Eternal Social War: A Theory of Social Forces

29 minute read

[T]he things that we do together with others do not simply add up… specialization and association bring about the formation of unity-collectivities, social beings with qualities, strengths and perhaps even ideas that arise from the combination and unification of the constituent beings. — Shawn P. Wilbur, Constructing an Anarchism: Collective Force

So, given the shortcomings and internal contradictions of a planning, top-down, revolutionary approach to anarchism, what is the alternative? What is this general social theory I have been hinting at? That is what I want to discuss in this essay. Keep in mind that this social theory is not total: it does not encompass all of the forces and processes at work in social life, let alone psychological life. It cannot predict all that occurs in society, and will always be effected and modified by things outside itself. Furthermore, it is not a mathematical or praxeological proof, nor is it meant to be a grand system. It is a theory based on my understanding of the social dynamics of human beings, how they tend to act and react, and what effect that has on everyone else, gleaned from a practical, intuitive process of observation of the world and of history and a synthesis of political theory. This is, in effect, my attempt to describe how I see the world — take it or leave it. I think it is very correct, perhaps even strikingly so, in broad strokes and particular areas, but if you do not share the same understanding of how humans work than I do, I don’t think its worth wasting the pixels, here at least, to try to provide Absolute Proof that you are right and I am wrong. I do have my reasons, and perhaps you’ll get a sense of them, but attempting to produce absolute proof is a fool’s errand anyway, and giving all the reasons I have would make this essay far too long.

A General Theory of Social Forces

Let me set the stage first. In “Justice and the Anarchic Encounter”, I have already introduced two key concepts of my method of social analysis, the anarchic encounter, and justice-as-balance. The first concept, the anarchic encounter, is represents the archetypal meeting between two equals — equal because they acknowledge no superior master, not equal in any specific material sense —, two free absolutes or unique ones, who meet on a terrain not shaped by any hierarchy or power-over. The second concept is the natural result of such an encounter, where all out physical conflict is avoided, as it must usually be, since the costs of conflict are steep: justice-as-balance, which refers to the balancing of interests in an arrangement, so that just as each person involved in the arrangement is used by the arrangement, so they too also use the arrangement, and each gains equal benefit — in a sense, the most concrete expression of Kant’s categorical imperative that everyone be treated not only as a means, but also as an end in themselves, by having their interests always satisfied at the same time that others use them to satisfy their own.

Next, in “Power and Hierarchy”, I described a theory of coercion, power-over, and hierarchy, in an attempt to at least partially give a toolkit for identifying those things that is separate from justice-as-balance and the anarchic encounter. In my account, I described a set of definitions where each next concept is at least partially conditioned by the presence of the previous, so that power-over exists where coercion is used to control others,1 and hierarchy exists wherever power-over is reified and legitimized. Furthermore, I clarified how one of the most important factors influencing the organization of arrangements in society is precisely the fact that each person has a will to power — an innate wish to exercise power over themselves and the world around them — and actually does exercise power, even coercion, in that manner.

In order to complete the development of this general social theory, we will need to analyze the nature of the organization of forces in society, since it is those forces which shape the terrain on which the anarchic encounter can or cannot grow, whether the soil of society is barren and hostile or fertile and flowering. We will need to understand what these forces are, how they come about, how they interact, how we can think about them, and, most importantly, why they must be brought into balance in order to create a society ripe with anarchic encounters and ready for the free play of our wills and uniqueness.

Unity-Collectivities

A unity-collectivity in Proudhon’s social science can be represented as a mesh network of highly interconnected connected, mutually interacting nodes, where each of those nodes does not have to interact with every other node in the network, but generally connects to as many other nodes as possible, and where the connections are multiplied so that generally speaking if you take a path from one node to another, there is always a route back to the first node that does not use the same set of nodes in between, so that the interactions on the mesh network can go in a loop instead of just back and forth. Furthermore, the connections between these nodes will generally be tight and high-bandwidth, meaning that they can foster a lot of communication and mutual resource and information sharing, as well as containing some fluidity by which different actions can be taken with respect to each other depending on the situation, since a highly formalized and rigid connection between two nodes is more distant.

