How the Mirror World Distorts Our Reality

Naomi Klein


Paris Marx is joined by Naomi Klein to discuss the problems with personal branding pushed social media, how the left’s insufficient response to the pandemic created an opening for the right, and the fight over the roots of Western society that will shape our future.


Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, New York Times bestselling author, and a columnist with The Guardian. She is the founding co-director of the UBC Centre for Climate Justice and Professor of Climate Justice at the University of British Columbia. Her newest book is Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World.

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Paris Marx: Naomi, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.

Naomi Klein: Thank you for having me.

PM: Very excited to speak with you. I have been following your work for a long time, I think one of my early inspirations for getting into the work that I do, which is probably something you hear a lot. But I appreciate you taking the time to come on the show, and I’m excited to dig into your most recent book with you. And so, I wanted to start by just asking more of a general question. I’m sure there are many different topics that you are interested in or things that you have considered writing a book on. Why did you decide to delve into the mirror world, this alternate world of conspiracism to inspire this book?

NK: Well, I think the appeal was precisely that it let me write about a lot of things. My friend, Kyo Maclear, who is a wonderful novelist, and memoirist and teaches creative writing. When I told her about my idea of using my doppelganger to write about, at the time I was thinking about writing about our digital avatars, our digital doubles, the way we create doppelgangers of ourselves through personal branding, and also getting into the sort of right-wing conspiracy world that Naomi Wolf, my doppelganger, had gotten involved in. Kyo said: Well, it’s a narrow aperture through which to look at the world, and that’s really helpful. Because as a writer, things can get unwieldy very quickly. And I found during the pandemic that I wanted to understand this strange phenomenon of our confusion about who and what we could trust online because we didn’t know whether our own digital doubles were real or other people’s digital doubles were real.

Also, the phenomenon of more and more people who were known as prominent leftist or liberals flipping over to the right. And then I realized it was a really great way of talking about fascism, and that a lot of novelists and filmmakers had used the figure of the double, the doppelganger, to reckon with the menace of the idea that whole societies have evil twins that we can flip into. And friends of mine in India and Italy were going: It’s happened! We’ve turned into our evil twins — how the crowd is now the mob. So, I realized that it was this really generous tool that would let me look through a narrow aperture at subjects that were so large, that without that narrow aperture, I would just get lost. Timothy Morton’s phrase ‘hyperobject’ comes to mind. It was a way to tame a lot of hyperobjects that were just too big, and I could shrink them down to the size of a double.

PM: I love that. And I think it will resonate with a lot of listeners who’ve also been wondering what is going on out there in the world, as we see so much of the shift to the right. People who they might have once respected, or at least thought had some good opinions and good views on things moving over to the right or just adopting these conspiracy theories, and seemingly out of nowhere. You did mention Naomi Wolf there, I was surprised in the book to know how long the doppelganger effect, or you getting mistaken for her had been going on back to the Occupy days, I believe you describe. I have to ask, has Naomi Wolf responded to the book at all? Have you heard anything from her?

NK: I haven’t heard anything directly. But she has written quite a lot. She claims not to have read the book, but she has written much about me and Avi, my partner, who she claims works for Big Pharma.

PM: I saw that!

NK: Which is hilarious! Avi went on a speaking tour with the Council of Canadians — your Canadian listeners will know who they are. They’re a lovely grassroots, lefty organization that has been fighting for pharmacare. I know you have a lot of non-Canadian listeners — so we have a universal public health care in Canada, but drugs are not covered. So, Canadians still have to pay for our prescription medications, unless we have a private health care plan. One of the ways that some of us talked about how to pull people back from conspiracy land, where, and I say in the book, one of the things that happens on the right, is that right-wing conspiracy land is they get the facts wrong, but the feelings right. So, people really are angry at the incredible wealth consolidation; they have a strong sense that this whole system is rigged against them; they have a right to be angry at Big Pharma and Big Tech, as you well know, Paris.

So, they take the true parts, the true feelings, and then they pivot it into a fantasy world. And then suddenly, the vaccines are chipping us and tracking us, and so on. And so one of the things that Avi and I talked a lot about is like: Okay, well, how do you bring people back? And one of the ways that you do that is you offer a real solution to the feeling instead of this simulation of a response, of like: We’re gonna have a great storm where we unveil the evil doer, and throw them all in Guantanamo, which is the story of QAnon. But, okay, you want to stick it to Big Pharma? How about if we include pharmaceuticals under a national health care plan? They really don’t like that. And so somehow she has taken that, to claim that Avi is working for Pfizer, which is hysterical. Very, very funny. Because, of course, it is the very last thing that pharmaceutical companies want, is for prescription drugs to be included in national health care plans, because it forces their prices go down.

PM: They’re not sending their reps around to to advocate for lower drug prices to include it in a public system.

NK: I guess the short answer to that long answer — the short version of that long answer is that we have been fully folded into conspiracy land! [both laugh].

