Is Social Democracy Dying? – Part 1

Rob Ford, a belligerent right-wing serial liar with a proclivity for infantile temper tantrums and drunkenness, was elected mayor of Toronto this past week. Handily. This was after seven years of competent and scandal-free leadership by an NDP mayor, David Miller.

The man Miller endorsed to replace him was a long-time NDP councilor renowned for his decency and sterling public service. He got creamed, however, with barely 12% of the vote. Ford, on the other hand, ran on a platform calling for “ending the gravy train” and downsizing and privatizing services, tapping into a vein of inchoate suburban anger over hard times and high taxes.

The results in Toronto seem to point to a broader trend. At the moment, there are only two NDP provincial governments in power. Federally, the NDP is hovering at a mere 19% in the polls, while Harper’s reactionary and authoritarian government is up to 37% and within striking distance of a majority come the next election.

In the U.S., the Republicans, who have become even more conservative than ever with the emergence of the proto-fascist Tea Party movement, is about to retake the Congress and possibly the Senate this week.

Abroad, social democratic parties are in trouble too. In the UK, the much loathed Labour Party was pushed from power this summer, replaced by a Tory coalition government that announced the most drastic public sector cuts seen in a generation, possibly chopping half a million state jobs. In France, Italy and Germany, social democratic parties are out of power. In Spain and Greece, the social democratic parties holding office are dealing with severe economic problems (20% unemployment in Spain) and crippling government deficits, leading to huge cuts in public services.

There are bright spots, of course. Economies with a strong social democratic foundations – the Scandinavian countries, Germany, Holland and Brazil – have been doing well or weathering the recession better than most.

Still, in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, one has to wonder why social democratic parties are not faring better? After all, one would think voters and workers would be flocking to embrace their kinder, gentler Keynesian policies. Instead, they are floundering. Begging the question: Is social democracy expiring?

In many respects, I would argue that social democracy has been in trouble for quite some time. And the Great Recession has exposed the shortcomings to these parties’ approach to economics.

And the reason is simple: social democratic parties have become parties of capitalism like every other mainstream party out there. They no longer even pretend to be socialist anymore. They simply claim to be better managers of capitalist economies. And so, at a time when capitalism isn’t actually functioning very well, and is becoming increasingly inhumane, social democratic parties have found themselves in a quandry. Do they really hold the solutions to the economic woes we face? Voters, meanwhile, are responding to simplistic platforms offered up by conservative parties to lower taxes and blame minorities for the economic challenges upon us.

It’s worth examining how this has come about. Prior to 1916, the Second International was made up of a socialist and labour parties that were largely inspired by Marxism and the belief that capitalism had to be replaced by a worker-owned and controlled economies. What ultimately split this movement was the ideological differences between the revolutionaries and the reformists over the road to socialism.

The revolutionaries, which formed themselves into communist parties, believed in the violent overthrow of the state and replacing market economies with planned economies.

The reformists, which formed social democratic parties, saw the route to power through the ballot box and introducing legislative reforms that would empower workers through trade unionism, progressive tax systems and pro-worker labour laws and social programs. The market and capitalism could, in effect, be managed and periodic economic crises be smoothed over.

And what was the outcome of these differing approaches? The communist-led governments had some success in leading largely agrarian, peasant-based economies into industrialization, albeit usually at a catastrophic cost, and creating moderately modern economies. However, these were economies beset by shortages, poor planning, waste and inefficiencies. Their experience revealed that it’s just about impossible to plan something as complicated as an economy from a centralized bureaucracy, and that a limited free market has its benefits (Lenin’s NEP as an example). By the mid-‘70s, the Soviet Union’s economy, for example, began to stagnate and go into decline (a good book on the subject is “Russia’s path from Gorbachev to Putin: the demise of the Soviet system and the new Russia” by David Michael Kotz and Fred Weir).

By the 1990s, most of the communist systems had collapsed and capitalism been embraced.

Social democratic parties had much better success. Although, to be fair, they were usually elected in countries well industrialized and with strong trade union movements. But Scandinavia and other Western European countries enjoyed some of the highest standards of living in the world with some of the most generous social programs – and still do.

Nevertheless, by the 1990s, even social democratic parties were struggling. The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the rise of neo-liberalism conspired to create a crisis for social democracy. One that is now manifesting itself like never before. And largely because capitalism and the corporate elites no longer need social democratic parties.

