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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Inevitablising the Eschaton or how to Immanentise the Absolute

Working to finish off the first draft of my Galloway Levellers research project I have been turning over some questions posed by Noisy Sphinx.1 I have also been trying to work out what, if anything, I can conclude from the research project. This is quite important since one possible output from the project is a book. If it is to become a book, it would be useful to find a contemporary theme or themes since an academic study of an obscure period in the the history of an obscure region of Scotland is unlikely to appeal to many readers. Richard Oram has written a fascinating and detailed study of medieval Galloway 2 but it is a wee bit intimidating for most folk.

What I would like to do is write something which is more accessible. One possibility is to make a link to Robert Burns. In July 1793, Burns and his friend John Syme did a tour of Galloway, or at least the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright and I have found that they visited in several places with Galloway Leveller associations and met people with family links to the Levellers – Gordon of Kenmure, Murray of Cally, Heron of Kirroughtrie and the Earl of Selkirk ( Basil Hamilton's grandson.) Syme claimed that Burns was inspired to wrote Scots wha hae whilst walking over the hills from Airds of Kells/ Boat of Rhone to Gatehouse of Fleet. This claim is disputed. It is more likely that Burns got the idea for Scots wha hae in July, but wrote the finished text in Dumfries in August 1793.3 Although looking backwards to Robert the Bruce and Bannockburn, Scots wha hae
was no less inspired by the French Revolution. One of Burns' close friends was Dr William Maxwell who had been closely involved in the events and been present at the execution of Louis XVI.

From a different angle, Burns can be connected to the Galloway Levellers as the 'improving' tenant farmer of Ellisland farm near Dumfries. Most significantly, after trying and failing to improve Ellisland as an arable farm, Burns introduced Ayrshire cattle and, with the help of his wife, tried to run it as a dairy farm. This attempt also failed, but it was a revolutionary innovation. In the 19th century, the Ayrshire style of dairy farming replaced arable farming as the main type of farming in lowland Dumfries and Galloway – as it remains to this day.

At the same time that Burns was struggling to make a go of improved farming at Ellisland, the son of a Galloway hill farmer was having more success as a cotton manufacturer in Manchester. This was John Kennedy who came from Knocknalling farm on the edge of the Rhinns of Kells ( a range of hills rising to 2600 feet on the Stewartry/ Ayrshire border). In 1778, Kennedy had moved south to Chowbent ( or Atherton) near Preston to work for William Cannan (or Cannon) who himself was from Galloway and was a millwright/ carpenter. 4 By 1791, Kennedy had moved to Manchester and in that year established the first successful steam powered cotton mill there. Kennedy went on to help create the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and was one of the judges at the Rainhill Trials, won by George and Robert Stephenson's Rocket. Kennedy was a friend of both James Watt and George Stephenson. The Murray brothers, who also came from the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, were contemporary Manchester cotton manufacturers. In Liverpool, Wellwood Maxwell, again from the Stewartry (and whose grandfather John Maxwell was an eye-witness to the Levellers actions), was a cotton trader and an early supporter of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

The steam powered industrialisation of Manchester and Liverpool overwhelmed attempts to create the water powered industrialisation of Galloway by James Murray of Gatehouse of Fleet, William Douglas of Castle Douglas and others. By the 1840s, when the New Statistical Account of Scotland was being written, it had become clear that the enthusiasm for improvement through manufacturing industry noted in the Old (1790s) Statistical Accounts for parishes in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright had passed. It had become clear that the region's future lay with agriculture rather than manufacturing.

Was this an inevitable outcome?

This is the critical question. It is a question which is of acute contemporary and practical importance. A question which gets to the heart of 'progress is the enemy'...

When John Kennedy succeeded in 1791 where Richard Arkwright had failed 5 in 1780 and harnessed the power of fossil fuel powered technology( a steam engine) to the spinning of cotton, an industrial revolution was born.6 This revolution had been gestating since 1750 when Abraham Darby III of Coalbrookdale had begun the large scale smelting of iron using coke rather than charcoal – an innovation first perfected in 1706 by his grandfather. Other innovations, like James Watts' development of a thermally efficient steam engine, of the mechanisation of cotton spinning, the application of steam power to land and sea transport and the civil engineering skills of canal and road builders laid the foundations for this revolution, but it was the meteoric rise of the cotton industry which lit the touch paper.

