Trickle Down

This is not, of course a new idea; even in Thatcher’s and Reagan’s time. Reading some of the rationales offered for it after Kwasi Kwarteng’s recent non-budget, reminded me of a lecture I gave to my university History students fifty years ago, which sought to explain how the theory was presented to the British people two hundred years ago.

By ‘people’ I mean the working classes of Britain, who were assumed to be mere children in these matters; which explains the patronizing style of the little story I’m about to retail. Some of this neo-liberal propaganda came in the form of simple tales like this, for the plebs. They were distributed among peasants and factory-workers free, tucked into the baskets of food and religious literature – the equivalent of today’s food banks – that were taken round to their hovels by charitable middle-class women. One, printed in 1817, was entitled Village Politics, Addressed to all the Mechanics, Journeymen, and Labourers, in Great Britain, by Will Chip, a Country Carpenter. In that case ‘Will Chip’ was a lie from the start; its real author was one Hannah More, a prolific and very middle-class religious propagandist, who probably wouldn’t have known one end of a chisel from the other if it had been stuck in her hand. Another was by a woman called Mrs Jane Marcet; from whose sizeable literary oeuvre this little story from 1833 comes.

It goes like this. John Hopkins, a poor labourer with a large family, starts getting bolshie ideas. Here I am, he says, half starving, while my landlord rides about in a rich carriage; isn’t it the rich who, by their extravagance, deprive us poor working people of bread? So he persuades a fairy – who happens to be nearby – to wave her magic wand and abolish all luxuries. When John gets home, however, he gets a nasty shock. Firstly, all his luxuries have disappeared: his pipe, his snuff, and so on. What is worse, and more telling, he finds all his friends and relatives thrown out of work: the nearby silk factory has had to close down, all the fine carriages have been have been turned into wagons, carts and ploughs, so carriage-makers are unemployed, and cartwrights as well, because there are now more carts than are needed. And John himself is dismissed from his job as a farm labourer, because his landlord’s farm is now too big for his new non-luxurious style of living, so he is going to let most of it go uncultivated. ‘I am now living on the produce of less than half of my estate’, he explains, ‘so why take the trouble to cultivate more, as there are no luxuries to purchase?’

In despair, John gets the fairy to change everything back to the way it was before. ‘Immediately’ – the story goes on – ‘the stately mansion rose from the lowly cottage; the heavy teams began to prance and snort… but most of all was it delightful to see the turned-off workmen running to their looms and their spindles; the young girls and old women enchanted to regain possession of their lost lace-cushions, on which they depended for a livelihood, and everything offering a prospect of wealth and happiness…’

‘John’, concludes Mrs Marcet, ‘grew wise by this lesson; and whenever anyone complained of the hardness of the times, and laid it to the score of the rich, took it upon himself to prove that the poor were gainers, not losers, by luxuries… “Why then,” he said, “after all, the rich and the poor have but one and the same interest – that is very strange! I had always thought they had been as wide apart as the east is from the west! But now I am convinced that the comforts of the poor are derived from the riches of the rich!”’ End of story.

That is surely ‘trickle down’ in essence. It goes way back, as a means of justifying inequality, in the interests – of course – of the rich. It’s interesting to see it returning so blatantly today, under Truss and Kwarteng, and after it has been so thoroughly discredited by most economists. When I delivered that lecture in 1969, we – I and my students – all assumed it was just history, inconceivable in that more enlightened, social democratic age. But you never can tell, in the present deeply reactionary times.

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The Swedish Election

I timed my return to the UK to be able to vote in my first national Swedish election since becoming a citizen. I did that yesterday. As yet we can’t be certain of the result, but it looks as though the red-green alliance will be pipped to the post by the blue-brown one (Conservative through to extreme Right), which might have the effect of negating my whole reason (apart from love) for embracing Swedish nationality. The Sweden Democrats (SD) will be the largest party on that side of the fence, although they won’t want to claim the Prime Ministership – too much responsibility, as I understand. But they are bound to profoundly influence the policies of any new right-of-centre government, in a racist direction. (The party’s origins were Fascist.) So it’s gloom all around for those of us on the Swedish Left.

