Won't commodity fetishism also exist in libertarian-communism?

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ultraviolet's picture
ultraviolet
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Jun 4 2012 19:08
Won't commodity fetishism also exist in libertarian-communism?

Hello libcom! Been away a while, good to be back. smile

Today I watched some videos by this guy who is attempting to explain Marxist theory for layfolk such as myself. (http://kapitalism101.wordpress.com/) I just watched his video "The Law of Value 2: The Fetishism of Commodities." (http://kapitalism101.wordpress.com/2010/05/05/the-law-of-value-2-the-fetishism-of-commodities/)

After hearing his explanation of what commodity fetishism means, I wondered if commodity fetishism will still exist in a libertarian-communist society... even if not to the extent it exists now.

First, let me quote his explanation from the video:

Quote:
Let’s take a look inside a workplace. It could be any workplace- a capitalist factory, a peasant commune, a family farm, whatever. Here the relations between different workers are direct. I make a widget and I hand it to the next person. If something needs to change about the labor process a manager brings the workers together and says, “Now we will organize things differently.” Whether it is a democratic or hierarchical form of organization it is an organization that happens directly between people.

Now let’s look outside the workplace at the market. In the market things are different. The organization of work, the division of labor, doesn’t happen through direct social relations between people. In the market the products of labor confront each other as commodities with values. These interactions between things act back upon production. They are what send signals to producers to change their labor, to produce more, produce less, go out of business, expand business, etc.

Coal miners, bakers, carpenters and chefs don’t directly relate to each other as workers. Instead the products of their labor, coal, bread, cabinets and pasta, meet in the market and are exchanged with one another. The material relations between people become social relations between things. When we look at coal, bread, cabinets and pasta we don’t see the work that created them. We just see commodities standing in relation of value to each other. A pile of coal’s value is worth so many loaves of bread. A cabinet’s value is worth so much pasta. The value, the social power of the object, appears to be a property of the object itself, not a result of the relation between workers.

We are atomized individuals wandering through a world of objects that we consume. When we buy a commodity we are just having an experience between ourselves and the commodity. We are blind to the social relations behind these interactions. Even if we consciously know that there is a network of social relations being coordinated through this world of commodities, we have no way of experiencing these relations directly because… they are not direct relations. We can only have an isolated intellectual knowledge of these social relations, not a direct relation. Every economic relation is mediated by an object called a commodity.

From what I've read on these forums of people's visions of what a lib-com society will function like, people usually say that we will consume goods by going to distribution centers and taking what we need/want. In this way, aren't we still relating to objects? And isn't the labor that is embodied in those objects still abstract?

I've also often heard it said that production collectives will know how much to produce based on stock levels and flows, which indicate the community's demand for what they're producing. Stock levels and flows will also tell them how much of the necessary materials and inputs to order from other production collectives.

So even with no profit, no prices, no buying and no selling, isn't there still the persistence of human relations mediated by objects?

I'm not bringing this up to criticize libertarian-communism. I actually don't really see how a certain degree of commodity fetishism (if that is defined as human relations being mediated by objects) is avoidable and I also don't see why it would be undesirable.

When I go to a distribution center to get my groceries or some curtains or a teddy-bear or whatever, I don't see how I could do so while fully encountering the labor process behind it or why this would be at all necessary.

Thoughts? Maybe my understanding of commodity fetishism is just wrong.

Khawaga's picture
Khawaga
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Jun 4 2012 19:26
Quote:
From what I've read on these forums of people's visions of what a lib-com society will function like, people usually say that we will consume goods by going to distribution centers and taking what we need/want. In this way, aren't we still relating to objects?

We're still relating to objects, but the objects are not mediating social relations.

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A Wotsit
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Jun 4 2012 20:38

Well put Khawaga.

I'm not totally sure what commodity fetishism is but in terms of our relationship to production and consumption I reckon....

With libcom, the production, distribution and consumption of the objects isn't being driven by the profit motive, it's being driven by social need.

