The Principle of Hope in Human Emancipation: On Holloway

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Autor(es): Bonefeld, Werner

Bonefeld, WernerBonefeld, Werner. Profesor en el Departamento de Ciencias Políticas en la Universidad de York (Reino Unido), se desempeñó como profesor en las Universidades de Edimburgo y Frankfurt, y dictó seminarios de posgrado en la Benemérita Universidad de Puebla y en la Universidad de Buenos Aires. Junto a John Holloway, Richard Gunn y Kosmas Psychopedis coeditó los tres volúmenes de Open Marxism (1992-1995), publicados en español por Ediciones Herramienta (2005-2007). Es coautor junto a Holloway de Global capital, National State and the Politics of Money (1995), traducido en varios idiomas incluidos el coreano y el turco. Con Sergio Tischler coeditó What is to be Done? Leninism, anti-Leninist Marxism and the Question of Revolution Roday (2002), publicado en español con el título A 100 años del ¿Qué hacer? (Ediciones Herramienta, 2003) y en coreano (2004). En colaboración con Michael Heinrich, compiló Kapital & Kritik. Nach der ‘neuen’ Marx-Lektüre (Alemania, 2011). Fue editor de Pisma Rewolucyjne (Polonia, 2012) y autor de State, Capital and Class (2012). Escribió numerosos artículos para revistas especializadas como Capital & Class y Herramienta, entre otras. El pensamiento de Bonefeld ha contribuido al desarrollo y el reconocimiento internacional del Marxismo Abierto.


Truth has not harmed anybody, except the messenger

Marxists agree amongst themselves that class struggle is the motor of history. Yet, controversy rages over the question about the social constitution of class struggle - should it be derived from the objective laws of capitalist development, presupposing class as a thing in-itself that requires transformation into a class for-itself with the help of the party? Or is the world of capital divided between an already existing revolutionary subject, now reformulated as the bio-power of the life-world of the multitude, and the capitalist system that, like a machine, seeks - and this ever more unsuccessfully - to contain the multitude within the parameters of capitalist command? The former conception belongs to the history of structuralist approaches that Althusser focused and summarised; the latter to the autonomist tradition that Negri represents in ever more distorted forms.

Holloway"s great achievement is to reject both. His book shows that Althusserian structuralism and Negri"s revolutionary ontology of being belong in fact together as mutually dependent expressions of a perverted world. Both fail to offer a negative critique of this perverted world as both take capital for granted as a thing whose contradictory constitution is internal to itself. For the structuralists, class struggle unfolds within the framework of the capitalist structures and is determined by the objective logic of capitalist laws of development. Class struggle is treated as a derivative of structural development. The dynamic of capitalist development is located in capital itself. Contradiction is seen as internal to capital, and capitalist development is a result of these contradictions that are made manifest in concrete settings by the actions of the acting subjects and classes. It is "within the framework" of the constituted existence [Dasein] of "capital" that class obtains; the framework itself is deemed to exist external to class relations and its force is seen to impose itself "objectively" on the backs of the protagonists whose "actions" reproduce structures. Class struggle, in short, is a structure reproducing struggle and labour is affirmed and thus condemned as structure determined agency.

Autonomist approaches associated with Negri conceive of class struggle as an ongoing struggle by capital to decompose labour"s revolutionary existence. This conception of class struggle is founded on the differentiation between, on the one hand, the objective character of "capital" as a subject and, on the other, the subjective character of class struggle as a subject founded on the ontological constitution and revolutionary being of the multitude. His approach is predicated on the notion of labour"s constitutive self-activity, on the one hand, and, on the other, capital as an objective subject that, with machine-like logic imposes its decomposing command on the ontology of being. The emphasis on "labour"s self-activity" is founded on the "inversion" of the class perspective. This inversion was advocated by Mario Tronti who argued that rather than focusing on capitalist development, the emphasis should be on the struggle of the working class. As he (1965/1979, p. 10) put it, capital uses exploitation as a means of escaping "its de facto subordination to the class of worker-producers". Capital is thus conceived as a subject in its own right: "capital" is construed as something which not only reacts to the self-activity of labour but which also "lives" by cajoling labour"s self-activity into serving the capitalist cause. In other words, the inversion of the class perspective is dependent upon two "subjects": there is the self-activity of labour and capital"s cajoling power. The emphasis on "inversion" does not raise the issue that "labour" is the producer of perverted forms and as such, paraphrasing Agnoli (1975), the constitutive presence within the concept of capital. Instead, labour tends to be seen as a power which exists external to its  own perverted social world: the constitutive power of labour stands external to its own perversion. Labour is seen as a self-determining power at the same time as which capital is a perverted power by virtue of its "cajoling capacity" or "bewitching power" (Negri, 1992).