PM: Everyone’s trying to deal with it these days, and it just pops up absolutely everywhere, even places where you don’t expect it. Before we dig into some of the broader themes of the book, I also wanted to talk about the fact that there does seem to be a deep engagement with your past work in this book as well. “No Logo” and “Shock Doctrine,” in particular, seem to come up many times throughout it. I wonder if that was a conscious effort, on your part, to want to go back and look at how these ideas developed or did it just come naturally as you were digging into this world, and then realized that there were so many connections back to things that you’ve been writing about and researching in the past?

NK: Definitely the the connection with “No Logo,” and “Shock Doctrine,” too. I play with “The Shock Doctrine” at the start of the book where I have been writing about states of shock, and what it does to our brains for 20 years now — more actually, really since September 11th. And realizing, in the early days of COVID, that this was a very different kind of shock for me, because I was in it, in a way that I had always had some kind of reportorial distance. So, I wrote about Hurricane Katrina, I went there when the city was still flooded with my notebook, but it was not my shock. I had that a privilege of distance of like: Okay, I see what’s happening here, people’s misery and the fact that having to focus on where they’re going to get their next meal, and where they’re going to sleep. Now, is being exploited to get rid of public housing and get rid ofpublic schools, open up charter schools. It was not my shock was not my school, it was not my home, and though I still had a huge amount of privilege, during the COVID lockdown months, I was still trying to get my kid to learn on Zoom and trying to hold it together in the way that all of us were.

So, I thought there was something interesting about trying to write about shock from the inside, like from the eye of the storm, as opposed to from the outside, and that you would have to, by nature, do it in a sort of funny or more confessional way. And I also just wanted to have more fun with the writing itself, I was sort of feeling a little bit bored by the conventions of traditional nonfiction, so I was working with a writing teacher and playing with form and I thought: Well, this would be funny, to write from inside the shock, and to try to capture the feeling of disorientation as opposed to just describe it. So I always knew is going to deal with that, but I also had been looking for a way to go back to some of the themes of “No Logo,” which I wrote in the 90s, it came out just on the cusp of the new millennium. Some some people say it came out in 1999, and actually came out in January 2000. But it’s wrong on the internet, so I’ve given up correcting people. In that book, it’s mainly about corporate brands, and how that was remaking the world of labor, outsourcing marketing. But we were just starting to hear this idea that we should all become brands. And I quote, management consultants like Tom Peters, saying that: In the future, we’re all going to be brand you, the brand called you, and so on.

Now, this was a joke in the book because it seems so silly to our 1990s brains, that individuals who are not celebrities could become brands and market ourselves. How would we possibly do that? Who would care? How would they know? Were we going to put up posters? How? Because there was no social media; there were no iPhones. So, the era of personal branding had been of great interest to me, and how that intersected with social media, how it was changing our relationships with our friends, our family members, how we were all becoming kind of brand extensions. How it was changing social movements, how social movements were increasingly acting like brands, being very proprietary about slogans and things like that. And so I started to teach a course about this, I had taught a course for three years at Rutgers called The Corporate Self, with a small group of undergrads. It was exploring the ways in which this was reshaping the self and what it does two identity when you’re trained from a very early age to think about how others are going to consume you, and how you have to do a kind of a time travel, as a teen to think about: Well, how will a future employer see this post that I’m putting online?

So, they taught me a huge amount, these undergrads, in terms of what finstas were and Instagram husbands and things like that. They really got me up to speed. Shoshana Zuboff’s book I read in galleys and assigned to them. So this is all 2018-2019. And when I ended up having a personal branding crisis in the form of Naomi Wolf going off the deep end during COVID, and everyone thinking it was me, I realized I had a very funny literary gift. Because in the same way that I could grapple with the shock doctrine from inside the shock, I realized I could grapple with personal branding from inside a personal branding crisis. That is awfully ironic considering that I wrote this anti-brand manifesto in the 90s. So, all of this just delighted me, Paris, is all I can say. It was always an attempt to go back to that material but in a different register, with this benefit of time and distance, and be able to have more of a sense of humor about the fact that: Yeah, I wrote an anti-brand manifesto in my 20s, and then became a brand myself and all these companies launched “No Logo” products and I ferociously denied that I ever was a brand, even as I obviously was one. And so the book became a way to just play with all that a bit.

PM: I love that because you absolutely feel those pressures today, it almost feels like regardless of the situation that you occupy. You don’t really need to be some big public-facing figure to still be considering how you present yourself online, how people see you, think about the way that even people just curate their Instagram profiles, or the photos that they post on Facebook or whatever, to try to show that they are a particular person, or they experience their life in a particular way. How then seeing other’s false versions of themselves that they put out in this way can shape how others see them, can shape how people feel about themselves, because they don’t feel that they can live up to it.

NK: It even shapes how you relate to seismic historic events, because you don’t necessarily have the freedom to just have a reaction to horror that is not about you at all, except in the sense of maybe how you might show up. But because you have to do this sort of mental flip of: Well, what am I going to say about this, even if you’re an undergraduate with 500 followers, or whatever it is, you’re still having to have an almost instant reaction of what will I post about this? Not so that I express it, but so that people will think the right thing about me. So this thing that is not at all about you suddenly becomes about you very, very, very quickly. That is really troubling in terms of what that means about movement building, and the way something that should be collective is individualized, on a mass scale. Because we shouldn’t be experiencing these events as being about ourselves and how people see us. They should be moments of unselving.

