Tag Archives: Friedrich von Hayek

Euroscepticism versus Europhobia

The European Parliament: great work if you can get it

The more I see of the Europhobes’ arguments, the more I find their views bizarre and rather antiquated. When I say “Europhobe”, I am referring, of course, to the same people who call themselves “classical liberals” or “Whigs”. These people have moved beyond mere scepticism of the EU. Their antipathy to Europe is often informed by discourses that are rooted in the last World War. These are the people whose arrogance leads them to believe that they know better than the rest of us when it comes to making a judgement on supranational issues. For it is they whose ideas dominate the discourse on the European Union; they run the press and control the media. It is they who talk over others and insist that “all of Europe” is against closer political union.

I recently had an argument on Twitter with a Europhobe, who presumed that I had never read Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and pretty much insisted that the Austrian’s word was holy writ. You see, Hayek is a sort of neoliberal mystic in the free-market community and must never be contradicted, for to do so, its heresy.  I told him that because I had read Hayek, it didn’t necessarily follow that I agreed with his ideas or that these ideas were, somehow, unassailable. He then proceeded to tell me that it was “Intellectual arrogance to suggest majority opinion wrong because people are not in possession of facts . Also patently wrong”, when I suggested to him that people did not have all the facts about Europe or the EU to make an informed decision (they don’t and the same is often true of domestic politics). In fact, many people don’t know who their MEPs are. He informed me that there was a Europhobic “grassroots movement” and when I asked him to define “grassroots” he dodged the question and produced a research report, which he claimed supported his position. When I told him that it did no such thing, he became touchy.

So let’s look at this supposed Europhobic grassroots movement. Like so many movements that describe themselves as “grassroots”, we find that on closer inspection, they are no such beast. Let’s take a look at the biggest anti-EU lobby party,UKIP. It is not a grassroots movement because it is dominated by men (for it is men) whose antipathy to Europe and the EU stems from their time in Thatcher’s Tory party. They direct the policies and push the buttons. I would argue that UKIP is really the Continuity Thatcherite wing of the Conservative Party. It is, in every sense of the term, a top-down movement. There is a word that is used to describe phony grassroots movements such as these: astro-turf.

The central Europhobe argument is articulated around the sovereignty issue, which is based largely on the idea of national identity. They tell us that since Britain is in the EU, it no longer governs itself. But this is a lie. The Parliament of this country continues to pass laws and its politicians continue to propose legislation. I often find it amusing that no such fears are expressed with regard  to NATO or any other military alliance for that matter. Rafael Behr writing in The Guardian in 2009 said,

…the underlying assumption that “Brussels” perpetrates indignities against Britain is false. Real power in the EU is exercised by national governments, mandated by popular election. Under EU treaties, including Lisbon, the vast majority of decisions made in “Europe” that have an impact on Britain, are made with British sovereign consent.

Did you see that too? Yes, these decisions are made with sovereign consent.  The Europhobes won’t tell you that. One thing that Europhobes particularly resent is the way the European Parliament passed the Working Time Directive, which offers piecemeal protection that is designed to prevent the exhaustion of the workforce. This was bitterly opposed by the Right. The classical liberals hate this idea and would much rather workers be stripped of what rights they have and forced to work in dirty, dangerous and unsanitary conditions for the sake of profit. This phrase “classical liberal” is instructive since it tells us that those who refer to themselves as such will often cast a misty eye to the 19th century, when every aspect of the worker’s life, including their leisure time, was controlled by the industrial barons and they could get on with the business of buying parliamentary influence.

