Identity politics vs. populist economics?

It’s a false choice – liberals need to look in the mirror

Economic justice and civil rights are not separate; the issue isn’t “identity politics” but liberalism’s failures

Identity politics vs. populist economics? It's a false choice – liberals need to look in the mirror
(Credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Andrew Harnik/Reuters/Scott Audette)

For many Democrats, the fact that the Obama years have ended with one of the biggest party implosions in American history — and not the implosion of the Republican Party, as most had anticipated — remains a difficult reality to accept. Thanks to the Democratic Party’s historic collapse, Republicans will soon have complete control of all levels of government in the United States: All three branches of federal government, a large majority of state legislatures and an even larger majority of state governorships.

Facing this bleak reality, one would expect Democrats to quickly take a step back for some reflection, if only to figure out how to start winning elections again. As the country braces for a Trump presidency, it is absolutely critical that Democrats accurately assess what happened last month and learn the right lessons.

Unfortunately, many Democratic partisans have taken another approach; one that is all too familiar. As The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald reported last week:

Democrats have spent the last 10 days flailing around blaming everyone except for themselves, constructing a carousel of villains and scapegoats — from Julian AssangeVladimir PutinJames Comeythe electoral college“fake news,” and Facebook, to Susan SarandonJill SteinmillennialsBernie SandersClinton-critical journalists, and, most of all, insubordinate voters themselves — to blame them for failing to fulfill the responsibility that the Democratic Party, and it alone, bears: to elect Democratic candidates.

There is plenty of blame to go around, of course, and some of the scapegoats that Greenwald lists probably did have some impact, albeit minimal, on electing Trump. But when one looks at this year’s election objectively — not just at the Democratic Party’s failure to stop Trump, but at its failure to retake the Senate or make any gains at the state and local levels (Republicans now control 33 governorships and 32 state legislatures) — one has to be delusional not to recognize that the party itself is primarily responsible for this implosion.

Donald Trump — whom the majority of Americans view unfavorably and consider unqualified to be president — was a gift to the Democrats, and his nomination should have led to an easy electoral triumph. Instead, they nominated one of the most flawed candidates in history, and ran as an establishment party during a time when most Americans were practically begging for anti-establishment politics. As Trump’s loathsome chief strategist Steve Bannon recently put it: “Hillary Clinton was the perfect foil for Trump’s message. From her e-mail server, to her lavishly paid speeches to Wall Street bankers, to her FBI problems, she represented everything that middle-class Americans had had enough of.”

Trump’s victory was all the more depressing for progressives who had warned about the risk of nominating an establishment candidate with almost endless political baggage (in a season of angry populist politics, no less). During the Democratic primaries, these criticisms were either dismissed by establishment Democrats or critics were bitterly attacked for pointing them out. Recall back in February, for example, when Hillary Clinton implied that her progressive opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, was sexist for claiming that she represented the establishment: “Sen. Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment.”

Though Clinton did not explicitly call Sanders sexist, her campaign was eager to paint the senator and his supporters as misogynists who opposed Clinton solely because she was a woman. The “Bernie Bro” narrative — which portrayed Sanders supporters as a bunch of white sexist frat-boy types, harassing women and people of color online — was propagated by the Clinton campaign and sympathetic journalists. It was also discredited time and again, particularly by the fact that the Sanders-Clinton split was more of a generational divide than anything else — as evinced by Sanders’ 37-point advantage among millennial women (ages 18 to 29) across 27 states and his popularity among younger black and Hispanic voters.

The kind of self-serving identity politics that we saw from the Clinton camp during the Democratic primaries leads into what has been the most contentious debate among Democrats and progressives since the election: Whether the party has become too preoccupied with the politics of identity and political correctness, while straying too far from a class-based politics that addresses the structural inequities of capitalism. Not surprisingly, the debate has been full of deliberate misinterpretations.

Consider how various news outlets reported on comments made by Sanders on his book tour last week while discussing diversity in political leadership. “We need diversity, that goes without saying,” noted Sanders, who was responding to a question from a woman asking for tips on how to become the second Latina senator, after this year’s election of Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada. “But it is not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me.’ That’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industries.”

From this comment, the New York Times reported that Sanders had said “Democrats need to focus more on economic struggles and less on the grievances of minorities and women,” while the popular liberal website Talking Points Memo posted the misleading headline: “Sanders Urges Supporters: Ditch Identity Politics And Embrace The Working Class.” These reports are both founded on a false dichotomy pitting economic justice and civil rights against each other. This was also illustrated by a tweet from the Times shortly after the election:

We confronted Bill Clinton about race

 “In that moment he revealed himself and his true thoughts on black people”

EXCLUSIVE: #Blacklivesmatter activists who took Bill on tell us what it was like, and how Hillary backers responded

We confronted Bill Clinton about race: "In that moment he revealed himself and his true thoughts on black people"
Bill Clinton (Credit: Reuters/Brian Snyder)

During a Hillary Clinton rally in Philadelphia last week, Bill Clinton engaged in an 11-minute exchange with two protesters, Rufus Farmer and Erica Mines, who are critical of his controversial 1994 crime bill, the War on Drugs, and the impact of those policies on the black community.

In the midst of making repeated references to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, Bill Clinton made the following statement: “You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter. … Tell the truth. You are defending the people who caused young people to go out and take guns.”

I recently spoke with Farmer and Mines about their experience with the former president, their thoughts on his controversial comments about “Black Lives Matter,” “black crime,” Hillary Clinton, and the future-present of black activism. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How long have the two of you been involved with social change work?

Rufus: I’ve been involved with organizing ever since the 2008 Obama campaign.

Erica: I’ve been involved for little over a year.

What was the moment when you decided that you wanted to become more politically involved? One event? Multiple events?

Rufus: There was a combination of events. The results of the Trayvon Martin case and how Zimmerman was not convicted had me very confused, upset and angry. Mike Brown happened, then Eric Garner. You have all these other victims of police violence as well, from Rekia Boyd to so many others. That is what pushed me over the edge. Erica and I didn’t know what black political organizations were out there. We then ended up as part of the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice.

Erica: I started becoming more politically aware once I lost a family member in prison. My cousin was killed by county officers in a West Virginia county prison. He was sentenced to thirty-plus years for a non-violent crime and was put in a maximum security facility. When I lost my cousin and it was labeled that he committed suicide that was what really pushed me to becoming an activist. I become politically aware when I first realized that the local Philadelphia government was never held responsible for the MOVE bombing that killed 11 men, women, and children.

It is a truism that “the personal is political,” but for black and brown folks, especially for the working class and poor in a carceral society, these conversations are not just abstractions for us. So when Bill Clinton is lecturing the two of you on “black crime” and his support for the 1994 Crime Bill what was going through your mind?

Rufus: There was a lot going on in a physical manner. People were approaching Eric and putting their hands on her. Most of the crowd was Hillary supporters, so you can imagine the things being said to us. They were putting up signs and trying to obstruct our anti-Clinton signs. At some point, the Philadelphia police were literally pushing us around. I didn’t really take it all in, Clinton’s retort, until we started watching more of the video footage from the event, seeing him pointing his finger, getting red in the face, making these wild accusations toward us. I was focusing more on my own safety, and of course Erica’s safety, and what was going on around us in that room.

I have written extensively about Donald Trump and the violence at his rallies. In the media, we have had many conversations about the thuggish behavior of his supporters. What was the environment like at Hillary Clinton’s rally in Philadelphia? How were you treated? What were some of the exchanges you had with Hillary’s supporters at the rally?

Erica: The narrative about protesters and activists is that we are the violent ones, that we are the thugs. But no one wants to capture the moment when someone is snatching a sign out of your hands, or when somebody walks over to you and literally puts their hands on you. Bill Clinton was not the only person wagging their finger in the building that day. The actual confrontation started when a white lady came up to me and told me that I needed to be ashamed of myself for disrupting the event. You also have black liberals and gatekeepers who are taunting you and going along with the chastisement.

When we were protesting, there were actually black men standing in front of me as a black woman, as if my concerns about police brutality and violence did not impact them as well. For me, as a black woman, I am very vocal when I get into my politics and messaging. But they always send another black woman over to me to tell me why I am wrong. That is how it started. A black woman told me that my sign was causing conflict with the people in the building. I told her that I will not put down my sign until the other people holding their signs did the same thing.

Rufus: I had someone, a black person actually, call me a demon when the rally was over. Our intention was to go in, just the two of us, not a mob, to stand their quietly in the rally and not say a word. Unfortunately, lots of people provoked us to start speaking.

Erica: A black woman also called us the “predators” too.

Since your exchange last week, Bill Clinton has been pivoting and trying to explain away his treatment of both of you. What do you think his political calculus in that moment was? Was this a “Sister Souljah” moment where he could chastise a black woman in order to win more white supporters?

Erica: Yes, that is exactly what it was. It was him chastising us because we are the “uncivilzed people,” the black “barbarians” and if it wasn’t for what he did with the 1995 Crime Bill then we would be worse off than where we are today. In that moment he revealed himself and his true thoughts on black people. He likely had lots to do with his wife calling us “super predators” and that “we need to be brought to heel” like we were animals.

Rufus: Clinton’s comments also remind me of how some racist white people still say that if it wasn’t for white people, blacks would be wandering Africa like primitives.

Bill Clinton’s “Africa” and “Black Lives Matter” comment was very odd.

Rufus: He was wagging his finger at us and pretty much stating that it was because black people across the country asked for a harsher stance on crime that he gave to us a 1994 Crime Bill that caused the mass incarceration of many people in our communities—even non-violent offenders. He was in essence saying, “You asked for it,” “I helped you.” “I gave you what you wanted.” “Your communities were screwed up and I helped you out.” Again this was very evocative of how white racists say that if it wasn’t for “us” then black people would still be roaming around Africa like “savages.”

I recently spoke with social scientists Douglas McAdam and Cedric Johnsonabout the relationship between “Black Lives Matter”, the black freedom struggle, and the civil rights movement. How do you think of your activism in that broad context?

Erica: I would definitely say that we are part of a new wave of movement, one that is actually spearheaded by the civil rights movement. Of course, we stand on their backs and shoulders.  This is definitely now a time in the country where things must change. We as a people are pushing for the idea that we can no longer afford to settle for the lesser of two evils. It is because of the “Black Lives Matter” movement and the whole idea of civil unrest and disobedience will help to get this message across. We have to get into the communities and empower people by helping them to understand what white privilege and white supremacy look like on a daily basis and on a covert level.

Rufus: I see it as sort of a relay race of sorts. We are being passed the baton and the newer generations are going to get passed the baton for black liberation and black lives and they are going to have to pick it up and run with it. This movement is different from the civil rights movement in some ways from those of an earlier era. But the principles I believe are still the same. One generation passes the baton to the next.

How do you think that generational tensions in the black community are playing out with “Black Lives Matter”, as well as the 2016 Democratic primary competition between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders?

