From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Imagining the End of Capitalism With Kim Stanley Robinson
Date October 25, 2020 12:05 AM
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[Kim Stanley Robinson is the author of more than twenty books,
including New York 2140. He talked to Jacobin about his latest work,
his vision of socialism, and why we must fight to imagine the end of
capitalism rather than the end of the world.] [[link removed]]

IMAGINING THE END OF CAPITALISM WITH KIM STANLEY ROBINSON  
[[link removed]]


 

Interview by Derrick O'Keefe
October 22, 2020
Jacobin
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_ Kim Stanley Robinson is the author of more than twenty books,
including New York 2140. He talked to Jacobin about his latest work,
his vision of socialism, and why we must fight to imagine the end of
capitalism rather than the end of the world. _

The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest book,

 

_The Ministry for the Future
[[link removed]]_
is Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest attempt to fill in a major gap in
the utopian fiction tradition. Rarely dealing with the transitional
phase toward a better and different society, speculative fiction of
this type instead explores the final stages of a utopian experiment.
_The Ministry _is an exception to this tendency.

A speculative history of the next few decades, the novel revolves
around an international ministry assembled to help implement the Paris
climate agreement. The novel’s action spans the globe, featuring
popular uprisings, ecoterrorism, asymmetrical warfare, student debt
strikes, and geoengineering. Green New Deal–style programs in a
number of the world’s biggest economies feature prominently — with
a post-BJP India leading the way — and the commandeering of many of
the world’s key central banks to finance the work toward a just
transition off fossil fuels is explored.

This is the meat and potatoes of the long transition — that which
has dismissively been called “a cookshop of the future.” But while
it may not service as a political blueprint, it is undeniably fertile
ground for a novel. And genre disregard for the subject matter has
been to Robinson’s gain.

Looking backward from the mid-twenty-first century,_ The Ministry
_helps open our minds to a world in transition away from capitalism.
Imagining is a necessary precondition for solving the ecological
crisis of our times. It provides the pivot for leveraging the horizon
of the possible. By envisioning possible routes forward, Robinson has
done us an invaluable service.

_Jacobin_’s Derrick O’Keefe, a Vancouver-based organizer and
writer, caught up with KSR to talk about politics, economics, climate
change, sci-fi, and the journey from now to the future.

DOK

This past month, Vancouver, where I’m based, has had a few days with
the worst air quality in the world, thanks to the smoke from the
California and West Coast wildfires. This was an appropriate backdrop
for reading _The Ministry of the Future_, which opens with a
catastrophic weather event. That event, which takes place in India,
helps trigger a wave of political change and climate action worldwide.
Do you think it’s going to take something really extreme to trigger
the changes we need?

KSR

I think we’re already there, with the pandemic and with the fires
and hurricanes — the level of extremity has brought a sense of
general awareness that something is going to have to be done, and the
sooner the better. That said, I think we’re on the brink of even
worse events happening, as the book makes clear. It’s been a
memorable year, a traumatic year — so this may be a stimulus to the
start of some changes.

DOK

The Ministry is dedicated to Fredric Jameson, who was your PhD
supervisor.

KSR

Fred was my PhD supervisor, and while I was working on my PhD, he
moved from UC San Diego to Yale, and when that happened, he stayed on
my committee — but the actual supervision shifted over to my
undergraduate advisor.

DOK

I wanted to ask you about the now-famous quote attributed to Jameson,
which is actually a bit of a paraphrase: “It is easier to imagine
the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” It
strikes me this book is coming out in a year when it’s become pretty
easy to imagine the end of things, and that the real challenge is to
imagine the beginnings of some kind of socialist system. As much as
_The Ministry_ is about the future, it suggests that those beginnings
we need are already here with us now and that it’s really a matter
of scaling up some of those alternatives.

KSR

I’m a novelist, I’m a literature major. I’m not thinking up
these ideas, I’m listening to the world and grasping — sometimes
at straws, sometimes just grasping at new ideas and seeing what
everybody is seeing.

If we could institute some of these good ideas, we could quickly shift
from a capitalism to a post-capitalism that is more sustainable and
more socialist, because so many of the obvious solutions are contained
in the socialist program. And if we treated the biosphere as part of
our extended body that needs to be attended to and taken care of, then
things could get better fast, and there are already precursors that
demonstrate this possibility.