But it is the insistence on the part of Europhobes that we have another referendum to decide on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU that I find curious. Within these anti-EU narratives I have detected a mixture of nostalgia for a long dead empire coupled with an extreme distaste for anything foreign. Sometimes this is framed in broadly Atlanticist terms – the so-called Anglosphere, for example, and occasionally, the discourse is downright paranoid – EUSSR and EUrabia being the conspiranoid’s favourite cheeky pisstake on the initials “EU”. The central premise of their argument rests on the fact that many people weren’t around or old enough to vote in the 1974 referendum. I wasn’t old enough to vote in 1974 but does that mean I demand a referendum? No and nor was I old enough to vote for the first Labour government. In fact, I wasn’t even born.  Do you see me getting annoyed? This is perhaps the least mature of all the Europhobes’ positions. When challenged on this and the points I just raised, the Europhobes will accuse their interlocutors of “bigotry”. Dan Hannan writing in the Telegraph in 2011 produced this unintentionally amusing blog in which he tells us that it’s,

Much easier to pretend that all Eurosceptics are Basil Fawlty than to listen to what they’re actually saying. I was reminded of a delicious moment during the recent Spectator debate on leaving the EU, when a retired French teacher in the audience evoked all the people who had fallen in past European wars, and asked Freddie Forsyth how he’d feel if his grandchildren were to face death in another such conflict. Freddie didn’t catch the question. ‘She wants to know if you’d like your grandchildren to be killed,’ boomed Rod Liddle, the moderator – a pretty good summary of a particular strain of British Euro-enthusiasm: self-righteous, aggressive and irrelevant.

Those last three words could easily be used to describe your side, dear Danny. And Frederick Forsyth?  What an irascible, small-minded auld cuss. I remember his voice of ‘reason’ on Sunday mornings on BBC Radio 4 when he’d open up his speech with the word “Europe” and then proceed to spend the next 14 minutes or so kicking the continent, sprinkling his spoken ‘essay’ with words like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘freedom’. Nosemonkey’s EUtopia blog does an expert job at unpacking Hannan’s ‘arguments’.  He notes Hannan’s sophistry and dissembling, which I have mentioned several times on this blog.

And me? I consider myself to be European. I was born in Europe and I have spent most of my life here. But I am also an internationalist. I have no interest in nations, national identity or the discourses (many of which are racist and/or anti-Semitic) that stem from those things. They are socially corrosive and are produced to serve two masters: the state and the boss.

The principle of a united Europe should not be one that is organized along the lines of the nation-state, which is fast approaching its use-by date but one that works towards the eventual death of the nation-state, as a concept, across the world. And perhaps this is where the problem lies within the minds of the politicians and bureaucrats who run the EU: they are still locked into past centuries, with their incessant wars between royal egos and their grand imperial projects, that latter of which was offered to the masses as  ‘free trade’. They cling to outmoded ideas about ‘sovereignty’ and national identity, both constructed for the purpose of mobilizing the masses to fight capitalist wars.

As Benedict Anderson reminds us, the nation-state was conceived to fight wars. It replaced the absolute monarchies, which were either violently overthrown or brought to heel by the aristocracy, who often dominated Parliament. Our world was born of warring, squabbling monarchies and has grown into one that consists of warring nation-states that ostensibly practice this notion of free trade. But this trade is neither free nor fair. It is colonization by another name. Free trade has also become, rather invariably, a form of warfare that is explained away by describing it as the ‘opening up’ of markets.

The people of Liberia know how this ‘free trade’ works: the United States flooded the markets with cheap exports of rice, thereby putting domestic producers out of business, the result was a run on the currency and the collapse of the economy. This and the political dominance of the Americo-Liberian minority exercised through True Whig Party under William Tolbert, catalyzed the oppressed into action and civil unrest ensued; this developed into a coup d’etat in which Master Sergeant Samuel Doe overthrew Tolbert. We all know what happened next: 20 years of butchery, civil war and instability. Now the classical liberals would spin you some yarn about survival of the fittest but what the Liberian example shows us is how a country’s fragile economy can be ruthlessly destroyed by a larger nation. Where I come from that’s called “bullying”.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am sceptical of the EU as it is.  The European Commission is an especially odd entity, made up as it is of unelected placemen and near ghostly beings from the dusty corridors of state power that is run by an unelected president. It is a place where party hacks can live out their days in comfort and security. Brittan was there. Kinnock was there. Mandelson was there. Any dummy can do it. But I am not afraid of Europe nor am I afraid of an EU that is genuinely democratic. But the EC is not democratic. That should be the aim: to make it more democratic. I’m not overly keen on the idea of a European military either, it sounds like a duplication of NATO but without the US or Turkey. As it exists, the EU is for bankers and bureaucrats not for the people. The European Parliament is a weak body that exists to rubber stamp the diktats of the EC and veto commissioner’s appointments.

