IDEOLOGY:
DESCRIPTIVE, PEJORATIVE, POSITIVE VIEWS

by Raymond Geuss

2 IDEOLOGY IN THE PEJORATIVE SENSE

The second research program within which a theory of ideology may arise is a program of criticism of the beliefs, attitudes, and wants of the agents in a particular society. This research program is initiated by the observation that agents in the society are deluded about themselves, their position, their society, or their interests. The aim of the project is to demonstrate to them that they are so deluded. It might turn out that one can only convince them that they are deluded if one can explain to them why they hold the beliefs and attitudes they do, or one might have an independent theoretical interest in understanding and explaining how it came about that the agents developed this delusion, and why they continue to suffer from it — the theoretical interest will be all the greater, the more the delusion seems to have the result that the agents act contrary to what is manifestly in their own true interest. Still, in essence this is not an explanatory project like the first research program in section 1. Rather the point is to free the agents from a particular kind of delusion. In most of the interesting cases the ideological delusion to be rooted out (it is claimed) is not an empirical error even of a very sophisticated kind, but something quite different.

The basic use of the term ‘ideology’ in this program is a negative, pejorative, or critical one. ‘Ideology’ is ‘(ideological) delusion’ or ‘(ideologically) false consciousness.’25 I will use the term ‘form of consciousness’ to refer to a particular constellation of beliefs, attitudes, dispositions, etc.26 So the basic question posed in this research program is: In

25 WL 73, 95, 104 [T6 71, 90, 99], TP 435 ff.

26 LS 48 [T2]. So a ‘form of consciousness’ is an ideology in one of the narrower descriptive senses, i.e. a particular systematically interconnected subset of the set of all the beliefs, attitudes, etc. the agents of a group hold. I will henceforth use this term ‘form of consciousness’ because I would like to reserve 'ideology’ to mean 'ideology in the pejorative

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what sense or in virtue of what properties can a form of consciousness be ideologically false, i.e. can it be an ideology in the pejorative sense? I will consider three kinds of answers to this question:

(a) a form of consciousness is ideologically false in virtue of some epistemic properties of the beliefs which are its constituents;

(b) a form of consciousness is ideologically false in virtue of its functional properties;

(c) a form of consciousness is ideologically false in virtue of some of its genetic properties.

In the next few pages I will try to explain what I mean by each of these three ways of answering the question: What makes a form of consciousness an ideology?

I. By the ‘epistemic properties’ of a form of consciousness I mean such things as whether or not the descriptive beliefs contained in the form of consciousness are supported by the available empirical evidence, or whether or not the form of consciousness is one in which beliefs of different epistemic type (e.g. descriptive beliefs and normative beliefs) are confused. I will now consider four ways of using the term ‘ideology’; in each case a form of consciousness will be considered to be ideological in virtue of some epistemic properties.

1. A form of consciousness is an ideology if it is essentially dependent on mistaking the epistemic status of some of its apparently constituent beliefs. As an example of what I mean by ‘mistaking the epistemic status of a belief’ consider the early positivist view that a proposition has cognitive content or is cognitively meaningful if and only if it is empirically verifiable, that is, if and only if it has some kind of observational content. To take a belief which is not empirically verifiable as being cognitively meaningful is to make a mistake about its epistemic status. Thus, on this view, all theological forms of consciousness are to be rejected as ideological because a theological form of consciousness is presumably a structured set of beliefs, attitudes, etc. which depends essentially on the assumption that there can be cognitively significant discourse about gods. Since beliefs about gods are not empirically verifiable — they don’t have cognitive content — a theological form of consciousness is based on a mistake about the epistemic standing of one of its central constitutive beliefs. Note that to say that all theological forms of consciousness

sense’ i.e. false consciousness.’ So from now on, ‘ideology’ unless further specified means ‘ideology in the pejorative sense.’ Also KK 334, TP 310 [T4 257], EI 16 [T1 8], WL 96, 105 [T6 90f, 100]. [Note that in this last passage ‘Bewußtseinsformationen’ (‘forms of consciousness’) is mistranslated as ‘information of consciousness.’]