The emphasis on the struggle component of the relation between structure and struggle cannot overcome their theoretical separation. Minus an interrogation of question of form, i.e. the specification of the social form in and through which the constitutive power of labour subsists in a contradictory way, notions of labour"s autonomy from capital tend towards a romantic invocation of the revolutionary subject"s immediacy, externalising object from subject. Capital remains construed in terms of a logic which lies solely within itself and whose inconsistencies, alone, and in abstraction from the contradictions which are constitutive of the capital-labour relation, provide points of purchase for revolutionary autonomisation. The capital-labour relation is understood merely in terms of a repressive systemic logic counterposed to subjective forces in a dualist and external way.

In sum, autonomist approaches depend on an understanding of capital as an objective subject that structuralist Marxism focuses as its raison d"être of inquiry. Similarly, structuralist approaches depend on the enunciation of the autonomist idea of revolutionary subjectivity, reformulated in voluntarist terms as the action of structure reproducing social agency, as a means through which structures are "activated". Both approaches depend on the distinction between structure and struggle - each of which, however, is supposed to render its contrasting term coherent. Structure is seen as escaping determinism because it is qualified by agency and agency is seen as escaping subjectivity because it is qualified by "structural constraints". However, the intelligibility of structure is seen as deriving from agency and vice versa. The dualism between structure and struggle is thus sustained only through a tautological movement of thought. Adding together, eclectically, two fallacious positions hardly amounts to a theorisation wherein either one of them can be redeemed.

The critical question, why does this content, i.e. human social relations, take the form of capital, is raised in neither structuralism nor autonomism. It is this question, however, that allows a critique of capital as a perverted form of social relations. Theoretical mysteries, Marx argued, find their rational explanation in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice (cf. Marx, 1975a, p. 5). This stance opposes derivation of human social practice from presupposed social, economic, and political structures and it opposes the division of the world into a world of commanding structures, on the one hand, and, on the other, the presupposed revolutionary immediacy of the life-world of the ontologically constituted multitude. Capital, however, is not a thing. Marx"s critical insight focuses on the question why human beings produce, through their own labour, a reality which increasingly enslaves them. This insight throws into relief the treatment of either capital or labour as things in themselves, or as two externally related subjects. Instead it reveals that this "in-itself" subsists, contradictorily, for-itself and against-itself. There is, in short, only one human social world and that is the world of human social practice in and through, and against, the constituted forms capital. Capital is thus constituted as a living contradiction. Contradictions can not be defined, as if they were a world apart from human social practice. Rather, human social practice constitutes, suffuses and contradicts the perverted world of things. Holloway"s critique of the fetishism of capital is therefore neither extreme nor romantic. It merely focuses the understanding of the world of capital as a world made by Man [Mensch] and a world dependent upon Man"s transformative power, however perverted or reified this power might be in the form of capital. For Horkheimer (1988), this understanding reveals the truth of capital as a constituted fetish. Holloway shows the practical importance of this insight by posing as a practical question of our time the revolutionary apriori of Marx"s dictum that the emancipation of the working class can only be achieved by the working class itself. Emancipation means human emancipation and thus the abolition of class relation; communism amounts to a class-less society.

