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Broad parties and anti-austerity governments: from defeat to defeat, learning the lessons of Syriza’s debacle
The NPA leadership, the majority of which is organically linked to the majority of the International committee of the Fourth international (ICFI), refuses to draw all the lessons from a way of building organizations that has continuously failed and led to political and organizational catastrophes in its national sections, with of course a very negative overall impact, for more than twenty years. The question is: what policy of the ICFI leadership is at the heart of such major and repeated failures, of utter disasters, even, in certain countries? After compiling a non-exhaustive list of the most significant among the regrettable and disastrous experiences of the past two decades, this contribution focuses on the latest tragedy to date: Greece. The heart of the political problem first appears in the more or less empirical choices of the ICFI in the 1980s, then becomes systematic in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and its easy colonization by capital.
The political bankruptcy of the Socialist Democracy current (DS) in Brazil
In 1979-80, we first see the small Brazilian section of the ICFI participate in the construction of the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT). Participating in building a mass party is not a problem per se: it is - or rather, it should be - a tactical choice, all the more necessary in a context where all organizations either of the non-Stalinist left or breaking with Stalinism were then to be found in the PT. What is problematic is that in the case of Socialist Democracy (DS), the tendency linked to the ICFI within the PT, priority was given to the construction of the PT – and most notably of its apparatus – to the detriment of everything else, and especially the construction of a revolutionary current in this party. The apparatus of the PT, a broad party led from the start by a left faction of the trade-union bureaucracy, gradually absorbed DS, which neglected to build itself independently from the leadership of the party and its various apparatuses. DS members participated, more and more numerously and systematically, not only in PT structures as organizers, but also and especially in the bourgeois state apparatuses taken over by the PT, including first local, then regional and finally central executive branches. All this has had extremely serious consequences for the Brazilian section of the ICFI itself and, logically, for revolutionary perspectives and for the Fourth International in Brazil and in the world. Gradually in the 1990s, and definitively in 2003, DS merged into the reformist apparatus of the PT and the bourgeois institutions it managed, losing more and more of its bearings and principles, going so far as to participate in a PT government in alliance with the most sickening right-wing forces and to endorse the policies demanded by the IMF and applauded by Brazilian and international elites. When a handful of elected officials from the left of the PT voted against the scrapping of civil servants’ pensions decided by the first Lula government in 2003, DS overwhelmingly supported the latter and the social-liberal direction of the party, which was in charge of excluding those “radicaloids”.
Things had come full circle: DS, which had become first and foremost a fraction of the PT’s bureaucracy, involved with it in managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie, opposed the activists who merely wanted to save the party’s honour. The left-wing split of the PT between 2003 and 2005 only affected about 20% of DS. Many abandoned activism in disgust. The vast majority of the tendency chose the bureaucratic comfort of political organizing and, above all, of elective and well-paid public offices that the PT, now the main party in government, provided. So DS had completely rotten: initially a small revolutionary student organization, it ended up nestling in a hyper-opportunistic apparatus of professional politicians willing to scheme and plot without restraint. This disastrous experience of building the PT without concern for political – and therefore material – independence was conducted throughout this period, without, it seems, any alarm from the ICFI leadership. Did it even try, given the principle (which varies with circumstances, as we will soon see) that sections of the ICFI must decide their policy on their own, to put an end to this bureaucratic putrefaction? During the 2003-2005 split, the ICFI supported the PT (and DS) sectors that broke with the rotten party, but never seriously questioned in a somewhat self-critical manner the policy that led up to this disaster.