Through improved social organisation, and more ways to bring social need to other people's attention, we would have much more access to the people and workplaces that produce the objects/ services that were available at any given time. We are all involved in the production and consumption not as alienated individuals following the whims of capital, the lure of marketing and the orders of the boss, but through networks of social organisation. If the quantity/ quality of what was available to us wasn't right we could get involved in addressing that and would have lots of ways of asking other people to get involved too.

It's a good question though and I do think that there would be scenarios where we would sometimes feel alienated from the people who produce the things we consume, because there would only be a certain amount of production processes we could get heavily involved in. But still, it would be loads better and I for one would like the opportunity to get involved in making lots of different things.

RedHughs
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Jun 5 2012 21:34
ultraviolet wrote:
From what I've read on these forums of people's visions of what a lib-com society will function like, people usually say that we will consume goods by going to distribution centers and taking what we need/want. In this way, aren't we still relating to objects? And isn't the labor that is embodied in those objects still abstract?

First, a lot of communists rightly refuse to put forward a fixed "vision" so I don't think you're really being fair "pinning" this "vision" on them. For example, the answer to "how will people get food" might be "well, they might just go to the distribution center and get it" but this would not be an encyclopedic statement concerning how a communist society would work.

But still, being clear that what I say isn't "the vision" either, let me offer some concrete details concerning how the qualities of a communist society might differ from those of a capitalist society.

For example, rather than a supermarket-like distribution center where nuclear families got their ration of processed food, a communist society might distribute food using large communal kitchen/eating halls which could be also be centers for socializing, where the process of volunteering to cook and serve would be quite informal but still thought-out to the extent that it would offer a grand-pallet for the portion of people who enjoy being cooks and helping create the human dining experience. One could sketch a similar "creative-participatory" process for child care, garbage removal, or any present day activity.

To move further into abstraction, the organization of capitalist society is an organization of human collective activity, it is simply an organization of human collective which appears to be separate individuals relating to "things", those "things" being prices and commodities. Note also that neither a price nor a commodity is a purely physical thing but rather a "social thing".

A communist society would have to strip away that veil and combine collective process, both formal and informal, with the particular activities of dealing with the material world.

I would personally frame the situation as being that a communist society would be, uh, communal. Personal enjoyment would come from the weaving together of material things and social processes. This would involve the fusion of "consuming things", individual-and-collective entertainment and collective decision making, obviously with some situations having more emphasis on one thing and some on another (I know folks took offense at my earlier reference to orgies so I'll keep overall framework less-defined but hey, my point is that communist society would be organized promote our mutual enjoyment in a variety of forms acting to minimize any relationship of scarcity or self-sacrifice).

And I should also put it that my opinion is by no means the universal opinion here. I'm sorry to say but I'd certainly say some portion of ostensibly communist posters here would sketch a post-capitalist whose details are almost identical to our present rather inhuman order

cantdocartwheels wrote:
You'd probably have a swipe card to keep a tab on what you were consuming for market research purposes and because there'd probably be waiting lists or at least a limited supply of certain ''luxury'' goods. (Eg a meal in a top notch restaurant, front row tickets to the big game, theatre tickets etc) but I don;t really see why you'd need to be issued with cash or labour notes in the future considering more and more exchanges are done electronically these days anyway.
You certainly wouldn't need a ''wage'' when it came to the majority of consumable goods, which is why labour notes get such a frosty reception, because your putting a price on something as basic as a loaf of bread which their is absolutely no shortage of and because your turning work into something you do in order to earn money to buy that bread rather than something you do for yourself and for society as a whole.

And you can follow a whole earlier discussion around scarcity from the link above.
I note here, especially, that all of these rationed "Luxury goods" mentioned by cantdocartwheels are pure "social relations" in the sense that "big games", "top notch restaurants" and scarce theater performances only exist given the dominance of stars and celebrities today. IE, the active, intentional organization of today's society is the main, active force that makes a few select experiences more desires than many possible others. The constant repetition of images of these more desirable activities of course is a strong reinforcer of the artificial social scarcity embedded in capitalist relations today. Note also that I wouldn't argue that a communist society would necessarily only involve a return to a natural state. Just as today's social relations reinforce the scarcity of commodity relations, a communist society would likely take active measure to maintain conditions of subjective abundance - making sure that everyone on earth had their basic biological survival needs met and that social needs were met with fairly minimal material costs, etc.

