Should We Fight the System or Be the Change?

The strengths and weaknesses of prefigurative politics.

Mark Engler and Paul Engler

Protesters line the street during Occupy Wall Street in 2012. Occupy can be seen as a clash between strategic and prefigurative politics. (Coco Curranski / Flickr / Creative Commons)

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared at Wag­ing Non­vi­o­lence.

Instead of waiting for revolution in the future, the New Left sought to experience it in the present through the movements it created.

It is an old ques­tion in social move­ments: Should we fight the sys­tem or be the change we wish to see”? Should we push for trans­for­ma­tion with­in exist­ing insti­tu­tions, or should we mod­el in our own lives a dif­fer­ent set of polit­i­cal rela­tion­ships that might some­day form the basis of a new society?

Over the past 50 years — and arguably going back much fur­ther — social move­ments in the U.S. have incor­po­rat­ed ele­ments of each approach, some­times in har­mo­nious ways and oth­er times with sig­nif­i­cant ten­sion between dif­fer­ent groups of activists.

In the recent past, a clash between strate­gic” and pre­fig­u­ra­tive” pol­i­tics could be seen in the Occu­py move­ment. While some par­tic­i­pants pushed for con­crete polit­i­cal reforms — greater reg­u­la­tion of Wall Street, bans on cor­po­rate mon­ey in pol­i­tics, a tax on mil­lion­aires, or elim­i­na­tion of debt for stu­dents and under­wa­ter home­own­ers — oth­er occu­piers focused on the encamp­ments them­selves. They saw the lib­er­at­ed spaces in Zuc­cot­ti Park and beyond — with their open gen­er­al assem­blies and com­mu­ni­ties of mutu­al sup­port — as the movement’s most impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to social change. These spaces, they believed, had the pow­er to fore­shad­ow, or pre­fig­ure,” a more rad­i­cal and par­tic­i­pa­to­ry democracy.

Once an obscure term, pre­fig­u­ra­tive pol­i­tics is increas­ing­ly gain­ing cur­ren­cy, with many con­tem­po­rary anar­chists embrac­ing as a core tenet the idea that, as a slo­gan from the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World put it, we must build the new world in the shell of the old.” Because of this, it is use­ful to under­stand its his­to­ry and dynam­ics. While pre­fig­u­ra­tive pol­i­tics has much to offer social move­ments, it also con­tains pit­falls. If the project of build­ing alter­na­tive com­mu­ni­ty total­ly eclipses attempts to com­mu­ni­cate with the wider pub­lic and win broad sup­port, it risks becom­ing a very lim­it­ing type of self-isolation.

For those who wish to both live their val­ues and impact the world as it now exists, the ques­tion is: How can we use the desire to be the change” in the ser­vice of strate­gic action?

Nam­ing the conflict

Coined by polit­i­cal the­o­rist Carl Bog­gs and pop­u­lar­ized by soci­ol­o­gist Wini Breines, the term pre­fig­u­ra­tive pol­i­tics” emerged out of analy­sis of New Left move­ments in the Unit­ed States. Reject­ing both the Lenin­ist cadre orga­ni­za­tion of the Old Left and con­ven­tion­al polit­i­cal par­ties, mem­bers of the New Left attempt­ed to cre­ate activist com­mu­ni­ties that embod­ied the con­cept of par­tic­i­pa­to­ry democ­ra­cy, an idea famous­ly cham­pi­oned in the 1962 Port Huron State­ment of the Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Soci­ety, or SDS. In a 1980 essay, Breines argues that the cen­tral imper­a­tive of pre­fig­u­ra­tive pol­i­tics was to cre­ate and sus­tain with­in the live prac­tice of the move­ment, rela­tion­ships and polit­i­cal forms that pre­fig­ured’ and embod­ied the desired soci­ety.” Instead of wait­ing for rev­o­lu­tion in the future, the New Left sought to expe­ri­ence it in the present through the move­ments it created.

