On the rise of fascism


TL;DR: capitalism attacks and undermines the same institutions and rights that fascists would be attacking if in power and/or that are in place precisely to prevent fascists from taking or wielding ultimate power. Capitalism undermines these institutions because they are keeping owner/corporate power in check, and in so doing, capitalism paves the way for fascism. It shouldn't be surprising, capitalism in a very authoritarian ideology. The reason we don't see it that way (other than propaganda) is that it wields power over us directly only in one area of our daily lives: the workplace. The owner class dictates over the rest of us in the workplace, they tell us what to do, how to do it and who keeps the profits of our work. This leads to common people getting shafted and to alienation, which leads to people looking for alternatives, even in fascism. The owner class is meanwhile busy using their wealth (which they largely inherited and/or extracted from the 99%'s work) to expand their riches by methods that not only shaft the common people but, again, ultimately pave the way for fascism.

So John Oliver did a segment last November on the rise of authoritarianism/fascism, which got me thinking. There have been many articles in recent times talking about this apparent trend. They all point to examples and talk about different situations or possible culprits. It's the culture war, say some. Others think the problem is that the international community barely challenges tyrants. Hillary Clinton decided to blame refugees instead. The more enlightened ones cite civil resistance as a strategy to fight it or even mention capitalism. They all but completely ignore neoliberalism. Even that one article that mentions capitalism talks about the virtues of "democratic capitalism" unironically.

The way I see it, fascists rise to attack in disjointed waves (even if they are always just beneath the surface waiting), but capitalism mounts a constant, almost globally-concerted attack.[1] An attack that's actually backed by economic might. An attack on workers rights. On civil rights. On consumer rights. On environmental rights. On the media, on politics, on liberal institutions, on human rights and dignity. This way, it's constantly eroding the very things that would otherwise keep authoritarianism in check. This way, it paves the way for fascism.

The amazing prose that follows, will be largely USA-centric. For all its faults, America has a gigantic wealth of information publicly and easily available. Plus, by being the world’s sole superpower and largest economy since the 1920s, the country becomes central in understanding worldwide trends (after all, the political winds of the USA affect many of these trends indirectly, when not outright pushing them directly).

Economic disillusionment, resentment, suffering, anger

Figure 1. Neoliberalism led to the Great Regression and the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Curves are adjusted to or start/end on different years depending on the datasets I could find on the interwebs. Full resolution picture here. Sources: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8,, #9 #10, #11, #12, #13, #14, #15.

Nah, I'm not trying to misquote Yoda, I'm talking about the current capitalist stage, ie. neoliberalism. This stage can be said to have started in the late 70s/early 80s, emblematically with noted intellectual Ronald Reagan and renowned humanitarian Margaret Thatcher who promoted massive deregulation waves and tax cuts for the rich. Ideologically, they promoted core tenets such as: government = bad, greedy individualism = good, subservience to corporations = good.

Even though we were promised it would all “trickle down” on us, wealth has instead been redistributed to the very top. This ushered in the era of the Great Regression (Figure 1 to the right covers the USA exclusively, but economists recognize the phenomenon in all/most of the developed world), and when the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression hit us, we found that state power rushed to bailout the institutions and protect the elites whose fraudulent (and deregulated) behaviour caused the crisis in the first place. Not content with that, state power told us to tighten our belts.

To further complicate matters, those who were supposed to be on the left, who were supposed to look out for workers and the common people against corporate power... they sold us out too. As the 1990s rolled in, taking voluminous hairdos and synthpop away from us, the Republicans and the Tories were voted out of office. Sadly, the supposedly “left-wing” parties had become unrecognizable. Clinton and Blair (and Obama and Brown) did nothing but continue the neoliberal and neocon agenda. America spearheaded the neoliberal "Third Way" into first world countries such as Canada, Australia and the rest of Europe. Not content with that, the Washington consensus was thrust upon much of the developing world.

We keep having to re-learn the same lesson over and over. Economic inequality (see Figures 1, 2, 7 and 8) is a well-known contributor to political instability, driving a cycle of social unrest, reduced investment and economic stagnation. You would think if there's one group of people who would have learned the lessons from the French Revolution or the Great Crash, it would be the one percenters. But as Adam Smith wrote more than two centuries ago, the masters of mankind have always been about hoarding everything for themselves without a thought for anything else. The owner class is driven by short term profits, doesn't have a care for the long term or externalities. Neoliberalism is just the latest incarnation of this vile maxim.

