The Crisis of Globalism and the Antinomies of Universal History
Recent elections in Europe and America upset the most cherished assumptions of post-Cold War Western politics and culture - especially liberal and social democratic notions of universalism and humanity summed up in “globalism.” There are the American types (neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, liberal interventionism, and nation-building) and the social-democratic sorts across the Atlantic (European transnationalism, pacifism, and demilitarization). The triumphalism following the fall of the USSR vastly intensified these ideological impulses, always latent since the end of the War if not since the Enlightenment. Nearly three decades later, we may assess their practical meaning. However opposed their governing sensibilities, Europe and America show common tendencies: To replace democratic politics with international governing elites geographically, culturally, and socially remote from those they govern; to succumb to the charms of both global markets and intrusive bureaucratic regulation no matter what the local or social cost; and to welcome open immigration (both legal and illegal), in essence suspending the “Westphalian” condition of modern sovereignty and the “nation-state”, fixed borders. Such tendencies seem the practical reality of democratic humanism on a global scale. More than anything else, these (and other aspects of hyper-democracy, such as political correctness) have sparked “populist” and “nationalist” revolts across the West, a reaction of the local, the particular, and the traditional against traits of liberal modernity sharing some features of the revolt against liberal modernity from outside the West, such as that of its fraternal rivals from Eastern Europe and the Near East, Russia and Islam.
The bleeding of boundaries has concentrated these upheavals, though not of the geometrical alone. The foundational principle of the modern Western polity is borders, but that is a geographical decantation of all the limits and boundaries necessary for life, cultural distinctions, natural differences, and social divisions, not just narrowly political ones. Borders create the modern space for ancient, indigenous human realities, the indispensability of “sacred differences” in ordering relations not just between societies but equally within societies. But it is also a condition of democracy. There can be no polity based on rule of law, let alone self-government, without borders and boundaries, “sacred differences”, “manmade”, cruel, and unjust though they may be. Fixed borders are its necessary condition, especially in a globalized world of shrinking dimensions, where rival nations directly push up against each other and salutary spaces separating them vanish. Globalization thus amplifies core tensions in democracy and its universalizing impulse. To borrow the title of Jean Renoir’s great WWI prisoner of war film by that name - likely not in the way he meant it - the “grand illusion” is that because they are artificial, we can do away with them, and because they are unjust or unfair, we should do away with them, as if human beings could achieve their true nature only when they live entirely on a cosmopolitan plane. Especially in the age of democracy, when aristocratic order has been delegitimized - vertical divisions of humanity internal to traditional society, as if different ranks were almost “different races” of humans (Tocqueville) - lateral divisions between nations may be all the more necessary to maintain the social bond, within and between them, despite the manifest dangers evidenced in two world wars. The greater peril to peaceful coexistence in the globalized world of civilizational clash may not be borders but their evisceration.
The trouble, I suggest, comes from an apocalyptic universalism, a concept of abstract “humanity” or equality colonizing politics and culture. This inverts the ordinary relation of politics and morality, as if the Kingdom were imminent, so near we can live as if it were already here. Rooted in Christianity and unleashed as democracy, it generates a universalist “morality” overriding the boundaries of society and politics with its transcendent reach. An imaginary future takes precedence over the present and past; the ideal displaces the real; moral fantasy claims rights over actuality. By contrast, Islamic universalism naturally takes political form, as government or coercion and law reflect God’s relation to the world, not man’s fall from grace. The Umma seeks to be a political community in a traditional sense, tribalism on a global scale. Based on original sin, perfection and its corruption, Christian apocalypticism moves in an opposite direction (and eventually gives rise to the secular world). Harnessing politics to an extraterrestrial moralism demanding a structural transformation of human existence, a reinvention of “human nature,” it weakens political community as it suggests human society be modeled as a church, a Kingdom of Ends. This inspires the abstract humanist or universalist ideals implicated of globalism, as if morality could abolish the political conditions of human existence. In modern democracy, the apocalyptic impulse shatters its orthodox Christian shell, contained by tradition, and returns to its promissory origin.
