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The SWP meltdown, institutional legitimacy and the broader lesson for the left

January 14, 2013 6 comments

Laurie Penny thinks the SWP’s handling of rape allegations reflects badly on all of us, and that the SWP are only different because they are more open about their misogynist structures:

Other groups are not so brazen as to say that their moral struggles are simply more important than piffling issues of feminism, even if that’s what they really mean, nor to claim that as right-thinking people they and their leaders are above the law. The SWP’s leadership seem to have written it into their rules.

Actually, there’s no “seem” about it.  The leadership being above the law is written into the rules of the SWP.  That’s what makes it a self-declared Leninist revolutionary socialist party.  As SWP head boy Charlie Kimber makes clear in his comments at Harry’s place:

We live in what remains a profoundly sexist society, as is shown by the sex abuse scandals and cover-ups in mainstream institutions such as the BBC and the police. However, the SWP is not an institution of capitalist society but fights for the overthrow of the system. Our party has a proud tradition of fighting for women’s liberation, as is shown, for example, by our consistent campaigning over the decades to defend abortion, and by our criticism of George Galloway for his remarks about the Julian Assange rape accusations. Reflecting this tradition, our internal structures seek to promote women to leading roles and deal rigorously with any action by any member that is harmful or disrespectful of women (my emphasis).

That is to say, the SWP is committed, as a point of founding principle, to not engaging with the criminal justice system, but to handling “harmful or disrespectful” actions through its “internal structures”, which it regards as inherently superior to the legal institutions of the capitalist state.   Phil at AVPS makes the point very well:

[T]his crisis was precipitated entirely by the SWP’s own actions, but from the off they were caught in a bind  provided by their own revolutionary conceit.  If you’re in the business of  prosecuting class struggle to the point of the overthrow of capital, and you believe it is your party’s destiny to lead the working class in revolt, as far  as behaviour, misconduct and crimes committed by party members are concerned the  party is the sovereign body for pronouncing on questions of truth and guilt, of  sanction and punishment. Within the terms of party morality and the closed-loop  universe of the SWP’s particular form of revolutionary identity politics, they did the right thing investigating the allegations.

To be honest, I’ve never quite got how this works in practice, as there seem to be an awful lot of capitalist institutions that the SWP membership does engage with.  Rumour has it that it’s got a large property portfolio, and I’m pretty sure SWP members get around on Virgin Trains and the like.  Which institution it’s legitimate to engage with while organising for its downfall does seem a bit selective.

The key point, though, is that the SWP is not falling apart now because it didn’t call in the police; it’s falling apart because the justice system it used instead of the capitalist one apparently proved to be completely useless, in both senses of the term.  That is, it apparently wasn’t very well run (I won’t repeat the contended details here) but, even if it had been, the problem would still have remained that, in the event of a guilty verdict, there’d have been no way to mete out appropriate justice; the usual sentence for one of rape is one of imprisonment, but as far as I know the SWP don’t have any prisons.

In other words, the SWP has set out its stall as being a kind of state, operating within and against the capitalist state, but lacks most of the things that go to make up a state.

Now you can argue (as Laurie Penny might if she understood a bit more what does make the SWP different from other groups), that it is the very selectivity about what bits of the capitalist state to opt out of which betrays its misogynist heart – and I do wonder whether the party would have the same courage of its own institutions if the accusation had been, say, child abuse rather than rape.  That’s fair enough.

But I also wonder if there’s a wider learning point for the radical left in its anti-capitalist struggle, whether it be via “revolutionary” or “evolutionary” means.

What this sad episode, and the likely fall out shows us clearly enough is that, unless credible institutions which command widespread respect and are therefore seen as legitimate are in place before the borgeous institutions are torn down (or bypassed), then those same bourgeois institutions are likely to return in strengthened form, and with increased popular support.  There’s a glimpse of that in Laurie Penny’s own appeal to the sanctity of the law – not something you’d normally associate with her radical leanings – when it’s juxtaposed to the SWP’s own tawdry process.