It's all of this and more that has furthered the alienation of the common people from the political process and/or given ammo to right-wing critics of the left. It created entire generations of people who justly feel cheated by the system. A system that's inherently crippled. And people who are desperate. Who are in dire straits. Who are getting screwed. Who are fucking angry. This is fertile ground for fascists to sow their most basic routine: It’s all the fault of this or that group of people! I, and only I, can save you now!

Alienation you say?

Figure 2. To be honest, I was expecting this all to look worse. These numbers rely on a lot of estimates so they are probably quite rough but it gives an idea of the inequality in this world. Yes, the "money needed to lift everybody out of poverty" does not include logistical costs for example. Sure, if the top 10 richest billionaires pulled their wealth together so to speak, their net worth would go down fast before they even got started lifting people out of poverty. And if they did manage to do it, getting everybody out of poverty for that one year would surely be great for those individuals (and there's an argument to be made that a significant percentage of them would manage to stay above the poverty line afterwards) but it still wouldn't fix endemic poverty and the systemic causes. Full resolution picture here. Main source #1 and #2

Capitalism turns human relations into transactions. It equates people's worth with productivity and salary size. Conversely, if you fall on hard times, it's 100% your failing as an individual. We are bombarded constantly by marketing schemes equating consumer goods with happiness and sex. Under capitalism, workers are alienated from their labour by definition. The workplace is an authoritarian space, you either submit to your boss and wage slavery or starve in the streets.[2] It reduces people to cogs in a machine conducting mind-numbing tasks. It reduces (and encourages) workers to sell themselves in the "labour marketplace." It alienates workers not just from their work, but also from other workers. And when the workday is over, people then carry their frustrations, anger and resentment back to their families, friends and neighbours. The alienation permeates all aspects of our lives. That is, unless you are a member of the owner class (see Figure 2).

As if that wasn't enough, capitalism is exceptionally inefficient when it comes to organising the workplace, it's not just that it creates entire industries that provide no value to society (like marketing, which actually provides a negative value for society by undermining markets)[3] but outside of that it still creates countless jobs that serve no actual societal purpose. This is why, for example, a system like Medicare for All saves money: by eliminating the for-profit motive you eliminate countless jobs and inefficiencies that are there to serve capitalism but serve no actual societal need.

A lot has been said about "economic anxiety" and whether it pushed people towards Trump or not. The "economic anxiety" narrative had solidified early on but later came to be contested (and sometimes reaffirmed), with racism and "cultural anxiety" being seen as alternative culprits.

It may be true that nearly half (48%) of white working-class Americans say “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country” or that the 41% of white millennials that voted for Trump were motivated by "white vulnerability." The key, though, is that neoliberalism has no solution in offer, and at worst it's probably also driving the problem. The way I see it, these feelings are not divorced from the economy, if the "Great Prosperity" was still ongoing, white Americans would not feel that there's a whole bunch of "others" coming to get what those white Americans think is rightfully theirs (at least not to the degree they do today). "Economic fatalism" made white working-class voters twice as likely to vote for Trump, after all. Interestingly, it's becoming more and more widely accepted that life satisfaction correlates positively and the experience of negative emotions correlates negatively with income up to around $100000 per annum in North America. The only households that qualify for such bliss are in the top ~20% of the income distribution (see Figure 1).

The point is that we shouldn't just equate "economic anxiety" with the financial situation of voters, rather with the feeling they've been given the short end of the stick. The feeling that things were getting better back when America was "great," but no more.[4] Whereas people once had reasonable hopes of achieving a better situation for themselves and of their children going on to achieve an even better one, that is no longer the case. Some of these people may be relatively well-off but when the entire propaganda apparatus (see "The Lying Press" below) is hellbent on blaming the "other" and never the economic system, I'm not surprised that studies find higher correlations between voting for Trump and racism than with the financial situation of voters. As best as I can see it we should understand that the Great Regression didn't drive everyone to poverty, rather it has led to crushing debt, stagnation and enhanced alienation, which all then drive things like racism and voting for authoritarian leaders.

