Review: James Leyon the paranoid style in politics

I know you are but what am I  

Richard Hofstadter coined the term ‘paranoid style’ to describe a phenomenon he saw emerging in the 1950s and early 1960s on the fringes of the American right. Central to the worldview of Hofstadter’s paranoiacs was a strong sense of themselves as marginalised and persecuted. They felt that their society was no longer upholding their values and beliefs, that their way of life was threatened, that the movement of history itself was against them. Their response was to embrace a politics of ‘heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy’.  

Hofstadter stressed that the paranoid style was not an unprecedented phenomenon, nor was it unique to the politics of the United States. He noted parallels with stories that had circulated for centuries about the sinister machinations of Illuminati and Freemasons. He nevertheless recognised the paranoid style as a manifestation of deep currents of anti-intellectualism that had long flowed through American life, welling up in the postwar period in a form that reflected the ideological fervour of the times. Its exponents were motivated by a virulent anticommunism and a loathing for the social-democratic policies of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which had been bedded down in the 1930s and continued to inform the era’s ascendant liberalism. In fact, most of them thought the New Deal was communism. The paranoid style was not just committed to the idea that there existed a vast conspiracy to overthrow capitalism; it entailed a belief that agents of subversion had already infiltrated society at every level, rendering the nation’s institutions compromised and untrustworthy.  

Such views were marginal, but by no means dismissible – one senator claimed to receive around 6000 letters a month alerting him to fictitious plots to overthrow the country. Hofstadter understood the paranoid style as an outgrowth of what he called the ‘pseudo-conservative revolt’ of the 1950s, embodied in the malignant figure of Joseph McCarthy, who was ‘pseudo-conservative’ in the sense that he claimed to be defending the nation’s values while attacking its institutions and established democratic principles. And it would force itself to the centre of American politics again in the form of Barry Goldwater’s ill-fated presidential run in 1964. Goldwater’s endorsement represented a significant lurch to the right for the Republican Party. His most ardent supporters didn’t just hate Roosevelt; they thought Eisenhower was a communist. The tone of his campaign was ominous. He spoke of a nation threatened on all sides, its institutions corrupted and declining, its moral fibre dangerously weakened. His slogan was ‘in your heart you know he’s right’. Lyndon Johnson’s campaign countered with ‘in your guts you know he’s nuts’. Johnson romped home. 

Goldwater’s crushing electoral defeat seemed to suggest that his views were too negative and extreme to succeed as mainstream politics. But Hofstadter was circumspect. ‘Goldwater’s rise to prominence,’ he cautioned, ‘far from being a momentary thing, rests on forces constantly at work in our society.’ He noted the relative ease with which Goldwater was able to gain control of a major political party and reposition it to reflect his embattled worldview. The disruptive potential of such a volatile confluence of defensiveness and dogmatism was apparent in the way Goldwater’s delegates ‘spoke for a combination of resentments and frustrations so fierce that no ordinary politics, with ordinary compromises and accommodations, will contain them’. 

Hofstadter’s scrutiny of the Goldwater campaign prompted him to return to some lines he had written several years earlier about the ignominious career of McCarthy. In a political culture, he observed, ‘in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiments for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible’. 

Naomi Klein makes no mention of Hofstadter in Doppelganger, a book in which she ventures into the conspiratorial online world of the far right, taking as her primary focus the recent history of the pandemic and its deranging effect on an already pretty deranged political discourse. The omission is incidental, though it is noteworthy, not simply because Hofstadter’s analysis is a reminder that the reactionary forces of the present have deep cultural roots, but because the contentious term ‘paranoid’ arguably gets us closer to the problem Klein is wrestling with than the somewhat ambiguous notion of a ‘conspiracy theory’.  

As Klein points out, history provides any number of examples of real conspiracies. She cites Mark Fisher’s observation that many of these conspiracies are evidence of ‘the ruling class showing class solidarity’. The critiques of capitalism she has made in books like No Logo, The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything are grounded in an understanding of the institutional and collusive nature of power. There is nothing controversial about the proposition that governments and corporations will often act in covert and unscrupulous ways to advantage themselves, manipulate public perceptions, vanquish their rivals, and conceal their wrongdoing – ‘it is entirely rational,’ writes Klein, ‘to be skeptical toward monopolistic power’. One does not need to concoct outlandish theories to account for corruption and exploitation, she argues in The Shock Doctrine. ‘The truth is at once less sinister and more dangerous.’  

The issue, then, would seem to be misunderstanding. It is a matter of being able to identify the true conspiracies, recognise genuine injustices and abuses of power, distinguish between credible and dubious information, plausible and implausible explanations. Klein makes a point of acknowledging that the irrational theories she examines in Doppelganger often arise from a justified sense that something is wrong – large pharmaceutical companies, for example, have real histories of unethical conduct and they really did make out like bandits during the pandemic. The question she confronts is how, and why, the valid instinct to distrust the powerful ends up being rerouted into bizarre fantasies. 

