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Princeton University Press, $29.95 (cloth)
Nina Simone’s 1964 song “Mississippi Goddam” ends on a bracing note of bone-weariness. Too many false and broken promises, too many times Black Americans have been told to “go slow” in the battle for civil rights. “You don’t have to live next to me,” Simone sings, “just give me my equality!” This line, propelled by Simone’s voice, punctures her audience’s complacency. The right of every human being, Black or white, to equality: What could be clearer?
In her unsettlingly brilliant new book, Unconditional Equals, British political theorist Anne Phillips cites Simone as evidence of the profound power and urgency of equality as a political ideal while also exploring the ways that discussions of equality, whether in politics or philosophy, can go wrong. Despite its supposed clarity, the “self-evident” truth recorded in the U.S. Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” (never mind slaves and women) remains notoriously fuzzy. How is it, Phillips wonders, that arguments grounded in what philosophers call “basic equality” so often end up justifying the treatment of some humans as more equal than others? And after so much disillusionment—amidst staggering wealth inequality and enduring marginalization—what role can equality possibly still play in our visions of a more just world?
Unconditional Equals confronts these problems head on. Long an important figure in feminist theory and political philosophy, Phillips made her name in the 1990s with The Politics of Presence (1995), which argued in favor of quotas and other forms of “group representation” to combat the political marginalization of women and racial and ethnic minorities in modern democracies. Central to Phillips’s argument was a distinction between a politics of ideas, according to which individuals’ embodied differences—as opposed to their reasons and arguments—should play no role in democratic deliberation, and a politics of presence, according to which these differences do matter—and indeed, empirically, matter quite a lot—when it comes to who gets a seat at the table of political power and whether their voices count.
In her many books and articles since, Phillips has continued to remind her colleagues in political philosophy to mind the gap between our theories and the practices they can be used to justify, and she has emphasized just how far self-professed egalitarians still have to go in the realization of their ideals. (This goes especially for liberal democracies, as societies that formally acknowledge the equality of their members but often resist the substantive realization of social and material conditions between them.) Now, with Unconditional Equals, Phillips revises her earlier arguments by tracing the development of her thinking about equality over the course of her career. Much of the book is engaged with what intellectual historian Katrina Forrester, in her recent study of John Rawls, calls “the politics of political philosophy.” Throughout, Phillips takes particular care to highlight the many issues, big and small, on which she has changed her mind. At a time when polarization makes changes of opinion more and more costly to express in public, this feature alone makes the book remarkable.
Unconditional Equals thus functions successfully as both scholarly monograph and memoir. “I have thought of myself as an egalitarian from as long as I knew what the word meant,” Phillips writes of her childhood in postwar Britain, when the Labour Party built a robust welfare state and a more equal world finally seemed in reach. Looking back, however, she can see how her thinking had been ordered “for many years around what I now see as a misleading distinction.” This is the distinction between “formal” and “substantive” equality upon which her earlier work relied: the former construing equality as a matter of political rights and legal protection and thus insisting on indifference to race, gender, or class in the equal distribution of these goods, and the latter as a more demanding ideal of social and economic standing that takes such differences into account.
Phillips traces this distinction to Karl Marx’s 1843 essay “On the Jewish Question,” which distinguished between merely “political emancipation” and more thoroughgoing “human emancipation.” She might also have pointed to Lyndon B. Johnson, who drew a similar contrast in his 1965 commencement address at Howard University: “We seek not just legal equity but human ability,” he said, “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” Unconditional Equals argues that such “dichotomous” approaches to egalitarianism are misleading because they imply “we have already achieved” formal equality, which can serve as a stable foundation upon which to build toward equality of other kinds.
In casting doubt on this optimism, Phillips is not out to discount the importance of material equality; quite the contrary. Instead, she worries that “economic inequality cannot be easily detached from ‘basic’ equality.” Indeed, the “mere existence of a democratic voting system does not yet demonstrate that either governments or the population actively endorse a belief in equality.” Though he does not figure in the book, Martin Luther King, Jr. made a similar point in 1966, after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Acts, when he spoke of “the omission of the necessary planning and implementation to give reality to the law” and bemoaned “a limited change that was emotionally satisfying but materially deficient.”
