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What was the Freedom Convoy?

The protest’s conflicting cries of patriotism and sedition hearkened a return to an illusory past of prosperity, social cohesion

Canadian PoliticsSocial Movements

Trucks in downtown Ottawa during the Freedom Convoy protest. Photo by Maksim Sokolov/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s been a dizzying few weeks in Canadian politics. As the Emergencies Act is revoked, the trucks roll out of Ottawa, and provincial governments across Canada capitulate to the demands of the Freedom Convoy, dropping mask and vaccine mandates like dominoes, one could be forgiven for asking once more: what just happened, and what do we continue to do about it?

The Freedom Convoy hasn’t lost momentum yet, and with Washington, DC bracing for a so-called “People’s Convoy” to collide with President Biden’s State of the Union address, it looks as though Canada’s so-called “trucker protests” will dovetail with a potential second siege on the US Capitol.

In many respects, the siege of January 6, 2021 and the Freedom Convoy are part of the same direct sequence, having hundreds of donors in common and recruiting enthusiasm from the same international base. Nationalist pedantry misses the point: for all the obvious differences, both manifestations can be tidily placed along a continuum of proto-fascist style, blending political theatre and targeted reaction, mixing plutocratic pleas and popular appeals.

The attempted insurrection at the Capitol Building in Washington last year sought to contest an election, while the 2022 Freedom Convoy ostensibly confronted government policy around the management of COVID-19. The latter action, however, only sounds less seditious; for the conflicting goals of the Canadian convoy included the dissolution of Parliament, with the immediate dispatch of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a minimal demand among participants. Furthermore, the US and Canadian movements clearly share a political lexicon, somewhere downstream of mainlined conspiracy theories and far-right rage. Both apparently organic demonstrations were in fact highly plotted, financed in part by transnational right-wing networks, and mobilized homegrown white supremacists. As strikingly, both events appear unwittingly parodic of the many coups in which the US and Canada unfailingly take part.

In his postmortem of the Capitol siege, historian Gerald Horne suggests that we evaluate January 6 not only as a proto-fascist revolt against bourgeois civil society but as an opportunity for the left as well, insofar as it represents a split within the right-wing of capital that could be widened by leftists. Where the interests at stake here are concerned, Horne’s characterization of January 6 mob demographics tidily describes the motley crew behind the Freedom Convoy:

… I found it striking to look at the class makeup of the invaders of the Capitol. It was the typical sort of multi-class formation that was essential to the construction of settler colonialism in the first instance in North America. What I mean is the Jan. 6 mob included CEOs; included Olympic athletes; small-business persons; a number of military veterans, which I would urge our journalists to look into in more depth; a number of Republican Party officeholders, from the Atlantic to the Pacific; a number of police officers, firefighters, lumpen elements, working-class elements, etc., almost all of European descent.

While every proto-fascist ferment enrolls contradictory class interests, this laundry list is far more unified than it appears. But who are its Canadian counterparts?

The convoy organizers all have compelling links to the far-right, and many had been trying to organize a movement of this strength before the COVID-19 pandemic. Tamara Lich was a member of Alberta’s Maverick Party, a viciously anti-immigration party that advocates for the secession of western Canada, until her resignation earlier this month. The protests themselves were announced by James Bauder, an avid QAnon conspiracist theorist and head of Canada Unity, aggregating libertarian calls for “freedom” in the wake of Canada’s fledgling Yellow Vest movement. Canada Unity contact Patrick King had a slightly more eclectic profile prior to the convoy’s departure, masquerading as a journalist and trying to dissuade Indigenous communities from vaccination, but his disturbing rants against the “depopulation of the Caucasian race” quickly surfaced on social media, and feature prominently in his bail hearings.

In addition to far-right militiamen, the noteworthy presence of security forces within the Freedom Convoy only strengthens a popular perception of its trip to Ottawa as an attempted coup. These vocal participants include ex-RCMP, Canadian Armed Forces—including multiple members of Joint Task Force 2—Islamophobic counter-terrorism “experts” such as Tom Quiggin, and members of Trudeau’s former security detail, to say nothing of the enthusiastic ground support from local law enforcement at every stop of the way. Designed by variously disgraced People’s Party candidates and endorsed by a smattering of ambitious Conservatives, the political support for the convoy has always been clear at a glance.