This is not, of course, a novel insight.  We see fine solidaristic principle, followed by failure of legitimacy, and then mutual recrimination and lessened solidarity, everywhere we look.  The power of financial capitalism has been strengthened-by-scapegoat since the crisis, because there was no alternative system ready to replace it.  The anti-cuts campaigns have failed to date because there is not sufficient legitimacy in an alternative decision-making process to ensure that both elected representatives and officials have both the duty and the backing to deliver an alternative that sticks.  People going to job centres are treated poorly because unions have not yet been able to make their calls for solidarity with the workless more legitimate than the managerial directives imposed on staff.

All of which leads me to conclude that, ultimately, the left will only be any use at the grand scale if it gets over the self-imposed distinction (and accompanying hatreds) between revolution and evolution, and accepts that the quiet building of legitimate socialist institutions* in parallel with capitalist institutions, ready to replace them when the time comes, as just as much part of the struggle, and that the devotees of GDH Cole and RH Tawney are just as revolutionary, in their way, as those of Trotsky and Lenin.

*As a quick personal note: I was a member of the SWP briefly in the mid-1980s, taken in by the convincing rhetoric and (to me) new analysis of some very eloquent speakers and writers. I left when I was told that I needed to move my trade union stewardship focus away from the nitty-gritty of supporting workers in their workplace to defend their terms and conditions, defend them at disciplinaries etc.., in favour of more “revolutionary” activity.  When the time came to strike, the hospital I worked and organized at had a much bigger turnout than other places supposedly more under SWP inflluence.

Galloway and Bradford West

March 30, 2012 10 comments

As disappointing as it may be to some long-time blogofriends, who really despise him, I am resolutely indifferent to George Galloway. This might be seen as some political lapse on my part. After all, only the other week I was expressing my sympathy for Peter Cruddas, the Tory apparatchik caught trying to sell access to our dearly beloved PM.

Even so, when reading the headlines over my cornflakes today, I did laugh very hard indeed at Galloway’s absolutely massive victory in Bradford West. I laughed harder still at the lightning speed responses from Labour people on Twitter, which amounted to “Bloody [insert ethnic or religious minority]“. I’m not joking there. That’s really what it came down to.

Let me clarify. A lot of people are talking about the “machine politics” practised by some Asian communities, and suggesting that Galloway has appeased the powers that be there, to win the votes they can command – a little like Tammany Hall. It is entirely possible that Galloway benefitted here (and I make no claim to authority in the matter) but it is rather hypocritical for Labour to attack it, as if it is true that Galloway benefits from it, then in many areas Labour also benefits from it. Or the whole conception might be a vaguely racist appraisal by people who stand outside those communities.

In any case, an 18,000 strong vote, based on slogans like “Real Labour not New Labour”, “Stop this Cuts Madness” and “Stop the Break Up of the NHS” (as well as the expected “Bring Our Boys Home” tropes), is not easily dismissed.

I am not a Respect supporter; I think they are a dead-end, and I think Galloway is an unaccountable, uncontrollable celebrity personality, rather than the sort of local campaigner I’d be more comfortable voting for (see TUSC for further details). But in the Bradford West by-election there was no one else to vote for, if deciding purely on the basis of what the candidates said in their electoral material, which is presumably the only contact most people had with the matter.

The key question is, having won this by-election, what is Galloway going to do now? Those who enjoy ridiculing him have made much of  his Celebrity Big Brother shenanigans, as being “disrespectful” to his constituents etc etc. Again I’m seized by indifference over the matter – though it might give a tell-tale indication as to what sort of MP Galloway might be. It bears saying, however, that as with the “machine politics” stuff, Labour people voicing their discontent are somewhat hypocritical. I’m sure Ed Miliband would jump on any TV show going if he thought he would win the election as a result – only he’d probably have to call in at Hackett’s for a bespoke personality and not just his usual custom-made suits.

Is Galloway, on the other hand, being the darling of the media because he seems immune to embarrassment, going to run a media-luvvy orientated campaign henceforth, or is he going to be in Bradford High St, manning the anti-cuts stalls? He should be. Such a high profile victory, allied to the right campaigning strategy, could galvanise the whole working class of Bradford to come out and fight the cuts. There are practical tasks at stake; the coordination of local union action, the preparation of anti-cuts candidates for council, on a “needs-budget” slate, and the extension of cooperative efforts to other nearby areas, such as Leeds, where the cuts are biting just as hard.

A high profile figure can lend weight to that strategy, which is really the only strategy.