Rufus: There are elders within the black and brown community who are staunch supporters of the Democrats, they go into the voting booths for local and national elections and vote for whoever is on the Democratic ticket, regardless of how their policies have hurt black and brown people, they vote Democratic automatically. The belief is that the Democrats are better than the Republicans. I think that is the elders in the community. Younger people in our communities are seeing things differently. They are analyzing the 1994 Crime Bill signed by Bill Clinton. They are looking at Hillary’s endorsement of the crime bill as something harmful with her statements about “super predators”. The younger generation is starting to analyze these comments and actions and are not finding the Clinton brand as untouchable as their elders.

The elders also do not want to be as confrontational as younger folks too. Younger folks are more likely to go and raise our voices if necessary. Not that we are uneducated people who only know how to yell. But, we know various effective tools to communicate a message and get done what we need to get done.

These generational tensions often remind me of a very tired, clichéd, and misunderstood version of “black respectability politics”

Erica: Younger folks now are so divested from “respectability politics.” They are not looking to the system in any way for jobs, careers, or educations. They know and see it in their everyday lives. In the schools, nurses, social workers, and counselors were replaced with police officers and metal detectors. The children know they are being prepared for prison. They know this based on how their teachers talk with them, do not care for them, criminalize them, tell them that they won’t be successful, and do not respect them. This is why young people do not respect their elders in many ways.

As Brother Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked, “where do we go from here?” What are some specific policy goals and outcomes that “Black Lives Matter” and other progressive-liberal activists should be working toward?

Rufus: On the local level here in Philadelphia, an end to “Stop and Frisk.” It targets black and brown youth unjustly. It is often later discovered that these stops are unjustified in the first place and are a form of racial profiling that have been made into official policy.

Erica: Self-empowerment, black liberation, and black unity. I think we should be divesting from the political process across the board. I think that we need to get away from the two-party political system. We need to invest in more independent political parties. We need to stop voting straight Democrat because it has gotten us no where. Since Bernie Sanders has started talking about what it means to be a “Socialist” and we need to start talking about what that would really look like.

As a final question, what advice would you give Bernie Sanders about how to better connect with black voters?

Rufus: It is hard for white people to understand what to do to improve the conditions of black and brown communities in this country. Bernie Sanders is no different. He may mean well. But I do not think he understands how to improve the conditions in our communities. I would tell Sanders that he should hire more black and brown people as his advisers if he wants to get more black and brown support. He needs to hire folks who are on the ground and who have their ears to the street regarding what is going in these communities on a daily basis. This is not just police brutality; it is gentrification; it is a lack of funds for school systems and other matters too.


Joan Didion vs. mythic America

The evolution of a literary legend

Biographer Tracy Daugherty tells Salon about Didion’s political transformation during the Reagan era

Joan Didion vs. mythic America: The evolution of a literary legend
(Credit: AP)

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

These were the words Joan Didion famously wrote in her seminal 1968 essay, “The White Album.”

But as the emerging counterculture of the late 1960s gave way to the hedonism of the 1970s — where rising crime rates, violence and the darker side of drug culture began to rear its ugly ahead in American public and private life — Didion pretty quickly began to doubt all the stories she had ever told herself.

If Didion began her career as a journalist who, rather naively, placed her trust in the power of American mythologies — namely, American exceptionalism with the west as the final frontier. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, she began to distrust those fairy-tale fables entirely, searching instead for meaning that was hidden underneath complicated political power games, which increasingly began to resemble a television soap opera rather than an egalitarian democratic process.

As Didion began to write about politics from outside U.S. borders, she started to understand that much of the public rhetoric from American politicians was camouflaged in the cosy language of symbolism, where the cold-hearted reality of murder, bombing and ongoing war — conducted in the name of so-called American freedom — was the very thing that made affluence and prosperity within the United States’ own borders possible.

In her essays especially, Didion works out of a classic European tradition that is highly influenced by Montaigne and others. In this discursive and personal literary style she is able to admit her limitations to readers: attempting to figure out how the society she is living in is constantly evolving. For Didion, honesty, truth, language and authenticity are just as important in making a journalistic piece work successfully as winning an argument is.

In “The Last Love Song,” author Tracy Daugherty gives us a meticulously researched biography of Didion that functions as both an exploration of late 20th century America cultural values, as well as an incredible insight into the life of an extremely talented woman of letters.

Despite attempting to get Didion’s cooperation and approval for the book, Daugherty had to approach his subject in complete isolation. I caught up with the biographer to discuss the paradoxes of Didion’s writing, why she feels so at home in the essay genre and why her journalism is far more compelling than her prose fiction. 

Did Joan Didion believe that language gave her a certain amount of power in life?

Yes. Didion once said the only time in her life when she feels in control is sitting at the typewriter, because then she can control the story. And her language is so tight, powerful and direct that you can see on the page how hard she works to maintain that control. For Didion, whatever happens in life, you can always form it into a narrative which you can control.

Something seemed to change in Joan Didion as a writer during the 1980s: what was it?

She became more politically aware. Earlier on in her career she had been asserting the loss of narrative. By the 1980s, however, Didion believed the collective mythology that many Americans had bought into was a bit of a distraction. And that it doesn’t tell us what is really going on beneath the surface, which is people in political power involved in covert activities.

Didion began to find in her writing a more accurate way to describe the political culture. 

Can you talk about the paradoxes in Didion’s writing? You suggest her real interest is language: its inaccuracies, illusions and the way words imply their opposites? In this sense, was she influenced by the work of Orwell ?

Very much so. That is what is at the heart of Didion’s writing; it’s always about language.

She believes we have to use language that is accurate and true. Otherwise our politics will bamboozle us and get us in deep deep trouble.

Would you agree that the honest nature of Didion’s writing where she seems to admit her limitations as a writer is why readers feel so at home with her work?

I think so. It’s disarming and even charming when she begins by admitting her own confusion, saying, “I don’t know what this is about.” And we get to see the movement of her mind on the page.

This is another attractive quality to her work. She doesn’t begin with a fixed answer and say, “Here is my thesis and I will prove it.” It’s more her saying, “I don’t know what is going on here so let me talk about it for a while and figure it out together.” That really draws readers in.

Also, I don’t see her as a confessional writer. She is certainly confessing on the surface: to her confusion, neurosis and faults. But she withholds as much as she reveals. She is a candid writer, but definitely not a confessional one.

Is this the tradition of the essay, where a writer is allowed to kind of wander off and just think about things, rather than try to provide answers?

Yes, I see Didion in the same tradition as, say, Montaigne, in that essays tends to meander and go off on tangents rather than hammer home a specific argument. Which is not to say that she doesn’t have judgments and ideas that she wants to get across. But she is more interested in exploring the side path. And that draws readers in: allowing us to participate in her thinking process rather than be lectured.

Didion claims that her politics have never changed. Would you agree with this?

It certainly appears at first glance as though she began as a conservative and ended up as a liberal. She claims that actually, she hadn’t changed, but the world changed. In the 1980s what really galvanised her [to move towards a more liberal persuasion] was the rise of Ronald Reagan in California. She had interviewed Nancy Reagan, and knew the Reagans. She thought they were not real conservatives: that they were false and manipulated their image. And that’s why she became politically concious. She was watching the image-making: how politicians manufacture an image of themselves that’s not true to life.

But Didion was part of that world herself. Was there a sense of personal guilt from her side?

I think so. Her critics charge her with living in a world of privilege, and it’s certainly true. That is part of who she is. So she really does know the world she is writing about. For Didion, it’s not so much that she dislikes privilege, it’s that she wants people to be honest and authentic. She bristles at people who try to manufacture a false image.

You write in the book that blind romanticism and political realism are two extremes in Didion’s life. Was it a juxtaposition between these two things that made her work so great?

Well, Didion romanticized where she came from. She also romanticized certain types of people.

It really goes back to this notion of myth-making. And as a young child she really bought into a lot of the American myths. Then during the 1980s, when she began covering the political campaigns for the New York Review of Books, she saw through a lot of the myths, into the realities of how power worked. So she made the shift from being a blind romantic to being a very pragmatic political thinker.

Can you talk about Didion’s relationship with the New York Review of Books, and how it sparked perhaps the most productive phase of her career? What did Robert Silvers, her editor there, intuitively grasp in her as a great writer and social commentator?  

He saw that Didion was not ideological in her writing. And also that she was willing to take an argument and consider it from different points of view. That appealed to him, as did Didion’s desire for authenticity. And whatever a person’s political persuasion was, Didion would always try and hold that person to a principled truth. She would puncture any mythologies that they would try to create. Robert Silvers was probably her most astute editor. And Didion credits him for her political education. Didion always looks for the contradictions and wants to get beneath the spin and beneath the surface. So she says, you look at the official record, and then you start to take it apart. That’s where the story is for her.

It’s almost like deconstruction theory?

Yes. This goes back to her university eduction, which meant reading a book very closely and analyzing it, sentence by sentence. That was the way she learned to read literature. And then she turned around and said: that is the way I read everything. She read journalism, fashion, people’s facial expression, even all of life that way.

Everything for Didion becomes a text, and she analyses it. That’s her way of approaching most stories.

During the 1980s when Didion travelled and reported from outside of America, did her political outlook shift, particularly spending time in Latin America?

Well, her fiction during this period is a good way of getting into her non-fiction, because she starts setting her fiction in hotels. But yeah, she did begin to look at America from a different angle.

She begins to think, once you get outside of these borders, you start to look back at it. Those hotel settings are fascinating because they are very public places, but where intimate activities take place too. This is really the intersection where Didion’s work becomes interesting: where a private life interacts with a public life. And she has become that figure. She is very public but also very private. So those hotels are perfect settings because the public and private overlap.

You seem to imply in this biography that Didion has a kind of distance from grief, after both the death of her husband and her daughter. Why do you think this might be?

Shock was certainly part of what she was experiencing. But it may also go back to this idea that Didion is a candid writer but not a confessional one. She has a reputation of being a confessional writer, but really, she is not. She confesses only what she needs to in order to set up an intellectual argument. In this way, she tends to approach the world intellectually rather than emotionally.

Her first response is to analyze, and not to wallow in the feeling of it. So when she feels grief or shock, she is partially protecting herself by putting on this aloof persona. Her natural inclination is not to say, “What am I feeling?” but instead to say, “What does this mean?” I think she wants to analyze things rather than experience them. 

If we are to rate Didion the novelist vs Didion the social commentator/journalist, what kind of comparisons do you think we can make?

Well, her journalism is her real strength. The fiction is just not as strong as the journalism.

This may be because Didion doesn’t really delve into the emotional lives of her characters so much, so her novels are very much intellectual constructs. And that is appealing to certain readers.

But many other readers want to read a novel so that they can think emotionally into another world. And Didion doesn’t offer that. Her best fiction is a rare thing in American literature, in that it is overtly political — particularly her novels of the 1980s.

For example “Democracy,” which is about the fall of Saigon, and “The Last Thing He Wanted,” which is about the last years of the Iran Contra scandal, are both icy books, emotional speaking. But they are very sharp politically.

