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Revue des livres
Essais critiques

Context and the Neoliberalism Wars

Ola Innset
p. 101-114
Référence(s) :

Bruce Caldwell (ed.), Mont Pèlerin 1947. Transcripts of the Founding Meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society, Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2022, xxiv + 222 pages, 978-081792484-3

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Crédits : Hoover Institution Press

1The present volume is an edited and annotated version of the transcripts from the founding conference of the Mont Pèlerin Society (MPS), which took place in a hotel near the Swiss mountain top after which the society is named, in the Easter of 1947. Bruce Caldwell has previously published an intellectual biography of MPS founder Friedrich Hayek (Caldwell, 2004), he is the current general editor of Hayek’s collected works, which consists of nineteen volumes in the present moment but with five more scheduled to appear within the next year, and he recently co-authored a mammoth first volume of another biography of the same man (Caldwell and Klausinger, 2022). In fact, Caldwell is even the owner of Hayek’s personal archives, which are publicly available at the Hoover Institution, but not allowed to quote from without the explicit permission of Caldwell. “Well placed” does therefore not quite do justice to the position from which Caldwell has undertaken this task. Furthermore, the membership lists of the MPS are secret, but it appears from leaks online that Caldwell is indeed also a member of the organization,1 much like Ronald M. Hartwell, the economic historian who published A History of the Mont Pelerin Society more than 25 years ago (Hartwell, 1995). Hartwell’s volume covered the inaugural conference in 1947 only rather briefly, whereas this publication, in addition to a “Foreword” by former MPS president John Taylor and an introduction by Caldwell detailing the organizational and intellectual effort leading up to the 1947 conference, is indeed a publication of the very transcripts from the ten-day conference.

2Having these documents made available to the public can only be a good thing. The addition of Walter Eucken’s short introduction to the very interesting opening session entitled “‘Free’ Enterprise or Competitive Order” (note the inverted commas around “free”, and the fact that Hayek contrasted the two!), which has been found in Hayek’s personal archives and translated from German by Stefan Kolev and Karen Horn, is also very useful. Carlo Antoni’s introduction to a session on “Modern Historiography and Political Education” remains lost, however, and so does much else since we are left with brief and often somewhat cryptic summaries of the discussions which took place. As is explained in a “note to the readers” written by Caldwell, the transcripts were recorded by Hayek’s secretary, Dorothy Hahn. Hayek’s copy of the minutes includes corrections he made to Hahn’s text afterwards, and Caldwell informs the reader that it is Hayek’s “corrected” version that is the basis of this publication, although the book has been designed with crossed out words as such and Hayek’s changes in italics, so as to make Hayek’s changes transparent to the reader. This book also reproduces a front page which was added to the transcripts by Hayek, in which he asks specifically not to quote from the minutes, as they “must not be taken to express the precise opinions of the individual speakers”. Caldwell as editor has nonetheless opted to publish the whole thing, albeit with a number of explanatory footnotes added by himself. The reasons behind this choice can be found in Caldwell’s positioning of this contribution into the scholarly debate on neoliberalism, a positioning which takes place in a short preface, and in the footnotes to his introduction. Here Caldwell indicates that he sees the publication of the transcripts of the meeting as a corrective to ongoing debates about neoliberalism, especially those regarding its relationship to democracy. By simply letting the reader “judge for themselves”, Caldwell intends that they will understand that no anti-democratic current ever existed in early neoliberal thought, and that this and any other aspect of early neoliberal thought that readers of today might deem less commendable, has instead been inserted through the over-eager contextualization of other scholars. For the remainder of this essay, I will attempt to unpack this argument, or rather “argument-by-method”, and explain why I believe it ultimately falls short of influencing the ongoing scholarly debate about neoliberalism as an ideology and as a political movement.

1. An Internalist History

  • 2 Much like Caldwell’s preface, the first part of the thesis detailed the organizational and intellec (...)