A classic expression of the apocalyptic dimension of democratic modernity, the war between ought and is, ideal and real, theory and practice, is Immanuel Kant’s «antinomy of politics and morality» (1795). This is not just an occasional conflict between common morality and political exigency but between an a priori moralism owing nothing of its validity to experience (but only to autonomous reason or freedom) and the demands of practical politics. Kant’s abstract counterpoint of the “moral politician” and the cynical “political moralist” is fatally flawed, though, because the real antinomy is with the nature of the common life of a polity in the spiritual economy of being human, not just with the exigencies of the politician or raison d’état. Politics is not just an external demand but a teleological condition of the human as such. Kant claimed to have solved his antinomy by asserting the rational autonomy of morality, on one hand, and the cunning of reason (as Hegel later called it), on the other. On Kant’s terms, however, the difference between the idealistic politician and the cynical one instead seems to collapse. As he notoriously said (1795), even a nation of devils would be able to devise a morally legitimate state, a republic, as long as they were sufficiently rational in pursuit of their selfish aims. The distance between this and, say, Bolshevism (Dostoyevskian demons running around “emancipating” humanity by subversive, violent, criminal means) may not be as great as one might think. On the other hand, even a society of saints would still require government since that does not rest on fallenness but on “subjectivity,” communities of irreducibly different, embodied individuals as such.
Notwithstanding Immanuel Kant’s vision of a «perfect civil union of the human species» (vollkommene bürgerliche Vereinigung in der Menschengattung ), there cannot be a global “society of humanity” in any genuine political sense - self-sustaining and self-governing- without the self-differentiating of the species into exclusive societies and cultures, nations and civilizations. Kant virtually admits this when he argues the conflict of nations is as if providential. Hegel, Kant’s disciple in the philosophy of history, understood the implications of it better, the impossibility of deploying a so-called “Idea of Reason” as a moral criterion to guide us towards an imaginary future. As Kant’s own philosophy of history suggests (and Hegel’s in his footsteps), human reason cannot guide history; it always achieves its supposed historical “ends” indirectly and unconsciously, as unintended results. The alleged “goal” of history comes about accidentally, through the frustration of reason; history (that is, human reciprocity) precludes rational mastery of it. Even if it has a collective result, it only comes about through individual actions that produce nearly the opposite of what was intended. Humanity may be universal, but it cannot act as if it were a single will, a single individual. Action is always mediated through difference, a plurality of wills “game theoretical” by definition (and so consigned to a resolution normally less than optimal). Perfect consensus cannot be, as if society were a church evincing divine will in all its parts, formed as one by God. Like individual societies, the species constitutes itself as a whole through internal division. Its unity subsists in the multi-polarity of its parts, one that is never exhaustive. To borrow Sartre’s term, it is a “de-totalized totality”, a whole constituted through its incompleteness, its disunity. Unique to humanity, precisely that makes our species ethical, spiritual, and historical: Not teleology but plurality, not absolute unity but reciprocity, not unanimity but the impossibility of that.
Kant’s idealism, though, invites us to pretend otherwise, despite a homage to realism his contemporary disciples seem to forget. Hegel, who rejected moral purism or romantic abstraction (the “moral view of the world,” the “beautiful soul,” “reason as lawgiver” and “tester of laws”) for “ethical life” (a particular community in history whose concrete form alone sustains moral existence), insisted philosophical chiliasm could only be retrospective (There may be a better alternative, no philosophical chiliasm at all). Kant wants to make it forward-looking, as if philosophers should quietly influence (if not direct) statesmen and governments, pushing history from behind—as if it could somehow escape from its own cunning dialectic through philosophical cognition. The delusion of the “cunning of reason” for either Kant or Hegel is that the collective result of the conflicted pursuits of individuals and enterprises entails a “rational” result, by an invisible hand. The point here is not that there is no collective result with human significance, but it is not an “actualization” of “reason.” The collective does not in itself have a “rational” value simply because it produces a result somehow binding on all (like globalization). It does not produce “the” (or any) “universal” as such. A globalized human race is not the “self-creation” of “humanity” or “reason.” It is simply a pragmatic fact. To borrow one of Marx’s conceits where it seems most applicable, the delusion of the realization of the universal is a “camera obscura” of ideology, an “inverted world” in Hegel’s terms, or in Kant’s, an “optical illusion” of reason blind to its limits. Kant’s construction of an asymptotic idealism always pushing past reality towards an endlessly elusive future does not so much resolve the antinomy of politics and morality as give it philosophical legs and script it into the functional ideology and self-justification of governing elites, as if they were the embodiment of history. It becomes institutionalized as something like Hegel’s “universal class” or Auguste Comte’s cognitive elite of managers, scientists, technologists, and ideologists, priests consecrated to the Religion of Humanity. Or like Marx’s “revolutionary class,” representing “society” or “humanity” as a whole, against those other human groups deemed to incarnate anti-humanity as such.
