The following remarks do not stem from a strictly historical interest in the period under consideration. Rather, they throw a retrospective glance and interrogate some historical issues on the basis of investigations into the organization of labor across different industries. In light of these investigations, carried out in connection with workers and union organizations in automobile, petrochemical, steel, cement, and textile factories, we seek to examine the formation of present systems of industrial labor. How might this specific approach influence the very content of the analysis? It seems to lie in this fact: if we begin with texts and documents from the period in question, which is the most common way to do so in historical research, we are often implicitly led to adopt the dominant viewpoint, that of the capitalists and the organizers of work, quite simply because this viewpoint has left behind the most extensive written traces, is presented as a coherent system, articulated as such. An entire reality, experienced by the working class (a reality made up of the resistance to the capitalist organization of labor, of the mismatch between theoretical organization and actually implemented organization, and the parts of the productive system left in the dark by the official representations of industrial labor) has remained in the collective memory and oral tradition, without finding a systematic form that could act as a counterbalance to the organizers of work. If we adopt the viewpoint of the investigation among the agents of the production process, and the workers in the first instance, we find a grasp on the effective operation of the system of workplace organization, and not only on the always idealized and rationalized presentation provided by the organizers of capitalist production: we follow a contradictory concrete application, we discover the limits, failures, the whole complexity of relations of forces in motion.
For this reason, before passing on to the analysis of texts from the interwar period, it is useful to offer a few general observations drawn from recent investigations in industrial facilities, which might help us in a critical reading of documents that mainly come to us from the organizers of the capitalist labor process.
Some General Observations
First, the systems of workplace organization in capitalist industry do not succeed one another pure and simple: they are superimposed onto each other, as it were, the older systems surviving by combining with the new ones. One fairly often finds, in presentations of the capitalist organization of labor over the past century, a tendency to simplify its periodization into large homogeneous periods: pre-Taylor, Taylor and Scientific Management (SM), human relations, job enrichment, autonomous groups, etc. But while it is true that we can perceive the succession of relatively distinct periods from the perspective of the “overall ideological tonality” concerning the organization of labor, on the other hand everything indicates that in the concrete organization of labor existing in the field, we encounter a combination of different modes of workplace organization developed up to the present moment, a combination that is the result of employer policies, the resistance of working-class practices, economic factors external to the internal organization of the labor process, and various elements of the class struggle in society. It is critical, then, to not be limited to a mode of workplace organization that, at each given moment, occupies the forefront of the ideological scene, but to take into account the totality of the real organization of labor, to the extent that one can grasp it or reconstruct it.
So, in the present period, sometimes a bit too quickly described as post-Taylorist, Taylorist standardization is in the process of taking root in certain sectors of industrial production (cleaning, maintenance in particular – the industrial cleaning sector, which is currently undergoing a phase of Taylorization in France, employs about 20,000 workers). In office and tertiary sector work, computerization has triggered a wave of Taylorist normalization that is now underway.
In industries generally known for mainly implementing mechanisms of workplace organization which depend on a rather broad autonomy of groups of workers, some sectors remain very Taylorized: packing and shipping in the petrochemical and chemical industries, quarrying in the cement industries, for example.
We can go even further and argue that in general, the abandonment of the assembly line in favor of the various systems of “modules” or “job enrichment” in some parts of production in no way undermine, even in these parts, from the basic Taylorist principles: normalization of gestures and tools, strict time standards, the prior decomposition and preparation of work and tasks.
Inversely, in industries that represented the advanced point of the Taylor system, some sectors have resisted complete absorption up to the present day. For example, in the auto industry, the maintenance sector (machine tools, electrical) have retained a resiliency and relative independence in the organization of tasks and time, which gives skilled workers a status that could be described as privileged in relation to semi-skilled [OS] workers (at least this is still primarily the case in the French auto industry, but signs of challenge to this autonomy are beginning to appear). At times, even the Taylorized sectors have burst open, which has created very heterogeneous situations: the same automobile firm that developed robots on the assembly line (soldering, painting, etc.) may also use so many seemingly archaic methods as the contracting-out to very small workshops or even domestic work for certain pieces.