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are ideology’ for the positivist is not to say that all forms of religious belief are ‘ideology’ (in the pejorative sense); the positivist can have no objection to religious beliefs as long as they don’t pretend to be forms of knowledge.

This usage of ‘ideology’ is not dependent on accepting the verification theory of meaning. I might well reject the verification theory of meaning and still, for instance, think that value judgments had very different conditions of verification from descriptive beliefs, and hence a very different ‘epistemic standing.’ I might then want to call forms of consciousness ‘ideological’ if they presented value judgments as statements of fact.27

2. A form of consciousness is ideological if it contains essentially an ‘objectification’ mistake, i.e. if it contains a false belief to the effect that some social phenomenon is a natural phenomenon, or, to put it another way, human agents or ‘subjects’ are suffering from ideologically false consciousness if they falsely ‘objectify’ their own activity, i.e. if they are deceived into taking that activity to be something ‘foreign’ to them,28 especially if they take that activity to be a natural process outside their control.

3. A form of consciousness is ideologically false if it contains a false belief to the effect that the particular interest of some subgroup is the general interest of the group as a whole.29

4. A form of consciousness is ideologically false if it mistakes self-validating or self-fulfilling beliefs for beliefs which are not self-validating or self-fulfilling. The notion of a ‘self-validating or self-fulfilling belief’ is modelled on Merton’s notion of a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy.’30 If we think members of a subgroup G are lazy, unreliable, and unintelligent, and hence act toward them in ways which make them become lazy, unreliable, and unintelligent, the belief that the members of G are lazy etc. is self-fulfilling. There is nothing inherently wrong with holding self-fulfilling beliefs, as long as one knows that they are self-fulfilling. What is objectionable is the use of self-fulfilling beliefs in a context of justification of action where their justificatory force depends

27 Gustave Bergmann uses ‘ideology’ in this sense: ‘a value judgment disguised as or mistaken for a statement of fact I shall call an "ideological statement"’ (Brodbeck, p. 129).

28 N2 400f and TG 246 where Habermas claims that Marx develops the notion of ideology ‘als Gegenbegriff zu einer Reflexion ... durch die falsches Bewußtsein, nämlich die notwendigen Tauschungen eines Subjekts über seine eigenen, ihm fremd gewordenen Objektivationen zerstört werden kann.’ The classic Marx passage is the chapter on the fetishism of commodity production in the first volume of Kapital , Marx, vol. 23, pp. 85ff.

29 TG 289; KK 336, 391; and the discussion in Part III of LS. Standard loci from Marx are vol. 3, pp. 359ff, 374ff.

30 Merton, pp. 421ff.


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on misconstruing them as non-self-fulfilling, i.e. depends on mistaking their epistemic standing.31

II. The second kind of answer to the question, What makes a form of consciousness an ideology?, was: A form of consciousness is an ideology in virtue of some of its functional properties. I will consider three specific versions of this functional approach.

1. A form of consciousness is an ideology in virtue of the function or role it plays in supporting, stabilizing, or legitimizing certain kinds of social institutions or practices. Habermas regularly speaks of an ideology as a ‘world-picture’ which stabilizes or legitimizes domination or hegemony (Herrschaft).32 It is in virtue of the fact that it supports or justifies reprehensible social institutions, unjust social practices, relations of exploitation, hegemony, or domination that a form of consciousness is an ideology.

But, of course, the above isn’t yet an unambiguous view. One must distinguish between the function of supporting, fostering, or stabilizing hegemony and the function of justifying or legitimizing hegemony. Any set of beliefs which legitimizes or justifies a social practice will thereby tend to support it, but the converse is not the case: a belief that a given ruling class is strong and ruthless, so that any resistance to the dominant social order is futile, may well be a belief, the acceptance of which by large segments of the population will have the effect of stabilizing the existing relations of dominance, but it is unlikely that such a belief could be used to justify these relations.33 So ‘herrschaftsstabilsierendes Bewußtsein’ is not identical with ‘herrschaftslegitimierendes Bewußtsein.’

