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The End of History, Identity Politics, and Transcendence

Alexandre Kojève is one of Hegel’s most widely read commentators in the Western world, and his influence in the 20th and 21st centuries was immense. Behind the scenes, he gave voice to what would become the theoretical presuppositions of countless Western politicians, citizens, and intellectuals. Neoconservatives, Progressives, and Democratic Peace Theorists, among others, bear his impression. However, most who use his ideas for policy rarely know of their theoretical basis.

In recent decades, we have seen several published books speculating on the ideas Kojève espoused, the most important of which is the idea that history—understood as a teleological development with a beginning and end—has reached its culminating point in the modern liberal democratic State. According to this theory, all that remains for global societies to do is fully conform to this irrefutable political, moral, and social standard. Self-consciously continuing the legacy of Kojève, Francis Fukuyama—the most articulate and influential End of History speculator, who originally published his The End of History and the Last Man in 1992—makes the case that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the unprecedented increase in democratic revolutions worldwide, marked the end of Mankind’s ideological evolution. His argument was not that wars and political catastrophes will somehow cease or that all political struggles will end. Instead, he claimed there was an emerging “global consensus” that liberal democracy is the only viable and legitimate form of government and that only it is fully equipped to face the tough environmental and economic challenges of the coming centuries. He suggests that while earlier forms of government were characterized by “grave defects” and “irrationalities” that led to their eventual collapse, liberal democracy, if understood correctly, is fundamentally free from such self-undermining contradictions.

Of course, at first glance, his argument appears empirically overstated. While the jury is still out on the long-term endurance of the Chinese Communist Party or the Russian Federation, as of this writing, the power and influence of these very undemocratic regimes only seem to be growing, with no end in sight.[i] In the policy world, there are also two other competing theoretical visions of the future course of history that seem convincing: Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order and John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.[ii] These latter works explicitly critique Fukuyama’s thesis and provide reasonable alternatives to his Kojèvian historical vision. What is more, we could also point to the very severe problems that plague the Western world: the imminent ecological collapse, widespread poverty and income disparity, inflation, and an increasing budget deficit. These are real problems and contradictions that affect real people.

Yet, for our purposes, these objections would miss the true heart of the issue, since Fukuyama claims that the problems facing the modern democratic world are simply failures of these societies to fully live up to the standards and ideals—namely liberty and equality—which liberal democracy has set up for itself. Though some contemporary societies may fail to achieve stable liberal democratic governments, and others might lapse back into more primitive and irrational forms of rule like theocracy or military dictatorship, Fukuyama argues that the ideal of liberal democracy cannot be improved upon.

His argument is based upon two fundamental premises: the first is that the foundations of the modern scientific method, once adopted by a society, cannot simply be put aside when its consequences become hard to swallow. This is a good starting point, according to Fukuyama, because modern science is the only important social activity that by “common consensus” is both cumulative and directional, even if its ultimate impact on human happiness is ambiguous.[iii] No matter what one’s religious, ethnic, or national background, everyone can agree on scientific results and methodologies. Modern natural science has therefore had a uniform effect on all societies that have experienced it. One can be Russian, Chinese, Muslim, Catholic, or Atheist; the conclusions of this science will be universal, and the technologies to which it gives rise, which gradually submit nature to the will of humans, provide for the satisfaction of universal wants and desires. This same technology confers decisive military advantages on those countries that possess it. Given the continuing possibility of war in the international system of states, no state that values its independence can ignore the need for defensive modernization. Technology also makes possible a “limitless” accumulation of wealth and the ongoing satisfaction of an ever-expanding set of human desires. Fukuyama continues:

This process guarantees an increasing homogenization of all human societies, regardless of their historical origins or cultural inheritances. All countries undergoing economic modernization must increasingly resemble one another: they must unify nationally on the basis of a centralized state, urbanize, replace traditional forms of social organization like tribe, sect, and family with economically rational forms of social organization based on function and efficiency, and provide for the universal education of their citizens. Such societies have become increasingly linked with one another through global markets and the spread of a universal consumer culture. Moreover, the logic of modern natural science would seem to dictate a universal evolution in the direction of capitalism.[iv]

These insights are the basis for what has come to be known as Democratic Modernization Theory, which has powerful adherents in the policy world.[v] Nonetheless, as Fukuyama admits, this purely economic interpretation of a “universal history” only goes so far. While it is true that, for him, an analysis of the mechanisms of globalization shows us a remarkable trend toward societies becoming increasingly technology/consumer-oriented and capitalistic, this trend alone does not prove his thesis that democracy is the only legitimate form of government. One only has to point to the numerous “successful” authoritarian capitalist regimes, such as present-day China, Singapore, and Thailand, to demonstrate that a link may not exist between consumer-oriented capitalism and democratic regimes.