Greece and the scary new European ultra-nationalism

Austerity will wreck Europe: 

“Europe, much less Germany, is not a good place to play with the social dynamite of prolonged depression”

Austerity will wreck Europe: Greece and the scary new European ultra-nationalism
(Credit: AP/Emilio Morenatti)

In December 2011, the former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt (1974–1982), spry and witty at nearly ninety-three, delivered a keynote speech to the SPD’s annual convention, using words that any active German politician would find difficult to utter. He recalled that a friend had asked him how long it would take for Germany to be a “normal” country. “I answered by saying that Germany would not be a ‘normal’ country in the foreseeable future. Standing in the path to normality is the enormous and unique burden of our history,” Schmidt said. “In almost all our neighboring countries there still exists a latent distrust of Germans that will probably persist for many generations to come.”

This sensitivity, once pervasive among the German governing elite, has now faded. The fact that Germany’s war debt was written off by the victorious Allies in 1948 has vanished from the national memory. There is no compassion for the fact that Europe suffered an economic drag before the collapse in part because of Germany’s lavish subsidies of its own eastern states. Nor is there any comprehension of the double standard reflected in the €2 trillion forgiven the former East Germany but the massive resistance against aid to fellow EU members. Germany, having tightened its own belt to help fellow Germans, is feeling self-righteous and willing to run roughshod over its neighbors.

German characterizations of Greece, in the press and in political speeches, range from patronizing to vicious—and they do not sound pretty in a German accent. One cosmopolitan German whom I know well, a man who has long lived in the United States, told me in 2012: “They should just dig a big hole, toss the Greeks in, and cover it over.”

Given the widespread German attitudes, there is no serious opposition to Merkel’s policies. The Social Democrats are led by men almost as fiscally conservative as Merkel’s CDU. According to opinion polls, Merkel, who faces re-election no later than September 2013, is vulnerable—but because Germans fear she is too soft, not too tough, on the rest of Europe. The fact that if Europe collapses, Germany collapses too, seems lost on most German voters. Though Merkel plays the austerity role with particular relish, another German chancellor might not be so different. “Populism” is usually considered a disease of the far right or the far left, but in Germany Merkel stands for a kind of fiscal populism of the center. The more Merkel panders to public opinion on the subject of not rewarding the dissolute Mediterranean members of the EU, the more she reinforces it.

Germany acts in tandem with a deeply conservative European Commission permanent bureaucracy, with hedge funds as enforcers. In effect, without the broad consent or understanding of the European public, a huge amount of sovereignty has been transferred from nation-states to EU officials, who are beyond direct democratic accountability—and that authority is being used to enforce a perverse economic strategy. As the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen warned:

If democracy has been one of the strong commitments with which Europe emerged in the 1940s, an understanding of the necessity of social security and the avoidance of intense social deprivation was surely another. Even if savage cuts in the foundations of the European systems of social justice had been financially inescapable (I do not believe that they were), there was still a need to persuade people that this is indeed the case, rather than trying to carry out such cuts by fiat. The disdain for the public could hardly have been more transparent in many of the chosen ways of European policy-making.

Though the EU was once a citadel of managed capitalism, both the Brussels ideology and the personal preferences of senior Commission officials today defer to markets. Europe’s proud member states are now in the situation of supplicant Third World countries. As Greece’s PASOK government learned, if complying with Commission demands leads to failed policies and a voter revolt, it is the local elected officials who lose their jobs, not the Brussels commissioners or their unelected staffs.

While the EU’s governing machinery is strong enough to make national leaders clients of Brussels, it is too weak to address a deepening crisis. Under the Maastricht rules, key policy changes require unanimity. In the absence of a consensus on behalf of growth policies, the default position of the EU is for more austerity. While Merkel speaks grandly about turning the EU into a deeper “fiscal union,” the EU spends only about 1 percent of European GDP, and there are only trivial mechanisms of income transfer from richer regions to poorer ones. That will not change any time soon. So her conception of fiscal union means nothing more than German budget policies for all.

Beyond the dysfunction of the EU and the unhelpful role of Germany, there are crucial differences between Europe and the United States that the sovereign debt crisis brought into relief. The U.S., still the provider of the world’s most important currency, faced no runs on its government bonds. There was no possibility of a default, because America, unlike Greece or Portugal or Italy, still printed its own money. And the Federal Reserve had made clear that it would create as much money as necessary to weather the crisis. In theory (bad theory, in this case), recourse to the printing presses might run the risk of inflation. But in a deep recession, inflationary pressures are nil. One might think that investors would flee the dollar for stronger currencies, but given the weakness of Europe and Japan, and the currency manipulations of China designed to deter the renminbi’s international use, there were no plausible alternatives to the dollar.

Moreover, unlike Europe, the United States is quite explicitly a “transfer union.” Through a range of federal programs—including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and federal aid to education—as well as government contracts that the political process spreads around, America’s richer states and taxpayers subsidize its poorer ones. Low income states like Mississippi and West Virginia get back from the federal government in public spending more than twice what they contribute in taxes. Between 1990 and 2009, just under $1 trillion of taxes collected in wealthy New York State subsidized the rest of America’s fiscal union.

In addition, forty-nine of the fifty states are constitutionally prohibited from running deficits. So while some states have had severe budgetary crises, there have been few speculative attacks against state bonds because states don’t run deficits. The federal government, however, is permitted to run deficits, so it provides the macroeconomic elasticity during downturns. The EU, by contrast, has a tiny common budget.

The debate in the U.S., as we saw in chapters 1 and 2, is precisely over whether Washington should use more or less deficit spending to lean against the prevailing winds. But in Europe, it is the constituent states that are pushed into deficit by recessions, while the weak central government (the EU) is too fiscally puny to even have a macroeconomic policy. So speculators attack the member states, while the central government stands idly by.

The form of bond purchases and of other rescues by the Federal Reserve has tempered the crisis in the United States, while the conditions attached to bailouts by the ECB and EU have exacerbated it in Europe. One can find fault with much that the Fed has done, most emphatically its failure to challenge the too-big-to-fail model in exchange for all the aid conferred on banks. However, the Fed has done one big thing right. When the Fed purchases the securities of the federal government or of banks, it does not demand disabling fiscal conditions. So its bond purchases serve as seals of approval and function to restore market confidence. By contrast, when one of Europe’s rescue mechanisms pumps money into a wounded government or banking system, it signals to markets that the recipient is in grave trouble. The amount of the aid is invariably too little and too late, and the conditions attached only deepen the crisis and depress market confidence. The doling out of small sums of aid pending good behavior creates an aura of chronic near default.

It is now apparent that the metastasis of a fiscal imbalance in Greece into a general crisis of speculation against sovereign debt and serial runs on European banks and nations was a preventable tragedy. Perverse policy was rooted in fragmented institutions, flawed ideology, and asymmetries of power, but that doesn’t excuse it. At each step of the way, policies were pursued with the primary goal of reassuring financial markets and punishing fiscal offenders, not of addressing underlying economic ills. The need to appease money markets—which often make systematic pricing errors—became an unquestioned article of faith.

As Greece teetered on the edge of collapse for the umpteenth time in mid-June 2012, U.S. Treasury secretary Tim Geithner, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, warned, “If you wait to move on these things and you let the market get ahead of you, then you increase the cost of the solutions.” Throughout the crisis, this view was the standard wisdom. One could cite any of hundreds of comments by political leaders, financial executives, or journalists expressing the same homily: Policy had to appease markets or suffer the consequences.

The excluded alternative is to appreciate that the folly is not in failing to stay ahead of the verdicts of markets, but in allowing markets to define what’s acceptable. Markets, by definition, are hardly reliable.

After all, it was the failure of markets to accurately price securities that caused the collapse. Yet in the fifth year of the crisis, markets were still being permitted to define the correct price of sovereign bonds, and the self-fulfilling destruction of national credit systems by speculative markets was precluding a cure.

A serious recovery plan for Europe would require major policy changes. One is significant debt relief and restructuring for severely indebted member nations, and a respite from self-defeating austerity demands. Various proposals have been put forth for Eurobonds, meaning that the EU as a whole would refinance and guarantee old debts. Done properly, this policy would lower interest costs for heavily indebted nations, and reduce the capacity of money markets to destroy national economies. It would stop the speculative contagion.

A related need is for the ECB to be given the authority of a true central bank, including the ability to directly buy the bonds of member nations. That authority should be used, to demonstrate that speculating against European sovereign debt doesn’t pay. The EU, like the United States, also needs much more stringent regulation of its banking system. The moves in late 2012 toward consolidated banking supervision are too weak. A new regulatory regime needs to compel bankers to revise and simplify their business model. A financial transaction tax, which would take the profit out of highly leveraged short-term trades, is a good place to start.

Fiscal limits, in the spirit of Maastricht, make sense in normal times but not in an economic depression. They should be waived until Europe is firmly on the road to recovery. Some European nations have very high debt-to-GDP ratios, but Europe’s debt level as a whole is around 100 percent of GDP, well below the typical debt ratio at the end of World War II. Europe has much higher savings rates than the United States, and it is capable of financing this debt, if the cycle of speculation and crash can be broken and if Europe indeed becomes more of a transfer union. Bond-financed European recovery funds, well into the hundreds of billions of euros a year, would make an immense difference in restoring a virtuous circle of economic growth, employment, and increased revenues.

Assuring the survival of the euro, with or without Greece, has gotten a huge amount of attention. But while the collapse of the euro would intensify Europe’s economic crisis, the sole focus on saving the single currency misses the larger point. The EU is pursuing a perverse theory of how to produce a recovery from a financial collapse. The problem is the policy, not the euro. Without a change in the strategy, tossing weaker nations out of the Eurozone will save neither the euro nor the promise of the EU.

In late 2012, despite a flow of cheap loans from the ECB, Europe’s private-sector banks were sitting on an estimated €1.2 trillion in cash, and lending to business was declining. The Continent’s crisis of deflation was worsening. The obsession among Europe’s leaders with debt repayment rather than debt relief, and the protracted policy deadlock while the crisis worsens, are chillingly reminiscent of the 1920s. Unless the broader ideology of austerity for states and license for bankers is reversed, Europe will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis, and the Continent’s institutions will face a generation of lost prosperity and lost legitimacy for its democratic governing institutions. Ironically, the whole point of the EU was to contain the dark forces of ultra-nationalism— which are being loosed again, from Norway to the Netherlands to neo-Nazis in Greece—by austerity policies imposed from Berlin. Europe, much less Germany, is not a good place to play with the social dynamite of prolonged depression.

Excerpted from “Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility” by Robert Kuttner. Published by Vintage Books. Copyright 2014 by Robert Kuttner. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


Robert Kuttner is the co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos

Leo Tolstoy’s theory of everything

Before writing some of the greatest novels in history, Tolstoy asked some of philosophy’s hardest questions

Leo Tolstoy's theory of everything

Leo Tolstoy (Credit: Wikimedia)

Tolstoy’s first diary, started on March 17, 1847, at the age of eighteen, began as a clinical investigation launched under laboratory conditions: in the isolation of a hospital ward, where he was being treated for a venereal disease. A student at Kazan University, he was about to drop out due to lack of academic progress. In the clinic, freed from external influences, the young man planned to “enter into himself” for intense self-exploration (vzoiti sam v sebia ; 46:3). On the first page, he wrote (then crossed out) that he was in complete agreement with Rousseau on the advantages of solitude. This act of introspection had a moral goal: to exert control over his runaway life. Following a well-established practice, the young Tolstoy approached the diary as an instrument of self-perfection.

