Jürgen Habermas: our European Hegel?

What is left out in Habermas’s deliberations on Europe is any possibility for political, social or cultural contingencies; the assumption is that things simply get better if not all but then at least most of the time.

Andreas Hess
15 March 2017

Juergen Habermas at a discussion in Munich, 2007. Wikicommons/ Wolfram Huke. Some rights reserved. After Brexit and with the prospect of a second referendum in Scotland, and Catalunya demanding independence too, it has proven hard to return to normal. It is not so much the legal wrangling that should worry us. Rather we are forced to re-think a much more fundamental question. Do our traditional sociological and political concepts still have value? Do they still conceptualise what they pretend to conceptualise? Take a closer look at the recent work of one of Europe’s strongest advocates, Jürgen Habermas, and it seems that sociological concepts that once had great significance are now perhaps more of a hindrance to our understanding, particularly when the idea of Europe is reduced to a mere Hegelian trope, or worse, a kind of political theology.

Assuming entropy

Almost three years ago the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported an exchange that took place at Princeton University (“Demokratie kommt ohne Völker aus”, “Democracy doesn’t need peoples”, FAZ, 7 May 2014). Princeton seemed the ideal place for Jürgen Habermas to make some tentative suggestions of how to reform European institutions to suit our changed conditions and make decision-making in the new EU more legitimate and presumably more democratic. Habermas floated the idea of creating a European government that would be directly responsible to, and controlled by, a Congress-like new bicameral system. What came as a surprise to the Princeton audience was less the idea of empowering the European Parliament – similar ideas have been voiced before − as the suggestion that a European equivalent to the US Senate should be created to which the European Council of Ministers would be directly responsible. According to Habermas, the advantage would be that each nation state that is a member of the EU would be on an equal footing, independent of its population size, thereby forming a counterweight to the first chamber or House in which the size of the population of each nation state and member would still matter.

Some of the academics present in the audience, most outspokenly amongst them the intellectual historian Jonathan Israel, challenged Habermas on a number of counts: Who would send the equivalent of two senators to this newly formed European body? Would it be nation states or peoples? What would happen to those European nations and peoples who were without a state, such as Scotland for example? What would happen to those European nations and peoples who were without a state, such as Scotland for example?

Habermas apparently dismissed Israel’s questions as representations of narrow nationalist thinking or worse, as being romantic and backward-oriented, and very much against the great drift that has accompanied modernity i.e. global integration and the problems it poses, for example, in terms of the capacity of the nation state to respond and act appropriately to economic and political needs. With respect to the latter, for Habermas the EU represents an important step forward, a first step toward a truly global society. What is needed to advance this, according to Habermas, is merely some institutional reform.

Over supper debate continued. According to the FAZ, the German philosopher dismissed any argument in favour of Scottish independence (or for the independence of any other nation in a similar situation) and, with it, the idea of representing actual peoples or nations instead of nation states. Jonathan Israel’s reference to the peculiarities and distinct features of the Scottish nation, such as the Scottish legal and educational system, or Scotland’s peculiar religious history, failed to convince Habermas. For the Frankfurt critical theorist, the Scottish dream of independence was just England-bashing; it was, in other words, like many other nationalist dreams, a political form of nostalgia that had nothing to do with ‘real’ questions and problems.

It was not the first time that Habermas’s engagement with Europe and his dismissal of regional, nationalist and independence movements has been the occasion for passionate debate, even leading to protests. Almost a dozen years prior to the Princeton discussion Habermas had, on a visit to Spain, dismissed the Catalan and Basque quest for more autonomy and/or independence as irritating voices from the past – just as he would dismiss Scottish concerns. At the time, Habermas had, in an interview with the liberal Catalan paper La Vanguardia (4 November 2003) commended Spanish constitutional patriotism as the best way forward. The Spanish Constitution, he argued, provided all the channels and means necessary to voice citizens’ discontent and to sort out political problems; there was no need to resort to radical forms of protest let alone violence – and there was certainly no need to separate or declare independence from the Spanish state. It came as no surprise that at the time Habermas’s intervention was enthusiastically applauded not just by his PSOE admirers (mostly lawyers, like Baltasar Garzon, who have made a career out of putting a good number of Basque citizens behind bars, only some of them being active members or supporters of ETA) but also by other, more conservative players.