Next: Why the demise of Social Democracy


  • I think it so called communist government failed because of their lack of democracy and since democracy is the central tenant of socialism, I think it would be wrong to label them as socialist.

    I don’t think the social democratic parties would become more popular if they became less pro capitalist. The problem is that most people can’t conceive of an alternative to capitalism because they have never been taught about anything else.

  • You might want to tone down the first paragraph…just saying from experience.

  • It is not just social democracy, I would start to put liberal democracy in that camp as well.

    However, there is something very nasty goin on right now as many in the progressive movement know. With the collapse of financial capitalism, you will se an all out attck by these interests to keep any notion of social or even liberal out of power. With the collapse of finance capitalism, it is but mere politics that is keeping the likes of Goldman Sachs, or as some call them government Sachs.

    It is a very serious threat to democracy itself. It is not coincidence in the states that the corporate spending limits for contributions to political campaigns was lifted by the republican based judicial system in the USA.

    The financiers have somehow prevented Obama from reforming the power of Wall street to any disabling degree. (I assume be use he was convinced that productive capitalism is dead in the USA, or at least that is how the story goes.)

    The thesis out there right now i would say, is will these finance capitalists that are ruling the world now be able to contain the runaway damage caused by the financial meltdown. The short term is to control the politics until they rebuild the economics (hence the tea party) that over the past 20 years allowed them to help consume the working classes with the credit induced
    appropriation of dissent.

  • That is a great point Paul. In my thesis I argued that the neoliberal turn was equally evident in the reform wing of liberalism. You can see this on a number of levels.

    Perhaps at the most abstract philosophical level there was a subtle shift from viewing capitalist markets as an instrument of human development to the development of capitalist markets as being the measure of human development. This is the ontological basis supply-side thought.

    But you can also see it in more mundane, although equally abstract, matters of liberal economic theory with New-Keynesians all but disavowing Keynes save for “in a liquidity trap.” That is why it both so fun and sad to watch Krugman winge almost daily on his blog. He and his fellow New-Keynesians thought they had just made some tactical capitulations back in the eighties and nineties when in fact, taken together, those tactical manoeuvres amounted to a surrender.

    Careerism will do that to you. You can only give up so much discursive ground before you have in fact changed your fundamental position.

  • David Miller pushed through a property tax reform that lowered commercial taxes while raising residential. So homeowners saw their taxes rise with no corresponding increase in services. Nor, because of the recession, did they see the jobs the commercial tax cut was supposed to create. Throw in Miller’s poor handling of last year’s garbage strike, and you have nearly ideal conditions for a right-wing anti-tax candidate.

  • call me paranoid, but think about this- the US has based and increasingly large amount of profitability and hence wealth generating capacity on financial capitalism, (see D. Harvey in his latest book for a good overview) then sadly even those elected like Obama, have no choice but to let democratic liberalism die and prevent social democracy from taking root- as the power structure generated by the financial wealth generating capacity of the casino capitalism is all that really holding the USA atop the world stage, (and potentially military, but you need the cash to support that military- just in case you want to argue with me on that point.

    So unless Obama under a liberal or social democracy can somehow transform the US into a new found capacity for wealth generation in a short span- than really what choice to they have but to capitulate to the financiers. And the financiers show no inclination for a social compromise similar to the new dealers- so I just do not see how liberal or social democracy will survive. (okay I am mainly talking about the US, but you can throw into the mix many mature developed economies, as the heart of wealth generation seems to have been transformed to this finance capitalism over the past many years away from traditional mass production wealth generation of the post-war period).

    (yes there is a bit of knowledge economy wealth generation, but not enough to keep the kind of wealth (profits) to the required levels.) ) Using basic game theory- you can see why this all developed, as one nation deregulated capital and finanical controls, it basically let the genie out of the bottle, so unless others followed, you faced serious risk of being left behind in the new paradigm of wealth generation. Sadly such destructive investment of the social surplus cannot circulate forever, as it is destructive and feeds upon itself eventually, as the last bubble (and I would say most destructive bubble) blew apart the last economic means to control the worker dissent(through massive credit creation to the working class)

    So it only leaves the political terrain.

    Okay sorry I went a bit circular there.