Is that to be George Galloway’s role? We don’t yet know, so we don’t yet know what the significance of this by-election will be. We know it shows discontent – but whether or not that discontent can be turned from a passive kind, that results in one-off by election votes, into an active kind that will defeat the cuts…therein lies the real question mark over Bradford. Everywhere on the Left can be felt Labour’s ebb, particularly from those unions which move into struggle whilst Ed Miliband talks about “resolution at any cost” (which means “at any cost to workers”, as we know from experience).

What force will replace it is still up for debate – and replace it something will. Bradford notwithstanding, Labour are still the main repository for the votes of the passive resistance. As workplaces move into active struggle, Labour people find themselves standing by the wayside. People don’t forget that the pickets of the last year or so were not that long ago pickets erected against the policies of a Labour government. Moreover, that active struggle demands answers which Labour cannot supply. The election of a Labour government is only the end of Round One in the battle against the cuts – the battle against capitalism.

Round two will be the creation, through the struggle against that Labour government and its equally repugnant cuts, of the organs of an alternative, unifying and representative seat of working class power.

In Bradford, the local paper reported in 2009 that 41% percent of the areas in the district are among the most deprived in the country. Labour people can do all the whinging they want about machine politics – but there are very good reasons for the people in this area not to vote Labour; a Labour council, tarred by Galloway with the same cuts-loving brush as the Tories, could not save a Labour candidate from being absolutely annihilated. That is telling enough as to the continuing abysmal state of the Labour Party.

Lastly, the Lib-Dems apparently lost their deposit. May there be heaps more of that, thank you very much.

Non-progressive socialism and the political coordinates of racial nationalism

October 18, 2011 19 comments

During an interview, in a recent book by Rowenna Davis, Jon Cruddas MP describes himself as a socialist, but not a progressive. This chimes with the recent set of political ideas, called blue labour for brevity, which notes that not everything to do with change is necessarily a force for good.

Indeed, when we imagine a world where far right politics are at large, we can all concur that change is not necessarily good. In the early nineties, Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP, described the party’s first “modernising” (which seems to mean anyone afraid of having an anti-Semitic image) leader John Bean as a true nationalist “always part of the progressive movement drivng [sic] nationalism forward to electoral success”.

When it comes to the BNP, some on the conservative right (such as Dan Hannan) will always try to suggest that given their protectionist economic views, they are left wing. John Bean, who Nick Griffin looks up to every bit as much as Le Pen in France, described himself as an anti-capitalist and in response to the reactionary BNP leader John Tyndall’s anti-Semitism, said that to blame the Jews for the world’s problems was to forget “gentile involvement” in “the drive for world government”.

When someone like Hannan suggested that the BNP were on the far left economically, the left itself would counter that by saying protectionism isn’t necessarily left wing, and neither is anti-capitalism, for that matter. In fact what define the fascist BNP as right wing are their appeals to a conservative imagery, and such reactionary categories as nationhood, race and family. But though many on the left rightly champion alternative family lifestyles, multi-ethnicity and internationalism, few are pro-actively against those former categories. Moreover, non-progressive socialism actively campaigns for more emphasis on family, flag and faith.

Serious question: Blue Labour is a million miles away from the crass, fascism of the BNP, but if those things that once defined the BNP as right wing can be incorporated into non-progressive socialist politics, what does this do to the political category “far right”?

What will the new British politics look like?

April 20, 2011 2 comments

What will fill the space left by Third Way politics?

A tabloid editor in 2006 once told John Harris for the Guardian “Britain is booming.” This message, widely accepted by politicians, encapsulated two things:

1) that some were able to pretend “walled-up factories, Poundstretcher shops, [and] low-paid service-sector jobs” didn’t exist or matter, and

2) metropolitan politics was the order of the day, and perpetuated in the mainstream press.

Well, as the ideological spending cuts begin to pinch, and metropolitanism starts to lose the electoral power it once had during the boom years, the target political audience has shifted.

While the Liberal Democrats have created their own demise, Labour and the Tories have both been on a soul searching mission for a post-third way, post-New Labour politics (which they both appealed to) and have come to the conclusion that communities in decline are the new target.

For Cameron, addressing the problems of immigration and multiculturalism was the way forward, while for Ed Miliband (who yesterday said people “lost trust” in Labour over immigration) the squeezed middle needed representation (aware, as he is, that according to a survey by BritainThinks seven in 10 Britons identify as Middle Class).