Cur­rent dis­cus­sion of pre­fig­u­ra­tive pol­i­tics has been root­ed in the expe­ri­ence of U.S. move­ments in the 1960s. How­ev­er, the ten­sion between wag­ing cam­paigns to pro­duce instru­men­tal gains with­in the exist­ing polit­i­cal sys­tem, on the one hand, and cre­at­ing alter­na­tive insti­tu­tions and com­mu­ni­ties that more imme­di­ate­ly put rad­i­cal val­ues into prac­tice, on the oth­er, has exist­ed for cen­turies. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, there is no uni­ver­sal agree­ment on the vocab­u­lary used to describe this split. Var­i­ous aca­d­e­m­ic and polit­i­cal tra­di­tions dis­cuss the two dif­fer­ing approach­es using over­lap­ping con­cepts includ­ing cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion,” dual pow­er” and the­o­ries of col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty.” Max Weber dis­tin­guished between the eth­ic of ulti­mate ends” (which roots action in heart­felt and prin­ci­pled con­vic­tion) and an eth­ic of respon­si­bil­i­ty” (which more prag­mat­i­cal­ly con­sid­ers how action impacts the world). Most con­tro­ver­sial­ly, some schol­ars have dis­cussed aspects of pre­fig­u­ra­tive action as forms of lifestyle politics.”

Used as an umbrel­la cat­e­go­ry, the term pre­fig­u­ra­tive pol­i­tics is use­ful in high­light­ing a divide that has appeared in count­less social move­ments through­out the world. In the 1800s, Marx debat­ed utopi­an social­ists about the need for rev­o­lu­tion­ary strat­e­gy that went beyond the for­ma­tion of com­munes and mod­el soci­eties. Through­out his life, Gand­hi wavered back and forth between lead­ing cam­paigns of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence to exact con­ces­sions from state pow­ers and advo­cat­ing for a dis­tinc­tive vision of self-reliant vil­lage life, through which he believed Indi­ans could expe­ri­ence true inde­pen­dence and com­mu­nal uni­ty. (Gandhi’s suc­ces­sors split on this issue, with Jawa­har­lal Nehru purs­ing the strate­gic con­trol of state pow­er and Vino­ba Bhave tak­ing up the pre­fig­u­ra­tive con­struc­tive pro­gram.”) Advo­cates of strate­gic non­vi­o­lence, who push for the cal­cu­lat­ed use of unarmed upris­ing, have counter-posed their efforts against long-stand­ing lin­eages of prin­ci­pled non­vi­o­lence” — rep­re­sent­ed by reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions that espouse a lifestyle of paci­fism (such as the Men­non­ites) or groups that under­take sym­bol­ic acts of bear­ing moral wit­ness” (such as the Catholic Workers).

Move­ment and counter-culture

With regard to the 1960s, Breines notes that the form of pre­fig­u­ra­tive pol­i­tics that emerged in the New Left was hos­tile to bureau­cra­cy, hier­ar­chy and lead­er­ship, and it took form as a revul­sion against large-scale cen­tral­ized and inhu­man insti­tu­tions.” Per­haps even more than advanc­ing tra­di­tion­al polit­i­cal demands, the pre­fig­u­ra­tive con­cept of social change was about prompt­ing a cul­tur­al shift.

Indeed, those who embraced a most extreme ver­sion of pre­fig­u­ra­tive prac­tice in that peri­od did not iden­ti­fy with the social move­ment politi­cos” who orga­nized ral­lies against the Viet­nam War and were inter­est­ed in direct­ly chal­leng­ing the sys­tem. Instead, they saw them­selves as part of a youth counter-cul­ture that was under­min­ing estab­lish­ment val­ues and pro­vid­ing a vig­or­ous, liv­ing exam­ple of an alternative.

This split between move­ment” and counter-cul­ture” is vivid­ly illus­trat­ed in the doc­u­men­tary Berke­ley in the Six­ties. There, Bar­ry Melton, lead singer for the psy­che­del­ic rock band Coun­try Joe and the Fish, tells of his debates with his Marx­ist par­ents. We had big argu­ments about this stuff,” Melton explains. I tried to con­vince them to sell all their fur­ni­ture and go to India. And they weren’t going for it. And I real­ized that no mat­ter how far out their polit­i­cal views were, because they were mighty unpop­u­lar — my par­ents were pret­ty left wing — that real­ly they were [still] mate­ri­al­ists. They were con­cerned about how the wealth was divid­ed up.”