It is above all imperative to be careful of the optical illusion which pushes the most “modern” system of workplace organization to the foreground in the eyes of the employers and thousands of engineers, when it still only possesses a limited reach. In the lead-up to World War I, the Taylor system became the object of fierce debates. But, in that epoch, Taylorization in the strict sense only applied to a few tens of thousands of workers in the United States itself.1
We are witnessing today, whether in “job enrichment” or “autonomous work groups,” a comparable ideological bloat of the ideological presentation in relation to the real development.
The real development proceeds in a much more conflictual and contradictory manner than the idealized version of a linear development of the organization of labor as science lets on. This is what we want to attempt – briefly – to highlight in the interwar period which concerns us.
Analysis of Interwar Texts
In 1927, the International Labour Office published, in Geneva, a report titled Scientific Management in Europe. Its author, Paul Devinat, who headed the ILO’s relations with employers’ organizations, had established close relationships with American industrial circles and obtained financing from the Twentieth Century Fund to conduct a study on the state of Scientific Management in different European countries, in order to generalize the “new methods.” This report is highly interesting for several reasons:
– First of all, as an ideological case study. It indeed reflects the kind of “rationalizing” fever which took hold over manufacturing leadership circles in those years between 1925-1929, 1927 representing perhaps a high point. Taylorism is presented by Devinat as not only as an instrument of organization internal to firms, but as an overall view of economic life – we would be tempted to say a worldview.
– Next, it gives some interesting indications (although they are to be taken with reservations, due to its propagandistic aspect, particularly toward the workers’ movement) on the attitude of different social forces participating in industrial production vis-a-vis scientific management. The vanguard role of engineers and technicians, as a social milieu, is clearly emphasized.(Recent studies confirm the role of engineers in the ideological advance of Taylorism. See, for France, the article by Aimée Moutet, “Les origines du système du Taylor en France: Le point de vue patronal (1907-1914),” Le Mouvement social 93 (October-December 1975): 15-49. For the United States, see the article by Alessandra Lorini, “Il passaggio del principio di efficienza dallo Scientific Management alle scienze sociali negli Stati Uniti (1890-1920), Testi e Contesti 1 (May 1979).))
– Lastly, it makes a clear assessment of the institutional situation of scientific management in various countries in Europe, including the Soviet Union, and indicates what he sees as the existing differences among them in the application of scientific management.
If we analyze this balance sheet by relating it to the concrete situation of the epoch, we discern in Taylorism’s development not only the mere extension of the method invented by Frederick Winslow Taylor, but a complex process marked by the class struggle, through which the organization of labor takes form from crisis to crisis.
– Taylor’s works were explicitly aimed at a general conception of class peace: “scientific” laws ruling over labor, its intensity, its remuneration, imposed on both bosses and workers, the transition to mass production opening at the same time an era of universal prosperity. The ideological struggle Taylor waged in the United States, the high point of which was his 1912 testimony before the Special Committee of the House of Representatives, led him to put an even sharper emphasis on this presentation.
But the beginnings of the introduction of the Taylor system in Europe around 1910 appeared first as the narrow application of its most obviously coercive aspects, like timekeeping. This brutal introduction would give rise to fierce resistance from workers, especially the Renault strikes in 1912 and 1913. Throughout 1913 there were lively polemics in France around Taylorism.2
Also in 1913, on the other side of Europe, Lenin published his first, harshly critical, article on the Taylor system in Pravda: “A ‘Scientific’ System of Sweating,” following a conference on Taylorism at the Railway Engineering Institute in St. Petersburg. We witness in Europe too, right before the outbreak of World War I, an initial diffusion of the Taylor system, accompanied as it were by a fairly severe ideological “opening round” between workers and socialist and trade union milieus, on the one hand, and those introducing the system (capitalists or engineers) on the other.
We know how the war, due to ideological mobilization, internal repression, and abrupt transplantations of producing populations (male workers to the front, women to the factory, etc.) enabled a breaking of these resistances in several sectors, particularly those most tied to wartime production (arsenals, munitions and gunpowder factories, armored vehicles, etc.).
After the war and the great wave of workers’ struggles which immediately followed it, the problem raised its head anew. Business and government circles and the engineers at the forefront in the diffusion of scientific management drew lessons from the “opening round”: an entire ideological offensive now surrounded the uptake of the system, even if it meant adapting certain aspects, or combining it with other practices. You might say that at that time period, there was a transition from the introduction of schemes [recettes] to a deliberate drive toward “Americanization” writ large.