Note further that neither of these two kinds of ‘consciousness’ is identical with the kind of consciousness intended in the famous slogan definition of ideology as ‘socially necessary illusion.’ The statement ‘Form of consciousness f "stabilizes" hegemony’ can be interpreted in two different ways: (a) ‘Form of Consciousness f contributes to the stability of hegemony (but it is an open question whether or not this contribution is sufficient to insure that the hegemony remains intact)’ — ‘stabilize’ is used here as an ‘attempt-verb.’ (b) ‘Form of consciousness f is successful in causing the hegemony to remain intact’ — ‘stabilize’ is used here as a

31 Note that most self-fulfilling beliefs are beliefs which embody an objectification mistake.

32 An ideology for Habermas is ‘herrschaftslegitimierendes, Weltbild’ or a ‘herrschaftsstabilisterendes Weltbild.’ TG 120f, 239ff, 246f, 258; TW 72 [T5 99]; LS 34 [T2 19]; etc. ZR 53; TG 257ff, 279, 289.

33 Although it might be used by an individual to justify some action e.g. refusal to join an abortive uprising.


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success-verb.’ So at best (namely, if ‘stabilize’ is interpreted as a ‘success-verb’) ‘Form of consciousness f stabilizes hegemony’ means that form of consciousness f is a sufficient condition for the continued existence of given relations of dominance, not that it is necessary for the functioning or reproduction of the society. Similarly, the fact that some beliefs in a form of consciousness are used to legitimate some social practice or institution in no way implies that those beliefs are the only ones which could be used, much less that the practice in question would cease to exist if they could no longer be used to legitimize it.

We also require further clarification of the notion of ‘Herrschaft.’ I will distinguish several ‘semantic components’ in the notion of ‘Herrschaft.’34

A. ‘Herrschaft’ means the power to repress, i.e. to enforce frustration of some given human preferences. But this is clearly not an adequate or sufficient characterization of ‘Herrschaft.’ What is at issue here is the critical use of the term ‘ideology.’ But that means that to show that something is an ideology should be to show that we ought somehow to try to eliminate it. It seems unrealistic under the present conditions of human life to assume that any and every preference human agents might have can be satisfied, or to assume that all conflict between the preferences of different agents will be peacefully and rationally resolved. Some frustration — even some imposed frustration — of some human preferences must be legitimate and unexceptionable. But then to show that a form of consciousness is an ideology in the sense that it functions to support ‘Herrschaft’ is not yet to give any reason at all to eliminate it.

B. ‘Herrschaft’ is the exercise of power within a political order and is linked with some kind of claim to legitimacy. If a group of invaders simply ransacks a country, doing and taking what they want by sheer force, they will clearly be frustrating the preferences of the agents on whom they act, but they are not exercising ‘Herrschaft’ in the sense intended here. ‘Normative repression’ is frustration of agents’ preferences which makes a claim to legitimacy that is accepted by those agents because of certain normative beliefs they hold.35 ‘Herrschaft’ is power to exercise normative repression. This, too, is not yet an adequate account of ‘Herrschaft’ for the obvious reasons: There is nothing wrong with ‘supporting or legitimizing Herrschaft’ if the claim the ‘Herrschaft’ makes to legitimacy is valid.

C. ‘Herrschaft’ is normally unequally distributed; it is the domination

34 The following discussion is based primarily on TG 246f, 254, 285ff, ZR 336.

35 TG 254.


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of one group over another. So, in general, a society in which ‘Herrschaft’ is exercised will be one in which some groups have a much higher level of frustration of their preferences than others do. The society may be extraordinarily repressive, as many egalitarian communities are, but, as long as the power to repress is equally distributed, it would be odd to speak of ‘Herrschaft’ being exercised.

But this concept of ‘Herrschaft’ is not adequate for use in our account of ideology, either. Unless unequal distribution of the power to exercise normative repression were always illegitimate, showing that a form of consciousness supported or legitimized this distribution of power would in no way imply that the form of consciousness was to be rejected. Marxists at least don’t think that questions of the ‘legitimacy’ of social institutions can be answered ‘abstractly,’ that is, apart from consideration of the actual historical situation in which such questions arise. Marxists are also committed to the view that at certain levels of development of the material forces of production an unequal distribution of repressive normative power is historically necessary, i.e. necessary for the society to maintain and reproduce itself. If a certain distribution of power is ‘necessary’ there seems no point in questioning its legitimacy.

