Review of Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being

By my reckoning, Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future (2019) has received somewhat less attention than its landmark predecessor PostCapitalism (2015). Perhaps Brexit has sapped us of the ability to be otherwise stimulated, but there may be other explanations: as a piece of work it is more wide-ranging and eclectic (I cannot help but think of Mason as a kind of Anglo-Zizek at times), and perhaps less obviously zeitgeisty. However, its thesis is no less audacious than the prior book and, if its subject matter appears any less ‘of its moment’ than Postcapitalism’s timely economic critique, that is only a symptom of the advanced philosophical decay upon which Clear Bright Future’s ire rests. 

This is a book about the abandonment of humanism and, in lockstep, of a human future. It will not seem mysterious that this interests the author of a blog called Anthromodernism. But Mason is not doing anything as narrowly academic as defining a new humanism. He is attempting nothing less than to refound the normative basis for left-wing organisation in the 21st century. That this requires a robust (if only preparatory) theoretical elaboration of a ‘radical humanism’ is clear, and Mason provides one. But the real argument here is about how we on the left measure the success of our movements, reforms and revolutions. For most Marxists, that metric is class power, material prerequisite of all else: a reform is good if it increases the power of workers relative to capital, bad if it does the reverse. For Mason, whose anticapitalism serves his humanism, the metric is whether a given social order or set of reforms permits us to be human, to flourish, to see Eudaimonia in our time. The exact nature of the distinction between these two metrics, if any, will be one of many enduring questions raised by Mason’s book. 

I’ll give you my verdict at the outset: Clear Bright Future is a treasure-trove of good ideas and deserves to be treated as a seminal text of the 21stcentury humanist left. Among its many ‘anthromodernist’ charms are:

  • A furious critique of academic anti- and post-humanismfrom the Marxist structuralist dead-end of Althusser through high postmodernism (Foucault, Baudrillard) and its decay into posthumanism (Braidotti, Hayles, Harraway) 
  • Dedication to the serious pursuit of a theory of human nature, based on a) contemporary scientific research into how we differ from our great ape forbears (Tomasello), and b) the theories of species-being, alienation and ‘historical self-creation’ which root the early Marx’s account of human nature 
  • Militant anti-Nietzcheanism e.g. this apt paraphrase of Lukacs: ‘Nietzsche’s genius … was to develop a reactionary, romantic pessimism for all time – so that future generations of “spiritual” rebels who hate the working class, and want to celebrate the biological greatness of a few elite men, could always return to his aphorisms as if they were new’ (186-187)
  • The insistence that ‘reading Arendt is not enough’, that is, that the liberal-left humanists of the post-war period (Orwell, Arendt, Levi etc) are insufficient guides to the present encroachments of the far-right, and that the humanism we need will have to reckon far more concretely with Nietzschean irrationalism and the problematic of American empire and its decline
  • A strong theory of the psychological power of neoliberalismrooted in what I would call ‘reification critique’, whereby the stultifying power of the system is exercised at the level of expectations (curtailing them) and experience of economic life (tending to confirm the neoliberal mantra: There Is No Alternative)
  • A basically correct analysis of the alt-right as about denying all forms of universal humanity and endorsing every form of biological hierarchy (again, Nietzsche)
  • A materialist theory of information(based on modern science and Marx’s labour theory of value) to counter the ‘digital idealism’ of the tech giants determined to see themselves and their projects as being above earthly concerns; this smartly roots Mason’s call to arms against ‘algorithmic control’
  • The unfashionable insistence that the 21st left needs a moral philosophy –Mason’s preferred system is Aristotelian virtue ethics (he regards this as the only available system compatible with humanism); this will be controversial for some Marxists, but Mason’s case that a moral system of some sort is needed seems unanswerable given the urgent need for an ethics of artificial intelligence
  • A commitment to the basics of Marxist theory (theory of history, labour theory of value and theory of human nature) alongside a reasonable account of its historic deficiencies (on feminism/sexuality, ecology and the more esoteric natural-scientific applications of the dialectic)

In a review of this sort I couldn’t possibly address all of these, so most of what follows will focus on what I think are Mason’s two most crucial and symbiotic interventions: a) his empiricist account of the social power of neoliberalism (and, by extension, capitalist realism) and b) his critique of anti-/post-humanism and elaboration of a ‘radical humanism’. After that, I will outline some not insignificant differences I have with his account.