This gap brings Fukuyama to the second major premise of his work: that only what he calls “universal recognition” can satisfy human nature. Furthermore, this “universal recognition” can only come in the form of a legitimate liberal democracy.[vi] Drawing on insights from Kojève’s lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, he asserts that there is something in human nature—Plato called it Thymos, Hobbes called it pride, Rousseau called it amour-propre—that is not satisfied with mere biological subsistence or even being a “consumer” whose every appetite could be satiated. Human beings value themselves; they have a certain amount of dignity or self-esteem, which they crave for others to recognize. The purely “economic” understanding of historical development overlooks this aspect of human nature. If human beings could be fully satisfied with the bare necessities of life—and these even in surplus—then it might be true that there is no direct causal link between capitalism and democracy. Societies would simply develop toward whatever particular political regime, given its concrete circumstances, could most efficiently produce economic prosperity. As we see in present-day China, State-run forms of capitalism are just as, if not more, efficient at creating wealth than their more liberal counterparts.

Importantly, if Fukuyama wanted to make the case that there is a necessary historical movement toward both capitalism and liberal democracy, he would have to make his arguments in light of a coherent philosophical anthropology that makes this development necessary. As he comments,

Any attempt to portray the basic human impulse driving the liberal democratic revolutions of the late twentieth century, or indeed of any liberal revolution since those of America and France in the eighteenth century, as merely an economic one, would be radically incomplete. The Mechanism created by modern natural science remains a partial and ultimately unsatisfying account of the historical process. Free government exercises a positive pull of its own: When the President of the United States or the President of France praises liberty and democracy, they are praised as good things in themselves, and this praise seems to have resonance for people around the world.[vii]

In sum, the most fundamental reason why liberal democratic governments are more legitimate and will always have an undeniable appeal is that they alone can “recognize” each particular citizen—that is, of endowing each of them with inherent rights and of treating them equally before the law. Whereas fascist or communist dictatorships must repress civil society—the realm of individual ambition, self-expression, and self-assertion—in favor of some national or “moral” cause, liberal democracy allows its citizens to determine themselves according to their unique personalities and life-style choices. In the long term, their oversight of this fundamental desire in human nature all but guarantees the fall of undemocratic governments.

As already mentioned, this theory is not without its critics. In Living in the End Times, Slavoj Zizek has harshly denounced the liberal democratic triumphalism implicit in the thesis of the End of History, criticizing its supporters as blatant ideological dreamers who are all the worse for seeing themselves as being post-ideological. In this view, the idea that there is a “global consensus” that liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government and that the foreign policy of these supposedly enlightened and peaceful governments should be aimed at “modernizing” the globe is an illusion, a mask concealing its own particularity which it imposes on others as universal. This amounts to no less than a liberal democratic imperialism, which masks its true horrors from domestic populations by manipulating linguistic symbols used in marketing schemes and political propaganda. “Today,” as Zizek argues, “this fundamental level of constitutive ideology assumes the guise of its very opposite: non-ideology.”[viii] What makes the hegemony of western liberal democratic societies so dangerous is their intransigent self-perception as societies beyond all of the ideological warfare of previous generations. Not only is this self-designation empirically hypocritical—something which can be seen in the horrible conditions in the nations of the developing/undeveloped world, which western governments and multi-national corporations have exploited and prevented from self-determination—but it also functions as an ideological blinding mechanism that succeeds in covering over the violent real-world consequences of this ideological imperialism.