To quote Iris Murdoch, they should be moments where we, as much as possible, let go of ourselves and show up for one another in need. God, social media has really done something to us. I think there’s a way that you can make people feel really attacked and judged, when you write about this from the outside. That’s why I wanted to write about it from the inside, because we’re all in this. I don’t want to shake my fingers at anyone and pretend to be above it. I want to admit that, even me who wrote “No Logo,” really was worried about my personal brand, when all these people thought that I was on Fox, talking about vaccines, bringing a Chinese-style social credit system to the United States. So, I think you have to have skin in the game for people to believe that you’re not just trying to put yourself above it and perform some virtuous version of yourself, which is what we’re all accusing each other of doing all the time.

PM: I feel like one of the risks, and you talk about this in the book, that it really brings up is, obviously, we live in this culture that is highly individualized already. That’s one of the expectations that capitalism has on us, because it expects that of us not to have that solidarity, but to think of the self and how we move our individual prosperity forward. But it seems by pushing this rigidness of the personal brand, it takes this to a whole new level, where the idea of working together on something, the idea of solidarity, just become so much more difficult to imagine or to put together, or to think of how to relate to, because all of a sudden, it’s this whole new prism through which to experience the world that doesn’t align with that at all.

NK: This is where I write about this sort of brutal timing for a lot of folks on the left of going from the Bernie campaign to lockdown without missing a beat. There was no distance. I remember the very last thing that I did in the real world, was go on Democracy Now on March 11th. I remember because Amy gave everybody in the studio flowers for coming to work that day, despite the fact that we were in a global pandemic [laughs].

PM: No way!

NK: It was very funny, and that was the last day that Democracy Now was in person.

PM: Similarily, one of the last things I did out in the real world was knock doors in New Hampshire for Bernie.

NK: I’m surprised that we didn’t see each other there. But when I was on DN spinning that Bernie could still win — that’s what I was doing. And it was pretty clear that wasn’t going happen by March 11th. But we were still hanging on. And then I’m sure you remember that moment where you’re in your home, and there’s no going out. And we’re trying to figure out what this wild thing is and whether we have enough toilet paper and whether we have to wipe down our groceries. And we’re watching the entire party coalesce around Biden. And the Bernie campaign was not perfect — I want to be very clear about that. But there was something really beautiful about the fact that it went to the heart of what we’re talking about, with this slogan of: “Not Me, Us. “And so it created a container for all of us, atomized individual brands, to unself and show up for each other, to fight for people we don’t know. And it gave a language. And I wrote a piece at one point during the campaign about the slogan and the way the slogan took on different meanings as time went on. I think the first time I heard it, I thought that was just Bernie saying: It’s not me, it’s us.

But then when you’re on the campaign trail — I’m sure you experienced this in New Hampshire — when you’re talking to people, the ‘not me’ is the not me, the person carrying their medical debt, carrying their student debt, carrying the sort of individual shame of the burdens of trying to survive in this brutal system, and the fact that I’m failing at it is my personal failing. And then that flipping to no, there could be an us. There could be an us that has universal health care, there could be an us that is debt cancellation — there could be this collective response. And then we were just summarily dropped into a sea of me, of just: Okay, we’re on our own, there’s no way to sort of physically regroup. I don’t know, maybe there was a zoom call, but I didn’t even think I attended it. And I just remember, suddenly, everybody just went off into their podcasts and Substacks. It’s like: Well, if there isn’t going to be an us, there’s damn well going to be a me [both laugh]! And plus, I’m going to spend a lot of time attacking you.

PM: Hey, I started my podcast April of 2020 [laughs].

NK: Did you really?

PM: Yeah! [laughs].

NK: Oh my god, that’s amazing! Your podcast is awesome, and your podcast is about an us.

PM: Thank you.

NK: But I just think there should be a way to be a little easier on each other. These are structural failures, and I think one of the lessons of the Bernie campaign is, a presidential campaign is not the right container for a transformational political project like that, because it has an end date — whether that end date is actually you know, getting into office, or the campaign ending in defeat. Either way, it’s not going to really be able to hold the promise of a mass social movement. But we do need those movements.

PM: Absolutely, and I think talking about that moment, where there’s all this hope before the pandemic is happening, or as the news is out there, and we’re slowly hearing about it, and then finally, the lockdown comes down, and we really feel the effects of it. It feels like that moment was a real catalyst for a lot of the things that you’re talking about in the book, or really gave them a point to really take off. And early in the book when I was reading it, I was like: If I was watching this much kind of right-wing conspiratorial media, I don’t even know if I’d be able to admit it. You talked about how the book has a confessional nature to it, as well. But what was it like digging into this mirror world in this moment? What was the appeal, you think, that so many people had to these alternate framings of our reality in that moment?