One of the most promising developments in recent and contemporary Marxism (I’m thinking Wright, Fisher and Chibber in particular) is a tendency to emphasise ‘reification-critique’ over ‘ideology-critique’. In the 1920s, Georg Lukács used the word ‘reification’ to provide a more rigorous philosophical finish to Marx’s idea of ‘commodity fetishism’. Marx used commodity fetishism to describe the way in which, due to the ubiquitous experience of commodity exchange under capitalism, humans come to imbue commodities (including money and labour power) with qualities that really belong to themselves, and which in fact express social relations between human beings. Lukács used the word reification in a broader sense, to describe an epistemological condition in which the experience of class society, its atomised, ‘contractual’ social relations and the character of private property itself, renders human beings unable to perceive the totality of that edifice, the way the whole social order emerges from the real structure of social relations between people. 

Here’s the rub of reification: when any capacity for holistic perception is stolen from people by the atomised poverty of their experience, what is left is a social order which appears impervious to human intervention. The appearance of solidity of the social order correlates with the degree to which it appears as something other than the product of human social relations.

Now, the other major Marxist theory of how capitalism solidifies its rule (in the absence of massive and permanent violence, anyway) is based on ideology, finding its most extreme and influential form in Althusser, whom Mason detests. In ‘ideology critique’, human beings are led, through the process of ‘interpellation’ or ‘hailing’, to identify themselves with the dominant order i.e. to endorse the meanings and values generated by institutions which disseminate ruling-class ideology; people thus become ‘subjects’ (more or less willing adherents) of the social order. ‘Reification critique’, by contrast, does not require explicit belief in or endorsement of the values of the social order by people; it is enough that they do not believe another world is possible, having had any sense of the human basis of the social order expunged by daily experience of its patent and seemingly intractable inhumanity. One is subjected whether or not one is a ‘subject’. Mason’s analysis of how neoliberalism held sway until its present crisis is interesting in that it contains elements of both approaches; experience of daily life is the root cause of political passivity, but there is also a kind of ‘interpellation’ going on, with the enforced creation of a ‘neoliberal self’. 

Mason describes what we might conventionally think of as components of ‘neoliberal ideology’ as a series of five lessons or mantras imparted, not by direct or indirect propaganda, but by experience of everyday life and political outcomes under late capitalism. These lessons are less like pedagogy and more like those learned after walking through a field of nettles in shorts. Below are Mason’s lessons and their corresponding experiences:

Lesson 1: In economic policy humans no longer matter (experience: destruction of whole industrial sectors and the working-class communities that sustained and were sustained by them)

Lesson 2: Left-wing alternatives to neoliberalism will always fail, because the financial markets will always sabotage them (experience: the cowing of the Mitterrand government in France by international financial markets)

Lesson 3: Privatisation is good for everyone, even if it destroys your world (experience: share offerings of privatised public services and Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’)

Lesson 4: Economic sovereignty is impossible (experience: austerity forced on debt-laden countries like Mexico (in our own era: Greece))

Lesson 5: Even countries committed to the welfare state [will] have to deliver it using neoliberal methods (experience: neoliberal pillars of the European Community, replicated in those of ‘Third Way’ social democratic parties)

These five lessons may well be pithily summed up in an ideological phrase like Thatcher’s ‘there is no alternative’, but that is superfluous. If this is what reality looks like, you do not need it explained to you by politicians. What the lessons of neoliberalism teach you is not that neoliberalism is ‘good’ (example three above notwithstanding), but that it is inevitable. This requires you not to internalise the ‘ideals’ of neoliberalism (though these are readily discernible in the discourse of its ideologues, and some will incorporate them as a way of avoiding psychological conflict), but to internalise the specific boundaries that it asserts are intrinsic to social reality. The important thing here is that, for the neoliberal lesson-machine, social reality isnot social; it is itself a kind of machine, like the Hayekian free market or the algorithms spawned by ‘big data’. Reification dictates that human beings not architect the spaces they inhabit. If they could, they might play the role of designers, and neoliberalism is not supposed to be a designed system but a ‘natural’ one.