But this was not all. For the young Tolstoy, keeping a diary (as I hope to show) was also an experimental project aimed at exploring the nature of self: the links connecting a sense of self, a moral ideal, and the temporal order of narrative.

From the very beginning there were problems. For one, the diarist obviously found it difficult to sustain the flow of narrative. To fill the pages of his first diary, beginning on day two, Tolstoy gives an account of his reading, assigned by a professor of history: Catherine the Great’s famous Instruction (Nakaz), as compared with Montesquieu’sL’Esprit de lois. This manifesto aimed at regulating the future social order, and its philosophical principles, rooted in the French Enlightenment (happy is a man in whom will rules over passions, and happy is a state in which laws serve as an instrument of such control), appealed to the young Tolstoy. But with the account of Catherine’s utopia (on March 26), Tolstoy’s first diary came to an end.

When he started again (and again), Tolstoy commented on the diary itself, its purpose and uses. In his diary, he will evaluate the course of self- improvement (46:29). He will also reflect on the purpose of human life (46:30). The diary will contain rules pertaining to his behavior in specific times and places; he will then analyze his failures to follow these rules (46:34). The diary’s other purpose is to describe himself and the world (46:35). But how? He looked in the mirror. He looked at the moon and the starry sky. “ But how can one write this ?” he asked. “One has to go, sit at an ink-stained desk, take coarse paper, ink . . . and trace letters on paper. Letters will make words, words—phrases, but is it possible to convey one’s feeling?” (46:65). The young diarist was in despair.

Apart from the diaries, the young Tolstoy kept separate notebooks for rules: “ Rules for Developing Will ” (1847), “Rules of Life” (1847), “Rules” (1847 and 1853), and “Rules in General” (1850) (46:262–76). “Rules for playing music” (46:36) and “Rules for playing cards in Moscow until January 1” (46: 39). There are also rules for determining “(a) what is God, (b) what is man, and (c) what are the relations between God and man” (46:263). It would seem that in these early journals, Tolstoy was actually working not on a history but on a utopia of himself: his own personal Instruction.

Yet another notebook from the early 1850s, “Journal for Weaknesses” (Zhurnal dlia slabostei)—or, as he called it, the “Franklin journal”—listed, in columns, potential weaknesses, such as laziness, mendacity, indecision, sensuality, and vanity, and Tolstoy marked (with small crosses) the qualities that he exhibited on a particular day. Here, Tolstoy was consciously following the method that Benjamin Franklin had laid out in his famous autobiography. There was also an account book devoted to financial expenditures. On the whole, on the basis of these documents, it appears that the condition of Tolstoy’s moral and monetary economy was deplorable. But another expenditure presented still graver problems: that of time.

Along with the first, hesitant diaries, for almost six months in 1847 Tolstoy kept a “Journal of Daily Occupations” (Zhurnal ezhednevnykh zaniatii; 46:245–61), the main function of which was to account for the actual expenditure of time. In the journal, each page was divided into two vertical columns: the first one, marked “The Future,” listed things he planned to do the next day; a parallel column, marked “The Past,” contained comments (made a day later) on the fulfillment of the plan. The most frequent entry was “not quite” (nesovsem). One thing catches the eye: there was no present.

The Moral Vision of Self and the Temporal Order of Narrative

Beginning in 1850, the time scheme of Tolstoy’s “Journal of Daily Occupations” and the moral accounting of the Franklin journal were incorporated into a single narrative. Each day’s entry was written from the reference point of yesterday’s entry, which ended with a detailed schedule for the next day—under tomorrow’s date. In the evening of the next day, Tolstoy reviewed what he had actually done, comparing his use of time to the plan made the previous day. He also commented on his actions, evaluating his conduct on a general scale of moral values. The entry concluded with a plan of action and a schedule for yet another day. The following entry (from March 1851) is typical for the early to mid-1850s:

24. Arose somewhat late and read, but did not have time to write. Poiret came, I fenced, and did not send him away (sloth and cowardice). Ivanov came, I spoke with him for too long (cowardice). Koloshin (Sergei) came to drink vodka, I did not escort him out (cowardice). At Ozerov’s argued about nothing (habit of arguing) and did not talk about what I should have talked about (cowardice). Did not go to Beklemishev’s (weakness of energy). During gymnastics did not walk the rope (cowardice), and did not do one thing because it hurt (sissiness).—At Gorchakov’s lied (lying). Went to the Novotroitsk tavern (lack of fierté). At home did not study English (insufficient firmness). At the Volkonskys’ was unnatural and distracted, and stayed until one in the morning (distractedness, desire to show off, and weakness of character). 25. [This is a plan for the next day, the 25th, written on the 24th—I.P.] From 10 to 11 yesterday’s diary and to read. From 11 to 12—gymnastics. From 12 to 1—English. Beklemishev and Beyer from 1 to 2. From 2 to 4—on horseback. From 4 to 6—dinner. From 6 to 8—to read. From 8 to 10—to write.—To translate something from a foreign language into Russian to develop memory and style.—To write today with all the impressions and thoughts it gives rise to.—25. Awoke late out of sloth. Wrote my diary and did gymnastics, hurrying. Did not study English out of sloth. With Begichev and with Islavin was vain. At Beklemishev’s was cowardly and lack of fierté. On Tver Boulevardwanted to show off. I did not walk on foot to the Kalymazhnyi Dvor (sissiness). Rode with a desire to show off. For the same reason rode to Ozerov’s.—Did not return to Kalymazhnyi, thoughtlessness. At the Gorchakovs’ dissembled and did not call things by their names, fooling myself. Went to L’vov’s out of insufficient energy and the habit of doing nothing. Sat around at home out of absentmindedness and read Werther inattentively, hurrying. 26 [This is a plan for the next day, the 26th, written on the 25th—I.P.] To get up at 5. Until 10—to write the history of this day. From 10 to 12—fencing and to read. From 12 to 1—English, and if something interferes, then in the evening. From 1 to 3—walking, until 4—gymnastics. From 4 to 6, dinner—to read and write.— (46:55).

An account of the present as much as a plan for the future, this diary combines the prescriptive and the descriptive. In the evening of each day, the young Tolstoy reads the present as a failure to live up to the expectations of the past, and he anticipates a future that will embody his vision of a perfect self. The next day, he again records what went wrong today with yesterday’s tomorrow. Wanting reality to live up to his moral ideal, he forces the past to meet the future.

In his attempt to create an ordered account of time, and thus a moral order, Tolstoy’s greatest difficulty remains capturing the present. Indeed, today makes its first appearance in the diary as tomorrow, embedded in the previous day and usually expressed in infinitive verb forms (“to read,” “to write,” “to translate”). On the evening of today, when Tolstoy writes his diary, today is already the past, told in the past tense. His daily account ends with a vision of another tomorrow. Since it appears under tomorrow’s date, it masquerades as today, but the infinitive forms of the verbs suggest timelessness.

In the diaries, unlike in the “Journal of Daily Occupations,” the present is accorded a place, but it is deprived of even a semblance of autonomy: The present is a space where the past and the future overlap. It appears that the narrative order of the diary simply does not allow one to account for the present. The adolescent Tolstoy’s papers contain the following excerpt, identified by the commentators of Tolstoy’s complete works as a “language exercise”: “Le passé est ce qui fut, le futur est ce qui sera et le présent est ce qui n’est pas.—C’est pour cela que la vie de l’homme ne consiste que dans le futur et le passé et c’est pour la même raison que le bonheur que nous voulons posséder n’est qu’une chimère de même que le présent” (1:217).  (The past is that which was, the future is that which will be, and the present is that which is not. That is why the life of man consists in nothing but the future and the past, and it is for the same reason that the happiness we want to possess is nothing but a chimera, just as the present is.) Whether he knew it or not, the problem that troubled the young Tolstoy, as expressed in this language exercise, was a common one, and it had a long history.

What Is Time? Cultural Precedents

It was Augustine, in the celebrated Book 11 of the Confessions, who first expressed his bewilderment: “What is time?” He argued as follows: The future is not yet here, the past is no longer here, and the present does not remain. Does time, then, have a real being? What is the present? The day? But “not even one day is entirely present.” Some hours of the day are in the future, some in the past. The hour? But “one hour is itself constituted of fugitive moments.”

Time flies quickly from future into past. In Augustine’s words, “the present occupies no space.” Thus, “time” both exists (the language speaks of it and the mind experiences it) and does not exist. The passage of time is both real and unreal (11.14.17–11.17.22). Augustine’s solution was to turn inward, placing the past and the future within the human soul (or mind), as memory and expectation. Taking his investigation further, he argues that these qualities of mind are observed in storytelling and fixed in narrative: “When I am recollecting and telling my story, I am looking on its image in present time, since it is still in my memory” (11.18.23). As images fixed in a story, both the past and the future lie within the present, which thus acquires a semblance of being. In the mind, or in the telling of one’s personal story, times exist all at once as traces of what has passed and will pass through the soul. Augustine thus linked the issue of time and the notion of self. In the end, the question “What is time?” was an extension of the fundamental question of the Confessions: “What am I, my God? What is my Nature?” (10.17.26).

For centuries philosophers continued to refine and transform these arguments. Rousseau reinterpreted Augustine’s idea in a secular perspective, focusing on the temporality of human feelings. Being attached to things outside us, “our affections” necessarily change: “they recall a past that is gone” or “anticipate a future that may never come into being.” From his own experience, Rousseau knew that the happiness for which his soul longed was not one “composed of fugitive moments” (“ le bonheur que mon coeur regrette n’est point composé d’instants fugitives ”) but a single and lasting state of the soul. But is there a state in which the soul can concentrate its entire being, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future? Such were Rousseau’s famous meditations on time in the fifth of his Reveries of the Solitary Walker (Rêveries du promeneur solitaire), a sequel to the Confessions. In both texts Rousseau practiced the habit of “reentering into himself,” with the express purpose of inquiring “What am I?” (“Que suis je moi-même ?”).

Since the mid-eighteenth century, after Rousseau and Laurence Sterne, time, as known through the mind of the perceiving individual, had also been the subject of narrative experiments undertaken in novels and memoirs. By the 1850s, the theme of the being and nonbeing of time in relation to human consciousness, inaugurated by Augustine and secularized by Rousseau, could serve as the topic of an adolescent’s language exercise.