For Zizek, the liberal democratic critique of old-world ideologies—that they impose some sort of “tyranny of the good”—is incredibly deceptive: the more this program begins to permeate society, the more it begins to turn into what it originally criticized. Even worse, it now has a good conscience on its side. The claim by these same liberal democratic societies to want nothing but the lesser evil—in Churchill’s famous words, “the worst form of government, except for all the rest”—gradually replicates the features of the enemy. In other words, the apparent post-ideological anti-utopianism of liberal democratic societies has gradually morphed into a new brand of ideology and utopianism. For Zizek, the global liberal order clearly presents itself as the best of all possible worlds; its modest rejection of utopias ends with the imposition of its own market-liberal utopia that will supposedly become reality when we subject ourselves entirely to the mechanisms of the market and universal human rights, leaving behind all of the “irrationalities” of more traditional societies. Further, these societies naively believe they can perpetuate themselves ad infinitum with unlimited prosperity and an endless progress toward an increasingly high standard of living. This, for Zizek, is a myth and the ultimate tragedy of the Capitalist/Liberal Democratic order. Behind this dream of the end of History “lurks the ultimate Totalitarian nightmare.”[ix]

Despite the pathos, incisiveness, and energy of Zizek’s critiques, they do not really touch the more subtle argument made throughout Fukuyama’s book. Fukuyama’s argument is not that the current hegemonic liberal democratic regimes are completely free from ideology, oppression, and poverty, or that their foreign policies have not at certain points led to anti-democratic or exploitative results. Rather, as I emphasized earlier, it is that the ideal of liberal democracy, as well as its concomitant focus on liberty and equality, cannot be surpassed. Fukuyama is talking about a consensus of the ideal, not the real. The failures of concrete societies to actualize or promote these goals do not at all call into question the desirability of the goals themselves. We can see this desirability clearly in the disingenuous appeal to democratic principles even among the most ruthless dictators. The cases in which supposedly liberal democratic regimes have taken measures to promote their own interests at the expense of the oppressed and marginalized of their own domestic populations or of those abroad are simply examples of concretely existent democratic governments failing to live up to the standards to which they pay lip service. One could even say that Zizek, in his justified indignation at the actions of western governments and multi-national corporations, is voicing his opposition in the name of the same ideals that these societies sometimes hypocritically praise. His assertion that the self-perceived post-ideological mindset is in reality the worst form of ideology, therefore, does not touch Fukuyama himself, but only his disowned intellectual progeny, the neo-conservatives, of whom he has now washed his hands.

My defense of Fukuyama should not be misunderstood. His book on the End of History is genuinely an unsurpassed attempt to make sense of international relations in the 1990s and beyond. Yet, as our penetration of Voegelin’s work will later show us, it is not without its defects and shortcomings, something that Fukuyama has himself acknowledged since the time of its publication in 1992.[x] For our analysis, it is important that Fukuyama’s book is representative of particular strands of American self-understanding and Grand Strategy in global affairs. This much is widely accepted. What is not as well known is that Fukuyama situates himself within the same tradition of speculation on a “universal history” as Kojève and, more importantly, Hegel. Accordingly, if Eric Voegelin provides a convincing critique of the principles underlying this “universal history,” Francis Fukuyama’s, which relies almost entirely on it, would also fall. Voegelin’s critique could thus have extremely far-reaching implications for American self-understanding and American foreign policy.

While it is undoubtedly true that Fukuyama eventually expressed reservations about his thesis and also gradually distanced himself from the Neo-conservative movement to which he helped give rise, he still, in more recent writings, retains the Kojèvian philosophical anthropology expressed in the End of History.[xi]  Here, man’s most primordial and basic desire is for universal recognition.[xii] A quick look at his response to a common objection to his thesis is illustrative of this point. Critics often claim that the Islamic world is inimical to the development of viable liberal democracies.[xiii] Especially since the September 11th World Trade Center attacks, many people have come to see Islam as not only anti-American but also anti-democratic. Fukuyama acknowledges that this criticism is not entirely without legitimacy. There is no question that, looking around the world, one sees a broad Muslim exception to the overall pattern of democratic development elsewhere. People assume that there must be something inherent to Islamic doctrine, such as the unity of Church and State, which acts as a cultural barrier to this development.