3My own PhD thesis, Reinventing Liberalism, defended in 2017 and published as a book a few years later, was a micro-historical study of the very same 1947 conference based on the same transcripts (Innset, 2020b).2 It is thus hardly the case that an in-depth study of this ten-day conference was sorely needed, but Caldwell, the Hoover Institution which has published this book, and the MPS itself, clearly felt that they needed a different study than the one already in existence. Caldwell’s field of adversity extends way beyond the work of yours truly, however, and in his polemical preface he explains why he “thought it timely to make these documents available to a wider public” (xiii). He offers four reasons for this, where the first is the 75th anniversary of the meeting and the fourth is a perceived need to celebrate the archival holdings of the Hoover Institution. The more interesting reasons are the second one, that liberalism is “under attack”, and the third, that “critics of liberalism today” have given the 1947 meeting “mythic proportions” in “the development of that set of doctrines that they gather under the label of ‘neoliberalism’” (xiv). For years, members of what Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, in their influential edited volume, referred to as “the neoliberal thought collective” (Mirowski and Plehwe, 2009), have adamantly argued that “neoliberalism” is nothing more than a figment of the imagination of left-leaning scholars and activists. After years of careful scholarly work arguing for the validity of the term, even unearthing the use of the very phrase by the actors themselves, however, this has become a difficult position to maintain. While Caldwell does start out in that vein, he ends up falling back instead on a defense of neoliberalism as something positive, although using “neoliberalism” and “liberalism” as more or less interchangeable words.

  • 3 Also consider publications such as Brookes (2021) or Cowen (2021).

4This position, perhaps pioneered by the British Adam Smith Institute half-ironic “Coming Out as Neoliberals” (Bowman, 2016) and think tank-man Madsen Pirie’s “Looking at the World through Neo-Liberal Eyes” two years earlier (Pirie, 2014), is far more inspired than the former, denialist one. In a footnote (xvii, fn. 3), Caldwell identifies an ongoing trend of attempting to resurrect a positive vision of early neoliberalism from the history of the 1938 Walter Lippmann colloquium and onwards. He refers to the publications of the minutes from that meeting (Audier and Reinhoudt, 2018) and a special issue of the Journal of Contextual Economics devoted to papers drawing lessons from the colloquium for the 21st century. One could also add the recent entry on “neoliberalism” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which identifies Hayek, Milton Friedman and James Buchanan as part of a neoliberal project which is described in very positive terms (Vallier, 2021).3 Those contributing to this trend deserve credit for moving the scholarly debate forward, away from the outright denial that there ever was such a thing as a neoliberal creed with organizations and individuals devoted to its spread and development, and instead working towards a more open position as present-day carriers of a neoliberal torch.

5Apart from these hints however, Caldwell mainly eschews openness, meaning that his own in-between position as both scholar and member of a political movement remains obscured, while the actual scholarly debate about the topic is relegated to remarks in the footnotes. While writing the history of a political movement that one belongs to is not unheard of—consider for instance Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, (Trotsky, 1972)—one may think that this move towards “history as polemic” requires some balancing between ideals of a somewhat divergent nature, or at least a certain amount of openness. Caldwell nonetheless refrains from mentioning his connections to the society anywhere in the preface or introduction, instead negatively identifying scholars whose views he does not share as part of a long-lived “anti-liberal tradition” (xvi). Caldwell writes about “critics of neoliberalism” that they “tend to cite one another, not original sources such as Hayek or Friedman” (xv). While this may be partly true with regards to social theorists using neoliberalism as an analytical category and interpretive tool—Wendy Brown and Jamie Peck feature prominently as examples in Caldwell’s footnotes in this part of the text (Brown, 2015; Peck, 2010)—it is manifestly not so with regards to the many intellectual historians Caldwell lumps into more or less the same bag of “critics”. These include his nemesis Philip Mirowski (Mirowski, 2013; Mirowski and Nik-Khah, 2017)—the Caldwell/Mirowski debate has been ongoing for years, with a series of scathing reviews of the others’ work on the specific topic of what neoliberalism is, if it even exists and what Hayek’s role in it is (Caldwell, 2011; 2017; Mirowski, 2015; 2022)— but also people like Robert Van Horn (Mirowski et al., 2011), Quinn Slobodian (Slobodian, 2018), Daniel Stedman-Jones (Jones, 2012) and several others. The real issue cannot be that these authors do not cite original texts, because they do, the problem instead seems to be that they have interpreted them differently than Caldwell. Instead of arguments for his own position, however, Caldwell offers only the briefest of dismissals of the work of these scholars. An interested reader should perhaps be expected to read some of the works that I have referred to here to get a sense of what is at stake, but it seems strange to not even try to give a succinct summary in a preface written in such a polemical style.