The temptation is to attribute the confusion to some combination of ignorance and stupidity, human characteristics that are never in short supply. Hofstadter proposed that a certain amount of grassroots craziness was a condition of genuine democracy. He did not resile from the pejorative connotations of his most famous concept – ‘paranoid style’ was supposed to be pejorative. Hofstadter made it clear that he was not suggesting the people he was talking about were paranoid in any clinical sense, but he was suggesting they were basically nuts.  

Klein can be wry, but she is wary of being dismissive, recognising as she does that the new technological environment of the twenty-first century has restructured the public sphere in a way that makes the phenomenon more influential and trickier to address. Our historical distance from Hofstadter is evident in his complacent phrase ‘ordinary politics’. The assumption of a sensible centre, or even a shared baseline reality, has been overturned by the rise of social media – that ‘filthy and crowded global toilet’, as Klein calls it – which has given the craziness a greater reach and a new intensity, with the notable effect of empowering right-wing populists around the world. Released from the ideological laboratory of the Cold War into the wilds of social media, the paranoid style has mutated and metastasised. It is no longer the shadow of democracy but its substance, the internet having undermined, perhaps fatally, the liberal fantasy that truth and rationality can triumph in open debate.  

The idea that there is something about the technocratic structure of modern life that tilts it precariously toward the neurotic is well-established. Adorno and Horkheimer argued, two decades before Hofstadter, that paranoia – the ‘dark side of cognition’ – was the disquieting double of Enlightenment rationalism. Its politicised form gave us the ur-conspiracy theory of modern antisemitism, unleashing the destructive forces that culminated in the Holocaust. Paranoia has become the conventional descriptor of the entire Cold War period. It is a prominent theme in the work of many of the biggest names in postwar American literature, including Philip Roth, whose doppelganger novel Operation Shylock becomes an unexpected touchstone for Klein on her ‘trip into the mirror world’. 

Our relatively new online existences have given a twist to this established theme. Certain forms of technological subjection and manipulation have now become as obvious as they are inescapable, part of the fabric of existence. As William Davies has observed, the internet is a military invention that ‘retains something of its military character … it remains most effective as a tool of surveillance, pattern recognition and control’. In an early chapter of Doppelganger, Klein notes, with reference to Richard Seymour’s polemic The Twittering Machine, that while we experience social media as a series of interactions with other people, we are really interacting with the machine, feeding the algorithm, colluding with its opaque manipulative processes.  

None of this is news, of course. It has been the subject of much anguished commentary. Everyone knows social media is a swamp of misinformation, ludicrous conspiracy theories and malicious actors; everyone knows we are being tracked and manipulated by algorithms; everyone knows that tech companies are monetising our data, having spent the last couple of decades refining a form of wealth extraction that Shoshana Zubov has dubbed ‘surveillance capitalism’; everyone knows that being extremely online is not conducive to robust mental health or a sense of proportion and that it can break people’s brains. 

But there is nothing liberating about this awareness, which throws each of us back on our own intellectual and psychic resources. A mode of suspicious thinking has become essential to navigate the internet’s boundless oceans of unreliable, fragmented, decontextualised, and conflicting information. Our atomised position before the technological sublime of the online realm – a recognisably untrustworthy world of rabbit holes, deepfakes, trolls, bots, grifters and gaslighters – has the form of an old joke. Sure, you’re paranoid, but are you paranoid enough? 

Klein takes the psychologically destabilising power of the internet seriously enough to address it in personalised terms. The widely publicised inspiration for Doppelganger was her realisation some years ago that people on social media were getting her mixed up with fellow author Naomi Wolf, who was at the time in the throes of a very public transformation from a writer of bestselling feminist treatises to a wigged-out conspiracy theorist. That many people thought it was Klein spreading misinformation about vaccines and railing against 5G networks was embarrassing enough. But there was a more disconcerting aspect. Wolf’s wild claims about prudent public health measures being harbingers of an imminent fascist takeover began to appear to Klein as ‘funhouse mirror’ versions of her own arguments. 

The apparently widespread inability to distinguish between two people who are not even the same nationality (Wolf is from the US, Klein is Canadian), seemingly because they happen to write books and share a first name, can be taken as a measure of the intellectual rigour of much online discussion. The ingenuity of Klein’s conceit in recognising Wolf as her digital double is that it allows Doppelganger to occupy that unstable ground where psychological curiosity meets ideological critique. Wolf’s strange parallel career provides Klein with a prominent example of the all-too-familiar phenomenon of online derangement: a representative figure whose increasingly unhinged pronouncements have been accompanied by an equally familiar political slide to the right. One of the things that particularly interests Klein is the way that Wolf, once the epitome of an establishment liberal, has been smoothly incorporated into the sizeable American ecosystem of right-wing punditry, repositioning herself as a social media influencer and talking head on the programs of hard-right broadcasters like Tucker Carlson, Charlie Kirk, and Steve Bannon, whose interest in her opinions would appear to be proportional to her willingness to say things that are objectively bonkers. 