Still, Fukuyama suggests that it is doubtful the resistance to liberal democracy stems from the nature of Islam itself. Instead, there may be some sort of “cultural delay,” he claims. Islam merely needs to catch up, and this it can only do by going through the same political struggles that the West itself had to go through hundreds of years earlier. He points his readers to Western development: it is evident that Christianity was used at one time to support hierarchy, oppression, and slavery. Now, in contemporary societies, we see it as supportive of liberal democracy. Because religious doctrines are subject to constantly renewed political interpretations, it would not be too implausible to believe that Islam will undergo a similar development to Christianity in the West. In fact, there have already been many relatively successful democracies with predominantly Muslim populations, such as Indonesia and Turkey. If one is to describe the political landscape accurately, one would have to recognize that the resistance to liberal democracy does not seem to come from Islam, but rather from predominantly Arab countries. This trend, Fukuyama remarks, probably has more to do with a “survival of tribalism” than Islam itself.[xiv]

Another reason why this resistance to democracy has very little to do with Islam per se is that the radical Islamism of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the like should be understood, not as natural offshoots of Islam, but as political ideology. Fukuyama comments,

“The writings of Said Qutb, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or Osama Bin Laden and his ideologues within Al Qaeda, make use of political ideas about the state, revolution, and the aestheticization of violence that do not come out of any genuine Islamic tradition but out of the radical ideologies of Left and Right—that is to say, of Fascism and Communism—from twentieth century Europe. These doctrines, which are extremely dangerous, do not reflect any core teachings of Islam, but make use of Islam for political purposes. They have become popular in many Arab countries and among Muslims in Europe because of the deep alienation that exists in these communities. Radical Islamism is thus not the reassertion of some traditional Islamic cultural practice, but should be seen in the context of modern identity politics. It emerges precisely when traditional cultural identities are disrupted by modernization and a pluralistic democratic order that creates a disjuncture between one’s inner self and external social practice.”[xv] 

This last comment is very peculiar. Whether or not the various anti-western terrorist organizations have anything to do with “genuine Islam” is a question I will not go into here. Instead, what interests me is Fukuyama’s disguised concession to his objectors. The main emphasis of his argument in this passage is that radical Islamism is a reaction, whether religious or political, to the disruption modernization and pluralistic democratic orders cause in the individual psyche. This disruption is entirely on the level of what he is here calling “identity politics.” Is this an admission that liberal democracy is not, will not be, and cannot be, completely satisfying to individuals and cultural groups?[xvi] Does this not undermine the entire argument of the End of History, that there is a “global consensus” that liberal democracy is the ideological victor in the global community? These examples show that, from the beginning, liberal democracy has only succeeded in creating, to put it in Hegelian language, antitheses and contradictions to itself. The “recognition” provided by these societies is not recognized in its turn. Adherents of identity politics demand something the political order cannot give. So the thymotic energies of the various identities are unleashed, acting as a consistently subversive element in modern societies.

Fukuyama concedes this point by acknowledging that the historical process is more “open” than he initially thought. Yet, might it perhaps be possible that his reasons for conceding defeat are still based upon a restricted theoretical horizon? Has he maybe failed to develop an adequate philosophical anthropology that would enable him fully to comprehend his insights into the open-ended character of the historical process? Perhaps it is possible that both Fukuyama’s original thesis—that history had come to its end in liberal democracy—and his reasons for recognizing its limitations—because liberal democracy is not fully satisfying to some cultures and individuals—are grounded in the same theoretical mistake, having its roots in the Kojèvian philosophical anthropology. Both his original thesis and his later qualification of it assume “identity politics” is the most important thing for understanding political order. In this view, the desire to have one’s “identity” recognized is the central political problem.

This is precisely where I believe Voegelin provides a much-needed corrective to Fukuyama’s Kojèvian premises. Voegelin’s political philosophy fully deserves to find its proper place in contemporary political discourse, which has become saturated with theoretically inadequate tools for understanding our contemporary world, for just this reason. Unless we have an adequate philosophical anthropology, there is no way to orient ourselves in the contemporary political scene. Fukuyama is the paradigmatic case. Men simply desire recognition, according to him. They want their unique personalities and identities acknowledged and affirmed, whether this is a religious identity, secular identity, sexual orientation, etc. This recognition can only be provided in the universal homogenous state, according to the argument in the End of History, or perhaps not, as he acknowledges in the 2006 “afterword.” Whether liberal democracy provides this or not, however, is not the essential question. What is more significant is Fukuyama’s insistence that the desire for recognition is the most fundamental part of human nature. A major aspect of Voegelin’s critique of Kojève’s Hegel is that this anthropology is dangerously limited—it takes one goal of human striving and makes it the only goal.

