The Class Analysis

At the request of my friend and fellow contributor to The American Catholic, Darwin Catholic, I will elaborate more on some of the general points I introduced to the discussion over his latest post about economic morality. For those who did not follow the exchange (of me versus everyone, understandable on this somewhat more conservative blog), I questioned the accuracy of any scientific theory of economics that did not take into account class conflict (or, as some insist on saying, “class struggle”). Darwin and others responded by questioning the validity of the very category of class. Hence, we have a great deal of ground to cover – I hope you will bear with me, and that we all end up learning something.

Class Defined

The first thing to be said about the “class” category is that it has held a few different meanings over time, as has the more specific concept of “class conflict”. One of the first great works of historical analysis, Thyucidides’ History of the Peloponnesian War often presents us with one version of class conflict – that of “the rich” and “the poor”, who struggle respectively for oligarchic and democratic political systems. Likewise, the first great treatise on politics in the annals of Western political thought, Aristotle’s Politics is also preoccupied with class dynamics and conflicts. Arguably one of Aristotle’s most pressing goals was to discover how to harmonize the various classes of the ancient polity.

In Aristotle we can actually see an approach to class conflict that would eventually make its way into the modern Catholic social doctrine, consisting of an account of both the strengths and weaknesses of the contending classes, what their objective role in a well-functioning soceity ought to be, and what the rights and duties are with respect to the greater society. Theorists of different political persuasions have mined Politics for arguments that can be applied to modern debates; conservatives find a staunch defense of private property (which I happen to share), while those on perhaps the ‘center left’ will find a strong emphasis on curbing both excess wealth and poverty for the common good, particularly in a classic statement in book IV:

Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes, or at any rate than either singly; for the addition of the middle class turns the scale, and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant. Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme- either out of the most rampant democracy, or out of an oligarchy; but it is not so likely to arise out of the middle constitutions and those akin to them.

For the ancients, then, the existence of classes and their periodic conflicts were a fact of social and political life. Aristotle himself casually dismissed at least one kind of individualism when he declared that man was, by nature, a social being – and that any man who presumed to live as an individual, outside of society (or in opposition to it), would either have to be a “beast or a god”.

In modern times, the word “class” has taken on more meanings. Conflicting schools of sociology have conflicting notions of what a class is. The “functionalist” school, and many modern commentators engaged in casual observations of society, tend to think of class in terms of income, of personal wealth, or even cultural preferences. A poor person who enjoys fine art might be said to “have class” while a wealthy parvenu who spends inordinate amounts of money on gold jewlery and other garish signs of wealth might be thought of as “lacking class”. Most often, however, “class” is related to income and perhaps in a secondary sense to occupation. A person is “rich” or “middle class” or “poor”; a person is a “blue collar” or a “white collar” worker, “skilled” or “unskilled”, “temporary” or “professional”, and so on.

What is called in sociology “conflict theory”, readers would probably know better as classical Marxism. And in Marxism class takes on a new and, what Marx and Engels would argue, scientific meaning. For the Marxists “class” signifies a definite relationship between a group of people and the productive forces of society. In the most popular dichotomy there are “proletarians” and “capitalists”, with the former owning nothing except their capacity to perform labor and the latter owning of the means of production.

Class conflict is for Marx and Engles the motor force of history, made inevitable in that the classes ultimately represent two distinct and often impersonal social forces – the productive forces in their constant development, and the relations of production in their static existence. To put it as simply as I can, because technology is always changing, the real relationship between man and the means of production is also always changing. But the law is fixed or changes rather slowly, and it is forged in an earlier time before the technology changed. The law is what defines the property forms of a given society and protects the class status quo at the time they are established, but the technological progress of mankind continues without respect to these forms and evetually begins to outgrow them. The ‘progressive class’ is that which has an interest in overthrowing the existing relations while the ‘reactionary class’ is that which has an interest in maintaining them – whether they know it or not (they all fight it out eventually).

The conflict, therefore, is inevitable. And I believe there is a great deal of truth to this theory when it is properly understood and applied to the last 500 years or so, but it is also missing some very important things as well, starting with an underestimation or outright denial of free will and morality.

