Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Face Mask Panic and Right Wing Whingeing

Wade into the shallows of social media today and you will find the thick mud of bleating and whingeing sucking at your feet. The cause is not the excess death count, now accumulating at well over 65,000 for the UK. Nor the worries about an economy in the toilet and attracting meagre, unfocused help from the government. What has united the right and had a few attention-seeking Tories tearing up their membership cards are masks.

As liberties go, the government's insistence people should wear face masks when entering shops is hardly up there with 90 day detention, or stop and search, or the Windrush scandal - real infringements our freeborn English women and men never find it in themselves to speak out against. These episodes are real tragedies, but our tantruming Tories can only carry on about a farce. The scientific and therefore the public health case for mandatory masking is unavoidable. While it does not prevent a wearer from contracting Coronavirus, it reduces the risk of transmission from someone already suffering with the disease. As we know, up to about half of people who've tested positive experienced no symptoms to speak of. As this is still the case, forcing everyone to wear masks in shops drives down the infection rate even further. This reduces the likelihood of a second, deadlier wave this winter and is a step toward its eradication in the general population. Forget the herd immunity strategy pushed at times by the government. The best way we have beating Covid-19 without a vaccine is preventing its spread, New Zealand-style. And the sooner this happens, the sooner our liberty warriors might enjoy a return to normal life.

Where then is this idiocy coming from? I'm tempted to treat it as attention-seeking grifting from the usual suspects, and it's certainly an important component of the face mask panic. There are audiences and, as we have seen, card carrying Tories gullible enough to soak it all up. But what actual principles are at stake here? Turning to Charlotte Gill over at Conservative Home, it's hard to fathom what the objection is. She notes Britain is more sceptical than other nations about their necessity, but then again Boris Johnson used the same argument to resist the lockdown. We hear Conservatives, northerners, and men are the most sceptical of all. So what? But no, what it comes down to is "having had to sport one in London most days, is that it’s infantilising and a state overreach – to be told to wear them in announcements." Bugger our responsibilities to others, me, me, me is all that matters. Chiming in on the "debate", Desmond Swayne, the pointless member for New Forest previously best known for blacking up for larks, forcefully described the masks as a "monstrous imposition." How pettily pitiful. Instead of throwing a strop, why not simply avoid going to a shop?

If this was one or two Tories and right wing commentators moaning, it could be written off as eccentricity. But it is a whole layer of politicians, opinion formers, Tory members, and others. What the bloody hell is going on? Have they lost their minds? Well, yes. But it is entirely consistent with a current of opinion within the business class, which has its corollary in widespread bloodymindedness. In an age where occasional round-robin letters appear from rich people begging to pay more tax, the flip side of the bourgeois coin is that section of capital concerned solely with its own accumulation and wants to cast off the social bonds that sustain and make it possible. Demanding tax cuts or no tax, evading and fighting regulation and government oversight, campaigning against trade unions and environmental protections, this is the section of capital stripped down to its basic, animalistic impulse. Freedom for it means freedom from obligation to the rest of society, and the freedom to accumulate forever more. It certainly does not mean any freedoms for the proles, who do have an obligation to them, which is why they are always unconcerned about police racism and other abuses of state power.

Unsurprisingly, this outlook is mirrored in the governance of our times. I.e. How we are addressed, expected to behave, and incentivised/dis-incentivised by institutions governing our lives. As self-responsible, self-reliant, and entrepreneurial beings what we have to make our way in the world are our abilities and our wits. As the individual is sovereign and our own fate is in the decisions we make, ultimately it is we who are the highest of authorities. We know what's best for us and our interests, no one else. This is the taproot of the cultural epidemic of bloody-mindedness. Trust in governments and expert knowledge is low not just because these worlds are routinely rocked by self-serving scandals and incompetence, but the cultural logic of neoliberal life. No one is the boss of me. No one can tell me what to do. No one can have knowledge and expertise that overrides my experiences and view of the world. Unsurprisingly we see this manifest itself most starkly on those who consciously embrace what are normally the unstated assumptions of the moment, and these in turn find their home disproportionately among certain layers and age groups.