What the insistence on the wider applicability of democratic constitutionalism de facto did was to render any attempt at separate nation-building futile and fruitless. In the process, and as in the case of Scotland, Habermas showed a remarkable ignorance of the Iberian peninsular’s political history or how Spain’s political geography had taken shape. There was no mentioning of the problematic asymmetrical power relations of both past and present between the various autonomias, regions and historical nations (Galicia, Catalunya and the Basque Country) nor of the transición, apart from perhaps a detectable underlying fear that too much ‘rocking the boat’ would shatter the still precarious and somewhat delicate-appearing development of the Spanish Rechtsstaat.

The irony of playing out a new Spanish Rechtsstaat against legitimate democratic demands for decision-making, the consent of the governed and the sovereignty that comes with it, particularly for those historic nations that had been pressured into a new constitutional settlement after the Franco dictatorship, was certainly not lost on some observers. In more than one way, the Spanish case resembled the post-war German situation: there are parallels with the silence about the dreadful past and the highly problematic aspects of unsuccessful de-nazification, particularly in politics, diplomacy and business, which allowed former Nazis to have successful careers by reinventing themselves as successful leaders in these fields. The transición is full of dubious succession stories, the most prominent of which can be found right at the top: it was Fraga Iribarne (former Minister of the Interior under Franco and later leader of the Partido Popular), who was decisive in handing over power to José Maria Aznar, whose grandfather was a well-known Falangist and whose father belonged to the higher echelons of the Spanish military under Franco. When his term came to an end, Aznar became power broker for Manuel Rajoy, the last and still acting prime minister of Spain.

There were other things at stake: after all, Spain’s membership in the European Union was still relatively new. In that light, an unruly Catalunya or Euskal Herria could only be regarded as primordial stumbling blocks that were on the way to a rechtsstaatlich constituted Spain in Europe. There are strong elements of both Weberian and Kantian reasoning here. While the Weberian element relates to increased rationalisation, now projected onto a post-national, European and even global stage, and of which developments in law form the prime example, the Kantian component relates to holding on to both legitimacy and legality: more militant forms of resistance are not only regarded as futile but as dangerous. Only peaceful process seems legitimate in Habermas’s conceptualisation. This was weird even by Habermas’s own standards; more than once he has insisted that a Rechts- and Sozialstaat doesn’t have to be identical with democracy (Habermas 1992). There is... despite the strong Kantian leanings in the triangulation of law, legitimacy and legality, a strong Hegelian tendency that comes to the forefront in his argument.

But what was most surprising was the suggestion that the struggles of such peoples can be unproblematically subsumed within something bigger that is developing – a general spirit, logic, or rationale that underpins and informs also Habermas’s thinking about Europe. There is, in other words, despite the strong Kantian leanings in the triangulation of law, legitimacy and legality, a strong Hegelian tendency that comes to the forefront in his argument. It is almost as if Habermas’s normative assumption about understanding and communication have been elevated to a higher post-national level – a level that is full of circular reasoning and in which the explanans is identical with the explanandum. The magic trick of course consists of a kind of assumed entropy when it comes to minority cultures and reluctant modernizers.

Anticipating world society

It has by no means always been clear that Habermas’s European argument would develop into the critical theorist’s secular equivalent of a full-blown modern version of Hegel’s world spirit. It is one thing to see Europe as a collective representation that could, at least potentially, act as a political agent and representative and serve as a major platform and player in a newly globalised world (whatever other contradictions this might cause); it is quite another to pretend that there is an inherent tendency at work that leads to the formation of larger unities and even anticipates a world society including forms of hitherto unknown global governance. (For Habermas this process is mainly spearheaded by and expressed in the form of modern international law. The argument is not new. It appears already in his Faktizität und Geltung (engl. transl Between Facts and Norms) but is pushed to contingency levels in Zur Verfassung Europas.

In an essay collection published before the big financial crisis, Ach, Europa (Habermas 2008), which contained material published between 2001 and 2008, Habermas’s introductory remarks about the omission of the positive exclamation mark in HM Enzensberger’s Ach, Europa! symbolised a rather down-to-earth, perhaps even sceptical attitude vis-a-vis the European project. No reference was made here to a Weltgesellschaft, or even more challenging, a Weltregierung. So what exactly has changed and brought on these new Hegelian meditations?

