The EU: neoliberalism and democracy – part 2

images (10)An argument was made a long time ago by right wing ideologue Frederick Hayek that Europe could only be united on the basis of the free market.  Generally speaking, unity by state power can be achieved by conquest, or diplomatic alliance and compromise which would be slow, messy and prone to threats of resort to the former method. The Left supporters of Brexit also pose the unity being attempted by the EU as one underpinned by, in fact essentially and intrinsically comprised of, neoliberalism and its child austerity.  This approach is presented as a policy choice at the national level but essential to the EU, which doesn’t add up.

The imposition of austerity in the Eurozone for example is a policy choice determined by the conservative leadership of Germany and some other Northern European countries. In large part this is a reflection of the interests of their particular national capitalism, or its perceived interests, so not an inevitable feature of European capitalist integration.

The imposition of this particular national capitalist regime across Europe cannot work so it involves the subordination of weaker capitalisms such as the Greek etc.  The ultimate subordination is expulsion from the Euro club, whereupon the Greek state is free to reflect its weakness through devaluation, have greater freedom to preserve or expand crony state ownership and decide which sections of its population it wants to throw to the wolves and which to protect. What it could not do on its own is reverse austerity and develop a strong capitalist economy.  A separate Greek socialism is out of the question.

The refusal of the strongest national states within the EU to seek an alternative to austerity that addresses the needs of all member states is grounded on refusal to implement fiscal transfers between states, common and pooled debt and greater regulation.  This would involve not less but more European integration but will not be accepted by the conservative led national states without their much greater control of the EU.  The question then becomes one of democracy.

For the nationalist opponents of the EU, on the right and left, democracy can only be national.  The Irish People’s Movement repeats this again and again:

“The EU is most accurately seen as a supranational anti-democratic system that deprives Europe’s diverse living peoples of their democracy while serving the interests of its big state members, as mediated through their ruling politico-economic elite, interacting with the Brussels bureaucracy. The project of EU and euro-zone integration is at bottom an attempt to overturn throughout much of Europe the democratic heritage of the French Revolution: the right of nations to self-determination, national independence, and national democracy.”

“. . . This right to national self-determination is the foundational value of all modern democracies and of democratic politics within them. But it is anathema to the EU elite. . . . The core illusion of the EU elite is that the peoples of the euro zone will consent to abandon their national independence and democracy, reversing centuries of European history . . .”

Today the increasing lack of democracy across Europe is sometimes put down to a lack of accountability of the governing elites in Brussels to the electorate, but it is notable that this complaint is widely expressed at national level as well.  The Irish State for example has long had two major parties periodically alternating in office that have had no ideological differences and which have provided no meaningful political choice.  In the last election the electorate voted against the incumbent main party and got it back in government.  In some other counties there has been more appearance of choice but it has been obvious for years that even social democratic parties have embraced neoliberalism, so it is not an EU only phenomenon.

It is argued however that it is worse in the EU and, unlike at the level of the individual state, nothing can be done.  It must be noted however that this malaise at the EU is partially a result of the processes at national level and made worse by being filtered here first. If pressure from below is stifled by the national political system there is much less to transmit upwards to the EU’s bureaucratic machinery.  At this EU level there are no European political parties, the trade unions at a European level are a shell and there are no other vehicles for protest except protest itself and its campaigns that put pressure on institutions but fundamentally do not threaten them.

The organisation, or rather the lack of organisation, of workers at the European level is not something that can be rectified by more democratic arrangements at the EU, although this would obviously help.  It is a task for workers themselves and seeking the nationalist way out is not a solution but rather running away from a problem that cannot be escaped.

The nationalist nonsense that posits democracy rising from the nation ignores the existence of nations that have had precious little democracy and ignores the process of struggle that imposed on ruling elites what democracy there is.  The idea that centuries of European history were devoted to the development of national democracy is as fatuous as the idea that these nations were generally independent states. War and subjugation has been a feature of the history of European states as much, if not more, than any sort of mythical independence, which no longer exists even for large European states never mind the smaller ones.

What is true is that the development of capitalism took place at the national level and that this involved the creation of classes which had a material interest in forms of bourgeois democracy and which fought for them as a result.   The state form within which this development took place has been elevated into the development itself but it is capitalist economic development and the political struggles that it generated that are the real foundations of bourgeois democracy.

