What’s Socialism?

As a person who grew up in the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, I am always puzzled by the way that the word “socialism” is used in North America. Time and again, I hear, for example, that Canada is “Socialist.” I thought that maybe there is a different meaning to this word but I just can’t find the definition of “socialism” that North Americans rely on when they say that Obama, for instance, is a Socialist.

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about Socialism:

Socialism  is an economic system characterized by social ownership or control of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy, and a political philosophy advocating such a system. “Social ownership” may refer to any one of, or a combination of, the following: cooperative enterprises, common ownership, direct public ownership or autonomous state enterprises.

This is precisely the definition that I am familiar with and use. Social control of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy. None of this even remotely exists in Canada and / or is advocated by President Obama. So I’m guessing that there must be some radically different definition that people use.

I’m genuinely confused, folks. Does socialism in North America stand for something like “advocating strong welfare programs and a strong social safety net”? If so, then what do you call actual socialism?

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75 comments on “What’s Socialism?

  1. Ahahahaha awesome. When I was in high school, they told us that socialism + violent revolution = communism. So no. Socialism does not mean what you put there, at least in Texas. Like “communism” it means, approximately, “atheistic anti-American anti-capitalist bolshevik fascism that gives all the poors everything they want for not working”. It’s easy for the stupid or the Texan to make the [il]logical leap from “government run program” or “welfare” or “poor relief” to “revolution by commie terrorists hellbent on killing The Real America”.

    My partner got the same schtick. She once tried to correct that bullshit in class but the teacher sort of glossed her. Then after class she went up to him and insisted that she was right and he was wrong [she gave the definition you gave, more or less]. He agreed. She was right. But sshhh the school wasn’t allowed to teach socialism any other way, and he could get fired if he did.

    So okay, Paul supporters. What’s that about how great Texas education is?

  2. Many in North America use “socialism” and “welfare state” as synonyms. While not strictly correct, this may be a case where perception is more important than reality.

    • I’m not saying that North Americans don’t have the right to their own usage of the term. They certainly do. I’m just wondering what we call actual socialism (collective ownership of the means of production, etc.) in this case.

      • Then Ash nailed it – a truly socialist state would be perceived as equivalent to a communist country.

  3. What does “social control of the means of production” mean? Is there a practical difference between outright government ownership/operation, and heavy regulation?

    The differences between the US and Canada are fairly subtle. I get the impression(being a US citizen) that in Canada, there is a presumption that the government is justified in acting “for the good of society”, and that those who believe government should be limited has the burden of proof. In the Us, on the other hand, there is a presumption that government is, and should be limited, and that those who want more government have the burden of proof.

    • That’s not totally wrong, but viewed through the very broken lens of hyperpoliticised American media. I would say that here in Canada the majority view it as the responsibility of government to care for some basic needs like health, education and infrastructure. We demand this of our government rather than the government doing it by fiat, which is the implication in your statement.

  4. Simple: In North America people on the right call anything they don’t like socialism.

    It is used most often when they run out of arguments to oppose said measure, e.g. Obamacare: …yes it makes things better for every one and is superior to private insurance, but, …but, …but it’s socialism! ….Nigerian Muslim Socialism. QED.

  5. Pingback: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. § Unqualified Offerings

  6. In my experience, the term “socialism” has lost any coherent meaning and is simply an insult used to attack one’s opponent. It’s like the term “fascist” in this sense. And except when discussing actual, self-identified socialists, it increasingly needs its own form of Godwin’s law.

  7. In my quite left circle of Canadian friends, “socialism” calls to mind Scandinavian countries, where there’s a lot more regulation and a greater emphasis on providing access to education, healthcare, etc etc.
    In my circle of American friends, who were much more moderate and centrist, much more American (for lack of a better explanation) socialism was as forbjudet as Communism in terms of advocating for it. When discussing policies like strengthening the social safety net, keeping education affordable, and providing access to healthcare, they actively disavowed socialism and said that they thought of these as long-term investments for the country, investing money in citizens now, by giving them accessible healthcare and quality, cheap education, and then reaping the rewards later in the form of a productive, educated, and motivated worker.
    I appreciate that my American friends knew their audience and knew what kind of language they responded to, but that is not my style, because I recoil at thinking of people as business investments.