Finally, while it seems to me that economic downturns and things like the Great Regression can push people to vote for authoritarian leaders, I think that it's alienation in particular that pushes young people to actually join neo-Nazi groups. It's a way of shedding these negative feelings by seeking belonging and power over others.[5] The economic situation has made it so you can only afford a shitty studio apartment or to still live with your parents and, inside the workplace, you are some bullshit job middle management idiot's bitch, but outside... outside you belong to the "master race."

The lying press

Yes, this is an old Nazi refrain that the Trumpster revived under the “fake news” catchphrase and that authoritarian leaders of all stripes have used to one extent or another (from Viktor Orbán to Rodrigo Duterte to Hugo Chávez to Néstor Kirchner and back to Donald Trump to name a few in recent times). But we must remember, trust is the media was already at an all-time low in the USA before Trump ran for president. This is because the mainstream media is corporate media, their duty is not to the truth but to maximize shareholders' profit. This gives them an incentive to protect the neoliberal status quo as much as possible and shill for more deregulation and whatever other products their owning conglomerate sells. Mass media corporations have a gigantic conflict of interest this way and people have noticed: by 2014 trust in the media had decayed to 40%. I cannot say if people at large have completely sound reasoning to distrust the media, but it would seem they know something is rotten there.

Figure 3. Self-explanatory. Source.

In their milestone book “Manufacturing Consent,” Herman and Chomsky laid out how mass media is subservient to the ruling power structure through five largely self-imposed filters:.

  • The first filter is media ownership and profit motives. As I've mentioned, mass media is owned by large corporations whose interest is in profits, this puts journalistic ethics and power critique perhaps not at the bottom of the values scale, but certainly not at the top. It'd be remiss here not to mention that deregulation by Reagan and particularly by Clinton has led to an amalgamation of media outlets. The number of corporations that control a majority (90%) of the media went from 50 in 1983 to just 6 in 2011 (AT&T, CBS, Comcast, Disney, Fox and Viacom).

  • The second filter is advertising. As if catering to the financial needs of their owners wasn't enough, mass media have another conflict of interest as they must cater to advertisers (the ones actually paying for their bills). This is, for example, why no matter how crazy or truth-lax a Fox host becomes, they only get in trouble when they say or do something terrible enough for advertisers to leave their show. This is also why mass media has a sensationalism bias. All three major networks covered Trump's empty podium over Bernie's speech back during the 2016 election circus mainly because they are chasing ratings. CNN did not cover Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 or Stormy Daniels to a ridiculous degree because they made an assessment on journalistic importance, they did it because they are chasing ratings, ratings they must use to sell themselves (and thus their audience) to advertisers.

  • The third filter is something we can call "access journalism." Mass media outlets cannot act as watchdogs of the powerful and elites because they are actually complicit with them, and this is not just because their interests align (obviously, the corporate mass media interests will tend to align with the interests of other corporations and billionaires). Rather, the elites (be them political or corporate) make themselves essential to mass media. Is this a scoop that will give you ratings? Well, I can share it in exchange for positive coverage. Is there a big news story that just broke? Well, you are or have been too critical of this billionaire or of that politician, so I won't grant you the interview and you will lose the ratings battle to that other media outlet who was subservient enough. Access to important figures sells, retaining access necessitates the obliteration of hard-biting journalism.

  • The fourth filter is "flak." If a media outlet deviates from the manufactured consensus the particular story and people involved will get flak. This involves an active campaign of character assassination, of raising unfounded doubts and etc. This can be costly in terms of PR and advertisement losses and thus media outlets tend to refrain from deviating from the manufactured consent. If the media hadn't been afraid of flak and doing its job[6] (as opposed to whatever this is), perhaps public opinion of Edward Snowden would be better, perhaps public outcry would have prevented Chelsea Manning from being tortured in some hole.

  • The final filter is an enemy, originally communism, later terrorism. Nothing serves to corral and distract the audience like an enemy. Do not look at the powers behind the curtain, it's that enemy halfway across the world! It's that enemy with no power or money crossing the border!

  • Another issue I've been made aware of is the neutrality bias. This person said this, the other side said that. What are the real, objective facts? I don't know! My job is to be a stenographer! A key example is climate change, which is covered at a fraction of its real journalistic importance and when it is, mass media usually presents a "panel" including deniers, as if the issue was a 50:50 tossup.