Melton’s pas­sion was for some­thing dif­fer­ent, a pol­i­tics of hip,” in which we were set­ting up a new world that was going to run par­al­lel to the old world, but have as lit­tle to do with it as pos­si­ble.” He explains, We just weren’t going to deal with straight peo­ple. To us, the politi­cos — a lot of the lead­ers of the anti-war move­ment — were straight peo­ple because they were still con­cerned with the gov­ern­ment. They were going to march on Wash­ing­ton. We didn’t even want to know that Wash­ing­ton was there. We thought that even­tu­al­ly the whole world was just going to stop all this non­sense and start lov­ing each oth­er, as soon as they all got turned on.”

The bound­ary between a sub­cul­ture and a pre­fig­u­ra­tive polit­i­cal move­ment can some­times be blur­ry. It’s amaz­ing that these two move­ments coex­ist­ed at the same time,” Melton argues. “[They] were in stark con­trast in cer­tain aspects — but as the 1960s pro­gressed grew clos­er togeth­er and began tak­ing on aspects of the other.”

The pow­er of the beloved community

The 1960s counter-cul­ture — with its flower chil­dren, free love and LSD trips into new dimen­sions of con­scious­ness — is easy to par­o­dy. To the extent that it inter­act­ed with polit­i­cal move­ments, it was pro­found­ly dis­con­nect­ed from any prac­ti­cal sense of how to lever­age change. In Berke­ley in the Six­ties, Jack Wein­berg, a promi­nent anti-war orga­niz­er and New Left politi­co” described a 1966 meet­ing where counter-cul­tur­al activists were pro­mot­ing a new type of event. They want­ed to have the first be-in,” Wein­berg explains. One fel­low in par­tic­u­lar, try­ing to get us real­ly excit­ed about the plan… said, We’re going to have so much music — and so much love, and so much ener­gy — that we are going to stop the war in Vietnam!’”

Yet pre­fig­u­ra­tive impuls­es did not mere­ly pro­duce the flights of utopi­an fan­ta­sy seen at the counter-cul­tur­al fringes. This approach to pol­i­tics also made some tremen­dous­ly pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tions to social move­ments. The dri­ve to live out a vibrant and par­tic­i­pa­to­ry democ­ra­cy gave the New Left much of its vital­i­ty, and it pro­duced groups of ded­i­cat­ed activists will­ing to make great sac­ri­fices for the cause of social justice.

As one exam­ple, with­in the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee, or SNCC, par­tic­i­pants spoke of the desire to cre­ate the beloved com­mu­ni­ty” — a soci­ety that reject­ed big­otry and prej­u­dice in all forms and instead embraced peace and broth­er­li­ness. This new world would be based on an under­stand­ing, redeem­ing good­will for all,” as Mar­tin Luther King (an allied pro­mot­er of the con­cept) described it.

This was not mere­ly an exter­nal goal; rather, SNCC mil­i­tants saw them­selves as cre­at­ing the beloved com­mu­ni­ty with­in their orga­ni­za­tion — an inter­ra­cial group which, in the words of one his­to­ri­an, based itself on rad­i­cal egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, mutu­al respect and uncon­di­tion­al sup­port for every person’s unique gifts and con­tri­bu­tions. Meet­ings last­ed until every­one had their say, in the belief that every voice count­ed.” The strong ties fos­tered by this pre­fig­u­ra­tive com­mu­ni­ty encour­aged par­tic­i­pants to under­take bold and dan­ger­ous acts of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence — such as SNCC’s famous sit-ins at lunch coun­ters in the seg­re­gat­ed South. In this case, the aspi­ra­tion to a beloved com­mu­ni­ty both facil­i­tat­ed strate­gic action and had a sig­nif­i­cant impact on main­stream politics.

