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Naomi Klein
Naomi KleinCourtesy of Sebastian Novels

Naomi Klein on why everything feels so uncanny right now

To mark the release of her new book, Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World, the journalist discusses how and why people go down the rabbit hole

When author and political activist Naomi Klein started to realise that she was being mistaken both in person and online for radical right-wing activist and conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf, her reality was sent into a tailspin. As she delved further into the world of her doppelganger – the realm of COVID conspiracies, anti-vaxxers and QAnon – she realised that our world is evolving into a trick mirror itself, with it becoming increasingly harder to decipher what’s real and what’s false.

The online world is one full of contradictions, but what does this mean for our individual and collective identities? Naomi Klein has written books on big ideas for all of her career: from The Shock Doctrine which delved into corporate disaster capitalism, to her first book on the climate crisis This Changes Everything, her work has always asked us to rethink the world we live in and question our ideas of normality. 

Now, having lived through the uncanny experience of having your own doppelgänger, Naomi Klein’s latest book, Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World, is a deep dive into our world of doubles, asking why our politics has become so polarised with so many people going down the rabbit hole. Below, we speak to Klein about her latest publication.

You write about ‘the mirror world’, where many of our core values have become twisted into an alternate reality that get weaponised by bad actors. What does this say about the current state of identity and politics, and how the two interact online?

Naomi Klein: I think there is a lot of reactivity, a lot of defining oneself by not being like ‘them’. And I think it’s OK to not be like ‘them’ when ‘they’re’ being racist and transphobic, and when they’re just manufacturing reality out of whole cloth.

But where it gets tricky – and part of the reason why conspiracy theories and the right are surging – is because there’s a mix and match going on between those issues, and an appropriation of issues that have been traditionally left-wing or liberal. For instance, the critique of Big Pharma and Big Tech has now been appropriated by what I call ‘the mirror world’ [the right], and in part that’s because there’s been a failure to confront those powers by centrist liberals. I think some people on the left have become afraid of being seen as conspiratorial, and there’s been a timidity which is quite dangerous, because these are potent issues and when they are not spoken to in authentic ways, then they are really ripe for the picking and the distorting.

A lot of people I know who have engaged with conspiracies often view themselves as being free thinkers, and these theories as a rejection of the status quo. At a time when many of us are frustrated with mainstream politics, and rightly so, how can we prevent people from going down the rabbit hole? 

Naomi Klein: Everybody who I talk to these days tells me stories about somebody who they know – a childhood friend, a sister, an uncle, a parent – who has ‘gone down the rabbit hole’. I think a lot of people cut people off, and that’s dangerous. There are some situations where you have to for your own self-preservation and safety – but if it’s safe for you, my advice would be don’t cut off those lines of communication and see if you can find some bridges.

What was the most worrying thing that you discovered when you started to go down the rabbit hole of your doppelganger? 

Naomi Klein: The most worrying moments, where I really feel my heart sink, are when I hear people like Steve Bannon or Giorgia Meloni using bits and pieces from a politics that is recognisable to me – an anti-corporate politics, a critique of the banks, a critique of Big Tech – and mixing it up with transphobia and xenophobia.

That’s frightening because I know those issues are powerful, because I’ve been part of movements that have mobilised people around them, and I also know that those movements are not in great shape right now. So my fears might have more to do with ‘us’, than ‘them’. This is the thing about doppelgangers – almost every doppelganger book you can read starts out with a confrontation with the doppelganger, whether it’s Edgar Allan Poe or Dostoevsky. It’s always a mirror, it’s always really about you.

“[On social media] you’re creating a product version of yourself. You’re creating a consumable self. And the thing is, you’re not a product, you’re not a thing – you are a person”

It’s almost like the ego, isn’t it? As if doppelgangers are the material manifestation of ego.

Naomi Klein: I think that we are in a very uncanny political moment. We’re trying to understand ways that our world is different than it was pre-COVID, and we are dealing with these scrambled political signals where somebody who we thought we trusted has changed. People we thought we knew are now in league with figures that we never imagined they would be. Then we’ve got AI, where we don’t know who is real or what is real. And then you’ve got uncanny weather – a lot of us on this planet are experiencing weather that doesn’t belong in our ecosystems, and there’s an uncanniness to that. It’s like, what is this temperature doing here? What is this storm doing here?

Doppelgangers have a really continuous presence in the history of literature and cinema. Even back to ancient mythology and religion, the figure of the twin is really omnipresent. But there is an argument that you can make, that the presence of doppelgangers surges in moments of great confusion and uncertainty as a way to understand something very hard to look at directly. The first theoretical work about doppelgangers was written in the first year of the First World War by Otto Rank, a student of Freud’s, and he’s trying to understand why there are so many doppelgangers in cinema and literature. He concludes that they stand in for repressed desire – like what you’re saying, like the ego. Then the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust lead to this flood of doubles in the arts, as we try to understand how the kind neighbour you know can suddenly the person who turns you in. How can the child become the soldier? Charlie Chaplin’s masterwork, The Great Dictator, is a really great example of that.

You talk about the digital doubles we construct online and how we commodify ourselves online. Most of us are aware that social media is harmful towards us in some way, but what makes this process so harmful?

Naomi Klein: The first thing we need to do on social media is create an avatar. What’s your profile picture? What’s your bio? Who are you on here? What you are you going to be on here? There’s a necessary partitioning that happens when you’re creating this publicly consumable self, which is related to the first book I wrote about branding. You’re creating a product version of yourself. You’re creating a consumable self.

And the thing is, you’re not a product, you’re not a thing – you are a person. So the problem with creating a ‘thing’ version of you is that people will mistake you for a thing, and they will start to treat you as a thing, and they’ll throw hard objects at you and think you won’t bleed. But you will, because that separate ‘thing’ that you created is actually an extension of you. And its pain is your pain. And I think that there is a lot of unhappiness in the world because we create this extension of ourselves, telling ourselves that we’re safe, that it makes us safe, and it doesn’t make us safe.

Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World by Naomi Klein is published by Penguin and available now.

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