Bernie Sanders has endorsed Joe Biden, 17 million people have lost their jobs, tens of thousands more are certain to perish in the coronavirus pandemic, and no one knows if and when it will be possible to “open” the economy this summer. And even is some “slow motion” economy is possible, placing the U.S. economy on rations will mean suffering on a mass scale and a grim sense of fear and betrayal as families watch their children’s futures recede. Trump is betting that he can ride the nation’s darkest moods back to the White House, while Biden argues for a return to normalcy and a few crumbs from Bernie’s table.
All this adds up to big obstacles and critical debates for the new socialist movement in the U.S. about how to nourish the wave of wild cat strikes, how to position ourselves with respect to Bernie’s efforts to press Biden for concessions, the relationship between social and class struggle and electoral tactics, and what strategic outlook and organizing campaigns will best strengthen the constituent elements necessary for an independent workers party in the coming period.
This article was written on March 15, 2020 for Viento Sur‘s monthly, Spanish-language print magazine and reviews the meaning of Bernie’s campaign and the attitudes of several trends towards it on the socialist left, both inside and outside of the Democratic Socialists of America. On that date, there had been less than 100 Covid-19 deaths and we and we could all still remember the world as it had been. Those illusions have been dispelled and we can see the outline of the new world more clearly, throwing putting ideas and actions to the test. Yet pre-Covid-19 debates and assumptions still matter as they continue to shape expectations for what is to come. Todd Chretien is a Spanish teacher, translator and author based in Portland, Maine. He is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and the editor of No Borders News.
Socialist presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders has a plan to fight Covid-19 and it would save thousands of lives. “We have millions of people who may be dealing with the virus but they cannot go to the doctor because they can’t afford it… For the benefit of all of us, we must make sure that every person in this country who needs to seek medical treatment can go to a doctor free of charge regardless of their income. That is obviously what we must do now in the middle of a crisis, but it is what we must do as a nation in the near future.”
And when Bernie (as everyone calls him) says “millions,” he means 87 million people who do not have health insurance or they have cheap insurance plans that are effectively worthless (the less you pay per month, the more you pay when you see a doctor). That’s 20 percent of the population, and that percentage is obviously much higher for low-income workers.
Bernie’s demand Medicare for All has won the support of a majority of the U.S. population, despite unyielding hostility from the leadership of Democratic and Republican leadership, big business, and the media. Why? It’s simple. Tens of millions of workers in the U.S. pay 10 percent, 20 percent, or 30 percent or more of their salaries each year just for health care. The average family spends approximately $10,000 to $18,000. That seems impossible, but it’s true.
Meanwhile, president Trump has whipped up xenophobia, calling Covid-19 a “foreign virus” while initially insisting “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” After weeks of denial, Trump was forced to do an about-face and has now declared a national emergency, but rather than flooding the public health system with money and support, he is handing money and power over to the private sector, including asking Walmart to set up drive-through testing centers instead of hospitals and clinics. Combined with a sharp decline in the stock market and rapidly rising unemployment, the Trump administration’s incompetence may finally destroy it (Trump is still shaking hands), but it depends on the opposition.
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Which brings us to former Vice President Joe Biden. Comparing his political program to Bernie’s during this time of economic, health, and ecological crisis, Biden shouldn’t be in the running. Biden’s main appeal is that he is “not Trump,” while his political program pays typical election-year lip service to climate change (“I’ll rejoin the Paris Accords”), health care (“Expand Obamacare”), and inequality (“enforce labor laws”). All of which will be bargained away with conservative elements in the Democratic Party and a fruitless search for “bi-partisan” agreements with Republicans in Congress.
In fact, until March 2, Biden’s campaign was in crisis, falling far behind Bernie in the early state primaries and scrambling to survive a battle among a group of centrists and billionaire financier Michael Bloomberg. However, Bernie’s decisive victory (powered by unionized workers and Latino voters) in Nevada on February 22 spurred the Democratic Party elite into action. First, the party leadership demanded that several centrist candidates drop out and unite behind Biden (while liberal Elizabeth Warren dropped out but has so-far refused to endorse Bernie). Next, former president Barack Obama made it clear to the predominately African American party machine in South Carolina that the time had come to support Biden. Those two moves designated Biden as theanti-Bernie candidate and propelled him to a series of state victories that has reshaped the campaign. Since then, with just two candidates in the race, Biden has won the majority of primary elections.