We probably would like to call unequal distribution of power to exercise normative repression ‘Herrschaft.’ Feudal lords do exercise ‘Herrschaft’ over their serfs, even if such ‘Herrschaft’ is historically necessary (at some particular moment in history). Showing that a form of consciousness supports unequal distribution of power does not in itself give us reason to reject the form of consciousness — unless we also know that this distribution of power is not at present necessary.

D. To say that a society imposes ‘surplus repression’ on its members is to say that it frustrates their preferences to a greater extent than is necessary for it to maintain and reproduce itself.36 So ‘surplus repression’ refers to the total amount of aggregate repression in the society without reference to how this repression is distributed among the members. If ‘Herrschaft’ is defined as above in C, let ‘surplus Herrschaft’ mean more ‘Herrschaft’ than is needed for the society to maintain and

36 This is Habermas’ sense of ‘surplus repression’ (vide El 80 [T1 57f], TG 290) which is probably not the same as Marcuse’s, p. 32, where ‘surplus repression’ means ‘restrictions required by social domination.’ If ‘social domination’ means ‘unequal distribution of normative power,’ then there can be repression ‘required by social domination’ which is not 'surplus’ in Habermas’ sense. Thus in a ‘hydraulic’ society, the priests as a class may have more normative power than the peasants, and the priests may typically impose a certain amount of repression on the peasants in order to insure their continued domination — this repression is ‘surplus’ on Marcuse’s view. If this drastically unequal distribution of normative power is the only way in which a society which has a very low level of productivity and depends on large-scale irrigation can function and reproduce itself, the ‘repression’ extracted by the priests to maintain their position is not ‘surplus’ in Habermas’ sense.


reproduce itself.37 We could then define ‘ideology’ as ‘a form of consdousness which supports or legitimizes surplus Herrschaft.’ But why should we reject a form of consciousness if we discover that it supports or legitimizes surplus Herrschaft? Is surplus Herrschaft always illegitimate? Why?38

2. The second kind of functional definition takes ‘ideology’ to be any form of consciousness which hinders or obstructs the maximal development of the forces of material production. This view is usually assodated with a reading of Marx which takes him as positing the development of the forces of material production as an inherent goal of human societies.39 It isn’t hard to see a connection between this notion and ‘surplus repression’ — if a form of consciousness hinders the development of the forces of production it will obviously impose on the agents in the society more repression than they need suffer — but any connection with surplus Herrschaft is harder to see. Perhaps one could make an argument from the plausible motivation of agents — no agents in the society would have a motivation to impose more repression than necessary unless the surplus repression differentially benefited some group in the society more than others. Then the members of the privileged group would have such a motivation.

3. Finally we might call a form of consciousness which served to ‘mask social contradictions’40 an ‘ideology.’ Since ‘masking social contradictions’ might include such things as diverting attention from them, a form of consciousness might successfully mask social contradictions without containing any false beliefs. The concept of a ‘social contradiction’ is too complex and obscure to be adequately treated here. Note however, that if we take the ‘major’ contradiction in a social formation to be the contradiction between the relations of production and the forces of production, and if we take this ‘contradiction’ to consist in the fact that the relations of production fetter the development of the forces, it is not difficult to see how one might move from this third functional approach to ideology to the second.41

37 In most normal cases, where there is surplus repression, there will also be surplus ‘Herrschaft,’ for what could motivate agents collectively to impose upon themselves more repression than is needed, unless the ‘fruits’ of that surplus repression are distributed unequally? In that case the beneficiaries of the unequal distribution will have a stake in its continuance.

38 The question is whether ‘illegitimate repression’ is a separate category. Might there not be Herrschaft, surplus repression, etc. which is not illegitimate? Might there not also be kinds of illegitimate repression which are not either surplus or instances of Herrschaft? This question will become important in Chapter 3.