In this sense, Wolf is less the subject of Doppelganger than its conceptual hook. Klein’s deeper concern is the structural dynamics of the public sphere as it is currently constituted: the competing ideological frameworks, the infiltration of fringe ideas into mainstream discourse, the curious symbiosis between online wellness culture and the hard right, the alternative reality the conservative side of politics has constructed for itself, and the various ways in which Bannon and his ilk are seeking to generate outrage and confusion in order to manipulate public discussion and lure people through the looking glass. 

But Doppelganger is also – and this, I think, is where its ultimate value lies – a work of self-reflection. The doppelganger concept comes with a substantial literary and psychoanalytical pedigree. The simultaneous experience of recognition and estrangement – of the uncanny – is more disturbing than mere difference because it confronts you with aspects of yourself that cannot be denied or rejected out of hand as alien and incomprehensible. As Dostoevsky dramatises in The Double, the splitting of the self, the awareness that somewhere out in the world there is a version of you who is not you doing things that will be attributed to you, presages a descent into madness. Klein remains eminently sane – she seems more bemused than disturbed by the antics of her doppelganger – but her willingness to acknowledge the similarity between her grounded anti-capitalist arguments and Wolf’s feverish claims allows her to combine astute analysis of the right’s tactical manoeuvring with a consideration of her own position, and that of the activist left more broadly. 

It is the formal similarity that most concerns Klein. She does not presume to stand apart from the structural conditions the internet has imposed. She recognises that it divides us from ourselves, creating a split between our mundane flesh-and-blood existences and our dissociated lives as curated online personas. She admits that, as a successful author, she is as guilty as anyone of leading a double life as a virtual ‘brand’, against the grain of her declared anti-capitalist, anti-corporatist principles. But the more troubling issue for Klein is the way conspiracy theorists like Wolf co-opt the legitimate roles of the journalist, the historian, the scientist, the scholar, the intellectual, twisting their rationales and methods into bizarre parodies of themselves. The effect of this imitation is to make a mockery of the very notions of expertise and informed critique. The line from Operation Shylock that Klein returns to as she observes her doppelganger in action is that it’s ‘too ridiculous to take seriously and too serious to be ridiculous’. 

Just how seriously ridiculous? Well, there is some debate about when exactly Wolf first blew a gasket. She has long had a reputation for hyperbole and shonky research. Her very first book The Beauty Myth has been criticised for substantially misrepresenting rates of anorexia in young women. The British feminist Suzanne Moore encapsulated a widely held view in 2004 when she described Wolf’s work as ‘narcissistic and overblown’. In 2019, Wolf had the no doubt mortifying experience of having a central contention of her book Outrages debunked during a live BBC radio interview. The scholarly blunder – the latest in a ‘career of blunders’ according to the New York Times – was so serious the book was withdrawn (to her credit, Wolf took this particular humiliation with good grace). Over the last decade or so, Wolf has attracted frequent criticism and no small amount of ridicule for a string of public statements of varying degrees of wackiness, one of the more memorable being a video she posted in 2018, in which she claimed that 5G towers were responsible for unprecedented rippling cloud formations and the irritability of New Yorkers. 

But the pandemic seems to have sent her completely over the edge. Wolf had been sounding ominous warnings about the United States descending into authoritarian rule as far back as her 2008 book The End of America, a notionally left-liberal critique prompted by the ramping up of the security state under George W. Bush as part of the ‘war on terror’. The more draconian measures of the Patriot Act were inconveniently wound back by the Obama administration in 2015, but the sudden imposition of lockdowns and mask mandates and vaccination programs in response to a global crisis now appeared to Wolf as the devious means by which citizens would be stripped of their rights once and for all. She began making zany claims that Covid vaccines would cause mass infertility and that unvaccinated women could have their menstrual cycles disrupted if they even sat next to a vaccinated person. Encounters with some unimpressed infants convinced her that masks were preventing babies from learning how to smile. Wolf eventually got herself kicked off several social media platforms for spreading misinformation, but continued to insist the vaccine rollout was a ‘genocide’, an ‘act of war’, an ‘abyss of evil not seen since 1945’ and the ‘biggest crime in human history’. She maintained that ‘a transnational group of bad actors – including the WEF, the WHO, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, tech companies and the CCP – used the pandemic to crush humanity and in particular to destroy the West’. Why Bill Gates or the World Health Organisation would want to crush humanity and destroy the West remains unclear. 

On an individual level, Wolf is a study in the generic implosion of third-rate intellect. Her epistemological nervous breakdown appears to be entirely genuine. The end of lockdowns and mask mandates with humanity still bravely uncrushed has done nothing to temper her rhetoric. Her political realignment also appears to be nearing completion. Though she still affects to be a liberal who has been drawn to her current position by an unwavering commitment to truth, she can now be found on her website describing Donald Trump as ‘disturbingly impressive’.  