That capitalist economic development has burst the bounds of nation states has created problems in relation to the forms of democracy that have taken root at the national level.  At this level the machinery of the state has legitimised capitalism through nationalist ideology and the exercise of state power that has educated, subordinated and reformed the society in which everyone has grown up in; making nothing more natural than the idea of belonging to a nation.  From this ideology and the state’s power to mould society has come the view that rights, freedoms and politics in general can only be framed at the national level with anything above this simply being political relations between the states and therefore not actually above them.

History is further perverted in this nationalist version by declaring that the ideals of the French revolution were purely national, ignoring the proclamations within it relating to the rights of individuals, the freedom of individuals and the equality of individuals.  In the first part of these two posts it was noted that for some Irish nationalists these “are not unequivocal concepts. There is no Union-wide consensus on what constitutes a higher or lower standard of protection of rights; there is no consensus on the source of human rights, such as the theory of natural law, whether secularly or religiously based, that would permit a rational analysis and evaluation of conflicting positions.”  But we are expected to believe such problems of unequivocal definition, consensus on source and application of rights, disappear within the nation, with all its minorities subservient to whatever the national ideal of these happens to be.  Most important of all, the national definition of these non-unequivocal concepts is assumed to be superior to the different understandings of these concepts that arise from the class divisions within society.  Instead these are assumed to be erased by unity behind a mythical ‘national interest’.

This understanding of the world as fundamentally structured by nations within which coherent, consistent and valid interests are formed and expressed reaches its height when we are told that:

“Although the EU has most of the formal features of a state, and Euro-federalists aspire to it becoming a United States of Europe, comparable to the United States of America, outsiders hesitate to regard it as a state in its own right. They think that if it were such it must surely have its own people, who would identify with it and insist on endowing it with some meaningful democratic life. But such a people does not exist.”

If this means anything it means that democracy can only exist for a relatively homogenous people, defined by nationality, which is the worst sort of ethnic-centred nonsense to which all nationalism is prone to fall into. It condemns those states that are multi-national in composition, which must presumably not expect to have any sort of democratic political arrangements.  This also of course absolves the EU, because it too cannot be expected to be democratic.  In fact no future unity of peoples can be expected to be democratic either. The more one reads this short paragraph the worse it gets.

But for a socialist it is precisely the identity of interests within the nation that must be exposed and rejected a false.  In contrast it is the identity of the interests of working people regardless of nationality that is the essential socialist argument and historically the nation state that has been the last barrier to the creation of the new society that expresses these common interests.  Workers of the world unite! is the clarion call of socialism.  If capitalism seeks to unite Europe on its own terms it is not the job of socialists to seek to reverse its progress but to fight for creation of the socialist society on these foundations.

If the nationalist left does not know how democracy, workers unity and a socialist future can be fought for except within the realm of separated national states then it should step aside because whatever the problems posed to socialists by the EU they will continue to exist, in fact worsen, in the nationalist rat race that implementation of their policies would involve.


Back to part 1




7 thoughts on “The EU: neoliberalism and democracy – part 2

  1. Just a couple of points in response. If you study the last thirty years of the pattern of capitalist development there is widespread agreement that capitalism has become more expansive, some call this neo-liberal globalisation, you have tagged it with the notion of internationalism. I just call it expansion and on occasion neo-imperialism. The expansion of capital in this world scale has not been associated with socialism and progress in political forms and culture. In fact there is a great deal of evidence showing the opposite has been the case, most of those who still belong to the New Left that broke with Stalin and his followers tend to agree that we have been living through a pronounced period of political backwardness. The relevance of this is that there is no reason to associate trans-national capital with political progress or Internationalism. In so far as historical materialism convinces us to believe otherwise it must be at fault. I guess historical materialism could make a case that the long period of political reaction has only been an appearance and the productive forces have during this time been preparing the social conditions for another socialist advance without us really knowing much about it, behind our back so to speak. For me this is a worn out Hegelian theme that the historical process makes its way to a rational end by hook and by crook. In respect to Hegel the end of the one historical process was said to be the recognition of universal freedom, historical materialists called it something else Socialism. There is the curious way of speaking about political things that implicates Socialism in some sort of final act. I don’t think of socialism in such historical terms, I see socialism as the good side in perennial struggles and battles fought out over a requirement justice, struggles that are never entirely won or forever entirely lost. The struggle for justice has class variations in its history but it only makes sense as one thing ie a substance.