In France, support for Juquin’s reformist campaign in 1988
In a different context, but from the same basic premises, since the mid-1980s, the French LCR (Revolutionary Communist League, French section of the ICFI) shifted towards the construction of a political “alternative” by seeking to form, in varying ways, a larger organization, or even a new party, of which it would be a component. It was then a question of regrouping different small centrist and “left reformist” organizations and, above all, seeking programmatic and strategic convergence with parts of the PCF (French Communist Party, stalinist) more or less at odds with their party’s leadership. This attitude had nothing to do with the United Front tactics of « striking together » and « marching separately », or in other words, striking one-time agreements with reformists on specific points without refraining from criticizing them and defending our orientation. This phase of looking for “the alternative” probably culminated with the painful case of Pierre Juquin’s presidential campaign in 1988. Wanting to create a political buzz to overwhelm on the left both the sinister and Mitterrand-worshipping Socialist Party (PS) and the PCF’s candidate (André Lajoinie), the LCR actively supported Juquin, a former leader of the PCF, in a “unitary” campaign grouping various reformist and centrist groups. In the end, many LCR activists understood that they were mainly used as props. The candidate, who never left reformism, had turned more and more freewheeling and right-winged even before the end of the campaign, only to end up with the very modest score of 2.10% (slightly better than Arlette Laguiller and her 1.99%), while the PCF’s official candidate received 6.76% of the votes. This experience was quite traumatic for a large part of the LCR’s activists at the time. But the lessons were drawn only very superficially by the leadership and the ICFI. On the contrary, looking for reformist or centrist partners to discuss a common agenda, beyond unity for action, became a permanent political line.
In practice, defending an antiliberal minimum programme
The collapse of Stalinism and triumph of the dictatorship of capital in Eastern countries was a major milestone in that direction. Among the majority of the ICFI, the idea gained acceptance that the historical period had changed, and that it was therefore necessary to change political “software” and organizational tools to move towards socialism, which remained a historical goal although its horizon seemed to be moving away. It is impossible to give here all the details, but the initiators of that “new course” replaced the principles of the Trotskyist transitional programme with much less clear and… revolutionary “unitary programmes”, focusing in particular on emergency measures. The key lessons of Marxism and Lenin’s contributions – notably about the necessity of destroying the bourgeois state – seemed to have been put aside. But put where? In mothballs, so as to resurrect them in a more promising period for workers? Or straight in the dustbin of history? Therein lies a crucial matter, about which one might still wonder today… Of course, the programmatic weakening and de-radicalization advocated and set to music by the ICFI leadership was accompanied by a line change regarding the construction of its national sections. No more revolutionary parties, supposedly too radical and too remote from concrete possibilities, and from the necessity to rebuild elementary class consciousness and little more… Make way for broad parties bringing together a diverse set of political currents ranging from reformists – preferably called “radical” – to uncompromising revolutionaries around an intermediary agenda between these two extremes. Since the early 1990s, the orientation of the ICFI has thus focused on building up an aggregated “radical left”, in ways varying from one national section to another, into “broad parties” simultaneously breaking with moribund Stalinism and in opposition to a social democracy already converted to neoliberalism. We have witnessed how the sections of the ICFI have moved from the project of world socialist revolution, necessarily implying a resort to the workers’ insurgent violence and a break away from bourgeois states, to a project of antiliberal alliances aiming at winning majorities in elections in order to conduct policies breaking with neoliberalism, and forming governments at the head of states whose class nature was less and less questioned. As far as breaking with capitalism itself, the idea – never put into writing – was that it would inevitably happen later. In fact, this leads the ICFI leadership to a kind of (always implicit) “stagism”: first get rid of neoliberalism in the perspective of a “radical left” that refuses to decide between reformism and revolution; then, when conditions are more favourable, put an end to capitalist exploitation itself and commit to the construction of socialism. Most defenders of the “broad party” line and common agendas with “left” or “breaking away” reformists, who make up a majority of the ICFI, will probably never acknowledge this “stagism” and this dichotomy, since it would put at jeopardy the entire history and culture of the ICFI. However, by its very logic, this is where the “broad party” policy with reformist left-wing forces actually leads to: the programme that the sections of the ICFI applying that line end up defending on a daily basis is no longer the Marxist-revolutionary programme, but a minimum programme based on negotiations with clearly reformist and/or centrist forces. For there is no secret and this is perfectly logical: negotiating a common agenda with reformists entails adapting to their requirements, and therefore leaving aside whatever ensues from a revolutionary line of reasoning. In other words, the intersection between a revolutionary-Marxist and a reformist programme is at the level of their lowest common denominator, that is, reformism. If the Trotskyist transitional programme is not formally abandoned, it is brushed under the carpet and the common “broad-party” programme, in the countries where it applies, gradually takes up all the space. The old dichotomy between minimum programme and maximum programme, a keynote of social democracy, has thus resurfaced and been put into practice by the sections of the ICFI implementing that line.