Well, I thought, at least I’m still a ‘dual’ Brit, and so can choose to get away from a racist Sweden if I want. That option isn’t open to poor Kajsa. – But wait. Frying pans and fires come to mind…

Not all the votes here have been counted. There still remain the postal and ‘overseas’ ones. Kajsa thinks they’re more likely to be conservative – whatever that means in a Swedish context. (If they’re literally ‘conservative’ they should be wanting to ‘conserve’ Sweden’s Social Democratic tradition, surely.) As well as that, the Centre-Right coalition might fall apart over the issue of whether the SDs should be given any government posts, which the Liberal faction is likely to resist. We won’t know any of this until the middle of the week. By which time I’ll be back in King Charles’s konungarike, and just as unhappy, under statsminister Truss.

Now off to Arlanda to catch my plane…   

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The Queen and I

‘Britain is the great country it is today because of her’ – Liz Truss. No it isn’t: neither ‘great’ – however you like to define that – nor ‘because of her’. (She’s never had that kind of influence.)

Why does Truss feel she needs to spout such tripe? Is it to make Brits feel better about themselves and their corrupt and benighted homeland? Is it all part of a strategy to help national recovery through ‘positive thinking’? – Boris was full of this, of course, and of virtually nothing else in his brief (but still too long) tenure at No.10. The dangers in it are obvious: firstly complacency, neglecting what needs to be done in a practical way to improve things; secondly attracting ridicule abroad, quite justifiably (you should hear some of my Swedish friends); and thirdly – and most absurdly and dangerously – condemning doubters as ‘traitors’, for ‘under-selling’ Britain in the world. I can almost hear the ‘patriotic’ Tories assembling their firing squads.

I rather liked Queenie. She was stable and sensible, and quite like one’s ideal Mum. I liked her more when it was rumoured that she got on well with Harold Wilson and black Commonwealth leaders, and hated Thatcher as much as I did. I especially admired her restraint, never revealing – except through rumours – her opinions on anything controversial, although she must have had them. (If his previous history is anything to go by, our new King Charles won’t be nearly so disciplined.) She bore the most insufferable of her duties – like being polite to some dreadful world leaders – stoically, which was all that was demanded of her. Of course she had the advantage of living in enormous luxury, with half a dozen castles to choose from, a royal yacht at one time, a whole stable of horses, lots of cuddly doggies, and an army of retainers to administer to her every whim; but none of that would have compensated for having to talk with Thatcher every week or so, and to be nice to Donald Trump. I reckon that if you have to have a ‘constitutional monarch’ in this day and age, Elizabeth II was a pretty good model for it. She’s also a fair argument against having an elected Head of State; which in Britain’s case might land you with a TV personality as your President. Imagine: someone like Boris Johnson, for life.

Sweden’s royal family comes close to that model, with the added advantage – an important one – of not having so many hangers-on. That would be my ideal for Britain: a drastically scaled-down Royal Family, living in just one little castle, with a sommarhus in Scotland – well away from the English – for a holiday home. Our late Queen might have liked that better.

I met her twice, both embarrassingly. On the first occasion she was visiting my school to mark its 400th anniversary (actually that ‘400’ was a bit of a cheat: there had been a long interregnum in the 19th century), and I was in a CCF ‘Guard of Honour’, lining her route as she drove away. (I tried to get out of it by being as scruffy as I could – I hated the khaki uniform – but was tidied up and placed in line.) I don’t think she spoke to me, mercifully. Imagine my horror, however, when I saw a woman break through the cordon to the royal car in order to curtsy to her; and realised it was my royalist mother. Of course I tried to keep it from my friends. But it soon got out, to my schoolboy shame thereafter.