For Phillips, the problem is not simply that the two kinds of equality are more deeply related than many think. Rather, it is that the division suggests that formal equality must necessarily give way, in the long run, to more substantive varieties—in other words, that a truly egalitarian society is simply a matter of time. For Phillips, this presumption of progress is just another way of saying that the time for equal rights is now, but the time for a society of equals—in which all enjoy equality of socioeconomic security and standing—is “not yet.” Here, Unconditional Equals echoes historian Samuel Moyn’s complaint in Not Enough (2018) that the modern human rights regime has not delivered, and in fact has impeded, the realization of a more equal world. But Phillips’s criticisms cut deeper. For her, “not enough” and “not yet”—like Simone’s “go slow”—operate as “alibis” or excuses for egalitarians’ political failures. To the extent that dichotomous thinking facilitates these excuses, Phillips thinks we must reject it.
Throughout the book, Phillips’s “we” is clearly meant to include not only citizens of increasingly unequal liberal democracies but scholars in one particular field—Anglophone political philosophy—in which the basic equality of human beings has long enjoyed a special status. Philosopher and jurist Ronald Dworkin, a central figure in the intellectual history of so-called “liberal egalitarianism,” liked to call this commitment “axiomatic.” (As an American, he clearly had the Declaration of Independence in mind.) The belief that humans are “one another’s equals,” as Jeremy Waldron has put it—and are therefore entitled, in Dworkin’s phrase, “to equal concern and respect”—was thus the defining commitment of modernity.
For Dworkin, this meant that every “modern” political theory, from liberalism to communism, must occupy what he called the “egalitarian plateau,” as a common platform on which to build. King, as it happens, drew on a similar image while reaching an altogether more ambivalent conclusion. “History will not repeat itself in a simple cycle,” he wrote in 1966. “It can, however, fail to move forward and can become stalled on a higher plateau without prospect of reaching the summit.” Yet Dworkin’s optimism about basic equality proved to be extraordinarily influential among academic philosophers.
Also influential was Dworkin’s correspondingly narrow view of the remit of political philosophy. High up on the egalitarian plateau, theorists of all stripes agreed that their task was not to contest the meaning or history of equality, but rather to debate its implications for distributive justice. In 1989 Dworkin’s Oxford colleague and analytic Marxist G. A. Cohen could therefore begin a famous article by declaring that “I take it for granted that there is something which justice requires people to have equal amounts of” and meet no resistance. The key question for egalitarians became, as philosopher and economist Amartya Sen put it, “equality of what?” Some said resources; others said welfare; others offered still further alternatives.
Eventually, however, the whole debate came under attack. In an important 1999 essay, “What is the point of equality?,” philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argued that her colleagues were out of touch, to say the least. At home in Oxford, Dworkin and Cohen could debate whether individuals burdened with “expensive tastes” should be compensated by the state. Among their fellow dons, the plight of those partial to plover’s eggs and claret might amuse, if not exactly edify, but for Anderson, these discussions revealed that political philosophers had forgotten what “the point” of equality really was. Forget about ensuring an equal distribution of stuff. The point for egalitarians should be to secure individuals’ equal status or standing by resisting oppression and dismantling hierarchies of all sorts. Only then might those formally entitled to equality as human beings be able to relate to one another “as equals” in their everyday lives.
Phillips writes approvingly of this “relational” turn in political philosophy. Still, she notes that its proponents rarely specify what, exactly, they think that “living as equals” should look like. Underlying their arguments she detects not only the old formal/substantive distinction but the consummately Dworkinian assumption of progress, too. The task for relational egalitarians, it seems, is to make our practices consistent with our principles—above all our “shared” commitment to basic equality. Whether such a belief can really be shared by most, or even many, in a world in which the equal status of some remains embattled socially and politically, as well as economically—as Phillips observes, “the evidence is against it.”
Unconditional Equals arose, Phillips tells us, “from a distrust of the happy stories sometimes told about the progress of equality” in the Ivory Tower and beyond it. Not, of course, of the progress of economic equality—“most of us know this hasn’t been going too well.” Still there is, she thinks, a “comforting story we tell ourselves about the progress of ideas of equality . . . and the supposedly now widespread belief that all humans are, in some basic sense, of equal worth.” She is also skeptical of the ways egalitarians who do believe in the equal worth of human beings have been encouraged to think about economic, social, and political equality as “promises” ensured by their theoretical commitments. Surely, we must know by now that promises are made to be broken.
