[This conversation with Pierre Rosanvallon was held in French, over the phone, and translated by Phil Paine. It first appears in the book Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought.]
Gagnon: What is your conception of democracy?
Rosanvallon: The a priori definition of democracy is simple enough. But when we wish to clarify the meaning of the word ‘democracy’, it becomes more complicated. The simplest rendition is that a society possesses institutions of self-management and self-government. This definition can be presented glibly. But it appears problematic when we notice that each of the terms that make up the word ‘democracy’ is formally imprecise. To begin with, there is an imprecision to the very notion of ‘demos [δημος]’ – to the definition of ‘the People’. Are ‘the People’ the totality of the society, or merely a subdivision of the society? Since antiquity, whether in the Greeks or the Roman world, there was equivocation between the two definitions of the ‘the People’: the plebs (in Latin), on the one hand, meaning the ‘little
people’, the lower classes, and on the other hand, the populus, the entire society. And this term, ‘people’ is simultaneously self-evident, and fundamentally indeterminate – indeterminate, because there exist many possible categories of people. Are the people, ultimately, only the bearers of rights? In that case, we are speaking of a Primary People, or a Juridical People. It is they that we refer to when, for example, we speak of ‘the People’ in a constitution. But ‘the People’, in every contemporary regime, also has another definition, which is more or less numerical. ‘The People’ are those who express their will through universal suffrage. This manifests itself in the form of a majority. This we might call a Numerical People, or an Arithmetical People. There is, furthermore, what we might call the Social People. That is to say, the People defined by the total sum of their deeds, which manifests itself in demonstrations, in communities of common interest, demands for due rights and advocacy groups.
Thus, ‘the People’ take on multiple faces, spreading out across a society that consists of the aggregations of desire, aggregations of declared intent and aggregations of rejection. And so, we see that the notion of ‘the People’ that appears self-evident in theory, is in reality extremely complex, and perhaps undeterminable. For, among the Social People, the Numerical People of universal suffrage, the Primary People of the constitutions, we see that in each case it is not the same procedures that allow for their representation and their self-expression. The Numerical People are represented by a majority. The Juridical People are represented by the main principles organizing the society. The Social People, I would say, are represented by all the forms of collective speech and action that take form in the society.
So, we see that the first element of the word ‘democracy’, the subject of democracy, ‘the People’, is both complex and indeterminate. If we proceed to the second term, the exercise of power, self-government, we see that the word ‘kratos [κρα′ τος]’, is a term that is itself indeterminate in the Greek language. The verb kratein [κρατει′η] has a double meaning. It means, on the one hand, to exercise power, and on the other hand, to win a victory, or to combat against something. Thus, within the term, we see the ambiguity within democracy. Is democracy the simple exercise of self-government by the society, or is it the act of one faction or group imposing its will on others?
Majoritarian democracy displays this dimension of one group imposing itself on another. We see that, when we consider the second aspect within the procedures, the institutions, the putting into action the idea of the exercise of power, there too is a degree of indeterminacy. Does the way ‘the People’ express their will appropriately encompass direct actions, or does it properly express itself in representative government? Is this expression a regular occurrence, or is it something rarely done? We see that in the temporal dimension, the institutions of democracy again display a kind of indeterminacy and complexity. Thus, I would have to say, that there is an evident existence of democracy, but at the same time it has a problematical character.
Gagnon: Your answer is similar to the way David Held addressed the same question in this book. Your deconstruction of the Greek term has highlighted the (at least) binary problematical character of this form of government and governance. Although one would expect the logical problematics of democracy to be a given obvious across the individuals that compose ostensibly democratic societies – that is sadly not the case. It is thus important to press further into this area of political knowledge. Given that legitimacy seems to be a new fetish word for democracies throughout the globe, what constitutes democratic legitimacy? How do ‘the People’, the demos, exercise their power legitimately?
Rosanvallon: Legitimacy is what we might call an ‘invisible institution’. That is to say, societies do not function only through their procedures, not just by the use of their organized institutions, but also through invisible institutions. And there are three major categories of invisible institutions. Some can be labelled ‘confidence’, some can be labelled ‘authority’, and some can be labelled ‘legitimacy’. Authority is the most traditionally studied of these. It fits into the classic definitions of a number of philosophers; it is what permits a decision to be imposed without the necessity of explanation and without the necessity of relying on brute force. So we can say that when a person or an institution possesses authority, then each one of their decisions need not rely on the use of coercive force, and they do not have to repeatedly justify themselves. Thus, we can say of an invisible institution like authority, that it is an economizer of time, and at the same time an economizer of violence.