Paradoxically, African American voters – the backbone of Biden’s wins – have suffered disproportionately at the hands of the Democratic Party over the last thirty years. President Bill Clinton’s administration launched a prison-building boom and engineered a free-trade mania that wiped out manufacturing jobs, both of which hammered Black communities. And although Obama’s election represented an important psychological victory for the Black Freedom Movement and signaled a blow against racism, African Americans were the last to benefit from his neoliberal policies in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession. Today, the average white family owns 13 times as much wealth as the average Black family (primarily in home value and retirement savings). While Biden’s record itself inspires little enthusiasm among Black voters, his 8-year service as Obama’s vice president is carrying the day and may well push Biden over the line to become the Democratic Party’s nominee to stand against Trump in November. However, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues, Biden’s success, and Bernie’s lag, amongst Black voters has complex roots.
“The only way [Bernie’s] candidacy was ever going to be viable was to draw those who are disaffected by politics into the system… But for many of those marginalized voters, the notion of the political revolution [one of Bernie’s main slogans] is an abstraction when they have yet to see any social movement win meaningful reforms. Struggles today remain defensive…. Recall that when teachers across the nation went out on strikes, they were mostly to forestall further cuts, privatization and attacks on the living standards. Black Lives Matter arose in response to debilitating police abuse and violence, but was unable to end it. It doesn’t mean that those efforts were futile, but it demonstrates the scale of the challenges to changing, let alone transforming, the status quo.”
Taylor makes it clear that Bernie himself “shares the blame” by not developing a sufficiently specific plan to address the intersectional oppressions wracking the African American community. But she demonstrates that the weaknesses in Bernie’s performance is not as simple as giving better speech, or even writing a better political program.
Taylor concludes that “It’s not that [Bernie’s issues] are unpopular — particularly among younger African-American voters — but in the current moment they can seem hopeless. This sad reality has been used to paint Mr. Sanders as a utopian instead of indicting the partisan paralysis that maintains the political status quo. That is Mr. Sanders’s burden.”
Taylor’s analysis of Bernie’s failure to win over the majority of Black voters points to the greatest overall weakness in his campaign, one for which he is not, in fact, primarily responsible. That is, the overall level of social and class struggle in the United States has not achieved the terminal velocity necessary to break free from the gravitational pull of mainstream politics despite dire conditions.
Hard times in the United States
Neoliberalism has wrecked working-class life in the United States. Real wages are the same today as in 1970, and they will be driven down significantly in this summer’s recession. The average college student graduates with $30,000 in debt, accounting for three times the total credit card debt in the U.S. 2.3 million people are in prison today, of whom 40 percent are African American, although they only constitute 13 percent of the total population. That means that 1 out of 5 prisoners in the worldare in the U.S. Women make only 82 cents to the dollar compared to men in comparable jobs. After two decades of endless wars, 17 military veterans commit suicide every day. 41 percent of transgender people, and 54 percent of transgender people of color, report having attempted suicide. 500,000 homeless people sleep on the streets or in shelters every night. Nearly 12 million workers do not have documents and millions of immigrant workers have been caged and deported by Obama and Trump alike over the last decade. Public schools are radically underfunded to the tune of almost $2 billion per year. And the federal minimum wage has remained stuck at $7.25 per hour for a decade, approximately 50 percent lower than it was in real dollars in 1970. On top of all of this, today’s youth live in fear of school shootings, climate disaster, and declining economic prospects. If today’s teenagers and twentysomethings are neoliberalism’s grandchildren, then they are the Great Recession’s children… and they know it.
So it is not surprising that socialist ideas have been gaining ground. In fact, back in 2009, Newsweek ran a headline proclaiming “We’re all socialists now” in the wake of Obama’s bailout of Wall Street. And Occupy Wall Street channeled 10 percent unemployment, mass foreclosures, and brutal education cuts into action, popularizing the slogan, “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!”