For structuralist and autonomist versions of Marxism, Holloway"s insight into the constitution of capitalist forms is a scandal. Their acceptance of existing capitalist structures depends on the separation of objectivity from subjectivity, leading to affirmative accounts of a "perverted" world from which the subjectivity of human social practice is expelled as either a structure reproducing agency (in-itself) or a revolutionary subject that, for-itself, resides outside capitalist structures of command. Neither has a conception of capital as a social relation and neither has a conception of subjectivity as existing against itself in the form of capital. Both speak the language of revolution but neither has a conception what revolution has to revolutionise as both separate "in-itself" from "for-itself". This separation is the reason why both approaches depend on each other as theoretical expressions of the "abstract mysticism" of capital that Marx"s critique of fetishism focuses.(2) Holloway deserves praise for his refusal to let this mysticism influence his thought, for his critique of capital as a subject, and thus for his courage to confront Negri"s fashionable idea that the revolutionary subject has already put capital into the museum of history and this without telling capital. Against idle thought that merely pretends negativity through means of rhetorical radicalism, Holloway"s critique is subversive: it shows the negative content of exploitation in the light of its constitutive power, and thus poses its abolition.

In contrast to affirmations of capital as a "subject", Holloway"s book recovers the subversive character of Marx"s critique of political economy and thus its revolutionary significance. This critique is fundamentally a critique of fetishism and, through it, a critique of unreflected presuppositions, be it of capital as a subject or of labour as an already existing revolutionary practice that challenges capital from the outside, that is, from ontological foundations that capital is said unable to conquer. This criticism supplies an understanding of "value" in terms of its social constitution, that is, as a perverted form through which social relations subsist contradictorily as relations between things. The critique of economic categories shows that economic relations are, in fact, perversions of human relations. In other words, in capitalism, the social character of human social practice has to be realised in and through the categories of political economy. These categories are adequate insofar as they posit the constituted existence of perverted social relations. However, to hypothesise the constituted forms capital in subjective terms posits "reine Verrücktheit" - "pure madness" (Marx, 1974, p. 928). This is the madness of conceptions of capital as a self-constituting subject, be it conceived through Althusserian lenses or autonomist denunciations of capital in favour of the romantic immediacy of the revolutionary subject as ontological being. Holloway"s book not only refuses to participate in this madness it, also, subverts the fetishism of capital as a subject. His book, in short, encourages us instead to focus on the critique of capital as a social form of human practice, however perverted this human practice might be in the form of capital. He shows, in short, that labour is an antagonist presence in the concept of capital, rendering capital comprehensible as an antagonistic relationship of class struggle and thus as a struggle in and against the capitalist social relations of production.


Now-Time (Jetzt-Zeit): blasting open the continuum of history

In structuralist conceptions, now-time is and is not the time for revolution. It is not the time for revolution because for revolution to be made effective, conditions have to be right. This view contains an element of banality. Revolutions indicate that conditions were right and the absence of revolution indicates that conditions were not right. Behind this banality, however, lurks a question that is as unfavourable to human self-emancipation as the mirror image from which it is derived, the bourgeois principle of the political leader: who decides when conditions are right - better: who commands the revolutionary battlefield? This question derives from conceptions of the working class as a thing in-itself. Condemned to reproduce capitalist structures, class struggle is firmly embedded within the project of capital as the subject and opposition to capital is thus seen to breath in bourgeois ideological clouds of freedom, equality and Bentham. Working class struggle can, as Lenin had it, only produce economic consciousness, or trade union consciousness. Political consciousness of a revolutionary kind is presumed to be structurally impossible and has, thus, to be brought to the workers from the outside. This revolutionary conception takes its cue from Engel"s notion of revolution as "humanity"s leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom" (Engels, 1973, p. 226). This conception of revolution as a leap depends thus on the introduction of a new subject that competes with capital for the directorship of the class struggle, that is, the party. The party becomes the theoretical guardian and organisational embodiment of the historical role of the working class to make socialism. Lenin"s idea that the masses by themselves are incapable of revolutionary consciousness denies the possibility of revolution as the self-emancipation of the working class and, instead, confirms that revolutionary change can only be brought about from above, forcing, as it were, the working class to ‘leap’ into communism. In this struggle between two subjects, capital and the party, the seizure, retention and employment of power becomes the sine qua non for either the continued existence of the working class as a structure reproducing agency or its transformation into socialist Man - a Man of standardised issue and thus a Man who, no longer exploited by the owners of the means of production, becomes an object of technocratic planning in the workers state that regulates the economy ostensibly on behalf of the workers. In this conception, Now-Time is a continuum of power that leaps from one historical form to another on the basis of time as (economic) measure, that is, labour remains the measure of all things and thus a resource.