Policy Disputes

Having surveyed different meanings of class, what role does it play, must it play, in economic science? If we are speaking of purely mathematical models, it doesn’t appear to have any necessary role at all. It is, however, when deciding first what the aims of policy ought to be, and secondly how to achieve those aims, that the class perspective begins to matter a great deal.  I am not going to distinguish between the different meanings of class from here on, because in this day and age I think they overlap too often to really pull them apart.

In the classical and the modern Catholic view of society, the political is indispensable to the shaping of a well-ordered society. In what I see as the modern neoliberal view (and I don’t presume to say that anyone who posts or comments here is necessarily a neoliberal), the primary concern is with ‘economic growth’. Sometimes these two aims are harmonious. At other times, they appear to be in dissonance. And it is when they appear to be in dissonance that the class view is necessary.

For instance, in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict notes time and again that much of the gains of the global economy have been unevenly distributed. There is growth, but it is not well shared. I understand that there are plausible neoliberal explanations and rationalizations for these imbalances. But I also must acknowledge the arguments I often see that justify great inequalities not only on moral grounds, i.e. private property rights, but also on utilitarian grounds. The great inequalities, it is said, result from perfectly legitimate business pursuits and are the price society must pay for economic growth and technological progress. It is also acknowledged that perhaps as time goes on the rising tide will eventually lift “all boats”. But long before any such thing is likely to occur, violent class struggles may also, with greater probability I believe, break out with the potential of setting back human progress even further.

For even if some of the contributors here do not recognize such possibilities, the US government has and does, especially now in the grips of an economic crisis. Contingency plans have been developed specifically for scenarios of economic unrest leading to political turmoil and social chaos. Even if the sort of social chaos that could unfold as a result of an economic collapse does not see the populace coalescing into class-conscious political parties and factions, the great inequalities of wealth will serve as both a real and a symbolic cause of popular anger and hatred at the existing order.

It is therefore not, in my view, a good idea to try and force or even strongly convince the majority of people to swallow what they would see as the most bitter medicine – further cuts in wages and benefits in order to stay ‘competitive’ with third world labor, further reductions of the social safety net, further erosions of labor rights, of public education, and other publicly funded programs. While each of these institutions may be flawed and in need of reform, a set of policies that only looks at the GDP and pays little heed to the distribution of the national wealth is certainly not prudent.

Some will undoubtedly argue that it is either immoral or imprudent to ‘take from the rich and give to the poor’. I would argue that Catholic social teaching clearly shows that we all have a moral duty to contribute, through a fair regime of progressive taxation, to the maintenance of society. On the other hand those who argue that redistribution is “immoral” usually don’t apply that to the military or other programs they deem necessary (some anarchists do, and credit to them for consistency).

Moreover if this wealth redistribution is indeed the only alternative to social decay, class conflict and violent revolution, then it would be both immoral and imprudent not to do it. I would argue that this has been the case at several points throughout history and in practically every country in the world. To the Catholic Church, this threat was real and it was immanent (and remains so today). The seriousness with which it viewed class struggle and conflict cannot possibly be overstated, as anyone who reads the opening paragraphs of Rerum Novarum or Quadragesimo Anno would be compelled to recognize.

It will also be noted that at each juncture in the development of Catholic social thought, including the most recent, lavish displays of wealth by the ruling class are condemned as inspiring hatred and envy. Those who intice others to sin are as guilty as the sinner (see QA 134-35).  There can be no moral justification for obscene amounts of conspicuous consumption and gluttonus lifestyles in the midst of hardship and suffering. As Pope Benedict says, this situation is “unacceptable”. (CV 22)

Applications

At the very least it must be understood that no one (well, almost no one, anyway) wants to simply “soak the rich” for the fun of it. Rather, taking a cue from Aristotle, it becomes evident that great inequalities in wealth not only lead to class resentment and conflict, but also to disproportionate political influence. Then a snowball effect kicks in – more wealth and power leads to more wealth and power, while the inverse remains true for those on bottom.

All of this being said, my actual preference is not for a greater regime of wealth redistribution via taxes and government programs. I believe there is a better way, but that redistribution is the best option as of right now. I only side with it prudentially for the moment as an alternative to privatization and neoliberalism, which I believe would unleash social unrest that would destroy society (as it has in Latin America dozens of times).