On the second occasion, I actually talked with her. It was at a big shindig in – I think – Stationer’s Hall, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the (British) Historical Association, which she was ‘patron’ of. I’d given a public lecture in connexion with that. (All the lectures were published soon afterwards, in a book edited by Donald Read.) She reached my little group later than scheduled, by which time I’d quaffed nine or ten glasses of dry sherry. I didn’t think it would matter, because all royals are inbred and stupid, aren’t they? So whatever I said she wouldn’t take in. She asked me a question – I think it was about Anglo-American relations – and I answered it in a simple form I thought she would understand. So I wasn’t prepared for her very intelligent follow-up question; which put me into full – semi-drunken – lecturer mode. I thought at the time that it went down well; but the photos taken of the event showed her looking as bored as sin. But it taught me a lesson. Don’t underestimate Queenie, just because she’s a royal. That was arrogant of me.

So, that’s my personal reminiscence, on the occasion of what I’m led to believe is a sad death (but she was 96), and the end of an era: except that in modern times ‘eras’ can’t be marked by monarchs’ lives. If they could, then Elizabeth II’s will probably be seen as an era of national decline, and not at all as Liz Truss presents it. (Isn’t it interesting, incidentally, that Truss was the last politician the Queen met, just a few hours before being taken ill?)

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The Civilizing Mission

I suppose it could be regarded as proof of the success of the ‘civilizing mission’ aspect of British imperialism that so many of Britain’s ex-subjects and their progeny have become so civilised as to have risen, in the space of just one generation, to the very top of Britain’s ruling hierarchy, without their ‘race’ standing in their way. Mind you, they had to leave their ex-colonies to do it; but that too could be counted to the credit of Britain’s liberal – and Empire-inspired – immigration laws for ‘Commonwealth’ citizens, before the more restrictive Immigrant Acts of 1962 and 1968 came along. ‘Civis Britannicus sum’ (Palmerston) was one of liberal imperialism’s proudest boasts, and what enabled so many British West Indians and others to make their homes in the ‘mother country’, contributing vitally to its economy and society; from Empire Windrush on.

My correspondent Tony (above: https://bernardjporter.com/2022/09/07/diminishing-returns-2/#comments) draws attention to the hard-Right political orientation of those of them who feature in Truss’s cabinet, as they did in Johnson’s; which might seem surprising to those who would presume that ex-colonial subjects (albeit at one remove) wouldn’t want to be associated with their former oppressors’ favourite party. (Kwasi Kwarteng’s book, my review of which I can’t find just now, is pretty critical of old Tory imperialism.) There are reasons for this. One may be a need for ‘outsiders’ to appear as ‘British’ as possible, in order to be accepted; and how much more British can you get than to be a Right-wing Tory? Female politicians might feel that something similar is required in order to be accepted by Tory male chauvinists; hence Thatcher’s very ballsy demeanour and policies. (And Priti Patel’s, of course.) Another factor might be that to be an immigrant – to flee from your country, in the face of great obstacles – you need to be enterprising and ‘aspiring’, which naturally inclines you (and your children) towards the most entrepreneurial and aspirational political Party in the country, which is generally taken to be the Tories. It also helps to be rich, which has almost never been subject to a colour bar, and which most of the leading ‘ethnic minority’ Conservative MPs are. It’s this that has smoothed their path to the top. Not many poor Indians or Africans have been able to make the same journey. They’re generally to be found in the Labour Party, if anywhere in politics.

And of course there are plenty of them on that side of the political divide. It is certainly not true to say that ethnic minorities, as a whole, are more likely to be Tory than Labour. Probably their political affiliations pretty accurately reflect those of the broader communities they’re part of; and especially their economic statuses (stati?). The Tories have Rishi Sunak; Labour has David Lammy. It’s what you would expect, if all of them were as white as snow.

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Diminishing Returns

It’s good to see the backs of the evilest member of the government, Home Secretary Priti Patel, and of the most ridiculous, Culture(!) Secretary Nadine Dorries. Also I suppose we should welcome the diverse gender and ethnic make-up of Truss’s new cabinet, with none of the top four members of it – as has been widely noted – being a ‘white male’. On the other hand one of those four, Kwasi Kwarteng, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, was educated at Eton and Cambridge, which will have washed some of the brownness out of him (incidentally, I reviewed a book of his, which wasn’t at all bad); and in any case Tories have never been universally racist, at least at the top of the party – they once had a Jewish prime minister, after all – and usually accepted ‘civilized’ natives, which is clearly how Kwasi, Braverman and Cleverly can be seen. ‘Class’ often trumped ‘race’ in the upper-class imperialists’ mindset. In other words, they were more often ‘classist’ than ‘racist’. (See David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, 2001.) So we shouldn’t be too surprised by Truss’s choice of her senior lieutenants, or particularly reassured.