Pathological selfishness simultaneously has a mass basis and a class basis. It perpetuates indifference and psychopathy, and encourages narcissistic attachments to right wing trifles instead of what's important. Which, right now, is the need to beat a disease that's taken the lives of 700,000 people. The best way to deal with this is not to go out of the way to defend the government's decision - like so many things, it has come late in the day and leaves gaping holes around workplaces and entry into any semi-public building - but public health has to come first, and right now this is best served by heaping opprobrium and contempt on the ranks of the mask-phobic and their enablers in politics and the media.

Monday, 13 July 2020

The Class Politics of Points-Based Immigration

What was the main driver for the vote to leave the European Union? Trading opportunities? An end to European jurisdiction over British courts? Restored fishing rights to our coastal waters? No. It was immigration. Say it three times if you like. Leaflets with Nigel Farage posing in front of columns of refugees, leaflets with lies about Turkish accession to the EU, leaflets highlighting the country's border with Syria. These fell on ground repeatedly ploughed by leagues of column inches and thousands of broadcast hours banging about the dangers of immigration, the crime it brings, the wages it undercuts, its drain on hard-pressed public services, the dissolution of community and dilution of Britishness. The main reason why Brexit is happening is because this went unchallenged by mainstream politicians and so-called opinion formers for decades. And this is what leaving the EU really means to millions of leave voters. Lift up the drawbridge, close the borders, and magically the country will simply become a better place.

The problem the Tories have is how do they deliver the Brexit promise on immigration but without disrupting those labour intensive industries that have come to depend on a ready supply of workers from elsewhere. The Coronavirus crisis provides a solution. Their so-called points-based immigration system begins with the assumption anyone coming here is not to be trusted. Their intent is either to soak up social security and free health care, or to steal jobs and force down wages overall. Imposing a points system eliminates this danger and keeps the undesirables away, while simultaneously keeping the equation of immigration = bad things going as a bogey to frighten the support with as and when it's needed - like at election time.

Under the scheme announced by Priti Patel, once the transition period ends in December anyone wanting to live and work here must cross a 70 point threshold to be accepted in. Points are awarded for job offers over the minimum of £20k, ability to speak English, holding higher qualifications relevant to the position, and starting salary weighing in at £25k plus. In response, Labour pledged to scrutinise the proposals. Congratulations Yvette Cooper for bouncing the leadership into tacitly backing the Tories' racial politics. What caught the headlines was the exclusion of care workers from the health and care visa, which was cobbled together after opposition to surcharges the government planned to level on NHS staff from overseas. As Patel said during her Commons speech, "At a time where an increased number of people across the UK are looking for work, the new points-based system will encourage employers to invest in the domestic UK workforce, rather than simply relying on labour from abroad."

The slump and unemployment crisis allows the Tories to restructure the job market. Always contemptuous of British workers - the conditions attached to social security shows what they think of us - restricting access to the low pay for long hours care sector to prospective employees from outside gives our "spoilt" and "lazy" workers the kick up the arse they need. No longer are care jobs too good for sniffy Brits, no longer is the pay too low. The crisis in social care has been solved by crushing unemployment, not investment and the raising of wages. The same will be true of other sectors too. The so-called "jobs miracle" Dave and Osborne talked up really crammed as many people into as many low paid labour intensive occupations they could. These immigration plans, combined with Rishi Sunak's policy to create even more jobs of the same ilk indicates Boris Johnson is carrying on where his unlamented predecessor left off. Far from protecting British workers, the Tories have no intention of replacing lost jobs like-for-like and are expecting care to take up the employment slack.

Forcing through these changes aren't about to win the Tories the support of British and UK-resident workers moving into the care industry under the lash of economic compulsion. Nor are they designed too. The contempt our ruling class has for its workers is matched by the envy and fear millions of Tory supporters have of the young. Values survey after values survey shows all workers are less likely to be perturbed by immigration than the over 65s - starkly so where the young are concerned. Which is curious when you consider actual working people are, theoretically, competing with overseas workers for jobs and housing. Because something akin to a petit bourgeois consciousness is the default for the bulk of retired people, the twin promises of security and authority - as well as smiting scapegoats and confected agents of chaos - provides the safety feels. It addresses the anxiety underpinning their position in the world by directing it outward, which is then (seemingly) negated by keeping out the foreigners and giving the pampered youngsters a dose of real world medicine. The points-based immigration system is one such political technology for exploiting, solving, and exploiting these fears over and over again. It offers a sense that, perhaps, the clock can be wound back. Or at least the world can be paused.