But what lay behind this meteoric growth, behind the huge plumes of smoke and carbon dioxide which first began rising up from John Kennedy's Manchester factory in 1791?

In 1765 the British government purchased the fiscal rights of the Isle of Man from the Duke of Atholl, ostensibly to end the smuggling trade but in reality reacting to pressure from influential members of the English East India Company which was suffering competition with Dutch East India Company goods which were available on the island. The Liverpool Guinea trade had benefited greatly from its proximity to the Isle of Man – one of the main reasons why Liverpool became the principal slave trading port in Europe. After 1765 the Guinea merchants were forced to purchase their cargoes in London. This provided an incentive to develop British versions of the East Indian cloths that composed a high percentage of the Guinea cargoes. By the end of the eighteenth century Manchester and other places in the north-west of England were producing cotton and other cloths for the slave trade.7

Europe's insatiable demand for sugar and tobacco drove the slave trade, which in turn stimulated Britain's industrial development through the production of trade goods and supplies for the slave plantations. When the Isle of Man was no longer a source of cheap (because tax free / smuggled) Indian cottons, a market for cheap UK produced substitutes emerged. However, as Hobsbawm8 noted, the existing UK woollen and linen could not be expanded rapidly enough to meet this demand. The UK farming industry was still 'traditional', was only beginning to under go its agricultural revolution. The situation in America was very different. There cotton production could be rapidly increased using slave labour on land from which the indigenous inhabitants could easily be removed. The result was a viciously explosive cycle of exploitation. The more slaves that were needed to produce the cheap cotton, the more cheap cotton that was needed to trade for and cloth the slaves. As the cost of production went down, the cheap cottons were then exported to India whilst imports of Indian cotton were hit by huge tariffs,leading to the collapse of the India cotton industry which fed the demand for more slave produced cotton.9

The weak point in this cycle was the manufacturing process. The existing small scale home cotton industry, which had developed out of the linen industry, could not keep up with the huge volumes of cotton arriving in Liverpool. This stimulated technological improvement and the development of the factory system. Spinning was the first process to be industrialised, then weaving. The time lag led to the impoverishment of the hand-loom weavers whose numbers and prosperity had grown whilst spinning alone had been industrialised, but who then could not compete once factory based mechanical weaving became possible.

Once set in motion, this juggernaut proved unstoppable. Although the Bridgewater canal was built to carry coal to Manchester in 1761, as explained above, the coal was not yet used to power cotton mills. The first cotton mills were water powered. The canal system was later extended to carry cotton from Liverpool to Manchester (other canals were also built, especially around Birmingham), but once the steam powered cotton factories began to dominate, the need to create a more efficient transport system led to the building of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Railways had been developed in coal mining areas like north east England as a cheaper alternative to canals. The development of railways stimulated the iron industry, as did the development of steam powered iron ships. The cotton the railways and steam ships carried was still being produced by slaves in the southern USA until the 1860s.


There was only one Weltanschauung of major significance...the triumphant rationalist, humanist, 'Enlightenment' of the eighteenth century. Its champions believed firmly (and correctly) that human history was an ascent, rather than a decline or an undulating movement about a level trend. They could observe that man's scientific knowledge and technical control over nature increased daily. They believed that human society and individual man could be perfected by the same application of reason, and were destined to be so perfected by history. On these points bourgeois liberals and revolutionary proletarian socialists were at one.10