Ordinary people haven’t taken all this laying down. Over the last twenty years, a series of social movements have shaped ideas through a defensive, and often defeated, battles. Between 1999 and 2006 — punctuated by 911 — millions mobilized for Global Justice, to oppose Bush’s wars, and to demand immigrant rights. May 2006 saw the single greatest strike and mobilization in U.S. history, led by Mexican and Central American workers and their children. LGTBQ people overcame opposition from both parties (including Obama) and won the single most transformative reform of the last few decades, namely, equal marriage, while reshaping the fight against transphobia and homophobia in the process. Occupy (2011), Black Lives Matter (2014), and MeToo (2017) have forced class and oppression into the spotlight.
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This backdrop explains the rise of Bernie Sanders and the new socialist movement in the United States. And since 2016, a series of gigantic protests against Trump has thrown and in the gears of his reactionary policies. Perhaps most importantly of all, renewed strike action led by teachers starting in 2018 has raised the specter of building the labor movement. However, as inspiring as many of these struggles have been, we have been losing the war.
Bernie Sanders teaches a generation to speak socialism
Bernie’s 2016 presidential campaign did not create any of the struggles outlined above, but it brought many of the most political elements together and gave them a new language — really an old language — the language of solidarity and socialism. Many stalwart socialists in the U.S. (myself included) initially dismissed Bernie’s 2016 campaign as yet another doomed experiment in reforming the Democratic Party. And, had Clinton defeated Trump in 2016, who knows what would have happened. However, Trump’s unexpected victory, galvanized a layer of tens of thousands of people who flocked to his “democratic socialist” banner, finding organizational expression in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
Surprisingly, although it is possible to describe Bernie as a social democrat, it is not possible to fully understand the Bernie phenomena in that way. He is not a movement or party leader in the traditional sense. Although he has a strong base of sympathy and support among teachers and nurses, he has no particular organizational relationship with the union leadership or with the rank and file. Although he has been an elected politician since 1981, he is from one of the smallest (and whitest) states in the country and thus was not widely known until 2016 and has no real organized current within the party itself. Nor was he, in the French style, a product of some planned deep entry operation into the American state and official parties. Instead, the best way to describe Bernie is as an honest democratic socialist who has followed an idiosyncratic path, mostly of his own making. And having accumulated enough personal influence and media profile, decided to throw his whole reputation, his personal strength, and his significant tactical sense, into the scales in an effort to remake mass politics in the U.S.
Far from mild ameliorative proposals, or a simple rehash of New Deal liberalism, Bernie’s plans are astonishingly radical. And to understand this is to understand why young people adore him.
Bernie’s program includes:
*Raising taxes on big corporations and the 1 percent by at least 30 trillion dollars over the next ten years as well as deep cuts to Pentagon spending.
*Medicare for All will guarantee all people in the U.S. (citizens and non-citizens) medical care and it will effectively nationalize the private health insurance corporations.
*Canceling all medical and student debt, make public colleges free, and raise public school teachers’ salaries to at least $60,000 per year.
*A Green New Deal for 100% renewable energy within the next generation, while producing 20 million new jobs to make the transition.
*Pledges to defend abortion rights and mandate equal pay for women, open up citizenship to more than 10 million undocumented immigrants, close down all private prisons and ban racial profiling by the police, defend equality for all LGBTQ people, respect indigenous sovereignty, and prohibit the rich and big corporations from buying (“donating to”) politicians.
*Legislation making it easier to form unions, with the goal of tripling union density.
*Emergency measures to fight Covid-19 that infringe on corporate and free market priorities, while marshaling public institutions over private profit.
Taken as a whole, these are the most radical reforms since 1860 when Lincoln promised to prohibit the spread of slavery and these reforms would transform America.