Looking at confidence, we can turn to the classic definition by Simon [Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825)], who identified confidence as that which allows us to form a hypothesis about someone’s future behaviour. With this, we can see the critical role that confidence played in the development, for example, of the marketplace, and the development of commerce. It was because one could rely on the reimbursement, after a certain number of years, of money loaned to someone, that one could engage in activities requiring credit. That is why, parenthetically, it is among small, homogeneous groups, often of a single ethnicity, that market values emerged. They possessed a kind of common culture, a kind of familiarity, a shared faith and origin, that permitted each member of such a group to rely upon the others. Thus this second kind of invisible institution, confidence, is an economizer of formal institutions. One does not need to rely on formal institutions for everything. One can make things work with confidence.
Finally, legitimacy is a third major category of invisible institutions. Legitimacy is that which allows the authorization that is born through election to be carried forward in time. Election leads to the naming of those who will govern, and the government is authorized by the process of election to govern. But the problem of a power is that it must continue to exercise its capacity to govern over time. Legitimacy is that which transforms, in a way, the initial authorization of power into something which has the potential for permanence. So legitimacy is something quite fundamental. In order to avoid confusion, we must distinguish democracy as a regime of authorization from democracy as a regime of legitimacy. This is because authority is produced, at one single time, by the electoral process. The electoral decision puts in place a person who is authorized to govern. Legitimacy is what gives continuity to the capacity to govern. Thus, legitimacy is the foundation of the capacity to govern, not merely the authority to govern. In this sense, in contemporary societies, legitimacy is becoming, evidently, more and more important.
Why? Because there is a continuing life within democracy. Democracy does not just manifest itself temporarily, in the relatively rare event of elections. Rather, democracy is shaped, more and more, by the fact that we demand that government justify itself on an ongoing basis, and that it justifies its decisions. And so, democracies, I would say, are becoming regimes that must be able to face the challenge of rendering their decisions permanent. That is why legitimacy is an invisible institution that is playing a greater role in society, and an invisible institution that must not be confused with what we would call the regime of authorization over the governed, created by election.
Gagnon: I would like to know if you see legitimacy in other areas than the government that has been voted into a role of authority? Michael Saward (2000, 2008, and 2011) has written several works on this subject. He sees places of power which are extra-governmental. Do you see legitimacy in these?
Rosanvallon: Most certainly. There are forms of legitimacy which are moral. It is clear that we can see that an elected government may appeal to its history of solidarity with its society, that may be called upon for the common cause brought on by events. We can see that the legitimacy of Churchill and DeGaulle during the Second World War – and that of Roosevelt – depended not merely on the fact that they were elected in government, but on the fact that they had, in their actions, developed a sort of intense proximity to their societies. They were simultaneously leaders, champions of leadership and champions of solidarity. Thus, we see that legitimacy is not merely within procedures; legitimacy can be elsewhere, as well. Legitimacy can be of a moral order.
Most of all, there is an important distinction to be made, in a society, between legitimacy which is conferred by the democratic process, which is done through the wielding of majority power, and the developing necessity to call upon forms of consensus in society. Having obtained the majority in election may give you the opportunity to govern, but afterwards, to govern a country over time, you must obtain, after a fashion, a consensus of all the society. And for that reason, there is a more marked distinction in today’s society between what we might identify as the institutions of democracy based on the majoritarian principle, and democratic institutions based on the principle of impartiality. Democratic institutions based on the principle of impartiality are those which are linked to rights. Increasingly, these are given a more important role in the management of politics and in constitutional courts. A government may have majoritarian legitimacy, but a constitutional court is tasked with making explicit the fundamentals of the social contract, to which everyone must conform.