This overlooks the peculiar mediations that unify our species into a moral whole, a race in the honorific sense. No other species composes itself through internal differentiation in reciprocity or mutuality of its indeterminate subgroups. The “nation” (in the ancient sense) is the mediating link between the individual and humanity as a whole. In his late work on the Ecumenic Age, Eric Voegelin’s critiques of both the “Axial Age” of his teacher Karl Jaspers (and of his own earlier work, too) and the teleological or linear “philosophies of history” with their “Koranic” prophets such as Hegel, Marx, and Comte (whom Jaspers too sought to counter), somewhat obliquely intimate the intrinsic pluralism of the nations. René Girard, though, lends the notion a brutal sharpness. Though typically read as a pacifist, Girard argues that “violence” or cultural “difference” (which he virtually equates) constitute humanity in evolution and history (His ostensible pacifism finds little support in his anthropology of history). “Violence” is his bridge category between the brute and the moral, the animal and the symbolic. This is the evolutionary origin that, he speculates, returns to destroy humanity in the end, the impossibility of human order without “violence,” however civilized. Differences of the sort that sustain symbolic order are inscribed in blood through sacrifice, the expenditure (willing or not) of the individual for the sake of the group. Through violence, the biologically human becomes the honorifically human, the primal horde transmogrifies into a sacred community. But never to the extent that either surpass their origins. Already a term that suggest violation (and thus the sacred), “violence” is brutality with meaning, generative of order in the very act of destruction. While Voegelin sees the philosophically divisions of the nations in terms of intentionality and symbolism (existence, meaning, and experience) - where man’s relation to the divine reflected in social order is a key differentiating element - Girard reduces it to its evolutionary minimum. It should not be forgotten, though, that however indefensible on pure moral grounds, violence is generative, if only so mortally, within limits, and essential to human order. That is the human dilemma. Without “difference” or “violence” there is no moral order or spiritual meaning in human existence, yet modern “categorical” morality cannot but condemn its own conditions and origins. Ultimately, the crisis of globalism intimates antinomies in the “human” itself, in the modern democratic, universalist sense.
Particularity, division, reciprocity, and all the inequalities and conflicts those entail, are irreducible conditions, not just of human life on earth but of meaning in existence, the symbolic order by which man relates to the beyond (dimensions Voegelin and Jaspers explore but from which Girard altogether abstracts). For the same reason, human existence is historical, linked and dispersed in space and time, and without any overarching aim (according to Voegelin). The great error of ancient apocalyptic religions and modern philosophies of history is to think that the division of the species can be overcome in time - that the human race (or its elect remnant) can or should be brought under one imperial roof. The unity of the race is established through the reciprocity of “the nations,” for better or worse.
It is by way of analogy, not synthesis or reduction, that humanity enters into communion on the global level, inter-civilizationally. Different cultures or nations seek the ultimate ground of being in their respective collectivities. Only in the context of history, culture, and society, may any individual, even a philosopher or a saint, enter into more intimate communion with the divine. Only there may he find the symbolism to mediate his experience. This may be the only valid sense of “multiculturalism,” the original 20th century attempt to formulate which is Jaspers’ theory of the “Axial Age.” Humanity in principle unfolds an indefinite pluralism of distinct, often incompatible efforts to come to terms with the ultimate nature of being and the meaning of existence. It cannot be harnessed to an overriding “view from nowhere” as if Hegelian, Marxian, or Comtean “science” could seamlessly combine them all. Communication between attempts requires not a rationalist system “sublating” them but dialogue made possible by partial analogies: Each “Axial revolution” (the origin of contemporary civilizations in the millennium before Christ) seeks to relate to the ultimate but hidden ground of being in different if not rival experiences of meaning. The unity of the human truly appears only when it moves beyond the superficial differentiations and actual homogeneity of the pagans (who all practice more or less the same archaic myths or cosmotheological religions under different names) to recognition of irreducible difference in cultural and religious, philosophical and ethical aspirations, based on the common theme of transcendence. It is not just that transcendence differentiates the human because the symbolisms in which it is immediate to experience cannot but bear the mark of their local origins. Transcendence itself invites contrasted attitudes of being, such as Hebrew revelation, Greek reason, Chinese worldly ethics, and Buddhist world-withdrawal (four basic “Axial breakthroughs”). In the modern period, the European “nation-state” with fixed borders attempts to mediate and hold together these complements of the human - difference and community, transcendence and locality. This does not demolish “paganism,” with its tribal differences; it integrates it in a larger and deeper understanding of the human. The human presupposes actual difference - precisely what the modern Western, radical Enlightenment, democratic-egalitarian fetish of “diversity” and “inclusion” denies. The latter is an inclusiveness bought at the price of substantive difference. To the contrary, the archaic is as irreducible as the transcendent. The pagan ramifications of the transcendent cannot be simply sublimated.
