In June 2021, shortly after she was kicked off Twitter, Naomi Wolf gave an interview to Rosie Kinchen of the Sunday Times. ‘She is increasingly out on a limb,’ Kinchen observed, listing Wolf’s top topics of the time, the anti-lockdown stuff and the anti-masking and the terror of ‘vaccine passports’, and noting that she had just appeared on Steve Bannon’s hard-right War Room webcast. ‘Look, I’m a progressive Democrat,’ Wolf said. ‘I would be delighted to be talking to CNN and MSNBC and publishing in the New York Times like I used to, but those are not the platforms that are calling me, they aren’t the ones who want to talk about rights and freedoms.’ ‘How Wolf ended up here is … an interesting story,’ Kinchen wrote, recalling Wolf’s decades as a ‘liberal-left … darling’, author of The Beauty Myth (1990) and political consultant to Al Gore.
Naomi Klein, who has had reason to make an extremely close study of this story, sees her collapse into conspiracism as sometimes sudden, sometimes gradual, but having taken a sickening lurch in the Covid era: ‘tainted, murderous vaccines’; the World Health Organisation in league with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in a ‘transnational group of bad actors’; ‘Dear Friends, Sorry to Announce a Genocide’. And it’s been no better since Wolf was allowed back on ‘X’, as we must now call it after Elon Musk took over Twitter. ‘Ed Dowd Reveals Astonishing Death Rates in the UK,’ her feed had pinned the last time I looked. Dowd is the author of a book that claims Covid vaccines are killing people, especially the young and apparently fit.
Klein herself, by contrast, is famous for the calm and poise with which she mainstreams a clear, solidly leftist political-economic critique: brands and marketing in No Logo (1999), the neoliberal takeover in The Shock Doctrine (2007), corporate greenwashing in This Changes Everything: Capitalism v. the Climate (2014). And yet Klein too found herself unravelling during the Covid era, as her new book, Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World (Allen Lane, £25), relates. ‘“Gather together, find your footing and your story.” That is the advice I have been giving for two decades about how to stay out of shock during moments of collective trauma … Solid advice. But Covid made it so very hard to act on.’
Klein’s 2020 had begun ‘with manic intensity’, out campaigning for Bernie Sanders to win the Democratic presidential nomination. ‘On the exhilarating days … part of me thought we might actually pull it off and get Bernie into the Oval Office, as improbable as that seemed.’ But then in April, Sanders folded, and Klein found herself locked down in New Jersey with her eight-year-old son, ‘trying in vain to help him learn online, and, more important, to soothe his porous soul, which could not help but absorb the terror that surrounded us’. The household moved to be near Klein’s parents on ‘a rock’ in British Columbia, three hours from the nearest city. ‘Going online to try to find some simulation of the friendships and communities I missed,’ Klein found instead ‘The Confusion: a torrent of people discussing me and what I’d said and what I’d done – only it wasn’t me. It was her. Which raised an alarming question: Who, then, was I?’
Klein had already noticed a habit, among the inattentive, of getting their Naomis mixed up – ‘We both write big-idea books … We both have brown hair that sometimes goes blonde from overhighlighting … We’re both Jewish,’ and both have enormous followings online. But the pandemic changed an occasional irritant into a full-on mind-fuck. Nine months into her rock-life new normal, Klein angrily responded to a Twitter user who had accused her of comparing government vaccine mandates to Nazis forcing Jews to wear yellow stars: the algorithm, it turned out, was so accustomed to the word ‘Naomi’ being followed by ‘Wolf’ in such contexts that it was autocompleting it. ‘Which also meant that anything I did to correct the record … would just train the algorithm to confuse us even more.’
