Analysis & Opinions - Project Syndicate

The Ideological Looking Glass

| Sep. 18, 2023

In her latest book, Doppelgangerleftist writer and activist Naomi Klein delves into the bizarre tangle of political polarization, contested realities, and omnipresent social media that characterizes our current age. Navigating the “mirror world” of online conspiracy theories and far-right propaganda, she provides unique insights into the digital dystopia in which we find ourselves.

Doppelganger’s title is an allusion to Naomi Wolf, the feminist author turned conspiracy theorist for whom Klein has often been mistaken. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Wolf emerged as a vocal anti-vaccine advocate, frequently appearing on far-right platforms and claiming that public-health measures were part of an insidious global plot. By juxtaposing her own trajectory with Wolf’s, Klein demonstrates a level of self-awareness that was not as evident in her earlier works, offering a candid critique of the personal brand she cultivated over the years.

Klein, a professor of climate justice at the University of British Columbia, is an enviably prolific and successful author. Her best-selling books, which address issues such as the threat of climate change, the excessive role of money in American politics, and former US President George W. Bush’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq, typically resonate with her predominantly liberal readership.

But in each book, Klein homes in on a thesis that, while original in its formulation, catchy in its title, and captivating in its execution, is flawed. Her first book, No Logo, is a case in point. Published in 1999, shortly after the anti-globalization protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, the book took aim at multinational corporations that invested heavily in branding while outsourcing production to low-wage workers in developing countries.

To be sure, some US corporations have become too large and anti-competitive, warranting stricter regulation than they have encountered in recent decades. Similarly, there is merit to Klein’s argument that American corporations thrive in an overly consumerist culture. Moreover, high-profile multinationals are more politically vulnerable targets than smaller, lesser-known companies.

Many economists, however, would argue that multinational corporations operating in low-wage economies offer impoverished workers better living standards than they would have had without them. Consider, for example, the economic growth of countries like Bangladesh or Vietnam. While workers in developing countries earn low incomes, working in a “sweatshop” for a multinational company arguably provides them with better opportunities than local alternatives.

While this debate is familiar, No Logo was original in its identification of branding as the crux of the problem. But this is off-target, in that smaller anonymous firms without established brands can be just as important barriers to environmental sustainability or other social goals as large ones with recognized brand names. In fact, large corporations tend to obsess about their public image, making them more responsive to pressures from activists. Often, it is the prominent multinationals, not the small firms, that promote environmental and labor standards.

In 2007, Klein released The Shock Doctrine, a critique of neoliberal economics. While debates over the government’s role in the economy are hardly new, the term “neoliberal” has remained ambiguous. If it signifies a belief in pure laissez-faire capitalism and opposition to any regulation, then few economists and politicians fit the bill. Alternatively, neoliberalism could mean that regulators should intervene only to address specific market failures such as pollution, monopolies, and information asymmetries – a view that aligns more closely with mainstream economic theory.

Where the book’s focus is original is in Klein’s contention that American conservatives capitalize on national crises to rally public support for policies that they could not otherwise enact. The most striking example is how Bush and then-Vice President Richard Cheney leveraged the profound psychological trauma of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States to drum up support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tellingly, Bush and Cheney also saw the aftermath of 9/11 as an opportune moment to push for tax cuts.

Yet, there are at least as many historical examples of liberals using crises to rally public support for their agendas. US President Franklin Roosevelt, for example, harnessed the sociopolitical upheaval of the Great Depression to enact the New Deal’s sweeping economic reforms. Similarly, Barack Obama’s administration, under the logic that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” leveraged the Great Recession of 2007-09 to overcome fierce Republican opposition and pass the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and the Affordable Care Act.

In her 2014 book This Changes Everything, Klein argues that capitalism is fundamentally responsible for climate change and asserts that addressing the climate crisis requires an overhaul of the global economic system. But while it could be argued that industrialization and economic growth drive greenhouse-gas emissions, the fact is that socialist command economies, such as those of the former Soviet bloc, experienced significantly higher pollution levels than their Western capitalist counterparts.

More importantly, we do not need to abandon capitalism to combat climate change. On the contrary, leveraging market-based mechanisms such as carbon taxes and  could lower the costs of moving to a carbon-neutral economy and thereby render the shift more politically viable. International trade could also be harnessed to benefit the environment.

Climate change deniers have long claimed that the campaign to mitigate global warming is merely a leftist ploy to expand the size and scope of government. While the climate movement is firmly rooted in scientific research rather than any pro-government ideology, Klein’s anti-capitalist argument has inadvertently lent credence to such claims. This perception was further reinforced by Democrats’ inclusion of  such as a federal jobs guarantee in their “Green New Deal” legislation.

Unlike Klein’s previous books, Doppelganger includes a lot of self-reflection. While examining the aggressive, factually challenged tactics of the far right, she grapples with her own limitations. “For years I had told myself (and others) that I was opposed to branding, yet here I was, trying to assert my sovereign self in the face of an off-brand me,” she notes, in reference to the “other Naomi.”

This may be an important takeaway from Doppelganger. Rather than merely pointing out our political adversaries’ wild misperceptions, we could also recognize and confront some limitations that we all share. Left or right, author or reader, we all tend to lean too heavily on brands, slogans, headlines, generalizations, personalities, teams, memes, and schemes. By acknowledging our collective tendency toward tribal and even conspiratorial thinking, we could gain a better understanding of our current cultural moment.

Naomi KleinDoppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Frankel, Jeffrey.“The Ideological Looking Glass.” Project Syndicate, September 18, 2023.