According to the Westphalian principle of European statehood (officialized by the end of the wars of the Reformation period - Cuius regio, eius religio [whose realm, his religion]) - national sovereignty implies religious or moral neutrality, a calculated political indifference to the nature of the regime that wields it. That is “sovereign” which is the supreme power within its own borders, capable of making itself respected whether good or bad. It is by no means necessarily democratic or liberal, but without sovereignty, those are not possible. That was the ‘minimalist’ insight of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) which brought early modern Europe’s catastrophic political-religious wars to an end. The breakdown of Western monotheism into mortal rivals attending the rise of modern states ‘resolved’ itself through ‘sacralization’ of territorial borders. The leviathan of sovereignty replaced pagan deities serving as patrons of ancient and archaic polities. This aspect of modern order has reasserted itself against globalist bleed—borders, and the national and local particularities, the religious, ethnic, and cultural differences they signify, as the condition of law and self-rule. Hobbes’ theory of a Christian (or any) Commonwealth in which the sovereign decides religious toleration (or not), tacitly pays homage to that fact that no law is possible except among people who share a religion (or culture, tradition, history, and language) in the vast majority. Sovereignty of power or law assumes sovereignty of culture (in Rousseau’s General Will, that means the tacit consensus of a people, not its cogitated one). Democratic universalism runs aground on the brutal reef of national identity in all its mythical and historical convolutions because that is a condition of democracy itself, in any actionable sense. Carl Schmitt is doubly scandalous to our contemporaries on account both of his unfortunate Nazi affiliations in the early years of the Third Reich, and because of his reactionary Catholic roots. But his three minimal conditions of political and juridical order in the modern world - sovereignty, territory, and the friend/enemy distinction - have never been successfully denied simply as such, whatever the limitations of his view of politics.
However important, human solidarity as such is not a source of order. Sympathy or compassion (stressed in Karen Armstrong’s popularizing simplification of the Axial Age) is not sufficient to constitute a social bond in a political sense. She acknowledges this herself when she appeals to the Islamic Umma as the true heir of Axial insight, religion as a political union, a tribal brotherhood (and vice versa). The social is that bond that renders compassion more than a sporadic instance. Westphalian borders are not the only way to distinguish “nations”; they are a solution to a peculiarly European problem rooted in its history, its religious kinship together with its ethnic polarities and political rivalries. Westphalia spelt the end the Universal Church of Rome’s right or ability to keep an adequate peace between the “powers and principalities” of the medieval world. Partly this resulted from the disintegration of Western Christianity in the Reformation, and partly from the rise (conjoined to that) of the modern state or late-medieval monarchies. Today, paradoxically, the globalist aspiration to human brotherhood on the basis of mere humanity as sole legitimating basis of polity might actually be a greater danger to “world peace” than recognition of the differences of humanity in culture, language, religion, tradition, and the like, sanctified by borders. In a world where material globalization has rendered the “clash of civilizations” a pragmatic fact, borders and nation-states are more important than ever - paradoxically, just as the West loses global hegemony. With the West’s fall from grace after WWII, this may prove to be a most important cultural legacy to globalized humanity - not supra-national institutions but global firming-up of the nation-state.