This contrast between majoritarian legitimacy and legitimacy based on impartiality is, we also see, in today’s society, linked to the development of large independent authorities. To administer financial affairs, to regulate systems of communication, we no longer trust the institutions of government. Public administration depends, I would say, on the majoritarian government in place, but it has, in contemporary society, a tendency to develop independent organizations. These independent organizations are an expression of the fact that democracy increasingly ‘marches on two feet’ [marche sur deux pieds; is firmly grounded in two divisions (an expression often used in business)] – the ‘foot’ of majoritarian institutions, and the ‘foot’ of institutions based on impartiality. These are two forms of legitimacy which are linked: a form of legitimacy which is based on the majority, on arithmetic, and another form of legitimacy, more or less founded on principles, is found in impartial institutions.
Gagnon: This separation of legitimacies in certain contemporary democratic systems is unique. Are there any problems that surround the varied contemporary concepts of legitimacy?
Rosanvallon: All governments, all institutions which correspond, in some way to the implementation of the principle of the general social good can be said to possess legitimacy. The general good can be defined, at its simplest, in a purely procedural way – through election. It can be said that the majority constitutes a fictive social unity. In the distant
past, it was thought that the only legitimate government was founded on unanimity. Gradually, for strictly practical reasons, it came to be assumed that the majority stood for the totality of a society. There is a long history of the majoritarian principle, which starts in religious orders of the Middle Ages, which needs the majority as a technical device for decision making, but for which the moral principle of justification is always the general good of the society.
The interests of the society, represented by the majority as a fictive totality is one approach to establishing legitimacy. Another approach is to say that it is very difficult to determine the general good of society, and so it is necessary to reduce the scope, in some sense, of the definition of the general good. It is necessary to reduce what is encompassed in the general good. We could see in this a kind of ‘legitimacy of reflection’. Or, then again, a legitimacy that corresponds to the fact that we have put in place institutions that match the definition of democracy as an ‘empty power’. If we define democracy as the power of everybody, defining ‘everybody’ is complicated. We see that sometimes, democracy has been satirically defined as the power of nobody. Because power belongs to no one alone, because nobody can appropriate it, that is a guarantee that it remains at the service of all. You can see the various ways in which you can identify, technically, if that is the right word, these forms of legitimacy.
Gagnon: So there is a contemporary condition of multifarious legitimacy framed by either arithmetic or certain base principles. The principles must come from some demonstrable ethos of being ‘for the common good’. Then there is the legitimacy derived from simple majoritarian results arrived at during elections. The problems that they face are conceptual or definitional. As you said above, when we look to the ‘common good’ we find it difficult to arrive at a less parochial conception. This too holds true for what constitutes a ‘people’ or a ‘majority’. So legitimacy is then something in itself that requires justification by individuals either composing the demos or ostensibly ‘ruling’ it. That is a key moment in this talk I think because it stresses once more the need for the citizen to understand this reality. Given this emphasis on the citizen, or the demos at large, I would like to know if we have any new methods of reinforcing the legitimacy of the demos.
Rosanvallon: Certainly, there are modern methods specifically used to reconcile the many different meanings of the word ‘people’. Not just through the electoral process, but by the reduction of its manifestations. In the past, it was thought there were no possibilities other than the interplay between direct democracy – referendums, for example – and representative government. Now, today we see that the forms of publicly expressing representation are multiplying. It’s for that reason that, for the last decade, we have been emphasizing the concept of deliberative democracy. It’s not merely a question of intervening at the cusp of a decision, but of the placing of the ante [as in a poker game], the implied stake the citizen holds. The new method of strengthening the legitimacy of the demos is, therefore, to more thoroughly involve the citizen in the process of understanding and defining objectives. Legitimacy is amplified by what I would call active citizenship, which implies involved citizens.
Gagnon: This conception of active citizenship is a point that we will return to shortly when discussing the atomization of the individual in society. But I feel that we have skipped over an important question that will help us frame the discussion of legitimacy a bit better. Could you outline the progress of the concept of legitimacy over the last century? What has changed?
Rosanvallon: Let us say that the first great transformation, the modern revolution, was the actual arrival of the concept of legitimacy. We passed from a world which appeared to be given, by order, from without, to one in which we defined things for ourselves. Thus, the first revolution was to actualize legitimacy on Earth, and the way to bring it down to Earth was through procedures. This culminated in universal suffrage. After this, we can say that the history of legitimacy is the history of its progressive elaboration. Let us not forget, in this regard, that universal suffrage in Western countries was not fully achieved until this last century. One single century! Even though the American and French Revolutions enlarged the franchise, in the United States, it’s only since 1965 that African Americans could vote without hindrance, and in France, it’s only since 1945 that women could vote. Universal male franchise was not achieved in Britain since the time of the First World War. So when we speak of the history of democracy, it’s a history that is distinctly recent.
