The mother of conspiracy theory

The mother of conspiracy theory

Naomi Klein is more responsible for Naomi Wolf than she would like to admit.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Books Feminism Politics USA

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Naomi Klein, the poster girl of early 2000s anti-capitalism, is pissed off. Not with disaster capitalism this time. Not even with climate change, despite her belief that we’re ‘sleepwalking towards apocalypse’. No, it’s being confused for Naomi Wolf that is getting the goat of the Western world’s best-known critic of globalisation. It’s a little odd that a writer who believes the world is ‘on fire’ should be losing sleep over once hearing two women in a public bathroom in Manhattan mistake her for Ms Wolf, but here we are.

Doppelganger is a curious book. It’s a deep dive by Ms Klein into ‘the Other Naomi’, her double in public life: the famous feminist turned infamous vaccine-basher, Naomi Wolf. There was a time when being mixed up with Wolf was only a mild irritation for Klein. And an understandable one. After all, ‘We both write big idea books’, their best-known being The Beauty Myth (Wolf) and No Logo (Klein). ‘We’re both Jewish’, says Klein. And ‘we both have brown hair’, though ‘hers is longer and more voluminous than mine’ (this is the only nice thing Klein says about Wolf in the entire book). But after Covid, and Wolf’s descent into cranky anger with the Covid vaccine, Klein started to find it intolerable that people couldn’t tell the Naomis apart.

Naomi’s confusion was no longer a ‘periodic annoyance’, she says. Now there was a ‘daily avalanche’ of people saying, ‘Can you believe what Naomi Klein just said?!’, when in fact it was Naomi Wolf who’d said it. Lockdown-imposing governments are ‘autocratic tyrants’; ‘vaccinated people’s urine / faeces’ needs to be separated from ‘general sewage supplies / waterways’ until its impact on unvaxxed folk’s drinking water has been established; mask mandates and vaccine passports are akin to the imposition of yellow stars on Jews in Nazi-occuped Europe – Klein’s name was forever being attached to zany views that actually came from Wolf’s mouth, not hers.

So Klein decided to write. She went into the rabbit hole. She alienated friends and family by, ironically, developing a feverish obsession of her own: namely, what the hell happened to Naomi Wolf, and how the hell does one cope with having a doppelgänger who’s gone off the deep end of Covid Derangement Syndrome? The end result is a book that ventures into the ‘Mirror World’, as Klein calls it – that layer of the world wide web where conspiracy theory and paranoia run riot. It’s a book not without merit, but it has major holes.

The biggest is that Klein has far more in common with Wolf than she would like to admit. She slams Wolf for her belief that wicked capitalists exploited the Covid crisis to impose a new world order – what Wolf calls ‘slavery forever’. She quotes Wolf’s belief 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’. I read those lines and thought, ‘That’s the most Naomi Klein thing I’ve ever heard’.

For isn’t Ms Klein’s schtick that transnational cliques of the rich and powerful exploit disasters to make money and boost their authority? That’s the thesis of her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. There she made the case that globalists use a deliberate strategy of ‘shock therapy’ to make hay from upheaval, especially in poorer countries. With the populace emotionally distracted by disaster, suffering from ‘mass disorientation’, the Milton Friedman-inspired rulers of capitalism sweep in and impose their policies. Just to be clear, it was Naomi K who made this conspiratorial argument, not Naomi W.

If people are confusing their Naomis, surely it’s not just because they have the same name and similar hair, but because both of them believe that global capitalism intentionally milks disaster for money and clout. Consider Wolf and other vax sceptics’ belief that the sheeple only allowed ourselves to be injected with this ‘experimental gene therapy’ – yawn – because we had been terrified into submission by the fearmongering of the globalists. Ms Klein’s belief is that ‘mass disorientation’ among the people is the dire foundation on which the rich build their profit-making machines. Is that really so different?

Indeed, in this very book Klein makes a sheeple-style argument. She says that ‘for more than 20 years, ever since those jetliners flew into the glass and steel of the World Trade Center’, she’s been ‘preoccupied with the ways that large-scale shocks scramble our collective synapses, lead to mass regression, and make humans easy prey for demagogues’. Is this not similar to what vaccine sceptics like Wolf say now? That the ‘shock’ of Covid has been weaponised to march a synapses-fried populace towards a new regime in which demagogues dominate? Why is it okay for Ms Klein to say the powerful exploit calamity for gain, but not for Ms Wolf?