    I therefore don’t care much for the greater and greater development of the productive forces, they have already surpassed what Marx, Lenin and Trotsky though sufficient to make for a transition to a classless society. The EU in my book is no more than a confidential meeting house for the worst enemies of the working class to plan and execute their necessary political conspiracies. As for the point of it not having an army or military, in my opinion it does have a military, it is called NATO, for a brief moment it looked like the EU might indeed detach itself from NATO when that infamous French General tried to make it so, but that French political tussle with America and Britain was lost by him.The main reason EU officials want Serbia, Ukraine and Turkey to join is because NATO insists that they join, it has little to do with economic necessity.

    The main exit campaign in Britain is primarily led and organised by Conservatives this is true, that has something to do with the fact that the socialists of Britain have largely abandoned the opposition they once had to the EU. The Labour party is still very much the party that was reshaped by Tony Blair and his predecessors and I am betting on Corbyn turning out to be a prisoner of the same old pro-imperialist Labour party. However I still say that the British vote should be subordinated to taking a principled position in favour or against the EU as a whole, as you know I am also in favour of the workers of Greece and Ireland freeing themselves from the iron cage of the Euro as it now stands in current treaty law, so I have consistently opposed the EU in principle. I think it is fair to say that Trotsky thought that you should only be flexible with your principles only in emergency political situations, he wanted an alliance with the social democrats in Germany in the period of the rise of fascism, yet even with Spain and faced with a similar fascist threat he was less keen on a workers alliance with the progressives. I don’t necessarily follow Trotsky on such matters because I believe questions should be decided on merit and not on the authority of a Big Name. I don’t believe Brexit is fascist or proto-fascist, rather I think it is more or less a social situation marked by great political confusion, contradiction and stupidity Almost everyone seems to be winging it. I lived through a long period of confusion, contradiction and stupidity called the Irish troubles and the best way through it was to try to stick with a principle rather than to bow to the pressure of every chance event.

    I wonder if you are in principle in favour of what the EU does now, and what it did in the recent past? I can’t really tell because you seem to want to speak at a distance removed from it, less about the EU and more about international or trans-national capitalism preparing a future basis for a transition to socialism.

    I recently read a book by a classical Greek historian called Hellenica. It is a rather baffling book as a history of military and political things. It has no proper beginning and no proper ending.The author finishes his history saying ‘After the battle there was still greater disorder and confusion in Greece than before. Now let the writing be mine up to this point. As for what happened thereafter, perhaps another will care for it’ The interpretation of the historical process seems to be one that maintains that there is more or less a state of confusion and contradiction in the political life of men. So you can begin and end your history more or less as you please and still narrate a continuous state of chaotic political affairs. I don’t know what Marx thought about the Hellenica, he did praise the author briefly in his epic book Capital.

    • There are two aspects to your approach that are at almost opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of level of abstraction of political analysis.

      At the most superficial level there is the confusion of the threatening rants of the Tory Remain campaign and the even worse lies, half-baked ideas and ridiculous claims of those advocating Brexit. When I started the most recent series of posts on the referendum I attempted to explain what I thought were the issues for workers and socialists and I attempted to be as concrete as possible in the initial posts. I also explained how these views could be part of an international strategy as opposed to the inevitable nationalism behind Brexit, despite whatever gloss may be put on it by sections of the left. A victory for the most right wing factions in British politics if Brexit were achieved is only the most obvious expression of this and makes failure to recognise it pretty damning. There really are no excuses for not seeing the reactionary dynamic of Brexit and all talk of “a social situation marked by great political confusion, contradiction and stupidity. . . Almost everyone seems to be winging it” is just a way of avoiding looking the situation squarely in the eyes.

      Despite my best efforts you still state “I wonder if you are in principle in favour of what the EU does now, and what it did in the recent past? I can’t really tell because you seem to want to speak at a distance removed from it,” so let me try again to be as explicit as possible about my position.