This presents a problem for Labour so obvious even a right wing backbencher should be able to comprehend it. Accepting the government's position puts the party in a bidding war with the Tories, and it's one Labour can never win. Though, of course, it can alienate core supporters. Defusing immigration as a hot button issue doesn't mean banging on about underfunded border staff or criticising the Tories for not running a tight enough ship, it's refusing the ground chosen by the Tories entirely, challenging the myths, and taking on the scapegoating not from a position of liberal let's-be-nice-to-everyone, but on grounds of solidarity, mutual interest, and opposition to divide and rule. Something approaching class politics, you might say. The chances of Labour breaking with the Tory consensus? Not great.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Understanding University Finances

This from a series of seminars put on by the UCU is designed to help support workers and academic staff understand the finances of their institution. As such, it works well as a basic primer on accountancy and balance sheets for anyone. Well worth watching and many thanks to Amelia Horgan for giving it a push on Twitter.

Friday, 10 July 2020

Why are the Tories Invulnerable?

A double digit lead? For the Tories? How can that be with their awful record, evident incompetence, and reckless intent? Okay, the latest YouGov poll is an outlier, but it shares something in common with all the others: Tories leading, Labour trailing. How then to explain this persistent and immovable lump of support for the Conservatives? What constitutes it and why isn't it eroding? Some brief sense impressions that may be expanded into something longer on another occasion.

1. We're still in a crisis. When we last had a look at polling, the absolutely huge lead the Tories enjoyed was thanks to the birth of a national spirit, of rallying around the government because it was the only institution capable of defending us from Coronavirus. 20,000 care home deaths and one unsackable aide later, there is still a layer of the electorate clinging to the Tories because they're the government. For as long as the crisis persists their faith in Boris Johnson remains. Now is not for sniping and criticising, but for rallying around.

2. Remember Brexit? I do, you do, and so do the millions who voted Tory in 2019 to make sure it gets done. Not even the small matter of a global pandemic changes their desire to see it put to bed. Johnson's continued hard ball/reckless negotiation - today refusing to be part of an EU vaccination programme - plays well to a base for whom Brexit is a repository for fantasies of all kinds. The alternative? Sir Keir might be nice and responsible and have a good suit, but they know he was a primary mover in changing Labour's position from accepting the referendum result to having another crack at it. And so they're not too interested in what he's saying and won't take a look at him until after the Brexit business is finished with and their vote can't be reversed.

3. Good old Rishi Sunak. Workers helped. Businesses helped. If you don't pay close attention - like the majority of the Tory voting coalition, whose view matters askance - you could be forgiven for thinking the Chancellor and Prime Minister have done a good job. Yes, people have fallen through the cracks but you can't help everyone. As long as the carers are caring, the nurses nursing, and the shelves are full there's nothing to worry about. And a new stimulus package and help for young people will see them through the economic slowdown. You'll notice what this has in common: distance. Experiencing the crisis at a remove, and that's because the spine of the Tory coalition are older voters generally and retirees in particular. Provided they abide by social distancing and stay out of harms way, the crisis won't touch them. They're insulated, and despite the odd snippet of Treasury gossip in the FT about doing away with the triple lock, this is how pensioners are going to stay. They're doing alright out of the Tories, they've turned out not to be as bad as everyone says, so why switch?

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Thursday, 9 July 2020

Olive - You're Not Alone

Can't believe we haven't featured this stone cold classic before. Still sounds amazing now.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Permanently Perpetuating Polarisation

"Thanks for the meal deal, but we were promised a new deal." Quite. Still, a feeble response befits a feeble summer statement. Rishi Sunak, sans the boondoggle coffee cup, announced the furlough scheme was winding down this October as planned. But no need for anyone to worry; the economy will be motoring ahead by then thanks to the stimulus and support the government are providing. Hence, the old Tory trick of re-announcing things got another outing in the form of stamp duty cuts, cash for decarbonising the public sector, and more (largely unspecified) infrastructure spending. So far, so March.