Up to this point, however, few of the philosophers Phillips criticizes would disagree. Academic egalitarians concede that societies often fail to live up to their claims of basic equality, but this failure is usually understood as practical, not theoretical. For example, historian and social theorist Pierre Rosanvallon’s 2013 book The Society of Equals extolls the egalitarian visions of the eighteenth-century American and French revolutionaries while dismissing their views on women and slaves as unfortunate “blind spots.” (Tellingly, the Haitian Revolution also goes unmentioned.) For others, “historical baggage” like sexism, racism, and homophobia may get in the way, but these are atavistic impulses that can be overcome—even if consensus as to how remains elusive.
Phillips is rightly unconvinced. Behind this stock response, she identifies a faulty theory of history and social change according to which a belief in basic equality is assumed to operate as an egalitarian “ratchet,” initiating a slow but irresistible process of critique and expansion. But what if, she wonders, our ostensibly egalitarian ideas are themselves at fault? What if there are already gradations and exclusions built into our theories about how and, more importantly, why human beings should be regarded as equals in the first place? “I have come to think,” she tells us, that “there is something about [our] dominant ideas of equality that obscures, perhaps even enables, the continuing inequality.” And so, she argues, we must revise them.
In her turn to conceptual criticism, Phillips wears her debt to feminist and critical race theory on her sleeve. In work on the sexual and racial “contracts,” respectively, Carole Pateman and the late Charles W. Mills targeted the liberal theory of the social contract, arguing that the freedom and equality of its imagined signatories was predicated, both historically and theoretically, on the household labor of women, servants, and slaves. Phillips wants us to register, too, “how thoroughly ideas of equality are imbued with exclusionary conditions.” But for her, the fundamental problem runs deeper: it arises from the many modifiers through which philosophers have sought to render the equality of human beings more precise.
Consider the “basic” in “basic equality.” Not only does the label trade on a false narrative of historical progress; for Phillips, it further enshrines dichotomous thinking, whereby “basic” equality is a necessary foundation for more robust and sophisticated forms to come. She argues that the phrase “moral equality”—preferred by those who locate the basis of equality in a person’s capacity for reason—is likewise misleading. Some people will use their reason to pursue profoundly immoral ends. Can it really be, as Uwe Steinhoff asks, that one’s sister and her rapist are exactly equal with respect to moral worth? For Phillips, this startling question reveals a deep confusion as to the sense in which human beings are to be regarded as equal. On her view, we must regard fellow humans as equal not because they are good people, or because they have not done bad things, but because they are people, period.
Phillips thus tracks how objectionable gradations and exclusions emerge whenever we qualify the equality of human beings. Consider, again, the Declaration of Independence. To say that men are naturally equal is, in fact, to imply that individuals’ equal status is relative, since what is “natural” is always contestable. Among the enlightened men of eighteenth-century Europe and America, human nature was a man’s nature, and men were understood to be free and independent, as well as reasoning, beings. But individuals necessarily differ in their rational capacities, and certain groups lack independence. For Phillips, it was thus a theoretical implication that a person’s equal status was conditional on the degree to which he or she lived up to that ideal of human nature; its promises reserved until those who were “not yet” equal lived up to an ever-receding horizon of expectation. “‘Nature,’” she writes, “can be as much deployed to exclude as to include.” Not everyone will measure up.
Phillips follows Jamaican essayist Sylvia Wynter in locating the exclusionary potential of natural equality in sixteenth-century Spain. During the so-called “Valladolid debate,” two men were invited to dispute the rights of Spanish conquest over the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. The debate turned, in part, on whether the Americans were “equally” human with their European conquerors, or whether they were—as the humanist scholar, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, argued—subhuman “homunculi,” hence “natural slaves” (a central category in Aristotle’s Politics). His interlocutor, the Dominican friar and so-called “Apostle to the Indians,” Bartolomé de las Casas, argued that the Americans were equal to the Spanish in their capacity for Christian conversion; he was less sure about Sub-Saharan Africans. The implication, of course, was that Spanish rule must be made to serve the end of evangelization by, among other things, replacing Indigenous slaves with African ones.