In Italy and Germany too, adapting to reformism
And that line was applied… with what results! Give us examples other than failures and sometimes even real catastrophes! Give us just one lasting example of success, particularly of a party leaving its original reformism behind thanks to the action of revolutionary currents! Failure is not patent everywhere so far but the logic of events, unless the balance is redressed very quickly and radically, leads there inexorably. We cannot dwell on all the details of the multiple setbacks and political disasters entailed by the policy conducted by the ICFI majority, but let us quickly mention the cases of Italy and Germany.
The Italian LCR (Revolutionary communist league) along with other currents (Democrazia Proletaria; PCI-ML…) took part enthusiastically in the creation of the PRC (Rifondazione Communista) in 1991 in Italy, a party whose dominant current was a left-wing, yet clearly reformist sector from the former Italian PC, a current refusing the PCI’s drift towards social democracy. At first, this experience led to developing a simultaneously “movementist” and institutional party (with 41 deputies in the Chamber and 27 senators in 2006). This enabled Fausto Bertinotti to become the president of the Chamber, within the framework of an alliance with the neoliberal “centre-left” (the Olive Tree coalition). The leadership of the PRC chose to support the Prodi government in its war on Afghanistan... In 2008, this party, which had turned out to be more “reasonable” than alleged by the media a few years earlier, was eventually wiped out from the parliamentary stage. And in 2007, a few isolated rebels left a PRC poisoned by bureaucratization and parliamentarism and put their limited forces into founding Sinistra Critica (Critical left), regrouping the main proponents of the ICFI. The political meaning of this is that 15 years had been wasted: tireless activism dedicated to constructing a broad party in the hands of reformists ended up fizzling out – again, a policy never called into question by the ICFI leadership.
Let’s also mention the trajectory of the German section of the ICFI, the ISO, formed from the reunification of the ISL and the RSB, both sections of the ICFI. Some members of the ISO, coming from the former ISL, keep prioritizing the construction of Die Linke. Yet, Die Linke in Germany is a reformist and increasingly moderate party, built around former social democratic leader Oskar Lafontaine and, above all, the bureaucratic, reformist offspring of the SED, the former single party in the GDR, in Eastern Germany. There is no participation of Die Linke in the federal government of that country to deplore (at least not yet), but several experiences of participation managing regional governments (Länder) as allies of social democracy and implementing austerity policies. Nevertheless, ISO members (from the former ISL) remain part of Die Linke. How can the ISO expect to efficiently and publicly distance itself from such reformist erring ways? Assuming that entryist tactics are justified in the specific situation of Germany (low level of class struggle, scattering of non-reformist organizations…), they should at least be collectively discussed, which has not occurred either before or after the unification process. The course of entryism should be maintained only under the conditions of a struggle within Die Linke to bring the various far-left currents (Antikapitalistische Linke, Sozialistische Linke, etc.) together, and to advocate openly revolutionary politics, in complete opposition to the reformist apparatus, and total independence from union bureaucracies.
Let’s pass quickly over the setbacks of the Socialist Workers’ Party – Danish section of the ICFI – with the Red-Green Alliance it is a part of, an alliance which votes the government’s budgets; over the political disaster of the Portuguese Left Block – a member along with Syriza, the PRC and the French PCF of the Party of the European Left (PGE) – backing the social democratic government in Portugal, with the local ICFI section voting in favour of the European austerity plan (heralded as a “bailout” of Greece); over the joyful participation in the reformist and institutionalist movement Podemos in the Spanish State, where Anticapitalistas and the ICFI leadership do not hesitate to expel opponents to their orientation. Let’s pass over many other failures and turpitudes that always go in the same direction. In the case of the Spanish State and Anticapitalistas, the political catastrophe hasn’t happened yet; it is brewing, with active help from the ICFI leadership, which plainly has not endured enough routs to make the effort of trying to understand. A clue should, however, alarm our broad-party strategists and promoters of “anti-austerity governments” from the ICFI: Pablo Iglesias’ and the Podemos leadership’s unwavering support to Tsipras after his capitulation to the troika sharks in 2015… And this, although even Mélenchon distinguished himself from Tsipras and his government’s policy! But this has no influence on the ICFI leadership, whose persistence in error is dramatic!