6While the reader is never informed of what the exact points of disagreement between Caldwell and the scholars in his footnotes are, it seems fair to deduce that something akin to the center point of this unacknowledged interpretive debate appears in footnote 9 to the preface, where Caldwell writes that “The accusation that liberalism is hostile toward democracy has a rather long history”. Here he cites Harold Laski’s 1936 title The Rise of Liberalism: The Philosophy of a Business Civilization and Herman Finer’s Road to Reaction from 1945 (xix), presumably in order to dismiss volumes of serious scholarship on the relationship between neoliberalism, state power and the theory and praxis of democracy as “accusations” by “critics”. The volumes quoted here include David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), Bernhard Harcourt’s The Illusion of Free Markets (2011) and Loïc Wacquant’s Punishing the Poor (2009). Without attribution, he also quotes Quinn Slobodian’s notion that early neoliberalism was a reaction against the rise of popular democracy and ultimately had to do with “creating a world safe for corporations” (xv). The quote is presented as an example of all that is wrong with unserious “critics” of neoliberalism who only quote each other in order to blame present day social ills on neoliberalism, but in another footnote, Slobodian’s book Globalists (2018) is nonetheless mentioned alongside Stedman Jones’ Masters of the Universe (2012) as more accurately representing “liberal thought” than others, “though broadly critical and not without flaws” (xx).

7The criticism arising from Caldwell’s preface amounts to a claim that an “echo chamber” of neoliberalism scholars insert a notion of neoliberalism as “malevolent” and a “malignant force” (xvii) through their contextual analyses, something which often boils down to the question of democracy. This volume, then, is meant to set the record straight, and fits neatly alongside for instance Caldwell’s almost fifty page long journal article on the subject of Hayek’s visits to Chile and his views on the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (Caldwell and Montes, 2015) in the neoliberal “nothing to see here”-genre.­ This is a new type of defensive, internalist history of neoliberal thinkers and their activities which moves beyond hagiography and into the realms of defense.

2. Against Contextualization?

8Caldwell’s antidote to other scholars portrayal of early neoliberals as “malignant”, is simple. It involves showing the original texts to “A young scholar or naïve student who might want to learn more about the subject” (xvii). This, he is convinced, will tell a different story than the one produced by the beforementioned echo chamber of critical scholars. One problem with Caldwell’s supposed originalist position of letting the readers judge for themselves in this particular case, is that the transcripts of the meeting do not comprise an especially readable text. That has not deterred any of the involved parties from publishing this as a book, however, but the nature of these transcripts as a source carries more problems with them than ones of an aesthetic nature. Caldwell has included a whole, crossed out transcript by Dorothy Hahn of Hayek’s opening address, which has presumably been crossed out because Hayek could later deliver his manuscript. In a footnote, Caldwell comments on Hahn’s transcription that “The roughness of her notes relative to the address is another reminder to the reader of this volume that her transcripts provide at best an incomplete picture of what was said at each session.” (81) Does not such an admission beg the question of what the need is to present such an incomplete picture at all?

  • 4 This probably referred to the differences between a French keyboard following the AZERTY layout, an (...)