The genuinely new stuff was ... interesting. To entice people back to the UK's beleaguered hospitality industry, there are sweeping cuts to VAT on food, refreshments, overnight stays. Everything but booze, all told, and to last for six months. If Coronavirus hasn't gone away by the end of the period (it won't have) this is likely to be extended into the new year. To sweeten the treat, the government are offering 50% discounts on restaurant meals for up to £10. "Eat out to help out" is the dubious-sounding slogan for that one. It might also help bump up those covid-19 infection rates, underlining the decision that for the Tories, class power and economics come first, public health second.

It's jobs where Sunak's scheme is going to get the most attention. On furlough, employers are in line to receive £1,000 for every member of staff who comes off furlough and remains on the payroll come February. At £9bn budgeted for the scheme, even the dogs in the street can see the problems with this. As a job protection measure, it's useless. If an employer thinks laying off staff is going to make "efficiencies" then a thousand quid sweetener will not compensate for the salary saving. What it will do is provide a bung, albeit a fairly paltry one, to bigger business and large organisations planning on bringing back furloughed workers anyway. It might help a few small and medium sized businesses if they are opening up in October, but as retention schemes go it's dismally unambitious.

The Tories' youth employment initiative is even more of a joke. Talking about "good quality jobs" without cracking a smirk, Sunak announced a £2bn fund from which employers receive £1,000 to £2,000 bungs for "trainees", who in turn will have their minimum wage salary paid by the government. The higher payment comes into play if they are taken on for six months. If it sounds like a temporary fix to fiddle the jobless figures it probably is a temporary fix to fiddle the jobless figures. A passing familiarity with past Tory workfare schemes tells you all you need to know. The rest is more money for jobless support, including work coaches to get youngster back into earning. Even now, in the midst of the greatest implosion of the global economy since the 1930s, the Tories still believe it's the wrong approach to job-seeking, not lack of vacancies that causes unemployment.

It doesn't take an eagle eye, or a forensic leader of the opposition to spot there was nothing for renters, nothing for those stuck on social security for the foreseeable, nothing for equipping workers for the future, nothing for underemployment, nothing for social care, and nothing for the mental health epidemic. It's almost as if Sunak's overall concern is keeping the low waged, low skilled, low solidarity, low protections economy on the road. Forging ahead as if Coronavirus doesn't exist, trapping younger workers in the cycle of frustrated career aspirations and denying them their opportunity to get on the housing ladder, doing nothing does do something. It perpetuates political polarisation - something the Tories have, of course, done well out of. So far.

This is their game. Keep cultivating the circumstances holding their coalition together and dish out the stats of people helped by furlough and the so-called "kickstart" scheme when they're criticised. Undercutting this demands a strategy for breaking this base apart. Sadly, there's little sign of this penny dropping yet.

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Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Covid-19, Climate, and War Communism

Yet another excellent interview from the unmissable Politics Theory Other. In this episode, Alex speaks with Andreas Malm about Coronavirus, class, and climate collapse. All the light hearted topics! Here, Andreas argues the reason why lockdowns happened immediately versus the slow burn tardiness of climate change mitigation is because, in the first place, the metropole countries were affected and it was a health crisis the ruling class could not insulate themselves from. I'd certainly agree, but I think he underplays the biopolitical dimension - Western states largely moved before people started voting with their feet and work discipline dissolved. A minor quibble. However, moving on to climate change proper Andreas suggests we need to think of mitigation less in terms of Second World War national efforts and more as so-called War Communism - the emergency measures undertaken following the Russian Revolution to defend Soviet power against counterrevolution and the armies of intervention. In other words, the longer we leave climate change unaddressed the greater the likelihood unprecedented emergency measures will become necessary.