As for the better alternative to both of these paradigms: We stand at a crossroads where more power can be granted to employers over workers, with all of the resulting immediate miseries for the latter (in spite of whatever long-term, widely diffused benefits may appear down the line) or, more workers can become their own employers in part or in full. Economic democracy is the challenge of our time, a phrase appearing a couple of times in Caritas and well worth paying attention to. Potentially destructive class conflict can practically vanish wherever worker-ownership models thrive.  Conflicts between businesses and communities, another serious concern of the Holy Father, can also be mitigated. The dignity of the human person becomes fully respected in a ‘community of solidarity’, as the Compendium describes the ideal Catholic business.

On a final note (if you’re still here, you have my admiration for getting to this point), economic democracy as I understand it, and as I think Catholic social teaching understands it, is not at all incompatible with markets. Those concerned with the “laws of economics” need not be concerned with these ideas, unless they include in those laws a notion that only great and vast personal fortunes and company profits that dwarf the GDP of several developing nations are a necessary condition of technological and cultural progress.

On a final final note, I am predicting that I will be overwhelmed with dissenting opinions. Please forgive me if I cannot and do not respond to them all. To Darwin I will respond because he kindly requested this post. To all others I will respond to on the condition that they ask questions in a respectful manner and do not assume something about me or my argument that isn’t clearly in it, i.e. that I’m some sort of Marxist (seeing the validity of historical materialism doesn’t  mean I agree at all with its underlying philosophy or its political implications). Overtly hostile posts will be summarily deleted.

13 Responses to The Class Analysis

  • “Then none was for a party; then all were for the state;
    Then the great man helped the poor, and the poor man loved the great.
    Then lands were fairly portioned; then spoils were fairly sold:
    The Romans were like brothers in the brave days of old.

    Now Roman is to Roman more hateful than a foe,
    And the Tribunes beard the high, and the Fathers grind the low.
    As we wax hot in faction, in battle we wax cold:
    Wherefore men fight not as they fought in the brave days of old.”

    Freedom from class conflict, the dream of the nineteenth century which could unite figures as completely foreign as Macaulay and Marx, albeit in the case of Marx by the proletariat exterminating, peacefully or otherwise, the other classes. Class conflict has been a given throughout most of history, but I think its significance has been vastly overrated since the French Revolution. The main source of conflict in this world has always been a clash of ideas. Sometimes that clash has been played out in class conflict but usually it has not.

    That is why Marx, from a solidly middle class German family of rabbis, and married to a member of the lesser nobility, set the world on fire. Not because he accurately analyzed the class conflict: his analysis was puerile and his predictions were rubbish. Instead he created a set of ideas that have an enduring appeal for frustrated intellectuals like Marx to use as a vehicle for seizing power and as a moral justication for exercising the power of the State ruthlessly to impose their quarter-baked ideas on unwilling populations. A small cadre of fanatics, motivated by a body of ideas impervious to outward contradiction in their eyes, often have written many an interesting, read bloody, page in history. I would note that none of the foregoing is directed towards Joe who I do not place in this category, but are merely my thoughts as to conflict in history.

  • Joe,

    Thanks for taking the time to set out your thoughts on all this.

    Reading this, I’m not sure that our understanding of class conflict itself is necessarily all that different, though I perhaps think that it comes into play less often than you do.

    I’m not sure to what extent you’d agree with this, but it seems to me that people seldom act with class solidarity, except when pushed to do so by certain societal forces. Most of the time people muddle on through doing their best to fulfill their obligations to their loved ones and society and seeking to find enjoyment in life where they can. However, when people are pushed into a situation in which they see both that:

    a) Their situation could be significantly better than it currently is and

    b) Some group of people (who are not invincible) are unfairly keeping them from attaining that advancement

    Thus, people are often kept in conditions of significant oppression without rising up if they cannot imagine that their conditions could be better or if they don’t see their condition as being the result of a particular group of people. For instance, in Ancient Egyptian society, and in ancient and medieval India, China and Japan, we see highly stratified societies with the vast majority of people kept in great relative poverty while a small number of people lived in great wealth. However, there was little concept in those societies that things could be any other way, and so rebellions were almost unheard of.