The wider phenomenon Wolf represents is more troublesome. It has its historical and ideological dimensions, but also needs to be understood in the context of the coordinated online disinformation campaigns – domestic and geopolitical – that a group of Oxford researchers recently described as an ‘industrial scale problem’. A different study in 2019 found that at least seventy countries were actively spreading disinformation. Russia, in particular, operates a substantial network of troll farms and fake news sites that target Western democracies. In early 2020, Russian bots were pushing the idea that the 5G rollout – already the subject of some feverish online speculation – was somehow connected to the coronavirus outbreak: a fantastically implausible notion that nevertheless spread rapidly in a number of florid variations. A more recent operation, codenamed ‘Doppelgänger’, has involved the circulation of fake videos of celebrities like Beyoncé and Mike Tyson professing their belief in conspiracy theories.  

The immediate purpose of these tactics is to generate confusion and antagonism; the lasting effect is to perpetuate a destabilising atmosphere of uncertainty. Bannon once said, notoriously, that his communications strategy was to ‘flood the zone with shit’. (Wolf, it seems, has not considered what her new friend’s metaphor says about her.) The strategy feeds on a latent distrust of authority that predates the internet. In the United States, trust in the news media has been declining since the 1970s, driven in no small part by persistent right-wing denunciations of ‘mainstream’ news as ‘biased’ and ‘fake’ – though there is also an established left-wing version of this argument, exemplified by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent, that condemns media organisations for being beholden to the interests of their corporate owners and framing the news from the perspective of the political establishment, even as they affect to be holding the powerful to account. 

It is a short but extremely significant step from being wary of information from official or mainstream sources, which can indeed be biased and untrustworthy, to rejecting information reflexively because it comes from a particular source or supports a proposition you disagree with. Once that happens, any inconvenient fact can be dismissed. Motivated reasoning and confirmation bias are free to run riot, as evidenced by the sizeable cohort of citizens addled enough to entertain ideas that a moment’s sober reflection would reveal to be barking mad. There have been two studies of the 5G-coronavirus conspiracy theory that have traced its origins to a single social media post of uncertain provenance on 21 January 2020. This eventually led to a series of attacks on communication towers in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Canada, Cyprus and South Africa, and the kidnapping of eight technicians in Peru. The escalation from an insinuating tweet to acts of violence occurred independently of legacy media and took less than three months. In his book The Other Pandemic – which covers some of the same ground as Doppelganger in a more straightforwardly journalistic fashion (and sans Wolf) – James Ball argues credibly that the rise of QAnon, the online conspiratorial movement that has come to be associated with Trumpism and the foment that led to the insurrection of 6 January 2021, is best understood as a form of social contagion. It is volatile and difficult to address because it has ‘no fixed set of beliefs’, but manifests as an evolving mishmash of animosities and bizarre intrigues that are constantly feeding on each other, reinforcing their outlandish premises in a way that reflects the movement’s origins in the murky ambiguities of 4chan and 8chan message boards. 

Klein views the disruptive effects of such online contagions with an activist’s practical eye. She wants to grasp the underlying political conditions. Wolf’s cassandrism, she proposes, finds a ready audience because it taps into ‘barely submerged fears, which are rooted not in fantasy, but reality’. Much of the blame for those fears Klein sheets home, unsurprisingly, to neoliberalism. William Davies has argued that the widespread distrust of expertise and general epistemological chaos of the present are logical consequences of neoliberalism’s ideological principles: radical deregulation in an attention economy undermines the necessary distinction between fact and opinion; in a ‘marketplace’ of ideas, what people are buying becomes more important than truth. Klein’s argument is more quotidian and intimate. The ideological assault on the very notion of society and the systematic dismantling of social services have added new layers of insecurity and anxiety to the old postwar technological paranoia. ‘In the neoliberal era that began in the 1970s and has not yet ended,’ Klein writes, ‘every hardship and every difficulty – from poverty to student debt to home eviction to drug addiction – has been pathologized as a personal failing.’ 

One explanation for the appeal of conspiracy theories is the countervailing sense of validation they provide. Feelings of disempowerment are replaced with empowering insights. Noting the considerable influence of gamer culture on the rise of the conspiratorial right, Ball makes the canny observation that the work of piecing together an elaborate conspiracy theory has the underlying form of a game, with similar ‘reward feedback loops’. It turns ‘global politics into a game with you as its hero’. In substantial chapters on wellness influencers and the anti-vaccination movement, Klein develops her own intricate arguments about these phenomena as responses to contemporary anxieties. Assertions of bodily autonomy, distrust of modern medicine, the fetishising of the body as a project of self-enhancement, the general imperative to convey an image of vibrant good health – these impulses are a recoil from the inherent imperfection and disorder of life. They are attempts to reassert control, uphold superficial ideals of perfectibility and frictionless abundance. They speak of an internalisation of a ‘core message of neoliberal capitalism: that you are on your own and deserve your lot in life, for better or worse’. 