One must remember that there was a powerful resistance to the introduction of universal suffrage. The people, in fact, were not particularly from the theoretical idea of self-government to the general acceptance of universal suffrage. So what we have lived through is the slow process of elaborating democracy. It is quite different from what was thought at the time of the French and American Revolutions, when it was believed that democracies would be regimes which would become simpler and simpler over time. We discovered that in order to realize democracy, we had to render it more complex. No single procedure is sufficient to bring it into being. No single procedure is adequate to represent society. No single procedure is truly capable of bringing about the general good. No single procedure is sufficient to control power.
So, we can say that during the first era in the life of democracies, we thought that the electoral process was the heart of it, the thing that would enable all these things – a mechanism for election, a control mechanism through re-election and a mechanism of representation. Certainly, an election does play a fundamental role. An election is a procedure that restrains passion, a procedure of arbitration, and most advantageously, a procedure that brings closure to disputes because of its arithmetical nature. We can argue forever about what constitutes the common good, but there is no disputing that fifty-one is more than forty-nine.
Gagnon: How true. But it’s hard to envisage a society progressing with a mandate of just 51 per cent. Surely we should be focusing on trying to bring about some better minimum for a majority. I often use the 80 per cent mark which I think my colleagues in the USA would call a super-majority. I try to think of elections as a test for interested citizens: can they come to deliberate with each other and reach a decision reflecting what, in school for example, would be the bottom range of a ‘good mark’ – that ubiquitous 80 per cent that so many students covet? Naturally, a key proviso would be for us to develop clever mechanisms to reach this 80 per cent mark without causing parliamentary decisions to become torturously slow and thus, to some extents, ineffective.
Rosanvallon: Exactly, and that is why it’s becoming more difficult for democracies to function exclusively on the majoritarian principle. It’s necessary that they be based on additional institutions, other than those which are majoritarian. Characteristically, in the nineteenth century, everyone thought that, once the support for the Old Regimes disappeared, that the new regimes would be based on very large majorities. However, what we have experienced in all modern democracies is that, for most issues and decisions, the outcomes have been very close and thus only marginal majorities. Whenever there’s a result of 60 per cent over forty in an election, we speak of it as being a ‘landslide’. For the most part, in elections in the developed world and even in the third world, electoral outcomes average fifty-five over forty-five, or fifty-two over forty-eight. The fact that there is such parity between the two principal clans or camps in competition obliges us to enlarge any definition of legitimacy in a democracy, and to re-conceptualize the institutions that serve the general good.
Gagnon: I agree with your parry but would like to maintain that that still does not disclude the importance of figuring out how to make decision outcomes less divisive. Surely humans are clever enough to figure out a way to come to some stronger majority: this might possibly allow for democracies to bolster their own capacities ‘to get things done’. I’m sure you have heard of the critique levelled against democracies in discussions comparing them to mainland China: the Politburo gets things, good or bad, done. Democracies are said to have ‘toxic policy debates’ and ‘democratic gridlock’ leading them to be, for example, surpassed in sustainable or renewable energies implementation, research and development (where mainland China, for the record, leads much of the world).
But let us continue in the direction of your argument. You argued that there are other ways for citizens to exercise their sovereignty in a democracy. One of these has to do with a demos showing or removing its confidence in government. How do citizens now register their confidence, or lack of confidence, in a way that differs from the old way of casting a vote?
Rosanvallon: We can say that the most developed democracies are those in which democracy has become, more or less, an ongoing process. That is to say, that democracy has become more than a process of legitimizing governments, that democracy should now be an attribute of governments. This transformation of democracy from a procedure to an attribute of government has a profound influence on how we register confidence or lack of confidence. An election is an institution that is designed to establish confidence at a specific juncture, but this confidence needs to regenerate itself over time. A government must govern wisely to do this, and to be considered legitimate. Democracy is more than just institutions and procedures. Democracy is a matter of the art of government, and the quality of government. This is something basic, and the citizens are well aware that the cultivation of confidence is something very difficult, which a government can miscalculate, often to a great degree. Public lack of confidence [suspicion], on the other hand, produces immediate results. So we can say that there is, on the one hand, a positive democracy of authorization, and on the other hand, a kind of negative democracy that some call the ‘democracy of control’, or ‘democracy of resistance’, but which I prefer to call counter-democracy.