NK: So, I did listen to a lot of, in particular, Bannon, because Wolf was on Bannon’s show all the time. And he’s an interesting figure; I have been interested in him for a long time. Not that long, but certainly, since the Trump campaign. As somebody who was involved in the Bernie campaign, we were always aware that what Bannon was doing was a doppelganger of what we were trying to do. And you’d meet these voters who were choosing between Bernie and Trump, because they were mad, and were mad at the system, and there was no way they were going to vote for somebody who they perceived as being a representative of that system, like Biden, or Hillary.

And so Bannon’s political project and the way he has, and I think, unfortunately, deserves a fair bit of credit for, changing the nature of the Republican Party to take parts of the left, parts that had been abandoned, that were not really being spoken to, and mixing them with this very nefarious xenophobic, racist project. He did that with free trade in 2016, and so that interested me because that was the issue that I came into politics with. The alter-globalization movement was a movement taking on these trade deals outside the World Trade Organisation and the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Were you there, or were you like 12? [laughs].

PM: I would have been a bit too young for that one, yeah.

NK: So, I had been part of these mass mobilizations that were taking on those trade deals from the left. That were trying to get at the structures that were causing this gulf of inequality to widen. And they weren’t looking for a few individual scapegoats; it wasn’t just about Bill Gates. It was a very wonky movement — we would have these huge teachings where we would read trade deals, or have them read to us. I was just actually talking about this with Avi that we could use this as another way of teach-ins. These deals advanced because they were so arcane. They’re kind of what like Zuboff and others write about, about the terms of service agreements — where you know no one’s going to read it, so you just press accept. NAFTA was like a phone book, and it was just assumed that it was too complicated for regular people to be involved.

NK: So the alter-globalization movement was a ton of popular education. It was just regular people reading these agreements, finding out what was in them, and what it meant to privatize water and education, and Monsanto’s hold on agribusiness, and so on. So, watching Bannon take that issue, in 2016, that had been an issue of the left, that the Democrats had promised, and campaign after campaign, to reopen the trade deals, not to pass another one, and then had broken those promises. I had watched with horror as he had taken that issue, handed it to Trump, mixed it with anti-immigrant racism, and the rest of the nefarious agenda. And so I was kind of horrified to watch him do that during the pandemic, with all kinds of other issues. Do you know he has a transhumanism correspondent?

PM: Just from reading your book, yeah!

NK: I sort of picture him just picking up all of these issues that are the traditional terrain of the left, but when the left is busy, splintering and attacking itself —

PM: — Which the left is good at.

NK: And when the left is weak and the center is the corporatist center that we have, that is just optimal conditions for somebody like Bannon. So, my moments of horror in listening to him were when he would say things that I recognized from being traditionally issues that the left would talk about, but had stopped talking about. So for instance, there would be a montage that he that he would play, which was just intros and outros to big cable news shows on CNN and MSNBC, that said: Brought to you by Pfizer, brought to you by Moderna. And the reason it chilled me was not because I thought: Oh, my God, I have been injected with the bio-weapon, which was really the point of the segments. It was that: Oh, I remembered when we used to really talk about media consolidation, and make arguments for why we needed a nonprofit media ecosystem.

So, I think he’s really, really expert. He studies the left; he’s watching us. The image that I use in the book is the one-way mirror where we tend to ignore what’s happening there. You’re like: I wouldn’t admit it if I listened to him. And I felt quite a bit of shame, when I would quote something like that, if I tried to say that to one of my lefty friends. They would mainly just be like: Why were you listening to him? They wouldn’t engage with what I was saying. They would just be like: Why? Why did you do that? Like I did it so you don’t have to. But what I really feel is we have to pay attention to him, because he’s paying attention to us. And he’s paying attention to what issues are being neglected, and also who is being neglected and how. So, when people get shamed and mocked, deplatformed, he’s always there with open arms.

That’s the other thing that I was really struck by culturally by listening to his show is the way he performs. He creates a kind of a theater of inclusion and kindness, which is funny if you know Bannon, the idea that he could be kind, because we usually see clips of him threatening to put people’s heads on pikes. He’s a very angry guy, but he has this other side, which you come to recognize if you’re more of a longitudinal listener, which is very caring to his listeners, and that’s his whole pitch to them, is that the whole world has been mean to them. Trump does this too. You are the discarded; you are the deplorable. They’re still dining out on Hillary Clinton calling them the deplorables. He’s collecting all of the people that have been ejected, discarded, insulted, and saying: I won’t do that to you. Plus, subscribe to my this, that. Buy these ready-made meal kits for the apocalypse and invest in precious metals.

PM: Why do you think someone like Bannon, and in the type of narrative he weaves, has an easier time, I guess, getting someone to come to his side, or to listen to what he’s saying than a left-wing argument? Because as you say, a lot of the things that he’s saying are versions of critiques that people on the left have been making for a while, but divorced of the structural nature, or the criticisms of capitalism that are in there. But they are weaved in a whole different way to target a different group or get them to buy into a very different kind of political program.