But for those who point to the United States and shout, “It wasn’t conceived in the same way as the European nation-state”, I would say this: you are wrong. The US borrowed every single idea it ever had from Europe because it was born of this continent. Millions of immigrants from this continent landed on America’s shores. The US may not have a monarch at its head but it is the very model of a nation-state. Its earliest wars were wars of conquest and imperial expansion: the Mexican-American and Spanish-American Wars spring most readily to mind.

Euroscepticism is healthy. Europhobia is often irrational and conceals some very unpleasant neoliberal discourses. Presently, any discussion of Britain’s place in Europe is controlled by the Right and their partners in the media. This needs to stop. Writing last year for LabourList, Owen Jones said,

But the EU has also helped to drive forward a neo-liberal agenda here, across Europe, and abroad. Successive EU treaties have enshrined “free competition”, which in practice promotes the privatisation of public services. For example, the Lisbon Treaty includes the following clause: “A European framework law shall establish measures to achieve the liberalisation of a specific service”. And while it was the Tories who privatised our railways, it was EU directive 9/440 that made it a legal requirement for private companies to be able to run train services.

This sort of thing needs to be challenged and the narratives (The EU is ‘socialist’ is one that is particularly amusing) put forward by the Right also need to be challenged.  Currently, all the running is being made by Europhobes. This needs to stop.

Here’s a coherent left-wing Eurosceptic argument against the EU from 2009’s The Socialist. This quote points out the flaws in the current EU arrangement that I made above,

This economic persistence of the nation state is linked to its political role. As even capitalist governments don’t control their economic destiny – when faced with the ‘hidden hand’ of the market making workers redundant, for example – they have to find other ways to maintain a social and political base within their respective nation states.

Moreover, the treaty negotiations aimed at ‘equality of competition’ throughout the EU have sometimes meant that the interests of one or another section of the capitalist class in a particular country have not been met, provoking some capitalist politicians to speak out against ‘Europe’. Such objections have been ridden out in times of economic growth, but they will not be so readily overcome in an era of recession.

The nation-state is in its death throes, kept alive only by its capitalist friends who continue to deny its flaws and lie to the people about its role in their lives.

The EU as it currently exists must go and be replaced with something genuinely democratic.

Scepticism is healthy. Fear is not.

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Economic cults are just as bad as any religious cult

Last Sunday I was watching The Big Questions on BBC, a programme that is best described as a Sunday morning shout-fest. The studio audience usually consists of a fair number of religious zealots and assorted weirdos together with sceptics and rationalists who seek to challenge their beliefs. Last week’s discussion was about religious cults and whether they are any different to mass religions. In truth, the mass religions are the same as cults, they just have better PR and more members. This got me thinking: what about those obscure economic cults like Objectivism? What about all those tiresome free-marketeers who slavishly follow the curious fiscal asceticism of Hayek or Friedman? Are they any different to Scientologists or Moonies? Well, no.

Cults are always organized around a charismatic leader. We see this with the Scientologists, the Moonies, the Children of God (now called Family International) and small Healy-ite cults like the Workers Revolutionary Party. The economic cults are no different; they are all obsessed with ideological purity. The leader’s word is supreme.

All cults, like mass religions, require fetish-objects (Islam and Judaism have no fetish-objects). These fetish objects can range from supposed relics like a nail or a splinter from the True Cross  ( in the case of Reaganites,  a vial of Ronald Reagan’s blood) to holy icons; an image of some saint or other. These economic cultists have money, which, as a fetish-object, serves much the same purpose as praying to an icon of the Virgin. “With this money, I am free! With this money I can enslave others and tell them that I am doing it to make them free”! Of course they would tell you that they don’t worship money but that wouldn’t be true because cultists are always in denial about something.