Anyone who has ever worked in a pub will confirm that this is how late capitalism creates a relatively pliant (i.e. not permanently in revolt) workforce. If it occurred to you to ask the defeated-looking call-centre worker across the bar why she submits to an oppressive system, she would simply say: ‘It is what it is. Bills don’t pay themselves’ (the more you think about it, the stupider the question sounds). She would not say: ‘Well, the free market ensures the most efficient distribution of scarce resources while maintaining my individual liberty!’ Conscious acknowledgement that the system is unjust, and that what one is really doing is acquiescing to an undesirable state of affairs outside of one’s control, is what characterises the ‘reified self’, the reason being that, as bad as things are, you have no obvious means of realising something better. 

Now, the foregoing may be more my sense of things than Mason’s. For Mason, the lessons of neoliberalism, despite being claims about the boundaries of reality rather than normative beliefs, did hold something like an ideological hold over people until quite recently. This leads to some slightly paradoxical, if not inconsistent, formulations. For example, on the one hand, Mason is aware of the dislocation between ‘inner’ beliefs/values and the requirement to ‘perform’ one’s acquiescence, to act ‘as if’ you believe; thus he can say: ‘The only condition [of growth under neoliberalism] was that you kept your emotions, ideals and any remaining ethics in a separate compartment – away from the central activity of working, trading and competing … so long as you obeyed the performance rituals of neoliberalism – at work, the gym, the wine bar – the system was neutral as to your ethical beliefs’ (66-67). At this level, it does not appear that neoliberalism required any active belief in the system to function (this is not unlike Zizek’s description of ‘ideological fantasy’). But then Mason’s analysis of the post-crash era is that massive state-led economic intervention to save the banks, combined with austerity and falling living standards, demonstrated to people that neoliberal ideology was false: ‘By printing money you can keep an economy on life support for ever. The problem is, you can’t keep an ideology on life support. The human brain demands coherence … the more people compare it to the reality of their daily lives, the more neoliberal ideology seems like a lie’ (73).

The paradox is this: if the human brain ‘demands coherence’ but neoliberalism can continue to function even if people are only acting ‘as if’ they believe i.e. obeying the ‘performance rituals’ of a bankrupt system, what really differentiates the present moment, in which neoliberalism is clearly a failure, from the pre-crash period in which things were less clear? If ritual and repetition are all that is required for the system to function, why does the withdrawal of a higher quanta of conscious belief now seem to be tipping the balance against the system? 

I can’t pretend to have any hard and fast answers to this, but I suspect it has something to do with how individuals perceive the nature of collective belief, that is, the consensus which is supposed to underpin the normative order. I’m more and more of the view that neoliberalism could continue to function even if almost everybody thought its governing ideology was garbage. The decisive variable in whether unbelief translates into political action to change the system is how each person thinks everyone else perceives the situation. Or, more precisely, whether others are perceived as being willing to put aside the contaminated ritual which once, even though none of us really believed in it, seemed to work, but now does not. Making this happen is then a matter of political organisation and cultural development (committed party-political work in tandem with what Raymond Williams called a ‘long revolution’).

The other possibility is that each of us is arrogant enough to think that everyone else is more credulous than we, so that serious change occurs only when massive social trauma shocks large numbers of us into simultaneously admitting our lack of belief. Perhaps there is, not unlike Lacan’s ‘subject supposed to know’, a ‘subject supposed to be convinced’, a hypothetical psyche which is always-already-interpellated. Of course, once we have publically admitted our lack of conviction to one another, there is no going back. It may be that, during a Gramscian interregnum, the possibility is uniquely opened of ritually murdering the collective avatar of gullibility which holds our performances of belief together.

Putting these speculations to one side, the central point is that Mason is right about the empirical roots of capitalist realism. More importantly, he is right that the lessons neoliberal experience taught us were rooted in the irrelevance of human beings to the processes that govern our lives. While Mason himself doesn’t use the word reification, this is what he is describing. 

One of my central contentions with Anthromodernism is that the cancer of reification has only one cure: humanism. Mason, fortunately, is on hand to savage the anti-humanism of both the far-right and parts of the academic left, and to provide us some initial waypoints for the recovery of a radical, materialist humanism.

