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The ‘Authoritarian’ Nature of Utopia

The ‘Authoritarian’ Nature of Utopia

Barbara Goodwin
I

t
In recent years there have been a number of famous
denigrators of utopianism whose views are formed by
liberal-democratic culture: among them, Popper,
Oakeshott, Talmon and Hayek. From the standpoint of
lib..eralism, the main objection to the utopian way of
thinking is that it precludes free rationaZ choice by
individuals – an exclusion that can ultimately be
traced to its ultra-rationalistic nature. Hence it
is called authoritarian by liberals. I want first to
offer a brief definition of utopianism, then to
examine some of the preoccupations underlying the
critique of utopianism, and to show this critique to
be mistaken. Finally, I want to argue that the socalled ‘rationalistic’ (alias ‘authoritarian’)
approach to political theorising is desirable and
philosophically respectable and is, in the circumstances which prevail at present, the only rationaZ
route to social reform.

Many commentators have tried to provide definitional accounts of the necessary characteristics of
utopian thought: situation-transcending ideas
(Hannheim), politically impotent, systematising
rationalism (Marx and Engels), the attempt to create
a new man by means of institutions (Freund), ‘Das
Prinzip Hoffnung’ (Bloch), projections of the everpresent ‘myth of the ideal city’ (Mucchielli), the
search for the ‘lost female principle’ (Servier,
after Jung) and the dreams of schizoid types doomed
to ineffectiveness (Ruyer) [1]. Such definitions
underline the mythical, dreamlike, fictional, speculative and essentially inadequate nature of utopian
thought. I pre~er to conceptualise utopia here as a
rational attempt to resolve the ‘human predicament’

(as perceived by the author at the time of writing)
whose imaginary elements facilitate the escape from
the constraints of empirical reality and are therefore methodologically important. But to define
utopias as rational is perhaps to beg the question,
for this is in part what I wish to prove. It is this
rational and rationalistic approach which makes
utopian theory questionable for many liberals. I
therefore turn briefly to the conception of rationality used in social theory today.

Liberal theorists have established their own definition of rationality as a value in social and
political theory. Purposive rationality, the matching
of means to ends and the maximisation of utilities,
entails acts of choice which are expressions of
individual freedom. The exercise of free choice is
stipulated to be rational: one such stipulation is
the convention in economics that so-called ‘revealed
preferences’ are taken to represent optimal consumer
choices, no matter how strong an element of determination, ignorance or faute de mieux there may have been

in the formation of such ‘choices’. The scope for
exercising rational choice is defined as freedom, on
which liberals lay a special value. The condition
for choice, a multiplicity of alternatives, is therefore to be promoted as the precondition for a free
society. All this assumes implicitly that people
have a constant ability to exercise their rationality;
e.g., the voting system assumes knowledge and capacity
on the part of the voter, in blatant defiance of the
facts [2]. According to this account, individual,
self-interested, purposive rationality thus provides
the dynamic motive force for political and economic
activity in the theoretical model of a liberaldemocratic society. The aggregation of individual
actions, whether by a benign invisible hand or by
some formal aggregative process, such as democracy,
is held to represent the best available outcome for
a population of free, differentiated individuals.

The perverse connection made by liberals between
freedom and rationality and the mode of thinking condemned by them as ‘rationalist’ can now be made clear.

Oakeshott shows the intimate connection between the
two: the rationalist stands for independence of mind
and ‘thought free from obligation to any authority
save the authority of reason’ [3]. The rationalist’s
personal experience is reduced to principles, to selfformulated rules which make no acknowledgement of the
‘cumulation of principles’ through tradition and
history. S/he is disposed to destroy and create,
not to reform. Oakeshott also distinguishes technical and practical knowledge, arguing that the
rationalist ignores the latter and seeks to provide
a rule-book of the former. His definition of the
rationalist is equally and explicitly a definition
of the utopian: ‘ … the “rational” solution of any
problem is, in its nature, the perfect solution.

There is no place in his scheme for a “best in the
circumstances”, only a place for “the best'” [4].