Think tanks and academics are showing the same findings. For Respublica, whose recent report on the dominance of four supermarkets and forthcoming report on how community social capital can replace the state in the protection of children, empowered communities, not multinational corporations that concentrate too much wealth, will be the bedrock of a big society.

For Maurice Glasman, whose ‘blue labour’ idea has caught the attention of Ed Miliband, “family, faith and flag” and the reintroduction of working class social conservatism in mainstream politics will counter the hegemony of liberal elite politics, so embedded into Blairite politics, and be a major deterrent against far right politics in vulnerable communities.

But don’t we need metropolitanism?

As David Aaronovitch put it in 2000:

“I am, of course, a member of the metropolitan, liberal elite. I am for gay rights, asylum-seekers, the euro, metric measurements, devolution, feminism, dearer petrol, fewer cars, intervening in Sierra Leone, change, reggae and experimenting with exotic foods.”

The problem for the Left, particularly the socialist Left, is that they are for some – perhaps most – of those things too, as well as the reintroduction of vulnerable or forgotten communities back into the political mainstream. Do I have to forgo one to allow for the other? By supporting families, do I have to sacrifice support for gay rights?

The answer is no. Broadly speaking – which is all there is of Glasman’s big idea so far – I am blue labour, in so far as I am opposed to New Labour and neoliberal individualism, but my social attitudes profess inclusivity and not prejudice.

Politicians, in seeking to empower communities, should not shy away from their duty to dispel myths about asylum seekers, homosexuals, or indeed reggae. During Britain’s transition away from Third Way politics, we would do well to remember that the working class do not have a monolithic set of politics and what might be called metropolitianism – for want of a better word – can co-exist with community empowerment.

Class and the Left

As a young man I was a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party – until, that was, I gained my senses and left. In Southend, Essex, where I was at college and starting to get politically active, it was the only organisation taking to the streets nearly every week, and certainly were a notable presence campaigning against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I remember thinking how much I hated the navalgazing, spending weeknights listening to the same old lines on General Pincohet or the Poll Tax riots with a room full of other people who all knew the story, but felt they had to do something under the swappie banner they’d erected upstairs in The Railway Pub function room.

Among us common lot we’d do down on the Middle Class whenever we could – no matter our own backgrounds we knew our enemy, it was all those people not suffering, not cleaning the streets, not emptying the bins. We were decidedly bitter about the petit-bourgeoisie – we had an image in our heads of them we didn’t like, and we found the right company to share that in.

But come conference time, in London, among the Alex Callinicos’ and the other aristos bankrolling the newspaper production, we’d drop the Middle Class hatred like it was hot. Instead we did the dirty on the bourgeoisie proper; we sided with the squeezed middle before there was even such thing as a squeezed middle, it was the owners of the means of production – a significantly smaller percentage of people – that were our bugbear then.

The reason, implictly, being was that to shun the Middle Class at a Swappie conference is like Turkey’s voting for Christmas or noted Nazi Jews acting as architects for the final solution. For every wire-haired, gravel-voiced trade unionist in the room, there were ten double-barrelled silver spoons from Plumshire.

But while my old comrades carried on disavowing the Middle Classes, I learnt to embrace them, and actually see this embrace as being crucial to the eventual dissolution of the class system in general.

I’ve grown to the idea that inter-class relations within a state socialist system will actually spur the end of the class system far quicker than if Trotskyite groups, behind closed doors, denied their own Middle Class roots and/or embarked on class hatred themselves.

As a socialist, I think it is important to have a strong state, and a strong head of state to keep the Prime Minister, and the First Ministers in the devolved governments, under constant check. It will be of no surprise then to find that I am excited that our future King, Prince William (whose RAF salary is to the tune of £37,170), has decided to marry well outside his class – the lovely Catherine Elizabeth Middleton.

It might seem strange to hear, but the dreadful class system in this country, which has single-handedly ruined true social mobility (and with it the lives of many Working Class families), might be dealt its strongest blow to date by the marriage of William and Kate – for which the Left today ought to be truly grateful.