The same pat­tern exist­ed with­in the Clamshell Alliance, Abalone Alliance, and oth­er rad­i­cal anti-nuclear move­ments of the 1970s, which his­to­ri­an Bar­bara Epstein chron­i­cles in her 1991 book, Polit­i­cal Protest and Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion. Draw­ing from a lin­eage of Quak­er non­vi­o­lence, these groups estab­lished an influ­en­tial orga­niz­ing tra­di­tion for direct action in the Unit­ed States. They pio­neered many of the tech­niques — such as affin­i­ty groups, spokes coun­cils, and gen­er­al assem­blies — that became fix­tures in the glob­al jus­tice move­ment of the late 1990s and ear­ly 2000s, and which were also impor­tant to Occu­py Wall Street. In their time, the anti-nuclear groups com­bined con­sen­sus deci­sion-mak­ing, fem­i­nist con­scious­ness, close inter­per­son­al bonds, and a com­mit­ment to strate­gic non­vi­o­lence to cre­ate defin­ing protests. Epstein writes, What was new about the Clamshell and the Abalone was that for each orga­ni­za­tion, at its moment of great­est mass par­tic­i­pa­tion, the oppor­tu­ni­ty to act out a vision and build com­mu­ni­ty was at least as impor­tant as the imme­di­ate objec­tive of stop­ping nuclear power.”

The strate­gic tension

Wini Breines defends pre­fig­u­ra­tive pol­i­tics as the lifeblood of the 1960s New Left and argues that, despite its fail­ures to pro­duce last­ing orga­ni­za­tion, this move­ment rep­re­sent­ed a brave and sig­nif­i­cant exper­i­ment” with last­ing impli­ca­tions. At the same time, she dis­tin­guish­es pre­fig­u­ra­tive action from a dif­fer­ent type of pol­i­tics — strate­gic pol­i­tics — that are com­mit­ted to build­ing orga­ni­za­tion in order to achieve pow­er so that struc­tur­al changes in the polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and social orders might be achieved.” Breines fur­ther notes, The unre­solved ten­sion, between the spon­ta­neous grass­roots social move­ment com­mit­ted to par­tic­i­pa­to­ry democ­ra­cy, and the inten­tion (neces­si­tat­ing orga­ni­za­tion) of achiev­ing pow­er or rad­i­cal struc­tur­al change in the Unit­ed States, was a struc­tur­ing theme” of the New Left.

Ten­sion between pre­fig­u­ra­tive and strate­gic pol­i­tics per­sists today for a sim­ple rea­son: Although they are not always mutu­al­ly exclu­sive, the two approach­es have very dis­tinct emphases and present some­times con­tra­dic­to­ry notions of how activists should behave at any a giv­en time.

Where strate­gic pol­i­tics favors the cre­ation of orga­ni­za­tions that can mar­shal col­lec­tive resources and gain influ­ence in con­ven­tion­al pol­i­tics, pre­fig­u­ra­tive groups lean toward the cre­ation of lib­er­at­ed pub­lic spaces, com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters and alter­na­tive insti­tu­tions — such as squats, co-ops and rad­i­cal book­stores. Both strate­gic and pre­fig­u­ra­tive strate­gies may involve direct action or civ­il dis­obe­di­ence. How­ev­er, they approach such protest dif­fer­ent­ly. Strate­gic prac­ti­tion­ers tend to be very con­cerned with media strat­e­gy and how their demon­stra­tions will be per­ceived by the wider pub­lic; they design their actions to sway pub­lic opin­ion. In con­trast, pre­fig­u­ra­tive activists are often indif­fer­ent, or even antag­o­nis­tic, to the atti­tudes of the media and of main­stream soci­ety. They tend to empha­size the expres­sive qual­i­ties of protest — how actions express the val­ues and beliefs of par­tic­i­pants, rather than how they might impact a target.

Strate­gic pol­i­tics seeks to build prag­mat­ic coali­tions as a way of more effec­tive­ly push­ing for­ward demands around a giv­en issue. Dur­ing the course of a cam­paign, grass­roots activists might reach out to more estab­lished unions, non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions or politi­cians in order to make com­mon cause. Pre­fig­u­ra­tive pol­i­tics, how­ev­er, is far more wary of join­ing forces with those com­ing from out­side the dis­tinc­tive cul­ture a move­ment has cre­at­ed, espe­cial­ly if prospec­tive allies are part of hier­ar­chi­cal orga­ni­za­tions or have ties with estab­lished polit­i­cal parties.