The calamitous consequences of the ICFI’s politics in Greece
Let us then come to the ICFI leadership’s deplorable politics in Greece and the calamitous consequences. For, aside from the ignominous social-liberal putrefaction of the Brasilian DS in Lula’s PT, it is without doubt in Greece that, up to now, the logic of broad parties and sharing a program with reformists – which always amounts to supporting them – has had the most tragic consequences for the Greek people, and the most damageable consequences for the revolutionary perspectives in this country and elsewhere.
Let us begin with what the ICFI’s leadership said in July 2015, just after the great victory of the NO in the Greek referendum, and just before the Tsipras government’s capitulation: “The proof has just been given to everyone that the European Union and its institutions are not a neutral space or framework. They are political constructions, organized by the capitalists in order to escape from any popular control in the implementation of their interests. This construction will not be reformed. It is illusory to seek to conduct an alternative policy while accepting the sovereignty of these autocratic institutions.” The same text speaks of a mandate given Tsipras by the Greek people, by the 61% of NO votes: “This mandate requires the termination of the payment of the illegitimate and odious debt, a path that, with the nationalization and control of the banking system, gives the Greek people sovereignty over its political, economic and social choices. These are the choices expressed by the Greek left, mainly the left of Syriza and the activists of Antarsya, who contributed to the victory of the “no”.” This quote prompts several remarks.
Firstly, the critique of the EU expressed here, which is quite correct, does not correspond at all to what Tsipras, the majority of Syriza and the Greek government think; on the contrary, they have always insisted on their dedication to “Europe” and declared that they meant to remain within the framework of the euro and its institutions. But this important fact is not pointed out by the above declaration, which pretends that the problem doesn’t exist. More generally – and this holds ever since the begin of Syriza – the ICFI leadership carefully avoids calling attention to the fact that in their trial of strength with capital (both the Greek bourgeoisie and the financial and neoliberal tyrants from the EU and the IMF), the Tsipras leadership can’t be trusted blindly due to their pro-EU and reformist, pro-capitalist choices. For it is one thing to support possible progressive measures, even when they are partial, which a reformist government might take in front of the bourgeoisie’s ranting and sabotage; but not fighting such a political force when it hesitates and drifts off course, including by denouncing it publicly and forcefully, and not opposing the Tsipras government’s retreats even before its capitulation, are another thing entirely. From late January to early July 2015, the Tsipras governement constantly retreated in the face of the troika, without ever seriously raising its voice, without ever preparing a “plan B” to exit the euro, not to speak about leaving the EU itself. At no time before the referendum did this government demonstrate the least determination to pay the price of rejecting austerity, notably by slamming the door in the troika’s face and breaking with the euro, building on the Greek workers’ and people’s mobilization. Even though Tsipras’ call for a referendum could seem pretty confusing after all that, the “lightweight marxist-revolutionaries” of the ICFI’s leadership could not but doubt what Tsipras would do after the referendum, and insist more, at the very least, on the fact that the Greek leader now had to pick sides: either the Greek workers and people, or the financiers and the EU.
Next, the second quote is correct in mentioning the termination of debt payment and the nationalization of the banking system. But this is not enough, because controlling the banks is not enough. The declaration does not mention other essential measures that a government should take if it is truly determined to break with the EU, notably the expropriation of a large portion of the Greek economy under workers’ management, starting with all monopolies and foreign companies ; the monopoly on external trade, etc. One gets the impression of a minimalist declaration that tries not to ruffle the declared reformists in Syriza, who don’t want to hear about any of this.
The second quotation also contains something that deserves strong criticism. Diplomatically - or rather hypocritically - the ICFI’s text puts in the same pot “the left of Syriza and the militants of Antarsya” as protagonists of the victory of NO. This is factually quite accurate. But it does not correspond at all to the real relations of the ICFI leadership with the Greek activists, which are scandalous. For a long time, the ICFI leadership, in flagrant contradiction with the statutes of the International, has completely neglected and bypassed its Greek section, the OKDE-Spartakos, and has chosen to support in fact, among the activists in Greece, those who chose to integrate Syriza. This hypocrisy, this disregard for the comrades of the Greek ICFI section and this policy contradicting the statutes of the International, are undoubtedly the reasons why we find quite few official documents of the ICFI on the Greek question, and rather individual contributions. To understand this, we have to go back in time somewhat.