There are two godfathers of modern anti-humanism in Mason’s schema: Nietzsche on the right and Althusser on the left. The links between Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ amoralism, thirties fascism and the modern far-right are clear (Mason gives a detailed and convincing account). With hierarchy assumed to be a given in social reality, the pursuit of equality becomes a form of stultifying decadence to be purged, lest the ‘last man’ come to rule over a ruin of mediocrity. How we get from Althusser to a modern left which, in Mason’s view, is uniquely ill-equipped to confront the Nietzschean inhumanity of the modern right, requires some more unpacking. 

Althusser’s Marxist structuralism was explicitly anti-humanist, an attempt to defend the superiority of the Leninist party model against humanist and autonomist attacks in the era of the early New Left. This involved rejecting the ‘early’, humanist Marx and claiming the later work of Marx (Capital) as an anti-humanist enterprise. For Althusser, Marxism described history as ‘a process without a subject’ i.e. a process in which human beings participate less as conscious agents and more as the fine components in the working of a social Swiss watch. ‘If you want another word for a process without a subject,’ says Mason, ‘then “machine” would be an accurate substitute’ (176). This is the ur-claim of Clear Bright Future: that we are spiralling towards machine control by big data, AI and their billionaire proprietors, and that what this means is the loss of the 360-degree, fully rounded human being that the Left should be identifying and emancipating. 

It is failing to do so, argues Mason, because the Althusserian ejection of human agency from history discredited Marxism and gave non-Marxist postmodernists like Foucault and Baudrillard license not only ‘to remove almost every other dynamic that might make sense of material reality: class, capital, laws of motion and – ultimately – the knowability of the world’ (177), but also to produce ‘an anti-theory about human beings: their selves are shattered, their agency is gone, their scientific thought is really ideology’ (177). When postmodernism fell into a cycle of deconstructive repetition in the 90s, argues Mason, posthumanism emerged as its natural successor, rooted in the same principles (Althusserian ones, in Mason’s genealogy, but we might also add Nietzschean and Heideggerian) but more outwardly forward-thinking and programmatically radical. From Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto to Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman, any sense of the human being as the centre of political agency, much less a revolutionary subject, is dissolved by what is intended to be the emancipatory fragmentation and absorption of the human (however gendered, racialized or classed) into technology and, more recently, non-human nature. 

The posthumanists wanted to avoid alienation and inter-species hierarchy. The actual result, Mason argues, is that the universal human being now stands in the path of two juggernauts, the Nietzschean far-right (which relishes intra-species hierarchies) and the algorithmic control-machine, with little to say in its own defence.

Mason fears, I think rightly, that the intentional occlusion of the human being by parts of the academic left renders the rights (human and liberal) we already have suspect and those we will demand in the future philosophically baseless. ‘I want to defend the idea,’ says Mason, ‘that every one of us – the transgender activist in London, the female factory worker in Guangdong, the Kanak teenager fighting for independence on New Caledonia – has a universal quality from which inalienable human rights derive’ (198-190). 

It seems remarkable, in retrospect, that a universal conception of the human being requires the kind of tentative, preliminary account that Mason offers in Clear Bright Future. Surely a left which is serious about taking power, about building the capacities of human beings acting collectively to transform society, would have a sound, materialist theory of what humans actually are? Surely we should know what makes human beings more likely to bring about communism than, say, apes or robots? It turns out we (the left) don’t. Troublingly, liberals do, in a scrappy combination of evolutionary biology, behaviourism and a quasi-religious theory of free will descended from the Christian conception of a soul which is free only because it must be judged (whence the liberal conception of the legal person). But the problem with the ‘liberal human’, aside from its well-documented degeneration into homo economicus, is that it is entirely genetic and therefore static, being the product of an evolutionary process too slow to have produced significant further changes since the dawn of man. 

Mason’s alternative ‘radical humanism’ has two complementary pillars: modern science and Marxist humanism. He identifies, first, some essential differences between humans and other animals: we are lifelong learners; we develop a self-conscious identity; we teach each other to reason i.e. ‘to make conscious, reversible choices between two or more actions’ (138); we do operational logic in our heads; we not only make things but ‘imagine the thing to be made in advance and create the tools to make it’ (138); we communicate through complex verbal and written languages which we can alter at will and use to pretend and speculate, to ‘imagine how the world might be different’ (138); we live in ordered and hierarchical groups like other animals but, unlike them, we can ‘consciously change the structure of the hierarchical groups we live in, and even reject hierarchy entirely’ (138). 