  • I agree with Travis: “You might want to tone down the first paragraph” to avoid the argument getting derailed by a Miller vs. Ford thing.

    On the other hand, Travis also wrote: “You can only give up so much discursive ground before you have in fact changed your fundamental position.” At some point, we’re going to have to drop the “proto-” from “proto-fascists,” even in polite conversation.

    Waiting for Part Two. 🙂

  • Excellent. People can’t believe in social democracy when not even social democratic parties believe in it.

    We have to be proudly socialist, point to the obvious flaws of capitalism, and help people make the connections that will allow them to take control of their lives once again.

  • first of all, you can can hardly say that capitalism was whole-heartedly ’embraced’ at least by the majority of the non-elite of formerly communist countries. perhaps ‘braced’ is what you meant to say.

    a 1991 study by an american polling organization, times mirror center for the people and the press, found that, of the inhabitants of russian and other european countries:

    10% approved of socialist society such as it had theretofore existed;
    36% wanted a more democratic form of socialism;
    23% wanted a more swedish-style capitalist social democracy;
    and only 17% desired u.s. or german-style free-market capitalism.

    what they got, however was none of the above, but round after round of brutal economic shock therapy instituted by the ‘washington concensus’ that completely devastated their industrial output and standards of living. czechoslovakia, for example, suffered a 22% falloff in industrial output in 1991 and a rise in unemployment from 2% to 8.5%, with inflation rising to 58%!

    modern social democracy is just an alternative approach to the distribution of the wealth generated by global production, and as such is nothing but capitalism’s good conscience. it is just as dependent on capitalist production as the ‘free-market’ is and so it can no longer be sustained in the wake of ever-declining rates of profit. what we’re witnessing now is the beginning of a grim process of different classes struggling to obtain bigger slices for themselves out of a shrinking pie.

    on the bright side, what i see operating beneath the surface of the recent shifts in power in north america, is a subconscious revolutionary drive to exacerbate the contradictions of capitalism by installing incompetent leaders in order to force a political crisis that will compel us to fundamentally reorganize our society. the whole presupposition that people just want to get things back to ‘normal’ is, at this point, demonstrably misguided.

  • Why are you attacking Ford with such viciousness? Are you the example of virtue to set the bar? The tax payers were not looking for divinity – as were you – we were looking for someone to stop the looting and plundering! Here is a man who, for ten years, did not plunder the taxpayers. Instead – he came to their aid when no one else would help. He has a true appreciation of how hard the average person has to work to earn his money. The private sector has been raped and pillaged by those who work in the public sector. To wit: one councillor charged his vacation to Jamaica to the taxpayers, hotels, dining and limos and mileage charges as though we were his personal bank account. Read all the expenses filed by the councillors for the past three years. Sit down and read all the figures that Ford posted on line. They never thought it would come to light. If you would read their expenses – how can you possibly attack Ford the way you do.

    In April, council took a 5% decrease in their expense accounts, reducing it from $53,000 to $50,000 to try and placate Ford. He threatened to reduce it to $30,000. Here is a man who – just by his mere threat of reduction – had council making a reduction. And he wasn’t even mayor!

    Perhaps the reason he made few friends on council is because he saw what they were doing – and it angered him. Since he has shed light on their nonsense – they will have to clean up their act.

    Read through the history on the “motions passed” at council. Take a look at the councillor who shook down a construction company for $109,000 before he would give site approval.

    Is that the way the city is suppose to be run? I think not! You say there was never any scandals with Miller. Did you forget the $3,000,000 he wanted to spend to renovate his office?

    As a taxpayer – I am fed up with city council and their nonsense and Rob Ford is exactly what is needed to clean up the waste!

  • My only comment on Ford was that he does not have much of an economic policy (other than cutting taxes).

    Rob Silver, my old university-debate associate, made the case a month before the municipal vote that Ford was winning because he was the only major candidate with a clear message. So, Ford’s victory may reflect a better campaign more than any broader political trend. However, I think Bruce is contending that the failure of social democratic parties to articulate a clear message about the economic crisis is a broader political trend.

  • Ford to me represented the Tea party leakage across the border. We in Ottawa already had our day with a similar Mayor- her thrashed around at the beginning like a bull waiting to get into the china shop, but realized when he got in there, that all as not made of such breakable material, and never could seem to find his way through the door.