Doppelganger is both more literary and more personal than Klein’s other books. She reads Freud and Poe and Ursula Le Guin and Dostoevsky, and gets over her loathing of Philip Roth’s misogyny to find a surprising richness in the Bundism-Zionism face-off dramatised in Operation Shylock (1993); her bad back, her son’s neuroatypicality, the No Logo seam-rippers she handed out on her first ever book tour, all are given their little parts to play. But really, Klein’s purpose is to use her doppelganger adventures as ‘a narrow aperture’ into what she calls the Mirror World: an alternative-media ecosystem of blogs and podcasts, e-books and newsletters largely ignored by liberal-to-left-leaning, highly educated bien pensants, but which has been ballooning, especially since the coming of Covid-19.
It’s a huge mistake, Klein thinks, to see Wolf in recent years as having ‘lost it’. The New York Times no longer calls her, so she took her followers with her ‘over the edge’, where she found the new and even bigger audience of virus denialists and anti-vaxxers, wellness gurus and religious fundamentalists that Bannon was gathering in his twice-daily War Room. Bannon took it as a ‘badge of honour’, according to Stuart Thompson of the New York Times, when the Brookings Institution declared his talk show misinformation superspreader number one. ‘How many followers? How many likes? Retweets? Shares? Views?’ Klein asks. ‘If volume is the name of the game, these crossover stars who find new levels of celebrity on the right aren’t lost – they are found.’ Wolf, as Klein says, may well still think Bannon is ‘the devil’, in which case she may be some sort of Faust. ‘She is getting everything she once had and lost – attention, respect, money, power. Just through a warped mirror.’
‘Thank you very much ma’am for your diligence on this,’ Bannon said to Wolf on a War Room episode from May. ‘It is a group effort,’ she said. ‘Thank you to you and to the posse.’ She had been pushing, not for the first time, an e-book called The War Room/DailyClout Pfizer Documents Analysis Reports, in which volunteer ‘patriots’ purport to uncover evil things about the mRNA vaccine. She looked and sounded absolutely great. Bannon is polite, ‘even generous’, Klein writes, to his disaffected Democrats, praising them for the courageous positions they have taken on whatever it is that has earned them the scorn of their erstwhile admirers. He ‘skates lightly’ over traditional conservative issues – abortion, gun rights – ‘likely to alienate … his new-found friends’. He makes them welcome, lets them feel good about themselves. They bloom and glow in the attention. And on they come again, and they’re hooked.
‘At first, I thought what I was seeing … was mostly grifting unbound. Over time, though, I started to get the distinct impression that I was also witnessing a new and dangerous political formation find itself in real time: its alliances, worldview, slogans, enemies, code words and no-go zones – and, most of all, its ground game for taking power.’ ‘Diagonalism,’ as Klein says, is the word William Callison and Quinn Slobodian have used to characterise these new alliances, ‘born in part from transformations in technology and communication’ and ‘generally arcing towards far-right beliefs’, while also contesting ‘conventional monikers of left and right’. Diagonalists, in this typology, mostly self-identify as middle-class and are disproportionately self-employed. Klein is particularly interested in the wellness-anti-vaxxer connection, which she thinks is partly to do with all the yoga teachers going bust over lockdown and partly with media chatter about immune systems and inflammation – diagonalism being largely ‘a fight over science’, as Callison and Slobodian say.
Bannon likes Wolf, Klein thinks, because she brings in the ‘pissed-off, mostly white suburban moms … genuinely worried about the well-being of their kids and … done being dismissed and mocked as “Karens” by mean liberals’. She helps them feel okay about swerving rightwards and she chucks them loads of nonsense for them to get their teeth into. ‘Other Naomi,’ in other words, ‘is at the nexus of several forces that, while ridiculous in the extreme, are nonetheless important, since the confusion they sow and the oxygen they absorb increasingly stand in the way of pretty much anything helpful or healthful that humans might, at some point, decide to accomplish together.’ And worse: ‘It is not only an individual who can have a sinister double; nations and cultures have them too … Democratic to authoritarian. Secular to theocratic … The fascist clown state that is the ever present twin of liberal Western democracies.’