    • As a strange little tangent – many people would be surprised that the futurist society envisioned in Star Trek (particularly “TNG”) is very much a communist society. And I’ve never heard anyone state that they would hate to live in that world. :)

      • Patrick: I don’t want to take this too seriously, but a few thoughts:
        (1) My sense is that TNG toned down the socialist/collectivist aspects of the Federation/Star Fleet society considerably after Season 2. In fact, I don’t think I’m alne when I say that the post-capitalist smugness in many Season 1 episodes is faintly off-putting.
        (2) Rodenberry was always very vague about how his post-capitalist, non-money-based society, as shown in TNG, come into being.
        (3) On TNG especially, we are viewing a narrow slice of Federation society. Making judgments about the Federation based on what we see in TNG would be like making judgments about the USA based solely on a documentary set onboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, where the documentary mainly followed the senior officers.
        (4) Especially in DS9, we see Star Fleet personnel and Federation citizens interacting with clearly capitalist societies, including the Ferengi.
        (5) Some people, even within the Star Trek universe, clearly do not want to live in the safe, happy, collectivist utopia that is the 24th Century Federation. The Maquis come to mind. How did Star Fleet deal with them?
        (6) A not-inconsiderable amount of sci-fi in the past decade has been a reaction against “the futurist society envisioned in Star Trek.” Examples include Firefly/Serenity and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica.

  8. AnonymousDog :

    What does “social control of the means of production” mean? Is there a practical difference between outright government ownership/operation, and heavy regulation?

    The differences between the US and Canada are fairly subtle. I get the impression(being a US citizen) that in Canada, there is a presumption that the government is justified in acting “for the good of society”, and that those who believe government should be limited has the burden of proof. In the Us, on the other hand, there is a presumption that government is, and should be limited, and that those who want more government have the burden of proof.

    Socialism is not necessarily about the governmental ownership. It’s collective ownership. Say, Walmart doesn’t belong to whomever it belongs but, rather, to all of its workers.

    May I add, this system of ownership will make Walmart declare bankruptcy extremely soon.

    Collective ownership just doesn’t work.

    • How do you feel about cooperatives? Lots of them work really well. If I lived in the country, I might have electric service from one – cheaper, better, etc. than the big conglomerates, plus profits get ploughed into things like professor salaries locally. ?

      • “How do you feel about cooperatives? Lots of them work really well.”

        – I need to write a post about that! Thanks for the suggestion! I have perfect real-life examples.

    • bloggerclarissa :
      Socialism is not necessarily about the governmental ownership. It’s collective ownership. Say, Walmart doesn’t belong to whomever it belongs but, rather, to all of its workers.
      May I add, this system of ownership will make Walmart declare bankruptcy extremely soon.
      Collective ownership just doesn’t work.

      Most law firms and private equity firms (like Romney’s “Bain Capital”) are ‘collective ownership’ partnerships. They seem to work profitably (albeit often destructively). So did Mitt earn his hundreds of millions through socialism?

      • “Most law firms and private equity firms (like Romney’s “Bain Capital”) are ‘collective ownership’ partnerships.”

        – Such companies simply have 3 or 4 owners and an army of hired workers laboring for them in exchange for a wage. Or did you think that every paralegal and every legal secretary was an owner and had the same right to make decisions as the managing partner?

    • You are WRONG: I work for one of the largest and most success ‘employee owned’ corporations in America. Publix Super Markets.

      Our company is always in the Fortune top 100 most successful, Best to work for, Highest customer satisfaction etc. etc. Plu,s we the employees, get to share in the profits. Wow.. what a novel idea.

      And not only that.. we don’t outsource our jobs to India, nor did have we had any layoffs… ever.

      So there.

      • Its very hard to out source retail jobs.
        Publix is not the company it was 5-10 years ago.
        I wish they competition here is Florida.

      • You don’t even know what you are talking about. This is a company that offers stock options to employees, that’s all. What we are discussing is something entirely different.

        Why do so many people try to participate without even ascertaining the terms of the discussion?

      • Options, WOW!
        Do you know what the CPI is? Keep raising those prices and making the portions smaller.
        Can you spell COSTCO?