The borders between unity-collectivities, both nested ones and peer-related ones, are often fuzzy, because there can be relations between nodes in two different unity-collectivities, or the same individuals can be part of multiple ones, creating an overlap of connections. Nevertheless, the separateness of these collectivities can be maintained — and this is clearly the case, “don’t think, just look” — through the understanding that even the same person can operate in different social capacities, and the fact that connections themselves can be understood to be different in character, with different degrees of closeness in the coupling, and furthermore, the presence or absence of other paths, as I described earlier, can significantly change the character of a connection.

A collectivity, in this sense, can be anything from a friend group, to a union, to a corporation, to a nation-state — or even the entire global society! Every unity-collectivity you look at is both technically just a section of a larger one, and technically the composition of smaller ones.

In the foregoing analysis, I am using the word ‘node’ as a simle way to refer to any type of social entity, any being or organization of beings capable of action and interaction in the social world. This includes both individuals and smaller, more tightly interconnected collectivities, which can exist nested within larger ones.

Now, what gives these collectivities their unity? What makes a collectivity a social entity? It is the alignment of the individual forces — which together constitute the collectivity — in a single direction, according to a single logic. Thus multiple smaller unities become a larger unity, and the collectivity becomes a social entity in its own right, apart from just the social entities which compose it.

A unity-collectivity becomes more than just that which composes it for two reasons. First, because this unity of the application of forces which compose it gives it much greater force than any of those individual powers alone, which is called collective force. Second, because such unity-collectivities often act seemingly with a mind of their own, displaying emergent behavior as a sort of social superorganism, as a result of the intense feedback between the intra-network interplay of reasoning and decisions, and because such organizations tend to be established for certain purposes, and have their own commonly understood methods for making decisions, their own internal logic, not to mention the fact that the undeniable brute fact of the existence of the unity-collectivity can create self-referential interests in its members, such as the interest to keep the collectivity alive and operating and growing for its own sake, which exist apart from the members’ prior interests and the prior purpose for the creation of that collectivity, and which give it freer play to operate by its own internal logic because those interests ensure that it has at least some constitutive entities which will serve it instead of subjecting it to their own other interests. You can see examples of this kind of emergent behavior especially with corporate bureaucracies.

I think it might be a good idea to expand on the idea of collective force a little, because it’s important to Neo-Proudhonian theory and it will make what I’m saying about a unity-collectivity being more than the sum of its parts clearer. Quoting now from Proudhon:

Collective force is thus something other than the sum of the individual forces of which it is made up: I add that in the application it is, by virtue of its unity, greater than that sum.

A man, whose muscular strength, in all parts of his body, is equal to six times that of an individual of average vigor, would not only render as much effective labor as six men, but in a struggle he would lay them low. The reason is that, being able to deploy on each side a superior power, or to oppose a superior resistance, he crushes his divided adversaries in a mass.

This is the image of the group: its strength or force, numerically equal to that of its components, is more than equal in its unity to all together specifically. The military men know it well, their whole science consists, through progressions of attacks and retreats combined, in breaking up the enemy mass so that they can oppose everywhere a greater force to lesser forces.

A warship with 100 cannons will chase off 500 fishing boats; a steamer with a force of 100 horsepower, giving the same service as a crew of 100 horses, will be much superior to them with regard to general costs and risks; a large agricultural operation will give, for the same amount of land cultivated, finer and more abundant products, and at lower cost, than would a dozen little farms. The mechanical arts abound with facts of this nature: the Creusot steam hammer, which represents in weight two or three hundred times the big hammer of a blacksmith, produces more effect in a single fall than two hundred blows struck by a worker; the work of a mechanical saw offers more precisions that if it is used by a half-dozen arms; the sound created by one hundred singers in unison is truer than each of the individual voices. — Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Principles of the Philosophy of Progress

Essentially, collective force is an emergent property of collective action, which gives a unity-collectivity far more power — a much greater ability to accomplish its goals for itself or the world — than any one person working alone could hope to achieve no matter how long they tried, and so far more than any number of people working completely alone could achieve. Consider an example from What is Property? where Proudhon mentions that a thousand workers working together for twenty days can achieve what would be completely impossible for a single worker working fifty-five years to achieve — why is this?

Well, as one example, working with the help of others, you can take advantage of greater knowledge than any one person can possess, and that knowledge can add together in such a way that it actually multiplies the usefulness of other knowledge: two pieces of information, apart, may not be very useful, and so the sum of their separated use might not be very large, but when actually communicated to each other and assembled together, they might mean a lot, and contribute something much greater.