I don’t think it’s possible to postulate a breakdown, or a
revolution, to an entirely different system that would work without
mass disruption and perhaps blowback failures, so it’s better to try
to imagine a stepwise progression from what we’ve got now to a
better system. And by the time we’re done — I mean, “done” is
the wrong word — but by the end of the century, we might have a
radically different system than the one we’ve got now. And this is
kind of necessary if we’re going to survive without disaster. So,
since it’s necessary, it might happen. And I’m always looking for
the plausible models that already exist and imagining that they get
ramped up.

Real-World Models for the Future

DOK

The cooperative economy of Mondragon
[[link removed]],
in the Basque region, comes up as one such model in a number of your
books. And in _The Ministry_, there is the example of Kerala, because
India is so central to the book’s action as a leader of the
transition to dramatic climate action.

KSR

I’m very interested in both these examples. I’ve actually never
been to either region, but I’ve got contacts in both. In Mondragon,
they are aware of me as an American science fiction writer who likes
them, because my Mars trilogy books are translated into Spanish and do
quite well in Spain. With Kerala, I’ve been studying it for twenty,
twenty-five years. Like, why is it different and how is it different?
Could it be a tail-wagging-dog situation for the rest of India? And so
on.

I did put places that I’ve been in the novel, because I needed some
anchoring points — principally Zurich [where the titular ministry is
headquartered]. My wife and I lived in Zurich for years, and I finally
managed to put that into fiction, which was a great pleasure. But as
for the rest of the world, and for these kinds of leftist precursors,
or already existing leftist states that are at a regional or town
level, I’ve often thought to myself, “Is there any reason that
these can’t be taken as models?” Is there any real reason —
since obviously there are ideological reasons; if you’re a defender
of capitalism per se, then you would say these are outliers of sorts
or too small to be relevant — but if you’re a leftist, you look at
them and see the public support for what they’re doing, and you ask,
“Why couldn’t that work at a larger scale?” Especially if
you’re trying to imagine futures
[[link removed]]
that are working better, which is what a utopian science fiction
writer does, then you’re kind of desperate for real world-models.

DOK

When I originally heard the synopsis for this book, it struck me
immediately as something like an ecosocialist _Looking Backward
2000–1887 [[link removed]]_. The
main character in that work by Edward Bellamy had fallen asleep for
over a century and then woke up in a sort of post-capitalist utopia in
the year 2000. In contrast, _The Ministry_ is more about the journey
to 2050 or so, a world that is very different from today both
economically and politically. How do you situate this work, and your
work more broadly, within the utopian tradition?

KSR

Well, Bellamy’s is a good book to think about, because it had an
impact in the real world. There were Bellamy clubs, and the whole
progressive movement was energized by _Looking Backward_.

I’ve steeped myself in the utopian tradition. It’s not a big body
of literature, it’s easy to read the best hits of the utopian
tradition. You could make a list, I mean roughly twenty or twenty-five
books would be the highlights of the entire four hundred years, which
is a little shocking. And maybe there’s more out there that hasn’t
stayed in the canon. But if you talk about the utopian canon, it’s
quite small — it’s interesting, it has its habits, its problems,
its gaps.

Famously, from Thomas More (_Utopia
[[link removed]]_) on, there’s
been a gap in the history — the utopia is separated by space or
time, by a disjunction. They call it the Great Trench. In _Utopia_,
they dug a great trench across the peninsula so that their peninsula
became an island. And the Great Trench is endemic in utopian
literature. There’s almost always a break that allows the utopian
society to be implemented and to run successfully. I’ve never liked
that because one connotation of the word “utopian” is unreality,
in the sense that it’s “never going to happen.”

The Left needs to be much more aggressive, and say the problem is not
globalization per se; the problem is bad globalization, which is
capitalism.