Oakeshott cites Godwin and Owen (also usually considered utopians) as rationalists par excellence. Hayek,
undoubtedly a political soul-mate of Oakeshott,
offers some comments which clarify the ‘voluntaristic’

aspect of rationalism and utopianism:

Rationalism in this sense is the doctrine which
assumes that all institutions which benefit
humanity have in the past and ought in the
future to be invented in clear awareness of the
desirable effects that they produce … that we
have it in our power so to shape our institutions
that of all possible sets of results that which
we prefer to all others will be realised. [5]
The criticisms of the utopian socialists offered
by Harx and Engels make it clear that they too saw
rationalism, by contrast with materialism, as an
23

idealist, deductive, over-systematised mode of
thought. ‘Society presented nothing but wrongs; to
remove these was the task of reason’ … ‘the solution of the social problems … the utopians attempted
to evolve out of the human brain’. These writers
viewed socialism as absolute truth, mistakenly thinking that ‘absolute truth is independent of time and
space’ [6]. Marx’s critique has something in common
with Oakeshott’s when he writes derisively that
‘~istorical action is to yield to their [the utopians’] personal inventive action’ [7]. But Marx,
unlike Oakeshott, does believe that scientific knowledge of society is possible and that it can form the
basis for ef~ective action to change society. The
utopians’ problem was that their knowledge, by his
standards, was not scientific.

Above all, rationalism emphasises the capacity of
the brain, using techniques of deductive logic, to
analyse the world: ‘constructive rationalism’ (Hayek’s
term) proclaims the brain’s power to change the world.

Rationalism is thus seen as the imposition of a brainspun system which over-emphasises consistency and the
processes of formal logic, on the material world:

because it is self-enclosed and the invention of one
individual, such a system departs from the criterion
of rationality proposed by empiricists – that it
should be publicly, inter-subjectively testable. But
it also departs from the approved brand of rationality
by not being strictly self-interested and calculating:

rationalism is deductive reason carried too far, and
how could a system be purposive which is not conceived
in proper relation to material reality? Utopia is
the attempt of one individual to impose his/her
world-view and his/her own rationality on others.

Clearly, then, in the controversies surrounding
utopianism, rationalism is understood to represent
a non-empirical way of arguing, a theory-based
thought system with inherently authoritarian tendencies, and is condemned for these reasons.

The linking of utopianism with authoritarianism
needs some explanation at this point. The fiercest
critics of utopianism have sought to associate it
with the totalitarian way of thinking, whose characteristics are defined as exclusivism and authoritarianism: utopianism is found guilty by association. For
Popper, ‘utopian social engineering’ is based on an
a priori idea of rationality and a Platonic notion
of ideal ends and means. The need for a clean
canvas which this dogmatic rationalist approach
demands requires the utopian to ‘purge, expel, banish
and kill’. Utopianism, a sub-species of totalitarianism, is antithetical to the thought processes of the
‘open society’ which proceed by trial and error,
empirical observation and induction. A careful reading of Popper makes it clear that, while much of his
argument is devoted to deploring the political consequences of utopianism, his quarrel with it is epistemological and methodological [8]. These attacks are
reinforced in the political economy of the liberalconservative Hayek, whose ‘catallaxy’ or free-market
society could be seen as a more dogmatic portrait of
Popper’s Open Society. He argues that the selfgenerating ‘spontaneous order’ (which he thinks we
once had, or almost had, in the West) is more subtle,
complex and beneficial than any ‘planned arrangement’,
and condemns constructive rationalism for detracting
from these advantages and encroaching on individual
freedom. Hayek’s admiration for spontaneous structures seems to be based on an aesthetic value-judgement – there is also perhaps a hint of divine purpose
in his characterisation of the ‘natural’ spontaneous
order. In fact, even Oakeshott argues that Hayek’s
anti-planning tirade becomes so doctrinaire that it
is itself an example of rationalism [9].