    • I would say that a Corporation is a form of collective ownership, just that the profits are concentrated on the few, and disproportionately away from productive labor, and to non-productive owners/shareholders.

  9. ‘Socialism’ In the US has been established as a swear word by the right-wing propaganda machine, so that any kind of social welfare, be it some form of Nationalised Health Service or more generous unemployment benefit will be vehemently attacked by anyone under educated enough to accept their definition of ‘Socialism’ at face value.

    Quite similar to what Thatcher did over here, I guess.

    • You see, now your doing it the other way. Resistance to expansion of the welfare state isn’t limited to the ‘under educated’. That’s simply insulting, and only serves to entice me to leave your comments on the scrap heap of a whining liberal.

      • Not at all, I didn’t say that.

        I said that resistance to the expansion of socially welfare because of the fear of ‘Socialism’ is silly. There are many legitimate arguments against the welfare state casting its net out too far, shouting the word ‘Socialist’ a few times to try and scare people is not a legitimate argument.

        Also, stop using Liberalism as something synonymous to Leftism; they are totally different ideologies.

    • This is pretty much the situation as far as I can tell. I would add (to answer the original question) that the kind of people who use “socialism” as a swear word simply don’t bother to distinguish welfare programs from actual socialism. Both are so far removed from their own individualist ideologies that the concepts just merge together, and are thought of as different facets of the exact same thing.

      At least, this is true of a large number of people I know. I’m not quite sure whether the right-wing leaders are misleading people intentionally or are actually confused about it themselves.

  10. The definition of socialism is also further confused by the fact that there are political parties (in Canada at least, namely the NDP) that at one time advocated nationalization of broad sectors of the economy (that is to say, socialism in the actual sense). They have long-since dropped most of these platforms (advocating instead for a stronger welfare state, more labour influence in economic decision-making, tighter regulation of the economy and maybe *some* small-scale nationalizations of so-called “natural monopolies”…in other words, what a political scientist would call a “Reform Liberal” economic platform), but still refer to themselves as ‘socialist.’

  11. I was taught in school in the 1950’s that the first century Christians and the Jamestown colony both practiced true communism, and that both groups found that it did not work.

  12. I think that “Communist” means “authoritarian” to many (this is why people often think Hitler was a Communist).

    “Socialist” means “welfare state” and it also means government subsidies to business, any form of regulation of markets and also the bailout of GM, AIG, etc. It means taxes: government takes a part of your wage and uses it to shore up either a poor person or a rich corporation.

  13. I posted this earlier, but it didn’t appear:

    Simple: In North America people on the right call anything they don’t like socialism.

    It is used most often when they run out of arguments to oppose said measure, e.g. Obamacare: …yes it makes things better for every one and is superior to private insurance, but, …but, …but it’s socialism! ….Nigerian Muslim Socialism. QED.

    Otherwise the use is completely inconsistent. Big welfare programs such as tax breaks to corporations (talk about meddling on the free market) are never accused of being socialist.

    • Culture Club: I’m so sorry, I had no idea your comments were being stuck in moderation. I just discovered them and rescued them from the Spam box. Sorry!

      Such a good comment, too.

  14. It’s a bullying tactic. The goal is to move the needle to the right. People who would have been considered middle of the road are called flaming liberals. This represents success in moving the needle to the right. Truth through repetition. The media work with, not against this trend. They get denounced as liberal or communist anyway. The tea party definition of socialism is the existence of any civilian public sector. Think of it as a “one drop rule” for mixed economies.

  15. Actually, a significant number of sectors and industries of the economies of North American are socialist by the above definition, if you can deign to consider such a thing sectorially. For instance, describing Canada as having “socialized medicine”, seems entirely reasonable, as would saying that New York City has “socialized water”. So to say that Canada is socialist, meaning more socialist than not at all, that is to say, having at least one socialized industry, would be entirely reasonable.

    • For instance, describing Canada as having “socialized medicine”, seems entirely reasonable, as would saying that New York City has “socialized water”. So to say that Canada is socialist, meaning more socialist than not at all, that is to say, having at least one socialized industry, would be entirely reasonable.