This evolution is very clear-cut in the preface to Devinat’s report, written by Albert Thomas, a former Socialist minister of armament in the French Sacred Union government during WWI, who became president of the International Labor Office. In this text we find a critical tone toward the brutal Taylorization of the initial years, and also read a desire to go about it better in the future:
If the writer of these few lines may be allowed to give his personal reminiscences, he would recall the initial attempts made in France during the years 1907-1908 to introduce time-study methods and Taylorism—attempts which were accompanied by errors and abuses, by an excessive imitation of American systems and inadequate preparation, by a violent commotion in the minds of the working classes, and by the whole struggle against what was called “systematised sweating.” […]
Later, during the war, it became essential in France to devise methods to ensure the fullest possible utilisation of the depleted staffs of the factories engaged in war work, and this led French factories to introduce, in many cases for the first time, methods of mechanical transport, to make the first attempt at “chain work”, and even, in certain powder mills, to undertake regular motion studies of women workers with a view to increasing output and reducing fatigue.
An entirely new factor, however, and one that goes back only a few years, is the realisation by American business men of the enormous power which the systematic and rational practice of the new methods has given them. Intuition has told them that these are the methods required, not merely to reintroduce intimacy . in the relations between workers and employers and to imbue industry with a fresh spirit of development, but also to reconstruct the older European society disorganised by the war, or, in a word, to promote the happiness and advancement of civilisation.3
What arguments does this ideological offensive concretely depend upon? With workers as the main resistance, we easily detect an overarching operation to try to surmount and circumvent the trade union organizations. Themes of worker protest: scientific management drains workers, scientific management leads to a rise in unemployment. Focus areas for the propaganda of the “new methods”: scientific management lessens fatigue, scientific management improves the overall functioning of the economy and makes it possible to reduce unemployment over the long term.
These two focus areas of propaganda combined with research and practical initiatives which gave form to the Taylorism of the interwar period;
– a reorientation toward psychology and psychotechnics [psychotechnique]: Taylorism must be supported by a better understanding of man at work;
– a firm economistic interpretation: Taylorism must launch a “rationalization” of the whole economy.
Evolution of the Psychological Content of Scientific Management
A new theme strongly emerges in Europe in the 1920s: scientific management reduces fatigue. Whence the importance accorded to everything having to do with the “psychological” and “psychotechnical” aspects of the study of labor in the ILO report. It is lamented that France remains an exception to the general tendency toward a “closer association between industrial psychology and industrial technique.”4 On the other hand, Weimar Germany is cited as a leading country in this domain: “Germany has made enormous progress in psycho-technology,” and that the applications of industrial concentration and standardization undoubtedly “pay more attention to the human factor than elsewhere.”5 Great Britain is included too. According to the examples provided, German “psychotechnics” seems more focused on vocational selection and “scientific employment,” the British application on fatigue.