Pat King, a 44-year-old from Red Deer, Alberta, is currently facing charges by Ottawa police for his role in organizing the Freedom Convoy occupation in downtown Ottawa. Photo from Facebook.

No class

Horne’s broader remarks can help us to make sense of the class composition of the Freedom Convoy and the anti-mandate movement more generally, lest we simplistically parrot the convoy’s self-perception as a spontaneous working-class uprising; a narrative upon which the mainstream right and an opportunist left converge. In the main, the convoy seems to be comprised of small business owners and security forces, would-be militiamen and jockeying libertarians, and a smaller-than-reported number of actual truckers. This isn’t without some discernment, as many independent contractors in the trucking industry owe payments on their vehicles, while other owner-operators are well off by any working standard. More notably, however, employers formed a visibly enthusiastic faction of the demonstration, goading their workers to extremes.

Between working and ruling class interests persists a historically mercenary “quasi class”—not the fabled “middle class” to whom centre-left and right alike campaign, which substantially overlaps and obfuscates the interests of the working class at large—but what Marxists refer to as the petite, or petty, bourgeoisie.

These small-scale producers and traders, shopkeepers and entrepreneurs, have come into and retain some self-earned private property, and are able to sell the products of their labour at a higher rate, often employing others over the course of their ventures. These small business owners tend to identify strongly with the interests of the ruling class.

At the same time, even as the petty bourgeoisie aspire to class ascent, they are unable to compete with large capitals except by taking on frequently onerous debt; loans and mortgages that expose them to precarity in times of crisis. In broad strokes, this describes the class correlates of the anti-mandate movement, which is largely comprised of small business owners whose margins suffered during pandemic lockdowns and periods of restriction. This is confirmed by a leaked list of donors to the convoy, revealing plentiful support from political backers in the United States and businesses throughout Canada, many of whom accepted the emergency wage subsidy from the federal government, among other supports for employers.

This makes some intuitive sense, where small businesses were hit much harder by mandates than large capitals throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2021 fourth quarter survey by Statistics Canada depicts financial hardships and diminished expectations among small businesses as a result of COVID-19, with many respondents reporting difficulty repaying government support received throughout the pandemic. More than one-fifth of businesses with fewer than twenty employees reported that they did not have the ability to take on more debt. The larger context of this uncertainty is crucial to note, however: according to the same survey, small businesses comprised 98.1 percent of all Canadian employer businesses in 2021, employing approximately two-thirds of the total labour force.

A further story then emerges, for the decrease in profitability and sales faced by these mid-tier entrepreneurs implies deeper precarity for the many millions of working people across Canada who lack all but the flimsiest representation, and whose fortunes are administered only by way of their employers as a private interest. As an austerity device, albeit concerning a lifesaving preventative measure during a pandemic, Canada’s vaccine mandate clearly intended to remove all plausible impediments to badly waged work, coinciding with the end of emergency benefits from the state, and further restricting access to the comparatively meagre Canada Recovery Benefit (which has since been phased out for the smaller and more exclusive, “targeted” Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit). But who are these wage earners returning to work for?

Throughout the pandemic, the government rushed to reopen the service and hospitality sectors far before it was safe, even as many people, ironically including truckers, were compelled to work continuously without precautions throughout the most difficult months. But the vaccine itself, to say nothing of the mandate, offers valuable protection to the most precarious and continuously exposed workforces in the country, the majority of whom are employed by small business after all. For business owners, the mandate only thins the workforce and reduces consumer demand, eating into profits. Unless one believes that small capitalists and their employees are engaged in a mutualistic collaboration, it would be a mistake to conflate these motivations outright.

For this reason, it’s important to roundly reject the populist tenor of convoy apologism, which perceives the lobbyists of the petty bourgeoisie to correctly represent the interests of the working class beneath them. The removal of vaccine mandates would be enormously beneficial to these middle proprietors; so too would a lower minimum wage, lower income tax, and so on. One could make a case against mandates from principles of economic justice, but the convoy and its donors haven’t such a program in mind.