For another example, when working with others, you can apply everyone’s strength all at once, and in the same organized direction, and make a big push, whereas, if each were to apply themselves individually to the same task, they would be applying each of their strengths individually and not make much of a dent at all, so that overall the sum of their individual accomplishments would add up to much less than the combination. Imagine here attempting to lift a heavy statue upright, or something to that effect.

There is also the emergent properties of the division of labor and specialization, and the ability to do things simultaneously that would otherwise have to be done sequentially, which makes certain operations possible that would not have been physically possible at all if they had to be done sequentially, and even more emergent properties besides. If you look into any manufacturing process, or spend any time working in a group, you’ll come across an endless variety of examples of this. For a small example I’m sure everyone has experienced, sometimes, when constructing something — I know this because of my experience building robots and furniture! — it is actually impossible to do it without two or more people, because you need someone to hold a piece in place or move something, while you are focused on doing something else.

The principle behind this, that of a combination being more effective than an individual through the application of the whole power of the combination to an individually lesser task, where, when separated, the constituents of the combination wouldn’t be equal to the tasks, is demonstrated in reverse by the division of labor: instead of combining force to conquer a greater task, a task is split up into easier ones so that a lesser force can deal with them. This is, again, something Proudhon talks about in great depth:

Thus, in the division of labor as in the collective force, the principle is the same: it is to always attack a lesser task with a greater force. While, in one case, the laborers, individually too weak, form into groups, in the other they break, as it were, the bundle of their operations, in order to take them up again, with more advantage, in detail. What the group, with its immense power, is in comparison to a mass inaccessible to the individual, that one becomes vis-à-vis some fragmented operations, the ensemble of which makes up its industry. — Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, The Principles of the Philosophy of Progress

Forces in Collectivities and Society

Every individual and unity-collectivity in society, at whatever scale you wish to consider the collectivity of “society,” every social entity, exerts its power according to its will and capacity — on the social entities around it, on the world, and on itself, in an exercise of self-determination but also the elaboration and expression of the self in the world at large. This is Nietzsche’s will to power as it exists in the social world. Of all the vast panoply of expressions of will and power, I am interested in is those which involve the social world — the complex interplay of sometimes-aligned, sometimes-opposed interests, the push and pull, give and take, aid and war, of social reality.

And what exertions of power involve the social world? Any desire that we, or any other social entity, may have about the material world around us, or relations and arrangements between us and others, which takes place in society, concerns other social entities, as they will be effected. Every social entity has a different set of desires, different things to exert their power for and different ways to use it, different degrees of it, according to their capacity and willingness, but let me show you how this applies to the everyday life of the individual:

  • We might exert this power to protect the necessities of life and protect ourselves from harm, against those who might wish to hurt us or prevent this.

  • We might exert our power to protect a space for ourselves in the world that is solely ours — our homes, for instance — and this, again, requires repelling the interests and powers of those who might want our home for themselves.

  • We might exert our power to create other spheres within which we can freely move and express ourselves and make our fingerprint on the world felt (all the same thing, merely expressed in degrees).

  • We might exert this power to protect the people and causes and things we care about.

But this brings about conflict, because the full extent of the desires of all cannot all be satisfied.

The “direction” of any individual or unity-collectivity, that is, what it ends up doing and the states it ends up in, is determined by the press of its power against the powers of others, just like the direction of any object in Newtonian physics (if we pretend that the internal force of a social entity is yet another force acting upon it, just emanating from it) is determined by the sum of all the vector forces that act on it in various different directions. Every entity in society is constantly seeking to push any other entity you could look at in the directions they please, exerting their power to further their interests, and this either overpowers, balances, or is overpowered itself by the power of that social entity and all the other ones aiding it. It’s like a constant gravitational physics simulation.