The most striking part of Klein’s book is when she starts to twig that Wolf does indeed sound like her – at least like her younger, anti-globalist, Bill Gates-bashing self. In the ‘Mirror World’, she discovers that ‘my own Shock Doctrine research has gone through the looking glass and is now gazing back at me as a network of fantastical plots’. In the output of ‘the Other Naomi’, she feels she is ‘reading a parody of The Shock Doctrine’. There was a point, she admits, where her doppelgänger ‘started sounding, well, more like me’. After all, isn’t the Klein brand all about confronting the ‘corporate exploitation of states of shock’? Yes, it is. And it’s the Wolf brand now, too.

At one point, Klein reprimands Wolf for her extreme rhetoric, where Wolf seems determined to convince the disoriented masses that Covid authoritarianism really is ‘the Big One’ – the new fascism. But then she clocks that she does something similar with climate change. I, too, ‘am forever trying to find new ways to express the fact that we are unravelling the fabric that sustains human and other-than-human life’, she says. Which she does by writing about the planet burning (it isn’t) and apocalypse being around the corner (it’s not). But then comes what Klein no doubt considers a killer line – or at least a self-justifying one. ‘The difference being that it’s true’, she says of her heated preaching about climate apocalypse, in contrast with Wolf’s millenarian warnings of Covid fascism.

Defensive much? My apocalypticism is evidence-based, hers isn’t – that’s the long and the short of K’s effort to distinguish herself from W. I hate to break it to Klein, but some of us consider the idea that billions will die in a hellish future of man’s own making to be as cranky as Ms Wolf’s belief that we must separate vaxxed people’s shit from unvaxxed people’s shit just in case.

The book has a strange tussle over ‘fascism’, too. Who’s fear of fascism is legit – Klein’s or Wolf’s? ‘My doppelgänger has rarely shied away from extreme rhetoric’, says Klein. For example, she’s been claiming America is ‘tipping into “fascism”’ since at least 2007. And yet Klein issues similar warnings. In this very book she frets over the ‘fascist clown state’ that is the ‘ever-present twin of liberal Western democracies, perpetually threatening to engulf us in its fires’. Calm down, Ms Wolf! Sorry, I mean Ms Klein. I’ve confused my Naomis. It turns out that isn’t difficult when both think End Days are around the corner courtesy of the disaster-exploiting capitalists who run the world.

Klein’s clever acknowledgement that Wolf’s arguments sound like hers – as if her own ideas had been fed into a ‘bonkers blender’ – presents an opportunity for some serious self-reflection on Klein’s part. Sadly, she fails to seize this opportunity. Yes, she’s self-critical – have her own politics also been too cartoonish, she wonders? But for the most part she draws an unconvincing distinction between her own supposedly science-led, research-driven belief, that globalists use ‘shock therapy’ against the masses and that the world is coming to a fiery end, and Wolf’s conspiratorial belief in the very same. I’m sorry, but if your ‘science’ leads you to conclusions that sound similar to those reached by nutters in the Mirror World, then I’m not buying your science.

The truth, surely, is that the anti-globalism in which Ms Klein was a key actor has birthed a world in which some people can only understand the problems we face in the language of conspiracy and evil. It’s possible that Klein is the mother of modern conspiracy theory. I can think of no other public figure who did as much to convince a generation that capitalism is less a mode of production than a conspiracy; less a social system than a plot, a scheme, a deliberate ploy by networked individuals to get rich off the back of mayhem and the masses. This broken socialism, this post-Marx view of capitalism as a conscious game plan by the powerful, leads inevitably to conspiracy theory. Those mostly middle-class activists who marched behind the anti-globalisation banner in the late 1990s and early 2000s were expressing a bourgeois fear and disgust for conniving elites, not a genuinely progressive challenge to the ownership of the means of production that pertains in the capitalist epoch.

