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About Tom Nairn

Tom Nairn is Research Professor in the Politics Department of Durham University and was a Professor of Nationalism and Social Diversity at Austrailia's RMIT 2002 - 2010

Articles by Tom Nairn

This week's editor

NSS, editor

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to 50.50.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Old nation, new age

When it comes to countries in the modern world, is bigger really better?

A nation's blueprint? Introduction to "The case for left wing nationalism"

A posthumous collection of the writings by one of Scotland’s most distinguished advocates of independence, Stephen Maxwell, has just been published: ‘The Case for Left-Wing Nationalism’. It has been edited by Jamie Maxwell and is published by Luath Press and has been introduced by Tom Nairn.

Frontiers: a re-evaluation

For advocates of globalisation, the 'frontier' is often presented as an obstacle to universal freedom. But as the anti-democratic implications of this argument are increasingly evident, what if the solution to managing power is not fewer borders but more? 

Fate of the First Born? English nationalism and Euroscepticism

One of the most respected contemporary voices on nationalism gives his take on an important new book exploring the relationship between England and Europe. 

After Britain: Tom Nairn's view of Blair and Brown eleven years and five years ago

Tom Nairn is 80 today. His influential contributions to OurKingdom and openDemocracy are the icing on a cake of Scottish, European and global arguments that have shaped thinking in a rare, profound and witty fashion. Here, as a present to new readers, we republish how Tom saw New Labour: in May 2001 as Tony Blair won his second election, and in May 2007 as Gordon Brown prepared to become leader.   

Pariah Kingdom

25 May 2001

Hooligans of the Absolute: Black Pluto's door after 11 September

The impulse of the attacks was not confidence but despair – the strike of a miserable old world against the unsettling but promising new.

Tom Nairn is 80 today. To celebrate, we are republishing his reflections on 9/11, first published on 4 October 2001.

New faces of nationalism

Around the globe, new forms of governance are being sought to counter-balance the hyper-empire of global capitalism. Scotland is developing its own resistance, could England follow suit?

Will Britain ever shake the ghost of Empire?

Reflections on Jeremy Paxman's book, 'Empire: What ruling the world did to the British'.

A Republican Monarchy? England and revolution

The author of the first major contemporary critique of the monarchy looks over his argument as Scotland moves towards independence under a shared crown and inaugurates a new debate 'For England's Sake!'

The prophet redeemed?

Ernest Gellner was a polymath and a public intellectual, a philosopher and defender of modernity. A remarkable ‘intellectual biography’ by John A.Hall explores the Gellner Archives at the LSE alongside his published works to piece together the profile of something even more important than an account of the man or his ideas - a ‘prophetic’ quasi-ideology destined for our times.

Time to Call it a Day: Sometimes it is right for a country to recognise that its job is done

We revisit an article from 2007 meditating on the export of the possible break up of Belgium back across the channel to the country responsible for Belgium's creation in the first place

The English Postman

An OurKingdom essay: As Britain's postal workers vote to strike and the Royal Mail seems doomed, Tom Nairn dissects the servile, postman like nature of those trapped in the British polity and points to a way out

Attention: Global Moles at Work


In an article entitled 'Feminism Co-opted' Nancy Fraser has recently suggested that among the deeper effects of Neo-Liberal hegemony may be counted a tacit alliance between marketolatry and the women's movement (New Left Review, March-April 2009). The former could not help undermining inherited customary attitudes many of which bore a strongly patriarchal component. Such instinctive assumptions tend to stick together and support one another. This is a lot of what a 'culture' means. But may not what sticks together, perish together as well?

What the ensuing General Financial Crisis has accomplished may be partly the ruin of custom, in just that sense. An unquestioned 'macho' strain in global finance capital piled one risk upon another: for Lords of that age, failure was unthinkable. The 'cash-nexus' took over, and increasingly escaped control until it did fail. And in the wake of collapse, we find the Washington Post's Foreign Policy taking up Fraser's refrain. Its 2009 July-August edition declares 'The Era of Male Dominance is Coming to an End. Seriously' (Reihan Salam of the New America Foundation, p.66). Valerie Hudson of Brigham Young University backs him up with 'Good Riddance' (p.71): 'It used to be said that behind every great man is a great woman. Maybe the scoundrels, hooligans, Genghis Khans, derivatives traders and debt-securitizers could use a few great women too, for the sake of the rest of us, if nothing else'.