For what seems to characterise this government more than its racial or its class biases is its members’ common ideological identity, which is to the Right of the presently-understood political spectrum, which ranges from State-interventionist on the Left to ‘neo-liberalism’ (or anarcho-capitalism) at the other extreme. Truss’s replies to her first Prime Minister’s questions today made this crystal clear: that she was against taxing the rich in order to help the poor in the present economic crisis, for example, because that would hinder the investment and enterprise which alone would enable the economy to grow: with, she implied, its benefits ‘trickling down’ more beneficially than ‘State hand-outs’ could ever effect. That of course has been a main Tory mantra for decades now; temporarily abandoned when Keynesianism was all the rage, but then revived under Thatcher, and still going strong – or even stronger – on the Right.

But not, surely, among ‘ordinary’ (and poorer) people. It can’t be a democratic choice for them, but is being imposed from above by a small group of free market ideologues which has seized control of the Conservative party over the years – albeit more gradually and incrementally than the word ‘seize’ may imply. The first stage was Thatcher’s war against the ‘wets’ – the social-Conservatives – in her party; followed some years later by Brexit, which was essentially a victory for the ‘dries’, leading to an exodus of usually social-Conservative Remainers under Johnson; and now by Truss’s excluding from her new cabinet – we think: the process hasn’t been completed yet – of almost any MP who didn’t back her for the premiership, and so by implication any who didn’t share her (and the Tory membership’s) libertarian views. All of which might help explain the poor personal quality of the last couple of cabinets, with prime ministers having to recruit their members from an ever decreasing pool of talent.

Race and gender are important to Conservatives, and class even more so. But it’s economic ideology that trumps them all.

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In Liz We Truss

Oh no we don’t. Or shouldn’t. She’s changed her political principles so often during her undistinguished career – CND, Lib-Dem, anti-monarchy, Conservative, Remainer, Brexiter – that we can’t be sure where she’s going to stand next week, even; although we know where she decided to plant her flag for this Tory leadership election. She’s now a Boris loyalist, and a traditional low-tax Conservative; which are the two positions that won her the 57% of the votes of the tiny constituency of elderly Tory party members who have now – ludicrously – elevated her to the premiership of the United Kingdom. Well, let’s see where that takes us.

Putting to one side the sheer triviality of this whole procedure, it seems clear that there’s a broader and more basic trend behind it: which is the onward – or if you like backward – march of late-stage capitalism or neo-liberalism, which has gripped most of Europe and America since the days of Thatcher and Reagan. Truss wants to reduce the role of the state, reward the rich even further, and strip away workers’ rights. That fits the pattern. If it’s a global trend it must be basically irrespective of individual human volition, which can only be its tools. Which brings us back to the eternal discussion about ‘agency’ and causality in history…. And, I’m afraid, must diminish Liz Truss somewhat.

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The End?

From my favourite American doomster.

https://eand.co/this-winter-collapse-is-coming-to-britain-72ace84ab0b4

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The F-Word

President Biden has just had the courage – or perhaps the political nous – to call out America’s radical right-wingers for what they are: ‘semi-fascists’. (See https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/08/30/fascism-biden-trump-american-history/.) The f-word has been bandied about for a few years now – back to the start of Trump’s presidency at the latest – but always against the objections of more moderately-inclined people, as well of course as the semi-fascists themselves, that it was grossly unfair: a typical liberal smear, and even a libellous one. I’ve used the word myself, albeit always (I think) with a qualifier, as in Biden’s case: ‘semi-’ for him, ‘proto-’ or ‘neo-’ or ‘quasi-’ for me; and always conscious of the danger that it might mark me as an unhinged Lefty doomster – the equivalent on my side of the political fence of the Rightists who confuse social democracy with ‘communism’.  