Blinded by their unswerving devotion, right-wing economic cultists will tell you how “flat taxes will benefit us all” and that ‘wealth’ will “trickle down” to those below, even though they produce no hard evidence to support such claims. They will produce the holy icon of the Laffer Curve and, without a trace of irony, proceed to tell you why this curve is so significant and why those at the bottom of the economic ladder must take pay cuts while those at the top award themselves even bigger bonuses. This is voodoo economics. It’s magic, maaan! You will find them reciting passages from The Road to Serfdom, one of the holy books of right-wing economic cultists and they will tell you, with a straight face, that fascism and socialism are the same thing and that only they hold the keys to your freedom. It isn’t and they don’t. But cultists won’t listen to anyone but their cult-leaders. Hayek’s word is holy writ.  He speaketh the Truth and we must listen. Just ask High Priest, Dan Hannan of The Freedom Assocation.

You won’t find the working class or the lower middle class subscribing to these notions  about ‘freedom’ and there is a very good reason for this: they can’t afford them. Only those who have a substantial amount of personal wealth can become cult  members and take part in the liturgy.

These cults also have their priestly caste that is formed from a hardcore of free-market economists who are gathered together in think-tanks like the Adam Smith Institute, the Taxpayers Alliance or the Institute of Economic Affairs. It is within these bodies that the doctrines are formulated and the high priests of late capitalism worship at the clay feet of their dead idols. The Adam Smith Institute, for example, practices a strain of laissez-faire economics that is based on a highly selective reading of The Wealth of Nations , for which they rely on people’s ignorance of Smith’s theories in order to promote “The Invisible Hand” of the free market; the rest of the text is discarded and ignored.

The right will make the counter-claim that the Left (to the Tories this is just anyone who just happens to be vaguely to the left of them) worship John Maynard Keynes and have formed a cult around his ideas. They can make that claim as much as they like, but I have seen little evidence to support this notion. They would also point to Marx and shout “Look! You worship Marxism”!  But that’s only true of a handful of left-wing cults and, at any rate, there is always an ongoing debate about Marxist economics. The same cannot be said for the Right, who are hopelessly devoted to their idols and accept their ‘wisdom’ without criticism. But this deference shouldn’t surprise us: the Right doesn’t like to criticize what they see as unassailable truths; the holy word of Hayek or whichever economic theorist they happen to be praise-singing at that moment in time. This is the truth and all those who deny it shall be cast into eternal darkness!

The problem with economic cults  is that we are forced to live with their mistakes. Privatizations are forced onto us and all social relations are marketized – all for our own good, you understand.  After all, this is the word of the Lord!  He hath spoken! Have faith and enjoy the Kool-Aid!

Postscript

Interesting article from Alternet about Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman.

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Ron Paul and “Austrian Economics”

Ron Paul, the self-styled libertarian,  has declared that we’re all Austrians now.

It was a particular strain of Austrian economics that helped to create the global economic situation we’re in today and yet, Paul wants more of the same. But his love of “Austrian Economics”  goes far beyond the black and white world of so-called free-market economics.

The variety of Austrian economics that we are most concerned with here is not the Hayekian strain (he digs Hayek too) but the Misean strain as promoted by Lew Rockwell and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, the neo-Confederate think-tank that rationalizes the Civil War as merely an unnecessary “tariff war” and declares the Emancipation Proclamation and all the legislation that stems from it to be an abomination. Paul thinks slaveowners were cheated out of their right to own slaves by the cruel North. He also believes that the Civil Rights Act stripped away a person’s freedom to deny service to someone on the grounds of their skin colour. It’s all about “state’s rights”, see?

There’s a good story from Paul Rosenberg  on the Al-Jazeera site here.

So when Paul talks about Austrian Economics, he does so safe in the knowledge that most Americans have no idea what he’s talking about. Many people find his brand of libertarianism attractive and can’t help but feel drawn to it. That’s understandable.  It’s a little like finding yourself humming along to a catchy pop tune but don’t know the name of the song or the person who is singing it.

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Filed under Economics, laissez faire capitalism, neoliberalism, United States, US Presidential Election 2012

Using sex to sell right-wing politics

Everyone knows that sex sells. If you don’t, then where have you been? I was amused by this recruitment poster for the Young Britons’ Foundation, which appears to suggest that Tories are better in the sack than people of other political persuasions. But it’s weak stuff and only acne-riddled, adolosecent Randist pencil-necks would get their kicks from this kind of stuff. In fact, I would wager that none of the YBF’s foot-soldiers have ever had real sex.