A cursory reading and juxtaposition of Ach, Europa with a later essay published as Zur Verfassung Europas (Habermas 2011) helps to identify some of the differences. It is not by chance that one of the texts in the first Europe collection is dedicated to Richard Rorty. In his appraisal Habermas praised Rorty’s general awareness of contingencies, including his stress on political contingencies and his prioritizing of politics over philosophy. Habermas pointed out that according to Rorty, any critique of Plato must result in a philosophy that is aware of its own historical kernel. According to his appraiser, Rorty has taken up Hegel’s insight that philosophy must be regarded as an exercise that attempts to contain and express its time in thought seriously. However, Habermas also stressed that Rorty understood that maxim in a very a different way from, for example, Heidegger (Habermas 2008, 33ff). In contrast to the self-celebratory turn of Germany’s existential philosopher, Rorty understood the public task of philosophers as one directed against metaphysics and scientism but also as one that criticised many liberals for having given up attempting to appeal to the wider citizenry by using philosophical tools and insights. For Habermas, Rorty excelled in this task by grasping and explaining contingencies by referring to irony or ironic constellations. What proved especially attractive in this context was Rorty’s self-awareness when speaking as an American about America. As Habermas rightly pointed out, he knew that for a superpower cosmopolitanism connoted something very different from just the export of one’s own lifestyle (38).

Contingency and irony were one thing, but Habermas was even more specific about the role of the public intellectual in another essay in the same collection in which he summarised the task of the intellectual in the European context. For Habermas the intellectual task consists in anticipating tendencies and in identifying relevant problems at a moment or time when others were still dedicated to ‘business as usual’ (84). In order for this to happen the intellectual needs to exhibit certain virtues such as being able to spot tendencies that might challenge the ‘normative infrastructure’ of a given society or community; he or she must be able to anticipate dangerous ideologies, have a sense of possibilities and of what is missing; he/she must show some imagination when it comes to presenting alternatives, and he/she must, on occasion, be provocative (ibid). All of these qualities could, as Habermas pointed out himself, potentially be misread or misunderstood as critical nervousness and on occasion appear ‘over the top’. So, showing some of this critical awareness is a tightrope walk, and Habermas was bound to be even more conscious of the inherent dangers of intellectual discourse when related to European affairs. For Habermas the intellectual task consists in...  identifying relevant problems at a moment or time when others were still dedicated to ‘business as usual’.

Discussing some of the most urgent European problems in a more direct manner, he referred also to the necessity to regain room for political manoeuvre on a supranational level and thus warned of a return to the ‘introverted politics’ of the nation state. At the same time Habermas recognised the danger of centralised decision-making in Brussels, with decisions often just rubber-stamped in national parliaments. For him both constellations hinted at democratic and legitimation deficits that prevent Europe from speaking with one voice and acting accordingly.

Habermas was asking his readers to acknowledge that times had changed and argued that Europeans would be better off only if they acknowledged that change more openly. For the Frankfurt theorist it was an irreversible fact that all European nation states have given up old national loyalties and developed into democratic Rechtsstaaten (93). Habermas even acknowledged the liberal contributions that nationalism made in creating the democratic nation state that we know of today. (He had already done this in the last chapters of Faktizität und Geltung; however, the connection has always been seen as a kind of half way house and a temporary feature, to be surpassed by other systemic developments.)

However, despite all the achievements, Habermas also pointed out that there were still deficits in terms of civil society, especially when it came to acknowledging immigrants as new citizens. For Habermas integration without a widening of horizons for all citizens was impossible. Making reference to politics on a higher, supranational level, he was highly critical and stressed that Europe had unfortunately remained a project of a convergence of national elites, normal citizens remaining excluded from any meaningful deliberation process and from turning deliberation into active decision-making participation. Instead there were often trade-offs that were hardly transparent to the average citizen (99). Perhaps the greatest problem apart from the different sizes and the many languages and cultures was the paradoxical situation that a continuous widening of the EU demanded ever more harmonious integration, something that produced all kinds of tensions in the process. In the end Habermas boiled his argument down to two crucial questions that both needed urgent answers, that of the democratic deficit and that of the finalité of Europe. He expressed his hope that answers could be found to both, first by fostering a public process of deliberation and second, as one of the positive outcomes of such public reasoning, by drawing up a constitution for Europe (105). Habermas also pointed out that there were still deficits in terms of civil society, especially when it came to acknowledging immigrants as new citizens.