Holloway offers a forceful critique of structuralist conceptions of revolution when he argues that the truth of Marx"s critique of political economy rests on the negation of capital and that is, on the realisation of a form of society where labour is not as an exploitable resource but as a purpose. He makes his argument with reference to Bloch"s principle of hope in human emancipation and Benjamin"s conception of now-time in which the history of oppression is condensed as a question of emancipation. Now-time, for Benjamin, is not affirmed time as if it were a mere messeaure of what Negri would call command. Now-time, instead, is the time for revolution and that is, the reconciliation of a history of class struggle with the society of the free and equal. History has been the record of battles and exploitation because all history has been a history where "society"s laws of motion have been abstracting from its individual subjects, degrading them to mere executors, mere partners in social wealth and social struggle. The debasement was as real as the fact that on the other hand there would be nothing without individuals and their spontaneities" (Adorno, 1990, p. 304). Both, the spontaneities and debasements, subsist contradictorily in and through the capitalistically constituted form of social production and that is, labour"s purposeful activity as commodified activity, as abstract labour in action (cf. Marx, 1978, p. 185). Benjamin"s Now-Time poses the question of revolution as the beginning of human history where "society" as an abstraction is no longer conterposed to the individual (cf. Marx, 1959, p. 93). Benjamin argues forcefully against a conception of history as a continuum and charges the idea of revolution as a - gradual or radical - leap to amount to a corrupt conception of revolution. Revolution, in this corrupt view, promises, as indicated by the idea of a "leap", the emancipation of labour not for existing generations but for future generations and thus for no generation at all. Workers are thus to engage in revolution, not for their own emancipation, but for workers who are not yet and never will be born. This conception of revolution thus arranges the aim and means of revolution on a peculiar way: it removes the history of class oppression from rebellious workers inasmuch as it is not the condensation of a history of oppression in the Now-Time that summons the workers" revolutionary wrath. It thus disconnects revolution from class hatred and replaces class hatred by the summons of a future that has no foundation in the present. Lastly, it renders insignificant a history of struggle and revolutionary experience and instead views workers as mere objects of transition. Revolution is not conceived as break in the continuum of history. It is seen as a form of transition which substitutes one form of oppression by another. Given these insights one would expect that Holloway"s forceful and insightful argument on the means and ends of revolution is shared by those who insist on the revolutionary immediacy of the multitude. This, however, is not so.

For Negri (2003, p. 109), Ernst Bloch is important as a bourgeois utopian thinker. He is charged with offering no more than an idea of the contemporaneity of power because he has no ontological concept of revolution. Bloch, in short, is said to construe the not-yet of emancipation on the basis of capital and thus as offering no more than an insurrectionary perspective that belongs to capital itself - better: his conception of time as revolution is seen to be similar to Schumpeter"s conception of destruction: it destroys the contemporaneity of capital only by posing it as eternal. Schumpeter conceived of this as the creative destructive force of capital. Walter Benjamin does not fair any better. He too is seen to be an essentially bourgeois theoretician whose conception of time as revolution "represents the utmost modernisation of reactionary thought" (Negri, 2003, p. 112). He is seen to combine capital"s conception of time as production and measure with socialist practices of insurrection, so that revolution is, in Benjamin, merely grafted onto the "techncoratic rationality" that capital as a system of command signifies (p. 113). In short, he charges Benjamin, like Bloch, with reducing Now-Time to the commands of the "boss" (p. 112). According to Negri, neither of these revolutionary thinkers who are of such significance and importance for Holloway"s argument, has a conception of ontological being that capital fails and cannot decompose into a resource. Negri"s charge belongs to the socialism of fools. It does however lend significant support to Holloway"s insistence that revolutionary thought consists in the critique of the fetishism of capital and in the practical abolition of this fetishism through the self-emancipation of labour from its antagonistic presence within the concept of capital. Negri, as was argued, has no conception of capital as a constituted fetish produced and rejected, reproduced and contradicted by active humanity. For Negri, capital is a subject and labour stands outside this subject, as ontological being, as bio-power. Negri"s rejection of Benjamin and Bloch has thus to do with his claim that working class subjectivity is already self-determining activity in spite of capital. As he, and his co-author argued, working class subjectivity is no longer something brought to labour from the outside by capital but is inherent in labour itself: "cooperation is completely immanent to the labouring activity itself" (Hard/Negri, 2000, p. 294). Capital, in short, is seen as a cajoling, bewitching force that adopts and adulterates, and so pollutes human cooperation, inserting it - like a Vampire sucking the blood of its victims - into its own command structure. Cooperation then is perverted because of capital and not because, as Holloway shows, human cooperation exists against itself in the form of capital. In short, for Negri communism, this society of the democratic association of the direct producers themselves, this society of cooperation based on the democracy of human needs, already exists because the revolutionary immediacy of the multitude renders capital"s bewitching power incapable of perverting the ontological basis of bio-power any further! No wonder Negri rejects Bloch and Benjamin: their conception of revolution is still informed by the critique of capitalistically organised forms of social reproduction! They have no conception of ontological power that evades capitalist command and thus is already free from capital! We thus have no longer to think beyond capital, as Bloch says we must, nor do we no longer have to criticise, with Benjamin, structuralist views of revolution as a liberation from oppression of future generations who forever exist in the future. We have already leaped into communism. I have no doubt that both Bloch and Benjamin would have been aghast by the naturalisation of resistance and ontologisation the human social existence as bio-power, and the abstractification of capital as a witch. We have therefore to be grateful to Holloway to remind us of existing relations of class hatred and of existing needs to break the continuum of history, and his radical insight that the root of every society is Man (Mensch) himself, however perverted this existence in the form of capital.