No such intention crossed the minds of the cash-nexus prophets. 'Moles' must have been at work: the famous unobserved tunnellers of Shakespeare's Hamlet (I, iv, 24). Karl Marx returned to the point in the 19th century: people consciously make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing. In early-modern folklore moles were sometimes identified with the Devil. And from 1848 to the present, the furry creatures have consistently grown in scale. To bring about the major landscape shifts evoked by Salam and Hudson, globalization's equivalents must be more like small bulldozers. Normally credited with the lowering of nation-state borders, they are now reported at work on the gender frontier.

When an earth-movement gets registered both in New Left Review's atelier and on the Foreign Policy front lawn, something must be up. For all the indignation her article aroused among left-wing feminists, Nancy Fraser may have been even righter than she knew. The 'cunning of history' is another conventional way of imagining mole-workers. Cultures are rarely smart enough to perceive a process that has to be 'made' collaterally, as well as through policies and will-power. There were few women among the derivatives traders and columnar foghorns. That didn't mean they had abandoned the economy. On the contrary, within Marx's 'relations of production' they have become more important then ever.

However, as Hudson puts it, they have remained 'less confident than men because they usually live with men who are over-confident'. but as macho vanity collapses realism should come into its own, with the recognition that 'better decisions might be made if men and women were making them together'. 'And wouldn't you know it' she ironizes in conclusion, '...research has shown that mixed decision-making groups are less risk-acceptant than all-male groups, and that non-zero-sum outcomes are more likely'.

For social-democrats, surely, here is one real advance on head-counting. It's true that evolution is involved. And so it should be. As Salam writes: 'As women start to gain more of the social, economic and political power they have long been denied, it will be nothing less than a full-scale revolution the likes of which human civilization has never experienced'. The Neo-liberal cock may have crowed far too loudly and too long on the other hand, as Perry Anderson has pointed out, at least nobody could ignore him, and the whole new globalising farmyard has been awakened for good from the torpor of tradition and 'I told you so!' Yet no culture of collective Socialism waits to take over: the even bigger earth-shifts in the East made that clear as well. So new management looks like the only alternative.

Tom Nairn replies to his comments

I greatly appreciate this opportunity to reply to comments on my recent openDemocracy essay, and (I hope) pursue the argument farther. This hope isn't just piety: I realize more clearly than before how much needs to be done - it's a relief to see that the general tenour and range of the comments suggests a major debate may be just around the corner, with openDemocracy seemingly an ideal location for pushing it along.

Read the original essay, Down under diary: is it time for Social Democracy?By definition, any 'major' argument is on different levels at once. I think that was part of Rudd's motive: he was arguing that 'Social Democracy' has ceased being simply an ideology or a programme. It's what the world is left with, after not one but two colossal crashes of previously prevailing ideologies and policy-programmes. Of course the 'General Financial Crisis' is the immediate environment of Australian, as of many other governments and polities. But no-one should forget for one moment that it had been preceded at no great distance by another - the disappearance of the Soviet Union and its East-European communist imperium. With all its absurdities and failures, that '-ism' none the less represented a political direction different from the Cold War's victors: state-political (or 'public sector') control of socio-economic sources and forces, rather than the opposite - the 'Neo-liberalism' convinced that markets must constitute politics and the larger culture.

Down Under diary: is it time for Social Democracy?


Lord, it is time. The summer was too long.
Lay your shadow on the sundials now,
and through the meadows let the winds throng

Rainer Maria Rilke, Herbst/'Autumn', 1902


After the global

Global Imaginary... is a title that conjures up the totalising and overweening, even more so in the present moment of financial and other crisis. Over-exposure to "globalisation" has become a feature of our age: it comes with the cornflakes, follows through until the bedtime headlines, and haunts the dreams that come later. But don't worry. Manfred B Steger's The Rise of the Global Imaginary: Political Ideologies from the French Revolution to the Global War on Terror (Oxford University Press, 2008) is a sober and thorough examination that lies at the other extreme from apocalypse, revelatory vertigo and love-storms.