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There are weak points that, as Taylor points out, if addressed could only strengthen this dynamic, but Bernie armed the new socialist movement with the logic of his program, articulated its aspirations, and taught it to expect unrelenting scorn from the powers that be. This is not yet enough to win, but it is enough to begin. Bernie did not create the movement, but he helped bring it out into the open. We are not yet powerful enough to win the reforms we need, but we are powerful enough to frighten those who stand in our way. There is no better indication of this than the fact that corporate health care stocks soared to double-digit gains on Wall Street the day after Biden’s big primary wins on Super Tuesday, March 3.
The Democratic Socialists of America and beyond
For those not familiar with DSA, it is worth offering a preliminary description. Prior to 2016, DSA had perhaps 5,000 members and the average age of its membership was over sixty. Today, DSA has more than 55,000 members and most are in their twenties. In one sense, DSA came “out of the blue,” but there was a bridge of talented organizers and journalists who joined DSA before, during or after Occupy, providing the organization with just enough young flesh and blood to make the turn in 2016, not to mention an older leadership that was wise enough to hand over the reins instead of insisting on orthodoxy and tradition. Jacobin magazineand its publisher Bhaskar Sunkara was the most visible, but not the only, expression of this pre-2016 layer of cadre.
Unlike traditional left-wing parties, DSA is not anchored in any trade union or social movement and its structure is free-wheeling and open. In fact, it is not a party at all, but an organization whose members may choose to run as candidates in the Democratic Party (or as independents) or to back pro-DSA candidates such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez in New York. There are trends, andcurrents, but these represent a small fraction (10 percent of the active membership perhaps?) of the overall membership. The trends and currents do have significant political differences, but they have not hardened into “machines” and they are often formed over tactical or organizational ideas and plans. For instance, while almost all DSAers back Bernie for president, there were frictions over how to conduct the internal endorsement vote, and what sort of efforts DSA should make on Bernie’s behalf. In general, thus far, the trends and currents have facilitated political debate and found constructive ways to co-exist in local chapters and in the national leadership and working groups. The real weight of the organization resides hundreds of locals, where the membership is encouraged to make up their own plans and put them into practice. And the biggest divide in the organization is between active (5-10,000) and the rest of the non-active members.
Thus, DSA is the most important game in town. However, it is not the only game in town. DSA does not comprise the entirety of the new socialist movement (it has recruited only a small fraction of the youth who support Bernie’s democratic socialist ideas), and the new socialist movement does not comprise the entirety of the new radical left in the U.S.
While the myth of the “Bernie bro” is endlessly drilled by the media, the reality is that Bernie wins big majorities of young voters of all genders and he has opened up a commanding lead among young Latinos of all genders as well. However, the active base of DSA does skew white and male. In an imperialist state built on African slavery, indigenous genocide, and international conquest, it should come as no surprise that constructing a multi-racial, internationalist, gender-equality, LGTBQ inclusionary socialist feminist movement takes patience and determination. It also means that many movements do not begin by identifying with DSA, or with socialism as their primary identity. As revolutionary socialist C.L.R. James wrote about the Black movement, so too can be true of “non-party” movements, organizations, and sectors of the working-classes:
“We say, number 1, that the Negro struggle, the independent Negro struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own; that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles; it has an organic political perspective, along which it is traveling, to one degree or another, and everything shows that at the present time it is traveling with great speed and vigor.
We say, number 2, that this independent Negro movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights, and is not led necessarily either by the organized labor movement or the Marxist party.
We say, number 3, and this is the most important, that it is able to exercise a powerful influence upon the revolutionary proletariat, that it has got a great contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that it is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.”
DSA’s racial and gender composition can be altered by careful campaigns dedicated to fighting for oppressed peoples and by recruitment, training, and leadership affirmative action policies, but the structure of the socialist and anti-capitalist working-class movement in its millions will be shaped by the scales and dynamics of struggle to which James refers above.
And when it comes to the labor movement, there is a long ways to go to rebuild fighting unions. There are some bright spots, principally the teachers rebellions of 2018 and 2019, yet the overall level of class struggle remains quite low. For instance, between 1967 and 1970, more than 2 million workers took strike action each year, meaning that strike levels were 6 or 7 times higher in 1970 than they are today. So long as the working class and social movements remain weak, electoral insurgencies like Bernie’s face greater vulnerabilities.