While at several points the report cites psychophysiology as one of the elements of scientific management capable of making it more acceptable to workers, it also resorts to psychology to support, in the broadest sense, the new order ushered in by Taylorism:
To-day the man at the head of any undertaking must be primarily an organiser, a man that is to say who has been carefully trained for his work, not merely by technical education in particular subjects, but by a general instruction in economics and sociology and by a serious study of applied psychology, which last forms in fact the basis of the science of organisation, its real subject matter rightly understood being the functions in regard to production of all who are engaged in industry, from the worker to the manager. Its essential object is to secure the best possible contribution from each individual by putting him in his right place and securing universal harmony and collaboration.6
This is followed by praising of scientific management that guides all the elements of production to collaboration, and which “is the enemy just as much of routine and red tape as of irresponsibility and speculation.”7 Everyone in their place, in a natural order, from the supervisors to the manual operators: how can one not think of the themes of fascism (the equally physiological or “biological” claim), and more broadly, how can one not feel the simmering of an entire “social technology” which takes off in the first half of the 20th century? Is it by chance, for that matter, that the report further on, while describing the scientific management propaganda in different Europe countries, indicates that
Institutions also exist in a number of countries for the sole or main object of securing publicity. The most typical institution from this point of view would appear to be the Italian national committee ENIOS established under the auspices of the Italian General Confederation of Industry—a powerful body owing its existence to the initiative of the employers.8
The tightly-linked combination in the interwar period of Taylorism with a certain “psychology’ in order to confront workers’ resistance is in our eyes the nodal point of a series of fundamental questions: the movement in the methods of the capitalist organization of labor can be grasped. The ILO report is particularly explicit in this regard:
The close connection between Taylorism and industrial psychophysiology was not at first realised; indeed, it frequently happened that the latter science supplied arguments against the introduction of Taylorism in the workshop…It is thus clear [today] that the two movements were destined to become complementary to each other so soon as the leaders of the scientific management movement, under pressure of social considerations and of the necessity for winning the support of the organised workers, provided adequate guarantees against abuses.9
The definitive orientation of the scientific management movement in Europe appears to date from the coalescence of Taylorism and industrial psycho-physiology, of which the foundations were laid during this phase. The physiologists, who hitherto had specialised to an excessive extent…began to realise that the application of Taylor’s principles provided a means of turning the results of their studies to immediate use. On the other hand, the followers of Taylor were enabled to appeal to the results of experiments carried out for some time past in Europe in support of their advocacy of a system of overseas origin.
The effect of the agreement which thus came into being on the opinion of the workers was particularly fortunate.10 Once the physiologists abandoned their attitude of hostility to Taylor’s principles and realised the fundamental identity in the methods and object which both schools were pursuing, the workers automatically acquired a guarantee against the abuses.…Thus, in England, where the strength of the labour movement is considerable, scientific management methods were introduced to public opinion and defended before it by the industrial psychologists[.]11
It must be stressed that we see the implementation here of a system of pressure on labor-power, and in our present, we can inquire about the at times ambiguous roles played by ergonomics, occupational medicine, psychology, etc. Do not employer policies often combine the direct strengthening of exploitation and the intensification of labor with an array of operations [manipulations] that are dubbed “humane,” handled by specialists who, in principle, do not organize production?
Does this psychological tendency correspond with a reorientation of Taylorism? Does it only develop some of the basic principles of Taylorism? Or does it rather constitute a crisis and important transformation of the Taylor system? A complicated question, which we simply want to aid in posing, not resolving.
In the first place, the Taylor system presents itself from the start as an extremely tight grid around the producing population within the factory, accompanied by a much more intimate and systematic knowledge of each individual, each gesture, by the management than in the past. This control can be described as the bureaucratization of the labor process, which necessarily leads to the ideal situation that Taylor presented before the Special House Committee in 1912:
The fourth of the principles of scientific management is perhaps the most difficult of all of the four principles of scientific management for the average man to understand. It consists of an almost equal division of the actual work of the establishment between the workmen, on the one hand, and the management, on the other hand…In a machine shop, again, under this new type of management there is hardly a single act or piece of work done by any workman in the shop which is not preceded and followed by some act on the part of one of the men in the management. All day long every workman’s acts are dovetailed in between corresponding acts of the management. First, the workman does something, and then a man on the management’s side does something; then the man on the management’s side does something, and then the workman does something; and under this intimate, close, personal cooperation between the two sides it becomes practically impossible to have a serious quarrel.12
A tight grid, but narrowly delimited in its object: it involves dividing the tasks of production between design functions and implementation functions. Everything takes place inside the labor process, and a distinct function of management over men has not yet emerged. Here is the first form of Taylorism, the first version of Taylorist control: Taylor imagined he could reduce workers to a mere physical capacity, by concentrating mental activity on the side of management. There is the famous retort calling for workers not to think, the comparison of pig-iron handlers with a trained gorilla, in short all the remarkable contempt for workers that oozes from the founder of scientific management’s body of work and which his successors were precisely unable to maintain in the face of the initial resistance from the workers’ movement.