Some of this derives from too narrow a view of ‘fascism’: the one that equates it with Nazism, which in fact was only the most extreme version of it. Of course Trump didn’t intend to gas all American Jews, or even Mexicans, or Leftist liberals; but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t be regarded as ‘semi-fascist’ in other ways. Fascism doesn’t have a precise definition, which adds to the confusion; but embraces a variety of attitudes and policies, including anti-democracy (except in the distorted form of ‘populism’), the Führerprinzip (see https://bernardjporter.com/2022/08/25/das-fuhrerprinzip/), anti-liberalism (except in its economic form: i.e. capitalism), anti-alienism, authoritarianism, disciplinarianism, militarism, censorship, irrationalism, anti-intellectualism, exaggerated ‘patriotism’ (usually based on a skewed history: see my latest book), masculinism, a victim mentality, and general hatred. That’s a lot to choose from. A modern semi-fascism could be woven out of any number – ideally a majority – of these. And it could also take on a softer, more cuddly, outer appearance than it did in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Marching up and down in brown shirts behind fasces may be fun for testosterone-filled young men who find comfort in the comradeship it brings them, but is by no means essential to fascism in all its forms. Nor is knowing that you’re a fascist. That only makes you a card-carrying one.

In Britain’s case the signs of incipient fascism – probably of the ‘semi’ and ‘cuddly’ kind – are all around us. Many of them centre around our extraordinary Home Secretary Priti Patel: abolishing Human Rights laws, curtailing the right to protest, planning at one time to prosecute captains of ships for saving refugees from drowning, sending asylum-seekers to rot in Ruanda, and much more, I’m sure, if she continues in the job; but other ministers too (or ex-ministers, soon) are veering almost as close: attacking judges (and hence the rule of law), acting unconstitutionally, mocking expertise (Gove), confusing democracy with populism, labelling opposition as ‘treachery’, and behaving as corruptly as any fascist dictator in the past. And of course they still have the Daily Mail. If Boris had survived – and he may yet emerge from his political grave, as ex-minister Rory Stewart has warned recently (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/aug/29/boris-johnson-wants-to-do-a-berlusconi-back-to-power-says-rory-stewart) – he would be the one to clothe the new regime in its more acceptable – cuddly – dress. (Maybe that’s the reason for the Boris-loving Tories’ backing of Liz Truss as his successor: so that when she turns out to be as hopeless as is widely predicted, people will turn back to him.)

But – and this is the other reason for people’s not taking the possibility of fascism in Britain seriously – it couldn’t happen here, surely? We’re not Germany in the 1930s. – Well, in fact we are in the ’30s in many ways, or might be soon: depression, inflation, an unstable world, various kinds of fascism abroad (Russia, Hungary…), and the new – or newly realised – existential threat of climate catastrophe. As for ‘not being Germany’: what does that imply apart from an assumption of British national superiority – or at least difference – which comes perilously close to the racism that we associate with fascism. How are we different? Culturally we share many of the same characteristics as pre-war Germany, with only cricket and Marmite really setting us apart. We’ve boasted of our liberalism, peacefulness and moderation in the past; but none of these differences stands up to much scrutiny when we take our imperial history (and Anglo-Ireland’s) into consideration; and all these qualities exerted almost as powerful a hold in pre-‘30s Germany (especially in the Rhineland) as in modern Britain. In fact there are as many precedents for ‘fascism’ in our national history as there were in Germany’s. So, if it isn’t our culture or history that separates us and makes Britain immune to fascism, it can only come down to our ‘race’ (or ‘races’, more accurately, if ‘race’ means anything). That incidentally is what Churchill thought.

But as well as being intrinsically racist, this is clearly not something we can rely on to preserve us from fascism (or semi-fascism) in the future. If you doubt how close we may be to it, look at some of the comments on social media these days, especially the illiterate ones; usually by young men, but some from women. (That I have to admit has surprised me, as a somewhat naïve and idealistic feminist. But Priti should have cured me of that.)

In any case, warning of incipient fascism in Britain or America is emphatically not being alarmist. The only way to prevent it – semi-fascism turning into echt fascism – is to be alive to the semi signs of it before it becomes echt. Joe Biden, take a bow.