      I’m more than a little uncomfortable with the public sector=socialism formulation because I see it mainly as part of a gambit whose long-term aim is “separation of economy and state,” a hard-driving agenda which I think can correctly be called either laissez-faire capitalism or (more correctly) social darwinism. I think the practice falls well within any reasonable definition of red-baiting.

      There is a school of thought that maps socialism vs. capitalism to public vs. private (a pox on both their houses, I say) and another (older) one that maps socialism vs. capitalism to cooperation vs. competition (the sense in which I am a flaming and unapologetic socialist). Clarissa is full-bore pro-capitalist by both criteria, which I respect because of her personal experience. I admittedly harbor unfair biases against immigrants from Communist countries (especially Cuba, for some reason) mainly out of a shoot-the-messenger mentality. There are few things I find more depressing than the idea that capitalism (even a theoretical version) represents the best of all possible worlds, or the implications, such as “human nature is inherently selfish,” etc. Please take this revelation as an open exercise in self-analysis, particularly of things in myself that I dislike and want to change. I certainly don’t approve of hostility toward persons based on their demographics, OR their revealed attitudes. I don’t pretend that American capitalism in my lifetime is anywhere near as brutal as Soviet Communism circa 1975-1990, but surely it’s not without brutality, hence some of my rhetoric being about “the devil you know.” Spending all of my 20’s and half of my 30’s relegated to the contingent clerical workforce by firms who certainly knew of my technical skills and IT talents, or even being self-relegated to it by not being shameless enough in self-promotion or “networking” or whatever exactly it is that the fucking New Economy demands of people (rightly or wrongly) made me feel like I was somehow being bitch slapped by the Invisible Hand…

      • “There are few things I find more depressing than the idea that capitalism (even a theoretical version) represents the best of all possible worlds”

        – I don’t disagree that it’s depressing. But the question of whether anybody has seen a working alternative remains. If the suggestion here is that we look for different models, then, definitely, let’s do that. But if we have models that have been tried time and again and that failed tragically every single time, yet people keep beating on this dead horse, inventing weird explanations as to how it still can work. And that bugs me. It also, in my opinion, precludes any creation of radically different models.

        P.S. When I say “new models”, I very specifically mean ones that don’t engage with the flawed and hopeless model of collective ownership. Anything other than that, I’d be very curious to learn about.

      • The equality sign is not quite correct in your restatement. It’s more public sector (as a euphemism for government sector) -> socialism, (where -> stands for implication), while socialism -\> public sector (where -\> stands for non-implication).
        I’m all for socialism, so long as it’s voluntary (that is to say, laissez-faire).

  16. bloggerclarissa :
    If the suggestion here is that we look for different models, then, definitely, let’s do that. But if we have models that have been tried time and again and that failed tragically every single time, yet people keep beating on this dead horse, inventing weird explanations as to how it still can work. And that bugs me. It also, in my opinion, precludes any creation of radically different models.
    P.S. When I say “new models”, I very specifically mean ones that don’t engage with the flawed and hopeless model of collective ownership. Anything other than that, I’d be very curious to learn about.

    Okay so here’s what we do. You and everyone reading your blog, send me a dollar. Then you all get other people to send you dollars, and you send fifty cents of each dollar to me, and you keep the other fifty. Then you get those other people to get more people to send them dollars, and you get those first people to send you fifty cents too, and send me a quarter….

    • “You and everyone reading your blog, send me a dollar. Then you all get other people to send you dollars, and you send fifty cents of each dollar to me, and you keep the other fifty. Then you get those other people to get more people to send them dollars, and you get those first people to send you fifty cents too, and send me a quarter….”

      – Yes, this model totally works. :-) :-)

      • Yes, this model totally works.

        Doesn’t work for me. I don’t have nearly enough chutzpah to work it. Besides, in what sense is it an alternative to capitalism? I’d call it a textbook example of capitalism—the capitalistest of the capitalist enterprizes.

      • Doesn’t work for me. I don’t have nearly enough chutzpah to work it. Besides, in what sense is it an alternative to capitalism? I’d call it a textbook example of capitalism—the capitalistest of the capitalist enterprizes.

  17. n8chz :

    Yes, this model totally works.

    Doesn’t work for me. I don’t have nearly enough chutzpah to work it. Besides, in what sense is it an alternative to capitalism? I’d call it a textbook example of capitalism—the capitalistest of the capitalist enterprizes.