In 2004, the Syriza coalition was formed, and its main force was, by far, Synaspismos (a split of the KKE in the early 1990s, on the basis of both a rejection of the disastrous sectarianism of this party, and a rather right-wing and reformist "eurocommunist" orientation). Some far-left groups joined Syriza, such as Xekinima, the Greek section of the CWI (sister section of the Gauche révolutionnaire, which was part of the NPA until 2012). This was also the case of Kokkino, a sympathizing section of the ICFI. Let’s recall that Syriza has joined the “Party of the European Left”, the same European alliance as the French communist party (PCF) and the Italian PRC. As for the ICFI, in Greece, a little like in Germany, the International has its forces divided between, roughly, a current which wants to keep the program and the Marxist-revolutionary organization and which does not postpone the idea of socialist revolution for an indeterminate future; and another “broad party” (Syriza), which focuses mainly on the struggle against austerity and ignores the fundamental issues of revolutionary program and strategy. But unlike Germany, where the ICFI had two official sections in competition (the ISL and the RSB), the ICFI already had, at that time, a single Greek section, the OKDE-Spartakos, which refused to join Syriza. So, among the members of the ICFI in Greece, those who were in favor of a broad party and the postponement of the revolution ended up in Kokkino, and then, by successive groupings, in the DEA, one of the organizations on Syriza’s left wing.
Syriza was therefore a broad party created under clearly reformist domination, but… that does not matter to the ICFI leadership, which sees there a new opportunity to implement the motto from the 1990s, "new situation, new program, new parties". Except that in the case of Greece, the ICFI leadership encounters an obstacle: its Greek section does not follow this path.
Several years pass, and from 2009 especially, Greece slides into crisis, the memoranda and austerity, with increasingly dramatic effects for its people. Syriza appears more and more as an electoral and institutional alternative, clearly rejecting austerity. But, brimming with European and reformist illusions, Syriza believes that the EU is an institutional framework from which it is possible to build a European political unity, that the euro is not exactly a tool meant to impose austerity, and that the struggle against capitalism - not to mention revolution - is not on the agenda. In 2009, Syriza still received only 4.6% of the votes nationally. In 2012, after the crisis, it gets 16.8% (much more in big cities), becoming the first left-wing force, in front of the antiquated party of social democracy, PASOK.
For its part, the “anticapitalist, revolutionary, communist and ecological front” Antarsya formed in 2009, bringing together 10 organizations from Maoism and Trotskyism, including the Greek section of the ICFI, OKDE-Spartakos. Antarsya obtained only 0.36% of votes in 2009 and rose to 1.19% in 2012, due to “tactical voting” for Syriza, and thus not reaching the threshold of 3% to be represented in parliament. Unlike Syriza, Antarsya highlights not only the cancellation of debt, but also the worker-controlled nationalization of banks and large corporations, and demands the exit from the euro and the EU. Antarsya advocates the self-organization of struggles and the control of these by the workers. Within Antarsya, the OKDE-Spartakos goes further, with a clearly revolutionary orientation, based on the seizure of power by the workers, the complete and utter expropriation of banks and large capitalist companies; and, beyond the EU, the break with all the bourgeois institutions. We see here how, very concretely, the Greek section has a policy opposite to that of the majority of the ICFI.
But in may 2012, for the parliamentary elections, the ICFI majority does not defend its Greek section, which is not consulted but boycotted de facto. The majority wants to force OKDE-Spartakos to make an alliance with Syriza. The Greek section refuses because it is already linked with Antarsya, and the ICFI leadership publicly takes a stance in support of Syriza, following those in Greece who agree with the broad reformist leadership despite their status as mere sympathizers and follows the reformist direction. OKDE-Spartakos warns: “It’s clear that Syriza’s political aims are and will remain definitely in the context of capitalism and bourgeois democracy.”
But all along this sequence and until the cataclysm of July 2015, the ICFI leadership did not heed this warning, exhibited ever more sectarianism and ill faith, and flouted the comrades from OKDE-Spartakos, even going so far as to call them “counterrevolutionaries”! On the other hand, Syriza was long heralded as a model of an “anti-austerity organization” by the ICFI leadership. The latter presented the 2015 government as an “anti-austerity government” and sought to disguise Syriza’s retreats even before 2015, and its gradual retreats in front of the troika until the cataclysm of July 2015. Similarly, Syriza's alliance with the bourgeois party ANEL did not call any attention or, as it should have, raise any criticism from the shock anti-austeritarians in the ICFI leadership.