Violating these unspoken rules is why those who do not toe the line get banished from mainstream media through punitive actions (seriously, check the story of Ashleigh Banfield, it's unbelievable). The only reason this doesn't happen more often is because mainstream media already tends to hire only people who agree with the status quo.

All of this and more has a created a fertile ground for (crypto)fascists to cry "FAKE NEWS" and have a gigantic sector of the population be receptive to such messaging. And since the media has grown to be so discredited and untrustworthy, if open fascists take power they'll have it easy to push their propaganda.

Let there be no confusion: this is not to say that Trump or any other authoritarian leader is right when they attack the press. In fact, more often than not they will attack these media outlets especially when they are actually doing their job (however flawed) and calling out the issues that these authoritarian political elites don’t want you to hear about. If the mass media outlet that's being critical is powerful enough (ie. a corporate conglomerate), the authoritarian leader will probably zoom in on it, essentially turning it into an "other” to attack and galvanize their base. (Trump seems to prefer "CNN" above others, Chávez did "Globovision" and the Kirchners "Grupo Clarin" to name a few examples.)

To finalize this segment I want to give credit to new media figures like Cenk Uygur and Kyle Kulinski who do excellent work in properly diagnosing and calling out the problems with the mainstream American media.

Undermining of institutions

Figure 4. Self-explanatory but it's always interesting to visualise the jingoistic spikes during Bush the First's (spike came in March 1991 after Iraqi forces were expelled from Kuwait) and Bush the Second's (seems like spikes are related to 9/11-Afghanistan and Iraq) governments. As for Clinton, I could see the spikes being during his '96 reelection campaign and/or following the Taiwan Strait Crisis and bombing runs in the Balkans. Source.

In the same way that they will attack the press, authoritarian leaders will attack any judge or institution that doesn’t bend to their whims. Alas, once again, the initial erosion of these essential institutions starts as a consequence of neoliberalism. The republican/parliamentarian institutions that have been key in maintaining and expanding our rights and freedoms (the very institutions that help us, as Chomsky likes to say, “expand the cage” we live in and fight against those who would seek to shrink it back again) are under constant capitalist attack.[7]

Figure 5. No matter how much or how little support with the average citizenry any given policy has, there's always a ~30% chance of it becoming law. Also notice that while the elites clearly don't always get their way, when it comes to blocking a law from getting passed, they basically always do. Source

Even before Trump, trust in government had fallen to historically low levels (Figure 4 above), as had Congress approval (Figure 6 below.) Even trust in the judicial branch had reached lows never measured before. How? Neoliberalism.

An amazing study covering 20 years of neoliberalism by the University of Princeton (Figure 5 to the right) found that the chances of a law getting passed in Congress have no correlation to popular will but instead correlate highly with corporate interests. Now, I doubt most Americans know of this study (check “The Lying Press” above) but I suspect a majority are aware of how it is that SuperPACs, big money and lobbyists shape American politics. So, once again, even if we ignore whether their reasoning is sound or not, it’s clear Americans know something is rotten in Washington when average yearly Congress approval has stayed below 20% for the last 8 years (See figure 6 below).

Figure 6. To be fair, the low approval ratings seen throughout the 2010s had been reached in the past, though not for a sustained period of time. Source.

Capitalism, especially in its current unhinged neoliberal form, is constantly working to remove regulations, to use state power to crush its enemies (see repression of the workers' movement, of the civil rights movement, of Occupy Wall Street movement, of DAPL water protectors and on and on). You may say, Well, things like deadly repression of workers are a thing of the past! Perhaps the first world is relatively above that, but there are other corporate tactics to undermine the workers' movement that capitalism can't help but put in place. When you ignore habeas corpus for the military-industrial complex, when you erode privacy laws so that corporations can do better marketing, when you claim that the largest terror program in the world is actually fighting terrorism... you pave the way for fascism. Even the more politically neutral institutions are attacked by neoliberalism.