In his later years, as a novelist, Tolstoy would play a decisive role in the never-ending endeavor to catch time in the act. In the 1850s, in his personal diary, the young Tolstoy was designing his first, homemade methods of managing the flow of personal time by narrative means. As we have seen, this dropout student was not without cultural resources. The young Tolstoy could hardly have known Augustine, but he did know Rousseau, whose presence in the early diaries is palpable. (In later years, when he does read Augustine, he will focus on the problem of narrating time and fully appreciate its theological meaning.)  But mostly he proceeded by way of his own narrative efforts: his diary. Fixed in the diary, the past would remain with him; planned in writing, the future was already there. Creating a future past and a present future, the diarist relieved some of the anxieties of watching life pass. But in one domain his efforts fell short of the ideal: not even one day was entirely present.

“A History of Yesterday”

In March 1851, the twenty-two-year-old Tolstoy embarked on another longplanned project: to write a complete account of a single day—a history of yesterday. His choice fell on March 24: “ not because yesterday was extraordinary in any way . . . but because I have long wished to tell the innermost [zadushevnuiu] side of life in one day. God only knows how many diverse . . . impressions and thoughts . . . pass in a single day. If it were only possible to recount them all so that I could easily read myself and others could read me as I do. . . . ” (1:279).

An outgrowth of the diary, “A History of Yesterday” (Istoriia vcherashnego dnia) was conceived as an experiment: Where would the process of writing take him? (Tolstoy was writing for himself alone; indeed, in his lifetime, “A History of Yesterday” remained unpublished.)

The metaphor of self, or life, as a book, an image to which Tolstoy would return throughout his life, makes its first appearance here. 8 Rousseau, in whose footsteps Tolstoy followed in wanting to make himself into an open book, believed that self-knowledge was based on feeling and that all he had to do was “to make my soul transparent to the reader.” The young Benjamin Franklin, who was a printer, used the image in his own epitaph: He imagined a typeset book of his life and expressed his belief that it would appear once more in a new edition, “revised and corrected by the author.”

Tolstoy, in 1851, seems to have suspected that the problem lay in the narrative itself. Knowing that “there is not enough ink in the world to write such a story, or typesetters to put it into print” (1:279), he nevertheless embarked upon this project.

In the end it turned out that after about twenty-four hours of writing (spread over a three-week period), Tolstoy was still at the start of the day. Having filled what amounts to twenty-six pages of printed text, he abandoned his “History.” By that time Tolstoy was in a position to know that the enterprise was doomed, and not only because of empirical difficulties (“there would not be enough ink in the world to write it, or typesetters to put it in print”), but also because of major philosophical problems (such as the constraints inherent in the nature of narrative).

“A History of Yesterday” starts in the morning: “I arose late yesterday—at a quarter to 10.” What follows is a causal explanation that relates the given event to an earlier event, which happened on the day before yesterday: “— because I had gone to bed after midnight.” At this point, the account is interrupted by a parenthetical remark that places the second event within a system of general rules of conduct: “( It has long been my rule never to retire after midnight, yet this happens to me about 3 times a week).” The story resumes with a detailed description of those circumstances which had led to the second event and a minor moral transgression (going to bed after midnight): “I was playing cards. . . .” (1:279). The account of the action is then interrupted by another digression—the narrator’s reflections on the nature of society games.

After a page and a half, Tolstoy returns to the game of cards. The narrative proceeds, slowly and painfully, tracing not so much external actions as the webs of the protagonist/narrator’s mental activity, fusing two levels of reflections: those that accompanied the action and those that accompany the act of narration. After many digressions, the narrative follows the protagonist home, puts him to bed, and ends with an elaborate description of his dream, leaving the hero at the threshold of “yesterday.”

What, then, is time? In Tolstoy’s “History,” the day (a natural unit of time) starts in the morning, moves rapidly to the previous evening, and then slowly makes its way back towards the initial morning. Time flows backward, making a circle. In the end, Tolstoy wrote not a history of yesterday but a history of the day before yesterday.

This pattern would play itself out once again in Tolstoy’s work when, in 1856, he started working on a historical novel, the future War and Peace. As he later described it (in an explanatory note on War and Peace), Tolstoy’ original plan was to write a novel about the Decembrists. He set the action in the present, in 1856: An elderly Decembrist returns to Moscow from Siberian exile. But before Tolstoy could move any further, he felt compelled to interrupt the narrative progression: “ involuntarily I passed from today to 1825 ”(that is, to the Decembrist uprising). In order to understand his hero in 1825, he then turned to the formative events of the war with Napoleon: “ I once again discarded what I had begun and started to write from the time of 1812.” “But then for a third time I put aside what I had begun”—Tolstoy now turned to 1805 (the dawn of the Napoleonic age in Russia; 13:54). The narrative did not progress in time; it regressed. In both an early piece of personal history, “A History of Yesterday,” and the mature historical novel, War and Peace, Tolstoy saw the initial event as the end of a chain of preceding events, locked into causal dependency by the implications of the narrative order. At the time he made this comment on the writing of his novel, Tolstoy seemed to hold this principle as the inescapable logic of historical narrative.

In “A History of Yesterday,” temporal refraction does not end with a shift from the target day to the preceding day. In the description of “the day before yesterday” itself, time also does not progress: It is pulled apart to fit an array of simultaneous processes. The game of cards has come to an end. The narrator is standing by the card table involved in a (mostly silent) conversation with the hostess. It is time to leave, but taking leave does not come easily to the young man; nor is it easy to tell the story of leaving:

I looked at my watch and got up . . . . Whether she wished to end this conversation which I found so sweet, or to see how I would refuse, or whether she simply wished to continue playing, she looked at the figures which were written on the table, drew the chalk across the table— making a figure that could be classified neither as mathematical nor as pictorial—looked at her husband, then between him and me, and said: “Let’s play three more rubbers.” I was so absorbed in the contemplation not of her movements alone, but of everything that is called charme, which it is impossible to describe, that my imagination was very far away, and I did not have time to clothe my words in a felicitous form; I simply said: “No, I can’t.” Before I had finished saying this I began to regret it,—that is, not all of me, but a certain part of me. . . .

—I suppose this part spoke very eloquently and persuasively (although I cannot convey this), for I became alarmed and began to cast about for arguments.—In the first place, I said to myself, there is no great pleasure in it, you do not really like her, and you’re in an awkward position; besides, you’ve already said that you can’t stay, and you have fallen in her estimation. . . .

Comme il est aimable, ce jeune homme.” [How pleasant he is, this young man.]

This sentence, which followed immediately after mine, interrupted my reflections. I began to make excuses, to say I couldn’t stay, but since one does not have to think to make excuses, I continued reasoning with myself: How I love to have her speak of me in the third person. In German this is rude, but I would love it even in German. . . . “Stay for supper,” said her husband.—As I was busy with my reflections on the formula of the third person, I did not notice that my body, while very properly excusing itself for not being able to stay, was putting down the hat again and sitting down quite coolly in an easy chair. It was clear that my mind was taking no part in this absurdity. (1:282–83)

Written from memory, in the past tense, this narrative nevertheless strives to imitate a notation of immediate experience—something like a stenographic transcription of a human consciousness involved in the act of apprehending itself.

Some critics see this as an early instance of what would later be called the “stream of consciousness” or even read Tolstoy’s desire to describe what lies “behind the soul” as an attempt to reach “what we now call the subconscious.”  But this is a special case: a stream of consciousness with an observer. As an external observer, the narrator can only guess at what is going on in the other’s mind. As a self-narrator who describes the zadushevnui  —“innermost,” or, translating literally, the “behind-the-soul”—side of one day’s life, he faces other difficulties.

Indeed, the narrator deals with internal multiplicity, with speech, thought, and bodily movement divided, with ambivalent desires, with the dialectical drama that stands behind a motive. There is yet another layer: the splitting of the self into a protagonist and a narrator, who operate in two different timeframes. Moreover, the narrator (even when he is lost in reverie) is involved in reflections not only on the process of narrating but also on general (meta-) problems in the “historiography” of the self. Finally, he keeps referring to the residue of that which cannot be expressed and explained. How could such multiplicity be represented in the linear order of a narrative?

Time and Narrative 

Unbeknownst to the young Tolstoy, Kant had long since deplored the limitations of narrative in The Critique of Pure Reason. In narrative representation, one event as a matter of convention follows upon another. In Kant’s words, “the apprehension of the manifold of appearance is always successive”; “the representations of the parts” succeed one another. It does not follow, however, that what we represent is also in itself successive; it is just that we “cannot arrange the apprehension otherwise than in this very succession.” This is the way “in which we are first led to construct for ourselves the concept of cause”: succession suggests causality.

As yet unfamiliar with Kant’s deductions, Tolstoy attempted to break the rule of succession—to stretch the temporality of his narrative in order to account for actions and processes that occur as if simultaneously. As a result, he extended time beyond the endurance of the narrative form: the story breaks off. The narrator who describes his own being from within knows (if only subconsciously) more than he can possibly tell. Is it humanly possible to give an account of even one day in one’s own life?

There were, of course, cultural precedents. Tolstoy’s narrative strategies were largely borrowed from Laurence Sterne, who, along with Rousseau, was among his first self-chosen mentors. 13 In 1851, in his diary, Tolstoy called Sterne his “favorite writer” (49:82). In 1851–52, he translated A Sentimental Journey from English into Russian as an exercise.

Informed by Locke’s philosophy, Sterne’s narrative strategy was to make the consciousness of the protagonist/narrator into a locus of action. Locke, unlike Augustine, hoped that time itself could be captured: He derived the idea of time (duration) from the way in which we experience a train of ideas that constantly succeed one another in our minds. It followed that the sense of self derives from the continuity of consciousness from past to future.

Sterne followed suit by laying bare the flow of free associations in the mind of the narrator. One of his discoveries concerned time and narrative: Turning the narration inward, Sterne discovered that there is a psychic time that diverges from clock time. The splitting of time results in living, and writing, simultaneously on several levels. To be true to life, Sterne’s narrator digresses. The author confronted the necessity for interweaving movements forward and backward, which alone promised to move beyond the confines of time. The combination of progression and digression, including retrospective digression, created a narrative marked by experimentation, with the narrator openly commenting on his procedures.  In the end, Sterne’s experimentation—his “realistic” representation—revealed flaws in Locke’s argument: Successive representation could not catch up with the manifold perceptions of the human mind. In brief, the narrative that attempted to represent human consciousness did not progress.

By mimicking Sterne’s narrative strategy, Tolstoy learned his first lessons in epistemology: the Cartesian shift to the point of view of the perceiving individual, the modern view on the train and succession of inner thoughts, the dependence of personal identity on the ability to extend consciousness backward to a past action, and so on. Tolstoy also confronted the restrictions that govern our apprehension and representation of time—limitations that he would continue to probe and challenge throughout his life and work, even after he had read, and fully appreciated, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (in 1869, as he was finishing War and Peace).

In his first diaries and in “A History of Yesterday,” proceeding by way of narrative experiments, the young Tolstoy discovered a number of things. He discovered that there was no history of today. Even in a record almost concurrent with experience, there was no present. A history was a history of yesterday. Moreover, writing a history of the individual and a self-history, he was confronted with the need to account not only for the order of events but also for a whole other domain: the inner life. Uncovering the inner life led to further temporal refraction: From an inside point of view, it appeared that behind an event or action there stood a whole array of simultaneous processes. This led to another discovery.