9I interviewed Dorothy Hahn on two occasions in 2015 and 2016, and to me she recalled her problems using a typewriter of a French model, with keys in different places from what she was used to,4 something which made the job of writing down everything that was said in the lengthy discussions even harder. This was part of my own reasoning for taking Hayek’s insistence to not quote from the minutes to heart. I instead paraphrased from the transcripts, so as to make sure no one could take “quotes” out of context at a later stage—since it was so uncertain whether the people in question had actually spoken in exactly this or that way. While paraphrasing, I also attempted, to the best of my knowledge and abilities, to explain the context of the discussions. Analyzing our objects of study, from other perspectives than that which they held themselves, is pretty much the point of intellectual history as far as I am concerned. Caldwell’s claim, on the other hand, that all he wants to do is show the original texts to an interested reader and let them make up their own mind instead of being manipulated by the interpretations and contextualization of over-critical scholars, resurfaces when my own work appears in the footnotes to the introduction. Here Caldwell claims that “[the author] tends to view the past through the narrow lens of present-day presuppositions”, and “consistently ‘contextualizes’ liberalism as the ideology of an upper-class elite worried about income redistribution and the loss of power that democracy would bring” (37). The charge of “presentism” has risen in popularity in recent years, but without going into the question of which side of that debate is really more worried about how things look in the present when new details about past heroic figures are uncovered, it is at least fair to ask what lens, other than that of the present, Caldwell presumably has access to. In a recent essay on the presentism debate, David Motadel has distinguished between three different forms of presentism: The inevitable subjectivity of historians who view the past from the present; the explicit relevance of historical work for contemporary political questions; and, lastly, active political partisanship (Motadel, 2023). While he might actually want to be getting at the last type of presentism, Caldwell is mainly criticizing yours truly for the inevitable first type of presentism, and since there is no actual argument against this paraphrase of parts of the analysis, it appears almost as if he is arguing against contextualization as such. Both here and in the beforementioned preface, the claim appears to be that no scholarly debate is necessary, and that simply presenting the sources is enough to settle a presumed question regarding the “malevolence” of neoliberalism once and for all.

3. What Did Eucken Mean?

10But these transcripts are a source to the history of early neoliberal thought, they do not in themselves have the capacity to settle scholarly debates in the way that Caldwell presumes that they do. This is further testified by the fact that Caldwell too engages in contextualization through the many footnotes he has entered into the transcripts. I am in no way opposed to such a method, of course, it seems to me entirely reasonable to try to explain to the reader what was actually going on in transcripts where sentences are often incomplete, references are not explained and there are volumes upon volumes of subtext. But since these things are not actually there in the transcripts, Caldwell too has to engage in interpretative work before he can try to convey his interpretation to the reader by way of footnotes. One example will show this clearly, as it is a case where Caldwell’s interpretation contrasts with the one made in my own work.

  • 5 Horn’s critique was expanded in the journal ORDO some time later (Horn, 2020b).

11A risk of my method of paraphrasing instead of quoting is that I would misinterpret something and then give the reader the wrong idea about something that was said. Upon the publication of my book in 2020, the beforementioned MPS member Karen Horn took me to task for, in her opinion, having done such a thing with regards to a statement made by Walter Eucken during one of the sessions. In a scathing review in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Horn, 2020a), she went to great lengths to discredit me as a historian, because I briefly noted that Eucken had claimed, during a session on “Liberalism and Christianity”, that “the main victims of Nazi oppression had all been liberals, but at the same time Christians”. I referred to this as a “rather stunning statement” in light of the mass extermination campaigns carried out against people of other creeds, both political and religious (Innset, 2020b, 148). Horn, who used most of her review to take issue with my analysis of early neoliberalism as being posed against popular democracy, used my comment about Eucken’s statement as proof that I did not “work professionally”, insinuated that I had made up the comment, and questioned the awarding of a prize I had been given for the thesis upon which the book was based.5

  • 6 Full quote: “What Mr. Morley said makes it unnecessary for me to say much. I am in almost complete (...)
  • 7 I published a detailed response to Nordbakken’s report, which is available for download via Innset (...)