The overlap of these movements with the hard right – the ‘diagonalism’ Klein identifies between them, which at first glance seems odd, given the hippyish associations of alternative medicines and adjacent forms of New-Age flakiness – extends beyond the facile individualism and neurotic competitiveness, beyond the obvious synergy with snake-oil consumerism (there’s a seeker born every minute, as the Firesign Theatre quipped back in the 1970s), and beyond the convenient openness of such pre-softened brains to baseless or nonsensical propositions. It ultimately resides in a selfish core of bourgeois moralism. Beneath the judgementalism, Klein discovers ‘deep supremacist logics about which lives have value and which lives are disposable’. 

This is where the mirroring concept raises some uncomfortable questions. The issue of susceptibility Klein recognises as a problem for the left, for what she discerns on the right is a ‘mimicking of beliefs and concerns that feeds off progressive failures and silences … In the Mirror World, there is a copycat story and answer for everything, often with very similar key words.’ Two insights she gains from listening to Bannon’s incendiary podcast (it’s not called War Room for nothing) are that he is actively looking to recruit people, like Wolf, who have been scorned by the left, and that he is adept at taking leftist terminology and using it for his own purposes. Klein experiences this co-option of language as a disorienting disconnection between words and reality that makes it harder for progressives to make their case. She claims that ‘Wolf and her fellow travelers have spent years mangling the meaning of the fight against authoritarianism, fascism, and genocide’, making ‘serious discussion impossible’. A like-minded friend complains to her that ‘the fascists have totally taken our language. I feel speechless.’ 

At the risk of being obtuse: it’s the same language. No one owns it. If the experience of being outflanked by a disingenuous rhetorician is enough to reduce contemporary progressivism to a state of inarticulacy, it is hard to imagine it actually changing anything. Doppelganger remains revealingly conflicted on this point. Klein argues that ‘we must never surrender … the language of anti-fascism’; we must insist on the ‘true meanings’ of words like genocide, apartheid and Holocaust. She reiterates the point near the book’s end, where she proposes that the way forward will require the naming of systems of oppression: ‘capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, patriarchy. It requires teaching those words, and their true meanings, to the people in our lives.’ Yet she also remarks at several points on the glaring failure of the left to develop a politically viable response to the juggernaut of neoliberalism. ‘What is the alternative,’ she asks, ‘being offered on this side of the glass?’ 

Klein has argued elsewhere for a Green New Deal as a response to the multitude of social and environmental problems the world now faces. The unfolding disaster of climate change may yet turn the idea into a mainstream concern. But there is at present no real momentum behind any such sweeping economic reform, certainly not among the political establishment, for whom the tenets of neoliberalism remain unquestionable lore. The oppressive sense of inevitability that Fisher dubbed ‘capitalist realism’ has created conditions for the hard right to exploit the animus of the discontented, and the persuasive failure this represents haunts Klein’s argument. Near the end of Doppelganger, she states that the one thing she admires about her political opponents is that they ‘still believe in the idea of changing reality, an ambition I fear too many on this side of the glass have lost’.  

Some of this malaise can be attributed to the left-wing tendency to become enthralled with the moral grandiosity of its most impractical conceptualisations. The ‘true meanings’ Klein evokes are the violent histories that give words like ‘colonialism’ and ‘apartheid’ their gravitas. There is no question that the ongoing consequences of those histories are real and need to be addressed. But again, no one has exclusive possession of those words; no one can prevent another person using or, indeed, misusing them. They are subject to the same processes of rhetorical inflation and misapplication and hollowing out that eventually reduces all politicised terminology to pulp. And the left can hardly claim to be innocent of a certain amount of loose talk about fascism. Capitalism, neoliberalism, colonialism, patriarchy, white supremacy – it is not as if these concepts go unmentioned. They are evoked constantly as imposing macropolitical abstractions. Their pernicious influence can always be cited in polite company without fear of contradiction because they are assumed to be determining conditions of existence. Their rhetorical usefulness is their conveniently inescapable quality. As discretionary condemnations, they are always incontrovertible.  

Then there is the fractiousness for which the left is deservedly famous. Klein recognises that one of the reasons the left so often proves ineffectual is its penchant for policing its borders, ‘turning on people who see themselves on our side, making our ranks smaller, not larger’. This border policing also has a significant linguistic component. Allegiance is signalled by adherence to the latest jargon and constantly changing ‘inclusive’ terminology, and a studious avoidance of an ever-growing list of freshly offensive terms (‘homelessness’ has lately been abolished; people are now ennoblingly ‘unhoused’). In the exposed and essentially tabloid environment of social media, where the sensational, the emotive, the opinionated and the simplistic all play well, there is an implicit pressure to declare your unambiguous position on a regular basis, and the easiest way to make sure you are not seen to be on the wrong side of any given issue is to denounce someone who has transgressed. As Fisher wrote back in 2013 in his controversial essay ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’ (from which Klein takes the line about ruling-class solidarity), left-wing social media is all too often characterised by ‘a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd’. Klein, for the record, does not forget to call Philip Roth ‘problematic’. 