NK: I don’t think it is that it’s easier. I think he’s filling a vacuum; I think he goes into silences. In the book, I talk about this mirror world relationship that we, left-er of center, have with, “them.” So when an issue becomes an issue on the right, it then becomes for everybody else. So, in the early months of the pandemic, when it was clear that that there was this big push for a vaccine, there was a lot of talk about whether or not the vaccines should be patented. I’m sure you remember this, and I think you’ve done shows about. But if we’re honest, that was not a major rallying cry for leftists during the pandemic. Maybe we tweeted about it. There were a few NGOs that really made it their issue, but there was not a mass movement. When I saw the trucker convoy says shut down Ottawa, that was my first thought. Why didn’t we do this? Why didn’t we shut down Ottawa? In the sense that this was a mass movement of the kind that I’ve been involved in.

I’m not saying that we should have brought 18 wheelers or harassed residents. But what they were doing was disrupting business as usual, on the model of a general strike. Which is why I thought it was really dangerous to hear leftists talk about how it was okay to use emergency measures, under the argument that they were disrupting the economy. What else is a strike? What else is a blockade? I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that that should be a pretext for seizing people’s bank accounts and things like that. So, that’s a dangerous precedent, but more to the point, it underlined the fact that there weren’t mass mobilizations about the extreme injustice and inequalities of the pandemic. There was a racial justice uprising that absolutely was connected to the fact that there were such huge racially-coded differences and who bore the risks.

The catalyst was obviously police murder of Black people, but a lot of people have made the argument that the backdrop of that was was the fact that this was, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor said, a Black plague, in its early months. And that is because of who the “essential” workers were, and who had the space to socially distance, and so on, and where they lived. And who had pre-existing conditions that made COVID more deadly, and how that connects with economic injustice and environmental racism, and so on. But if we look at the vaccine apartheid, and the fact that we were lining up to get third and fourth shots before much of the world had gotten one. If we think about the ways that this could have been a moment demanding so many of the emergency temporary measures to become permanent, whether it was eviction moratoria, or a guaranteed income, livable income. There were a lot of things that we could have mobilized around, and didn’t mobilize.

Instead, a lot of the discourse on the left became very obedient. The right was like: Anti-lockdown; anti-shots. And we were like: Get your shot, play by the rules. We were ‘rule-y,’ [laughs] and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have been pro-vaccine, and that was an important part of public health. But I think we could have been so much more ambitious. I think we should have been demanding — one of the things I did in the first year of the pandemic is do some work for The Intercept; I did some podcasting for Intercepted. But some of the precedents from the Great Depression, where you had the ambition of something like the Civilian Conservation Corps, hiring millions of young people to plant trees. Why couldn’t we have had a program like that, that could have gotten young people out of their homes, into communities with each other doing meaningful work? Or different parts of New Deal jobs programs that could have been addressing the fact that part of the reason why COVID was spreading so much in the schools is because we have these huge, overcrowded classrooms. Why weren’t we fighting to hire more teachers, smaller classrooms, more outdoor education — for a vision of a different world?

Something that brought together Black Lives Matter, the Green New Deal, Indigenous rights, the Black, Red and Green New Deal, as some are calling it. So we didn’t do that. There were some position papers and there were some things that happened, but there was not a mass movement. So, I don’t believe that it’s that these ideas spread better on the right than the left. I don’t think we competed in that realm. I think we went silent. And I think the right moves into left silences and divisions, and every victory of the fascist right is always a story of defeat and fragmentation of the anti-fascist left. And where you see that, that the potential is, first of all, what we were talking about earlier about the Bernie campaign, is that when Bernie was telling that story, tons of people wanted to hear it. We weren’t able to seal the deal. But I think we got proof of concept that when you are offering people a vision of solidarity and structural change that gets at some of these root drivers, it is an alternative to the right, fascist project.

Even something like the UAW strike is another one. And seeing Shawn Fain out there in the media, in his ‘Eat the Rich’ t-shirt, saying: Record profits mean record contracts. That, to me, is how you fight conspiracy culture on the right. You actually offer people something real. But if you don’t, if that isn’t on offer, and it’s just like: Vote for Joe Biden, get your shot, or whatever it is. There’s going to be a lot of energy for those Steve Bannon’s of the world to tap into. But I don’t think it’s that they’ve got a better pitch. I think their pitch is worse. All they really have to offer is sadism, which is something, as China Miéville will remind us — it’s not nothing.

PM: Totally, I think, picking up on that, it’s interesting to hear you describe it that way. Because I guess, in a sense, they were acting in a void. After they defeated the Bernie campaign, there was not much else to rally around, there were not many alternatives being offered. So, you had the right being able to take full advantage of this moment. I want to pivot a little bit, and maybe you’ve already got to the answer to this question. But you were talking about tech, and when it comes to this radical right, this mirror world, a lot of it does take place online, through social media through these various platforms. And I wonder how you think that technology and social media relates to the popularity and the proliferation of these ideas.

Because I feel like there are two different schools of thought here where, on one hand, it’s the evil tech platforms who are driven to maximize their profits pushing us down these rabbit holes, because it increases engagement and radicalizing the public as a result. And then on the other side, there’s an argument where it’s more tha, sure, tech plays a role in this, but it’s one of a number of factors. And what explains it more, I guess, is just the fact that a lot of people are having a really hard time, the material factors are working to make people seek out alternatives, and this is one of the things that they’re finding most prominently. So, where do you fall on the question of the role that tech plays in all this?