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Swedish Energy

I don’t understand. I’ve had it explained to me two or three times, and I still don’t get it. Moreover, I rather suspect that those who have explained it to me don’t really get it either. Or is it just my deteriorating brain, in my old age?

The problem is this. Sweden is self-sufficient in energy, nearly all of it coming from renewable sources, situated in the country itself: wind, water, biofuels (those bumps on the tops of our buses), solar, plus some nuclear (not much). Sweden for long has been a world leader when it comes to ecologically-friendly sources of power. We don’t rely on Russian or any foreign sources at all. So we should be able to control our energy costs, surely, in a way that our neighbours apparently can’t. Yet our electricity bills are about to go soaring, too, albeit hopefully not quite as high as elsewhere. Why?

The answers I’ve had given to me include nuclear decommissioning (for environmental reasons), less wind blowing (!), profiteering, and a number of others; but mainly the fact that we are exporters of energy to countries like Germany and Poland, and so have to be bound by their pricing systems. That’s what I don’t understand. Why should we need to pay what they have to pay, when they have supply problems which we don’t?

The Vänster (Left) party is I think the only one in the forthcoming General Election (11 September) which has latched on to this, and is advocating pricing Sweden’s energy with reference to the Swedish supply-and-demand situation alone. That is being painted as over-nationalistic and uncommunitarian. Is this fair? Or have I misunderstood the whole thing? (Which is likely, I have to say.)

Lastly: isn’t the same true, although to a lesser extent, of the UK? How much gas does Britain get from Russia? Or electricity from France?

Incidentally, I’m following the election here – it will be the first one I can vote in as a citizen – and am impressed by how polite and civilised – boring, if you prefer – the debate is, compared with the British; and also by how competent and reasonable most of the candidates seem to be, again by comparison. (Kajsa thinks I’m flattering them; but then she hasn’t been enmired in British politics these past few years.) The main exception seems to be the Sverigedemokraterna  (SD: very right-wing: think UKIP on akvavit), which has as nasty a line in political invective and lies on social media – not on national telly – as Britain’s wannabe fascists. They’re on 21% just now; Vänsterpartiet (V) is at about 8%; and the Social Democrats (S: equivalent to Labour) on 30%. I’ll be voting V, but hoping that S wins, and takes the Vs into coalition.

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Middling Poor

I thought that on £26,000 a year – it would be £10,000 more but my ex-wife takes half my occupational pension – I was not badly off.  I can’t afford to run a car, but am not allowed to in any case with my poor eyesight; and have virtually no savings. (A new roof saw to that.) I also pay my way here in Sweden, and have to travel back and forth, which costs a bit. So I’m not a rich man. But I have no mortgage, no obligations to children, who all seem nicely set up; and no other debts – financial ones, at least. And I’ve been getting by for years now in reasonable comfort; which in my eyes makes me richer than most: including the class of filthy rich who always seem to want more.

Then yesterday I read that some government minister or other has warned that even those who earn £45,000 a year are now included in the ‘relatively poor’ category of people who will be hard hit by the current and prospective rise in energy prices; which of course will include me. I had no idea that I was so close to – even under – the poverty line. I imagine that to a Conservative minister, with his ministerial salary, expenses, perks and shares, £45,000 must seem like peanuts. But even allowing for that, it’s clear that ‘comfortable’ people like me are going to find the going hard.

Which won’t affect my own political proclivities. But it hopefully might alert other ‘middling’ people to the gross and criminal deficiencies of this Conservative government, whose lying, incompetence, illegalities, corruption, proto-fascist tendencies, and – yes – partying, have all failed to provoke much of a backlash. For the middle classes, protest generally starts in the pocket.

Hopefully those £45,000 people might also think back further than this present Conservative government, to the days of Thatcher, whose neo-liberal revolution started all this mess off. Which doesn’t look good for Liz Truss, who in the current Tory leadership contest is explicitly positioning herself as the neo-Thatcherite anti-tax and anti-state ‘handout’ candidate. Even ‘middling’ Tories might resile against that, when their energy bills (like mine) start coming in.

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