Five reasons not to be a councillor

March 28, 2011 2 comments

The nomination papers for the forthcoming council elections are due in 4th April.  It does feel a bit weird not to be completing the Bickerstaffe Ward 0nes, but the die is cast; I won’t be a councillor after 5th May.

I’ve worked bloody hard in my ward as a councillor, and achieved a lot. 

The 50 biggest achievements will be another blogpost (probably at the Bickerstaffe Record) but I’m quite proud of a 300,000 investment in nursery and community facilities, a village school that is burgeoning not declining, 30mph limits on roads where there were none, an HGV ban through the village centre, a popular music festival (though maybe a year off this year), bus services successfully defended and even improved, taking on a big factory over their noise pollution and winning, new bus shelters erected, public housing defended, funding brought in for the footie club, the Parish car park improved, the A577 safety scheme, flooding problems resolved, greenspace defended, a new rail station nearing fruition. 

That’s just off the top of my head. There was lot more when I noted it down, road by road, theme by theme.

There’s also plenty of other quiet case work around ‘difficult’ social services which I can’t talk about but where I’ve really made a difference to people’s lives.

Most of all, perhaps, I’m proud of the fact that many of the things above I can’t take sole credit for.  They’re often collaborative enterprises, but wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t got stuck in and offered the right support at the right time.  I think it’s called community organisation, nowadays, but I just took it as being a councillor.

I’ll miss a lot of this stuff.

So why stop now, many have asked, both locally and nationally.

Here’s five reasons:

1) I want to stay home

I’ve been out 3-6 nights a week, week in, week out, for the last few years.   I’ve missed a lot of bedtimes.  Now the kids are bigger, I want to be around more for homework, for goalie training, for the craic.  My wife wants me back too.

2) I don’t want to become stale

I don’t think councillors should become permanent fixtures, either in their wards or on the Council.  We should be encouraging short, high action, productive stints on the frontline, then letting other people have a go.  My time has come to move on.

I hope Bickerstaffe stays Labour, and I hope my successor brings new ideas, new energies, new talents.

3) Elected local government is important, but not THAT important

Labour labour parties is pre-occupied with local government, because it’s what people vote on and it’s where you beat the Tories/LibDems.  It fits with the national party’s campaigning party identity.

But there’s more to local politics than local government, which after all only controls a small percentage of local spend (and borough councils only a very tiny percentage in two-tier systems).

While many in local Labour parties focus their campaigning solely on local elections, local NHS services are being quietly dismantled under the ‘care’ of non-elected Trust and PCT boards, and the whole Voluntary and Community Sector is being decimated.

So one thing I’ll be throwing my energies into after May 5th is the whole local NHS agenda, and how local groups can work with GP commissioning structures with the aim of retaining and even expanding preventative, holistic services. 

That’s not something I can easily do as a local councillor, but it will use much of the same skillset I’ve developed in local elected politics.

I’ll also be doing stuff around legal challenge to Council service decisions which is better done from outside the Council.

In general, I look forward to becoming a free-ranging activist, unconstrained by the necessary niceties and conventions of public office.

4) Local councillors are too big for their boots

Councillors, especially those in senior positions (as I’ve been) tend to be regarded as the local party bosses.  They shouldn’t be.   This trend has developed because in many areas party infrastructure around policy making have withered in the face of demands from the centre that parties focus on electoral campaigning. 

We need to work harder now to establish routes of accountability to an expanding party membership, and to ensure that councillors are given mandates to act on behalf of increasingly representative parties (and local labour movements), not carte blanche to lord it over their branches.

I’m a bureaucrat by nature, and in time I want to play a part in the construction of a ‘wholer’ local party, which focuses its energies not just on local government but on everything that affects our constituents.  Now is not the right time for me to do this, as space is needed between my current and future roles in the local party, but the need and opportunity will come soon enough.

5) The Labour party is not the Labour movement

This is connected to 4) above, but deserves special mention as it’s where a lot of my post-councillor energies will be directed.

In West Lancashire, as in many areas, the day-to-day link between the union movement and the Labour party has more or less dissolved.   There is no longer a very active Trades Council (well as far as I can see, though some hardy souls have tried to keep it alive), and links are largely limited to some sponsorship of candidates and election campaigns (though I’ve worked at links with the Council trade unions in my time as opposition on the Council).