But Habermas did not stop there. To him, European unification was and still is not an end in itself but constitutes a means to a much larger project. For Habermas, a reformed European Union serves as a kind of scaffolding that is necessary to find legitimate political answers to the complexities of an emerging and ever more complex world society in which problems can no longer be answered by relying on one, worryingly implicated hegemonic superpower alone – that of the US. Instead, Habermas’s hopes rest on a new bipolar European-American alliance that would be able to restore what Habermas has called the ‘normative discourse of the West’ (122f).

Ach, Europa ended with a longer essay that drew the reader’s attention to the very core of the normative horizon that for Habermas would be one of the most important features of a restored western discourse as he imagined it. For the Frankfurt philosopher there were, most importantly, three components that needed to be addressed and which any meaningful and legitimate European political project would do well to safeguard: (1) respect for the private autonomy of each citizen, usually guaranteed by the legal construction that each European citizen is also a citizen of a Rechtsstaat; (2) the existence of a democratic citizenry in the sense that all decisions derive from and are legitimated by democratic decision-making procedures that rest on the notion of popular sovereignty; and (3) an independent public sphere, which facilitates and channels rational deliberation and makes the articulation of the political will possible. Habermas is of course aware of the pitfalls of applying a theoretical-legal argument to real conditions. Especially with reference to the third component he pointed out that due to the lack of a European public sphere but also due to new, potentially less enlightening media tools, meaningful deliberation on a truly European scale has so far proved to be problematic (163ff).

If we compare and contrast Habermas’s vision for Europe prior to 2008 with that expressed only three years later in Zur Verfassung Europas (2011) it immediately becomes clear that the crisis of 2008 has left deep marks. However, and this is perhaps the real surprise, this has not led to a self-critical questioning of the German philosopher’s own views. The opposite is true: the economic crisis of 2008 and the political and social fallout that followed has not led Habermas, as one would be perhaps inclined to think, to re-think or reflect critically about the very architecture on which the European Union rests, namely that only actually existing nation states are full and legitimate members and thus form the basis for all other deliberations in relation to the EU’s present and future institutional shape.

Those who fall below that benchmark, regions, nations, and entire peoples who have not had the power or the historical luck to have had their nation-state moment are by definition ‘on the way out’, assumed assimilated, just like Marx’s peoples without history. Thus, those who protest are asked to try their luck by becoming constitutional patriots of the next largest political entity: Scotland can thus count on the Westminster Parliament (and the uncodified English Constitution) while Catalunya and the Basque Country must muddle their way through Spain’s deeply troublesome and compromised transición and its constitutional framework. How the Irish question fits into such scenarios remains even more of a mystery. Would Northern Ireland maintain its links with the UK after Brexit or would it opt for the Republic of Ireland? In the UK referendum it voted to remain, but who knows which way the unionists’ vote would go when faced with a truly existential question? Constitutionally speaking, both the UK or the Republic could be options. (Staying with Habermasian logic for a moment a similar justifiable new global order is now in the making, repeated on a higher level, i.e. first in the form of legitimate rule and, presumably, based on some legal and normative order, agreed between those nation states that form the EU, and then later between the EU and whichever organisation will politically represent the Weltgesellschaft.)

A pet project without people?

Two crucial questions... both needed urgent answers, that of the democratic deficit and that of the finalité of Europe.

Those who are above the benchmark qualify for being part of the unstoppable march towards a Weltgesellschaft – Habermas’s equivalent to Hegel’s Weltgeist (just turned on its head). What we get here is the redux version of critical theory: a form of philosophizing in which philosophical discourse serves not to radically re-think what might have gone wrong and to consider what was perhaps ill-conceived in the first place. The procedure as envisioned by Habermas serves now only one purpose, that of an extra Legitimationsbeschaffung on a higher level, mainly through the method of drawing on socio-legal constructivist reasoning.