For workers, then, the vaccine mandate poses certain obstacles to employment, especially coupled with the rollback of emergency support, but most workers in all sectors of the Canadian economy are vaccinated and organized labour has unanimously framed vaccines as a workplace safety issue rather than a disqualification of employment. For small businesses, on the other hand, the mandate impacts an employer’s ability to requisition labour power. Throughout the pandemic, most anti-mandate protesters appear predominantly concerned with the curtailment of their individual liberties in a consumer capacity. The larger part of the anti-lockdown movement has been concerned with the ability to access goods and services, and for the small capitalist, the most important commodity withheld during the pandemic is the capacity of others to work.

The populist temptation

The Freedom Convoy’s right-wing organizers may be downwardly mobile, but they are hardly proletarianizing due to the single issue of vaccines. With these middle class correlates in mind, it’s easier to account for the strong current of white nationalism and Western revanchism that has carried along so many confused participants over the past month. Marx and Engels consistently identified the petty bourgeoisie as a highly volatile and changeable quantity, prone to chauvinism and reaction amid precarity. The objectively conflicted situation of this middling class—workers on one side and capitalist on the other—leaves them susceptible not only to reactionary politics, but more specifically to discourses that deny any real basis for class distinction. The petty bourgeoisie, writes Marx, is “a transition class, in which the interests of two classes are simultaneously mutually blunted”; and thus, imagine themselves “elevated above class antagonism generally.” For this reason, the petty bourgeoisie typically avoid identifying with either of the class interests that they vacillate between, preferring to see themselves as an unmarked instance of “the people.”

This manoeuvre is apparent from the wellspring of contemporary ‘populist’ apologism for the convoy, which raises the highly particular gripes of what is essentially a small business lobby on wheels to the standing of an unsuitable universal signification. This is important to observe, as the present uptake of right-wing populism greets an intuitive appeal for the articulation of a left-wing populism to combat right-wing recruitment from alienation. Populist style assumes a left-right convergence, persuasive insofar as this political apparition already elides class contradiction, replacing class interests with ready-made representation.

In a 2017 article on the rise of far-right movements in the United States, Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster refers to ‘populism’ as a euphemism for “movements in the ‘fascist genus’ … characterized by virulently xenophobic, ultra-nationalist tendencies, rooted primarily in the lower-middle class and relatively privileged sections of the working class, in alliance with monopolistic capital.” Ultimately, Foster suggests, this rubric disguises the continuity of neoliberal capitalism and fascism as its culminate form. In this description, populism tends towards class collaboration by design, collating the interests of lower-middle and ruling classes, insofar as both converge upon radically deregulatory crisis measures and popular scapegoats.

For this reason, populist style, whether from the left or right, typically expresses the false universality of the petty bourgeoisie. In a fascinating dialectical moment, Marx describes how the susceptibility of a quasi-class to falsely wholistic rhetoric actually corresponds to social isolation, despite the evocation of critical mass:

Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.

The well-observed dependency of libertarian self-interest on a strong sovereign is crucial to the understanding of fascism and its would-be sympathizers. And while the scenery of this remark must be adjusted for a present understanding, C. Wright Mills almost directly harmonizes this passage from Marx in his influential description of the middle class as a capitalist rearguard:

Since they have no public position, their private positions as individuals determine in what direction each of them goes; but, as individuals, they do not know where to go. So now they waver. They hesitate, confused and vacillating in their opinions, unfocused and discontinuous in their actions. They are worried and distrustful but, like so many others, they have no targets on which to focus their worry and distrust. They may be politically irritable, but they have no political passion. They are a chorus, too afraid to grumble, too hysterical in their applause. They are rearguarders. In the shorter run, they will follow the panicky ways of prestige; in the longer run, they will follow the ways of power, for, in the end, prestige is determined by power. … The new middle classes are up for sale; whoever seems respectable enough, strong enough, can probably have them.

Mills’ description of the middle class as an irascible rearguard seems entirely suited to the Freedom Convoy at its most politicized. Any proto-fascist ferment is de facto class collaborationist, typically enlisting the many business and security interests enumerated above, and more importantly, impelling working people away from their common needs. However, this truism does not explain the predominance of white supremacist susceptibility in a given social formation.