39 Vide Cohen (1978). The members of the Frankfurt School recognize this strand in Marx, but think it is a mistake, WL 73 [T6 70f].

40 Larrain, pp. 45ff.

41 Vide Cohen, chs. VI, X, XI.


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Ideology in the pejorative or critical sense was to be some kind of delusion or false consciousness. Granted that an ideology in one or another of the above ‘functional’ senses would be something eminently worthy of being rejected by the members of any known human society, would such an ideology be rejected because it is a delusion or because it is in some sense false? A form of consciousness may contain all kinds of non-discursive elements; it isn’t clear how such elements could be false. Even the beliefs in a form of consciousness might be worthy of being rejected or given up on all kinds of grounds other than that they are delusions — they may be obnoxious, insensitive, immoral, nasty, ugly, etc. If I know that a form of consciousness I hold contributes to more massive frustration of my own preferences than necessary I may feel that I have grounds to give it up or change it, but does that mean that I think it is ‘false’ or some kind of delusion? The sense in which it is a delusion must be one which depends on a claim that, if I were to come to know something about the functional properties of this form of consciousness, I would no longer retain it. The form of consciousness qualifies as ‘false’ or a delusion because my retaining it depends in some way on my being in ignorance of or having false beliefs about its functional properties.

III. The third major way to answer the question, In virtue of what is a form of consciousness an ideology?, is: In virtue of some of its genetic properties, that is, by virtue of some facts about its origin, genesis, or history, about how it arises or comes to be acquired or held by agents, or in virtue of the motives agents have for adopting and acting on it.

Thus, Runciman claims that for the later Engels a form of consciousness is ideologically false in virtue of the fact that the ‘beliefs and attitudes’ which compose it are ‘related in a causal sense to the social situation and thereby to the interests of the believer.’42 So, presumably, a form of consciousness is an ideology in virtue of something about its causal history. Karl Mannheim holds a similar view, that forms of consciousness are ideological because they are ‘expressions’ of the class position of those who hold them, that is, because their origin can be traced to the particular experiences of a particular class in society with its characteristic perceptions, interests, and values.43 Finally, the analogy between psychoanalysis and social theory which is so dominant in much

42 Runciman, p. 212. The Engels passage on which this is based is one in a letter to Mehring from 1893 (translated in Tucker, p. 648) which states: ‘Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, but with false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process.’

43 Mannheim, pp. 55ff, 77ff.


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of the work of the members of the Frankfurt School suggests that ideologies might be construed as ‘collective rationalisations,’ i.e. as systems of beliefs and attitudes accepted by the agents for reasons which they could not acknowledge.44 But what does ‘could not’ mean here?

This genetic approach seems to pose more problems for the understanding than did the functional approach.45 Why should anything we might learn about the origin, motivation, or causal history of a form of consciousness give us (rational) grounds for rejecting it, much less for rejecting it as ‘false consciousness’ or as a ‘delusion?’ Of course, if the form of consciousness has an unsavory causal history this might make us very suspicious of it — we may examine the beliefs it contains with more than our usual care and may think twice about the implications of adopting the attitudes — but that doesn’t in itself give us good grounds to reject the form of consciousness. Also if a form of consciousness is an ‘expression’ of the class-position of a group in society not merely in the sense that it ‘arose out of their experience’ but also in the sense that it is appropriate only to those who share that class-position, e.g. if it speaks only to their particular needs, problems, and values, then it may be irrelevant to those of us who do not share that class-position. But to say that it is irrelevant to us is not to say that it is a delusion — it certainly wouldn’t seem to be any kind of delusion for them; if we do reject it, it is because it is ‘not appropriate’ for us and that is something we may determine without any knowledge of its causal history. The causal history may explain why it is inappropriate, but the causal history isn’t itself the grounds for rejecting it; its inappropriateness is.

By now there is a long history of criticism of the ‘genetic fallacy’ — one hasn’t shown anything about the truth or falsity of a belief by showing how it arose, one must clearly distinguish ‘context of discovery’ from ‘context of justification.’ If the genetic approach to ideology in the pejorative sense is to get off the ground, it must somehow show that the ‘genetic fallacy,’ granted its validity for scientific statements, is not necessarily a fallacy for forms of consciousness.