Indeed, it is notable that Klein’s book starts with the Occupy movement, that 59-day gathering near Wall Street in 2011 at which time-rich anti-globalist youths agitated against capitalism. Both Naomis were involved in that. It was during her visit to the Occupy encampment that Klein heard those two women in a Manhattan bathroom confuse her with Wolf. Wolf thought the NYPD’s clampdown on Occupy was a fascist strike okayed by the Obama administration; Klein demurred. Yet that both these women attended the Occupy event, that conspiracist gathering masquerading as socialism, that shriek of middle-class fury with the supposed shock therapists of the modern economic order, is important. It explains why one went down the road of the ‘shock doctrine’ of capitalistic power grabs, and the other went down the road of the ‘shock doctrine’ of Covid tyranny. A generation jaded by conspiracism, lacking the wisdom and principle of earlier Marxist critiques of capitalism, is going to end up believing that everything is a top-down plot.

The shared anti-globalist origins of both the new left and the Covid-obsessed right also explains why both flirt with anti-Semitism. The most powerful part of Klein’s book is her righteous rebuke of Wolf for saying that pressuring people to get the Covid vaccine is not unlike forcing Nazi-era Jews to wear a yellow star. Klein, rightly, is sickened by this morally relativistic claim. And yet wasn’t Occupy, and its antecedents among the anti-globalisation left, likewise wary of The Jews?

Every conspiracist form of thinking leads inexorably to Jew-blaming. And sure enough, the broken socialism of the 1990s middle-class anti-globalism led to the worst socialism of all – the Socialism of Fools. As Mark Strauss documented, on some left marches against globalisation, marchers carried placards saying, ‘Nazis, Yankees and Jews: No More Chosen Peoples!’. There were t-shirts featuring the Star of David mangled with the swastika. A Palestinian group damned Jews as the ‘true fundamentalists’ who control ‘United States capitalism’. As for Occupy Wall Street – that was the brainchild of the left magazine, Adbusters, which once published an article titled ‘Why won’t anyone say they are Jewish?’, featuring a list of people who worked closely with George W Bush with an asterisk next to the names of the Jewish ones. It was more repugnant than anything I’ve heard Wolf say – and Adbusters adorned the magazine shelves of classy shops for years.

This is not to say that Naomi K has any truck with anti-Semitism. Far from it. Klein, who is Jewish and deeply sensitive to the scourge of racism, was one of the few left-wing anti-globalisation voices who spoke up about anti-Semitism in the movement. No, it’s just to point out that the conspiracism of the contemporary middle-class left played a role in birthing the conspiracism of the new right. Obsessed with the WEF, hateful towards Gates, convinced that globalist networks are using disaster to colonise our societies and our lives, and even venturing into the cesspit of anti-Jewish fever – what some Covid paranoiacs are doing today was already being done by the left that hates them.

I have no time for Wolf. My take is that people like her have ruined the serious discussion we need to have about lockdown and its impact on economic life, civil liberty and social connectedness. And yet it seems to me that the Other Naomi – Klein – is the one who abandoned her principles in the face of Covid. This is an energetic writer who spent years claiming that disaster is the muddy foundation upon which capitalism builds its power, and yet when such a thing actually came to pass, when the Covid crisis was marshalled to weaken freedom and strengthen political rule, she ducked out of the debate. These were mere ‘temporary health measure[s]’, she naively says. You don’t have to be a Great Reset obsessive to recognise that citizenship and the working class were diminished by the Covid experience.

There are moments of enlightenment in the book. Just as her confrontation with her doppelgänger forces her to ask questions of herself and her politics, so her trip to the Mirror World makes her think critically about the left. During Covid, ‘we defined ourselves against each other’, she says, with some liberals treating those who refused to wear masks as ‘non-people’. More pointedly, she slams the woke elevation of identity over class. ‘[W]hen entire categories of people are reduced to their race and gender, and labelled “privileged”, there is little room to confront the myriad ways that working-class white men and women are abused under our predatory capitalist order’, she writes. ‘Predatory’ might echo her earlier moralistic conception of capitalism’s cruelties, but her recognition that the new politics of race counteracts the realism of class is sharp.

Klein’s keen intellect and sparkling prose would have been better lent to exploring these problems on the left, not the comparatively small ‘Mirror World’ in which right-wingers moan about the left. Alas, for now we will have to do with the core lesson that neither of the Naomis’ approach to the Covid era has been useful. One has gone along with all the rules uncritically, the other bellows about Covid fascism. There is another way, surely, where we reject authoritarianism while retaining reason and standing up for liberty and equality.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Books Feminism Politics USA


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