Sex involves more that just making yourself feel good, it’s also about understanding the other person’s needs and feelings. That’s something that selfish Randroids and Hayekians have a hard time understanding. But this poster is a sexual metaphor for the hard right’s demands for “faster and deeper” cuts. If this was an attempt at humour, it is sadly misguided.

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The real road to serfdom

So the credit rating agency, Standard & Poor (great name) has downgraded the US’s credit rating from AAA to AA+. Do you know what this means? No? Because I don’t either. Does it mean that the US will have its credit card taken away and sent to the naughty step?

Is it me or is this whole process of credit rating  nations a little simplistic? I remember when Thatcher compared Britain’s economy to to a domestic budget. It was silly and reductive then and it’s silly and reductive now. It provides an instant rationalization and a justification for spending cuts and job losses.

Viewing the world in such simplified terms can only lead in one direction: disaster. The global economic meltdown is partly a product of lazy thinking as well as inveterate greed.

The world and its economies are much more complicated than the world’s politicians are prepared to admit. Credit rating agencies are merely an arm of enforcement that works on behalf of the banks and other financial institutions.

The US can thank the sociopaths in the Tea Party for its downgrade. It can also thank them for nearly bringing the world to its knees. I get the feeling that they won’t be happy until we’ve all returned to a feudal formation.

When Hayek wrote The Road To Serfdom, the serfdom that he envisaged was associated with what he saw as the two ‘socialisms’: Nazism and socialism (or communism). But there are fundamental flaws in his understanding of what constitutes serfdom. His knowledge of socialism was also limited to his own narrow ideological understanding of the word. In Hayek’s world, only the free market could protect liberty but, as we have seen in the last thirty years, people are less free because our politicians put the interests of corporations and banks first. The Hayekian praxis of Thatcher and Reagan and those who have followed them has put us all on a path to serfdom. The trouble is, those who support this form of economic libertarianism have little , if nothing, to lose. They won’t become  serfs. But the rest of us will end up as their slaves if we don’t put a stop to this nonsense.

Meanwhile in Israel, people have been on the streets to demand homes and jobs.

We need more of that here in Britain.

Guns or butter?

Here’s a song from a The Gang of Four.

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Filed under Economics, laissez faire capitalism, Late capitalism, neoliberalism, robber baron capitalism

Institute of Directors – Our solution for growth: end collective bargaining

When I saw this story from the BBC, I thought that I had gone to sleep for a year and woke up thousands of miles away in Chile. The Institute of Directors have today called for an end to collective bargaining for public sector workers,

The IoD has put forward 24 “freebie” proposals, which it says would cost the government nothing but would benefit growth, particularly in the private sector.

Among the most controversial would be the call to curb trade union negotiating power in large public sector bodies, said BBC business correspondent Joe Lynam.

The IoD also suggests that workers should pay a deposit of £500 when taking their employers to industrial tribunals to deter what it describes as “vexatious claims”.

Who says the IoD is not out of touch when they make proposals such as these? What this Tory-led government and its partners in the IoD and Taxpayers Alliance want is for this country to adopt the Chinese economic model with a bit of Chile on top. In essence this is the laziest of lazy thinking: stimulate growth by denying workers their human rights in what is supposed to be a ‘liberal democracy’.  There is nothing democratic about the IoD or its proposals.

A spokesman for the Trades Union Congress said the IoD’s real aim was to make life easy for directors at the expense of their workforce and to lower pay and conditions in the NHS.

Brendan Barber the General Secretary of the TUC said,

“Our economy is not struggling because of the relatively modest platform of rights people have at work,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“Taking these away and taking away collective bargaining from the NHS, that would do nothing to generate growth.

“We need decent fair pay systems, and collective bargaining is the way to deliver that.”

Naturally, the Treasury responded to IoD’s proposals with enthusiasm,

“We are glad the IoD has agreed that our deficit reduction strategy is central to growth.