Altogether, my subjective summary would be - this society is not simply badly organized, nearly everything we do and the very organization of the present terrain is barking, screaming mad. A future society would be very different. Call that "hippy thinking" all you want.

Edit: Minor further edits after buzzy's kind words.

bzfgt
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Jun 5 2012 20:31

Great post, Red. Where were the "orgies" mentioned?

bzfgt
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Jun 5 2012 20:35

Never mind, I found it after your link above...

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Jun 5 2012 20:54

You would still have fetishes, objects imbued with certain 'voodoo' powers that mediate social relationships. No?

bzfgt
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Jun 6 2012 01:10

How would objects "mediate social relationships" in a communist society? I mean if you're talking about the smell of madeleines or something, fine, but in the sense Marx gives to this mediation, communism is supposed to be the abolition of such.

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Jun 6 2012 21:29

Whether we live under capitalism or communism or whatever, objects take on significance through the social relations they embody. Whether in the mass 'alienation' the myriad of objects that we know not where they came from that have a spirt of their own, to its opposite - objects that are created through collective processes which arrange our social relationships with each other. WE may be more aware of the fact that objects do serve this function than we presently do, but the relationship with have with objects and the arbitrary nature of their value throughout human existence will not be be diminished imho.

TitusMoans
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Jun 7 2012 05:24

In a society that values the worth of all workers, past and present, where each worker is considered essential and not a disposable resource, commodities no longer exist as objects to be prized, but as usable units that indicate the worth of all individuals.

Though we may not know the production details of a particular item, whether it be a head of lettuce, a tablet computer, or a work of art does not prevent us from realizing the collective effort required to produce the particular commodity.

So, if we assume that each takes according to need for essentials, like housing, food, health care, no mediation of any kind is implied or required.

Non-essentials, which certainly include, as an example, a front-row seat at a concert, have to be handled differently by collective agreement, but without requiring any mediation.

In either situation, whether dealing with an essential or non-essential item, "no experience between ourselves and the commodity" is indicated. Needs, even non-essentials, are the products and rewards of the collective effort.

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Jun 7 2012 08:01
TitusMoans wrote:
So, if we assume that each takes according to need for essentials, like housing, food, health care, no mediation of any kind is implied or required.

Though that means the commodity is a relation of the past, so I'm not quite sure what you're on about when you say commodities reflect the "worth of all individuals".

andy g
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Jun 7 2012 08:41

communism is the supersession of commodity production. goods are no longer produced for exchange and the social value of individual labour is "directly" affirmed in the planning of the associated producers.

in other words we get together collectively to decide what needs doing and do it - we don't depend on the workings of the market to do it for us.

that doesn't imply we all known each others work inside out, just that decisions are made democratically before the act of production not blindly through the interaction of products on the market

TitusMoans
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Jun 7 2012 15:52

No single commodity is simply the product of an individual. Rather it is a product of workers, past and present, who have built the structure that allows the single commodity to be produced: a collective effort.

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Jun 7 2012 16:44
ultraviolet wrote:
From what I've read on these forums of people's visions of what a lib-com society will function like, people usually say that we will consume goods by going to distribution centers and taking what we need/want. In this way, aren't we still relating to objects? And isn't the labor that is embodied in those objects still abstract?

A lot of people think social relations are relations between people alone. This is a mistake. Social relations, in any form of society, are relations between people and things. That does not necessarily mean that things mediate relations between people the way they do in the specific social relations of capitalism.

We are embodied beings, we need to eat and we need space in which to exist. Even in a hypothetical hunter-gatherer society with virtually no (hu)man-made objects, human relations are also relations with a physical territory and the things, living and inert, within it.