All that has been regarded as important and still to be discussed in Ach, Europa, such as the need for citizens’ involvement in civil society, drifts now into the background to make room for a new pet project – a new European Leviathan (or is it a Behemoth, without the seafaring power that once was Britain?). That new European Leviathan has, seemingly, everything in it, i.e. human rights, aspects of functionality, and even legitimacy. However, on closer inspection the new creature can function entirely without concrete people because politics, culture and the life-world have either completely disappeared or have been made theoretically redundant. (Niklas Luhmann would certainly have been amused about this latest systemic turn of his former public sparring partner.)

So how exactly does Habermas square the circle and make his case for this new condition of Europe and its constitution (note the double meaning of Verfassung to which Habermas refers (Habermas 2011, 8)? In his typical hermeneutical style in which only that is discussed which appears valid for his purpose Habermas juxtaposes two extreme positions: the position of those who are defenders of the nation state and those who argue for the United States of Europe. The former position, so Habermas argues, is simply unable to see the holes in the concept of the sovereign nation, now seriously undermined by economic and other forces; the latter is contributing, perhaps against its own intention, to an uncontrollable bureaucratic Leviathan called Exekutivföderalismus. Against such alternatives Habermas promotes his own transnational model of democracy that would give equal importance to citizens and the people of nation-states (ibid, 9). All that has been regarded as important and still to be discussed... such as the need for citizens’ involvement in civil society, drifts now into the background to make room for a new pet project.

So what guarantees are held by each citizen against the new Leviathan? Here Habermas points to the role that human rights and human dignity have for any project that takes on legally binding functions (ibid. 13-38). What is remarkable in this longer context, however, is that the focus is not at all on something that would amount to an equivalent to the American Bill of Rights, that is, rights that citizens would have against a government, but an underlying sense of progress, as documented in legal discourse, laws and constitutionalism in general – now just projected onto the European and global stage.

What is left out in Habermas’s deliberations on Europe is any possibility for political, social or cultural contingencies, or any reaction to the powers that be as such; the assumption is that things simply get better if not all but then at least most of the time. While Habermas concedes that the real story of how law emerged is more complex, this is nowhere adequately reflected in his comments on Europe (46f). Habermas, it seems, has fallen victim to his own rhetoric, first systematically explored in Faktizität und Geltung, which has since then become the cornerstone of his critical legal discourse. In this text, law’s rationalising and civilising functions occupy a prominent role in that they point toward the first tentative political crystallization of an ever more integrated Weltgesellschaft (ibid, 45). For Habermas all legal arrangements are in the end the outcome of the complex relationship between system and life-world forces and constellations – the world stage is no different.

As far as I can see, the elevation of legalism to a new utopian European project is new in Habermas’s own conceptual universe. Habermas defends it as a necessity, as a contribution that Europe can make on the way to a new politisch verfasste Weltgesellschaft (ibid, 40). Habermas remains as ever the radical philosopher who argues against what he calls ‘headless incrementalism’ which has no perspective and just muddles through (41), and it is in this context that Habermas’s unique cosmopolitanism has purchase. Law and legalism are absolutely crucial to this vision: Habermas sees binding legal norms as one of the great achievements of the EU, even more so as European legalism derives its power from the consent of its member states. As Habermas stresses, while the EU is a supranational body it has made progress in terms of democratic legitimation, particularly by relying on legalistic constructions.

Drawing on the history of American federalism Habermas sees some parallels in the way the union has emerged, including some of its dilemmas. He refers to Madison who was the first of the Founding Fathers to ask whether a union can function democratically without giving some priorities to the federal government. We the people of the United States can indeed mean two things: all citizens of the union and all citizens of its member states. Madison’s answer was to introduce the concept of divided sovereignty (or checks and balances as its practice is better known). Habermas sees some merit in this idea of divided or shared sovereignty but also regards Europe as a different project when compared to the US: the difference being that the EU is an incomplete federal republic in which the citizen appears divided between being a European citizen and at the same time being a citizen of a member nation-state.