“We have been clear that the Budget will build on work we have done already as we move towards a new model of economic growth.”

A “new model for economic growth”? This can only mean one thing: a new kind of economic slavery. Hayek argued against centralization in his book The Road to Serfdom. The title says it all.  However in order to fully pursue a Hayekian economic order, civil liberties have to be suppressed and workers are forced to work for peanuts and for longer hours while the rich get richer at the expense of those who work for them. Nothing must interfere with profit.  Ironically, the very things that Hayek argued have the potential to create a new form of serfdom. But Hayek didn’t notice this because, like a spurned lover,  he was too busy formulating an extreme antithesis – a poison penned letter –  to Keynesianism. But Hayek wasn’t really thinking about ordinary workers when he wrote his book, he was thinking about the wealthy.

These people won’t stop until many of us are working 14 to 16 hours a day in workplaces that are surrounded by razor wire and security guards with dogs.

Run them out!

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Filed under Economics, Government & politics, Growth, Late capitalism, Public spending, Spiv capitalism

The Big Society? It’s not The Great Society

When President Lyndon Johnson proposed his Great Society, he had a vision and a coherent plan. Contrast this to David Cameron’s “Big Society” which has been largely incoherent and possesses no real vision. It seems to me – as well as many others – that it is nothing more than a cover for the slashing and burning of the public sector.

The Conservatives haven’t been big on the idea of society or anything inherently social for some time. Thatcher once infamously asserted that there was

no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations.

I thought that I would include more of the quote than is actually remembered. I have done this to illustrate the Hayekian thread that ultimately runs through this speech and the policies of the Thatcher government.  The individual in the Hayekian sense is one that has been emptied of all humanity and then re-filled with greed and alienation. Your role in this world – if you aren’t rich and wield governmental or judiciary power – is to consume and be happy. This is an update of the old maxim “know your place”.

Cameron’s Big Society takes this idea forward by imposing something he calls “localism”. But what this localism amounts to is a further atomization of society.

So here is a reminder of the big priorities of the Big Society

  1. Give communities more powers (localism etc)
  2. Encourage people to take an active role in their communities (volunteerism)
  3. Transfer power from central to local government
  4. Support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises
  5. Publish government data (open/transparent government)

The key points of Johnson’s Great Society were:

  1. Civil rights
  2. War on Poverty
  3. Education
  4. Health (Medicare/Medicaid)
  5. Arts and cultural institutions (National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, public broadcasting, etc.)
  6. Transportation
  7. Consumer protection
  8. Environment

There is no grand vision in Cameron’s Big Society brand. There is no mention of poverty, arts and culture (currently being slashed) or education. On the latter, university funding is being cut and free schools – far from being the saviour of the English educational system seem likely to create further division. Admittedly much of the Great Society was rolled back in Reagan’s Gold Rush of the 1980’s. In this country the welfare state was similarly shrunk though, ironically, a quasi-welfare state continues to exist for private enterprise.

The National Health Service, seen by many free-market Tories as a beast that has been fattened for slaughter, is to face the effects of the Tories social experiment. The GP fund-holding scheme will be resurrected, dusted down and given a new name: patient choice. Those who propose these ‘reforms’ are well aware that they do not use public services of any kind, so it doesn’t matter to them if a few libraries in their constituency are closed or the NHS is privatized because they don’t use the NHS either.

There is no aim to improve anything except the channels that deliver wealth to the already wealthy. Public transport will become more expensive as this government reduces the amount of subsidy that it gives to the Train Operating Companies.

When Blair appropriated FDR’s phrase “New Deal”, he divested it of meaning. Instead the New Deal was used to massage unemployment statistics. If someone was on the New Deal, they weren’t claiming Jobseekers Allowance and were thus excluded from the figures. The New Deal was as superficial as the man who dreamt up the ‘idea’.

The Tories may think that by coupling the word “big” with society this will convince people into thinking that what the government is doing is for the benefit of all. This line of thinking is delusional but then thinking isn’t what these people do best.

UPDATE @ 1632

Edited out sentence that made no sense.

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