The habit of ‘turning minor language infractions into major crimes’ is indeed a terrible strategy for winning people over to your cause. But for Klein the denunciatory politics and the inordinate faith in linguistic reform as a vehicle for meaningful social change mask more substantive failures. ‘What if,’ she asks, flirting with a heretical thought, ‘our books, and our movements as they are currently constructed (often in ways that resemble corporate brands), are only changing words? What if words – written on the page or shouted in protest – change only what people say, not what they do?’  

She answers her rhetorical questions on the next page when she remarks that the left has (apparently) ‘won huge victories in transforming the way we talk about all kinds of issues’ – and yet ‘on almost every front, tangible ground is being lost’.  

Klein is correct to assume the left should have the linguistic upper hand. In a sense, it does have the upper hand. The rhetoric of contemporary politics is still, in spite of everything, underwritten by the universalising and enfranchising language of the Enlightenment – a language that admits the moral claims of the marginalised and disempowered. As Corey Robin has argued, a defining problem for modern (i.e. post-revolutionary) conservatism is how to devise ‘a politics of privilege for a democratic age’. Much of the self-serving absurdity of political rhetoric from the right is a function of its need to rationalise the continued existence of established and often outrageously unjust regimes of power in terms that do not admit their essential indefensibility. Thus we are treated to the unedifying spectacle of the wealthy and powerful claiming the mantle of victimhood, fetishising ‘freedom’, which they believe in only for themselves, in order to avoid talking about the practical issues of equality and fraternity. Conservatives, Robin observes in an essay that identifies Barry Goldwater as the forerunner of the contemporary Republican Party, have ‘made freedom the stalking horse of inequality, and inequality the stalking horse of submission’. When Wolf cautions her readers that concepts like ‘public health’ and ‘public safety’ are ‘Marxist usages’ and a form of ‘mind-rewiring that undoes the Western brain’s original wiring toward liberty’, she is being ridiculous, but in a quite specific way. Such garbled nonsense takes the democratic impulses and emancipatory rhetoric of the modern era and boils them down to the silly putty of individualism. 

The left faces an inverted version of this problem, arising from its inevitable entanglements with power and institutions of cultural authority. Since the idea is to try and change things for the better, modern progressivism is of necessity an intellectual concern, grounded in theorisation, social organisation and technocratic processes, and it needs to justify itself in those terms. It involves ‘teaching’, as Klein observes. Adorno argued that one of the hallmarks of fascism was its lack of any ‘consistent social theory’, its anti-intellectualism serving as a populist mechanism that allowed it simultaneously to feed, and feed on, ignorance and insecurity. But as Hofstadter recognised, anti-intellectualism is also, however misguided, a democratic suspicion of presumptive authority. The modern intellectual, he observed, ‘inherits the vulnerability of the aristocrat to the animus of puritanism and egalitarianism, and the vulnerability of the priest to anticlericalism and popular assaults upon hierarchy’.  

These paradoxes arise not simply from presumption and self-interest, but in a deeper sense from self-image. And here again Wolf’s example provides a vivid illustration of the internalised contradictions. Klein suggests that her doppelganger was always a reactionary in waiting, in that Wolf was a ‘liberal who never had a critique of capital; she simply wanted women like her to be free from bias and discrimination in the system so they could rise as individuals’. And notwithstanding her knack for self-inflicted reputational damage, the system has been good to her. Wolf is the daughter of a literary academic (her father edited a scholarly edition of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and the beneficiary of an elite education at Yale and Oxford. Her hyped first book was a big enough bestseller to establish her as a prominent public intellectual while she was still in her twenties. She would go on to serve as an advisor to Bill Clinton and Al Gore. One of her more noticeable tics is to draw attention to her credentials. She makes a point of referring to herself as ‘Dr’ Naomi Wolf, having been awarded a PhD from Oxford for the dodgy thesis that formed the basis of her debunked book Outrages (her appeals to institutional authority thus doing their bit to undermine that authority). She repeatedly claims that she understands contemporary politics because she has ‘studied history’. 

This shoring up of her status as an intellectual is understandable in the context of her ‘career of blunders’. But Klein notes an even more significant identification, one that is evident in Wolf’s recurring appeals to moral rather than intellectual authority. She observes that Wolf’s overheated claims constantly reach for comparisons with several historical reference points in particular: the Holocaust, apartheid, slavery, and the civil rights movement. Displaying superhuman levels of restraint, Klein does not resort to open mockery and derision when recounting Wolf’s description of a failed attempt to get herself arrested in New York by sitting at a ‘lunch counter’, unmasked and unvaccinated, in the middle of a pandemic that has killed millions of people – an asinine stunt that provides further evidence that Wolf is a fool, but one that is genuinely outrageous in its implied equivalence. Plus, as Klein drily observes, the establishment in question doesn’t really have a ‘lunch counter’. 