NK: I think it’s pretty important. This business model, and privatization of discourse, and interpersonal relationships, and the spaces where movements organize, all happening on these corporate platforms — to me is just part of a story of capitalist enclosure. It’s just the latest phase of it. And of course, it has a tremendous effect on our interpersonal relationships, because they are enclosed. But the power of it is an interplay between those incentives, and the other forces that we’re talking about. The fact that we that we’re looking for ways to make sense of extreme inequality and an increasing precarity and insecurity. So, we’re drawn to somebody who claims to have unlocked it and or claims to have a plan. I mean, that’s the other thing that the right has, is a sort of a simple story of justice. I joked about the QAnon Great Storm, but at least they have a vision for justice. Like what’s our vision for dealing with rampid impunity and criminality among our elites? I think we should have a plan.

But the other piece of it that I feel is underdiscussed is the commodification of the self on these platforms. The interplay between the idea of the brand itself, the idea that that is all we have in these roiling capitalist seas, and those incentive structures. I often feel like that piece is missing. So, we’re just looking at the structures. I think we talk about the incentives, a lot that are built into the platform and what the algorithms are encouraging us to do, but not enough about what we need from them, and why we need it. I mean, I don’t think it’s the tech that matters. I think it’s the business model that matters, including the business of the self, the business of the self meeting the business of a “town square” that is actually a corporatized space. So, really, we’re talking about the final frontier of privatization. This is what I tried to make visible with my students, or what I tried to make visible when I was teaching that corporate self class, because when you are swimming in it, you don’t realize how relatively new it is.

I have a little passage in the book about thinking about my pre-internet childhood, and teendom, and just not realizing how lucky and good we had it. That we left no trails behind, no digital trails, that nobody knew what we thought, or cared about our tastes. They left no record, except for maybe some old pictures in a drawer, or scribbles in a journal. And the migration of so much of life, not just into digital form, but privatized form. And I think that we don’t spend enough time thinking about what it means to privatize so much of interpersonal life. So, I don’t see that as primarily a tech question — I see that as a capitalism question. And that that is, when we’re talking about how we’re behaving with each other, and the kind of culture that we use as shorthand of how toxic Twitter is, we really are talking about what happens when the logics of capitalism enter into our psyches, our souls, our relationships with one another. It’s very, very painful, but I think we should use the right words for it.

PM: Absolutely, I completely agree. And it’s interesting, you talk about how now we all leave these records. A few years ago, I went back to try to see if I could clean up some of that, delete some old accounts and things like that, that I used when I was a teenager. And just found that — if the websites were still up, some of them are gone — but it was hard to even do that because then their usernames you need to remember and passwords, and maybe you don’t have the email address that you used to set it up if you forgot the password. So, it just kind of sits there, you don’t have the ability to even do that if you want to.

NK: It’s weird. That is like a doppelganger thing, that there is a you that exists outside of your control. And that’s one of the things, that’s one of the doppelgangers I wanted to get at. It’s more like a golem — it’s a digital golem of you. Because there’s the you that you curate, and you control, and you get the affect just right, and the tone just right. But then there’s the you that tech companies have, that you have lost control over, that is sort of lumbering around the internet somewhere out of your control. That’s the ultimate Frankenstein. And so this is where doppelgangers, once again, are so useful. You realize that artists have played with them through the ages to try to get at these tricky subjects of how we lose control over ourselves, even well before they could have ever imagined that you couldn’t go find your old Tumblr accounts.

PM: It’s interesting, too, you occasionally see people who can dig into the advertising profiles that the companies have on them. And some things are super accurate, and there’s other places where it’s like: How do they think that this describes me, these terms or whatever that they have? So, it’s this version of the self that exists in the servers of the tech companies.

NK: I know. I was actually just having that experience yesterday on YouTube, where I feel like the algorithm has gotten more sensitive. So, I just wanted to watch that one video, I don’t want to only see videos exactly like that for the rest of my life. Anyway, it had something to do with like, I’m a researcher, so I have to see what the other side is doing. But it’s like: Okay, there are limits.

PM: Totally. Don’t bombard me with it now, because I watched one.

NK: I don’t care about cooking! [both laugh].

PM: I wonder because you were talking about Bannon and his thoughts on technology. And in this kind of conspiratorial right, or whatever we want to call it, during the pandemic, and I’m sure that this continues now, tech was one of the central things that they were talking about, whether it’s vaccine passports or technology used for surveillance. How did you see their understanding of technology? And I guess, how did you see that differing from critiques that are offered on the left. Obviously, you’re talking about a mirror world, like how does it distort those critiques for something that works for them?