This platonic or gnostic aversion to our materiality, is imo, one of the reasons for the prejudice that seeks to valorise a "purely humanistic" view of social relations between humans, uncorrupted by non-human objects. Certain themes within primitivism reflect this idea that, by reducing the material world to that produced by "nature" alone, and not the "evils" of human artifice, then the eden of "authentic" social relations between humans can be somehow regained.

Social relations will always involve relating to objects then. But this does not mean that objects mediate social relations in the way they do in capitalism.

Capitalism is a social mode of production - i.e. most of producers labour is spent on creating objects or services that will mostly be used by others, and most of the things that we consume will be created for us by others. The management of how we allocate labour between the social division of labour is the key here.

In capitalism, the allocation of labour is not done socially (i.e. by communication and agreement between society members) but through the market mechanisms of generalised commodity production. Which means we sell our labour power to the market, our labour power is engaged to make commodities, these are then sold on the market, and through the occluded and opaque mechanisms of the market, we are shunted from pillar to post, without ever really understanding why, who made the call (no-one), or having any control over the most important part of our lives - how we contribute to the collective production of our own world.

Only in commodity production is concrete labour transformed (through the whole effects of this particular system of social relations) into abstract labour - whose form of appearance is exchange value. Only in the system of generalised commodity production, does exchange stamp the labour embodied in individual portions of the social product as abstract labour.

In a communist society, I may not be aware of all the individual workers whose labour has gone into a particular product I avail of from my local distributor - but that does not make the labour embodied in that good "abstract". "Abstract" is not a synonym for "anonymous" here, it's a technical term that relates to the whole working of the value system in a society dominated by exchange.

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Jun 12 2012 15:08

Hello again! Thanks for your replies... it's a complicated subject and little by little, thanks to the help others are giving, I think I am coming closer to grasping it.

I posted this same question on the blog of the person who made the video, and will copy/paste his reply below. Then, in a separate post I'll copy/paste the reply I wrote to him.

Kapitalism101 wrote:
Thanks for asking this important question. I think the answer can be found if you ask the question backwards: what sort of society would be necessary to not have commodity fetishism? (This is, why I think Marx is relevant to post-capitalist politics. His analysis of capital is essential if we want to know how to not have capitalism. Before we discuss the specifics of this or that model of producing and distributing goods we have to know what our goal is.)

In your comment you seem to be thinking that any time humans interact with nature to produce material objects for a social purpose that this results in commodity fetishism. This makes commodity fetishism seem like a universal phenomena, basic to all human production. Marx never makes these sort of universal statements. Social relations of production always take on specific forms depending on their particular organization. Commodity fetishism is a specific feature of the capitalist mode of production. It did not exist in feudalism or prior modes of production and it will not exist in communism.

I think you are seeing commodity fetishism in subjective and physical terms and that you are confusing the distribution of labor with the mediation of social relations by objects. You see that in any society with a complex distribution of labor an individual cannot directly interact with all of the people that produces that products she consumes and thus you assume that commodities are mediating these social relations. This is not necessarily the case. Commodity fetishism comes from the fact that our labor is indirectly social, and that therefore our labor is ruled by impersonal market forces out of the control of people. In a communist society, and in past societies, labor was/is directly social and people decide directly how much labor is to be distributed between different tasks.

In a capitalist society we don’t decide what gets produced. Rather we produce, throw our commodities into the market, and then the market decides who wins and who loses. These market signals then act back upon production, regulating labor so that it functions at the average level of productivity and regulating the division of labor so that labor is apportioned to the right tasks in accordance with social demand. The market does this not in order to make the lives of people better but in order to maximize profit for its own sake. This is what is abstract about the process…. it is not labor for any rational social purpose. It is just labor in the abstract to make profit in the abstract. It’s particular use is meaningless to capital.