As this 'ideology of progress' was developed after 1789, the paths of bourgeois liberals and revolutionary proletarian socialists diverged. As Hobsbawm continues, a further step was taken by Karl Marx “who transferred the centre of gravity of the argument for socialism from its rationality or desirability to its historical inevitability”. Marx saw in history a series of 'inevitables' as each stage of social evolution lost its progressive edge as its internal contradictions became impossible to contain. Inevitably resistance to change created opposition which no less inevitably triumphed, eventually in turn collapsing itself into a crisis ... capitalism being the latest in this sequence of progress. But after the inevitable final crisis of capitalism, a stage of perfection would be reached, one containing no internal contradictions. Thus the driving force of history would end with the eternally inevitable triumph of socialism. But not just yet. Capitalism itself had to become fully fledged.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.
The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. 11

The Communist Manifesto was written 160 years ago. The inevitable has been delayed. Capitalism may yet collapse beneath the weight of its internal contradictions, but it seems more likely it will grind to a halt or rather seize up before then through the external contradictions of peak oil plus global warming. Or is this confusing industrialisation with capitalism? Not if the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the means of production. Without industrialisation there would have been no capitalist revolution. The capitalist revolution was the industrial revolution. Slavery was a necessary starting condition for industrialisation, but it was the exploitation of coal and then oil which secured the revolution. Georgian Britain emulated the classical splendour of ancient Rome and achieved a similar level of development. Victorian Britain was like no other human society, was something new and without parallel.
But was the change from the Britain of 1750 to that of 1850 an inevitable process, an inevitable progress? How contingent was the change? What if there had been no break with the north American colonies in 1776? No break, no war of independence. No war of independence, no need for the French state to nearly bankrupt itself supporting the Americans and so no need to try and raise the taxes which triggered the French Revolution...

There is no inevitability about history. No historical absolutes. It is relativity all the way down. So where did Marx get the idea from? The notion of 'historical inevitability' came from Hegel. But Hegel's ideas about history had been influenced by the French Revolution and the rise to power of a world-historical individual- Napoleon. Hegel was also influenced by the gnosticism of the hermetic tradition.
We can now already glimpse the end of Hegelian philosophy in its beginning. In Absolute Knowledge the drive to totally grasp the object, and to annul the subject-object distinction, will be realised. Absolute Knowledge will be the total grasp of an individual in its uniqueness. In fact it will be be the total grasp of the only true, unique individual there is: the Absolute...in Hegel's thought substance has become subject: “what seems to happen outside of [the self], to be an activity directed against it, is really its own doing, and substance shows itself to be essentially Subject.” Knowledge of this individual is simultaneously self-knowledge.12

Marx is supposed to have removed all such mystical speculations before applying Hegelian theory to revolutionary practice, but if Hegel's system is occult in its origin and in its totality, how practical was this? Could Marxism be a type of advanced mystification and not revolutionary at all? An Enlightenment version of a millenarian / apocalyptic cult, a secular version of the contemporary protestant sectarians and expansionist Islam Hobsbawm talks about.13 Which would make Marxism an attempt ' inevitablise the eschaton' rather than immantetise it. But the end days are both always with us and ever delayed.
At this point I could, perhaps should, elaborate on the 'Hegel was an occult philosopher/ punk magician' theme before moving on to Neil Davidson's defence of inevitability as applied to 18th century Scotland. I will cheat a bit by sampling Magee's text at page 93.
Hegel's system is a complete conceptual speech about the whole, but it is not merely a network of abstract concepts. Instead it takes the form of a concrete totality...Hegel defines philosophy as the “actual knowledge of what truly is”... it is the totality of the system that gives us this reality. Every “provisional definition of the Absolute” within the system, that is every category, must fall short because no one category can express all of what the Absolute is. Thus, the system does not describe the absolute, it gives form to the Absolute itself. Hegel's philosophy does not tell us what Substance or the Absolute is (in the manner, for instance, of Aristotle), it brings the Absolute into being. Why? Because it is through speculation that the Idea becomes for-itself, that “God” achieves self-awareness and thus completion. This complete or actualised divine is the Absolute.
Every individual is a blind link in the chain of absolute necessity, along which the world develops. Every individual can raise himself to domination over a great length of this chain only if he realises the goal of this great necessity and, by virtue of this knowledge, learns to speak the magic words which evoke its shape. The knowledge of how to simultaneously absorb and elevate oneself beyond the total energy of suffering and antithesis that has dominated the world and all forms of its development for thousands of years – this knowledge can be developed from philosophy alone.
The magic words are the categories of Hegelian philosophy. The magic power is dialectic guided by recollection....access to this power is through a form of imagination.14