12Various analyses on the connections between several German ordoliberals and the Nazi regime that do not play nicely into the usual ordoliberal narrative of themselves as the staunchest resistors of Nazism (Foucault, 2008; Ptak, 2009; Tribe, 1995) influenced my interpretation and formed part of my analysis, and it therefore entered into a territory which in the German context is still extremely touchy. But the quote from Eucken, as recorded in the transcripts really is: “If we consider what resistance there was in Germany, and the main victims of the Nazi oppression, these men were all liberals, but at the same time also Christians … ”.6 The reason why this episode has some general interest beyond matters regarding the anxieties of a young researcher called out in a major newspaper, is because it speaks to the question of interpreting and contextualizing these transcripts. Through a highly critical “report” on my book, published in Norwegian by the think tank Civita shortly after Horn’s review and written by MPS member Lars Peder Nordbakken, it transpired that the issue was not one of falsification or professionality, but rather that the Mont Pèlerinians interpreted Eucken’s comment differently than what I had done. According to them, Eucken was trying to claim that the main resistance against the Nazi regime had come from liberals and Christians, and that this was because of the persecution of socialists and Jews (Nordbakken, 2020, 13-14).7 While by no means certain, there is a chance that this interpretation is more correct than my own, in which case I would stand corrected.

  • 8 For the record, I never meant to insinuate that Eucken was “denying the holocaust”, merely to point (...)

13When Caldwell gets to this part in his edited version of the transcripts, however, he no longer carries the same certainty he does in the preface, that letting the reader make up their own mind will make them see things the same way he does. At this precise point in the transcripts there is instead a lengthy footnote, detailing the difficulties of precise minute-taking and translating from German, explaining what Caldwell believes Eucken probably meant, and even stating that his “unfortunate phrasing should not be taken as suggesting that he was denying the holocaust” (148).8

14It should be obvious that there is more going on here than just letting the reader judge for themselves. Both in the preface, introduction and footnotes, Caldwell is “guilty” of the exact same thing he admonishes others for: contextualization and interpretation. I write “guilty” in inverted commas, because these activities are absolutely part and parcel of what intellectual historians should be doing, and it is a shame that Caldwell does not acknowledge this and instead claims to settle debates without even going into them.

4. Neoliberalism and Democracy

15The question is not whether intellectual historians should interpret and contextualize early neoliberal thought, but rather which interpretation is reasonable and which contexts are most meaningful to highlight. Much of what Caldwell identifies in his preface as unserious criticism regarding neoliberalism as a “malignant force” has to do with the question of democracy, and it bears keeping in mind that universal suffrage was a very recent development precisely at the point when the early neoliberals began developing their ideas and their political project. A major question raised by these “neoliberalism wars” that I myself form a minor part of, is thus the following: How can it be that in the same bodies of work, for instance that of Friedrich Hayek, someone like Mirowski, Slobodian and even myself, see a fundamental distrust of democracy and an implicit wish to subvert rule by the people, whereas MPS members like Caldwell, Horn, Kolev and Nordbakken see beacons of freedom and a staunch defense of democracy as a rules-based order? The latter group does belong to the organization being studied, but there are scholars presumably outside of the MPS who reach similar conclusions, for instance Kevin Vallier, who in his beforementioned encyclopedia article on neoliberalism holds that “Neoliberals embrace democracy,” and defends this with quotations from Hayek, Friedman and Buchanan. (Vallier, 2021) Much of the answer lies in different conceptions of democracy, but I also have a sense that we are talking passed each other, and that both lines of interpretation have merit. Where the abundance of think tank literature has created hagiographies of the thinkers who saved the world from totalitarianism, the more critical but also more scholarly literature has wanted to add nuance to this, especially by bringing out the very real ambiguities amongst these thinkers concerning the reach of modern democracy. In some cases, this may have happened at the cost of overemphasizing these aspects somewhat, and individuals who are both democratically minded and inspired by, for instance, Hayek, feel hard done by and swipe back.

16However, it is not as if those scholars described by Caldwell as “critics” ignore that early neoliberals posed their theories against the rise of states they labelled “totalitarian”. The point is rather that this critique of totalitarianism and “economic planning” included an implicit (and at times also explicit) critique of the then relatively new phenomenon of mass democracy with popular suffrage. This critique built on previous liberal critiques of popular democracy (Arendt, 2020; de Dijn, 2020; Losurdo, 2011; Richardson, 2001), but the neoliberals added new layers to it, the pointing out of which is part and parcel of the work of contextual intellectual history. That a renewed interest in the liberal quest to limit government appeared at the same time that governments became democratic, and that this market oriented liberalism became heavily funded by capital interests is not something that serious scholarship in intellectual history should ignore or simply attempt to explain away. If one of Caldwell’s main goals is to challenge the picture of early neoliberalism as anti-democratic, he fails to do so with this publication. There is no lack of reading material, from neoliberal thinkers themselves and from the think tank industry devoted to spreading their gospel, about the neoliberals’ own version of their history, and scholarly debate has to move beyond brash dismissals followed by reproduction of sources.