A communist society would be the opposite of this. Rather than a market making decisions based on a profit motive people would make decisions about what to produce and how to produce it. Rather than being indirectly social (where a person only knows if their labor is social labor after it goes to market to be compared with the products of all other labor) it would be directly social (because society would have decided before hand what labor is to be performed.) The exchange value between commodities (in the form of price signals as well as in the form of profit as the goal of production) wouldn’t be directing the labor process. Instead people would be directing the labor process. Even though they still would produce products these products would not be mediating the social labor process. People would be directly controlling this.

Given this theoretical grounding, this description of the necessary features of a non-capitalist society not ruled by commodity fetishism and the law of value, we can then adjudicate different proposals for a communist society.

What do you think?

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Jun 12 2012 15:10

Ok, now here's what I wrote in response to Kapitalism101 (quoted above):

ultraviolet wrote:
Hello! Thanks for explaining this to me.

“In your comment you seem to be thinking that any time humans interact with nature to produce material objects for a social purpose that this results in commodity fetishism.”

Oops, I didn’t mean to say that I think commodity fetishism = interacting with nature to produce objects for social purposes. I meant to say that I think commodity fetishism = interacting with objects created by others but not interacting with the people who made them.

“You see that in any society with a complex distribution of labor an individual cannot directly interact with all of the people that produces that products she consumes and thus you assume that commodities are mediating these social relations.”

Yes, this well describes what I was saying.

“This is not necessarily the case. Commodity fetishism comes from the fact that our labor is indirectly social, and that therefore our labor is ruled by impersonal market forces out of the control of people. In a communist society, and in past societies, labor was/is directly social and people decide directly how much labor is to be distributed between different tasks.”

This makes sense to me.

That being said, in some versions/visions of communism I’ve heard described, the allocation of labor is to a large extent decided by consumer demand. (Real demand, as measured by what is taken from distribution centers, and not the purchasing-power dependent demand of capitalism.) Meetings in workplaces do occur to decide how to produce things, and meetings in communities do occur to decide what goods and services to produce for the community as a whole (like parks, hospitals, schools, infrastructure, wind mills, dining halls, etc.), but individual consumption (like radios, clothing, booze, phones) is not planned in meetings, but based on people independently deciding to go to the distribution center go pick something up, or for big items putting in an order. Other versions/visions of communism do describe pre-planning everything, but if individual consumption is not planned, then it seems that workers in say the bread factory would not have a meeting to plan how much bread to produce, but rather would know how much bread to produce because they are aware of demand statistics. These aren’t market forces, but they are impersonal, so I wonder if that involves a degree of commodity fetishism?

“These market signals then act back upon production, [...] regulating the division of labor so that labor is apportioned to the right tasks in accordance with social demand. ”

I assume that even without a market, the signals of (real) demand will still do this in communism(?). However, this will be entirely eradicated:

“The market does this not in order to make the lives of people better but in order to maximize profit for its own sake. This is what is abstract about the process…. it is not labor for any rational social purpose. It is just labor in the abstract to make profit in the abstract.”

So if the signals of real demand in communism[*] regulate the division of labor, but conforming [to] these signals is done to meet community need rather than to make profit, it seems to me we have half of the commodity fetishism equation. But perhaps what you’re saying is that without that crucial other half of the equation (profit), commodity fetishism no longer exists?

* I agree with what RedHughes said that what communism will be will be decided when it is created, but most of even the bare bones explanations of what it will be like say that most consumption is not planned in big meetings.

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Jun 16 2012 17:52

Thought y'all might want to know what his response was to my follow up question. I found it very clear, and I feel like I get it now... no longer confused.

kapitalism101 wrote:
When I talk about the impersonal forces of the market controlling the producers I am not referring to consumer demand. I am referring to two inter-twined phenomenon: The disciplining of labor to the socially necessary labor time, and the disciplining of labor to the profit motive (“accumulation for accumulation’s sake” as Marx puts it).