    In contrast, the Spartan helots were only kept down through constant active oppression by the Spartioi, since it was readily obvious to the helots that throughout the rest of Greece the farmers/laborers did not live in the extreme oppression which the Spartans had forced them into. Since they were allowed no chance to better themselves other than through revolt, revolt was their only and most attractive option.

    This would also explain why revolt often come, not at a height of repression, but rather after things have got better for a while, but then some obstacle impedes progress. Thus, the Russian revolution came fifty years after the peaceful freeing of the Russian serfs, and after a protracted period of liberalization of Russian political and social institutions — but when ineffective leadership and a pair of catastrophically managed wars slowed progress. Similarly, the peasant revolts of the later Middle Ages (such as Wat Tyler’s rebellion in England) almost all came after the Black Death, when a limit on the labor supply had significantly increased the prospect of peasants and craftsmen, and nobility in a number of areas attempted to use their political and military power to check the increase in the cost of labor. And the French Revolution came only as the absolutism of the French monarchy was on the wane.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying: I agree that class conflict comes into play when a group sees a real possibility of improvement yet sees their way blocked in a fashion that only force can overcome — but it seems to me that this generally only happens when options for political improvement and economic improvement through non-violent measures have been forcibly cut off. And thus that democracy and free market economies, along with sufficient care for the common good via programs to help those most in need, will almost invariably keep class conflict from occuring.

    Aside from perhaps some different weighting of the values, am I right in thinking that you’d basically agree?

  • I would agree with most of what you said, but not with this:

    “And thus that democracy and free market economies, along with sufficient care for the common good via programs to help those most in need, will almost invariably keep class conflict from occuring.”

    I do not believe that this has what has kept class conflict from occurring, or rather, that we have either a sufficient democracy or a sufficient free market (where enough people are able to meaningfully participate).

    First, class conflict has occurred – it just hasn’t boiled over into revolution. There are strikes and lock outs, protests and unionization drives, widespread hatred of Wall Street, etc.

    Secondly, it depends on what kind of ‘free market’ we are talking about. We can’t really know what the free market is capable of because it doesn’t really exist. What have seen, as I argued on Blackadders latest post, is a massive rise in consumer debt out of proportion to real income, real savings, etc.

    Allowed to run its natural course, I believe the imbalances in the economy would produce class conflict on a much greater scale. In the 1930s we tried government programs and wealth redistribution to offset the worst aspects of capitalism. In the 1980s we turned to credit and debt for the same purpose, and for good reason – the social projects of the 1930s were eventually paid for and expanded by the post-war boom. There was no such boom leading into the 1980s, just a massive expansion of the financial sector.

    To the Austrians and Ron Paul types, I say – be careful what you wish for. I’ve not read a single report of the consequences of this economic crisis on consumption and debt without seeing the word “painful” involved. Some people will say “we’ve been through this before, we’ll get through it again”. Maybe so. But then, not all the bubbles have burst yet. The credit card bubble hasn’t burst yet.

    I want to believe however that there is a window of time in which people might band together and develop strategies for sustainable and equitable growth within their own communities and towns, and have no reason to want to turn to bloody class warfare or to acquiesce to social rot and decay.

  • GKC in the Illus London News [USA] 8 Nov 1924:

    “…what [Miss Pankhurst] said was something like this: “The Bolshevists say they want to abolish the Bourgeoisie; on the contrary, what we want to abolish is the Proletariat”.

    That has got the whole truth in it. What is wrong is not that there is one class of property, but that there is another class without property. What is wrong is
    that this class without property has to hire itself out to the propertied class in order to live at all… What the Socialist says is that we have gone too far
    along the road to concentration, and that we cannot turn back. Curiously enough, that is also what the Capitalist says: he says we have gone too far along the
    road to monopoly and mass production and the domination of the world by a few millionaires from nowhere, to turn back to simpler or saner things… If there
    is no good in going back, there is no good in going forward. When men have come to the edge of a precipice, it is the lover of life who has the spirit to leap
    backwards, and only the pessimist who continues to be progressive…

    The supreme social necessity today is a strategic retreat…”

  • Gabriel Austin,

    Yet, despite GKC being mostly ignored in regards to Distributism, hasn’t the result of Capitalism 85 years later been, in the main, been the drastic reduction of the proletariat and the drastic increase of the middle class?