    This was a joke, of course. The pyramid schemes of this kind are one of the most salient characteristics of “wild capitalism.” We know this only too well in the FSU countries where, during the wild capitalism decade of the bandit wars, many many people suffered as a result of pyramid schemes. It was a real tragedy for many that they had no knowledge of how capitalism works and could not even imagine that it was possible for someone to rip them off so blatantly and leave them absolutely no remedy.

    That was one of the greatest traumas of the transition to capitalism: realizing that if you go bankrupt, lose everything you have, become homeless and destitute, nobody will care.

  18. America is a pathetic, vile nightmare who ever you are that wrote this should realize that our bailed out post yuppies who control the media military industrial oil complex want it all for themselves…that’s what the phony sloganering is about. Corpros pimps formerly 1980s style MBA types who grew up on Ronnie Bush Reaguns with an ax to grind and a country to drain. They loved it so much they destroyed it from within, something your country the USSR, Russia could and never would do to us. It was all a lie, like I assume, WE’RE BROKE. Smash the state, look that one up next. No charge.

    • It’s like this topic is a magnet for idiots. I’m not from Russia. And Russia does not equal the USSR. If you can’t even figure that out, then maybe you should chew more and speak less.

  19. Patrick :
    As a strange little tangent – many people would be surprised that the futurist society envisioned in Star Trek (particularly “TNG”) is very much a communist society. And I’ve never heard anyone state that they would hate to live in that world.

    You know Star Trek is not our future. It is from an alternate reality which is running alongside our own and is synchronic with us. In a planned 4th season episode, a transporter mishap was going to put William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy on the real Enterprise.

  20. It’s very simple, they hear the word used on fox. Then clueless viewers of fox repeat it.
    No thought process required.

  21. Socialism is evil, bad, very bad. I know nothing about socialism or communism, except that the steely-eyed glare of red-faced white Americans defeated athestic, socialist, communistic Bolsheviks.

    • When did all this happen?
      We just out spent the USSR Bolsheviks. When did we defeat the Chinese or Cuban communists?
      Athestic?? Or does happen in act 2 scene 1?
      We did destroy the lessons from Jesus.
      But I see you do endorse all 7 of the commandants.

      • “When did we defeat the Chinese or Cuban communists?”

        – Go to Cuba and you’ll have your answer. Until you spend quite a bit of time in Cuba (like I have), I suggest you don’t run your mouth about that country.

        “We just out spent the USSR Bolsheviks. ”

        – What are you, 3 years old? One would expect a more sophisticated understanding of history from a grown up.

      • Go to Cuba and I’ll have my answer? They’re still communists pal.
        I know you think reading is only a theory, but yes Ronnie Raygun out spent the USSR and they went bankrupt.
        I typed slowly so you have a better chance of keeping up with me.
        ‘I suggest you don’t run your mouth about that country.’ Maybe you should learn to walk upright before using the family puter. Now scurry along.

      • “I know you think reading is only a theory, but yes Ronnie Raygun out spent the USSR and they went bankrupt.”

        – Buddy, I know that ignorance is bliss but this version of events is a piece of Reaganite propaganda that only the blindest of Reagan’s worshippers believe any more. Do you kiss Reagan’s photo before going to bed?

        “Now scurry along.”

        – Scurry along where? This is my blog? Or have you not noticed that?

      • I see the depth of research by you is total lacking. Did you read how I spelled ‘Ronnie Raygun’, does that seem remotely as someone who worships him. I don’t believe that history is a theory.
        So throw me off, but don’t lecture me when you’re wrong.
        I’m sure I will not be missed.

      • “. Did you read how I spelled ‘Ronnie Raygun’, does that seem remotely as someone who worships him. ”

        – Your insistence that Reagan had anything to do with the collapse of the USSR is evidence enough that you are one of last remaining worshippers of the guy.

  22. Socialism in modern America – for the right – means government spending on anything they don’t like, and anything that is the least bit downward redistributionist (upward redistribution is just fine). So a progressive income tax is socialist, but farm subsidies that go to big Ag are not. The most socialist, indeed in many ways Marxist, organization in the free world – the US Military – is somehow NOT socialist, but food stamps are.