Excerpted from “’Who, What Am I?’: Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self” by Irina Paperno. Copyright © 2014 by Irina Paperno. Reprinted by arrangement with Cornell University Press. All rights reserved.


Amazon’s frightening CIA partnership

Capitalism, corporations and our massive new surveillance state

Hundreds of millions flow to Amazon from the national security state. It’s a kind of partnership we shouldn’t allow

Amazon's frightening CIA partnership: Capitalism, corporations and our massive new surveillance state
Jeff Bezos, Dick Cheney (Credit: AP/Reed Saxon/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Photo montage by Salon)

When Internet retailer and would-be 21st century overlord kicked WikiLeaks off its servers back in 2010, the decision was not precipitated by men in black suits knocking on the door of one of Jeff Bezos’ mansions at 3 a.m., nor were any company executives awoken by calls from gruff strangers suggesting they possessed certain information that certain individuals lying next to them asking “who is that?” would certainly like to know.

Corporations, like those who lead them, are amoral entities, legally bound to maximize quarterly profits. And rich people, oft-observed desiring to become richer, may often be fools, but when it comes to making money even the most foolish executive knows there’s more to be made serving the corporate state than giving a platform to those accused of undermining national security.

The whistle-blowing website is “putting innocent people in jeopardy,” Amazon said in a statement released 24 hours after WikiLeaks first signed up for its Web hosting service. And the company wasn’t about to let someone use their servers for “securing and storing large quantities of data that isn’t rightfully theirs,” even if much of that data, leaked by Army private Chelsea Manning, showed that its rightful possessors were covering up crimes, including the murder of innocent civilians from Yemen to Iraq.

The statement was over the top — try as it might, not even the government has been able to point to a single life lost due to Manning’s disclosures — but, nonetheless, Amazon’s capitalist apologists on the libertarian right claimed the big corporation had just been victimized by big bad government. David Henderson, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, explained that those calling for a boycott of Amazon were out of line, as the real enemy was “megalomaniacal Senator Joe Lieberman,” who had earlier called on Amazon to drop WikiLeaks (and is, admittedly, a rock-solid choice for a villain).

“The simple fact is that we live in a society whose governments are so big, so powerful, so intrusive, and so arbitrary, that we have to be very careful in dealing with them,” Henderson wrote. That Amazon itself cited a purported violation of its terms of service to kick WikiLeaks off its cloud was “a lie,” according to Henderson, meant to further protect Amazon from state retribution. Did it make him happy? No, of course not. “But boycotting one of the government’s many victims? No way.”

But Amazon was no victim. Henderson, like many a libertarian, fundamentally misreads the relationship between corporations and the state, creating a distinction between the two that doesn’t really exist outside of an intro-to-economics textbook. The state draws up the charter that gives corporations life, granting them the same rights as people — more rights, in fact, as a corporate person can do what would land an actual person in prison with impunity or close to it, as when Big Banana was caught paying labor organizer-killing, right-wing death squads in Colombia and got off with a fine.

Corporations are more properly understood not as victims of the state, but its for-profit accomplices. Indeed, Amazon was eager to help the U.S. government’s campaign against a website that — thanks almost entirely to Chelsea Manning — had exposed many embarrassing acts of U.S. criminality across the globe: the condoning of torture by U.S. allies in Iraq; the sexual abuse of young boys by U.S. contractors in Afghanistan; the cover-up of U.S. airstrikes in Yemen, including one that killed 41 civilians, 21 of them children. The decision to boot WikiLeaks was, in fact, one that was made internally, no pressure from the deep state required.

“I consulted people I knew fairly high up in the State Department off the record, and they said that they did not have to put pressure … on Amazon for that to happen,” said Robert McChesney, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois, in an appearance on “Democracy Now!.” “It was not a difficult sell.”

And it paid off. A little more than a year later, Amazon was awarded a generous $600 million contract from the CIA to build a cloud computing service that will reportedly “provide all 17 [U.S.] intelligence agencies unprecedented access to an untold number of computers for various on-demand computing, analytic, storage, collaboration and other services.” As The Atlanticnoted, and as former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed, these same agencies collect “billions and perhaps trillions of pieces of metadata, phone and Internet records, and other various bits of information on an annual basis.”

That is to say: On Amazon’s servers will be information on millions of people that the intelligence community has no right to possess — Director of National Intelligence James Clapper initially denied the intelligence community was collecting such data for a reason — which is used to facilitate corporate espionage and drone strikes that don’t just jeopardize innocent lives, but have demonstrably ended hundreds of them.

Instead of helping expose U.S. war crimes, then, Amazon’s cloud service could be used to facilitate them, for which it will be paid handsomely — which was, in all likelihood, the whole point of the company proving itself a good corporate citizen by disassociating itself from an organization that sought to expose its future clients in the intelligence community.

“We look forward to a successful relationship with the CIA,” Amazon said in a 2013 statement after winning that long-sought contract (following a protracted battle for it with a similarly eager tech giant, IBM).

If it were more honest, Amazon might have said “We look forward to a successful relationship with the [coup d’état-promoting, drone-striking, blood-stained] CIA.”

And if it were more honest, Amazon could have said the same thing in 2010.

So long as there are giant piles of money to be made by systematically violating the privacy of the public (the CIA and NSA together enjoy a budget of over $25 billion), corporations will gladly lie in the same bed as those who created them, which is, yes, gross. Protecting consumer privacy is at best an advertising slogan, not a motivating principle for entities whose sole responsibility to shareholders is to maximize quarterly profits. This isn’t an admission of defeat — and when companies fear state-sanctioned invasions of privacy will cost them customers in the private sector or contracts with foreign states, they do sometimes roll back their participation — but a call to recognize the true villain: If we desire more than just an iPhone with encryption, we must acknowledge the issue is not just a few individual megalomaniacs we call senators, but a system called capitalism that systemically encourages this behavior.

In the 1970s, following the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the Church Committee exposed rampant spying on dissidents that was illegal even according to the loose legal standards of the time. Speeches were made, reforms were demanded and new laws were passed. The abuses, it was claimed, were relegated to history. What happened next? Look around: The total surveillance we enjoy today, enabled by high-tech military contractors including AT&T and Googleand Verizon and every other nominally private tech company that capitalism encourages to value profits over privacy — a public-private partnership that grants those in power a means of spying on the powerless beyond the wildest dreams of any 20th century totalitarian. Sure, ostensibly communist states can of course be quite awful too, but the difference is that, in capitalist nations, the citizens actually place the eavesdropping devices in their own homes.

Now, whether the reforms of the 1970s were inadequate or were just plain ignored by those who were to be reformed is sort of beside the point; the status quo is what it is and, at least if one values privacy and the ability to organize and engage in political discussion and search the Internet without fear a spy agency or one of its contractors is monitoring it all in real-time, it sure isn’t good. So when groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and progressive magazines such as The Nation call for “another Church Committee,” the question we ought to ask them is: “Fucking really?”

Abolishing capitalism is indeed a utopian goal, but when corporations routinely go above and beyond their legal duties to serve the state — granting police and intelligence agencies access to their customers’ data without so much as a judge’s rubberstamp on a warrant — expecting meaningful change from a few hearings or legislative reforms will only leave the reformers disappointed to find their efforts have just led to dystopia. So long as there’s money to be made serving the corporate state, that is what corporations will do; there’s no need to resort to conspiracy for it’s right there in their corporate. And that’s not to be defeatist, but to suggest we ought to try a different approach: we ought to be organizing to put a stop to public-private partnerships altogether.

Right-wing libertarians and other defenders of capitalism are absolutely right when they say that the profit motive is a mighty motive indeed — and that’s precisely why we should seek to remove it; to take away even just the prospect of a federal contract. If the demands of privacy advocates are limited by myopic concerns of what’s politically possible here and now, all they will have to show for their advocacy will be a false sense of achievement. The problem isn’t, as some imagine it, a state spying without appropriate limits, but the fact that capitalism erases the distinction between public and private, making it so non-state actors gleefully act as the state’s eyes and ears. This isn’t about just Google or the government, but both: the capitalist state. And until we start recognizing that and saying as much, the result of our efforts will be more of the same.

Charles Davis is a writer and producer in Los Angeles whose work has been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, The New Inquiry and Vice. You can read more of his writing here.

Google’s secret NSA alliance: The terrifying deals between Silicon Valley and the security state

Inside the high-level, complicated deals — and the rise of a virtually unchecked surveillance power

Google's secret NSA alliance: The terrifying deals between Silicon Valley and the security state
Cover detail of “@War” by Shane Harris

In mid-December 2009, engineers at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, began to suspect that hackers in China had obtained access to private Gmail accounts, including those used by Chinese human rights activists opposed to the government in Beijing.

 Like a lot of large, well-known Internet companies, Google and its users were frequently targeted by cyber spies and criminals. But when the engineers looked more closely, they discovered that this was no ordinary hacking campaign.

In what Google would later describe as “a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China,” the thieves were able to get access to the password system that allowed Google’s users to sign in to many Google applications at once. This was some of the company’s most important intellectual property, considered among the “crown jewels” of its source code by its engineers. Google wanted concrete evidence of the break-in that it could share with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence authorities. So they traced the intrusion back to what they believed was its source — a server in Taiwan where data was sent after it was siphoned off Google’s systems, and that was presumably under the control of hackers in mainland China.

“Google broke in to the server,” says a former senior intelligence official who’s familiar with the company’s response. The decision wasn’t without legal risk, according to the official. Was this a case of hacking back? Just as there’s no law against a homeowner following a robber back to where he lives, Google didn’t violate any laws by tracing the source of the intrusion into its systems. It’s still unclear how the company’s investigators gained access to the server, but once inside, if they had removed or deleted data, that would cross a legal line. But Google didn’t destroy what it found. In fact, the company did something unexpected and unprecedented — it shared the information.

Google uncovered evidence of one of the most extensive and far-reaching campaigns of cyber espionage in U.S. history. Evidence suggested that Chinese hackers had penetrated the systems of nearly three dozen other companies, including technology mainstays such as Symantec, Yahoo, and Adobe, the defense contractor Northrop Grumman, and the equipment maker Juniper Networks. The breadth of the campaign made it hard to discern a single motive. Was this industrial espionage? Spying on human rights activists? Was China trying to gain espionage footholds in key sectors of the U.S. economy or, worse, implant malware in equipment used to regulate critical infrastructure?

The only things Google seemed certain of was that the campaign was massive and persistent, and that China was behind it. And not just individual hackers, but the Chinese government, which had the means and the motive to launch such a broad assault.

Google shared what it found with the other targeted companies, as well as U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. For the past four years, corporate executives had been quietly pressing government officials to go public with information about Chinese spying, to shame the country into stopping its campaign. But for President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to give a speech pointing the finger at China, they needed indisputable evidence that attributed the attacks to sources in China. And looking at what Google had provided it, government analysts were not sure they had it. American officials decided the relationship between the two economic superpowers was too fragile and the risk of conflict too high to go public with what Google knew.