A Trump flag waves during a Freedom Convoy protest in Toronto, February 5, 2022. Photo by Michael Swan/Flickr.

Colonial collaboration

In Gerald Horne’s description, class collaboration is not only characteristic of fascism, but a constitutive structure of settler colonialism, too, as successive generations of European immigrants with disparate class interests are gradually inured to a common identity forged in the suppression of Indigenous nations. In Horne’s account, London’s racializing model of colonial administration effectively muted class antagonism between settlers, who were more concerned with their collective positioning vis-à-vis Indigenous and enslaved peoples. As a result, effective stratifications of Europe’s displaceable labour reserves throughout the early capitalist period assumed lesser salience within the settler populations of North America, gradually disappearing altogether into a purely negative identity:

Among the diverse settlers—Protestant and Jewish; English and Irish et al.—there was a perverse mitosis at play as these fragments cohered into a formidable whole of ‘whiteness,’ then white supremacy, which involved class collaboration of the rankest sort between and among the wealthy and those not so endowed.

Similarly, Stanley Bréhaut Ryerson describes the tacit class collaborationism of New France, where “the conditions of frontier life, the scattered pattern of settlement, the constant threat of Indian resistance, and the extent to which the economy rested on exploitation of the native peoples [all] tended to limit and blunt the edge of class struggle.” While Ryerson’s narrative of popular protest in the colonies considerably belies an “idyllic patriarchal picture” of the eighteenth century, it remains that any attempt to account for the difficulty of proletarian politics in Canada must consider the pacifying effects of colonial nationcraft on an imported working class.

Canada originates as a corporate land-grab, and in the decades prior to confederation, rampant real estate speculation without any pretense of title impelled many European settlers westward. As fertile agricultural lands were allocated to Europeans, Indigenous peoples were corralled onto isolated reserves and systematically shut out of commercial farming by the Peasant Farm Policy, a document of targeted underdevelopment. The years of this policy coincided with the Long Depression, after which a series of targeted advertising campaigns on behalf of immigration agencies began to attract thousands of predominantly European immigrants from diverse ethno-cultural backgrounds to the region. As Gina Starblanket and Dallas Hunt describe:

The imagery shown on these advertisements and immigration materials, geared toward encouraging rapid settlement in the Prairies, idealized a patriarchal, nuclear family and an agrarian lifestyle … They simultaneously appeal to, and uphold, the institution of masculinity: the ability to build a home, provide for and protect one’s family, and—most importantly—to exercise control over one’s private domain. This domain purportedly exists and is bound within a lawless land, with the farmer serving as king of this realm—and of his castle—whose responsibility it then becomes to protect against intrusions or disruptions of this narrative.

This potent imagery and its promise of a self-earned, solitary tenure underwrote the subdivision of the plains by many people displaced from their countries of origin, as urban settlement proceeded apace in key locations for the financing of real estate and manufacture. The frontier mentality of the west not only posits an outer threshold between a wilful homesteader and an untamed nature, altogether repressing Indigenous occupancy, but draws a circle around settlers of pan-European provenance, eventually eliding significant differences unto the creation of a chimerical and mercenary whiteness.

Ironically, this whiteness, as a merely negative relation expressing nothing but self-interest, voids community—between isolated fiefdoms, there is only a lawless outdoors. In keeping with Marx’s observation above, where a merely local interconnection between tenuously propertied “peasantry” obtains, there is no class consciousness to be found, nor any nation—there is only a common anxiety, to be assuaged by force.

Accordingly, state oversight of immigration was required to actively produce this racial frontier. In the 1901 census, for example, all of the self-reported Chinese farmers in Canada were landless, compared to a strong percentage of European owners, including new arrivals. Whiteness is a property relation before it is a psychopathology, effectively facilitating class collaboration by a broad section of the working class who come to identify with their economic betters on a racial axis, after the uneven administration of civic amenities—famously described by W.E.B. DuBois as a “public and psychological wage” for white workers.