In a related field, there are an important cluster of publishing and organizing centers that are not related to DSA officially, even if they are organically and those that are consciously independent, including the Philly Socialists, Socialist Alternative (whose city Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant deserves special mention), Haymarket Books, the Socialism and Historical Materialism conferences, In These Times, Viewpoint Magazine, and a number of publications and projects initiated or supported by former members of the International Socialist Organization that dissolved last spring. But these efforts are all now forced to define themselves by their attitude towards DSA.
What is to come?
In the immediate term, the Covid-19 pandemic and a sharp recession are unlikely to drive the majority of American workers into sustained, never mind offensive, struggles. The shock of unemployment, quarantine, and the loss of loved-ones, especially in conditions where human contact itself presents a danger and complicates our bedrock organizing tasks, will create powerful obstacles. Worse, in electoral terms, although Biden may stumble, public fear will most likely rebound on a large scale in his favor, not those who offer revolutionary solutions. Trotsky usefully described the dynamics of defeat under different circumstances, “The fact that our forecast had proven correct might attract one thousand, five thousand, or even ten thousand new supporters to us. But for the millions, the significant thing was not our forecast, but the fact of the crushing of the Chinese revolution” of 1925-27. (My Life)
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This does not mean that we should not fight to create networks of solidarity to fight Covid-19, and the coming unemployment and budget cuts, nor should we give up pushing for Bernie’s very narrow path to victory, but we must be conscious of the ground upon which we are fighting and use what we do now to prepare for the medium-term future.
Along these lines, and in so far as DSA is the organization most directly impacted by Bernie’s campaign and which will have the greatest capacity to act in the coming months, the following issues worth considering.
DSA’s national leadership has put out a statement asking local branches to protect themselves and to support solidarity efforts to support the most vulnerable in our communities while demanding that emergency “social spending should be paid for by taxing the rich. The American working class has repeatedly bailed out the same massive corporations and billionaires that cause and exacerbate crises.” On a local basis, teachers, parents, and students are pushing for a national school closure and for unions and districts to set up food delivery, counseling, and emergency day care for students and families in critical need. As events play out, further steps will be necessary and will be discussed and debated online through DSA’s local and national bodies. How we turn this crisis into a sustained campaign for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.
As long as Bernie has a sliver of hope, DSA members and chapters should continue to campaign, although all public campaign events have been halted, so this practically means phone and text banks for states that are holding elections in the near future. However, those elections are not guaranteed to proceed as usual and this raises the real question about what to do if the Democratic primary elections are cancelled or disrupted. The leadership will insist that since Biden is ahead, he should receive the nomination. In such a situation, it is not yet clear what to do, especially given the current impossibility of mobilizing large groups of people. And this raises the (still distant) question of what to do if Trump himself begins to question whether or not to hold elections in the fall. But that is a bridge we can cross several months from now.
Alongside Bernie’s campaign, we can expect unemployment will double by the summer and we expect that Congress and the Trump administration will offer completely inadequate relief for unemployed workers. To the degree that Covid-19 conditions permit, DSA, unions, and social movement organizations should begin to discuss now how to provide direct mutual aid in terms of food, rent relief, housing, etc., but also find way (again within the limits set by Covid-19 quarantines) to pressure local, state, and national authorities to provide emergency relief, defend immigrant communities against stepped up raids and deportations, and fight budget cuts in health and education.
A party of our own
In the slightly longer term, the political question of building a new political party in the aftermath of Bernie’s campaign in the conditions of a Biden or Trump presidency conditioned by recession and Covid-19 must be deliberately organized. The following are not exhaustive, but they are instructive of contending positions and trends.