I have already tipped my hand as to how this argument might proceed. When speaking of the analogy between psychoanalysis and social theory above, I said that ideologies might be understood as systems of beliefs and attitudes accepted by the agents for reasons or motives which those agents could not acknowledge. Suppose I have a belief, attitude, or habit of action which I have adopted and cultivate for unacknowledged and unacceptable motives; perhaps I have adopted and cultivate a habit of virtuous action of a certain sort for completely nar-

44 TW 159f [T1 311].

45 Mannheim, pp. 271ff, 283ff, 286f, 291ff.


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cissistic reasons which I don’t acknowledge and which I would find unacceptable. Even though my motives or reasons for acting in the way I do may be unacceptable, the habit of action may be a habit of virtuous action, i.e. I may consistently do the right thing for the wrong reasons. In this case, coming to acknowledge and recognize my own motives may in fact bring me to stop cultivating the habit of action, but then again it may not, and in either case the habit of action may remain the right habit of action for me to cultivate, and I may still recognize that it is the right habit (although I may cease to have the strong motivation I had to continue to cultivate it). But in the case of ‘ideologies’ it isn’t just that they are said to have been adopted for unacknowledged motives or reasons, but for motives which could not be acknowledged by the agents. This presumably means that if the agents had to recognize and acknowledge that these were their motives, they would thereby not only no longer be motivated as strongly as they were to continue to accept the ideology, but they would see that there is no reason for them to accept it.

One might wonder whether cases like this really exist — cases in which the only motive or reason for adopting a form of consciousness is a motive which cannot be acknowledged — and one might also legitimately ask for further clarification of the sense in which a motive ‘cannot’ be acknowledged. Finally one might wonder whether this kind of analysis can be extended to other cases involving the ‘causal history’ or ‘origin and genesis’ of a form of consciousness. But if these potential objections can be deflected, there might be a chance of showing that the genetic approach to ideology can yield a sense of ideology as delusion or false consciousness. The form of consciousness is false in that it requires ignorance or false belief on the part of the agents of their true motives for accepting it.

So the term ‘ideology’ is used in a pejorative sense to criticise a form of consciousness because it incorporates beliefs which are false, or because it functions in a reprehensible way, or because it has a tainted origin. I will call these three kinds of criticism: criticism along the epistemic, the functional, and the genetic dimensions respectively.46 It is

46 Niklas Luhmann sums up some of the standard views about ideology (before dismissing them all) thus: 'Nicht in der kausalen Bewirktheit liegt das Wesen der Ideologie, such nicht in der instrumentellcn Verwendbarkeit bei der es nicht urn Wahrheit, sondern urn Wirkungen geht, und schließlich such nicht darin, daß sie die eigentlichen Motive verbirgt’ (p. 57). Of these the first and third refer to the 'genetic’ dimension, and the second to the ‘functional.’ Habermas criticises Luhmann because his functionalist theory of ideology leaves no room for a sense in which ideology could be ‘false,’ i.e. for lacking an analysis of the ‘epistemic dimension’ (TG 239ff). As will become clearer later, the reason Habermas insists that it must be possible to call an ideology ‘false’ is that he thinks this is the only way to avoid a kind of pernicious relativism.


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extremely important to determine which of these three modes of criticism is basic to a theory of ideology — does the theory start with an epistemology, with a theory of the proper functioning of society and of which forms of social organisation are reprehensible, or with a theory of which ‘origins’ of forms of consciousness are acceptable and which unacceptable? Still, although one or another of these three modes of criticism may be basic, interesting theories of ideology will be ones which assert some connection between two or more of the three modes. One of the senses in which the Critical Theory is said by its proponents to be ‘dialectical’ (and hence superior to its rivals) is just in that it explicitly connects questions about the ‘inherent’ truth or falsity of a form of consciousness with questions about its history, origin, and function in society.


1. Ideology in the Descriptive Sense

3. Ideology in the Positive Sense

SOURCE: Geuss, Raymond. The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. (Modern European Philosophy) Pp. 12-22.

Ideology Study Guide


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