      I am opposed to the EU. It is a capitalist construction that I wish to see replaced by a united socialist states of Europe. I recognise that this can only be achieved by the European working class being united. I believe that the increasing capitalist integration of Europe facilitates the achievement of this unity. I am therefore in favour of a united capitalist Europe that will provide the clearest grounds for this fight. This does not prevent me supporting every struggle against the creation of capitalist unity which takes place at the expense of European workers or prevent me from supporting every positive reform that is for the benefit of workers during this unity process. Brexit and nationalist division is presented now as the alternative and this strengthens the reactionary forces that have historically led the European working class into mass slaughter across Europe through war and which still currently divides it. The racist and xenophobic character of much of the Brexit campaign illustrates this and demonstrates clearly for those willing to see that these nationalist forces remain a menace to working class people.

      At the other level of analysis you have already stated your disagreement with historical materialism so there is obviously no surprise that the differences here are large and too big to fully explore in relatively short comments and replies. When I return to my series of posts on Marx’s alternative to capitalism these differences in approach and analysis will naturally appear, as they should have already.

      Here I will restrict my remarks mainly to explaining what historical materialism does not propose. It does not say that advancement of the productive forces automatically entails simultaneous advancement of the political cause of socialism, but it does advance the grounds on which it can happen. It does advance both the material prerequisites for socialism – adequate wealth to support a classless society – and the creation of a larger and larger working class which is the human agent of change.

      You come close to saying the opposite – “the expansion of capital in this world scale has not been associated with socialism and progress in political forms and culture. In fact there is a great deal of evidence showing the opposite has been the case.” The logic here appears to say that we must oppose the development of capitalism because it is leading to social retrogression – there are no contradictions in its development and nothing within it that is preparing the grounds for socialism, in fact it is reducing the basis for creation of a socialist society.

      Since the material conditions for socialism are being eroded, or destroyed the grounds for it in your view is some idealistic ‘good’ ‘substance’. I have no idea what this is.

      You slate the view that “implicates Socialism in some sort of final act. I don’t think of socialism in such historical terms” but this view is not a historical view of socialism but an unhistorical one, much closer to how you present socialism. Karl Marx made this view very clear in ‘The German Ideology’ when he said:

      “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”

      But this is historical materialism and you reject it.

      Instead you say – “I see socialism as the good side in perennial struggles and battles fought out over a requirement justice. , . . The struggle for justice has class variations in its history but it only makes sense as one thing ie a substance.” As I say, this view is unhistorical and therefore unconnected to real conditions and to real people, to real workers. With such an approach principles are unconnected to historical reality and can fail to stand in proper relation to it. So you fail to stand against the reactionary dynamic of Brexit that is staring everyone in the face. Such principles are dogmatic.

      Finally you say that “I therefore don’t care much for the greater and greater development of the productive forces.” At what point did you stop caring? At what point in history did it become possible to say this? Was it when clean water and sewerage service with flushing toilets were introduced? If so we still require prodigious development because I read last week that there are more people in India with mobile phones than with flushing toilets. Perhaps it was when the PC became widespread so we could debate over the internet?

      It is clear that what many very large parts of the world need is development of the productive forces in order to meet many basic, never mind higher level, needs. Even in relatively affluent parts of Europe such development has the potential to improve peoples’ lives and provide the basis for a reduction in time spent on necessary work, allowing greater attention to more rewarding activities.

      Whatever views some on the left may have had at the beginning over the right answer to remaining in the EU, for all the ‘confusion’ generated by the campaign it has actually become easier to see what the correct answer is.

  2. I am not sure I follow all the above. Surely the Founding Fathers of the EU, or its precursors, were a mix of Christian Democrats, yes, but also anti-American statists (de Gaulle) and Social Democrats (a bit later). Motivated by a desire, initially, to bind Germany into a peaceful Europe and create some protection against American economic domination. A bit later maybe came the realisation that a continental capitalism was necessary to compete with the USA and Japan. A continental capitalism does have the logic of the development of a state, and currency, of some kind to facilitate it (cf the USA), after all that is the historical experience. The trouble is European capitalism hasn’t really been able to escape the nation states it created, it can’t let go of its “national” interest – Marx was right. If the EU was the super-state Brexiters (of the left?) think it is then Marx would have been wrong and capitalism would have escaped the bounds of the nation state and it would no longer be the job of socialism to achieve that, so an argument against socialism. On the other hand what does Brexit mean? Faith in a system of nation states which we, as socialists, seek to overcome? Trying to hold back capitalist development of the productive forces?