Tom Nairn is an expert on globalisation, nationalism, British institutions and Scotland. He is innovation professor in Nationalism and Cultural Diversity at the Globalism Institute at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University), Australia

His many books include Faces of Nationalism: Janus Revisited (Verso, 1998), After Britain (Granta, 2000) and Pariah: Misfortunes of the British Kingdom (Verso, 2002), and Global Matrix: Nationalism, Globalism and State-terrorism (Pluto Press, 2005)
He does take globality as his primary point of reference, but the book is mainly deconstruction of a sobering and relentless sort: a critique of the Zeitgeist, rather than one more manifestation. Actually the title is rather misleading: the questioning and straightening-out of the global imaginary would have been better. The author takes us on a journey across ideologies, from the French revolution down to the foundering of neo-liberalism. One heedless pseudo-faith after another is wryly described, with the aim of leading readers away from them. On the contrary, he suggests, a cautious democratic learning process is the only long-term answer. What rising globality demands is a lot more imagination than homo sapiens seems at present to possess - and probably of a kind we can hope only to make way for.

Ideologies are produced by ideologists - "intellectuals" conscious of ideas as theirs, and convinced they should become ours. There is of course an anthropological history to this, rooted in all earlier social formations, and linked to apprehension of extra-kinship ideas as in some way sacred or obligatory.

However, the sacred is also the practical, and Steger focuses on more recent manifestations. He begins with the explicit formulation of "idéologie" offered by Count Antoine Destutt de Tracy in the course of the French revolution. The point then was a "science of ideas" intended to replace religion, and provide the secure foundations of "a cohesive republican nation". We're still at it, naturally, even if the faith-addicted are fighting back with a vengeance. Ideologies become more prominent at times when the once-solid melts disconcertingly into air: as ageing helmsmen are found unconscious beneath tavern tables, perfectly visible reefs show up ahead.

Steger shows how Napoleon Bonaparte dealt firmly with the first round of idéologie: the globe had to learn French, and adopt the logic of that enlightened culture. Then 1815 set everything back, and allowed a new corps of would-be helmsmen to try again. This brought 1848 and - alongside nationalism and more imperio-globalisms - what was to be the endlessly-gnawed bone of another century: Marxism, with its lecture-hall attire, "historical materialism".

Steger points out that "the co-founders of scientific socialism never considered their own theory to be ideological", merely a revelation of facts and consequences. "Imaginary" no longer, the bourgeois globality had to be accepted and enacted, as prelude to something other and better - the socialism inevitably inscribed in its own nature. This drama won out in the "grand ideological' contests he outlines in Chapter 2. As "-isms" took over, the ball bounced from one to another, guided by what he calls "the pivotal role of social élites as codifiers of ideational systems that mobilize large segments of the population behind a political vision".

Thus did "intellectuals" assume their 20th-century function, first and most ably described in Antonio Gramsci's Quaderni del Carcere: those Prison Notebooks containing most of the DNA in all subsequent disputes around the subject. After 1917 the co-founder imaginary was translated into "Leninism": "a simplistic version...became the dogmatic (secular) orthodoxy for all citizens between the Elbe and the China Seas", as Eric Hobsbawm puts it in The Age of Extremes (1994). How could such a prime competitor in the global imaginary race disappear overnight? Because "communism" was not based on mass conversion, but remained a faith of cadres or (in Lenin's terms) "vanguards"...all ruling communist parties were, by choice and definition, minority élites." They were codifiers, "clerics", standing in for the congregated populations themselves.

Among Tom Nairn's articles on openDemocracy:

"Pariah Kingdom" (24 May 2001)

"The party is over" (22 May 2002)

"America vs Globalisation" (a five-part essay, January-February 2003)

"Britain's tipping-point election" (26 June 2005)

"After the G8 and 7/7: an age of 'democratic warming'" (10 July 2005)

"On the beach: a bonfire of monarchies in Melbourne" (15 November 2005)

"Ending the big 'ism" (26 January 2006)

"The Queen: an elegiac prophecy" (27 September 2006)

"Not on your life" (14 May 2007)

"The sorcerer's birthday: notes from the apprentice" (28 November 2007)

"Globalisation and nationalism: the new deal" (4 March 2008)
A ghost from the future

The substance of this diagnosis was shown by what came next, in the ideological great game. Liberation from one orthodoxy was succeeded by imprisonment in the other: that is, the "counter-Leninism" of free-trade economics. Ideology abhors a vacuum: this ought to have been one of the principal rules of Count de Tracy's science of ideas. As opinion was mobilised from the right, along lines projected by fellow-Austrian Friedrich von Hayek, inevitabilism informed the transition as a matter of course. "Inevitable" and "inexorable" are the top hats at every ideological wedding, or civil ceremony. It was not enough to revoke the dissidence of the 1960s: the latter had to be replaced.