  • 9 An article by the conservative Norwegian editor Torbjørn Røe Isaksen gestured towards this division (...)

17At the time of writing, the Mont Pèlerin Society is gathered, not far from me, for their 75th anniversary meeting in Oslo, and the delegates have all been given a copy of Bruce Caldwell’s book. We might have to wait another 75 years to find out exactly what went on inside this year’s conference hotel, should anyone care at that point, but reports have it that there are strong divisions within the society between an American and a European wing,9 where the MPS members mentioned in this article presumably belong to the European wing. There is a degree of overlap between this fraction of the society and the trend identified by Caldwell which consists of people seeking to install the word “neoliberalism” with positive connotations and to restate an “original” neoliberalism which is more social and more democratic than the one favored by American delegates, many of whom are financed by to the so-called “Kochtopus”, billionaires David and Charles Koch’s funding network for various rightwing causes. As during the very first meeting, conflicts and disagreements exist also within the MPS regarding the interpretation of liberalism, its history and how to apply it to a contemporary moment.

18The MPS is an association, but to avoid any implication of guilt by such means I will refrain from listing the various linkages that exist in our present moment between certain sections of the association and right-wing authoritarians on several continents. Suffice it to say there are a few (MacLean, 2017; Plehwe and Slobodian, 2022; Slobodian, 2021), and that this is fuel to a recent literature on “authoritarian neoliberalism” (Biebricher, 2020; Bruff and Tansel, 2021). I nonetheless firmly believe that the European neoliberals are sincere in their wish to protect democracy in our time and steer neoliberalism away from any contemporary authoritarian currents. It is understandable that it therefore becomes important for them to combat the notion that there is something anti-democratic at the very core of early neoliberalism. While I would most certainly support their side in this ongoing internal struggle, I would also suggest that such “present-day presuppositions” are perhaps not the best starting point for historical analysis.

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1 [retrieved 22/04/2023].

2 Much like Caldwell’s preface, the first part of the thesis detailed the organizational and intellectual efforts leading up to the 1947 conference, but with a stronger focus on the development of new ideas. (Innset, 2020b, 19-88)

3 Also consider publications such as Brookes (2021) or Cowen (2021).

4 This probably referred to the differences between a French keyboard following the AZERTY layout, and English keyboards relying on QWERTY.

5 Horn’s critique was expanded in the journal ORDO some time later (Horn, 2020b).

6 Full quote: “What Mr. Morley said makes it unnecessary for me to say much. I am in almost complete agreement. It may be useful first to explain my position. I am a Christian, and I want to say that from a purely Christian point of view I regard the competitive order as essential. If we consider what resistance there was in Germany, and the main victims of the Nazi oppression, these men were all liberals, but at the same time also Christians—Christians it is true without any formal dogma, but agreeing on man having an eternal life. It was that conviction which gave them their strength.”

7 I published a detailed response to Nordbakken’s report, which is available for download via Innset (2020a) and this link: [retrieved 22/04/2023].

8 For the record, I never meant to insinuate that Eucken was “denying the holocaust”, merely to point out that postwar ordoliberals have a history of setting themselves up as the very opposite of Nazism, even though other groups possibly had stronger claims to that mantel and the historical record of ordoliberal activities during wartime is somewhat more mixed (albeit not in the specific case of Eucken).

9 An article by the conservative Norwegian editor Torbjørn Røe Isaksen gestured towards this division (Isaksen, 2022), whereas for instance tweets by conference participant Lene Johansen were more explicit: [retrieved 22/04/2023].

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Ola Innset, « Context and the Neoliberalism Wars »Œconomia, 13-1 | 2023, 101-114.

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Ola Innset, « Context and the Neoliberalism Wars »Œconomia [En ligne], 13-1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 19 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Ola Innset

BI Norwegian Business School.

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