This is fertile ground for fascist creep during an upward transfer of wealth; and as class demographics change, the tacitly organized racism that found expression in the social fabric of Confederation is more likely to assume an antagonistic stance towards the liberal state. The convoy’s conflicted discourses of patriotism and sedition are precisely to this point, as well as the call to return upon a fantasized past of prosperity and social cohesion: to Make Canada Great Again.

White internationalism

When we look at the composition of the Freedom Convoy, however densely contradictory, we see a classically proto-fascist combination of elements—in fact, the apparent contradictions that many apologists would use to pardon far-right excesses are the signature of such a movement. Legitimate grievances are bewilderingly interpreted back to the working class by powerful lobbyists and private interests, or outrightly ignored and contradicted.

Gagan Singh, a spokesperson for the United Truckers Association in British Columbia, noted early on that issues such as safety and wages were overlooked entirely by the convoy, and reporting has uncovered an alarmingly high rate of labour standards violations within the industry.

This oversight is only too typical of a reactionary movement that places middle-class frustration at increases to business costs before working-class demands.

As for the racial character of the convoy and its demonstrable links to organized white supremacist and Western secessionist movements, this is simply reiterative of the colonial and class collaborationist processes that created the Canadian petty bourgeoisie from varied origins. The siege mentality characteristic of the convoy has its material bases in innumerably many rural and suburban outposts across the country, where self-willed men allotted property perceive themselves as besieged.

Organized fascism has made many false starts in Canada over the last century, and these sputterings may give the impression of a larger irrelevance, but its collaborationist and racialist predicates are firmly rooted in the culture of the colony.

One of the strangest recurrent themes in Pat King’s white nationalist ramblings, to the degree that bile is a credible political philosophy, is his assertion that “Anglo-Saxons” are themselves Indigenous to North America, and facing a cultural genocide themselves. This directly repressive citation of Indigeneity, albeit misattributed, squares strangely with King’s attempted infiltration of remote First Nations communities as a right-wing missionary; but this lack of self-awareness is a pathology of whiteness in itself. The ethnonationalist claims characteristic of fascism always require the construction of a people based on a politically motivated, and economically directed, fantasy. This is especially clear in colonial Canada, where any such group formation is bound to be tenuous and relatively recent.

White nationalism is in fact a misnomer, where whiteness is no kind of nation. Rather, whiteness obfuscates the salient characteristics of this formation to construct an essentially petty bourgeois political interest. This obscurity is preconfigured in the complex processes of integration that produced whiteness in the colonies, as an identity commensurate with the world scale of the capitalist project. White nationalist isolationism is constantly belied by the global span of this project, clearly evinced by the degree of international aid that the Freedom Convoy enjoys. As a corporate interest, Canada may not be a nation as such, but its highly selective processes of culturally tiered civic integration have undeniably aggregated white nationalism, such as one sees throughout the Freedom Convoy today.

Despite flimsy evidence for Canadian nationhood, the class articulations of bourgeois nationalism, collaborationist in essence, were an important mechanism of white identity politics in Canada and the United States, however differently these projects transpired. Thus the present hegemonic articulation of Canadian nationalism, under the sign of multiculturalism, preserves within it the prior alliances of Canadian capitalists, including racially exclusive formations of the recent past. These alliances are the true antecedent of MAGA and its Canadian counterpart: nostalgia for an inter-crisis prosperity of the enclave, between the Long Depression and the Great War, for example, or the mid-century boom whose recollection instantly reactivates Cold War anti-communism.

Moreover, as one can tell from the enemies enumerated by Pat King, Tamara Lich, Tom Quiggin, et al, the intra-class contradiction that describes the Freedom Convoy typically seizes upon an ‘inside-outsider’ figure, new to the class formation, as a scapegoat by which to explain declining fortunes. New immigrants are especially vulnerable to this assignation, as they are at the bottom of the wage scale, and thus hyper-visibilized in instances of modest ascent. This visibility facilitates the kettle logic by which a favoured scapegoat is both less-than and elite; unwelcome outsiders, running the show. Needless to say, the convoy mobilizes extremely effectively against such contradictory figures.