For Voegelin, human beings desire much more than some abstract “recognition,” even if it does have its place in human life.[xvii] His anthropology is more complete insofar as it is based upon a hierarchical understanding of the different human needs and desires. The human being consists of numerous desires and needs, the satisfaction of some being the precondition for the emergence and satisfaction of others. Once the most basic “lower” needs and desires are satisfied, the distinctively human ones can surface. One of these will be the desire for recognition, but this is not all. The human heart has other longings. For Voegelin, the highest, most important, and most distinctively human of these desires is ultimately the desire for transcendent meaning and purpose, which could never be fully satisfied by any particular finite political institution or person. This desire demands an answer to the Leibnizian questions: “what is my place within the cosmos? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is something as it is, and not different?”[xviii]

In his book Transcendence and History: The Search for Ultimacy from Ancient Societies to Postmodernity, Glenn Hughes has explored this problem in depth. Following Voegelin’s insights into the human desire for transcendence, he succeeds in demonstrating, through a thorough analysis of myths, poetry, and art from many historical periods and cultures, that there is a basic human relationship to a trans-finite, trans-spatial, and trans-temporal realm of meaning, which cultures express and symbolize in phenotypically different ways. He argues, “Human fulfillment entails the willing embrace and development of our relationship to the eternal and imperishable ground of existence.”[xix] Anything less than this willingness to participate in the transcendent mystery of the cosmos will be ultimately unsatisfying for human beings.

Kojève and Fukuyama completely overlook this highest of desires constitutive of human nature properly understood. For this reason, they are unable to understand fully what motivates human beings at a core level.[xx] In light of this insight, we might venture to say that the provincialism of Islam, the stubbornness of Catholic Christians, or the refusal of anybody else to conform fully to the modern world, is fundamentally linked to the reassertion of this desire for transcendent purpose, which has been repressed in Western secular societies. Even though this desire manifests itself immanently in some cases, in the distorted concupiscential drive to convert or kill the entire globe, there can still be discerned in it the reflection of a supposed divine mission. “Recognition” is a thoroughly inadequate conceptual tool for understanding this phenomenon. Only from the perspective of Voegelin’s anthropology and philosophy of history can we understand this correctly.

Following Voegelin, Glenn Hughes recognizes some of the potential dangers inherent in the human orientation towards transcendence and, at the same time, can at least partially sympathize with those who would try to stamp out this orientation in human nature. For, throughout history, the temptation to absolutize and doctrinalize particular symbolizations of transcendent truth—resulting in widespread intolerance, mass murder, and self-righteousness—has always run alongside and competed with healthier and more humble forms of the embrace of transcendent meaning. The tendency to construct “metanarratives” and subsequently impose them on other cultures has always been one of the more tragic civilizational impulses. So the rejection of transcendence in contemporary images of reality is at least somewhat understandable.[xxi] Yet, both Hughes and Voegelin make a case for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They try to show that a rejection of metanarratives does not necessarily entail a denial of transcendence. Metanarratives and the experience of transcendence are in no way equivalent. For Voegelin and Hughes, transcendence does not mean stepping outside of history to contemplate and determine its meaning. Instead, the experience of transcendence always takes place concretely within the historical process and is thus subject to perspectival variability. In becoming aware of our transcendent orientation, one must keep this essential insight in mind.[xxii]



[i] Though the popular media and many prominent international relations theorists have predicted China’s rise and domination for years, powerful dissonant voices do exist. See, for example, Ziehen, Peter. Disunited Nations. (New York: HarperCollins 2020). Ziehan basically argues that China is due for a significant reckoning. With a sub-par geography, extraordinary levels of debt, limited strategic options, a bleak demographic outlook, and a growing cohort of enemies, Ziehan claims that China will likely experience a catastrophic collapse within the next two decades.