    O’Brien was kicked after 4 years of some pain for Ottawa citizens- however it was not as bad as we all expected- although I did not have to take a bus for the last couple years to work, and I was not a bus driver, and a few other issues that he totally fumbled.

    Bottomline- municipal politics have been quite recharged and if Ford does manage to tear through some of the social fabric, it may be enough to actually launch a huge progressive movement for the next election. Voters will Live and Learn- sadly it comes with a real cost.

  • I was in Ottawa for part of the O’Brien administration, but got out of Toronto before Ford’s victory.

  • A clear message:

    “We will nationalize the economy and turn control over to workers!”

    repeated over and over.

    It might even work better then Ford’s message because it can answer a pretty wide variety of questions.

  • Darwin wrote:

    “It might even work better then Ford’s message because it can answer a pretty wide variety of questions.”

    Yes and beg a pretty wide variety of questions at the same time.

    As to Ford on taxes. He said repeatedly that he was going to cut the land transfer tax. If he does it will blow a nice sized hole in municipal finances while being almost entirely transferred to banks via increased speculation leading to higher house prices in Toronto and thus higher mortgages. Yep, Go Ford Go.

  • The basic problem of “social democracy” in the sense used to describe various European political parties advocating basically a mixed economy with some government management, is that ultimately for capitalists there is no such thing as “enough”.
    It’s fine for social democrats to say “The economy works well mixed, with some constraints on capital and some redistribution”. They may even be right. But it doesn’t matter, because capital doesn’t like being constrained. And indeed, the fundamental underpinnings of capitalism at the theoretical level are based on this idea: Homo economicus, the motivation construct on which mainstream economics is based, says that people will always want more. Now most people may not be like that–but the very rich, who have inherited money and set about turning it into more money, do seem to be like that. The game of wealth is about more–more money, more control, more than the other rich people, always more. And that means any constraint and any redistribution downwards, no matter how small, is a threat.
    Capital can be intimidated and browbeaten into co-operation with reforms designed to create prosperity for all for a short time, but eventually they will seek to undermine any such scheme. As they have. And they have the money and the power to do so. As they have. Particularly, they can use ownership of the media and the influence money can grant on the political process and on scholarship to shift society in the directions they wish. As they have.
    Rules and “checks and balances” and so on can slow this process but will inevitably fail. The only way for a reform of the economy to last is if it takes away the money and power of those who wish to undermine it. Social democracy doesn’t do that, and so is inevitably defeated in time.

    It’s really that simple. If your game plan is to stop before winning, and you have an opponent whose game plan is to win, then as soon as you relax from your partial victory you will be defeated. That’s where we’re at.

    More specific to right now, social democratic parties don’t dare say anything relevant that might actually help people significantly because the media is owned by the right wing and would demonize them for any such stance. This disciplining has been a gradual process. In Europe it has prompted the rise of new, more radical parties, although they often seem to replicate this disciplining process as soon as they grow past a certain point.

  • PLG makes a good point. Until social democrats articulate a vision that does not rely on the enthusiastic participation of capital they wont be able to do much even if and when they win. Third Way social democracy is premised on a coalition with capital which is a coalition capital for the most part is not interested. As I see it, one of the structural barriers to social democracy is that neoliberalism involved the trans-nationalization of capital. Or put differently, the relative denationalization of national ruling classes. In places like Canada and the US this has been a dual process of denationaliztion and a (re)regionalization of domestic capital.

    What this means is that social democrats have for the most part been stuck trying to put lipstick on a pig: using a toxic combination of tax cuts, privatizations, and outright bribes to private industry (in the form of location concessions). And this is when they have had the temerity to have an industrial policy at all.

    So a truly modernized social democracy will have to find some way to deal with the fact that by definition nation states and for the most part their populations are fixed in space while capital and thus capitalists are fluid across space.

    There are of course ways to deal with this that do *not* amount to autarky (not that I am against self-sufficiency) but I have little hope that social democrats have the capacity both in terms of imagination and temerity to articulate and then sell such a vision.

    Sitting around the executive table at Glen Clark’s constituency office back in the 90s was a real eye opener. The big electoral strategy was to throw refugees and welfare recipients overboard in-order to placate the middle class electorate. It worked, he would go on to win that election. But to call that a victory for social democrats would be like calling last night’s election in the US a defeat for social democrats.