Figure 7. This is meant as a quick and dirty way of contrasting Keynesianism and Neoliberalism. The top graph shows the percentage of total pre-tax national income going to the top 1% in developed nations for the last hundred years or so (average ± standard error). Of course, pre-tax income is not a perfect metric but it's the one we have available for so many countries and has become a useful gauge for income inequality used by economists. For most countries (red and green curves), this metric follows a U shape: it went down as Keynesianism became orthodoxy and then up again as Neoliberalism took hold. Canada, the UK and the USA were grouped separately as they largely had consistently higher values than the rest of the U-shaped countries. The countries in yellow and light blue did not follow a clear U shape. Germany, Japan and Switzerland fluctuated within certain limits after WW2 (Switzerland being the one more consistent throughout the decades). Denmark and the Netherlands managed to remain with consistent low values during the neoliberal era. Source The bottom graph shows the top marginal tax rate (average ± standard error) for those countries where long term data is available. Again, it's a quick and dirty visualization, different countries will have different income thresholds taxed at the top marginal bracket and this value will also change within each country at different timepoints. In general, we see that the top marginal tax rate grew during the Keynesian period and dropped during the neoliberal period. A similar pattern holds true for top inheritance tax rates in the UK and USA. Full resolution picture here. You can see a breakdown of Anglo-speaking countries here. Source

I think it's fair to say that corporate power in other parts of the first world doesn't own state power to the same degree as it does in the USA, but it's not for lack of trying. It seems to me that under capitalism the erosion of institutions is inevitable, the beast is constantly gnawing at any restraints you may put on it. FDR understood that in order to save capitalism and the owner class, big concessions (ie. regulations to shackle the beast of capitalism) were needed. Many sectors of the owner class did not appreciate it one bit, but Roosevelt was progressive enough, or smart enough, to "welcome their hatred." A more restrained and socially minded version of capitalism (Keynesianism) was put in place and this led to the so-called Great Prosperity. Today, the more socially minded countries are the ones consistently scoring higher on metrics like education and happiness. But first world leaders no longer welcome the hatred of the owner class. Now world leaders (well, corporate lawyers) draft international deals that give power to corporations over nations.

Furthermore, as much as capitalism necessitates state power for protection and bailouts, the owner class detests democracy and is always working on pushing anti-government propaganda, further undermining trust in governmental institutions: the more people distrust and disengage from their government, the more it becomes ripe for corporate control. Don't look over here! It's the government! Giving aid to those lazy ones! It's the government! Always so inefficient!

And it’s so that the liberal democracies become more vulnerable to the rise of authoritarian leaders. After capitalism, especially in its unshackled neoliberal form, has debased institutions, it’s much easier for an authoritarian demagogue to take advantage of the situation. It's much easier for a fascist to become accepted when authoritarian and brutalising policies have been slowly normalized. It's much easier for a fascist to redirect all the distrust and hatred of the people towards democracy and the political system. The real culprit is capitalism, which is by its very nature anti-democratic and authoritarian. The unintended consequence is the rise of fascist sentiments or of people willing to roll the dice with authoritarians claiming to have "solutions."

Destruction of public education

An institution that deserves special mention is that of public education. Education is essential in emancipating people. Ideally, no matter your wealth, you'll receive a quality education. Ideally, it will teach you not just facts about history, science, human health and sexuality and etc. but historical perspective, critical thinking, civics, common human biases, etc. An educated workforce is much more difficult to abuse and exploit. An educated consumer is more difficult to bamboozle. An educated citizen is more difficult to propagandize or get to support more tax cuts for the rich. Hell, if the population at large was educated enough, they may end up demanding more rights, the democratization of the workplace and to move away from capitalism.

And so, defunding and privatization of public education becomes a goal for the owner class. Their main objective, as best as I can see, is not to attack education per se but to make a buck. After four decades of neoliberalism, America climaxed in the shameful assignment of Betsy Devos as secretary of education. Through neoliberalism, public education stops being the "great equalizer" (however imperfect it may have already been before).[8]

Figure 8. American expenditures on things I consider important (and I could find online). NASA clearly became an afterthought once the "space race" was "won." The EPA was a pretty cool win against the Nixon administration but it's clearly been defunded for far longer than piece of shit Scott Pruitt's appointment. As for infrastructure, American infrastructure has been graded a D or D+ since at least 2009 and has been poisoning people for probably longer. What about the military? Well, who knows how much money is actually thrown into that black hole but the budget is generally considered to be bigger than that of the next 7 or 10 nations combined, most of those being American allies. Full resolution picture here. Source #1, #2, #3, #4.