So we have to fill in this trench. When Jameson said it’s easier to
imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, I think what
he was talking about is that missing bridge from here to there. It’s
hard to imagine a positive history, but it’s not impossible. And
now, yes, it’s easy to imagine the end of the world because we are
at the start of a mass extinction event. But he’s talking about
hegemony, and a kind of Marxist reading of history, and the kind of
Gramscian notion that everybody’s in the mindset that capitalism is
reality itself and that there can never be any other way — so it’s
hard to imagine the end of capitalism. But I would just flip it and
say, it’s hard to imagine how we get to a better system. Imagining
the better system
[[link removed]]
isn’t that hard; you just make up some rules about how things should
work. You could even say socialism is that kind of utopian imaginary.
Let’s just do it this way, a kind of society of mutual aid. And I
would agree with anyone who says, “Well, that’s a good system.”

The interesting thing, and also the new stories to tell if you’re a
science fiction novelist, if you’re any kind of novelist — almost
every story’s been told a few times — but the story of getting to
a new and better social system, that’s almost an empty niche in our
mental ecology. So I’ve been throwing myself into that attempt.
It’s hard, but it’s interesting.

Homo Economicus Is a Fraud

DOK

Amidst and between all the action of _The Ministry_, there are some
polemics carried out, is that fair to say? One recurrent polemic is
against mainstream economics, a theme running throughout the book that
there’s a need for new metrics and new indices both to quantify the
biosphere and to express what we truly value rather than just GDP and
the stock market.

KSR

There is a polemic for sure. First, I would want to make a distinction
between economics and political economy, because by and large,
economics as it’s practiced now is the study of capitalism. It takes
the axioms of capitalism as givens and then tries to work from those
to various ameliorations and tweaks to the system that would make for
a better capitalism, but they don’t question the fundamental axioms:
_everybody’s in it for themselves, everybody pursues their own
self-interest, which will produce the best possible outcomes for
everybody_. These axioms are highly questionable, and they come out of
the eighteenth century or are even older, and they don’t match with
modern social science or history itself in terms of how we behave, and
they don’t value the natural biosphere properly, and they tend to
encourage short-term extractive gain and short-term interests. These
are philosophical positions that are expressed as though they are
fixed or are nature itself, when in reality they are made by culture.

Political economy is a kind of nineteenth-century thing, a more
open-ended idea where we could have different systems. And that
accounts for a lot of the struggles of the twentieth century. But
capitalism likes to pretend that it’s nature itself, and that’s
what economics is today, largely.

Take the term “efficiency.” In capitalist economics, that’s just
regarded as almost a synonym for “good,” but it completely depends
on what the efficiency is being aimed at. You know, machine guns are
efficient, gas chambers are efficient. So, “efficiency” as such
does not mean “good.” It is a measure of the least amount of
effort put in for the most amount gotten out.

I learned more about the central banks and realized that nationalizing
the banks wouldn’t be going far enough.

One of the things you’re seeing during the pandemic is that the
global system of creating masks is efficient, but it is also fragile,
brittle, and unreliable because redundancy, robustness, and resilience
are all relatively inefficient, if the only rubric of efficiency is
profit.

Capitalist economics misunderstands and misjudges the world badly, and
that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in — caught between
biosphere degradation and radical social inequality. These are both
natural results of capitalism as such, a result of the economic
calculations we make under capitalist axioms.

Distinctions have to be made here. Quantification is really part of
science. Social science has some tools for understanding and
generalizing from the particulars of individuals to what the group
might want.

Twenty-five years ago, I might have said, “Economics, we have to
throw it out.” That doesn’t hold for me anymore. Economics has a
set of tools. And social science tools, working with the right axioms,
could make for a socialist economics. There could be a post-capitalist
economic system. But what you’re then talking about is a different
political economy.

That’s one of the things _The Ministry_ is about. Can you morph, by
stages, from the political economy that we’re in now, which is
neoliberal capitalism, to what you might call anti-austerity, to a
return to Keynesianism, and then beyond that to social democracy, and
then beyond that to democratic socialism, and then beyond that to a
post-capitalist system that might be a completely new invention that
we don’t have a name for?

Right-wing thinking is supremely hypocritical and convoluted and
self-contradictory, and that needs to be pushed on and pointed out at
every chance.

This is why I hold myself to calling it “post-capitalism,” so as
not to try and define it by any of the nineteenth-century political
economies. I think many of the solutions can be found in socialism,
but I don’t call myself a socialist. I would want to keep it a
little more open to the idea that we have to morph capitalism as such,
and that we might shove it to the margins, where we might have a
market for the non-necessities. I think the market itself has to be
reexamined, and this is so fundamental to the way that modern society
works that it’s frightening, and, for me, it’s better to think in
a stepwise fashion and to imagine society from where we are now
transforming to an undefined better political economy.