  • I like Chesterton’s sentiment but it has to be implemented in a way that wouldn’t “pull the plug” on operations that are necessary to sustain the global population.

    What we need to do is combine new technology and new methods of production with an older, pre-industrial social consciousness. Pope Pius XI believed that industrialization and ‘capitalism’ did not have to develop in the particular way that it did, that more room could have been made for the masses of humanity who suffered and continue to suffer if better values and morals guided the development process.

    I believe Benedict takes the same view today. When we look back on the Middle Ages, there was not one uniform system. In “Life in a Medieval Village” the authors show that the economic system was a combination of private property, limited freedom of trade, and strong rules agreed to by the whole community (not just imposed by the noble lord).

    There was a class that was permanently tied to the land, at least in theory – in practice, the medieval village had many different layers, from the serfs to freemen. We would have no need of such a class today thanks to our technology, but the combination of private property and common regulation/use could easily come back.

  • My own conclusions relate to the underlying and overarching theme to all areas of Catholic social doctrine- a Christian humanism to be applied to every area of social concern- economics to be sure. It really is quite simple- you look at an economic relationship and you apply the Jesus command to ‘Love thy Neighbor’. This will prevent one from rationalizing a sweat shop economy for example. If it was your child or mother who was facing the choice of unemployment/hunger or ridiculously low wages with poor working conditions and long hours- would you passively accept the ‘free market’ model that explains away your loved one’s suffering? Not if you have a heart and enough leisure time to study your Catholic faith and alternative economic/business approaches that are rooted in Christian-humanism.

    If we look closer at the relationship of labor and capital we can see more clearly how the technical means of creating wealth are not the primary benchmarks of a Catholic mind- only so long as the situation of the human person- every person in the pike of economic transactions- is being considered and treated with the dignity and justice accorded them by God Himself. Here are a few paragraphs from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church on this subject:

    277. The Church’s social doctrine has not failed to insist on the relationship between labour and capital, placing in evidence both the priority of the first over the second as well as their complementarities.

    Labour has an intrinsic priority over capital. “This principle directly concerns the process of production: in this process labour is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause. This principle is an evident truth that emerges from the whole of man’s historical experience”[593]. This “is part of the abiding heritage of the Church’s teaching”[594].

    There must exist between work and capital a relationship of complementarities: the very logic inherent within the process of production shows that the two must mutually permeate one another and that there is an urgent need to create economic systems in which the opposition between capital and labour is overcome[595]. In times when “capital” and “hired labour”, within a less complicated economic system, used to identify with a certain precision not only two elements of production but also and above all two concrete social classes, the Church affirmed that both were in themselves legitimate[596]: “Capital cannot stand without labour, nor labour without capital”[597]. This is a truth that applies also today, because “it is altogether false to ascribe either to capital alone or to labour alone what is achieved by the joint work of both; and it is utterly unjust that the one should arrogate unto itself what is being done, denying the effectiveness of the other”[598].

    278. In considering the relationship between labour and capital, above all with regard to the impressive transformations of our modern times, we must maintain that the “principal resource” and the “decisive factor” [599] at man’s disposal is man himself, and that “the integral development of the human person through work does not impede but rather promotes the greater productivity and efficiency of work itself”[600]. In fact, the world of work is discovering more and more that the value of “human capital” is finding expression in the consciences of workers, in their willingness to create relationships, in their creativity, in their industriousness in promoting themselves, in their ability consciously to face new situations, to work together and to pursue common objectives. These are strictly personal qualities that belong to the subject of work more than to the objective, technical, or operational aspects of work itself. All of this entails a new perspective in the relationship between labour and capital. We can affirm that, contrary to what happened in the former organization of labour in which the subject would end up being less important than the object, than the mechanical process, in our day the subjective dimension of work tends to be more decisive and more important than the objective dimension.