When firms compete against each other in the market they compete to lower the socially necessary labor time it takes to produce a commodity. The focus of production is not placed on meeting the needs of society. Rather the focus of production becomes the value relations between commodities, specifically how best to lower the unit value of commodities in relation to competitors so as to make a higher profit. The organization of production is devoted to the accumulation of value for its own sake, not for meeting any social need.

This organization is fetishistic because it is the value relations between objects that regulate production rather than the conscious organization of people. Commodities (including money) seem to (and do) have social power and people are powerless. The power seems to come not from people but from the objects themselves. But Marx wants us to see that the power of these objects comes not from the inherent properties of the objects but from their place in capitalist social relations: people create them and people give them power.

Fetishism is not a matter of “interacting with objects created by others but not interacting with the people who made them.” as you say. If this were the case then fetishism would exist anytime we use a product. It would be a timeless condition of all interaction between subjects and objects. Marx is saying just the opposite: that the particular subject-object relations of a capitalist society are unique to that society. Fetishism does not describe any subject-object relation. It describes a particular kind of subject-object relation where the objects dominate the subjects and where the objects seem to be the active subjects in the world and people their objects. My Law of Value 8: Subject/Object video talks about this.

I think your question is a good one and it helps to clarify the issue. I also think you are correct to test this idea of fetishism against different models people propose for communist societies. I think the question should be asked the other way around though: Rather than looking at different proposed organizations of society and asking if fetishism would still exist, we should look at fetishism, inquire into its basic nature, and then ask what sort of organization of society would be necessary to not have fetishism. This would give the discussion more focus because the details about how the workplace is organized, the relation of distribution to production, etc would all flow from the an understanding of what it takes to negate fetishism, capital, value, and all the rest of it.

RedHughs
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Jun 16 2012 23:47

Hmm,

I would say that there is just little more that need to be riddled-out in these discussions.

It seems like in the last quote, Kapitalism101 could be merely saying commodity fetishism exists if all the elements of capitalist relations as per Das Kapital exist and so the end of the capitalist society will ipso-facto put an end to commodity fetishism. That would be fully consistent but I wouldn't find it very interesting or revealing. It seems like one could argue for any kind of society as long as it eliminated as one or another of Das Kapital's categories (former Yugoslavia for example had commodity production that was officially accounted-for in terms of the working class owning the means of production while the USSR might be argued to not really have had traditional commodity production since it didn't have a real market).

Anyway, earlier, both Ocelot's use of "social" and Kapitalism101's earlier use of "directly social" more or less treated the new communist relations as something of a "black box". That's OK.

If we are going to be historical, some parts of our descriptions of how things work now involve factors "explained by local circumstances" and some portion of how things will work involve factors "yet to be explained".

But again, if you make your entire "deal", the historicity of different categories, your position can wind-up essentially meaningless - X period is or is not capitalist based whether it stays in or goes past one or another category (Whether the USSR was capitalist decided by one or another litmus test of whether it had wage labor and/or capital). So if you're meaningfully compared different historical periods and their qualities, you need at least a few "transhistorical" categories as well.

So to jump right in, what I'd say is communism does posit some inherent ability of people to organize things as a collective totality. When that is going on, one can speak of organizing society "directly" (as per Kapitalism101) even when one you can break down the dynamics involved with "acting directly" and say some apparently indirect steps happen (as per ultraviolet).

Now, the thing is not that communism would only be a pure return to "direct" or "collective unitary" relations but that it would actually have to systematically use and cultivate this "direct" way of relating. I guess I'd make the bold claim that the perfection of capitalist relations is the perfection of the previous modes of "alienation", of surplus extraction and that a society which came afterwards would thus have to involve the systematic refusal/negation of this alienation. But I think it reasonable. If you look in detail, what we'd call capitalism is both historical and trans-historical. Capitalism isn't purely the evolutes of European historical culture, domination and colonization but all the societies in which have reached the point that capital's categories self-reproduce within them.

With this, you might even argue that communism would have to systematically challenge all kinds of alienation rather than just those particular to capitalism (remembering "systematically challenge" is different from "elimenate"). But I'll leave further argument on that till later.