More profoundly, Taylor’s resolutely individualist hypothesis is upended by the reality of the class struggle in the factories during the interwar period. It is known that Taylor outright refused to treat workers as a group. One of his basic principles is that there must be a direct relationship between the management of the firm and each worker, with the mediation of unions or even work teams. We thus read in Scientific Management:
As another illustration of the value of a scientific study of the motives which influence workmen in their daily work, the loss of ambition and initiative will be cited, which takes place in workmen when they are herded into gangs instead of being treated as separate individuals. A careful analysis had demonstrated the fact that when workmen are herded together in gangs, each man in the gang becomes far less efficient than when his personal ambition is stimulated[.]13
This is in fact what Taylor calls a “psychological” analysis; and it is this strictly individualist psychological approach that is in crisis between the two world wars. The end of the 1920s and the 1930s are marked by the famous experiments conducted by Elton Mayo and his team (General Electric, etc.) that emphasized group effects, and opened the way to psychosociological practices (“human relations”) which continue to play a very important role in employer strategies of workplace management. Taylor’s whole hyper-rationalized conception of human behavior will subsequently be challenged, to the benefit of other forms of ideological offensive and, after World War II, theories and practices stemming from psychoanalysis.14
In any event, workers’ resistance to the introduction of Taylorism caused employers to mobilize “psychology” and the “human sciences,” which played an important role. The ILO’s report tends to present this new stage in an idealist fashion as the rapprochement of disciplines. It is not hard to read between the lines here to see a system of alliance of capital with many strata of the petty bourgeoisie. While the direct organizers of production (engineers, supervisors, monitors, timekeepers, etc.) played a key role in the initial phase of the implantation of Taylorism, new professions were rallied: doctors, psychologists, sociologists, etc. A second, more peripheral wave of bureaucratization of labor process came to superimpose itself upon the first. And, in a broader manner, the battle over production, which had become sharper at the level of society as a whole, was brought to the political level: the theme of the “third way,” reformist currents, fascism, preparation of the New Deal, etc.15
Toward the Crisis of the Taylorist Economy
Although in 1927, at the moment of the ILO’s report, the “psychological” narrow-mindedness of pure Taylorism was already outpaced by methods of the organization of labor, in contrast Taylorist economism was in full swing, even its peak. Two years later, the crisis will deal it a direct blow. And, before the Second World War broke out, the economic postulates of the first version of Taylorism will be seriously questioned, as its psychological postulates had been several years prior. The 1927 ILO report arrived between these two shocks that shook scientific management. It was still imbued with the idea that the generalization of Taylorism to the economy considered as a whole could only be a positive development: scientific management strengthens the system of production and allows for the growth of consumption; at the cost of temporary unemployment, it assured more stable employment for the future (one already recognizes here the persistent and widely used theme of capitalist governments’ austerity campaigns; it is difficult to disentangle in this language pure propaganda and system of belief: it is a whole overarching representation that is is formed in the management circles of the capitalist economy, which does not rule out the concealment of certain unforeseeable effects of the system for the purpose of public opinion).
The 1927 report rests upon “purist” Taylorist positions, since this generalizing viewpoint can already be found in Taylor, albeit more at the level of general principles than concrete applications. Two examples are noted at length in the report: the overall rationalization in resource allocation and inter-industry organization in Germany; product standardization and the fight against waste in the United States. Two names: Rathenau, Hoover. It is striking to see all the hopes that a figure like Hoover still embodies in 1927, who would a few years later become essentially the symbol of the disastrous policy which worsened the 1929 crash.
In the report’s appendix, there is an extract from an ILO memorandum on scientific management, presented to the “Preparatory Committee of the Economic Conference,” which is a fine rendition of scientism:
Scientific management is the science which studies the relations between the different factors in production […] Scientific management owes its existence as a separate science to the work of Frederick W. Taylor…Since his day scientific management has considerably evolved…From the time of Taylor to that of Hoover great progress has been made in America…Already there is in certain countries a tendency to call scientific management by the more appropriate name of rational organisation of production[.]16
Germany’s example follows. And further:
Another item in the scientific management programme, namely, the systematic elimination of waste, has, since the publication of Mr. Hoover’s celebrated report [Waste in Industry] in the United States, become a matter of general public interest. The utility from the national point of view of the elimination of waste is no longer disputed, and its partisans are already urging that the campaign should be carried into the international field.17
A simple idea: why not apply methods of standardization, selection, and compartmentalization that seemed to be so successful for the Taylorist reorganizers of determinate production facilities to the economy as a whole? This all fits into a strict Taylorist logic. But, the same was the case for “psychological” problems, with a kind of reductive narrow-mindedness. The entire economy becomes a massive firm to “Taylorize.” According to this perspective, there is a continuity and homology between the microeconomic and the macroeconomic: what is good for one firm is good for the totality of firms. In 1927, this was still believed among the leading circles of the capitalist economy. But after 1929? Was not the crisis precisely the weakness of this logic?