The obvious reason for claiming such tenuous historical analogies is their unimpeachable moral clarity. Those precedents are usually what people have in mind when they talk about history having a ‘right side’ and a ‘wrong side’. They have come to serve as naturalised cultural signifiers, evoked less as past realities than sententious positioning statements, dehistoricised histories that provide the archetypal form of political integrity – a form that is fundamentally oppositional, uniting the political currency of grievance and victimhood with the romanticised ideal of the principled resister of tyranny and injustice. 

Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of Doppelganger is its recognition of how such desired political identifications, the claims of embattled righteousness, are distorted by the realities of inherited histories and identities. Running through the book is an awareness that Klein and Wolf are both Jewish, suggesting an underlying element of antisemitism in the tendency to get them mixed up. In her closing chapters, Klein turns directly to the subject of antisemitism as the definitive modern conspiracy theory, reflecting on its political manifestation in Nazism, and the ongoing effects of the collective trauma of the Holocaust. In doing so, she begins to set out the ‘true meanings’ of those big words that make us so unhappy, but also returns to the essential point that the historical function of antisemitism – the ‘socialism of fools’, as it was once known – was misdirection. It created a scapegoat for all the fears and anxieties of modernity, all the ravages of industrial capitalism. It didn’t have to make sense; its political purpose was to provide a convenient target. 

In the middle of the last century, a spate of books by European intellectuals sought to understand the descent into the abyss of fascism: Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, and Lukacs’s Destruction of Reason, among others. One of Adorno’s first undertakings when he emigrated to the United States was to oversee the massive research project into political psychology that produced The Authoritarian Personality. In addition to their shared interest in the role of irrationality and psychopathology in political life, these books made it clear that it was a mistake to interpret the antisemitism at the heart of Nazism as an upwelling of atavistic prejudice. Adorno wrote that modern antisemitism ‘cannot possibly be attributed to spontaneous impulses of the population. It is a carefully pondered, rationalistically concocted doctrine, promoted from above, that utilizes powerful socio-psychological dispositions in the masses.’ 

In taking up this point, Klein seeks to contextualise the singular event of the Holocaust, an atrocity unprecedented in its extremity and unique in its means, but not without its antecedents. She notes that Hitler’s conception of what was possible was influenced by the violence of the European colonial powers and oppressive race laws in the United States. She also confronts the grim historical irony that the founding of Israel in the traumatic aftermath of the Holocaust has placed the victims in the role of the oppressors. ‘Colonialism framed as reparations for genocide’, as Klein puts it, has created an intolerable situation where the Palestinians have become, in the words of Edward Said, ‘the victims of the victims’. In the process, the collective trauma, the inherited neurosis of the victim, has been transposed into the pathologies of the persecutor. ‘What if full-blown fascism,’ Klein asks provocatively, ‘is not the monster at the door, but the monster inside the house, the monster inside us – even we whose ancestors have been victims of genocide?’ 

Klein could not have anticipated that shortly after the publication of Doppelganger, Hamas militants would breach the fence that corralled more than two million Palestinians into the Gaza Strip – ‘the world’s largest open-air prison,’ as it had come to be known – and conduct a gruesome raid into southern Israel, murdering around 1200 civilians in a deliberately sadistic fashion, and taking another 250 as hostages. Israel has responded to this atrocity with an even bigger atrocity. Its massive retaliation has at the time of writing killed approximately 35,000 Palestinians, including around 14,500 children, and wounded another 77,000. Routinely described as a ‘war’ in news reports, the current situation is more akin to a siege. More than one and a half million people have been displaced, water and electricity have been cut off, humanitarian aid has been restricted, people are starving. Much of the Gaza Strip has been bombed to rubble. Israel has destroyed houses, mosques, universities, hospitals, the basic infrastructure that makes life possible. 

There is an appalling confirmation of Klein’s argument in these events and the persistent attempts to frame any criticism of the razing of Gaza as ‘antisemitic’. What she refers to as the ‘unshakeable ethnic double’ – a stereotypical travesty of your inherited identity that is nevertheless inescapable – emerges as the ultimate manifestation of the pernicious logic of the doppelganger, one that connects the book’s personalised concerns to the wider currents of history. This is one of the insights Klein takes from Roth, the great satirist of the double-binds of his own Jewishness, who in Operation Shylock imagines a fake Philip Roth running around Jerusalem trying to drum up support for the concept of ‘diasporism’: the idea that all the Jews who emigrated to Israel after 1948 should return to where they came from. Around this farcical premise, with its fantasy of reversing the Zionist project, undoing its history and the history that preceded it, Roth arranges a host of competing voices that pick apart the paradoxes and unresolvable issues that have followed from the creation of a Jewish state, scarred by trauma and born in violence. One of those voices is an old Palestinian friend named George Ziad – a character widely thought to have been based on Edward Said – who delivers an impassioned critique of the way Israel has sought to establish ‘military expansionism as historically just by joining it to the memory of Jewish victimization; to rationalize – as historical justice, as just retribution, as nothing more than self-defense – the gobbling up of the Occupied Territories and the driving of the Palestinians off their land once again.’ 