Negation is the only path towards emancipation

Holloway"s critique of fetishism is excellent. It sets him apart from both Althusserian structuralism and Negrian ontological being outside capital. His book expresses however more than just the frustration with these approaches. Fundamentally, his critique shows capital as a form of human social relations and thus as a form that exists only in and through labour. In short, his book is subversive.

Critique, Marx argued, has to demonstrate "ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But for Man the root is Man himself" (Marx, 1975b, p. 182) and "Man is the highest being for Man" [Mensch] (ibid.). This, then, leads to his demand that all relations "in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being" have to be overthrown (ibid.). The standard of critique is the human being, her dignity and possibilities. Critique, then, has to return the world of things to the human being herself by showing that the forms of capital are constituted by and subsist through the social practice of "active humanity" (Marx, 1973, p. 489). Their conceptualisation as forms of social relations does not entail Man [Mensch] as an "abstract individual" but as a member of a definite form of society (Marx, 1975a, p. 5). Marx"s critique of the constituted forms of capital seeks to bring to the fore their social foundation, that is the human basis of their existence. The foundation of human existence can only be Man herself.

These quotations from Marx"s earlier work are usually seen to carry little weight. Marx is said to have matured as a result of his serious study of political economy, leaving behind his youthful idealism and espousing instead a mature critique of bourgeois economics. This view accepts, rightly, that Marx was a highly intelligent scholar and it is for this reason that his mature work has indeed to be studied carefully. When he then argues that critique has to return the relations amongst the things themselves, the constituted forms of the economic categories, to "relations between humans" (Marx, 1972, p. 147) and that the critique of the fetishism of the commodity form entails its deciphering on a "human basis" (cf. Marx, 1962, p. 105), this would indeed require serious attention. Moreover, he argues that each "form", even the most simple form like, for example, the commodity, "is already an inversion and causes relations between people to appear as attributes of things" (Marx, 1972, p. 508) or, more emphatically, each form is a "perverted form" (Marx, 1962, p. 90). Marxist economics whether affirmed or deemed irrelevant by capital"s empire like structure of command, does not ask why the content, human social existence, assumes the form of capital. As a consequence, Marx"s insight that capital is "the form assumed by the conditions of labour" (Marx, 1972, p. 492), of labour that is "object-less free labour" (Marx, 1973, p. 507) would have to appear, especially since the recent transformation of Marxist thought into the revolutionary immediacy of ontological being, almost as a condemnation of Marx"s negative critique of capital. Further, Marx is adamant that his critique of political economy entails a "general critique of the entire system of economic categories" (Marx, 1976, p. 250; and Marx, 1975c, p. 96). Might this not mean that Marxist economics affirms those same economic categories which Marx criticised as deceitful and perverted? The economists, as Marx (1972, p. 274) argued, "do not conceive of capital as a relation" and provide justifications for the "capitalist form, in which the relationship of labour to the conditions of labour is turned upside-down, so that it is not the worker who makes use of the conditions of labour, but the conditions of labour which make use of the worker" (ibid., 276). Might it therefore not follow that the economic interpretation of Marx"s critique of political economy reduces human relations to economic  categories, frustrating Marx"s programme of reducing [zurückführen] economic categories to human social relations? Marx"s alleged critique, then, of bourgeois economics, then, had to be, as Poulantzas argued, deepened into a Marxist theory of the state, so as to complement Marxist economic understanding with a Marxist understanding of the political, and in order to investigate the intermediary categories which relate these distinct systems of social organisation in concrete historical settings. Negri, on the other hand, argues that Marxian economics has become historically obsolete because the real subsumption of society to capital has led to the abolition of the law of value, which he conceives in economic terms, leading to his understanding of real subsumption as something that is premised entirely on political violence. Neither approach offers a critique of economic categories: for Negri they have become obsolete because economic command has been replaced by political command; and for structuralists, the question remains whether it is the political or the economic which has relative autonomy over the other, and how the primacy of the economic that is determining in the last instance, manifests itself in concrete circumstances. What however is meant by economics as a self-constituted thing and what is the logic of the political in abstraction from the constitutive presence of labour in the concept of capital?