    As for me I will be watching George Carlin on Youtube until something changes.

  • I hate to say it but Simpson has a good column in the Globe today re why we should not generalize about Ford – there was no generalized shift to the right in the Ontario local elections.

    True the social democratic left is not doing well in advanced industrial countries these days, partly due to lack of verve and imagination, partly due to a failure to develop sound left policies, and partly due to the structural blockages others have commented on. That said, I think there are relatively successful examples out there – notably Brazil.

  • True Andrew,

    Even the apparent right-wing tide in the US amounted to 36% turn-out of the US electorate of which not all voted for the Republicans and of which Frum conceded were largely sub-urban – rural, white and over 50.

    Having said that, the real disappointment is on the left. How the Democrats managed to squander away the ideological opportunity that was the GFC is a mystery. Unless of course if one is totally cynical and thinks they are not really progressive at all. In Europe the social democrats are proving to be part of the problem as well. Most obvious case in point: Papandreou and PASOK.

    And whatever hope I may have about Lula and Brazil, it is going to take a major move in an advanced capitalist country to change the global discourse.

  • So maybe it is just a matter time- those over 50 will soon die or be unable to get their chairs to the voting booth. So maybe there is a bit of hope.

    Oh wait a sec- I am getting up there- potentially I will miss it.

    Seriously though, I have been working with Latin Americans and there truly is something very special developing- if we can just keep the Americans and the criminals (linked undoubtedly on many lev

  • Darn hit send by mistake-

    From running the more successfull attempts at social de

  • Brazil is an interesting case. It’s my opinion that Brazil and Argentina are able to operate as they are, with a policy orientation something like a classic welfare state, because their local capitalists are currently afraid that if they oppose that too hard what they’ll get as a response will be Venezuelan/Bolivian/Ecuadoran style radicalism. The last thing Brazilian capitalists want is for the Movimiento Sin Tierra to link up with disgruntled urban poor and take over.

    In short, they’re running scared, much as US capitalists were after the Depression. But it’s not a stable situation past a decade or two, especially if say Venezuela gets taken down.

    This in turn is why, although Lula and Kirchner/Fernandez never governed hard left as Chavez does, they have consistently backed him up diplomatically. They know they need someone above them on the hit list, and a source of fear to keep their local capital wary.

  • PLG,

    Bang-on. Now we have t-party and nothing similar on the left so to the right we drift. It was so much easier for social democrats and when they could just sacrifice a red or two to remain respectable. Having sacrificed all their billy goats, they then started with their principles and now sadly they are just another flavor of austerity and doom. I would give some examples but the ears have walls (deliberate inversion).

  • The American example does not really fit into a discussion of social democracy. It is the exception, the only Western country without a left party. Though the Democrats are a labour backed party, with important exceptions the American labour movement is more nationalist than social democratic. Has anyone any examples where labour has had influence on important economic issues? Democratic party leaders are Americans first, and the American empire is capitalist by nature.
    The best analysis I have seen of the U.S. election is from the NYT, How Obama Saved Capitalism and Lost the Midterms by TIMOTHY EGAN. It pretty well sums up why the Democrats are not left, even under a progressive Democrat.
    BTW there is also an NYT column by Frank Rich talking about Winner Take All Politics by two poly sci profs, which I wrote about in rabble a few months ago. It is the best account yet of why America has produced so much inequality, showing the political linkages to corporate influence over public policy.

  • wow sorry my cpu crashed in mid post-

    anyway I was basically going to mention some of the positive aspects of South America right now- and I do believe there are some hearty linkages developing amongst these left oriented governments, and there do somewhat mitigate the international aspects that Travis highlighted.

    Personally I am working with an El Salvador group attempting to keep the criminals at bay, and the local wealth families from instigating just the kind of backlash that PLG mentions Brazil is trying to avoid. One would think that after years and years of bloodshed and fighting and finallly the FMLN comes to power under Funes.

    It is such a long road in these countries to get owards social democracy- yet they did it- the issue for me is why when the road way is not littered with such obstacles is it so difficult for advanced countries to avoid tea party movements and other massive right wing movements. Koch brothers no doubt lubricated the tea party- but is it control of the media, religion, relatively less poverty and a few other variables enough to keep social democracy down?

