In 2008, in a Profile for this magazine, Larissa MacFarquhar described Naomi Klein as “the most visible and influential figure on the American left—what Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky were thirty years ago.” Klein became famous in 1999 for “No Logo,” her manifesto about globalization and consumption; she published “The Shock Doctrine,” in 2007, about disaster capitalism, and 2014’s “This Changes Everything,” about the climate crisis. She’s been a prominent Bernie Sanders campaign surrogate and public advocate for the Green New Deal.
Klein’s books are serious, though not humorless; she cuts a reliably resolute figure, modelling for her audience that one’s mind can be on dissolution and disaster while one’s person remains entirely poised, even cool. And so her new book, “Doppelganger,” comes as something of a surprise. Its leaping-off point is not global warming or the expansion of government surveillance but, rather, the fact that Naomi Klein, for more than a decade, has been regularly mistaken for Naomi Wolf. “We both write big-idea books,” Klein writes, and “have brown hair that sometimes goes blond from over-highlighting. . . . We’re both Jewish.” Both had partners named Avram. (Klein’s husband, who in 2021 ran for office with Canada’s socialist party, goes by Avi.) And though they had once had distinct areas of expertise, their specialties eventually began to converge. I can attest to the durability of this confusion: before I interviewed Klein at The New Yorker Festival in 2017, I received multiple texts from friends saying, “Good luck with Naomi Wolf!”
The Naomi confusion got worse as discourse migrated onto social media, where both Naomis were, like everyone else, shrunk down to follower counts and tiny avatars. A viral tweet offered a helpful rubric: “If the Naomi be Klein / you’re doing just fine / If the Naomi be Wolf / Oh, buddy. Oooof.” In 2019, Wolf’s book “Outrages,” which had a premise that rested on a misreading of British law, got a humiliating reception; after that experience, she sought out a new audience on the right—Tucker Carlson’s TV show, Steve Bannon’s podcast. Came COVID, and, if you squinted, the Naomis became slightly blurrier: Klein was angry at Bill Gates for defending corporate vaccine patents; Wolf thought Gates was using the vaccine to track people’s movements. And everyone, in general, seemed to be losing their grip on what was what.
“Doppelganger” is partly an admission—and an occasionally very funny one—that Klein is not exempt from the sense of runaway surreality that marks this moment. The book uses the two Naomis as a guide to the strange contemporary intersections of the left and the right, finding, in conspiracy theories, an uncanny doppelgänger of political reality. I recently spoke with Klein about all of this on Zoom; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The first line of “Doppelganger” is “In my defense, it was never my intent to write this book.” When did it occur to you that you could use your doppelgänger situation as the premise of a book? And when did that idea slip from ill-advised to necessary—perhaps seeming, sometimes, like both at once?
I should start by saying that this is not a pandemic book. But the germ of the book was planted in the first year of the pandemic. Like so many of us who were fortunate enough to be part of the lockdown class, I experienced a destabilization of the self. So many of the ways we know who we are involve the way that the world responds to us—the way we interact with the world, the way our friends reflect us back to ourselves in our downtime. And so many of those ways were not available in those first couple of years.
I’d been a public person for much of my adult life. I cancelled a book tour; I cancelled all sorts of public events where readers tell me who I am. So, like many of us, I broke all my personal rules about social media. I went online looking for some simulation of social relationships, hoping to find myself mirrored back to me. And I had this particular experience, where on some days, hundreds or even thousands of people were talking about me, but actually talking about someone else, mistaking me for another Naomi writer—Naomi Wolf.
Part of this was genuine confusion. During COVID, Wolf became a kind of industrial-scale disseminator of medical misinformation. So some people were really wondering: Why is Naomi Klein saying that vaccine apps are a fascist coup? But then it was also a joke on left Twitter. And I had a period of real vertigo, like: What has all this labor of constructing a self been for?
The idea of personal branding was one of the subjects of “No Logo,” which you wrote more than twenty years ago—and which, as you write in “Doppelganger,” quickly became the kind of commodified symbol that you were urging your readers to be suspicious of.
I had been wanting for about a decade to return to that material. I wanted to write about how personal-branding culture is impacting our relationships with one another, impacting our social movements. It’s a tricky area to write about, and that’s kind of why I tell a story I hadn’t really told before, about the weirdness and the contradictions and the hypocrisies of writing a book denouncing branding, then becoming a brand myself—which I always strenuously denied was true, but was just objectively true, whether or not I was working to perform my brand.
And I really tried to subvert it. I decided, “I’m not going to write about marketing anymore.” My subsequent books really didn’t build on “No Logo” at all. I tried to be a terrible brand—no consistency, no repetition. But I do still care about my reputation. I do still use social media too much—it is a really valuable way for me to reach readers. And being an anti-capitalist writer on a book tour is an inherent contradiction, you know? I wanted to write about this as a system in which we are all inside and implicated.
You’ve always been an avatar of steadfastness and resolve for the left—and, in the book, you grapple with the ways in which those qualities became harder for you to access during the pandemic.
It’s not that same kind of rah-rah cheerleader role, but it’s also not defeatist—I hope you didn’t feel like I was giving up. I think it’s more in the tradition of left melancholy, which is a real political tradition—Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote about it in her review of Sara Marcus’s book “Political Disappointment.” In North America, we have an amnesiac, don’t-look-back perspective; it’s always reboot, look forward, fail better. We’re terrified of admitting that we’ve lost, that we’ve disappointed ourselves. We blame others, but we don’t do something very politically important, which is to be self-critical and say, What can we do better?
You and Naomi Wolf have a few similarities, but, for a long time, you didn’t really share an intellectual focus. Then, at some point in the two-thousands, her subjects began to drift from women’s bodies and sexual politics, and her work took a conspiratorial turn. To a distracted observer, your arguments and hers might have seemed plausibly interchangeable—you were writing about the hubris of geoengineering, she was posting pictures of suspicious clouds in the sky. She seemed, you write, like a doppelgänger of her former self. This is a thought many of us have had in recent years—that someone we once knew went down some Internet rabbit hole and six months later seemed totally unlike their former self.