Planetary Heat Death or the End of Capitalism — We Can Choose

DOK

One of the axioms of that better political economy is expressed in
_The Ministry _as “Public ownership of the necessities, and real
political representation” — two things together that we are far
from having, by greater or lesser degrees, really almost everywhere
today.

A key part of getting from here to there, to a new political economy,
involves the question of finance. In _New York 2140
[[link removed]]_, one of
your characters is a Wall Street trader speculating on intertidal
markets, and much of the action concerns finance and the banks. In
_The Ministry_, even more radical measures are contemplated for
putting finance at the service of a livable, non-submerged future.
Where did you get the inspiration for Carbon Quantitative Easing
[[link removed]]
and the rest of the transformation of finance imagined in this book?

 

KSR

Carbon Quantitative Easing is not my idea. I really am just a
listening facility here, trying to amplify ideas. That one is out
there. Recently, even Lawrence Summers — who was the treasury
secretary for Bill Clinton and a neoliberal of the first order — and
his think tank have been putting out stuff about some kind of CQE. So
it’s been spreading quickly as an idea, and I’m glad.

New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson

But in the years since I wrote _New York 2140_, I learned more about
the central banks and realized that nationalizing the banks
[[link removed]],
which happens in _2140_, wouldn’t be going far enough. It would be
great if all banks were owned by the people, and if banks were not
private profit-making enterprises, that would be great — but it
would only be one step along the way; it would not be enough. Because,
at this point, central banks are only concerned with stabilizing money
and maybe helping employment levels, and they will not do anything
else unless they are under enormous pressure. They need to be changed,
and that’s a lot of what this novel’s about.

Changing the way we regard money, that would be a step toward
post-capitalism right there. If money was created from scratch but not
given to the banks to loan to whatever they wanted but given to
decarbonization projects first, then flowing out into the general
economy — the first spending money by governments, which make money
in the first place, would be targeted toward decarbonization efforts.
This strikes me as a good idea, a necessary idea.

Because saving the biosphere doesn’t make a profit in the capitalist
order, we will never do it, and we are therefore doomed. So a very
fundamental reform of how we regard money itself is absolutely
necessary. I’m saying that a post-capitalist political economy that
regards money as created for the public good and is spent on that
first — and then trickles into the general economy — is a
fundamental shift, and without it, we’re in terrible trouble.

DOK

A lot of the action takes place in Switzerland, as you mentioned,
because many of the main characters are members of the Ministry of the
Future headquartered in Zurich. Do you worry that your story could
evoke right-wing tropes like the globalist, world government bogeyman
that nationalists talk about to avoid action on climate change?

KSR

Well, maybe so, but I would say the Left has to fight fire with fire.
Right-wing ideas are also conceptions of globalization, in terribly
poor disguises as being nationalist. But the nationalist system is
embedded in capitalism; it’s just completely international and
global. These right-wingers, if they could make an extra dime an hour
by selling out national citizens by sending their industries to China
or India — they’d do it in a second, and they already have. So
they need to be called out for being completely inconsistent and
hypocritical. And the Left needs to be much more aggressive on that,
and say the problem is not globalization per se; the problem is bad
globalization, which is capitalism, as opposed to good globalization,
which is mutual aid and cooperation among the nation states by way of
international treaties and things like the UN.

Because saving the biosphere doesn’t make a profit in the capitalist
order, we will never do it, and we are therefore doomed.

The Paris Agreement is crucial. It’s a major event in world history.
It could turn into the League of Nations, in which case we’re
screwed. Or it could turn into something new in history, a way to
decarbonize without playing the zero-sum game of nation against
nation.

So all this needs to be fought at the level of the discursive battle,
and no concessions can be made on that point. I mean, right-wing
thinking is supremely hypocritical and convoluted and
self-contradictory, and that needs to be pushed on and pointed out at
every chance — these supposed nationalists are also going to sell
you out. This discursive battle, it’s very important.