    These are very very serious questions the left must ask it self- economically-socially- environmentally what are the attractions that other political movements bring to the table that seem to form the core of voter sentiment. If under the current failure of the left ot gain much traction- given the economics – it sure is hard for one to conclude that potentially as stated- social democracy is dead in the more advanced economies of the world. BUt I won’t admit to it- there must be a way forward that a project can bring forth a renewal in the left social democratic goals that appeal a whole lot more.

  • Well, speaking as someone whose socialist-ish-ness leans in an Anarchist direction, I think one political problem for the existing left is that it’s too statist. There’s a compelling left story about people taking control of their lives which has a lot more fundamental freedom to it than anything the right has to offer: People’s control of their workplaces, not to mention of their neighbourhoods. One of the core features of all socialism is deep democracy and what I might call deep populism. We have feudalism the moment we walk through the door and draw a paycheck, and the right has nothing to say about that. We have developers deciding for us what our living spaces will be like, and making them suck. The right has nothing to say about that. Issue after issue, our society distances people from decisions and makes them powerless, where the left should be about giving them that power. There is a strong left narrative that says we the people should control what goes on in our lives and in our country, down to the local personal level, in a way that the right cannot offer.

    But that narrative is not something we advance. At the moment, the narrative is that the left offers a little bit (and only a little bit) of economic security, via large distant largely unaccountable institutions, while the right offers freedom via individualism. The marginally left message is not a compelling one. It’s technocratic and alienating. It lacks both serious substance and symbolic, motivational power.
    That’s why Chavez wins and we lose (aside from the fact that he’s simply a very good politician, smart and shrewd and aggressive). His narrative says power to the people: Communal councils, worker control, participatory budgets, cutting out the bureaucrats. Yes, he’s shrinking poverty and giving people a social safety net . . . but again, that’s not what his rhetoric is about. Even when he talks about getting rid of poverty and disease and illiteracy, he makes it about giving people the chance to control their own lives, giving them the opportunity they need to learn what they want to learn, do what they want to do, without being held back by their environment. I might argue that he’s constructing a powerful version of freedom in which people gain freedom through their ability to work together co-operatively, freed from the weakness of being alone at the mercy of social forces.

    We don’t talk about this kind of “protagonistic” socialism. The NDP and similar have a narrative about returning to the welfare state as it always was, with paternalistic bureaucrats as they always were. Excuse me while I die of excitement.

  • Just a friendly word of warning from a magazine editor who really likes this blog. Calling someone a liar in print (and, yes, even online) is the sort of thing that can get one sued for libel (and truth isn’t quite as good a legal defense as one would think).

  • Hey Peter, That is what I said. And the longer the first paragraph stays up the worse. Although I am told libel is really hard to win but really costly to contest. And it is double jeopardy: you loose you pay the other side’s legal fees.

  • “We don’t talk about this kind of “protagonistic” socialism. The NDP and similar have a narrative about returning to the welfare state as it always was, with paternalistic bureaucrats as they always were.”

    Yep bad voodoo. Technocratic idiocy.

  • Hey plg those are some great points, and I do agree with you very much that a renewal is in order.

    As to the first paragraph I think you guys are over reacting, I cannot see Ford following up on such truthful libel, as it just brings forth his past, which I am sure he is trying to desperately get the public to forget.

    A libel suite would just bring the spotlight, especially against Bruce, it would bring huge media. I do think bruce was baiting him.

    Bring on the libel I say.

    Make us a star and ford a fool. Oops the former is already a real it, now about that first one, who else can we say nice things about?????

  • The leaders of the NDP have a vested interest in defending and maintaining the status quo. Their role within capitalism is simply to give the illusion of choice. The problem is that the economic crisis have pulled away the veil. This is happening in all Western countries. Progressives have been so busy fighting among themselves for so long that they have not been able to offer a credible, populist alternative to neo-liberalism. Hence the rise of the far-right Tea Party type-movements. This is not rocket science.

  • I, for one, will not choose to ignore or forget David Miller’s support for the bloody Beijing Olympics. He lost me completely with that. I don’t care, therefore, that he was competent. Intentions are everything. When something occurs that allows us to measure intentions, the rest is easy – for those who have no special interest in the individual or org being looked at.

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