    Brexit has no socialist logic to me. If the International Committee (of the FI? does it still exist?) is calling for abstentionism then that is a good position. On the other hand the thought of Farage, Johnson and other odious opportunist and racist types “winning”, leading to a “carnival of reaction” is just terrible to contemplate so maybe I will vote Remain. Dunno. But if it is Remain that wins teh task of the left is to argue for that socialist programme, at home, in the EU (and across teh world of course) in a way that can mobilise support from all those dissaffected workers who think that a Brexit vote is somehow anti-establishment.

    • You are right to conclude that Brexit contains no socialist logic but then the EU contains no socialist logic either. I think that those Marxist’s who are also historical materialists are convinced that the EU is implicitly socialists because it is a facilitator and measure of the expansion of the productive forces of trans-national capitalism are mistaken to think that this is good enough reason to side with Remain. The socialist logic of this is that the 26 member EU is laying the economic ground for a transition to socialism that is no longer perverted by that nationalism that all previous socialism contained, especially of the Stalinist socialism in one country variety. I am not an historical materialist however, I don’t think of socialism as something that comes about as the good end of something that is in the process of being made by the enemies of the working class, namely the trans-national capitalist class. As I said in another comment, I have stopped believing in the cunning of History as first hinted at by Kant and worked out by Hegel.

      In the study of something you can be guided by the efficient cause, the beginnings of the thing or the formal or final cause, the end of the thing. I made a comment on the beginning of the thing ie the founding of the EEC as a Cold War mechanism of capitalist defense supported by Washington and London. As for the end of the thing, I said the EU has no formal end that can be discerned, this means that its logic is merely an expansionist one, to make a bigger free trade economic area no matter the obstacle, eventually including Russia and Ukraine, I call the logic of expansion without a formal rule in politics the dream of Empire.

      To decide how to vote on the British referendum you have I think to first have taken a position on the EU as a whole, I am opposed to it in principle as have many socialists been in the near and distant past. However I am not a dogmatist when it comes to principles, I am a relativists on principles as applied to politics. Would it be right to set aside my conviction of being against the EU on principle because of the bad circumstance of current British politics. The bad circumstance is of course the Brexit campaign which is a right wing nationalist one and maybe even a hidden racist one. In his latest blog post Boffy estimates that there is a hard core of about 30 percent of British voters are British imperialists or nationalists, but he also reckons that only about 5 per cent are fascist in inclination. This is likely to be close to the mark, but is this enough to make me abandon my own position of being opposed to the EU in principle? I don’t think it is, if the 30 percent core of Brexit was fascist and racist then it would be right to suspend my principle of opposition given the emergency circumstance, but the 5 per cent fascist is not politically significant, there is as much and maybe more of this ideological persuasion in almost every European jurisdiction in normal times.

      Thank your for your comments, I must repeat here that the writer of this blog does not agree with my comments and conclusions and I am in no way speaking on his behalf.

      • To take your last point first. It doesn’t appear to me to make much sense to decide not to oppose a reactionary campaign on the basis that this right ring is currently not big enough or yet reactionary enough. It must be clear that a victory for this xenophobic campaign will make it big enough, and will then further strengthen it, not only in Britain and in the North of Ireland but also across Europe where, in some countries such as France, Poland and Hungary the extreme right wing are more,much more, than 5 per cent. Might this cause you to reconsider? Can you not see that a victory for reaction will strengthen and deepen this reaction?

        As the campaign has gone on the thoroughly reactionary character of Brexit has become clearer and the specious character of a left case for exit more and more tenuous; its conceptions ultimately tied to the political claims of the right, that democracy and nationalism are twins that should not be separated. In the case of the left the illusion is expressed in the view that the national capitalist state can bring decisive moves towards socialism, i.e. through state ownership – NATIONalisation. This of course refers to the spectral wonders of the British state only, since if it also applied with equal truth to the German and French states etc. there would be no case for separation from them. One struggles to see where internationalism comes into operation if it cannot take as a starting point the internationalisation of capitalism but seeks to set back its political development to an earlier stage of development. Why stop there? Why not go back to the city- states and the common customs barriers that they enforced?