Looking at Figure 8 you can see that after growing steadily for a couple of decades, education expenditures suffered an immediate and significant nosedive as neoliberalism started rolling and then stabilised around 6-7% of GDP (K-12 education spending on its own oscillated around 3-4% of GDP during the same period). You may think, Well, perhaps America happened to reach just the right amount needed for education. The trick, though, is that public funds are being redirected towards charter schools and private schools. Public schools have been left understaffed, underfunded and with a shift in priorities from actual education to marketisation and random metrics.

If you are born in a poor neighbourhood, chances are you will have poor education quality (not to mention something even worse). And even if we ignore this entrenchment and exacerbation of social inequalities, the incentive structures run counter to the concept of education as a social good at every level. All this abuse finally culminated in massive teacher strikes in 2018 and 2019.

The commodification of education also affects institutions of higher learning. And I'm not only talking about student debt. Privatising can be bad, but the for-profit motive is the real deal breaker because, again, the incentive structure then becomes tainted from the get-go, the objective is no longer to actually fulfil a real social need. I have also previously touched upon how capitalism is damaging to the scientific endeavour in academia (you know, that thing that actually drives innovation).

So yet again, what is convenient for capitalists, ends up being convenient for fascists. It's easier to sell scapegoats and messianic leaders to uneducated people. It's easier to get desperate, debt-riddled people to vote for authoritarians promising relief. It's easier to see authoritarianism as normal when corporate culture and unthinking submission to authority has been shoved down your throat since kindergarten.

CONTINUED in Part 2...


[1] I don't mean to imply there's a cabal of people with crooked noses ("globalists" seems to be the euphemism nowadays) who get together in a smoke-filled room to twirl mustaches and set world policies in secret as they laugh maniacally... just that, since one percenters have interests in common simply because they belong to the same class, if left to their own devices their individual efforts will naturally concentrate to a large extent on many areas. The people at the bottom could all be pulling to the same side, but they won't have enough strength of wealth to materialize their objective. Furthermore, while we in the 99% do have the strength of numbers, we seldom pull all together to the same side: the power structures are pitting different sections of the 99% against each other all the time (See "The Lying Press" section above or consider the "they took our jobs" xenophobia and the divide and conquer tactics used by "right-to-work" propaganda as examples).

[2] Would we have had need of a Me Too movement if the workplace was a democratic space? A space where creeps do not hold ultimate power over vulnerable people?

[3] It's beyond hilarious that the sole purpose of the gigantic industry of marketing is to undermine markets by creating uninformed and/or misinformed consumers who will make irrational buying decisions.

[4] Others have reached the same conclusion before.

[5] Importantly, neoliberalism also took the destruction of societal cohesion up to eleven. Neoliberalism is about the atomization of people, it's not about being individuals within a community as socialism would promote, but about selfish individuality. This only furthered the alienation and need for belonging in people.

[6] To be fair, as far as I can tell the written press did generally have a more nuanced and positive view of for example Snowden. Also, I'm not saying all media outlets should be monolithic but some things seem to be beyond ridiculous to me and through the Five Filters the overall narrative (manufactured consent), especially by TV cable news, leaves a lot to be desired on essential topics.

[7] Yes, I know I'm further bastardising the concept of the cage from an initial bastardization by Chomsky and yes, we should mention that, for example, in the USA these institutions were set up by rich white slave-holding men to protect and serve rich white land-owning (which almost by definition meant slave-holding) men and that to a large extent the rotten basic structure still stands. But we must acknowledge that the cage has been expanding. Slowly and paid with blood and toil. But it has expanded. From rich white landowners, to all white men, to women, to non-white people. Voting rights were gained. Workers' rights were gained. Environmental rights were gained. You can now point out how the system still benefits the owner class, how disenfranchisement of non-whites runs rampant, how corporations find loopholes around environmental regulations and a long etcetera… but it’s up to the people to 1) keep expanding the cage and 2) prevent its shrinkage.

[8] I do have issues with the way our public education systems work (rather authoritarian, counterproductive incentive structures, over-reliance on fact memorization, rigid curriculums with very little room for student-led pursuit of interests, etc), but even with its flaws, I do consider modern public education (more or less starting in the 1800s) to be, or have been, a "great equalizer."

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