Coun­ter­cul­tur­al cloth­ing and dis­tinc­tive appear­ance — whether it involves long hair, pierc­ings, punk stylings, thrift-store cloth­ing, kef­fiyehs or any num­ber of oth­er vari­a­tions — helps pre­fig­u­ra­tive com­mu­ni­ties cre­ate a sense of group cohe­sion. It rein­forces the idea of an alter­na­tive cul­ture that rejects con­ven­tion­al norms. Yet strate­gic pol­i­tics looks at the issue of per­son­al appear­ance very dif­fer­ent­ly. Saul Alin­sky, in his book Rules for Rad­i­cals, takes the strate­gic posi­tion when he argues, If the real rad­i­cal finds that hav­ing long hair sets up psy­cho­log­i­cal bar­ri­ers to com­mu­ni­ca­tion and orga­ni­za­tion, he cuts his hair.” Some of the politi­cos of the New Left did just that in 1968, when Sen­a­tor Eugene McCarthy entered the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry as an anti-war chal­lenger to Lyn­don John­son. Opt­ing to Get Clean for Gene,” they shaved beards, cut hair and some­times donned suits in order to help the cam­paign reach out to mid­dle-of-the-road voters.

Tak­ing stock of prefiguration

For those who wish to inte­grate strate­gic and pre­fig­u­ra­tive approach­es to social change, the task is to appre­ci­ate the strengths of pre­fig­u­ra­tive com­mu­ni­ties while avoid­ing their weaknesses.

The impulse to be the change we wish to see” has a strong moral appeal, and the strengths of pre­fig­u­ra­tive action are sig­nif­i­cant. Alter­na­tive com­mu­ni­ties devel­oped with­in the shell of the old” cre­ate spaces that can sup­port rad­i­cals who chose to live out­side the norms of worka­day soci­ety and to make deep com­mit­ments to a cause. When they do take part in wider cam­paigns to change the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sys­tem, these indi­vid­u­als can serve as a ded­i­cat­ed core of par­tic­i­pants for a move­ment. In the case of Occu­py, those most invest­ed in pre­fig­u­ra­tive com­mu­ni­ty were the peo­ple who kept the encamp­ments run­ning. Even if they were not those most involved in plan­ning strate­gic demon­stra­tions that brought in new allies and drew larg­er crowds, they played a piv­otal role.

Anoth­er strength of pre­fig­u­ra­tive pol­i­tics is that it is atten­tive to the social and emo­tion­al needs of par­tic­i­pants. It pro­vides process­es for indi­vid­u­als’ voic­es to be heard and cre­ates net­works of mutu­al sup­port to sus­tain peo­ple in the here and now. Strate­gic pol­i­tics often down­plays these con­sid­er­a­tions, putting aside care for activists in order to focus on win­ning instru­men­tal goals that will result in future improve­ments for soci­ety. Groups that incor­po­rate pre­fig­u­ra­tive ele­ments in their orga­niz­ing, and thus have a greater focus on group process, have often been supe­ri­or at inten­sive con­scious­ness-rais­ing, as well as at address­ing issues such as sex­ism and racism with­in move­ments themselves.

But what works well for small groups can some­times become a lia­bil­i­ty when a move­ment tries to scale up and gain mass sup­port. Jo Freeman’s land­mark essay, The Tyran­ny of Struc­ture­less­ness,” makes this point in the con­text of the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment of the 1960s and 1970s. Free­man argued that a pre­fig­u­ra­tive rejec­tion of for­mal lead­er­ship and rigid orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­ture served sec­ond-wave fem­i­nists well ear­ly on when the move­ment defined its main goal, and its main method, as con­scious­ness-rais­ing.” How­ev­er, she con­tends, when the move­ment aspired to go beyond meet­ings that raised aware­ness of com­mon oppres­sion and began to under­take broad­er polit­i­cal activ­i­ty, the same anti-orga­ni­za­tion­al pre­dis­po­si­tion became lim­it­ing. The con­se­quence of struc­ture­less­ness, Free­man argues, was a ten­den­cy for the move­ment to gen­er­ate much motion and few results.”