The force that a unity-collectivity exerts on itself is not, however, necessarily just the sum of the forces that act within it. When, as I discussed in Democracy Won’t Save You, people begin to serve and preserve an association with others for its own sake, to elevate the idea of the association above the actual purpose it serves them or others, as a sort of ghostly presiding figure that hangs over everything, to create an ideology around it, or their interests become bound up not in what the association can do for them, but in the preservation of the association itself — perhaps because of the power and prestige that they gain as a side effect of being part of that association — or as the iron laws of bureaucracy begin to take hold if the association has become too obsessed with rules, procedures, proper channels, and methods, and lost sight of the actual goal those things were created to try to achieve, you can end up in a situation where the collective force of the unity-collectivity gains its own sort of emergent unique will. It becomes a social super-organism of its own, which can be in contradiction to literally all of the overall interests of its constituent members and yet still perpetuate itself thanks to collective action problems, prisoner’s dilemmas, and other micro-scale incentive and game theoretic problems which keep people acting to preserve systems that hurt them. This is why things like systemic racism can exist, and why it is very important to be careful not to let associations become polity-forms or organizations and take on a life of their own.

Thus society is an eternal struggle, and the key is to always maintain vigilance — find allies, arrange associations, and create mutually beneficial relationships to defend your interests — because if you drop your guard for even one moment, that will be taken advantage of. To give up that responsibility is to cease using your power for yourself, and to lend it to another, who will use it against you. Thus Novatore says,

But you, oh rabble, may not yet know how to adapt yourself to the idea of eternal war, you who have cradled yourself like a poor baby in the sweet dreams of eternal peace… And to think that even the blind would have to notice by now that anyone who isn’t able to accept eternal war as his affirmation and triumph must accept eternal slavery… — Renzo Novatore, Cry of Rebellion

Society is war. It is also peace, love, and reciprocity. But because of the nature of social existence, it is always also the product of mutually opposing forces, testing each other and pushing against each other. But this war does not have to be open, bloody war, with winners and losers: it can also be balance, the meeting of forces, equilibrium. But to maintain equilibrium, both forces must always push.

To summarize, then, I have drawn a picture of society where the direction of everything in it, and of the thing as a whole, is determined by the complex interplay, the push and pull, of all sorts of forces generated by an endless array of various social entities, which themselves can be analyzed in the same terms, as microcosms of the same composition and subject to the same kinds of rules about forces. This is, in practice, an immensely complex beast to draw out, but I think applying this sort of analysis to real world political problems is often fruitful: asking questions like “where does this ideology/organization/group’s power come from?”, or “how is their power directed, through what channels?” or “is it really controlling its power, or lending it to something else?” or “what interests actually directly effect this outcome, and which are just given lip service to?” can often lead to really enlightening answers.

For instance, voting: do people really exercise their power over the government? If you actually look at it, the answer has to be no, because they do not set their power up in opposition to the government. They let the government direct them, and so let it direct their power. They don’t actually threaten the government with anything real should it not do what they want. No matter what laws are made, for the most part, people will generally obey them, and maintain the state’s legitimacy. They won’t actively resist or overthrow the state, force it to do what they want. So the “power” that people exercise over the government is really just the government’s promise, kept out of precarious good will and the adherence to ideology on the part of government officials, and one that can’t even be enforced. Suddenly, the reason why the government rarely actually does what people want, makes a lot of sense!

The next question is: where does this general social theory lead us?

The Balance of Social Forces

This doesn’t sound like the theories of social harmony and mutual gain and benefit that anarchists are known for, though, does it? In fact, it sounds downright Darwinian, even Malthusian! Is this a resurrection of social Darwinism?

Not in the slightest. This picture of society as the interplay of power is incomplete if you only emphasize the ways powers have to be set against each other, or only particular kinds of power. Appealing to people through dialogue, for instance, is still a kind of power! It’s a power to effect how people view your struggles, how they view you, and through that, how they act — and it doesn’t have to be manipulation either: there is real, tangible power in an honest dialogue. Finding common cause and mutual gain with people, engaging them in reciprocity, is also a very real, and a very strong kind of power, and one that is as much a part of the natural world as brutal economic, political, or physical competition and conflict. We can work together, unite our powers, find common goals even with separate institutions and separate powers from ours, engage in dialogue and arouse people’s compassion. There is so, so much we can do besides just the sorts of brute, dumb, “ubermensch” fighting that all this talk of power and social war brings to mind.