Hence it came to be assumed, mistakenly, that "capitalism" was essentially of the right: in effect, an historical materialism of the right supplanted that of the left, to be projected as the truly global mentality. In Gramsci's terms, a "passive revolution" had been pushed through, and "neo-liberalism" was emblazoned on the universal horizon by another troupe of codifiers, columnists, political megaphones, academics, cut-price visionaries and saloon-bar pundits.

These neo-intellectuals of the 1980s and 1990s were rewarded with inebriate hegemony after the demolition of the Berlin wall. The conversion of much of the former east-central European intelligentsias to a surrogate faith proved straightforward: one content replaced another, but within the same form of a no-alternative orthodoxy. Fuelled by north-Atlantic economic power, this demolished the short-cut developmental route that had been prospected as socialism in the "second world" and parts of the "third".

The short-cut turned into a dead-end. And yet, the triumphalists' orgy was itself to be short-lived. Eric Hobsbawm, in The Age of Extremes, had wondered what might become of a capitalism "alone in the world for the first time", and deprived of older societal formations to infiltrate and exploit. Count de Tracy had imagined republicanism stepping forward with new kinds of cohesion, or democratic community. But the globalising imaginary had a much more difficult task before it, as Steger says, since the initial north Atlantic matrix was weighed down by anachronisms like the United States and Westminster constitution, as well as by the fossils of républicanisme.

Then other global regions veered over to the authoritarianism of China, and Vladimir Putin's Russian Federation: communism's ultra-capitalist revenge from beyond its makeshift grave. The drunks had forgotten all about another, deeper element in the Marxian inheritance - the conception of all known forms of civilisation as carrying "contradictions" within themselves, which most states and intellectuals either ignored or (more to the point) felt compelled to stifle by "ideological" means. Capitalism's alter ego "socialism" had indeed been a striking example; but how likely was it that capitalism itself would remain the exception?

Even as proletarian class-cum-internationalism was irreverently dumped in the bin, the revellers felt some odd, cold eddies at the gate, like ghosts from the future: transient revenants or nostalgic reminders? Preposterous régimes of resurrection and bombast arose,such as George W Bush's neo-conservatism and Tony Blair's New Labourism. In fact, these did little but foster a rising storm rooted in the very circumstances of the hegemony earlier obtained.

A border's horizon

Alone in the globe, capitalism could only manifest and disguise itself by what Umberto Eco has described as "turning back the clock" - a mixture of "media populism", warfare and aggravated privatisation. Its new-old political élites, deprived of system-foes, were compelled to invent one: the "war on terror". At the same time, traditional religious beliefs enjoyed a return to life. Steger rightly underlines this as a key question: "Are we witnessing a reversal of the powerful secularisation dynamic that served two centuries as the midwife of ideology? If so, does the rising global imaginary create more favorable conditions for the mixing of political and religious belief systems?"

Earlier, it was often argued that nationalism represented a kind of "earthing" of older religious faith - transcendent nations took over from totems and deities, as the imagined bearers of societal cohesion and continuity. They became the vectors of an extra-kinship solidarity, the sources of a broader meaning for which it was felt possible to live and die. But if that source was now shrinking or drying up, as neo-liberal enthusiasts invariably declared, then what could it be replaced by? Leftwing historical materialists had their answer in terms of social class and an ostentatious "internationalism" capable of reconciling human diversity and the Babel of cultures. Did capitalist development alone offer anything remotely comparable to this - a humanism beyond competition and the indifferent play of market forces?