Give it a listen. And don't forget to help Politics Theory Other out via Patreon here.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

The Biopolitics of Herd Immunity

Capitalism is crippled by a crisis that is biopolitical in nature. For once, the contradictions of the system haven't exploded and sent growth rates spiralling southwards. Instead disease - an exogenous shock - attacks the fleshy bodies on which the system depends. No exploitation of labour, no commodities, hence no profits. In the UK, lest we forget, the government were forced into lockdown measures as people voted with their feet. The whip hand of the workplace was disarmed, normal life ground to a halt and the state found itself ministering necessary support for businesses and jobs, and ham-fistedly clamping down on the movement of people. Well, not everyone. Since, they've been chipping away at the lockdown. First, by refusing to insist all non-essential workplaces be closed. The aborted efforts with the schools. The gradual opening of non-essential shops. And now lifting the shutters on pubs and hairdressers before letting the rest of the beauty and hospitality industries resume. The Tories have weighed up the possibility of people contracting, suffering with, and dying from Covid-19 versus getting the wheels of commerce turning again (and their own reading of the politics) and have eased the lockdown further. They want business as usual, and are very happy for others to shoulder the risk.

Taken together then, the Tory effort was at first reluctant, is concerned above all with issues of labour discipline (see the imminent return of benefit sanctions, for example), and is actively massaging the biopolitics away from prioritising the health of bodies toward the health of capital. The latest exhibit in this strategy is the heavily briefed thoughts Rishi Sunak has been having about handing everyone £500. Sounds a bit of alright, doesn't it? When even Thatcherites recognise the importance of putting money into people's pockets, what's not to like? Well, as far as this putative initiative is concerned, plenty.

For starters, it's not filthy lucre. Under the proposed scheme, every adult is to receive a voucher for £500 and children £250, which can be spent in selected outlets - the hospitality industries in all likelihood, but also retailers - and then only face-to-face. Ordering online is ruled out. Having seen similar schemes in Wuhan and Taiwan, might it work here? Well, yes. But you can see the obvious problem. It discriminates against disabled people with mobility problems, others currently shielding thanks to chronic health conditions, and the elderly. They're much less likely to avail themselves of the government's largesse for obvious reasons. Then there are the workers as well. With £500 burning holes in everyone's pockets, not only is social distancing bound to me more difficult to manage, employers are going to pile on the pressure to make sure as many of their staff are on hand as is practicable - forget their concerns about getting stuck inside air conditioned shopping centres, stores, hotels, bars, and leisure facilities, and you can write off the worries about taking infection home. There is money to be made!

The fact this is under active consideration brings our old friend herd immunity back into play. It's all very well saying we can't have lockdown forever, but the sensible view is not to ease off when disease remains in general circulation, has the propensity to mushroom in local flare ups and the small matter of its still killing large numbers. This is where the voucher scheme and other easings off are particularly pernicious: not only do they try and re-establish the normal rhythms of discipline, surveillance, and control by channelling us back into the grooves of work and shopping, but very specifically they are designed to make the reimposition of lockdowns harder. Regardless of what the R rate says, effectively giving people free money and returning them to the shops, the pubs, the salons and the barbers, nudging the population toward something resembling normal life puts pressure on the scope and length of emergency measures where and when they're needed. Clinical need has been put back in its box. Other concerns have taken over. The capitalist normal, the axiom of profit before people, is restored.

As a piece of biopolitical management, it's almost admirable. A masterpiece of biopolitical manipulation, a class act of class politics in which dissenting voices have found themselves entirely crowded out. Not even the official opposition can bring itself to oppose. Which makes it all the more horrifying. At the risk of sounding like a cliche, a second wave is a question of when. Not if.

New Left Media July 2020

It's certainly something of a spring time for new left media at the moment, even if it's summer. I remember there being months when nothing would appear at all - long may this mushrooming of new initiatives continue!

1. Conquest of the Useless (Twitter)

2. Keeping the Lights On

3. Mary Kelly Foy (Twitter)

4. Sheff Socialist (Twitter)

5. The Tartan Socialist

6. Voice Britannia (Twitter)

7. Working Class Academics (Twitter)

If you know of any new(ish) blogs, podcasts, channels, Facebook pages or whatever that haven't featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email, Facebook, or Twitter. Please note I'm looking for blogs etc. that have started within the last 12 months or thereabouts. The new media round up appears hereabouts when there are enough new entrants to justify a post!