Trucks parked on Parliament Hill during the Freedom Convoy occupation. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

After emergencies

In his remarks on the January 6 siege, Horne doesn’t rush to the defense of a damnable Democratic Party. Rather, his counsel to the broad left homes in on signs of disarray within the GOP: “our strategic objective should be to foment a split in the ranks of the Republican Party.” And where many Republicans would seem to have abetted a siege on a government of which they formed the larger part, this strategy seems suitable for the United States. Can we draft a similar strategy after the Freedom Convoy in Canada, where so many elected Conservatives cheered its progress despite its broadly anti-democratic and even proto-fascist character?

While the Freedom Convoy isn’t a Conservative project per se, even running afoul of the party’s establishment, it certainly deepens a fracture of the political right along lines of intra-class conflict. Of course, leftist strategy in Canada won’t be the same as in the United States, where the two-party system has impelled the broad left to make serious compromises with warfaring corporate Democrats. Furthermore, the Conservative Party of Canada is nowhere near so powerful a centre for these interests as the GOP in the US; and the People’s Party already represents a mutiny of petty bourgeois interests from the neoliberal centre-right.

Today this split repeats itself within the CPC, with the vaccine mandates as an index. Liberal broker Erin O’Toole supported the mandate like a good bourgeois, losing the trust of his party, while his likely successor Pierre Poilievre tailed the convoy as a band of informal lobbyists, denouncing a perceived “vaccine vendetta against our hardworking truckers.”

The right-wing of capital lacks coherence for the moment, and the left of capital fares even worse after the Liberals’ needless invocation of the Emergencies Act, a genetically anti-communist document authorizing martial law.

In the ten days before it was revoked, the NDP offered unanimous parliamentary approval for the Emergencies Act, with a weak qualification from Jagmeet Singh that the party would revoke support if the emergency powers were misused. In this moment, high-minded New Democrats, representing the petty bourgeois branch of the left-wing of capital, capitulated to a ruling class bluff. As the parliamentary right appears hopelessly divided against itself, the parliamentary left has unified into a complacent bloc—governing glibly and bracing to be reviled.

Against this backdrop, we might venture to say that the Freedom Convoy didn’t carry off a coup so much as it staged an exposé. As the parties of capital struggle to represent this crisis to their own ends, we can’t wait on neoliberalism to restrain its infernal other. The Freedom Convoy is a petty-bourgeois revolt against monopoly capital during a crisis—interests destined to drift in and out of alignment—and as such, it is purposed at the capitalist state, which secures the empty space of exchange between private interests.

This much is apparent from the convoy’s clear designs upon Justin Trudeau, as well the collateral damage to Erin O’Toole. More importantly, the memorandum of understanding that kickstarted the convoy clearly called for the establishment of a new government, the “Citizens of Canada Committee,” to be appointed by the Governor General, the Senate, and members of Canada Unity. This semblance of legitimacy is precisely to a larger point. Fascist movements past and present characteristically attempt to shore crises of capital by recapture of the state, and the monarchic corporatism put forth by the convoy in satiric legalese firmly belongs to this tradition.

This attempt failed, and the parties of the right appear considerably weaker for it, at least for the moment. Insofar as one left strategy at this moment would seek to exacerbate a split within the right of capital, we should note that the convoy already represents such a division, to adapt Antonio Gramsci—between the “urban cadre” of the petty bourgeoisie, principally fixated on parliamentary means, and the “rural cadre,” consisting of big and medium landowners and their tenants, as well as their present-day counterpart in a number of bucolic firms. This only clarifies a pre-existing tension within capitalism, more acute in a crisis; and the racist grassroots is far from routed.

As for the triangulatory “left” of parliament, its crisis of legitimacy has only deepened since closing ranks around the Emergencies Act. There is no credible opposition to the far-right within the electoral spectrum. Rather, our practice at this moment surely follows upon coordinated actions in our own communities, and more importantly, the unprecedented political activation of organized labour, which is rarely so concerted before the right. Whatever lessons we choose from this moment, one thing is certain: the Freedom Convoy is going home, and that’s where we need to prepare.

Cam Scott is a poet, writer, and organizer from Winnipeg, Canada, Treaty 1 territory. His books include ROMANS/SNOWMARE and The Vanishing Signs, both published by ARP Books. Follow Cam on Twitter @vanishingsigns.


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