So in the next few months I’ll be getting back to my union roots, working with trade unionists beyond the local Labour party to re-establish the kind of union organisation now lost to many areas, though with a mind to 21st century conditions.

Workplace organisation and expanded recruitment remains the bedrock of the labour movement, and the best Trades Councils use this as a basis for work on local rights beyond the workplace e.g. the TUC unemployment centres which were a source of hope and solidarity for many under Thatcher. 

 This is stuff local Labour parties have trouble with both culturally and legally, but which must form part of the integral offer of the labour movement to our working class constituencies and constituents, irrespective of but not unconscious of how class identity and consciousness may differ from class as an objective capital/labour condition.

Formal affiliation to the Labour party should of course be a part of the Trades  Council development, but I suspect it will only be a minor aspect for consideration initially, as unions-in-the-community and recruitment capacity is developed to the point where both party and wider movement can engage properly on a clearly mutually beneficial basis.

The local media plan is in there as well, though initially it may be a different development strand.

That’s the plan. If anyone else is thinking of similar stuff around this aspect of labour movement organisation – and in the aftermath of March 26th could there possibly be a better time – I’d be happy to compare notes and look at mutual support.

My day out with the arthritic proto-hooligans

March 28, 2011 6 comments

Me, shuffling along carrying some wood

On Saturday, I eschewed the invitations of various strands of the bloggerati to join them for beer and debate about the merits of otherwise of direct action in the context of a mass protest.  I also declined the invitation to ‘get my ass’ up to Oxford Street.

Instead, I marched along with a group of Lancashire trade unionists and Labour activists who do not read blogs, do not have twitter accounts, and do not know who Laurie Penny is.  We arrived in London around 1130am, headed by tube for the back of the march, marched for four and a half hours, got on the tube to Swiss Cottage, had a pint, and came home.  

As a result, I got to witness an extraordinary save by my 11 year old on Sunday morning, plunging low to his right to keep out a volley from five yards and actually holding it.  But fatherly pride would have me digress…..

As Lancashire’s finest middle-aged trade unionists shuffled along Piccadilly around 4pm, it became clear that something was going on at Fortnum and Masons, a well known deli in those parts.

A young man was poking his arms out of  second floor window, waving a flag of red and black triangles.  It wasn’t clear from our viewpoint what was going on, and we had no idea at that stage that the shop floor had been occupied by a 100 or so ‘Uncut’ afficianados.  No police were present at that stage, as far as I could see, although there were a couple of vans parked close by.

But here’s the thing.

All the dull, middle-aged/elderly Lancashire trade unionists I was with roared their approval, waved their placards, and surged – in a midly arthritic way – towards what they thought might be a better vantage point. 

Only I, caught up with this whole blog-driven peaceful protest/direct action dichotomy thing, hung back, wondering for a second what my hitherto staid comrades – for whom the height of excitement on other Saturdays might be a SECOND pint down the Labour club before going home to Match of the Day – were up to. 

What were they up to? 

Well, just for a minute, before they realised time was marching on faster than the march was marching, and that we could do with getting the tube from Green Park if we were to squeeze in the real ale incident before the coach picked us up…. just for a minute, my comrades were well up for it.

On the coach on the way home, before people started to drop off, the coach was alive with jokes about Fortnum and Mason.  I was the only one on the coach with twitter, and they really liked the one about ‘15,000 worth of damage in F&M – a jar of olives has been knocked over.’

And that is the thing.  

There was no drama, no police involved, no calls to the wives and husbands to say that the kettle jokes we’d made at 5am the same morning weren’t just a joke anymore. 

Even so, I think this tiny little incident, replicated amongst many small groups like ours as the crowd turned and moved to the day’s high point of excitement, problematises the growing orthodoxy that people can be split neatly into two groups – the peaceful protestors and the others.

Inconvenient though it may be to the mainstream narrative, ‘peaceful’ protestors who are also ‘angry’ at the cuts may not always compartmentalise their peacefulness and anger as they are instructed.

Later on, when I’ve earned a living, I’ll carry through that problematisation, with special reference to Hannah Arendt. 

Obviously.

In the meantime, the most coherent intellectual analysis of the peaceful  protester/the others dichotomy narrative is at Paul Sagar’s Bad Consicience, which I’ll be drawing on.

Categories: Sectariana, Socialism
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