This list, while persuasive as to human distinctiveness, doesn’t distinguish a Marxist humanism from a liberal one. To do that, Mason appeals to the early Marx and contemporary work linking the early evolution of human beings to the production of culture and language (Tomasello). The capacities which differentiate human beings from other animals also differ, says Mason, in that they are more intensely social, reflecting the inherently social nature of human labour. Our ability to reason abstractly, speculate about different realities and communicate complex ideas through language are part of our productive toolset, and they all exist to facilitate uniquely human forms of evolutionarily adaptive sociality. 

With concepts such as ‘alienation’ and ‘fetishism’, Marx was getting to heart of what makes humans beings distinctive: we make things, including meanings, for other people, literally alienating or separating off parts of ourselves to do so. Not only does this ability determine the basic mechanics of history (production of surplus expropriated by ruling classes, forces/relations of production, crisis and revolution) but it also accounts for the intensely social character of cultural forms, which are themselves uniquely human. Mason draws on Tomasello’s work to show that modern cognitive science and evolutionary anthropology confirm the humanist hypotheses of the early Marx, demonstrating that we produce languages and cultures ‘less as a way of transmitting knowledge [and] more as a way of organizing collaboration’ (215). That ability to collaborate, moreover, is our primary evolutionary advantage. 

The crucial step then is to recognise, as Marx did, that ‘because culture and language are evolutionary products … to understand human nature you have to accept it has a history’ (216). This is where a radical humanism starts to differ massively from a liberal one, since for liberal humanists there is only a ‘pre-history’ of human nature, namely, the evolutionary process leading up to homo sapiens. After that, we are what we are, as defined by our evolved genetics. A Marxist humanism, by contrast, in recognising that culture and language are no less parts of ‘human nature’ than basic biological characteristics, can insist that changes in cultural and social forms must be considered changes in human nature enacted by human beings themselves. Human history, of course, is nothing but changes in cultural and social forms; we are the only animals with a history, in this sense. And since we make that history in the self-development of our own relations with each other, we are constantly making and remaking our nature (which, contra posthumanism, doesn’t cease to be human simply because it changes): ‘human nature includes both biology and history’ (216).

At the height of neoliberalism, we couldn’t consistently accept our power to keep the NHS publically owned, let alone to change the very direction of history. This is the priceless value of humanism in the fight against reification: it reminds us that history is a human fact, and that it is subject to relations between people that can be changed. Marxist humanism, moreover, tells us that alienation in its negative sense, as the loss of power and control over ourselves and the products of our labour, is only how alienation is expressed in class societies, where it becomes both a prerequisite and a symptom of exploitation. Mason’s line on alienation is not wholly consistent here: he seems to view it both as an intrinsic quality of human beings and as something which communism and the future beyond it (communism only being the ‘end of the prehistory of humanity’) are supposed to abolish. Arguably, this leads us back into the posthumanist trap, wherein a fully de-alienated form of existence is preferable to a human one.

It may be that human beings, in possessing historical sovereignty and thus sovereignty over their own nature, will eventually abolish alienation within themselves. For what it’s worth, I suspect that so long as we possess an unconscious, a repository of what is both self and non-self, alienation will continue to be central to the human experience (after all, what is a machine but something deprived of an unconscious?). The ‘real utopian’ horizon, I think, is a state in which our alienations are our own relatively free projections, mobilised by desire in situations of personal and material autonomy, rather than via the ‘automatic’ estrangements of machine-like social hierarchies.

So: an empiricist theory (‘reification critique’) of neoliberal ideology and the rudiments of radical, materialist humanism are the dual highlights of Clear Bright Future; I really can’t overstate how vital such perspectives will be for the left going forward. I know the project of Anthromodernism will be enriched and guided by this lighthouse of a book. As mentioned at the outset, however, there are some areas of weakness which I’ll briefly touch upon to conclude.