NK: That was the moment when I decided that this was worth writing something longer form about. Just to back up a bit about my doppelganger experience — so, during the pandemic, I would really have this experience is where I found myself increasingly unable to say much of anything. It just felt futile. I didn’t want to compete in the attention economy, things were going off the rails, I didn’t see how to get them back on. But Wolf was just really on a tear and was kind of riding with digital magic carpet ride. She had been on the forefront of a few claims. One was that mask wearing was leading children to lose the ability to smile, that got a lot of traction, and then another had to do with vaccine shedding. And there was a study that was done by NPR and a data analyst firm that was trying to get at why people believed that unvaccinated people could have vaccine particles shed on them by people who were vaccinated, and that could interfere with their fertility. And they made a data map and found that ground zero of this piece of misinformation was Naomi Wolf. Or if you’re not reading too closely, Naomi Klein.

But where she really hit the jackpot of the attention economy was when she was having to do with vaccine passport. She made this video that said — at this point she was getting deplatformed on and off — but she got it on YouTube, it went viral. And I think the headline was: “Why vaccine passports equal slavery forever.” And in this video, she makes the argument that vaccine passports were a way of bringing the Chinese Communist Party social credit system to the United States. And that if you had this app on your phone, the government was going to know, not only everywhere you went, but who you were with and what you were talking about even in your own living room. So basically, she thought they were a microphone. And this got a lot of attention on the right, so that’s when she first went on Tucker Carlson, I think.

That’s when things started to get really crazy for me out because everybody was kind of freaked out about that. Then she got Bannon’s attention, and he had her on, oh my god, dozens of times to talk. Because that’s an obsession of his show, is the Chinese Communist Party, and that’s his theme song it’s like: Let’s take down the CCP. It’s a whole thing. And so they really bonded over this claim that it was a Chinese plot. They really settled in on it, because originally they were like: Is the virus a bio-weapon? No. And now, nope it’s not the virus, it’s the apps. And so they really landed on that and went to town. Now, the response from liberal Twitter to all of these claims about the apps putting us under surveillance was: Wait till you hear about cell phones.

PM: That was exactly what I was thinking as you’re describing this!

NK: I think I retweeted that. It’s possible that I retweeted that, I laughed when I saw that. And felt very smug because this is what we know, this is what you have been covering for years. This is we studied in our class. There’s a New York Times piece like: Your cell phone knows what you did last night; it isn’t afraid to tell. And it was all about sharing location-tracking data. That sort of worldweary knowing retort, ‘wait till they hear about cell phones,’ implies that we are okay with it. I’m not okay with it! But the thing about what she was doing with Ben and Ben Carlson is they were they were telling a story that projected all of our collective surveillance fears onto this one app, which is great because it means that if you get rid of the app, if you don’t get the app, then you don’t have to worry about surveillance. And that’s another example of them taking an issue that is a traditionally, or should be, an issue of the left — high tech surveillance, privatizing our lives, that’s a good left issue — and then kind of warping it, taking the fears, projecting it onto something that is not really doing that. Those apps know they couldn’t listen in on our phone conversations, doesn’t mean they were great idea. It doesn’t mean it’s a great idea to digitize access to restaurants and public spaces. I’m not a fan of that.

PM: I still get frustrated when I go into restaurants today, and they still have the QR code menus.

NK: Oh, thank you! I thought all young people were okay with that. I’m glad to hear you say that; it makes me feel better. So that’s, I think, a good example of how all our tech fears get absorbed, and just turned into a doppelganger of themselves. And of course Bannon isn’t interested in regulation that is going to challenge the surveillance model. I mean, if we think about what he did with Cambridge Analytica, back in the day, he seemed to be okay with taking our data and selling it to third parties. Or the fact that he’s was funded by the Mercer’s, and that was their whole business model, so. But it doesn’t matter, nothing matters. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. It matters if it feels real — it matters if it’s speaking to something real, and he’s good at that.

PM: No, absolutely. Obviously we’ve talked toward how the conspiratorial right has taken these narratives and shifted them. And we see them more and more making their way into mainstream politics in many parts of the world, as we see more and more governments or more far right parties making gains in parliaments. Obviously, things are not looking so great for the next US election. Even up here in Canada, with the influence of these things on the Conservative Party and how these things are spreading, it looks not so great, especially at a moment when we have all of these crises that we need to collectively address and deal with — the climate crisis, biggest of all, but certainly not the only one. So, I wonder after writing this book, after looking into this world, where do you see hope that we can turn this around that we can address these problems? When it does seem that many things are going against us?

NK: Interesting, I’m not sure. I feel hope in the short-term, like in the timeframe of the next wave of elections. I think we’re in big trouble, and we were in big trouble before. But the alliance of center-left, really corporate centrist political parties — like Trudeau, like Biden’s Democrats, with Netanyahu’s genocidal violence in Gaza — is catastrophic in a way that we have yet to reckon with. Because the only thing they’ve ever had is fear of fascism. If you don’t vote for us, the fascists are going get in. The fact that they have aligned themselves so closely with the fascist government in Israel, that is openly committing genocide against Palestinians, is going to harm them and harm all of us. I mean, it’s obviously harming Palestinians most of all, it doesn’t even bear comparison. But there’s, to me, a particular horror in the fact that a state that claims to speak on behalf of Jews everywhere and to exist in the name of Jewish safety is actually actively helping fascist parties cleanse their reputations, like Giorgia Meloni palling around with Netanyahu, and Marine LePen marching against anti-semitism in France.