Gagnon: Why do you think these new practices possibly invert the electoral practice of democracy? For example, Hans Blokland (2011) has written that modernity and the isolation of the individual are partly responsible for a manifest crisis in representative systems. Does this then not preclude a weak demos whose suspicions and other authorizations of government mean little?
Rosanvallon: I believe there’s a basic problem here. Democracy has, since its very beginning, envisioned two things at the same time. Democracy envisions a political community, but it also envisions the emancipation of the individual. And so, the projects of emancipating the individual, of making the individual come into being, of liberating him from the constraints in which he was struggling – whether it be the constraints of tradition, or the bonds of personal dependence – these were the fundamental aims of the modern revolutions. Such was the revolution in Saint-Domingue [the Haitian Revolution, 1791–1804, founding the Republic of Haiti from the French colony of Saint- Domingue], which freed black peoples from enslavement under white rule. Such was the American Revolution, which emancipated the Americans from the Boston Brahmins [Rosanvallon has misidentified some historical personalities. The ‘Boston Brahmins’ were a literary circle in mid- nineteenth century New England, not the Tories of the American Revolutionary era]. Such was the French Revolution, which liberated us from aristocracy.
The reshaping of the individual into an autonomous and independent being is integral to the mission of these democracies. Individualism must not be confused with isolation [atomization]. The fact that there is more individualism is something that is positive in a society, because there is a need for individual fulfillment, a need to be recognized as unique and singular. In my opinion, the difficulty is this: it’s that the programme of democratic individualism has long been expressed under the influence of what I would call a universalist individualism. At the time of the American and French Revolutions, to be a true individual was seen as being like everyone else – to be treated equally meant to be treated as similar, to use the famous definition of de Tocqueville [‘semblables et égaux’ is the phrase used by Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (1805–1859) in De la démocratie en Amérique (1835–40)]. Today, to be treated as an equal is demanded as a fundamental right, deployed against every form of discrimination.
But at the same time, there is a need for singular distinction, and the peculiarity of modern individualism is that it is simultaneously a universalist individualism and singularist individualism. I believe that this is a definition of democracy: to construct a community on the basis of singular individuals. All the analyses that simplistically contrast an atomistic world with a world of cohesive harmony [cohésion] are very short-sighted. I know that these were the views developed at the end of the nineteenth century, as part of a reaction against the political culture created by revolution: the French Revolution, for example. Today, the task, which I explore in my latest work The Society of Equals (2011), is to bind together a principle of communality and a principle of singular individuality [singularité]. To think that political community is created by the negation of the modern-day demands of singular individuality is, in my view, doomed to failure, because that singular individuality is part of an emancipatory programme, and democracy’s history is a history of human emancipation.
Gagnon: It is interesting to see the two, individualization and community, as two concepts that are not contradictory. Your explanation helps to understand a point made by Francis Fukuyama in this volume: that democracy is fundamentally underpinned by liberalism and its emancipatory project that ostensibly freed, as it were, the individual from kin, the group, the village, social norms and so forth. Although I find this explanation of liberalism as the key to democracy debatable, there is certainly something to be said about the emancipation of the individual as a key to democracy.
This relates directly to an interview I had with Martin Weber for the journal Democratic Theory (2012a) wherein he carefully crafted the following argument: the individual and her ‘self’ must have distance from the role of ‘citizen’. In other words, the ‘self’ should not equate with the ‘citizen’ as the dialectic between the two creates a distance which permits the individual to reconsider the role of the ‘citizen’ and then effectuate a desired change. In this way I would agree that individuals are both separate to, and composing, a political community. It has more to do with philosophy of the self than certain political conceptions of liberalism I think. But that is a locution for a different forum.
I would like to consider your point about the removal of confidence, or the creation of distrust. Do you think we overemphasize distrust? Is it actually possible to improve or enhance democracy by removing confidence and deliberately playing apathetic when a system possibly requires more clever behaviour on the part of the demos?