Steger again and again denies that globalisation merely spells the denial or exit of nationality-politics. But he concedes that with the rise of the global imaginary, "the national and its political translations have become destabilized". Hence any successor ideology has to imagine its way forward, out of this, a process that can't avoid creating favourable conditions for religious revival, with "ideological religions" giving secularity a run for its money. In the nationalist era, that "-ism" itself always held the seeds of a more universal future.

A quotation from Frantz Fanon's Les damnés de la terre in Chapter 4 makes the point strongly: "The building of the nation is of necessity  accompanied by the discovery and encouragement of universalizing values...It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness lives and grows". The same theme consistently informed Gandhi's nationalism, which Steger has also studied closely. In all these cases the affirmation of a particular border enables wider horizons, as well as mobilising active solidarity on one side of it. But how can this function where all borders become lowered or redundant, and no other society or culture stands up as the object of refusal or counter-definition?

It is such "destabilization" that invites retreat to the most traditional forms of other-worldism. Only a godly "nation" in the skies can provide a kind of global answer. But the solution is null, since celestial alternatives are by definition timeless (out-of-date), numerous, querulous, and rooted in what Gramsci diagnosed as traditional clerical intelligentsias. Anything approaching stability (or "maturity" in Steger's terms) needs something stronger: the conception and diffusion of a this-worldly spirituality rooted in whatever national and international consciousness that is already lived and grown. The author perceives some parts of this in recent movements for global justice. In Chapter 5 he traces them back to the 1960s, and maintains they have become more than simply a "backlash". May they not develop farther, in the direction of an "imaginary" on the level of the times - a more persuasive riposte to the decades of neo-liberal and "flat-earth" hegemony?

An elusive terrain

However, he is cautious about such predictions. In his previous Globalization: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2003), he ended by noting how, after 9/11: "Humanity has reached yet another critical juncture. Lest we are willing to let global inequality climb to levels that ensure recruits for the violent forces of particularist protectionism, we must link the future course of globalization to a profoundly reformist agenda." Only thus can the eventual emergence of a "democratic and egalitarian global order" be imagined. Global Imaginary is a solid continuation of both argument and cause, exhibiting the same realism, scholarly care and scruple to avoid the flights, exaggerations and pious dreams that have become too common in the area. Steger dissipates, balances and doubts much more than he evokes and endorses: the heart that shows so clearly between the lines is strengthened rather than lost by an approach too many may dismiss as academic or punctilious.

And as it happens, his book is encountering still another "critical juncture", the high-financial crisis of 2008-09. The costs of capitalisms's pyrrhic cold-war victory continue to accumulate, and underline the need for alternatives and new departures. The mounting scale of such "contradictions" may suggest that "imaginary" is no longer quite the right term. Like Benedict Anderson before him, Steger naturally insists that imagination doesn't mean fancy, dream or mere conjecture. However, it may also be relevant to point out that he's really discussing mindsight, in Colin McGinn's sense.

McGinn's eponymous book "tries to give imagination the recognition it deserves", as "a ubiquitous and central feature of mental life", societally as well as individually. "It plays a constitutive role in memory, perception (seeing-as), dreaming, believing, meaning - as well as high-level creativity. We use our imaginative faculty all the time" (see Colin McGinn, Mindsight: Image, Dream, Meaning, Harvard University Press, 2004). The rise of a different mindsight is not an ideological phenomenon, but a long-drawn-out mass transformation certain to find different expressions on various levels, including false trails and premature conclusions. It will be a matrix of later ideological initiatives, rather than an ideology by itself. Upon this difficult and elusive terrain, Manfred B Steger's Global Imaginary is easily the best guide so far.

After Greatness, everybody is small

In an OurKingdom essay, Tom Nairn looks at how new forms of nationalism are challenging the established nation-states of an earlier era.

Byzantium: always an Empire, never a Nation

There was never anything like it: not a city but the world city for over a thousand years, her domes, towers and colossal walls dominated the crossroads between east, west, north and south. It replaced the ruins of Rome and made Paris, Beijing and Delhi look like overgrown market-towns.

Globalisation and nationalism: the new deal


"Life and culture continue to yield new emergent social entities, new adaptive forms brought into being in order to pursue survival and reproduction both through and in spite of the specific work of capitalism."