Roth reflects that his friend has been ‘turned completely inside-out. Or maybe it just came down to injustice: isn’t a colossal, enduring injustice enough to drive a decent man mad?’ Yet Ziad’s underlying point is quintessentially Rothian: victimhood transposed into righteousness licenses its own atrocities. The enemy is righteousness itself, the blindness such self-justification induces, which ultimately serves only to feed the destructive cycles of hatred and revenge. The lines that cut through the scene with their savage directness are spoken by Ziad’s wife in a fit of disgust at the intellectualising of her husband and their guest: ‘There is nothing in the future for these Jews and these Arabs but more tragedy, suffering and blood. The hatred on both sides is too enormous, it envelops everything. There is no trust and there will not be for another thousand years … Roots! A concept for a caveman to live by!’ 

There is a side to her doppelganger that Klein does not pursue, though it is unmissable when you look at Wolf’s online presence: her religiosity. This is not a recent development. As far back as 1998, Wolf published a syrupy article about her ‘mystical experience’ and ‘spiritual yearning’. In 2006, she claimed to have had a vision of Jesus that was ‘terrifying, inexplicable and completely not the appropriate spiritual experience of someone of my background’ – by which she meant not only as a Jewish person, but as someone educated and supposedly progressive. ‘I’m on a spiritual path, I answer to a higher authority,’ she went on to declare, hastening to add that she did not mean that in a ‘culty way’.  

These days, Wolf hosts bible readings on her website and writes rambling theological essays about ‘metaphysical energies’ and the ‘evil’ pagan deities threatening the West, her evidence for the latter claim extending from Old Testament verses to Sam Smith’s devilish stage outfits. In addition to the standard freedom-and-tyranny rhetoric of the American right, her alarmist vocabulary is laced with religiously inflected hyperbole. She has denounced Anthony Fauci as Satan and the World Health Organisation as demonic. In the introduction to her most recent book Facing the Beast: Courage, Faith and Resistance in the New Dark Age, the title of which clearly alludes to the apocalyptic Book of Revelation, Wolf declares that she is engaged in a ‘spiritual battle, one between Good and Evil’. 

Conspiratorial thinking is not confined to one side of politics, but among the key factors that predispose people to believe in baseless conspiracy theories are Manicheanism and a belief in End Times. The often elaborate nature of such theories is a flight from reality, but also a desire for validation and an escape into the security of moral simplicity. Quoting Sartre’s line that the antisemite ‘makes the Jew’, Klein writes, in a rather literal-minded fashion, that it is ‘a deliberately provocative remark, since of course Jews make their own Jewishness through the positive practice of their culture and faith – not other people’s hatred’. But that is not what I take Sartre to be saying. His point is that the antisemite has chosen to place himself beyond reach, inventing a malicious and illogical fantasy to excuse himself from facing reality. You can’t reason him out of his prejudice because he hasn’t reasoned himself into it. The antisemite, writes Sartre, has ‘chosen hate because hate is a faith; at the outset he has chosen to devalue words and reasons’. 

Some influential factors are underexamined in Doppelganger. The longstanding and powerful influence of evangelical religion on American politics is one. The considerable extent to which the conspiratorial right has woven itself into the fabric of the Republican Party is another. Hofstadter observed that the paranoid style did not simply see conspiracies everywhere; it ultimately considered history itself to be a conspiracy, ‘set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all out crusade’. Journalists like Kathryn Joyce and Jeff Sharlet, who have examined the festering discontent on the contemporary American right, invite pessimism about the prospect of reversing its drift toward extremism. They describe a paranoid, deeply reactionary, religiously identified movement that, at a grassroots level, has decisively uncoupled from reality, embracing a political vision that is almost entirely mythical – and as Sharlet observes, ‘you can’t fact-check a myth’. 

As writers and intellectuals are apt to do, Klein places her countering faith in the persuasive power of facts and arguments. A clear note of exhortation begins to sound as Doppelganger approaches its conclusion. The socialism of fools, she maintains, must be resisted with a ‘socialism of facts’. At the end of Doppelganger, she joins the ranks of leftists calling for a return to the principle of universalism, arguing that ‘fiercely defending the borders of our identities, and the borders of our broader ethnic / racial / gender identity groups is serving us all poorly. Indeed, if history is any guide, it will be our undoing.’ 

The recognised difficulty of Klein’s proposed universalism extends beyond the problem of instructing the misinformed in a pulverised political language; it requires a de-idealisation of the self. She observes at one point that ‘neoliberal capitalism … has done a fine job transforming identity-based oppression from a basis for solidarity and shared analysis (the original intention of identity politics) to its own form of currency’. This is one area where I think it is fair to say ‘neoliberal capitalism’ is not entirely to blame, where looking in the mirror might be genuinely beneficial. The doppelganger concept provides a way into the problem, creating the possibility of a deeper understanding. But the way out is less clear. For the pernicious nature of our doubles is precisely that they draw the self into the immaterial realm of the symbolic, then they trap you there.  

Works Cited

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