Nevertheless, Las Casas is still hailed today among historians as providing an important step forward in the “progress” of equality. Phillips is less sanguine: as she sees it, this is just another example of the egalitarian ratchet ratcheting on. Meanwhile, Sepúlveda’s idea of equality as a matter of men’s embodied nature—including their sex and race—would eventually supplant Las Casas’s idea of spiritual indifference to outward forms. For Phillips (as for Wynter), both men “overrepresented” themselves and what they valued in the competing definitions of human nature according to which they justified the claims of other human beings to equal status. For Sepúlveda, it was the capacity for (European) civilization; for Las Casas, it was the prospect of (Christian) salvation. Mere humanity was not enough.
Phillips identifies the same exclusionary dynamic of “overrepresentation” at work in contemporary philosophical discussions of basic equality. These, too, turn on whatever features of humanity a theorist particularly values. For Rawls, it was “the sense of justice,” while for Dworkin, it was reason and moral agency. Yet, as Phillips observes, individuals “will inevitably possess [these and other characteristics] to different degrees.” This leads some philosophers to wonder whether equal status attaches to human beings as such, or only to the independent sites of moral agency we call “persons.” And if the latter, might it not also be the case that certain animals are entitled to “equal respect and concern”—while some human beings are not?
Finding this latter implication repugnant, Phillips is more than happy to bite the bullet of human exceptionalism. The rights of animals are indeed important, she argues, but not because of their proximity to humanity, however defined. And while philosophers (and pet owners) may enjoy debating moral personality as grounds for treating certain animals as our equals, the many humans who remain underrepresented in our theories—including, crucially, the disabled—hear us say “not yet.”
These historically informed criticisms lead Phillips to a powerful plea. Political philosophers, she thinks, must imagine both a different kind of egalitarian politics and a different kind of political theory, each premised on what she calls “equality without conditions.” Such a conception will not require a prior definition, let alone justification, of the “human” in order to get going. “We do not need to check by DNA samples,” she writes. “If someone is born to human parents, living in a human community, engaged in human social relations, it is all pretty obvious.”
This is the “unconditional” ideal of equality invoked in Phillips’s title. Yet here a new problem emerges. Such an ideal may indeed avoid the exclusions built into earlier, conditional conceptions of equality, but it also seems as though it can’t get us very far in the struggle for social justice, due to its generality. If the point is that we are all human, what does our equality as human beings add, let alone demand that we change about the world? Here, critics of equality talk will say, nothing at all. The idea of equality, as legal scholar Peter Westen argues, is simply “empty.”
Phillips is sensitive to such criticism. Theories of equality look empty, she notes, to the extent that they do not tell us something about “specific ways of organizing social and economic life.” As she puts it: “Equality must clearly have some content. It cannot be compatible with any state of affairs.” But on this point, she thinks the fact that her approach may seem altogether “too commonsensical” for her colleagues is a point in its favor, precisely because it directs us away from theory to practice. The equality of human beings for her is not a philosophical truth to be “justified” but a political achievement to be realized, then recognized: it is “something we make happen between humans.” Accordingly, equality simply does not exist independently of its realization in particular communities. In other words, “people assert, rather than prove, their claim to be regarded as equals.” And they do so, for the most part, “from a position where that equality has been denied.”
Together, these observations form the normative core of Phillips’s book. On her view, people don’t need to be in possession of a complete theory or an airtight justification as to why we are equals in order to know that their equal status has been violated. Indeed, she argues that approaching this equality as something to be justified at all is to give the game away to overrepresentation. Instead, we can and should work backward, so to speak, from concrete inequalities to the vindication of our equal status as human beings. “When I first conceived this book,” she writes, “I had it tentatively titled in my mind as Unconditional Equality.” She changed the title to reflect her commitment to starting “from inequalities and injustices rather than elaborations of an egalitarian ideal.”