    In reality, government buying stuff is not socialism, it is government.

    http://bluehorde.blogspot.com/2009/08/socialism-booga-booga-boo.html

  23. As best as I can determine, the American Wingnut meaning is “government paying money to anybody who isn’t already rich”. Note that this is *any* money, including social insurance programs that people have spent their whole lives paying into.

    Thus:
    food stamps: double-plus-ungood soshalism
    unemployment: socialism
    Social Security: socialism
    Medicare: socialism
    Green energy research: socialism
    Bank bailouts: not socialism, FREE MARKETS!
    Defense pork: not socialism, why do you hate MERIKA?
    Oil company tax breaks: not socialism, DRILL BABY DRILL!

    • “As best as I can determine, the American Wingnut meaning is “government paying money to anybody who isn’t already rich””

      – Brilliant!

      What’s with this obsession that the conservatives have with food stamps? If one liestens to them, it seems like the food stamps take up more of the budget than the frakking Pentagon, or something.

  24. I would actually agree with your definition of socialism, and I am constantly baffled by my countrymen who accuse Obama of being a socialist. I think it’s a legacy of Cold War thinking — it was a great accusation to level at anyone even remotely liberal as a way of discounting their views and/or demonizing them, because socialism (and communism, of course) were associated with the Soviet Union and were therefore “evil” in the minds of many Americans.

    The one that truly baffles me is the charge that Obama is not only socialist but fascist as well. It demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of both forms of governance to conflate them. But most Americans are effing clueless when it comes to politics and economics, and so the insult works with a lot of undereducated and frightened Americans.

    • Here’s what wikipedia has to say about fascism:

      Fascism (play /ˈfæʃɪzəm/) is a radical authoritarian nationalist political ideology.[1][2]

      That sounds like it is at least not prima-facie incompatible with the working definition of socialism you seem to be agreeing to. Obama is authoritarian and nationalist, but that’s too normal for presidents for it to be particularly radical.

  25. bloggerclarissa :
    “Most law firms and private equity firms (like Romney’s “Bain Capital”) are ‘collective ownership’ partnerships.”
    – Such companies simply have 3 or 4 owners and an army of hired workers laboring for them in exchange for a wage. Or did you think that every paralegal and every legal secretary was an owner and had the same right to make decisions as the managing partner?

    Most law firms are not big companies with a lot of employees. Typically the partners outnumber the wage employees. Think “Harry’s Law”, not “Boston Legal”. But your point is taken, even at Bain I imagine the minions far outnumber the partners. But my point is that shared ownership is a very successful business model in the US, both historically and today.

    • ” But my point is that shared ownership is a very successful business model in the US, both historically and today.”

      – We are not discussing business partnerships, however. We are discussing the collective ownership of the means of production. Even a tiny startup legal firm with 2 partners is likely to have a receptionist, a secretary or a cleaning person. These are hired employees who do not own their means of production.

  26. Finally, the right term has been found! It isn’t “Socialist” economy that many Liberals in this country are advocating, it’s “social market economy”!

    “First, and most important, is whether the United States should hold to a more laissez-faire capitalist or to a more social market economy model. Barack Obama is already located left-of-center on the social market economy model.”

    http://charlesrowley.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/mitt-romney-a-right-of-center-platform-for-november-2012/

    Thank you, Charles Rowley. Finally, the correct terminology has been found.

  27. Clarissa, here’s the problem in “America”: our view of “socialism” and “Communism” is framed by our country’s national mythology of “freedom and democracy”. The reasoning runs something like this:

    Capitalism (“free enterprise”) = complete political freedom and no government control over the economy;

    Socialism = less political freedom and partial government control over the economy;

    Communism = no political freedom and total government control over the economy.

    When the talking heads talk about freedom, they mean freedom for corporate capitalists. When Ronald Reagan stated, “Let’s get the government off of the backs of the people”, he really was saying that we should get the government off of the backs of corporate capitalism, that the corporate sector owed the rest of us nothing, even though they got rich through exploitation of the rest of us. Whatever “socialist” benefits the 99% in this country have are chiefly due to a strategy by the 1% (or less) to keep the masses just below the boiling point, and what people in “America” would call “socialism” or “communism” I would call modern fascism.

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