While structuralism seeks redemption from determinism through the voluntarist conception of human action, and while autonomist seeks redemption from the romantic conception of the revolutionary subject through the portrayal of capital as a machine of political violence, both affirm capital as an objective subject. On the basis of this affirmation, the project of human emancipation is either ontologically presupposed in opposition to the equally presupposed subjective power of capital or derived from existing structures of oppression. Holloway"s critique of capital, then, is also a critique of forms of anti-capitalism that do not oppose, but rather either derive their rational from the affirmation of capital as a subject.

In the misery of our time, we find the positive only in negation. Holloway"s negative critique does not entail some sort of abstract negation of capital as in Negri"s approach. It entails, rather, a determinate abstraction, an abstraction which determines the forms of capital as perverted form of human relations. Negation means to determine the human content, however perverted, of the world of things. In sum, critique is charged with providing enlightenment as to the true constitution of the world of things. Enlightenment is a thoroughly subversive business. It doubts that things are as what they appear to be and it thinks the world up-side down in order to reveal its human content: the human being that exists against itself as the producer of its own forsaken conditions and for-itself as the not-yet existing subject that relates to herself in dignity and that is, exists for-itself as a purpose and not as a resource. Holloway"s argument is subversive. It suggests, rightly, that the reality in which the social individual moves day in and day out has no invariant character, that is, something which exists independently from it. Thus, in his argument the critique of political economy amounts to a conceptualised praxis (begriffene Praxis), that is, a theoretical understanding of the totality of human practice which constitutes, suffuses and contradicts the perverted world of things which it itself produces and over which it has no control. In order to achieve control over their social reproduction, the world has to be changed. We owe Holloway a great debt for his courageous summons of human emancipation in the Now-Time, of radical social change that breaks the continuum of history where instead of power begetting power, power is abolished. In sum, we owe him a great debt for his emancipation of Marx"s negative critique from the dead ends of ontological immediacy and structural primacy, these twins of the bordello of fetishistic thought.


1.             I am paraphrasing here Marx"s point that "the separation beween in-itself and for-itself, the substance of the subject, is abstract mysticism" (Marx, 1981, p. 265). Marx"s conceptualisation of the form of value as a perverted form of human social relations reformulates this critique of classical epistemology in the context of his critique of political economy. In the German edition of Kapital, Marx uses the phrase verrückte Form (Marx, 1962, p. 90). In the English edition this is translated as "absurd form" (Marx, 1983, p. 80). The translation is "absurd". In German, "verrückt" has two meanings: verrückt (mad) and ver-rückt (displaced). Thus, the notion of "perverted forms" means that they are both mad and displaced. As Backhaus (1992, p. 60) put it, the forms of capital are perverted forms of human social practice, in which "subject and object do not statically oppose each other, but rather are caught up in an ongoing process of the inversion of subjectivity into objectivity, and vice versa". Reference is made to German original texts of Marx where the English version lacks accuracy.


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