Hegel's system brings the Absolute into being through magic words which evoke its shape. Eat your heart out Kenneth Grant!15 Was Crowley a very Young (unborn) Hegelian? Or did Hegel anticipate Thelema? Or perhaps a better analogy is with chaos magic – not what it has become, but what it had the potential to be before it was reduced to sigilisation. And Magee shows that Hegel was familiar with Kabbalistic thought.16

But back to the inevitability of progress through capitalism.
The notion that capitalism was unnecessary for development has enjoyed a degree of popularity among radicals, but it is important to understand the implications of this position. The theory of uneven and combined development has certain political implications in the imperialist epoch of capitalist development which began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Broadly these are that states in the underdeveloped world can, given certain conditions, overleap the stages of capitalist development to that of socialism. Two of these conditions were that a world capitalist economy already existed and that, through participation in this economy, a working class had been brought into being in the underdeveloped world which could act as the agent of revolutionary change. This is not what the aforementioned radicals are proposing. Far from the dominance of the capitalist mode of production being a necessary precondition of socialism at the international level, the entire capitalist system, from its genesis in Europe during the sixteenth century, is said to have acted as what Immanuel Wallerstein calls a 'virus' infecting other- presumably healthy- societies and preventing them developing in alternative ways. I regard this veiw as being profoundly mistaken, but for the purpose of this argument, th point is that it is impossible for Marxists to accept.
The expansion of the productive forces brought about by capitalism has been a necessary but insufficient condition for the ultimate goal of human liberation. Necessary, because without it there will be neither a working class to seize power from the capitalists, not a sufficient level of material resources with which to feed, clothe, house or educate the world's population. Insufficient because unless the working class is conscious and organised it will not succeed in achieving its revolutionary potential.17

The reason Davidson is so keen to stress the necessity of progress through capitalism (how ever bloody and barbaric) was that in the 1990s some Scottish socialists had tried to chart just such an alternative (Scottish) path to socialism. Marxist orthodoxy held that the Union of Scotland and England in 1707 was a necessary (and inevitable) development. Thus the bourgeoisie revolution had to be imposed from above on an underdeveloped Scotland. Marx himself had used the Highland Clearances in Capital Volume 1 as an example of how capitalism forced rural labourers people off the land and into cities where they became the urban proletariat. Some Scottish socialists objected to this argument. Davidson agreed, arguing that by the time the Highland Clearances, capitalism was already fully fledged and so the Clearances were not an inevitable necessity. Unlike Culloden.

Davidson argues that the battle of Culloden was a necessary part of a 'bourgeoisie revolution from above' which had to be imposed on the Scots since they were incapable of eliminating feudalism on their own. There could not have been an alternative 17th century Scottish 'revolution from below' since the historical forces necessary did not exist then. Only after 1707 could the Scottish 'revolution from above' happen. Emancipation and Liberation, the journal of the Scottish Republican Communist platform of the Scottish Socialist Party (pre Tommy Sheridan sex scandal) gave extensive coverage to this debate.18 There is also a connection to the Galloway Levellers, since Allan Armstrong (one of the 'radicals' Davidson has to correct for deviation from Marxist orthodoxy) invoked them as an example of Scotland's radical tradition and Davidson includes them in Discovering the Scottish Revolution19 - but as an example of a 'peasant insurrection'.

Were the Galloway Levellers 'peasants' ? From my research, I have concluded they were not. There were no peasants in Galloway and there hadn't been since 1455, when the Douglas Lordship of Galloway was forfeited to the Scottish Crown. What there were in 1724 were several hundred owner-occupier farmers who worked their farms in partnership ('half-manner' 20 ) with several hundred tenant farmers, supported by 3 or 4000 cottars and crofters who were also trade or craft workers – smiths, masons, tailors, weavers, dysters, cobblers, millwrights and the like. There were also about 50 'heritors' who owned estates of half a dozen or more farms and one or two who owned more than 20 farms. These farms were bought, sold, mortgaged and leased back. Although some farms stayed with the same family for several generations, others changed hands with bewildering rapidity. Tenants and cottars were also used to moving from farm to farm. They were not fixed or tied to any particular plot of land, nor did they have a 'feudal' relationship with the land holders.