The sorcerer’s birthday: notes from the apprentice

Anthony is Anglo-Britain's outstanding example of "the culture of critique". From New Left Review via Charter 88 through to, he has, better than anyone else, represented a left-of-centre effort to at once preserve and renovate the inherited cultural and political structures of Britain - that is, of the multinational apparatus built upon the 1707 Treaty of Union with Scotland, as well as of its earlier extensions of Wales and Ireland. His hope has been that farther extension into European Union may continue and reinvigorate that culture, rather than leading to its demise: an inspiring and outward-looking campaign that has mobilized thousands of colleagues, followers and emulators, and generated hope and creativity against a background of decay, retreat and ultimate folly.

Not on your life

It looks very much as if a new character will, in only a few weeks, be stage-centre in the United Kingdom: "New Britain". As chancellor Gordon Brown prepares to move next door into the prime minister's house (it's called "flitting" in Scotland), a hurricane warning seems in order. All our nations should expect a storm of calls for renewal and appropriate constitutional change. Presaged by hints from Brown's cabinet colleague and campaign manager Jack Straw, as well as assorted rumblings from Brown himself, the objective of such appeals is becoming reasonably clear.

The Queen: an elegiac prophecy

The real target of Stephen Frears's depiction of a British queen under siege from politicians and people following Princess Diana's death is the constitutional system embodied in Tony Blair's imperial prime ministership. Tom Nairn, pioneering critic of Britain's monarchical state, views the film and looks beyond.

Five down, two hundred-and-ninety-five to go

Amidst a torn world, a voracious empire, and a decaying Ukania, Tom Nairn sees a future where openDemocracy can play an essential role.

Ending the big 'ism

John Ralston Saul's book "The Collapse of Globalism" provokes Tom Nairn to dissect identity-formation in Canada and Australia as the bedrock of different visions of nation, state and world in the 21st century.

On the beach: a bonfire of monarchies in Melbourne

Tom Nairn, sharing Australian celebrations of the birth of an heir to the Danish throne, sees an angel of democracy in the Melbourne night sky.

After the G8 and 7/7: an age of 'democratic warming'

The conjunction of the G8 and the London bombings carries a message of democracy to the global community, says Tom Nairn.

Britain's tipping-point election

The ice of Britain’s political system is melting. A potent coalition for electoral and constitutional reform is assembling. Tom Nairn registers an inexorable shift.

Don't vote for Bullshit

Tom Nairn offers his advice to voters in Britain’s general election.

The Free World's end?

Tom Nairn presents a searching critique of Timothy Garton Ash’s book Free World. He argues that it seeks to conserve the global status quo through a comforting subordination to American power. His wide-ranging survey suggest that the new century is not going to embrace any such outcome.

Authoritarian Man: the Axis of Good

The cold war, neo-liberal triumph and 9/11 have ushered in the assertive global hegemony of the United States and its British and Australian satraps. But the millennial project of imperial nationalism conceals a labyrinth of fear – of ordinariness, lost greatness, multiculturalism, globalisation itself.

5. Are there alternatives?

The series

1. America: Enemy of globalisation In the first part of a major new series Tom Nairn lays out his surprising and important thesis. Globalisation is not Americanisation. Rather, the onrushing process of globalisation will render America just another country. In this context, the looming conflict in Iraq should be seen not as a war of oil, still less as a response to Osama bin Laden.

4. America: being old with a vengeance

The series

1. America: Enemy of globalisation In the first part of a major new series Tom Nairn lays out his surprising and important thesis. Globalisation is not Americanisation. Rather, the onrushing process of globalisation will render America just another country. In this context, the looming conflict in Iraq should be seen not as a war of oil, still less as a response to Osama bin Laden.

3. Apocalypse is in the air

The series

1. America: Enemy of globalisation In the first part of a major new series Tom Nairn lays out his surprising and important thesis. Globalisation is not Americanisation. Rather, the onrushing process of globalisation will render America just another country. In this context, the looming conflict in Iraq should be seen not as a war of oil, still less as a response to Osama bin Laden.

2. Globalisation today: a human experience

The series

1. America: Enemy of globalisation In the first part of a major new series Tom Nairn lays out his surprising and important thesis. Globalisation is not Americanisation. Rather, the onrushing process of globalisation will render America just another country. In this context, the looming conflict in Iraq should be seen not as a war of oil, still less as a response to Osama bin Laden.

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