Per­haps the great­est dan­ger inher­ent in pre­fig­u­ra­tive groups is a ten­den­cy toward self-iso­la­tion. Writer, orga­niz­er and Occu­py activist Jonathan Matthew Smuck­er describes what he calls the polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty para­dox,” a con­tra­dic­tion that afflicts groups based on a strong sense of alter­na­tive com­mu­ni­ty. Any seri­ous social move­ment needs a cor­re­spond­ing­ly seri­ous group iden­ti­ty that encour­ages a core of mem­bers to con­tribute an excep­tion­al lev­el of com­mit­ment, sac­ri­fice and hero­ics over the course of pro­longed strug­gle,” Smuck­er writes. Strong group iden­ti­ty, how­ev­er, is a dou­ble-edged sword. The stronger the iden­ti­ty and cohe­sion of the group, the more like­ly peo­ple are to become alien­at­ed from oth­er groups, and from soci­ety. This is the polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty paradox.”

Those focused on pre­fig­ur­ing a new soci­ety in their move­ments — and pre­oc­cu­pied with meet­ing the needs of an alter­na­tive com­mu­ni­ty — can become cut off from the goal of build­ing bridges to oth­er con­stituen­cies and win­ning pub­lic sup­port. Instead of look­ing for ways to effec­tive­ly com­mu­ni­cate their vision to the out­side world, they are prone to adopt slo­gans and tac­tics that appeal to hard­core activists but alien­ate the major­i­ty. More­over, they grow ever more averse to enter­ing into pop­u­lar coali­tions. (The extreme fear of co-opta­tion” among some Occu­piers was indica­tive of this ten­den­cy.) All these things become self-defeat­ing. As Smuck­er writes, Iso­lat­ed groups are hard-pressed to achieve polit­i­cal goals.”

Smuck­er cites the noto­ri­ous 1969 implo­sion of SDS as an extreme exam­ple of the polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty para­dox left unchecked. In that instance, Key lead­ers had become encap­su­lat­ed in their oppo­si­tion­al iden­ti­ty and grown more and more out of touch.” Those most intense­ly invest­ed in SDS at the nation­al lev­el lost inter­est in build­ing chap­ters of stu­dents that were just begin­ning to be rad­i­cal­ized — and they became entire­ly dis­en­chant­ed with the main­stream Amer­i­can pub­lic. Giv­en what was hap­pen­ing in Viet­nam, they grew con­vinced that they need­ed to bring the war home,” in the words of one 1969 slo­gan. As a result, Smuck­er writes, Some of the most com­mit­ted would-be lead­ers of that gen­er­a­tion came to see more val­ue in hol­ing up with a few com­rades to make bombs than in orga­niz­ing mass­es of stu­dents to take coor­di­nat­ed action.”

The self-destruc­tive iso­la­tion of the Weath­er­men is a far cry from SNCC’s beloved com­mu­ni­ty. Yet the fact that both are exam­ples of pre­fig­u­ra­tive pol­i­tics shows that the approach is not some­thing that can sim­ply be embraced or reject­ed whole­sale by social move­ments. Rather, all move­ments oper­ate on a spec­trum in which dif­fer­ent pub­lic activ­i­ties and inter­nal process­es have both strate­gic and pre­fig­u­ra­tive dimen­sions. The chal­lenge for those who wish to pro­duce social change is to bal­ance the com­pet­ing impuls­es of the two approach­es in cre­ative and effec­tive ways — so that we might expe­ri­ence the pow­er of a com­mu­ni­ty that is com­mit­ted to liv­ing in rad­i­cal sol­i­dar­i­ty, as well as the joy of trans­form­ing the world around us.

Mark Engler is a senior ana­lyst with For­eign Pol­i­cy In Focus, an edi­to­r­i­al board mem­ber at Dis­sent, and a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Yes! Mag­a­zine. Paul Engler is found­ing direc­tor of the Cen­ter for the Work­ing Poor, in Los Ange­les. Their new book is This Is an Upris­ing: How Non­vi­o­lent Revolt Is Shap­ing the 21st Cen­tu­ry.
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