I am still working on the pattern of land holding, having provisionally identified 593 individuals claiming to be landowners (out of 2887 named individuals ) between 1659-1674 and 696 (out of 3770 named individuals) for the period 1675 -1700 in Volumes I and II of the Kirkcudbright Sheriff Court Deeds.
Back to Hegel

I am not quite sure how he does it, but in Chapter One of Science of Logic21 manages to show that Being is in fact Nothing and that Nothing is altogether the same as pure Being. I wonder if the same or similar logic can equate Absolute with Relative? It would be a rather neat way of not answering Noisy Sphinx. How could it be done? What if Absolute has the qualities of being fixed and unmoving. And Relative has the qualities of being fluid and in motion. Thinking in pictures – which Hegel frowned on – I see the Galloway river Dee flowing down from its source at Loch Dee below the granite of the Dungeon Hills to Solway Firth beyond Kirkcudbright. Which is the fixed and which is the fluid in this landscape?

The river would seem the more fluid and the rocks the fixed, yet through time the river remains the constant, the Absolute whilst the rocks are worn away or fractured by ice and so are Relative. To think with more pictures, the Absolute must be a totality, the totality. The picture is of the entire universe as a single flawless crystal, timeless, eternal. The counter image would be of a sea of indeterminacy, the quantum foam or ocean, a shimmering mist where (if I have grasped the physics correctly) virtual sub-atomic particles flicker in and out of existence. The synthesis would be that what appears from outside as the single flawless (undivided) eternal crystal is the shimmering mist when viewed from inside. But this picture-image itself breaks down since there can be no position outside of the Absolute, outside of space/time from which to observe its external appearance. Any such observation must be that of an observer ( a spectator?) existing within the Absolute and so must be Relative, that is partial and provisional, subjective rather than objective.

This brings us back to Hegel:
Every “provisional definition of the Absolute” within the system, that is every category, must fall short because no one category can express all of what the Absolute is. Thus, the system does not describe the absolute, it gives form to the Absolute itself. Hegel's philosophy does not tell us what Substance or the Absolute is (in the manner, for instance, of Aristotle), it brings the Absolute into being. Why? Because it is through speculation that the Idea becomes for-itself, that “God” achieves self-awareness and thus completion.22

Compare this with Descartes, who said
. - Archimedes, that he might transport the entire globe from the place it occupied to another, demanded only a point that was firm and immovable; so, also, I shall be entitled to entertain the highest expectations, if I am fortunate enough to discover only one thing that is certain and indubitable.23
which originally came from Plutarch:
Archimedes, however, in writing to King Hiero, whose friend and near relation he was, had stated that given the force, any given weight might be moved, and even boasted, we are told, relying on the strength of demonstration, that if there were another earth, by going into it he could remove this.

Without a firm and immovable point, there can be no leverage. A Galloway Leveller standing in a boggy spot would be unable to throw down a dyke, would just sink into the bog no matter how big a lever she or he was using. (The dyke itself would sink into the bog though.) Now back to Descartes. Descartes, and all other philosophers up until Hegel, believed that a fixed point, a solid foundation for their speculations must exist, requiring only to be discovered through hard thinking. Once the solid ground was found, all else would logically follow and reason would drain the swamp of superstition and irrationality so it would become fertile ground. The Honourable Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture (discussed previously in my Galloway Levellers texts) were very keen on draining bogs to create fertile fields, although the ultimate solution had to await the creation of tile drains.24