While Habermas is of course right in general terms he seems unaware of a big elephant in the room on the European level. In almost every aspect one has to be accepted first as a citizen who is a member of a European nation state before one can be a European citizen. Newcomers and asylum seekers can tell stories of how exactly this works (or, better, doesn’t work), equally those citizens who come from a Kulturnation that had perhaps the unfortunate fate of not having metamorphosed into a European nation state as yet. Practically this means that the EU prioritizes nation states over other forms of collectivity (this is, for example, clearly demonstrated in the EU’s council of minister’s voting system: each member independent of size of population has one vote (this is in stark contrast to the American federal model and system of government); furthermore, all changes to the EU’s most important regulations and laws need to be take unanimously. The crisis of 2008 has left deep marks. However, and this is perhaps the real surprise, this has not led to a self-critical questioning of the German philosopher’s own views.

Alternative Europes

All of this throws up the question of whether there are alternative ways to think about Europe’s future that take particular histories and political contingencies seriously and that do not dismiss or denounce legitimate local, regional or national democratic concerns as being ideological representations of merely backward and/or nationalist thinking. The time and the circumstances seem to me to be right to call for a more inclusive and historically better-informed approach than Habermas’s Hegelian gospel of a Weltgesellschaft, including the usual stage model proposed in almost predictable Hegelian fashion: Europe first, then the bi-polar alliance with the US, add the ingredient of some Kantian cosmopolitanism including legalism – and then hope for a politisch verfasste Weltgesellschaft, including global citizenship. (Presumably only the totalitarian connotations of a Weltstaat make Habermas refrain from using the term.)

Alternative ways of thinking about Europe are already available. Some of them prove to be more sound, realistic and democratic in aspiration than the Hegelian type of thinking that Habermas promotes. I call this alternative approach the Tocquevillian way of thinking. Scholars who stand in that tradition have demonstrated that it is possible to provide insights into what makes Europe tick (or what doesn’t make it tick). None of these thinkers can be easily denounced as being anti-European. Au contraire, they all care about Europe passionately, whether it is Larry Siedentop in Democracy in Europe (Siedentop 2000), Tony Judt in A Grand Illusion? (Judt 1996), David Runciman’s The Confidence Trap (2013) or Amartya Sen in a number of recent essays (Sen 2014). One can even learn from John G. A. Pocock’s critical reflections on Europe about the limits of ‘Europe’ as a political trope (Pocock in Pagden 2002, 55-71). I call this alternative approach the Tocquevillian way of thinking.

These names all have in common that their approach is based on arguments that assume no underlying spirit, movement or rationale in the way that Habermas’s Hegelian form of reasoning does. I maintain that it is crucial for Europe’s future that we listen to counter-narratives like the ones just mentioned and not leave the liberal and democratic discourse to a philosopher who, though he has more than once insisted that the task of his generation was to avoid the pitfalls of German history, now proposes an alternative that isn’t that far away from what he criticises. It is just that now ever-closer EU integration comes with Frankfurt School approval. Maybe a different approach that consists of less prescription (what else is a constitution?), more irony (remember Rorty), less German history lessons (if not we will invade you) and more listening to others would do better.

Size matters after all

Those who hope that these aspirations – to be, within reasonable limits, the master of one’s own affairs, and to reflect the consent of the governed – will just go away, err.

Our concepts and understanding of nationalism are deeply antiquated and no longer do justice to what actually happens on the ground. Those who hope that these aspirations – to be, within reasonable limits, the master of one’s own affairs, and to reflect the consent of the governed – will just go away, err.

The next hurdles are already in sight: what will Scotland and Northern Ireland do after Brexit? And what will the Spanish government do in the light of open Catalan resistance to Madrid? Those who think that the springtime of nations is now over for good are fools. Even more worrisome would be a return to a political theology – and what else is the dream of a politisch verfaßte Weltgesellschaft? – this time not in the Schmittean sense but in late Frankfurt-Style. Some political realism seems in order. There is a relationship between democracy and size: advocates of an ever-closer European Union should take notice of that fact.


Habermas, J. (1992) Faktizität und Geltung, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp

Habermas, J. (2008) Ach, Europa, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp

Habermas, J. (2011) Zur Verfassung Europas. Ein Essay, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp

Judt, T. (1996) A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe, London: Penguin

Pagden, A (2002) The Idea of Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Runciman, D. (2013) The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press

Sen, Amartya (2012) “What Happened to Europe?”, The New Republic, August 2

Siedentop, L. (2000) Democracy in Europe, Allen Lane


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