It’s usual, when hunting down a doppelganger, to come face to face at some point with all the things one most fears about oneself, and like Klein I cannot think about the way Matthew Sweet confronted Wolf live on Radio 3 about all the mistakes in her book Outrages (2019) without the purest there-but-for-the-grace-of-God terror. So I thought I’d look at Wolf’s most recent book, The Bodies of Others: The New Authoritarians, Covid-19 and the War against the Human (2022), to see if she’d written anything about that episode, and heard in it, to my discomfort, the most enormous howl of grief. The social industry, as Richard Seymour calls it, doesn’t just produce new doubles with every keystroke, it also enables casual sadism. ‘Come for the nectar of approval,’ Klein quotes Seymour. ‘Stay for the frisson of virtual death.’
Klein saves up for the end of her book the odd and unsummarisable story of what happened when she and Wolf came face to face in real life, in the early 1990s at the University of Toronto, when Wolf was touring with The Beauty Myth. I, too, met Wolf at that time, and wrote about the encounter in 2012: ‘The sense of entitlement and mission, the self-belief!’ But entitlement, if you’re a person who has it, must feel like it belongs to you, not like a right, more like a body part. As will all the things you think that entitlement grants you: white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, class privilege, whatever. Having it torn from you in public, revealing you in all your helpless nakedness, must really hurt.
The LRB last reviewed a book by Klein in 2014, when Paul Kingsnorth was unpersuaded by her case that climate change could be, indeed had to be, indeed was, best opposed by an unwieldy combination of Blockadia – the word she was then using for direct action of the Keystone XL-Ende Gelände sort – and a globally managed economic transition to social justice and green jobs. Kingsnorth’s piece was tremendously elegant and well-informed, but it left the reader with a worry. If he is right and it’s all too late already – what then?
It was for Green New Deal reasons, among others, that I, along with thousands of others, threw myself so hard into supporting Corbyn’s Labour Party at the 2019 general election. On the good days, part of us thought we might actually pull it off, improbable as that seemed; but then came election night, dark and rainy, in Harrow East, street after street of doors all shut and fitted with Amazon Ring. ‘By definition, an electoral campaign has a finite life span, and … is too fleeting and unstable a container to hold a message as important as “Not me. Us,”’ Klein writes. ‘That doesn’t mean the message was wrong.’
Kingsnorth, meanwhile, moved to the west of Ireland to farm a piece of land with his wife and children. At the end of 2021 he published a series of essays collected in an e-book called The Vaccine Moment (2022), about his decision not to get vaccinated or comply with Ireland’s ‘vaccine passports’, and his horror at what he called ‘vaccine apartheid’, ‘a drumbeat media consensus’, ‘the systematic censoring of dissent’. ‘So we had to sit and watch all the newspaper columnists calling us neo-Nazis and conspiracy theorists,’ he reminisced this May in a conversation with Freddie Sayers at the UnHerd Club, which I watched on UnHerd’s channel on YouTube. (UnHerd, for those who spend less time on the internet than I do, being a London-based purveyor of online content started in 2017 by Tim Montgomerie, who also founded ConservativeHome.) ‘So that was nice,’ Kingsnorth continued, looking sad.
Around the same time, Kingsnorth said, he was ‘stalked’ by Christ and has now converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. He’s done a talk about it, ‘What Is There Left to Conserve?’, also available on the UnHerd YouTube channel. The challenge, he says, is to choose your religion: ‘And if you don’t choose, if you try to avoid that challenge … you will be absorbed by default into the new creed of the new age, which is the attempt to build God and replace nature through technology.’ Everything in the world, Kingsnorth says, is religious ‘in a really fundamental sense’, but people have forgotten that in the dash to build ‘a digital Tower of Babel’, with the result that there’s nothing much of spiritual value left.
‘So what can you do when there’s nothing left to conserve?’ he says, standing at a lectern in front of bookshelves at the UnHerd Club, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins visible in a corner with something or other by David Starkey. ‘Just pray,’ is his answer for the ages, with UnHerd’s main office on the floor below and its new all-day brasserie on the floor below that. Klein says that the question she is left with is not, ‘How did a person like that turn into a person like this? But: what kind of system is most likely to light up the best parts of all of us … Where do we find models for a society like that?’
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