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Friday, 3 July 2020

The Weakness of Starmerism

I almost added it as a foot note to the piece about Tory short-termism. Asked about the loosening of lock down measures this weekend and, above all, opening the pubs up again, in line with his stance on schools Keir Starmer supports these too. Speaking to ITV earlier, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds said the same thing and urged people to go out, spend money and otherwise partake. As Labour's leader isn't driven by a whack-a-mole approach to politics nor has to hold together a declining electoral coalition glued together by nationalist delusion, bloody mindedness, and fear, why is Labour going along with a strategy that, to put it mildly, is borderline sociopathic?

There are two things worth recalling here: one is about the everyday aspect of mainstream politics, and another that reaches into the core of Labourism. All politicians look for an easy life, and the easy life is where (they think) most voters are, and the best indicator of this - from within the point of view of bourgeois politics - is what the press say. After all, they sell papers and so have to reflect the opinion of readers out there otherwise no one would buy them, right? Hence there's never been a time when Tory MPs have worried about a Morning Star editorial. Leaving aside their dwindling circulations, politicians want to inhabit what former Brown aide Mike Jacobs called a 'normal operating sphere' of non-punishment. This normally comes into play for governments, but given Keir's studied statesmanly gait he shares a similar concern. Because Corbyn was bad, he has to be good, and this means over-emphasising conventional notions of electability and game playing. And so accepting Tory plans for schools, for pubs, their whole framing of the coronavirus crisis in fact, means Boris Johnson would be hard-pressed to lump Labour in with "the ditherers", therefore shutting down one line of attack that might resonate with the Tory faithful and their new periphery of Brexity vote-lenders. This in turn means Keir can play politics to his strengths, which is contrasting his shovel-ready leadership qualities versus the bumbling incompetence of Johnson.

The second? The tension in Labourism between what is and what might be. Having its origins in a historic alliance between a movement fighting for incremental workplace improvements and privileged professional layers, Labourism was born for the compromises, Byzantine procedures, and plodding constitutionalism of the House of Commons. To channel jolly old Lenin, if trade unionism is the bourgeois politics of the working class, i.e. seeking improvement for their lot within the confines of capitalism, Labourism is its expression writ large. Yet our class, broadly defined as everyone who has to sell their labour power in return for a wage, has a trajectory that tends to negate capitalism. The right to a decent standard of living, a home, freedom from work, a liveable environment, these are fundamentally at odds with a mode of production for whom the bottom line is the bottom line. Profit is the be-all and end-all. This was the case when Labourism was born, and is even more so now.

In the history of Labourism, the tussle between what is and what might be maps on to the eternal struggle of right versus left. The empiricism of appearance, the institutional weight of trade unionism and Labourist thought, not to mention the considerable rewards of office and the flows of money has seen Labour dominated by a concern to adapt to supporters and would-be supporters as they are, and keep them as they are: atomised workers, and therefore atomised voting fodder. What Corbynism represented was an attempt to break out of this straitjacket, hence it had to be destroyed. Contrary to the bullshit you find peddled everywhere, Labour under Corbyn was about building broad coalitions of voters and meeting them where they are, but with a programme that tried transforming them from objects into subjects. Even the Tories these days like to talk about empowerment, but Corbynism actually attempted it. Corbynism, like its Bennite forebear, was a movement from within Labourism that pushed it to its limits, And from there, perhaps a post-capitalist anywhere?

Starmerism, if we can speak of such a thing, is getting that genie back into the bottle. It does so by ostentatiously - not a word one normally associates with Keir Starmer - gripping Tory framing without contesting it, offering weak sauce managerial criticisms where it can muster a word against the government, stamping on anything one might construe as radical or, shudder, socialist, and evacuating anything resembling hope from the Labour Party's platform - something even Tony Blair recognised the importance of and was keen to cultivate. While it pretends itself pragmatic, it is the most dogmatic form of Labourism. It claims to be oriented to the challenges of the present, but wants to forever impose the past on the politics of the future. Sure, the party is improving in the polls. It might win an election on its present course (we'll see), but going by what Keir says and does all we can look forward is the status quo under more competent management. Therefore anyone thinking what we're seeing now is "caution" so Keir, as the new leader, can get a hearing are kidding themselves. What you see now is what we're getting, assuming he continues to get his own way. Coronavirus plus economic crisis plus Brexit equals a perfect storm for political polarisation, and inevitably demands a response equal to the moment. If Keir Starmer isn't forthcoming then his careful project will come to naught.

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