A number of complex issues are raised by the criticism of utopianism qua rationalism. First, can it
properly be asserted that utopias are purely rational24

ist? Certainly, most utopians deliberately aim at
logical coherence and a completeness of vision (called
‘totalist’ by their enemies). Some, like Plato, base
their systems on a metaphysic which can be called
idealist but by far the greatest number proceed to
construct an ideal system on the basis of observing
human life and its present deficiencies: that is,
their basis is empirical and ‘materialist’, even if
their deductions escape from the realm of verifiability, as must all speculation about social alternatives
This is particularly noticeable in the post-Enlightenment utopians who strove to erect a genuine social
science on the basis of observed human nature, beginning with rudimentary psychology. Furthermore, most
utopians try to relate their constructs to empirically known existing society because only thus can it
gain credibility with their audience.

An article by Horsburgh emphasises the close
connection of the utopian to political reality,
showing how utopianism grows from the identification
of social problems: ‘the political relevance of their
problems … enables them to make an important contribution to the life of the community’ [10]. It is not
true that utopias, even that of Plato, are rationalist
in the sense of trying to force the world to conform
to baseless theoretical fantasies, for these
‘fantasies’ grow out of, and act as correctives for,
given social problems. However, the consequences of
such utopian thinking may be rationalist in the sense
which critics denigrate. The utopian certainly views
society as an artefact and seeks to change it, and
human behaviour, according to his/her theory – a
‘constructivism’ which for Hayek and others is
hubristic. By comparison with a thoroughgoing
empiricism which entails no intereference at all (in
that values or prescriptions cannot be entailed by
facts within such an epistemology), utopian analysis
of society and social evils has a strongly prescriptive element which would, if enacted, cause people to
change their tastes and behaviour.

The opponents who brand utopianism as rationalist
also brand it, for similar reasons, as a coercive
mode of thought, citing the maxim ‘he who wills the
end wills the means’. It is feared that the utopian’s
own ideas, formalised and rigidified in a rationalistic system, will be imposed on others to whom it is
anathema, a fear subtended by a premise about the
irreducible differences between people. Such arguments are forcefully presented by Popper. Peculiar
to liberal thinking is the fear that ‘single-mindedness’, absolute belief or any kind of self-validating
system of thought must entail dogmatism and be inimical to tolerance because it asserts its own primacy
and exclusive truth. Such forms of thought are therefore conducive to coercion: this might be called ‘the
liberal view of theory and practice’. But a convic-

I’

tion of the exclusive truth of one’s views, while no
doubt a necessary condition for totalitarianism or
despotism, is not a sUfficient one. Many utopians
convinced of their own rightness nevertheless sought
to persuade by reason (r,odwin), example (Owen, the
Saint-Simonians) or by presenting utopia as a readable
fiction (More, Morris, Bellamy et aZ.). Whatever
liberals may fear, the philosophy of belief does not
bear out the view that strong conviction entails
coercion: at most, belief entails not acting against
one’s belief, rather than imposing it on others.

Evidently, ‘rationalist’ utopian theory differs
significantly from empirical political theory and
does not hesitate to prescribe changes in society, on
the basis of rational deductions from its basic
premises about human nature: hence the hostility from
Popper and other liberal ‘piecemeal’ reformers.

Reason dominates both the rationalist and the empiricist method; but human beings also have the faculty
of fantasy: they can imagine or project that which
does not exist. The empiricist chooses not to use
this faculty and confines him/herself to observations
of what is (which often become the justifications of
the status quo), while the utopian deliberately
employs it in constructing alternative possibilities.

To do so, s/he necessarily selects a theory-based or
rationalist method, since empiricism would carry
him/her no further than the existent. Empiricism and
rationalism are different epistemological standpoints,
mutually challengeable, but neither can be said to
have a monopoly of reason or rightness. Since current
accounts of scientific method acknowledge the interpenetration of theory and fact in empiricism, the
rigid methodological distinction which enabled
utopians to be branded as rationalists, and hence
dismissed, has in part collapsed, bringing, perhaps,
a new lease of tolerance for the utopian method.