Some socialists argue that Bernie does not represent a challenge to the system, but is merely reproducing a long history of being captured and deradicalized by the Democratic Party. These socialists stress the immediate dangers presented by Bernie’s campaign and tend to see little prospects for pro-DSA elected officials like Congresspeople Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar helping build an independent socialist party. As Ashley Smith has argued, Bernie “narrows the vision of democratic socialism below even that of social democracy to New Deal liberalism.” In place of participating in Bernie’s campaign, or supporting any other DSA candidates who run on the Democratic ballot line, Smith suggests that we “build a new party of our own” and “challenge both parties of capital not only in the ballot box, but more importantly, in the streets and in workplaces.” The strength of this position is to insist on the dangers of long-term adaption to the structures of the Democratic Party and to raise a critique of relying too exclusively on the mode of electoral struggle in opposition to social and class struggle. Its weakness lays in equating Bernie’s program with old school liberalism, thereby mistaking form for content and context and tending to denigrate electoral action itself in favor of more direct forms of struggle. Of course, in the wake of the experiences of Syriza, the Brazilian Workers Party, and Podemos any facile dismissal of this trend’s critique are short-sighted.
Other socialists are campaigning for Bernie, but regardless of the outcome, believe we should begin the preliminaries of how to organize a path towards a new party. This trend highlights Bernie’s unique contribution, while arguing that only a rise in class struggle can win Medicare for All and other transformative reforms. As Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht argue, “we do know that the United States will not be able to achieve anything like socialist governance, and join other nations in the project of building international socialism, without both a mass movement of workers and the formal power to stop capitalists from undermining that movement as it engages in class struggle. We see engagement in electoral politics as an important tactic for accomplishing both of these goals, and ultimately bringing about a scenario in which the working class can actually win.”
This position’s strength is to clearly grasp how Bernie’s campaign has raised workers’ confidence to fight, even if the overall level of class struggle remains too low to break through, either in trade union or electoral terms. They are for an independent party, but do not believe thiscurrent phase has reached its limits yet. That “yet” is a big question. And it is a real question. In many ways, this trend is the most dynamic in the current moment and has done the most to bring some coherency to strategic debates. The challenge for this position’s proponents is not to insist on an immediate declaration for a new party (which, by the way it’s important to know that Bernie will in all likelihood oppose), but rather how to take concrete steps to lay the basis for such a party in the coming years? The space between initiating a new party “now” and “never,” as Ken Barrios explains based on his experience helping lead Rossana Rodriguez’s socialist campaign for Chicago City Council, is one of the most important questions facing DSA and the new socialist movement today. The danger is letting the mounting pressures of the coming months and years drift into “never” making a priority of practical preparations.
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Yet another position backs Bernie but feels it is premature to consider laying the foundation for a new party, and tends to place such strong emphasis on the current favorable dynamics of the Bernie campaign as to suggest that the question of a new party itself is “sectarian.” There is a strength to this position in its insistence on rejecting isolated actions and its emphasis on winning over millions of workers to socialism. It can also be level-headed when it comes to what has been accomplished over the last few years. But it also risks becoming convinced that only one strategic trajectory is possible, namely, that of slowly accumulating our forces until we are prepared to fight. A luxury the ruling class is unlikely to afford us.
It can also sometimes insist that the road to mass influence runs through narrowing socialists appeals to “bread and butter issues.” As Dustin Guastalla recently argued in the aftermath of Bernie’s loses on March 3, “We need to shed the more fringe parts of our platform, and we need to focus heavily, almost singularly, on the bread and butter.” This position risks reducing socialist politics to an economist caricature, and counterposing itself to the insights CLR James referenced above, while lowering the movement’s guard to the corrosive effects of long-term existence inside the Democratic Party.
Finally, there is the position help by the vast majority of new socialists (inside and outside DSA). They are hoping against hope that Bernie can still win, terrified by Covid-19, unprepared for the coming recession, and they have not yet hardened their opinions or gained enough experience to create their own strategies and tactics. These are the best representatives of their generation and what they decide to do will shape our collective future. Those of us who are currently committed to one or another of the positions I have described above, or some very often some combination thereof, have a responsibility to engage each other in such a way as to facilitate that development.
The coming weeks will be filled with fear and hardship, as well as bountiful examples of solidarity and humanity. None of us knows what comes after Covid-19, but the crisis just may well create the political and psychological conditions to make Medicare for All a reality, that is, if we can build the political and organizational working-class forces to get it.
[For daily international analysis and translations of coronavirus, workers’ struggles, and the socialist movement, read No Borders News.]