Rosanvallon: I do not believe that we overemphasize distrust, because distrust is a positive sentiment. Distrust is a safeguard. Distrust is a kind of democratic precaution. What is bad is when there is nothing but distrust. We must distinguish the concepts of dissidence and confidence. When you have only distrust, at that point, I would say, it’s a kind of popular abrogation of democracy, assuming that all government is rotten, that power is evil in and of itself. This is a way of rejecting democracy. But I believe we must give a positive spin to the idea of dissidence. It has a positive function, and I have tried to define this positive function, to rehabilitate the word, in my work Counter-Democracy (2008). So, in order to improve democracy, we must in a way normalize – institutionalize – dissidence; and institutionalize it in a positive way.
Gagnon: That is a convincing answer – although I wonder how we might go about institutionalizing dissidence positively. In this era of ‘Putinism’ it seems that dissidence is something only punished. Crossing the parliamentary floor, revealing embarrassing government documents, whistle-blowing within multinational corporations or bureaucracies of the state all seem to leave the dissidents worse off. Some might say that it’s a condition of Pussy Riot across the board!
Would the presence or bolstering and protection of monitory agencies be a way for dissidence to be positively institutionalized? In your book Counter-Democracy (2008) it appears that you see great merit in the monitory agencies that restrain governments from fiscal irresponsibility . . .
Rosanvallon: In French we would not say ‘monitory agencies’, we would say ‘agencies of control’. ‘Monitory’, in the definition of John Keane – he pulled that expression out of my own work, after all – means ‘watchfulness’. The word that I used, which is a key word in the French Revolution, is the word surveillance, meaning ‘watchfulness’. The power of the people is not solely the power of authorization, because elections are periodic. Watchfulness is ongoing. In the iconography of the French Revolution, there are two ways of representing the people. Either they are represented by the image of a colossus, a powerful man armed with a mace, or they are represented by the All-Seeing Eye [L’oeil de la surveillance; this is also in the iconography of the American Revolution, and appears on the American dollar bill]. This allegory of the eye well illustrates that democracy is exercised through a kind of permanent mechanism of watchfulness. It was said many times during the French Revolution that the best way of exercising representative power was through watchfulness, because watchfulness is permanent power, while electoral power is intermittent.
Gagnon: Your first remark is quite interesting. My understanding is that Keane’s definition is very much his own and one that comes from his analytic framework of the ‘pluriverse’. It was through his cross-cultural analyses that he came to detect a different historical form of democracy: peoples throughout the world were in the habit of monitoring ‘democracy’s pulse’, of keeping power to account, and of making certain core demands for transparency and anti-corruption. But that is my own opinion. How do you separate your theoretical conceptions from those of John Keane?
Rosanvallon: Let us say that his work is a kind of grand fresco of global, of the universal history of democracy. My work concentrates on analysing the final phases of this history, specifically on the way the democratic idea was transformed by the idea of dissidence. So I do not think there is any striking contrast. I think that I have formulated a more precise theory of dissidence, while he spent more time describing specific cases, perhaps independently of the fact that I made this analysis several years before him. My book Counter-Democracy was published in 2008, while his book The Life and Death of Democracy was published in 2009, if memory serves.
Gagnon: Yes, I know both dates to be right. Although I think that there are many more nuances between your works and those of Keane that we mentioned, it is quite important for us to turn our attention to an opinion of John Dryzek’s (found in his contribution to this volume). When I spoke with Dryzek he told me that he does not see any great difference between his own theory of deliberative democracy and John Keane’s monitory democracy or, presumably, your democracy of watchfulness, of control. To paraphrase Stephen Elstub (see for further context 2007, 2008, and 2010), although we should appreciate the differences between dominant theories of democracy, there appears to be far more overlap between them than previously thought.
Rosanvallon: True enough, except that I see deliberative democracy as one of the modalities of the democracy of watchfulness, but you realize that in practical experience, deliberative democracy is dependent on the development of citizen juries, of deliberative polling, of things that are, I would say, on experiments confined to a small scale, with the exception of the proposals for a ‘Deliberation Day’ [referring to the idea of a National Deliberation Day proposed by Bruce Ackerman and James S. Fishkin in 2004]. But if this idea of deliberative democracy is subsumed within the democracy of watchfulness, I’m all in favour of it.
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