Interests can align, and powers can combine together, too. Like I said, society also has peace, love, harmony — and most importantly, mutual recognition and gift, the maintenance of norms that benefit myself by the respect of them towards others. We can choose to use our power to grant things to others in return for a reciprocal grant on their part, abstracting away the necessary costs involved if we were to directly grasp with our own power what we wanted others to grant by giving others something in return for granting it to us, and thereby achieving what might not be possible or practical just by the exercise of our own power. But I’ve already talked about that idea a lot in other essays, and it can be subsumed under the idea of “mutual association” for the defense of one’s interests through the collective application of power, so I think it’s enough to just mention it to make sure it isn’t forgotten.

You’ll be glad to know, also, that this theory is just a theory — it has no normative implications. It doesn’t tell us what we should try to achieve. And in my case, I wish to achieve egalitarianism, equality, mutual benefit — in other words, anarchism. How, then, do we transform this admittedly rather ugly description of society into a practical account of how we get and keep anarchy?

Since the direction of a society is determined by the forces contained within it, if the forces in society are out of balance, with some forces dominating, that society will inexorably begin moving in the direction those forces dictate, serving the interests of the social entities that predominate in power and subordinating — ultimately erasing completely — the interests of those that do not. The state of society, who it serves, what each of the social entities can achieve and do, will all bend to the power of the dominating forces, whether they want to or not. There may be more or less resistance, but ultimately that resistance will be worn down. This is an elaborated, large scale version of the effects of power-over as opposed to equal power, as I described in “Power and Hierarchy”: when there is an inequality of power, interests are subordinated; when there is equality, they are considered equally.

In societies that have a state, the predominant power in that society is the state itself: through its myths of legitimacy and its use of force to cow and beat and scare its citizens, to create coordination problems for those who would resist it, it wields the might of almost the full population under its rulership. Thus, the state is really composed of two parts: the organization itself, the actual members of the state bureaucracy, and the mass of people which tacitly support it, lending their power to it through their apathy and fear. In a society where the state predominates, the state dictates the parameters of what can happen in society almost exclusively; therefore, whoever can capture the state gets unilateral say in what interests are served and what aren’t. Any attempt to put “checks and balances” on the power of the state is ultimately futile in the long run, however, as long as the state remains a state, because they will have to be components of the state themselves, parts of the same organization, created out of the same people, sharing many of the same interests, and having no truly separate power to wield against the other parts of the state. Ultimately, there is no way to ensure the state represents any interests other than its own, because without something separate from it and equally powerful, there is nothing really to hold it accountable to the promises it makes.

The state can be captured by a myriad of interests — religious nationalists, or liberal progressives, or fascist dictators, or neoliberal capitalist cronies — as the other powers in society dictate, especially in comparison to the power of the state bureaucracy itself, and in each of these cases the arc of society will be forcefully bent in the direction that party chooses until such a time as their power is broken. In a capitalist society, the people most able to truly capture the levers of power are, of course, the rich and powerful, the capitalists. This can be expressed in explicit bargains with the state, beneficial regulations and manipulations of the market, protections of artificial monopolies, but it is also far subtler and far-reaching: even in countries that seem more democratic, the law itself was typically originally created by the rich elites and wealthy landowners, and legitimized to the people through self-serving myths, for their own mutual protection, making the very foundations of modern liberal legal systems designed to protect the elite classes.

In societies without the state, likewise, different forces can predominate, depending on circumstance and the nature and history of the society and the culture of the people within it. Thus, in the “power vacuums” that are left over after the collapse of states, or in the warzones that nations create fighting each other, we see the back and forth play of other forces: warlords, gangs, foreign powers.

With all this emphasis on cooperation that I put earlier, to balance out the emphasis I put on oppositional power dynamics, you might begin to think that the answer to the push and pull of power in society is to unify everyone under a single collectivity, in order to ensure that they are always cooperating and engaging in mutual benefit and so on. However, this is simply not possible. Each person is a nexus of an infinite array of different desires and interests, and even if some people’s interests align in some respect, or in a certain social or economic role they inhabit in their lives, in other capacities or roles, or with respect to other interests, they will also have to be in conflict. That is the nature of being different, unique people, and not a hive-mind. Thus to unify everyone “under one banner,” so to speak, would only be to subject everyone to the collective power of those who have the most influence over that collectivity, force them to go in the direction which those powerful people, whether a majority or a few, choose to go.