Google disagreed.

Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg was at a cocktail party in Washington when an aide delivered an urgent message: Google was going to issue a public statement about the Chinese spying campaign. Steinberg, the second-highest-ranking official in U.S. foreign policy, immediately grasped the significance of the company’s decision. Up to that moment, American corporations had been unwilling to publicly accuse the Chinese of spying on their networks or stealing their intellectual property. The companies feared losing the confidence of investors and customers, inviting other hackers to target their obviously weak defenses, and igniting the fury of Chinese government officials, who could easily revoke access to one of the biggest and fastest-growing markets for U.S. goods and services. For any company to come out against China would be momentous. But for Google, the most influential company of the Internet age, it was historic.

The next day, January 12, 2010, Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, posted a lengthy statement to the company’s blog, accusing hackers in China of attacking Google’s infrastructure and criticizing the government for censoring Internet content and suppressing human rights activists. “We have taken the unusual step of sharing information about these attacks with a broad audience not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech,” said Drummond.

Back at the State Department, officials saw a rare opportunity to put pressure on China for spying. That night Hillary Clinton issued her own statement. “We have been briefed by Google on these allegations, which raise very serious concerns and questions. We look to the Chinese government for an explanation,” she said. “The ability to operate with confidence in cyberspace is critical in a modern society and economy.”

As diplomatic maneuvers go, this was pivotal. Google had just given the Obama administration an opening to accuse China of espionage without having to make the case itself. Officials could simply point to what Google had discovered as a result of its own investigation.

“It gave us an opportunity to discuss the issues without having to rely on classified sources or sensitive methods” of intelligence gathering, Steinberg says. The administration had had little warning about Google’s decision, and it was at odds with some officials’ reluctance to take the espionage debate public. But now that it was, no one complained.

“It was their decision. I certainly had no objection,” Steinberg says.

The Obama administration began to take a harsher tone with China, starting with a major address Clinton gave about her Internet Freedom initiative nine days later. She called on China to stop censoring Internet searches and blocking access to websites that printed criticism about the country’s leaders. Clinton likened such virtual barriers to the Berlin Wall.

For its part, Google said it would stop filtering search results for words and subjects banned by government censors. And if Beijing objected, Google was prepared to pull up stakes and leave the Chinese market entirely, losing out on billions of dollars in potential revenues. That put other U.S. technology companies in the hot seat. Were they willing to put up with government interference and suppression of free speech in order to keep doing business in China?

After Google’s declaration, it was easier for other companies to admit they’d been infiltrated by hackers. After all, if it happened to Google, it could happen to anyone. Being spied on by the Chinese might even be a mark of distinction, insofar as it showed that a company was important enough to merit the close attention of a superpower. With one blog post, Google had changed the global conversation about cyber defense.

The company had also shown that it knew a lot about Chinese spies. The NSA wanted to know how much.

Google had also alerted the NSA and the FBI that its networks were breached by hackers in China. As a law enforcement agency, the FBI could investigate the intrusion as a criminal matter. But the NSA needed Google’s permission to come in and help assess the breach.

On the day that Google’s lawyer wrote the blog post, the NSA’s general counsel began drafting a “cooperative research and development agreement,” a legal pact that was originally devised under a 1980 law to speed up the commercial development of new technologies that are of mutual interest to companies and the government. The agreement’s purpose is to build something — a device or a technique, for instance. The participating company isn’t paid, but it can rely on the government to front the research and development costs, and it can use government personnel and facilities for the research. Each side gets to keep the products of the collaboration private until they choose to disclose them. In the end, the company has the exclusive patent rights to build whatever was designed, and the government can use any information that was generated during the collaboration.

It’s not clear what the NSA and Google built after the China hack. But a spokeswoman at the agency gave hints at the time the agreement was written. “As a general matter, as part of its information-assurance mission, NSA works with a broad range of commercial partners and research associates to ensure the availability of secure tailored solutions for Department of Defense and national security systems customers,” she said. It was the phrase “tailored solutions” that was so intriguing. That implied something custom built for the agency, so that it could perform its intelligence-gathering mission. According to officials who were privy to the details of Google’s arrangements with the NSA, the company agreed to provide information about traffic on its networks in exchange for intelligence from the NSA about what it knew of foreign hackers. It was a quid pro quo, information for information.

And from the NSA’s perspective, information in exchange for protection.

The cooperative agreement and reference to a “tailored solution” strongly suggest that Google and the NSA built a device or a technique for monitoring intrusions into the company’s networks. That would give the NSA valuable information for its so-called active defense system, which uses a combination of automated sensors and algorithms to detect malware or signs of an imminent attack and take action against them. One system, called Turmoil, detects traffic that might pose a threat. Then, another automated system called Turbine decides whether to allow the traffic to pass or to block it. Turbine can also select from a number of offensive software programs and hacking techniques that a human operator can use to disable the source of the malicious traffic. He might reset the source’s Internet connection or redirect the traffic to a server under the NSA’s control. There the source can be injected with a virus or spyware, so the NSA can continue to monitor it.

For Turbine and Turmoil to work, the NSA needs information, particularly about the data flowing over a network. With its millions of customers around the world, Google is effectively a directory of people using the Internet. It has their e-mail addresses. It knows where they’re physically located when they log in. It knows what they search for on the web. The government could command the company to turn over that information, and it does as part of the NSA’s Prism program, which Google had been participating in for a year by the time it signed the cooperative agreement with the NSA. But that tool is used for investigating people whom the government suspects of terrorism or espionage.

The NSA’s cyber defense mission takes a broader view across networks for potential threats, sometimes before it knows who those threats are. Under Google’s terms of service, the company advises its users that it may share their “personal information” with outside organizations, including government agencies, in order to “detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues” and to “protect against harm to the rights, property or safety of Google.” According to people familiar with the NSA and Google’s arrangement, it does not give the government permission to read Google users’ e-mails.

They can do that under Prism. Rather, it lets the NSA evaluate Google hardware and software for vulnerabilities that hackers might exploit. Considering that the NSA is the single biggest collector of zero day vulnerabilities, that information would help make Google more secure than others that don’t get access to such prized secrets. The agreement also lets the agency analyze intrusions that have already occurred, so it can help trace them back to their source.

Google took a risk forming an alliance with the NSA. The company’s corporate motto, “Don’t be evil,” would seem at odds with the work of a covert surveillance and cyber warfare agency. But Google got useful information in return for its cooperation. Shortly after the China revelation, the government gave Sergey Brin, Google’s cofounder, a temporary security clearance that allowed him to attend a classified briefing about the campaign against his company. Government analysts had concluded that the intrusion was directed by a unit of the People’s Liberation Army. This was the most specific information Google could obtain about the source of the intrusion. It could help Google fortify its systems, block traffic from certain Internet addresses, and make a more informed decision about whether it wanted to do business in China at all. Google’s executives might pooh-pooh the NSA’s “secret sauce.” But when the company found itself under attack, it turned to Fort Meade for help.

In its blog post, Google said that more than twenty companies had been hit by the China hackers, in a campaign that was later dubbed Aurora after a file name on the attackers’ computer. A security research firm soon put the number of targets at around three dozen. Actually, the scope of Chinese spying was, and is, much larger.

Security experts in and outside of government have a name for the hackers behind campaigns such as Aurora and others targeting thousands of other companies in practically every sector of the U.S. economy: the advanced persistent threat. It’s an ominous-sounding title, and a euphemistic one. When government officials mention “APT” today, what they often mean is China, and more specifically, hackers working at the direction of Chinese military and intelligence officials or on their behalf.

The “advanced” part of the description refers in part to the hackers’ techniques, which are as effective as any the NSA employs. The Chinese cyber spies can use an infected computer’s own chat and instant-messenger applications to communicate with a command-and-control server. They can implant a piece of malware and then remotely customize it, adding new information-harvesting features. The government apparatus supporting all this espionage is also advanced, more so than the loose-knit groups of cyber vandals or activists such as Anonymous that spy on companies for political purposes, or even the sophisticated Russian criminal groups, who are more interested in stealing bank account and credit card data. China plays a longer game. Its leaders want the country to become a first-tier economic and industrial power in a single generation, and they are prepared to steal the knowledge they need to do it, U.S. officials say.

That’s where the “persistent” part comes into play. Gathering that much information, from so many sources, requires a relentless effort, and the will and financial resources to try many different kinds of intrusion techniques, including expensive zero day exploits. Once the spies find a foothold inside an organization’s networks, they don’t let go unless they’re forced out. And even then they quickly return. The “threat” such spying poses to the U.S. economy takes the form of lost revenue and strategic position. But also the risk that the Chinese military will gain hidden entry points into critical-infrastructure control systems in the United States. U.S. intelligence officials believe that the Chinese military has mapped out infrastructure control networks so that if the two nations ever went to war, the Chinese could hit American targets such as electrical grids or gas pipelines without having to launch a missile or send a fleet of bombers.

Operation Aurora was the first glimpse into the breadth of the ATP’s exploits. It was the first time that names of companies had been attached to Chinese espionage. “The scope of this is much larger than anybody has ever conveyed,” Kevin Mandia, CEO and president of Mandiant, a computer security and forensics company located outside Washington, said at the time of Operation Aurora. The APT represented hacking on a national, strategic level. “There [are] not 50 companies compromised. There are thousands of companies compromised. Actively, right now,” said Mandia, a veteran cyber investigator who began his career as a computer security officer in the air force and worked there on cybercrime cases. Mandiant was becoming a goto outfit that companies called whenever they discovered spies had penetrated their networks. Shortly after the Google breach, Mandiant disclosed the details of its investigations in a private meeting with Defense Department officials a few days before speaking publicly about it.

The APT is not one body but a collection of hacker groups that include teams working for the People’s Liberation Army, as well as so-called patriotic hackers, young, enterprising geeks who are willing to ply their trade in service of their country. Chinese universities are also stocked with computer science students who work for the military after graduation. The APT hackers put a premium on stealth and patience. They use zero days and install backdoors. They take time to identify employees in a targeted organization, and send them carefully crafted spear-phishing e-mails laden with spyware. They burrow into an organization, and they often stay there for months or years before anyone finds them, all the while siphoning off plans and designs, reading e-mails and their attachments, and keeping tabs on the comings and goings of employees — the hackers’ future targets. The Chinese spies behave, in other words, like their American counterparts.

No intelligence organization can survive if it doesn’t know its enemy. As expansive as the NSA’s network of sensors is, it’s sometimes easier to get precise intelligence about hacking campaigns from the targets themselves. That’s why the NSA partnered with Google. It’s why when Mandiant came calling with intelligence on the APT, officials listened to what the private sleuths had to say. Defending cyberspace is too big a job even for the world’s elite spy agency. Whether they like it or not, the NSA and corporations must fight this foe together.

Google’s Sergey Brin is just one of hundreds of CEOs who have been brought into the NSA’s circle of secrecy. Starting in 2008, the agency began offering executives temporary security clearances, some good for only one day, so they could sit in on classified threat briefings.

