanders made a serious error in embracing ‘lesser evilism’ and not standing as an independent against Hillary Clinton in 2016; that he should have built on the mass support he had ignited among workers, young people and sections of the middle class around his anti-austerity, anti-corporate programme to create an independent third-party challenge to both Republicans and Democrats. His failure to do so has left a gaping political vacuum that could even see Trump re-elected as US president later this year.
Of course, there were weaknesses in Sanders’ programme, as there were in Jeremy Corbyn’s, the experience of the PRC, and, more importantly, Syriza in government in Greece in 2015, implementing devastating austerity measures under the dictates of the EU, IMF and international money markets, rather than rallying the working class to resist after winning a referendum to oppose such measures. These examples clearly show that it’s not enough for a left party to come into being or to get into government, it also has to have a programme that can mobilise the working class to challenge and overthrow the capitalist system and ‘win power’. In the case of Syriza this would have initially necessitated a refusal to pay the public debt, the introduction of controls to prevent a flight of capital, nationalisation of the banks and financial institutions as a first step towards public ownership of the major companies and a democratic plan of production, and an appeal to the working class in Europe and internationally for solidarity.
However, the building of mass parties, with the organised working class at their core – which was not the case with Syriza – will be an important factor in promoting collective struggle; forming a political counterweight to conspiracy theories and the ideas of the populist right; providing an arena for learning the real lessons of past struggles and for debating the kind of programme that will be necessary to create, and not just imagine, “a new world”. Naomi Klein can declare that the “jury is in on capitalism” but like many anti-capitalist academics she sees no clear path to ending it.