What did the Syriza experience ultimately prove, if not the incoherence and frailty of such a political force, which wants to stay in the EU and in the euro, keep the bosses and capitalism in place, and… refuse the austerity entailed by the system’s crisis? It is towards such a “force”, which completely capitulated in the face of the EU and IMF bandits, despite the Greek people’s massive vote against austerity one week before Tsipras accepted the abject agreement of July 13th 2015 – it is towards such a “force”, according to the ICFI leadership, that the Greek members of the International were to converge.
This historical, political and organizational fiasco proved something else: by choosing with Kokkino and DEA to participate as a left current in a reformist and parliamentary political force, the stubborn “experts” in the ICFI leadership may not have repeated the sickening shipwreck of DS in Brazil in 2003, but they deprived the Greek workers and people of a truly well structured force on the ground to struggle at their side, at least for the period from January to July 2015, and of course thereafter. The left of Syriza took too long to react, it did so weakly at first, it split, it was mired in its own debates for too long, some of its members joined Tsipras in his betrayal: in a word, the left of Syriza, and thus in particular the activists supported by the ICFI leadership, remained paralyzed and powerless in the situation. And when the split of Syriza happened, about a month and a half after the tragedy, with the creation of Popular Unity behind only 25 rebellious representatives (including Lafazanis), the break was not clean. Whereas this current does advocate the end of austerity and exiting the euro, its logic is not that of breaking the dictatorship of capital and confronting the bourgeoisie.
Furthermore, in the following parliamentary elections, in September 2015, this grouping remained out of parliament with 2.86% of the votes (below the required 3%). This proves something else: winning over the workers’ consciousness, being able to take advantage of a phase of intense class struggles in order to lead them to victory, all of this requires both time and political independence. The left of Syriza was identified above all as Syriza – and its critiques of the party’s leadership and the government were meant to be positive, measured and constructive – and this is probably the main reason, along with lack of time, lack of preparation and initial hesitations, why it could not appear straight away as a credible alternative to Syriza.
The calamities, misery and famine that have been unleashed on the Greek people for over two years perhaps allow us, in the midst of this pain, some time to meditate on this heartrending sequence of historical events.
Putting an end to these politics of adapting to reformism: reverting to revolutionary marxism
Before some new drama, in Spain or elsewhere, lastingly breaks the forces of revolution, it is high time to dump this short-sighted policy, which has already done so much damage to international organizations hailing back to trotskyism and the idea of world socialist revolution. Let us refuse for revolutionaries to trail reformists under the pretense of rebuilding new left forces. Let us put an end to the choice of giving priority to broad parties, and, when this option appears soundest from a tactical point of view, let us think in terms of entryism and give priority, within the broad party, to building a revolutionary current that refuses, in particular, to participate in the bourgeois institutions that the broad party seeks to take over. Let us reject halftone programs that are opposed to neoliberalism but not to capitalism; these turn out to be rag papers whenever it comes to implementing them. Once and for all, let us stop delighting in the misleading and confusionist phrase “radical left” – this is for the bourgeois press, for which Syriza was and remains the “radical left”. Say, what kind of a creature is that? What is a radical left like Syriza, which ended up implementing draconian austerity with literally dramatic consequences for the Greek workers and people?
On the contrary, let us start again from the fundamentals of revolutionary marxism. Let us build everywhere, as our first priority, revolutionary communist parties (or, where the existence of a broad party is tactically necessary, structured and consequent currents in them), that be independent from the reformists, active in the workers’ and working classes’ struggles, openly in favor of revolution against Capital and its State, and able to explain why. Let us put the coordination of struggles for a general strike back at the centre of our activity, let us build self-organization, with a view to expropriating the bourgeoisie and demolishing its state by an insurrection, as soon as the circumstances allow. Old-fashioned, corny, out of sync? Before throwing such words around, those who have made so many mistakes and led to such defeats would be well advised to look in their own backyard, and to sweep away the dead, rotting leaves of broad parties and anti-austerity governments. Building a true revolutionary communist international will doubtless take some time, but the opportunist shortcuts of these last decades have cost us a lot of it.
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