Keynesian thought and the new practices of economic management that stemmed from it appeared as a break with the basic principles of the Taylorist economy and their systematization by Hoover. The micro could not be extrapolated from the macroeconomic: these are two systems obeying two different laws, sometimes even opposing laws. The economic policies and restrictions which drew on the Taylorization of workshops led to catastrophic results. At the level of the overall economy, it is imperative to know about spending, spillover. What could be more absurd, from a strictly orthodox Taylorist perspective, than those hypotheses which Keynes jokingly asserted: that in certain cases, it is useful to employ people to dig holes so that others could fill them up? These new principles, however, would influence the anti-crisis policies of the 1930s.
It is thus another strand of the Taylorist system of references that was buried with the great crisis, the New Deal, Keynesian theories. The very extension of the Taylor system burst open its contradictions.18 For there to be high wages, there must be low ones, and for there to be favorable yields, there must be other, unfavorable ones; if it is no longer so, it will be equalization from the bottom. Already in 1918, in a polemic with Bukharin, Lenin argued that the absolute monopolization of the capitalist economy is impossible: monopolies need smaller firms and basic forms of competition to preserve their differential rents.
There is a whole debate to be had on this question of the crisis of initial Taylorism and its later trajectory. Several texts have recently appeared in France presenting Keynesianism as the logical development of Taylorism, everything culminating in a complete apparatus that would unify the control of production and consumption, for which the term “Fordist mode of production” has been proposed. It seems to me that this linear perspective on the organization of labor in the 20th century does not take into account the scope of the crises mentioned above, and underestimates the transformations that class struggles in the enterprises and societal contradictions have caused in the effective organization of labor.
The organization of labor is precisely the result of these struggles and these contradictions, not the mere expression of a “science which would grow through its own laws.” Scientific management does not escape this feature, whatever the scientific pretensions it wraps itself in.
– Translated by Patrick King
This text first appeared in Travail et emploi 18 (1983): 9-15.
↑1 Lenin cited the figure of 60,000, drawn from American sources; see also the text by Aldo Lanza, scholar at the University of Turin, “Taylorismo, fordismo e movimento di riorganizzazione industriale negli USA, 1890–1920,” Testi e contesti: Quaderni di scienze storia e società 2 (1979): 93-114, building on the work of Daniel Nelson.
↑2 Émile Pouget, L’organisation du surmenage: le système Taylor (Paris : Rivière, 1914).
↑3 Paul Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, vi-vii.
↑4 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 78.
↑5 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 43.
↑6 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 43.
↑7 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 45.
↑8 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 62. Translator’s Note: The French version has propagande for “publicity.”
↑9 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 25-26.
↑10 TN: The French has “au point de vue ouvrier” for “opinion of the workers.”
↑11 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 34-35.
↑12 Frederick Winslow Taylor, “Taylor’s Testimony Before the Special House Committee,” in Scientific Management (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974 ), 44-45.
↑13 Frederick Winslow Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1913), 73.
↑14 See Frederick Herzberg, Work and the Nature of Man (London: Staples Press, 1968).
↑15 For an analysis of the internal contradictions of the pure Taylorist strategy (if every worker becomes the “best worker” in the Taylorist sense, the differential advantages of the system cancel themselves out: general implementation is impossible and crisis situations emerge with the extension of the system) and the birth of different strategies, we refer to the useful article by Andrew Friedman, “Responsible Autonomy Versus Direct Control Over the Labour Process,” Capital & Class 1, no. 1 (Spring, 1977): 43-57, esp. 50-52.
↑16 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 169-70.
↑17 Devinat, Scientific Management in Europe, 40.
↑18 See on this subject the argument on the absurdity of generalizing the Taylor system to the entire economy in Friedman, “Responsible Autonomy Versus Direct Control Over the Labour Process.”
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