“They indoctrinate someone for a day, and show them lots of juicy intelligence about threats facing businesses in the United States,” says a telecommunications company executive who has attended several of the briefings, which are held about three times a year. The CEOs are required to sign an agreement pledging not to disclose anything they learn in the briefings. “They tell them, in so many words, if you violate this agreement, you will be tried, convicted, and spend the rest of your life in prison,” says the executive.

Why would anyone agree to such severe terms? “For one day, they get to be special and see things few others do,” says the telecom executive, who, thanks to having worked regularly on classified projects, holds high-level clearances and has been given access to some of the NSA’s most sensitive operations, including the warrantless surveillance program that began after the 9/11 attacks. “Alexander became personal friends with many CEOs” through these closed-door sessions, the executive adds. “I’ve sat through some of these and said, ‘General, you tell these guys things that could put our country in danger if they leak out.’ And he said, ‘I know. But that’s the risk we take. And if it does leak out, they know what the consequences will be.’ ”

But the NSA doesn’t have to threaten the executives to get their attention. The agency’s revelations about stolen data and hostile intrusions are frightening in their own right, and deliberately so. “We scare the bejeezus out of them,” a government official told National Public Radio in 2012. Some of those executives have stepped out of their threat briefings meeting feeling like the defense contractor CEOs who, back in the summer of 2007, left the Pentagon with “white hair.”

Unsure how to protect themselves, some CEOs will call private security companies such as Mandiant. “I personally know of one CEO for whom [a private NSA threat briefing] was a life-changing experience,” Richard Bejtlich, Mandiant’s chief security officer, told NPR. “General Alexander sat him down and told him what was going on. This particular CEO, in my opinion, should have known about [threats to his company] but did not, and now it has colored everything about the way he thinks about this problem.”

The NSA and private security companies have a symbiotic relationship. The government scares the CEOs and they run for help to experts such as Mandiant. Those companies, in turn, share what they learn during their investigations with the government, as Mandiant did after the Google breach in 2010. The NSA has also used the classified threat briefings to spur companies to strengthen their defenses.

In one 2010 session, agency officials said they’d discovered a flaw in personal computer firmware — the onboard memory and codes that tell the machine how to work — that could allow a hacker to turn the computer “into a brick,” rendering it useless. The CEOs of computer manufacturers who attended the meeting, and who were previously aware of the design flaw, ordered it fixed.

Private high-level meetings are just one way the NSA has forged alliances with corporations. Several classified programs allow companies to share the designs of their products with the agency so it can inspect them for flaws and, in some instances, install backdoors or other forms of privileged access. The types of companies that have shown the NSA their products include computer, server, and router manufacturers; makers of popular software products, including Microsoft; Internet and e-mail service providers; telecommunications companies; satellite manufacturers; antivirus and Internet security companies; and makers of encryption algorithms.

The NSA helps the companies find weaknesses in their products. But it also pays the companies not to fix some of them. Those weak spots give the agency an entry point for spying or attacking foreign governments that install the products in their intelligence agencies, their militaries, and their critical infrastructure. Microsoft, for instance, shares zero day vulnerabilities in its products with the NSA before releasing a public alert or a software patch, according to the company and U.S. officials. Cisco, one of the world’s top network equipment makers, leaves backdoors in its routers so they can be monitored by U.S. agencies, according to a cyber security professional who trains NSA employees in defensive techniques. And McAfee, the Internet security company, provides the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI with network traffic flows, analysis of malware, and information about hacking trends.

Companies that promise to disclose holes in their products only to the spy agencies are paid for their silence, say experts and officials who are familiar with the arrangements. To an extent, these openings for government surveillance are required by law. Telecommunications companies in particular must build their equipment in such a way that it can be tapped by a law enforcement agency presenting a court order, like for a wiretap. But when the NSA is gathering intelligence abroad, it is not bound by the same laws. Indeed, the surveillance it conducts via backdoors and secret flaws in hardware and software would be illegal in most of the countries where it occurs.

Of course, backdoors and unpatched flaws could also be used by hackers. In 2010 a researcher at IBM publicly revealed a flaw in a Cisco operating system that allows a hacker to use a backdoor that was supposed to be available only to law enforcement agencies. The intruder could hijack the Cisco device and use it to spy on all communications passing through it, including the content of e-mails. Leaving products vulnerable to attack, particularly ubiquitous software programs like those produced by Microsoft, puts millions of customers and their private information at risk and jeopardizes the security of electrical power facilities, public utilities, and transportation systems.

Under U.S. law, a company’s CEO is required to be notified whenever the government uses its products, services, or facilities for intelligence-gathering purposes. Some of these information-sharing arrangements are brokered by the CEOs themselves and may be reviewed only by a few lawyers. The benefits of such cooperation can be profound. John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, became friends with George W. Bush when he was in office. In April 2006, Chambers and the president ate lunch together at the White House with Chinese president Hu Jintao, and the next day Bush gave Chambers a lift on Air Force One to San Jose, where the president joined the CEO at Cisco headquarters for a panel discussion on American business competitiveness. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger also joined the conversation. Proximity to political power is its own reward. But preferred companies also sometimes receive early warnings from the government about threats against them.

The Homeland Security Department also conducts meetings with companies through its “cross sector working groups” initiative. These sessions are a chance for representatives from the universe of companies with which the government shares intelligence to meet with one another and hear from U.S. officials. The attendees at these meetings often have security clearances and have undergone background checks and interviews. The department has made the schedule and agendas of some of these meetings public, but it doesn’t disclose the names of companies that participated or many details about what they discussed.

Between January 2010 and October 2013, the period for which public records are available, the government held at least 168 meetings with companies just in the cross sector working group. There have been hundreds more meetings broken out by specific industry categories, such as energy, telecommunications, and transportation.

A typical meeting may include a “threat briefing” by a U.S. government official, usually from the NSA, the FBI, or the Homeland Security Department; updates on specific initiatives, such as enhancing bank website security, improving information sharing among utility companies, or countering malware; and discussion of security “tools” that have been developed by the government and industry, such as those used to detect intruders on a network. One meeting in April 2012 addressed “use cases for enabling information sharing for active cyber defense,” the NSA-pioneered process of disabling cyber threats before they can do damage. The information sharing in this case was not among government agencies but among corporations.

Most meetings have dealt with protecting industrial control systems, the Internet-connected devices that regulate electrical power equipment, nuclear reactors, banks, and other vital facilities. That’s the weakness in U.S. cyberspace that most worries intelligence officials. It was the subject that so animated George W. Bush in 2007 and that Barack Obama addressed publicly two years later. The declassified agendas for these meetings offer a glimpse at what companies and the government are building for domestic cyber defense.

On September 23, 2013, the Cross Sector Enduring Security Framework Operations Working Group discussed an update to an initiative described as “Connect Tier 1 and USG Operations Center.” “Tier 1” usually refers to a major Internet service provider or network operator. Some of the best-known Tier 1 companies in the United States are AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink. “USG” refers to the U.S. government. The initiative likely refers to a physical connection running from an NSA facility to those companies, as part of an expansion of the DIB pilot program. The expansion was authorized by a presidential executive order in February 2013 aimed at increasing security of critical-infrastructure sites around the country. The government, mainly through the NSA, gives threat intelligence to two Internet service providers, AT&T and CenturyLink. They, in turn, can sell “enhanced cybersecurity services,” as the program is known, to companies that the government deems vital to national and economic security. The program is nominally run by the Homeland Security Department, but the NSA provides the intelligence and the technical expertise.

Through this exchange of intelligence, the government has created a cyber security business. AT&T and CenturyLink are in effect its private sentries, selling protection to select corporations and industries. AT&T has one of the longest histories of any company participating in government surveillance. It was among the first firms that voluntarily handed over call records of its customers to the NSA following the 9/11 attacks, so the agency could mine them for potential connections to terrorists — a program that continues to this day. Most phone calls in the United States pass through AT&T equipment at some point, regardless of which carrier initiates them. The company’s infrastructure is one of the most important and frequently tapped repositories of electronic intelligence for the NSA and U.S. law enforcement agencies.

CenturyLink, which has its headquarters in Monroe, Louisiana, has been a less familiar name in intelligence circles over the years. But in 2011 the company acquired Qwest Communications, a telecommunications firm that is well known to the NSA. Before the 9/11 attacks, NSA officials approached Qwest executives and asked for access to its high-speed fiber-optic networks, in order to monitor them for potential cyber attacks. The company rebuffed the agency’s requests because officials hadn’t obtained a court order to get access to the company’s equipment. After the terrorist attacks, NSA officials again came calling, asking Qwest to hand over its customers’ phone records without a court-approved warrant, as AT&T had done. Again, the company refused. It took another ten years and the sale of the company, but Qwest’s networks are now a part of the NSA’s extended security apparatus.

The potential customer base for government-supplied cyber intelligence, sold through corporations, is as diverse as the U.S. economy itself. To obtain the information, a company must meet the government’s definition of a critical infrastructure: “assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof.” That may seem like a narrow definition, but the categories of critical infrastructure are numerous and vast, encompassing thousands of businesses. Officially, there are sixteen sectors: chemical; commercial facilities, to include shopping centers, sports venues, casinos, and theme parks; communications; critical manufacturing; dams; the defense industrial base; emergency services, such as first responders and search and rescue; energy; financial services; food and agriculture; government facilities; health care and public health; information technology; nuclear reactors, materials, and waste; transportation systems; and water and wastewater systems.

It’s inconceivable that every company on such a list could be considered “so vital to the United States” that its damage or loss would harm national security and public safety. And yet, in the years since the 9/11 attacks, the government has cast such a wide protective net that practically any company could claim to be a critical infrastructure. The government doesn’t disclose which companies are receiving cyber threat intelligence. And as of now the program is voluntary. But lawmakers and some intelligence officials, including Keith Alexander and others at the NSA, have pressed Congress to regulate the cyber security standards of critical-infrastructure owners and operators. If that were to happen, then the government could require that any company, from Pacific Gas and Electric to Harrah’s Hotels and Casinos, take the government’s assistance, share information about its customers with the intelligence agencies, and build its cyber defenses according to government specifications.

In a speech in 2013 the Pentagon’s chief cyber security adviser, Major General John Davis, announced that Homeland Security and the Defense Department were working together on a plan to expand the original DIB program to more sectors. They would start with energy, transportation, and oil and natural gas, “things that are critical to DOD’s mission and the nation’s economic and national security that we do not directly control,” Davis said. The general called foreign hackers’ mapping of these systems and potential attacks “an imminent threat.” The government will never be able to manage such an extensive security regime on its own. It can’t now, which is why it relies on AT&T and CenturyLink. More companies will flock to this new mission as the government expands the cyber perimeter. The potential market for cyber security services is practically limitless.

Excerpted from “@WAR: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex” by Shane Harris. Copyright © 2014 by Shane Harris. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Shane Harris is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State, which won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism and was named one of the best books of 2010 by the Economist. Harris won the 2010 Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He is currently senior writer at Foreign Policy magazine and an ASU fellow at the New America Foundation, where he researches the future of war.