The implication, though (as Henry Kissinger showed in World Order ), is that it is not just political power that depends on legitimacy (a Kantian ideal of internationalism based on moral humanism) but legitimacy (incarnated in nation-states and borders) that equally depends on power. Or more precisely, a relative balance of power, dispersing it in relative equilibrium. The European attempt to dissolve power into moral legitimacy and the American attempt to confer prerogatives of unlimited power on the theoretically unequalled legitimacy of the “indispensable nation”, cannot but feed global disorder. Power conditions legitimacy (and thus limits it); it must be accepted as a human reality, along with legitimacy as a political limit of power. In the Westphalian system, as Kissinger argued, the two functioned together. Kantian and neo-conservative dreams must be abandoned for something messier but more likely to keep the peace.
Since the French Revolution, the Western nation-state has tacitly moved away from its founding principles of sovereignty and law (in Westphalia and the early modern monarchies) towards “humanity” or universalist ethics as its governing principles. Since the end of the Cold War, the pace has accelerated exponentially. Elements traditionally associated with the bonds of a particular historical society, things differentiating it within itself and from others, have been theoretically demoted, effaced, de-legitimized as arbitrary or unjust, and replaced with more universalist, purely moral or abstract principles. This hugely consequential shift has been little noticed. It is seemingly innocuous if not a good - what could be wrong with “human rights” or “moral” politics? But it is bound to collide with classical politics ancient and modern, such as the archaic principle of tribalism and its modern counterpart, national sovereignty. Humanity is both universal and tribal by nature. Modern politics, though, succumbs to political romanticism, as if the social bond could be replaced by a purely “human” one, or vague yearnings of “social justice” trumping justice under the law, denying all tradition.
The Axial idea of “humanity,” its subsequent theological orthodoxies, later those of the Enlightenment, then the 19th and 20th century philosophies of history, and finally its “late”, or “post-modern” orthodoxies involve practical and theoretical internal contradictions that lie at the heart of contemporary political crises in the West. Such antinomies occur when “humanity” is taken as merely a self-referential being, a creature of nature, culture, and history, the meaning of which is to bring it to “realization,” in (say) Marx’s empire of freedom, the neo-conservative vision of liberal democratic triumphalism, or some other utopia. Such impulses are rooted in the origins of Western civilization, Axial ideas of humanity and transcendence, and (not least) their subsequent mutations in the religious orthodoxies and the empires to which they became allied. Contemporary forms of globalism, not just the West’s but Islam’s too, echo ancient complicities of empire and monotheism. Beyond that, current crises intimate a return to the volatility of “Axial” origins, possibly to reveal its terminal limits. There is in fact no single concept of “universal humanity”; there are several, and they cannot be resolved.
The Axial Age elicited plural ideas of humanity, analogous in decisive respects (anchorage in a mysterious ground of being, a divinity outside the world) but otherwise different, even opposed. In the Near East and its monotheist rivals, the orthodoxies that ensued found this centerless (or multi-centered) sense of the human intolerable. This is a problem rooted in “apocalyptic” Western and Near Eastern Axial intuitions. “Apocalyptic” arises when a scriptural monotheism occupies history as the univocal and unilinear scene of divine revelation, culminating in a definitive triumph of good over evil, God’s elect over the damned in cosmic or historical time, in an end of the world or an end of history. This inspires especially Judaism’s warring offspring, Christianity and Islam. The latter are “apocalyptic” from the get-go (ancient Judaism seems apocalyptic towards its end). Later orthodoxies sought to domesticate this dangerous, volatile element, the messianic realization of a Kingdom of God in time. Practically, that might almost define orthodoxy, the effort to reconcile an originally apocalyptic vision with the disappointing realities of history, society, and nature. Orthodoxy subjects the “imminence of the Kingdom” to limits that frustrate it. The locus classicus in Western Christendom is Augustine’s City of God. Even Augustine did not disown the apocalyptic, though; he claimed the “millennium” of John of Patmos already began with the Catholic Church, obviating any future “millennium.” The city ruled by Christ and his saints was already here, awaiting his material return maybe ten millennia hence. Apocalypticism sets scriptural monotheism apart from other Axial traditions (unless one includes Zoroastrianism, one of its extra-biblical sources, which conceived the binary cosmos as a war of good and evil with a definitive outcome in triumph and perdition). Apocalyptic plays out not just in Western history, however, but in rivalry with Islam. The apocalyptic dimension of Christianity