In light of this, the only possible way to create a society which serves the interests of all, which treats all interests equally and is not dominated in its historical arc by some overpowering social entity’s power, is to create a balance of power between all of the different myriad individuals and collectivities in society. To allow people to join together to form a collectivity where their interests align and their social worlds overlap, while simultaneously, as they exist in different social and economic roles or have interests that align with other people outside of that collectivity, aligning with others to represent those different interests, so that each tension in society, each economic or social interest and force, shaped by circumstances and their position and role in society, is always balanced against others. That way, each social entity that has significant power must be balanced by another, and that by another (either by the first one or another one), in all of the different spheres and dimensions in which power can be exerted. The unity-collectivities which defend people must be balanced against each other, as must the economic forces, cultural forces — everything. Any institutions that are established must have, outside of them and equal to them, separate from them, mutually opposing and balancing forces which check their progress. The entirety of society must be a cross-hatched network of mutually opposing forces, all networked together in a loop, all pushing and pulling and balancing each other out, so that no imbalances of power can exist:

fully connected mesh network

The only way to achieve this is to radically decentralize and distribute power. The power of violence, defense, and enforcement, economic power, social power, any kind of power conceivable, must be decentralized, broken up, opposed to itself, and in doing so distributed to as many different social entities as possible. This is both the necessary precondition and the end state of anarchy, where everyone holds power over everything that effects them equally, everyone is as empowered and enabled as possible. Without that, some predominating power will always crush and destroy any interests that oppose it or don’t concern it.

Conclusion

To summarize this two part series as a whole: the instinct to plan out the specific norms and institutions of society is a contradictory, dangerous one. The only proper attitude is one of… lassiez-faire, let’s say — a willingness to let the anarchic encounter play out in all its million forms however it might. But, with that in mind, there are some essential things that we can say about society and the necessary conditions of anarchism; not specific prescriptions of institutions and norms, and so not a social plan, but an analysis of the real, actual, Wertfrei laws of social reality — a social theory.

Although I, like any anarchist, have my pet-favorite norms and institutions — individualist anarchist for sure, with a mixture of communism — and have some idea of which norms are likely to prevail and which not under conditions of equality, and some idea of how such a society must be structured in order to ensure social balance, the most I can really say is that such a balance must be achieved for anarchy to be possible. And that any society without such a balance is doomed to drift off into disaster, dragged inexorably down by its own internal contradictions and imbalances, slowly spinning out of control until the center cannot hold and all hell breaks loose.

This seems to be close to the picture of society that Proudhon himself had in mind. A society not explicitly defined by any particular laws or norms, but instead by conditions of balance, the equality of individuals and collectivities, which, through its own reasoning, experience, learning, and responsiveness to needs, would Progress, continually change and adapt, constructing and destroying norms in different places and times as needed to balance the interests of all. To close with a quote:

The “anarchism without adjectives” position was a reaction to this kind of doctrinaire model-building, and the resulting conflicts between the proponents of various totalizing blueprints for society… The basic idea was that anarchists should stop feuding over the specific economic model of a future anarchist society, and leave that for people to work out for themselves as they saw fit. Economic ideas like Proudhon’s mutualism, Tucker’s individualist free enterprise and Kropotkin’s communism were complementary, and in a post-state society a hundred flowers would bloom from one locality, one social grouping, to the next…

Any post-state society will include both individuals and communities adhering to many conflicting ideas of just what “freedom,” “autonomy” and “rights” entail. Whatever “law code” communities operate by will be worked out, not as obvious logical deductions from axioms, but through constant interaction between individuals and groups asserting their different understandings of what rights and freedom entail. And it will be worked out after the fact of such conflicts, through the practical negotiations of the mediating and adjudicating bodies within communities. — Kevin Carson, Anarchism Without Adjectives.

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  1. There is a slight amount of circularity here, which I prefigured in “Justice,” because the best way to identify an imbalance of power is through an imbalance in how interests are treated, so even though, in “Power and Hierarchy,” I was trying to give you a toolkit for identifying power-over without using justice-as-balance, I still had to mention that one of the identifying features of power-over, when not indicated by controlling coercion, is indeed still an imbalance of how interests are treated. I believe this is nevertheless acceptable, because I explain from first principles why if power is balanced it must lead to a balanced treatment of interests, so the link between balance and equality of power is not actually circular, it’s just hard to identify independently sometimes. 

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