The first is a lack of engagement with thinkers inside the New Left who were Marxist humanists of precisely the sort Mason now enjoins us to be. Mason does make several references to the humanism of Erich Fromm of the Frankfurt School and the Marxist theorist (and Trotsky’s secretary) Raya Dunayevskaya (incidentally, it is well worth checking out the work of the Marxist Humanist Initiative, which takes its theoretical cue from Dunayevskaya’s work), and E.P. Thompson, a founding figure in the British New Left, gets a couple of cursory mentions. The really egregious omission, however, is the Welsh cultural critic and novelist Raymond Williams, whose work (like Thompson’s) provided a strong countermanding force to the Althusserian drift of the academic left in the late 60s and 70s, and from which some of the most useful strains of Marxist cultural work now proceed (including, arguably, Mason’s own). Williams is also a key figure in the development of ‘reification critique’, having been strongly influenced by the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness. I have argued elsewhere that Williams’s conjoining of traditional British empiricism with Western Marxist, ‘rationalist’ emphases was a unique event in the history of Marxism. His work remains a rich seam of resistance for Marxist humanists worldwide to draw on in the fight against reification.

My second area of disagreement with Mason concerns his reading of contemporary work in continental materialism and realism (the New Materialisms and ‘speculative realism’) as the latest instalment in the lineage Althusser > postmodernism > posthumanism > X. Mason provides an interesting overview of the philosopher of science Bruno Latour’s development and the rise of ‘flat ontologies’ which place all objects, including human beings, on the same causal plane; thus, as Latour infamously claimed, ‘[Louis] Pasteur can be understood as an event occurring to lactic yeast’. While Mason’s arguments here are subtler than I have space to evidence, he does appear to regard both new materialism and speculative realism (Graham Harman is singled out) as consistent with the postmodern disintegration of objectivity, e.g. ‘By [Harman’s] reckoning, not only are human beings and, for example, Lego bricks, equally capable of knowing the world, the whole of reality is scientifically unpredictable’ (181). 

Certainly, the new materialists and realists are, for the most part, anti-humanists. I am more hesitant than Mason, however, to consign them to the postmodern gulag, since they are also avowedly anti-postmodern (indeed, this is practically their raison d’etre). The success of the new materialists and realists is as much a cause as a symptom of the decay of academic postmodernism. Whether we can enlist them as allies in so radical a project as a ‘humanist materialism’ in unclear – probably not. Nevertheless, just as liberal humanists must be our contingent allies against the jubilant inhumanity of the Nietzschean right, so too must the new materialists and realists be our allies against postmodern idealism, relativism and irrealism.  

The third and final issue I have with Mason’s account is the gravest. I’ll spend only the briefest of times on it here, but rest assured a deep dive will be forthcoming on this blog. This is Mason’s replacement of the working-class or proletariat with the ‘networked individual’ as the primary agent of history (a through-line argument from Postcapitalism). The central political argument is Gorzian: ‘the modern, global working class no longer thinks or acts like the classic proletariat of the twentieth century – and no amount of exposure to the class struggle will remedy this’ (230). What has taken the proletariat’s place as the ‘natural’ agent of history (i.e. proper successor to the bourgeoisie) is the ‘networked individual’ who, Mason argues, ‘“bears” the characteristics of future liberated humanity much more clearly than the coal miners of my grandfather’s generation’ (233). 

The question here is why Mason feels it necessary to make the coal miners of his native Leigh stand in for the working-class as a whole. There are good historical reasons for making factory and extractive workers the standard bearers of the industrial working class, but even for Marx ‘industrial’ simply meant productive of surplus value, which in 2019 includes vast swathes of the services sector. I fail to see why Mason’s descriptions of the unique situation of the ‘networked individual’ should not be ascribed to the ‘networked working-class’ i.e. the working class as it is understood by the most advanced socialist parties and movements today. In the context of Mason’s argument in Clear Bright Future, one reason presents itself above all others: that the working-class was only ever able to organise itself around ‘working-class interests’ (particular), not ‘the interests of humanity’ (universal). Ironically, given Mason’s antipathy toward much of the New Left, this argument echoes Anderson and Nairn’s post-war complaint that the (British, specifically) working-class was only capable of ‘incorporated’ or reformist actions, never ‘hegemonic’ or revolutionary-historic ones, a view with Leninist roots. To this, of course, Mason might well respond that Lenin was right. But then, is there not a risk that the ascription of historic leadership to the networked individual issues in a vanguardism of the most networked?

I’ll leave that question for another time!

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