transmogrifies itself into secularism, in contrast to Umma and Sharia of Dar al-Islam. Neither seems tenable as a “solution” to the problem of contemporary history unless they accept (contrary to their generative impulses) Westphalian sovereignty. In the West, apocalyptic drives the rise (and perhaps the fall) of democratic modernity, as Tocqueville suggested when he expressed his “religious awe” (or holy terror) at the irresistibly providential march of equality - something he traced seven or eight centuries, paradoxically, back to the hierarchy of merit of Augustine’s Church. Theologically neutered, apocalypticism becomes utopianism, an anti-political mode of politics inherent in the ideological structure of equality as a transformation of human relations as Tocqueville saw it. On the one hand democratic man demands a social order that is “natural,” not “artificial” like the aristocratic regime, one founded on “humanity” simply. On the other, though, he demands that nature be re-formed to conform to what it ought to be. Thus the apocalyptic impasse inherent in democracy: Imagination trumps reality, what ought-to-be already is, truer than what actually is. Political and social order must be subject to an ideal morality or moral fantasy that neither derives from nor is subject to nature but lays absolute claim to it. It acknowledges in nature, politics, or social life no exigencies of their own. Instead of coming to terms with human existence, universalism demands that the latter somehow be magically catapulted to the level of pure justice, as if morality replaced law. Moralism is a kind of magic in which words, ideas, speeches and other incantations are believed able to change nature, the human condition, or history, as lead might be transfigured into gold. The goal of politics becomes to abolish politics, to elevate it to the level of pure ethics. Augustine’s bureaucracy of the saints reappears in modern form.
The most recent chapter in this history may be traced to the traumas of WWII. Revelations in its aftermath led to a veritable moral revolution across the West (not just in Germany) as the Holocaust and Hiroshima (in different and contradictory ways, as Eric Gans has argued) compelled it to confront its own historical sins past and present (Jim Crow, colonialism, slavery, anti-Semitism, women’s inequality, etc.). The category of the victim came into its own as the axis of post-War ‘political theology.’ This unleashed a relentless cultural logic, an insatiable moral revolution that (obeying the Tocquevillean paradox) has only increased in intensity as its aims are actually achieved. Its logic entails an inversion: Real morphs into imaginary victimhood, the victimary revelation of historical crimes against the innocent (African slaves, native Americans, non-European peoples, etc.) is supplanted by idolatry of the victim and of victimhood as the exculpatory ritual of modern culture. A civilizational trajectory that began with God victimized on Cross, ends with the divinization of the human victim, real or imagined, the dispenser of grace and salvation - like Girard’s sacrificial inversion of scapegoat into savior. By touching his hem, privileged elites and their middling doubles win justification. This is where the dominant culture is now, to such an extent that even its critics and those targeted by it play the “victim card” themselves, not without cause. There is a wide trail of “hate crime” hoaxes littering the media, testifying to the charisma of victimhood and the propensity for aggression in its name. Victimary revelation, on Girard’s telling, shows the innocence of the scapegoat, the substitute victim, exemplified and exposed by the God on the Cross. Victimology turns that on its head into a new source of scapegoating, a moralistic culture persecuting (real or imagined) persecutors of designated victims, aiming at the destruction of culture itself, history and symbolic order. Driven by media, detached from reality, it assumes an insane autonomy, a mechanistic reflexivity of its own, in which tradition disembowels itself. The West has reached a critical impasse over this dynamic unfolding since 1945. It’s scandalous to say so but given the electoral revolt it is a political fact that can scarcely be denied.
So once again the West enters into spiritual vertigo (as it has periodically since the Reformation) in which the sources of its civilization are called into question. The conflict between universalism and localism, moralism and politics, will likely dominate the looming century, on issues such as immigration, free trade, international order, and not least, national sovereignty and national interest. Both sides of the new polarities now taking shape -for the old configurations of the post-War Left and Right seem hopelessly dated - exhibit apocalyptic mentalities. Each side anticipates the end of its world, and perhaps rightly. The conflict in question, though, seems philosophically more transparent than ever: a post-theological yet quasi-religious, quasi-philosophical secular absolutism versus the exigencies and teleologies of social existence, political community, and the human condition, grounded in the material, particular, accidental, irrational, distinctive, and exclusive - and, by the same token, the cruel and unjust.
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