[ii] See Huntington, Samuel. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. (New York: Touchstone, 1996). Also see, Mearsheimer, John. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. (New York: Norton Paper Backs, 2001).

[iii] Fukuyama, The End of History, xiv.

[iv] Ibid., xiv-xv.

[v] For the foundational treatise on Democratic Modernization theory, see Lipset, Seymour Martin. Political Man. (New York: Doubleday, 1960).

[vi] Fukuyama, The End of History, 143-144.

[vii] Ibid., 144.

[viii] Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times, 56.

[ix] Ibid., 38.

[x] See “Afterword” to the 2006 edition of The End of History and the Last Man, pgs. 341-354

[xi] Note on Identity Politics Book

[xii] See Ibid., p. 346.

[xiii] There are, in fact, three other major criticisms he responds to. These are, first, the problem of democracy at an international level; second, the question of the autonomy of politics; and third, the unanticipated consequences of technological development. Though Fukuyama spends just as much time responding to these other three criticisms, I will only treat the one that has to do with Islam, since it is tied directly to my later discussions of Voegelin and Kojève. At least in the “Afterword” where he mentions these criticisms, Fukuyama does not reject his earlier thesis entirely, but qualifies it considerably, and confesses that “the future is really much more open than its economic, technological, or social preconditions seem to suggest.” See Ibid., p. 354.

[xiv]Ibid., p. 347-347

[xv] Ibid., 348.

[xvi] Zizek has a very thought provoking analysis of how this multicultural recognition of the Other, predominant in western liberal societies, can never truly achieve its goal of recognition, since the globalized multicultural society automatically turns personal identity into a “life-style choice,” and thereby does away with anything like a truly substantial and authentic identity. Multiculturalism is thus, in his view, self-undermining, insofar as it completely misunderstands how people who belong to particular religious or ethnic groups view themselves. For them, the belonging to a substantial tradition has nothing to do with a “life-style” choice. This would be to introduce into their lifestyle something completely alien to it, namely, a western focus on individual autonomy. When westerners call upon the Other to become more tolerant and multicultural, they are doing nothing less than demanding “become like us.” Zizek calls this “multicultural racism.” See Zizek’s discussion of the French anti-veal laws in Living in the End Times, p. 43-53

[xvii] For an account of Recognition that also does justice to man’s need and desire for transcendent purpose, see Rosemary Haughton, The Transformation of Man: A Study of Conversion and Community, p. 15-40.

[xviii] See Barry Cooper’s discussion of Voegelin’s philosophical anthropology in Eric Voegelin and the Foundations of Modern Political Science, p. 172-173.

[xix] Glenn Hughes, Transcendence and History, p. 1.

[xx] As we will see, Kojève attributes this desire to Hegel’s “Unhappy Consciousness,” which, according to him, has been overcome in Hegel’s system. The case of Fukuyama is a little bit different. The only mention of the possible need for a transcendent purpose to human life in the entirety of the End of History can be found in a short footnote (n.7) from pg. 176, in the context of a discussion of a speech by Abraham Lincoln and the thymotic ground of the desire for recognition. This footnote reads, “Lincoln’s reference to his belief in a just God, however, raises the question of whether the greatest acts of thymotic self-overcoming need to be supported by belief in God.” This passage shows that the question of the transcendent meaning of human life and political order is, at best, a peripheral issue for Fukuyama. Religion is ultimately just about “identity” and “recognition” for him, as it was for Kojève. This, as I will argue, is a fundamental distortion of the meaning and significance of transcendence. In this view, “religion” merely acts as a support for an entirely immanent thymos. It has its source entirely in the immanent thymotic subject. Both of these readings have their roots in the typical atheist reading of Hegel’s work, which seems to be, unfortunately, the default mode of much Hegel scholarship.

[xxi] Hughes, Trancendence and History, 14-15.

Michael ColebrookMichael Colebrook

Michael Colebrook

Michael Colebrook completed his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Dallas. He has taught at the University of Dallas and Assumption University. He currently teaches at an independent school in Massachusetts and serves as an Intelligence Officer in the U.S. Army Reserves. The views in this essay are his own, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.

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