As Magee shows, Hegel rejected this approach. There was no Absolute firm and fixed point 'out there' waiting to be discovered and described, rather the Absolute was an emergent property of the process or system itself. This is very interesting. Although I have wrestled with Hegel's texts, I am taking Magee on trust for this point. Assuming Magee is correct, this gives a convergence with George Dyson's Darwin Amongst the Machines25 which is a study of artificial intelligence in computers. This is a very fraught area, full of bold claims which have yet to be substantiated. Dyson gets around the problem by suggesting that rather than compare computer generated intelligence with human intelligence (which shows up the computers as pretty dumb) the comparison should be made between the 'intelligence' of computers and the 'intelligence' of natural/ evolutionary systems through the emergence of complexity out of simplicity. Computers are very good at number crunching, running through billions of simple binary (0,1) equations to reach a stable result through trial and error. The output of evolution is similar, running through billions of minor mutations to reach a stable result.
Hegel's Science of Logic starts with a piece of binary code – Being (1) and Nothing (0) then runs the program through 800 pages of variations on this theme to conclude with 'self-comprehension'. Unfortunately Dyson does not consider Hegel in his text, but I suggest Hegel could be read within Dyson's context as showing how 'intelligence' as self- comprehension (self-awareness, self-consciousness) can emerge out of a a mechanical/biological system.

Pause for thought. Could this mean that Hegel's Absolute is equivalent to an artificial intelligence? To William Gibson's 'Wintermute'?26 And what about Marx?Where does he fit in? To continue with the computer/ artificial intelligence metaphor, then with his Science of Logic Hegel achieved the equivalent of Alan Turing's 1936 paper On computable numbers which led to the construction of actual computers during WW2.27 But the actual computer (called Colossus ) was only part of a massive organisation employing 10 000 mainly female workers. It was this organisation, which in turn relied on the British state's mobilisation of the resources of the whole country and empire, that was the artificial intelligence which successfully decoded and made sense of the German codes. But capitalism is not such a coherent entity. It is more like Debord's Spectacle. The Spectacle is not controlled and directed by Spectaclists, there is no Spectaclism, there is no Spectacular class. There is no equivalent to Marx's proletariat. The Spectacle a swamp of Relativity in which there are no fixed or Absolute points, no internal contradictions to provide the leverage which would overturn it, bring about its antithesis.

There may be no internal contradictions, but there are some external Absolutes up against which we are bumping. They are the finite nature of geological reserves of oil, coal and natural gas, and the chemical and thermodynamic consequences of the emission of greenhouse gases and the impact on climate.

1See previous blog entries
2Oram : The Lordship of Galloway : 2000
3Snyder: The Life of Robert Burns : 1932, McIntyre: Dirt and Deity, A life of Robert Burns : 1995
4 www.ancoatsbpt.co.uk/docs/AJwinter05.pdf ,www.electricscotland.com/hiStory/other/fairbairn_william.htm and Trotter : East Galloway Sketches:1902: 333-342
6Hobsbawm: The Age Of Revolution, Europe 1789-1848: 1962
7Wilkins : Dumfries & Galloway and the Transatlantic Slave Trade: 2007 : 33
8Hobsbawm: Age of Revolutions :1962
9Williams : Capitalism and Slavery : 1944, Blackburn: The Making of New World Slavery : 1997
10Hobsbawm: Age of Revolutions: 1962, - 1973 edition: 286
11Marx : Communist Manifesto :1848
12Magee: Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition : 2001 : 141
13Hobsbawm: 1962/ 1973 : Ch. 12. Ideology: Religion
14Magee: 2001: 93, including central quote from Rosenktanz: G.F.W. Hegels Leben :1944: 141
15Kenneth Grant former Outer Head of the Typhonian OrdoTempli Orientis , disciple of E.A. 'Aleister' Crowley and author of the seven part 'Typhonian trilogy'.
16Magee: 2001 :167
17Davidson: Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692-1746 : 2003: 299
19Davidson: 2003 : 216- 220
20http://www.dsl.ac.uk/ as 'half-manure'
21Miller (trans) : Hegel's Science of Logic : 1969 : 82
22Magee: 2001: 93
24See http://www.genevahistoricalsociety.com/Johnston.htm
25Dyson: Darwin Amongst the Machines: 1997
26Gibson :Neuromancer :1984


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