DOK

You talked about the Great Trench, of how we get from here to there,
and it strikes me that this book is very grounded. There’s no
reference to a lunar colony, let alone to any Elon Musk Inc. version
of Mars, and there’s no mention of off-planet gated communities like
in the film _Elysium [[link removed]]_. Does
this absence imply that saving the earth, or transitioning to a
livable system, requires stopping the capitalist colonization of
space? I kept waiting for an Elon Musk character.

KSR

Well, since there are 106 chapters — I guess that I could have made
it 107, and I could have talked about that. But maybe the absence does
speak louder than words. All of those things are fantasies, and
billionaire fantasy trips are not going anywhere.

In _Red Moon [[link removed]]_
and _Aurora [[link removed]]_,
I’ve made my statement about what’s possible and what isn’t.
Because in the capitalist world, you have to make a profit, and even
the billionaires don’t have enough money to properly fund these
ventures on their own. So they talk about asteroid mining — that’s
bullshit. They talk about Helium-3 mining on the moon — that’s
bullshit. There is no profit in space. It’s just a fantasy of our
culture right now, because everybody’s been convinced by science
fiction writers [laughs], and they’re not paying attention to the
numbers game, I guess.

Red Moon, by Kim Stanley Robinson

I believe in space science. I’m totally in love with NASA, and with
public space science, as part of government. There’s this saying of
NASA’s, “space science is Earth science,” and I totally believe
that.

DOK

That strikes me as the theme of _Aurora,_ right there. You have to go
150 years away from Earth into space to realize what you’ve got, and
in that book, they actually turn the ship around.

KSR

Yes, exactly. _Aurora_ is my statement about leaving the solar system
and that whole idea that humanity is destined for the stars. I try to
put a stake in the heart of that idea. But the moon, Mars, the
asteroids — that’s more local. But it’s not profitable. So,
you’ll see China on the moon [as in _Red Moon_], you’ll see an
international presence there. I’m confident it will be just like
Antarctica. And Antarctica’s interesting. There’s a couple
thousand people down there every summer. It’s not exploitable;
there’s no profit to be made down there. And nobody’s interested.
Like, if I say to people, “Oh, I went to Antarctica,” it’s like,
“Who cares?”

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

To Fight Climate Change, We Will Need Every Arrow in Our Quiver

DOK

And I assume you have spent quite some time in Antarctica, because
there’s so much detail to the action that takes place there, in both
this book and your earlier works.

KSR

Yes, I have been there twice. I have a whole novel about it. Sea level
rise is so imminent that Antarctica will be important. And this idea
of sucking out the water from beneath these glaciers to slow their
melting and sliding into the ocean, this is an idea that glaciologists
have, really an individual glaciologist. And when I ask their
colleagues about this plan, they say, “Yeah, we have the
technology.”

The question is whether the bottom [of the glaciers] is configured
correctly. In other words, the earthy form of Antarctica that the ice
is resting on may or may not be conducive to sucking water out. So
it’s an open question whether my save-the-sea-level section of _The_
_Ministry_ would actually work… it’s probably the most speculative
part of the novel, to suggest that that could be done and that it
would work. That would be extremely useful geoengineering, but as of
now, no one is confident that it would actually work, because we
don’t know enough about what the bottom is like. So the Antarctic
strand of the novel is a bit of wishful thinking.

DOK

Geoengineering is sometimes a kind of “third rail” in left or
ecological political circles. At one point, one of your characters in
this book suggests that what’s needed is a new word.

 

KSR

I know just what you’re talking about, this kind of third rail
sensibility. I would say that conditions have changed such that we are
now obviously actively experiencing climate change. I can see that a
standard leftist analysis of this is that it’s just more capitalist
excuse-making. But what I’m saying is, we’re doing it already, it
might become necessary, and anyway, a nation like India, if they get
hit by a heat wave, they’re not going to care about any kind of
leftists clutching their pearls. Many leftists are fairly well off,
well off enough to have a political philosophy that wants things to be
better for everyone, partly, like in my case, so I don’t feel like a
ridiculous aristocrat but just a precursor of what everyone will have
later on.