        You repeat an earlier comment that opposition to the EU is opposition to empire although you don’t challenge the rather weak form this has taken, which I have pointed out in a number of posts – e.g. no EU army. The main point here however is the rather quaint idea that you can escape an empire by saying you want to leave it. To paraphrase that old saying – you may want to leave it but it will not leave you.

        As I have tried to explain: trading arrangements etc. between the UK and EU will have to be negotiated after Brexit and all the nasty issues that so exercise the left, such as what such deals afford in terms of workers’ rights, will still have to be negotiated. How the British left thinks it could carry out such negotiations successfully even in a left ruled UK against the combined power of a capitalist EU is beyond my comprehension but this is the argument – a socialist UK will be prevail against a capitalist Europe. The same illusion about the indispensability of Britain peddled by Gove, Johnson and Farage.

        You accurately identify the source of our divergent views in your rejection of historical materialism. I continue to agree with Marx that the development of the productive forces within capitalism continues to create the indispensable conditions for socialism, a development that long ago had to take an international form. Your rider to this view that this necessarily entails the additional view that such development avoids the perversion of nationalism is obviously untrue and is not consistent with the recognition that capitalism struggles to free itself from the nation-state form. This has been pointed out by myself and FergusD in his comments.

  3. As I understand it there is a near consensus in political science that democracy is the reason behind nationalism rather than nationalism being the reason behind democracy and when the two co mingle we get the right of national self-determination. If it is the case that democracy is in Essence and almost always in History the basis of nationalism then European Conservatives understood this process long before the researches in political science offered evidence to prove it. The eminent Conservatives believed there was a close relationship formed between democracy and nationalism at the inception of the French revolution and the researches tend to confirm that the French nationalism of the revolutionary period is the ideal type of all of modern European nationalism.

    Those who originated the first steps and plans for the European Union, now called the founding fathers, were eminent conservatives who were all too aware of the relationship that prevailed between democracy and nationalism. They too understood that to mitigate one was never enough, you had to mitigate both together, once you get this proposition you get the political meaning of the European Union. What the eminent conservatives feared and distrusted most were the popular mass movements of both Left and Right that they believed had destroyed the Europe of Constitutional Monarchy and Established Faith. It was the popular mass movements that were the destructive factor in European politics. This very conservative mode of European political thought is often but not always Catholic in orientation, the dominant party of European conservatism the CDU traces itself back to the Center Party of conservative German Catholicism, Konrad Adenauer. It is the very core of Political Catholicism to distrust the plebian masses who are easily led into into the dark forests of democracy and nationalism by populist demagogues ; Dictionary Definition ‘a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument'(in ancient Greece and Rome) a leader or orator who espoused the cause of the common people.’ Yes even in Ireland political Catholicism distrusted the democracy and nationalism of the peasants when it selected D.O’Connell as its eminently conservative champion.

    The mistake ‘Marxist’ inspired opponents and supporters of the EU make is to over identity the essence and history of the EU with Hayek and other free market recipes for economic success and to pass by its Conservative build in a supreme distrust of mass movements of both Left and Right. The EU came into being to mitigate democracy and dampen nationalism but not to suppress them. While a dogmatic policy opposition to economic nationalism now gets most of the attention, thus making the EU appear to be more neo-liberal in origin and plan, its dislike of democracy in the form of the mass movements of both Left and Right often gets overlooked. What the eminent Conservative dislikes most is a variety of politics that comes up from the riotous Streets and the noisy meeting houses, he is of the caliber of our own John Hume, a low attendance committee meeting man through and through and a secret deal maker. The EU is one of those larger political planets that orbits way out on the outer limit of the known democratic solar system, we on the other hand want to orbit closer to the sun and feel the burn of a more direct form of democracy and this is why we are seeking to wave bye bye to the EU. We want to bring the masses onto the streets and into the meeting houses not keep them at arms length as like most of the political philosophers would have it.

    Sorry, but you will never persuade me to vote for the EU. The International Committee is asking for a workers boycott of the referendum, this has some merit considering the Leave campaign is organised by the British Right Wing. But it is still out out out for me! Tony Benn you died too early you old fool!

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