But what I’m talking about is the fact that I think we are all seeing a modern iteration of fascism right now, with Israel’s stated genocidal intent for Palestinians, and its actions acting on those. And so for liberal politicians, both small and large ‘L’, to stand with that project, and then turn around and say to voters: Vote for us, or you’ll get fascism. After we’ve watched a genocide livestreamed, I don’t know how that pitch works. I just don’t, I don’t know how it works. And I’m not saying that there’s no difference between Biden and Trump — I think there really is. But I just think that this is the implications of what is happening globally, we have not begun to reckon with. Where I get some hope, and it is qualified, is that I think there’s been unprecedented levels of both solidarity and principled truth-telling. Where we are right now is really in a battle of narratives, of stories about how the modern world was born. And the battles over critical race theory, over denying the genocide in the residential schools here in Canada — all of this predates Gaza.

But what’s happening is that, though, when I say all of this predates Gaza, I mean the war on memory predates Gaza. But now you have this ferocious new McCarthyism, that is specifically taking aim at people who are drawing connections. So, Indigenous people who are saying: Well, there’s a connection between settler colonialism here in Canada, and settler colonialism in Palestine. Or attacks on Black Lives Matter, and publications like Hammer & Hope, for publishing works by Palestinians that draw connections between militarized policing in the US and mass repression, surveillance, incarceration, of Palestinians. So, when I say there’s two stories — and this is what I get into in the book — is the doppelganger I’m most interested in, and that I most fear is, is the fascist double at that the core of our societies. The story I grew up with, in Jewish Day School, and that is the mainstream Western story of the Holocaust, sees the Holocaust as exceptional, and as a rupture, from an otherwise sort of cheerful story of Western enlightenment, that when the virtuous allies defeated Hitler, the world was set right.

There was always another story that reckoned with what Hitler had learned from settler colonialism, the technologies of enslavement, of the Bantustans, that saw what Aimé Césaire did in Martinique, an intellectual and poet politician, that this was colonialism turned inward in Europe. And if you think about Raoul Peck’s documentary, “Exterminate All the Brutes,” that came out in 2021, I believe. This was a building on Sven Lindqvist’s book, “Exterminate All the Brutes.” The title comes from [Joseph] Conrad, in the context of colonial exterminatory rage in Africa, and makes the argument that the logic of extermination is at the heart of the European project. It can be traced from the Inquisition through the Crusades. The pillage of Africa and the Holocaust, it comes home to the heart of Europe. That’s the story that is trying to be told, and it has tremendous implications, because it is the only story that can explain the extreme inequalities that scar our world. It’s the only story that can explain why our governments have done nothing, except for accelerate the climate crisis, because they knew that the crisis would follow the same lines of inequality and dispossession that colonialism did.

So, if you look at who is getting attacked right now, in this McCarthyite wave, it’s people who are daring to connect the dots. It’s like an Indigenous art curator, Wanda Nanibush, at the AGO getting fired after she posts on Instagram that there are connections between colonialism here and colonialism there, between genocide here and genocide there. But it’s also Greta Thunberg being in solidarity with Palestinians, making connections between climate justice and occupation. So, it gives me hope that even in the face of this massive repression, people are finding another story, and it’s a story that has been having birth pangs for more than 75 years. Because there were always people who understood that this was one long, snaking bloody story and that there was a logic. If you don’t look at the logic, if you don’t get at the logic, then you’ll just replicate it. And so then reparations for the Holocaust becomes passing the mantle of whiteness to Jews in Israel, who then get to practice settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing in Palestine.

As you learned a rule and not a principle, and the rule was: Okay, we have to be nice to Jews now. And victims can become perpetrators., and so I think we’re starting to get this, I think we’re starting to get this, that we actually have to get at the logic, like Gramsci said: Now is the time of monsters. Because when you have one worldview dying and the spasms of death are Black Lives Matter! They’re like: We’re going to tell another story of how this country came to be. And in our country in Canada, it’s the unmarked graves and residential schools, and a national reckoning over that. It’s very, very hard to have the stories that you grew up with, be challenged in that way, and so there’s always going to be a push back, and it’s very, very fierce. And there’s always going to be an attempt to forget.

The real test of this moment is whether or not these movements that are coming together, in protest, can also come together in vision for a horizon of another kind of world. Because it’s so hard to look back. It’s so hard to reckon with horrors, and even including the horror that the Second World War, actually, is still going on. That it was just moved, that what was called reparations was a continuation. That’s a horrible, horrible, horrible thing to reckon with. So, I don’t think you can reckon with horror on the scale that we’re talking about, unless you have a horizon of a future that includes everyone — that is inviting, that is beautiful — or else the forces of forgetting will win. So, we have to be looking back and looking forwards at the same time, or I think we lose.

PM: Absolutely, I think it’s a sobering but a very important point to end on. Naomi Klein, it’s been fantastic to have you on the show and to speak with you, to get your insights on all these topics. Thank you so much.

NK: Thank you so much. This was really a pleasure.