What I want to say to all my leftist readers is, get over it. We’re
in an all-hands-on-deck situation, where every possible thing that has
ever been suggested to escape the mass extinction event is going to be
on the table. And these theoretical arguments — it’s just another
capitalist ploy, it’s a silver bullet, it’s a fantasy — well,
some of that’s true and some of it isn’t. So there is no excuse
for ideological rigidity about something this important. As a leftist,
I would say to other leftists: Get over the prejudice against the term
geoengineering and look again at the situation that we’re in. We
need to decarbonize. Anything we do at scale to achieve that is a form
of geoengineering.

I’m totally in love with NASA, and with public space science, as
part of government.

Here’s one thing I’ve been saying to open eyes around
geoengineering: women’s rights are a geoengineering technology.
Here’s why: when women have developed and achieved rights, because
we need to get to post-patriarchy as well as post-capitalism, the
population replacement rate — a steady population is like 2.1 kids
per woman — drops naturally from their own life choices to a rate of
like 1.8 or 1.6. So, if you start talking about women’s rights as a
geoengineering method, that takes it out of the techno-silver-bullet
land, which is where we’re stuck right now. Because right now, when
a leftist hears “geoengineering,” they think about an oil company
pulling the wool over our eyes, suggesting we can keep burning carbon
if we just throw dust into the atmosphere, and how we could end up in
some kind of Snowpiercer [[link removed]] or
other extreme, far-fetched situation. So it serves as an allegory
about things that could go wrong.

But I want to argue that humanity is now a major player in Earth’s
biosphere, and anything we do to help Earth’s biosphere at scale —
in other words, the whole civilization doing it on purpose — could
be defined as geoengineering. And then you get software as well as
hardware solutions.

So law, justice, post-capitalism, women’s rights, post-patriarchy
— all these things could be defined as forms of geoengineering, and
at that point, the term kind of falls apart. What we’re really
talking about is civilization, as such, as a form of biosphere
management. So this is what I’m going out there with over and over
on this point, because there’s too much hardening of positions, and
these positions are being taken on the basis of the situation as it
existed in about 1980 or maybe 1990. The positions are behind the
curve of the realities. So, as a leftist science fiction writer,
it’s my responsibility to be politically incorrect in provocative
ways.

DOK

One of the_ Ministry_ characters wonders at some point, “Were they
fools to have tried so hard for words in a world careening toward
catastrophe?” Every writer working on the topic of climate, whether
approaching it through fiction or nonfiction, probably has this
thought from time to time. You’ve worked hard for decades in a genre
that many have often dismissed. Against this snobbish trend, Ursula K.
Le Guin
[[link removed]]
once suggested abolishing genre and subgenre categories altogether,
arguing that “literature is literature.” Do you feel like science
fiction, or speculative fiction, is finally getting its due respect
— especially in this year of the pandemic?

KSR

We’re in a science fiction novel, as a culture. Science fiction is
the realism of our time, as I’ve been saying over and over again.
It’s the best way to describe the world that we’re in.

I read widely, I’m open-minded. As a writer, I chose science fiction
consciously because it best expresses the realism of our lives today.
Since the pandemic, everybody wants to hear what a science fiction
writer has to say. Of course we don’t have the solution, and of
course we can’t predict the future, but what I think is happening is
people are realizing climate change is already here, it’s hammering
us, and that we have to think more like how science fiction writers
have been thinking for decades now.

This year, I’ve seen a bump in interest that’s doesn’t have to
do with me personally. It has to do with science fiction as a genre.
Now, you don’t see everybody interested. There’s a crowd of people
who like to stay in a previous structure of feeling, to use Raymond
Williams’s term. But that structure of feeling is now inadequate,
and essentially reactionary. Now you’re in a science fiction world,
and so what are you going to do? Maybe you’re going to read more
science fiction!

Derrick O’Keefe is a cofounder and editor of Ricochet Media and is
the author of Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? and A Woman Among
Warlords, coauthored with Afghanistan’s Malalai Joya. Derrick is a
longtime political organizer in Vancouver, BC.

Our new issue, “After Bernie,” is out now. Our questions are
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legacy, and how should we continue the struggle for democratic
socialism? Get a discounted print subscription today
[[link removed]]!

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Message Analysis

  • Sender: Portside
  • Political Party: n/a
  • Country: United States
  • State/Locality: n/a
  • Office: n/a
  • Email Providers:
    • L-Soft LISTSERV