    279. The relationship between labour and capital often shows traits of antagonism that take on new forms with the changing of social and economic contexts. In the past, the origin of the conflict between capital and labour was found above all “in the fact that the workers put their powers at the disposal of the entrepreneurs, and these, following the principle of maximum profit, tried to establish the lowest possible wages for the work done by the employees”.[601] In our present day, this conflict shows aspects that are new and perhaps more disquieting: scientific and technological progress and the globalization of markets, of themselves a source of development and progress, expose workers to the risk of being exploited by the mechanisms of the economy and by the unrestrained quest for productivity.[602]

    280. One must not fall into the error of thinking that the process of overcoming the dependence of work on material is of itself capable of overcoming alienation in the workplace or the alienation of labour. The reference here is not only to the many pockets of non-work, concealed work, child labour, underpaid work, exploitation of workers — all of which still persist today — but also to new, much more subtle forms of exploitation of new sources of work, to over-working, to work-as-career that often takes on more importance than other human and necessary aspects, to excessive demands of work that makes family life unstable and sometimes impossible, to a modular structure of work that entails the risk of serious repercussions on the unitary perception of one’s own existence and the stability of family relationships. If people are alienated when means and ends are inverted, elements of alienation can also be found in the new contexts of work that is immaterial, light, qualitative more than quantitative, “either through increased sharing in a genuinely supportive community or through increased isolation in a maze of relationships marked by destructive competitiveness and estrangement”.[603]

  • Thanks for the informative post, Joe.

  • You are very welcome :)

  • DarwinCatholic Says Thursday, July 16, 2009 A.D. at 2:02 pm
    “Gabriel Austin,
    Yet, despite GKC being mostly ignored in regards to Distributism, hasn’t the result of Capitalism 85 years later been, in the main, been the drastic reduction of the proletariat and the drastic increase of the middle class?”

    It depends on what country you are looking at. And how you define middle class. In Paris and in London, there are clear distinctions between class areas of the city.

    A superiority of the Middle Ages was precisely recognition of the rights of serfs to their property.

  • Yet more from GKC [Nov. 1924}:

    “…There are a great many things in which I should like the State to interfere, and in which it does not interfere, and in which none of the statesmen or State
    reformers would think of allowing it to interfere. I should like to insist on a public audit of the secret Party funds… I should like to punish people who
    make corners in fish and soap and many other common commodities. I wish we could see the highly mediaeval spectacle of the an Oil King in the pillory or a wheat
    King on the gallows. I should like to punish people who make huge fortunes out of quack remedies, or out of poisoning or adulterating all sorts of food and
    drink. But this is not preventing most people from enjoying liberty. It is only preventing a few people from taking liberties with liberty…

    “What I complain of now is that the State, being a small and dangerous plutocracy, has become the organ of abnormal and unpopular power, and tends to interfere not with the people’s enemies, but simply with the people… It is not to reform our institutions so that people may have great self-expression. It is simply to reform the people…

    “It is much more likely that modern rulers will forbid first beer, and then tobacco, and then tea and coffee. Modern rulers will not punish modern millionaires for anything, and that for a very simple reason. The reason is that the modern millionaires are the modern rulers. But many of them, especially in America, think that they soften or cover up very unscrupulous commercial methods
    by pushing very Puritanical reforms… all that fussy and futile interference with the children of the poor, which is ready to take anything away from them
    except their poverty… humanity does not consist of such hypocrites; they are only found in holes and corners, such as Parliaments, political offices,
    committees of public control, and financial firms with branches all over the world…”

    Does it not all sound familiar?

  • Well, yes, it sounds familiar…

    The thing is that I think people who take that populist approach now are mostly wrong as well.

    GKC deserves a lot of credit for his moral and common sense stands. He was one of the few voices ready to call the eugenics insanity what it was loudly and clearly enough to make a difference.

    But I’m afraid that I don’t have huge amounts of respect for his degree of understanding when it comes to economics.

  • DarwinCatholic Says Friday, July 17, 2009 A.D. at 1:46 pm
    “The thing is that I think people who take that populist approach now are mostly wrong as well”.

    With all due respect [I still do not know what that phrase means], perhaps you could be a touch more specific. What is a populist approach?

    “But I’m afraid that I don’t have huge amounts of respect for his degree of understanding when it comes to economics”.

    As we were wont to ask in high school, f’rinstance?

    It seems to me that his addition to Miss Pankhurst’s comment pretty well sums up the problem with the economy.

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