This methodological point is not unique to Phillips; Judith Shklar, Iris Marion Young, and Michael Goodhart, among others, have argued something similar with respect to justice. But Phillips goes farther. For her, it is the very activity of protesting against unequal treatment that “makes” us equals, “an activity that sometimes takes the form of committing oneself to the equality of others and sometimes claiming it for oneself.” What she has in mind is something like Simone’s plea in “Mississippi Goddam.” The equality of Black Americans is not something to be justified using the tools of analytical philosophy; it is a political claim to be recognized and fulfilled in the course of social change, up to and including “economic transformation.” And for that to happen, it has first to be acted upon through the demand for it—as, for example, in Simone’s own acts (and songs) of protest.
Phillips describes this non-natural version of equality as “equality as enactment.” Its fundamental insight is that any principle by which human beings, as such, are to be regarded as “equals,” of equal status and worth, depends for its very plausibility on their experiences of social equality. Those experiences may be, and usually are, quite limited. Still, for us to believe that every human being is somehow “equal,” it seems that some individuals must first reliably encounter some others as equals in their everyday lives. In other words, it is egalitarian spaces and institutions that continue to make claims to basic equality seem plausible, not the other way around. So let us, please, get on with the task of creating them.
Phillips credits this insight to Hannah Arendt, who argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) that people “are not born equal; we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights.” (Notice how Arendt’s language deliberately departs from the Declaration’s axiom that “all men are created equal.”) Of course, as Phillips acknowledges, Simone herself would have disapproved of Arendt’s argument in 1957 against the compulsory integration of Southern schools as forcing children to do the work of realizing equality because their parents would not. Yet Arendt, too, changed her mind on this point under criticism from Ralph Ellison—a fact that Phillips leaves out.
These are significant achievements, and they convey only a small degree of the richness of Phillips’s argument. Still, it is notable that her book devotes significantly more space to diagnosing the problem of conditionality than to spelling out a positive vision of equality or how, precisely, to realize it in practice. It is clear enough that relating to one another as “unconditional equals” in her sense, much like Anderson’s relational equality, will involve recognition—in the form of legal rights and interpersonal respect—as well as economic redistribution. Details, however, remain sketchy.
Phillips is not unaware of the problem. “Relying only on what we are against,” she notes, “rather than what we are for, does not of itself eliminate the need to specify [the latter].” Still, there are risks in doing so, one of which weighs particularly heavily on her mind. Too much specificity, she argues, leads to too much intolerance of difference, or in the worst cases, to enforced conformity. Phillips is openly uneasy about the “overly prescriptive” side of egalitarian theorizing, and she cautions against the temptation within feminism, in particular, to imagine or insist that only one way of life is consistent with equal status—a white, Western, secular one, say, as opposed to a Muslim one.
“What happens,” she asks, “when some people choose ways of living that others regard as unequal?”
This is the worry articulated by liberals anxious to avoid any suggestion of dictating to others how they should live their lives; by critics of political correctness, who detect a drive to control and regulate in the objections to supposedly inappropriate ways of naming or lampooning others; and by critical theorists, who write about the difficulties of articulating universal ideals of equality or freedom without thereby smuggling in one’s own more parochial experiences and framework.
The risk, in short, is that egalitarians become the “arch-regulators” their critics accuse them of being, “people trying to mould everyone to their own preferred pattern.” It’s a danger dating back to Procrustes, that enthusiastic egalitarian of Greek mythology, who would cut his unsuspecting guests down to size whenever they didn’t fit in his bed.
This is certainly a reason for egalitarians to tread lightly in specifying a thick vision of equal status. But Unconditional Equals risks underplaying the dangers in the opposite direction. In the absence of specificity, the concept of equality can be pressed into the service of what many on the left would consider to be unjust or downright reactionary ends. Phillips doesn’t mention it, but Aristotle’s own analysis of equality helps to explain why, in fact, the concept operated as an overtly aristocratic principle for millennia. With respect to distributive justice, Aristotle argued that exactly equal shares should go to those of strictly equal ability or worth, but for the most part, individuals would and should be treated differently in proportion with their differences.
Hence a peculiar feature of democratic Athens downplayed by so many democratic theorists: an equal share of political rights was restricted to “equals” only—that is, to the adult male citizens in good standing whom the ancients were prepared to treat as possessing equal worth. That women, children, slaves, and foreigners need not apply was not simply a “blind spot.” Whereas the dividing line in the early U.S. republic was wealth and whiteness, in Athens the key criterion was military service. This explains why, as a maritime power, Athenian democracy included the poor: even poor citizens could row in the fleet.
Similarly, Phillips neglects the fact that European ideas of human equality long predated the sixteenth century; they are attested in Roman sources from at least the first century BCE. Yet within the Empire and then in Roman Christianity, the dictum that omnes homines aequales sunt (all humans are equal) often had profoundly hierarchical consequences. It meant no more than that every human being, male or female, belonged to the same species to an exactly equal degree—and this natural indifference usually worked to make manifest the huge disparities between them with respect to their social or spiritual worth.
To be sure, the idea that every human being is equally human is not nothing. Indeed, as another Oxford philosopher, Bernard Williams, once observed, it bears repeating. Today, however, the more urgent questions turn on other principles. A 2020 viral campaign video narrated by Kamala Harris, for example, claimed that “There’s a big difference between equality and equity. Equality suggests, ‘Oh everyone should get the same amount.’” Equity, by contrast, “is about giving everyone the resources and support they need, so that everyone can be on equal footing.” The accompanying images in Harris’s video depict two mountain climbers starting at different elevations but with exactly equal lengths of rope, so that only one can reach the top. Another widely circulated cartoon depicts three people of unequal height who require different sized boxes to watch a baseball game: giving everyone equal boxes would leave two people out.
Clearly, the point of these examples is that achieving equal status can sometimes require unequal treatment. The observation is nothing new; it pervades decades of post-civil rights thinking, including about affirmative action. And yet increasingly among activists and policy-makers, this observation is used to reject talk of equality altogether in favor of equity and other principles. As Phillips observes in a footnote, a recent, two-volume handbook of concepts in gender theory offers “an impressive survey of theories of sexuality, intersectionality, identity, subjectivity, agency, masculinities, performativity, autonomy,” and so on, but “there was no section on equality.” This, she suggests, is a problem. Talk of equity may serve egalitarian ends, but only if the goal of equality remains clearly in view. It would thus be a mistake to dispense with equality as a central political value. Moreover, sometimes indifference really is the right principle; even Procrusteanism has its place.
It seems, then, that the most urgent question for egalitarians today is how to determine which forms of unequal or differential treatment are acceptable in—or even necessary to achieve—a society of equals, and which are not. On this point, the lack of specificity in so many modern treatments of equality, including Phillips’s, remain unsatisfying. Her methodological argument suggests that we should listen to the many activists and protesters crying out against violations of their equal standing. But a political theorist is bound to ask, which ones? “What one person means by hierarchy, oppression, exploitation, or exclusion will not be the same as what another means,” Phillips admits. We may not need a fully worked-out justification of basic equality in order to be able to distinguish between them, but we do need some principle on the basis of which to defend our choice—and, one hopes, to persuade our fellow citizens that it is the right one.
Ultimately, it seems that Phillips stakes her hopes on a capacious appeal to equality for strategic reasons. Disagreement over the details will certainly persist, but a tactical vagueness can help build coalitions. This is one thing Phillips recognizes in the minimalism of Simone’s demand, “You don’t have to live next to me, just give me my equality.” This tolerance of intolerance is a model for the sort of persuasive politics she thinks that modern egalitarians should practice, too. Whether the diminishing pluralism many have observed in today’s progressive movements is conducive to successful coalitions, however, remains to be seen.
In the end, Phillips’s attention to the practical politics of equality leads to one final conundrum. Her analysis implies that egalitarians of all ages should not—and cannot afford to—let go of equality as a political ideal with almost unparalleled rhetorical power, as well as deep historical roots. At the same time, this power conceals a range of conceptual difficulties that philosophical debate has never resolved (and perhaps should never be expected to). One is left to wonder, then, whether academic political philosophy can ever really be a responsible or satisfying activity for a self-professed egalitarian. Why not emulate Simone or King, or Ella Baker, or A. Philip Randolph, or countless other leaders in struggles for social justice, who forswore professional scholarship and got on with their activism outside of the academy?
There are no easy answers to this question. Still, watching Phillips’s mind at work in this profound and thought-provoking book is reassuring. Her work is proof positive of the richness of political theory in its authentically Aristotelian sense: as the abstract contemplation of politics for the sake of doing it better—if not always well.
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