Another reason for considering utopianism necessarily authoritarian is the stigmatisation of utopians
as enemies of free choice. Liberal-democratic
critics, who believe in the existence of a multiplicity of political truths, alias opinions, contend that
the utopian, following his/her own reason, will
impose ‘real’ interests on people which contradict
their felt, expressed or apparent interests – interests which under a democratic system are systematically expressed. Thus the utopian’s doctrinaire
rationalism deprives individuals of free, rational
choice. (This conclusion stems from the political
scientist’s interpretation of preferences expressed
by voting as acts of free choice and indicators of
political ‘rightness’.) Clearly, the utopian’s
pursuit ,of an ‘objective’ political truth militates
against this expressive, pluralist view of the
political process and seems to require a dictatorial
form of government. Twentieth-century political
theory has reaffirmed the importance of interests,
and largely neglected the idea of political truth;
pluralists hold that there is a plurality of incompatible political interests which must be
reconciled through democratic procedure. The
utopian’s insistence on defining people’s ‘real’

interests a priori threatens to override this heterogeneity and to impose a uniform solution autocratically, denying them the free choice and opportunities
for self-differentiation which are vital to selffulfilment. Another reason for distrusting the idea
of real interests is that departure from expressed
preferences leaves no safeguard against a state which
invents ‘real’ interests for individuals which suit
its own purposes (e.g. as the military argues the
need for ever-increasing defence expenditure to
protect the people). This is often seen as the
major danger in Rousseau’s theory of the General
Will [11]. The lack of free choice and the risk of
authoritarianism are therefore seen as necessary and
deplorable results of the utopian’s departure from

expressions of individual rationality and expressed
preferences.

Liberals uphold the sanctity of revealed preferences as expressions of rational choice and as manifestations of the freedom which a liberal society
strives to foster. Even wrong choices presumably
embody this virtue, although the paradigmatically
free act is also the perfectly rational (right) act.

But the association of choice with rationality and
freedom in the liberal-democratic context must be
called into question. The objective and subjective
constraints are well-known: distortions are caused
by the representative and party systems, while individuals suffer from lack of infol”l.1atjon and lack of
time to participate fully in politics. The myths of
rationality and freedom which have been constructed
round the act of voting are well known. So the
utopian could defend his/her procedure by arguing
that the so-called free rationality which flourishes
in a liberal-democratic system is no more than
ideology and conditioning mixed with ignorance, and
is never an expression of pure, rational desire. At
least the interests which s/he would instil in utopian citizens would embody reason and truth.

Fresh light can be thrown on the good sense of the
utopian’s way of proceeding by a suggestive use of
Arrow’s General Possibility Theorem for the construction of social-welfare functions. Arrow shows that
the aggregation of individual interests cannot
usually lead to a collective interest or ‘social’

choice emerging (under certain postulated conditions)
because of the problems of intransitivity of choice
and the difficulty of comparing utilities interpersonally. He concludes ‘ … the only method of
passing from individual tastes to social preferences
which will be satisfactory … are either imposed or
dictatorial’. He also adds ‘if consumers’ values can
be represented by a wide range of individual orderings, the doctrine of voters’ sovereignty is incompatible with that of collective rationarity’ [12].

In this connection one can also invoke the arguments
of Olson concerning the need to induce, oblige or
coerce would-be free-riders into contributing their
proper shares for the provision of public or
collective goods. [13].

While Arrow and Olson set out to demonstrate the
practical shortcomings of laissez-faire principles
in the political and economic organisation of a
liberal society, and to suggest corrective devices,
their arguments can also be used to defend the conviction implicit in the utopian approach, to’show
that a willingness to override individual preferences
(at a given time) is necessary for the achievement of
social improvement for all.

In Arrow’s terms, the utopian can be regarded as
the spokesperson for collective rationality who
imposes the social-welfare function and, in Olson’s
terms, as someone trying to organise the provision
of the greatest public good – an ideal society. In
the circumstances, it would be counterproductive and
irrational for him/her to attempt to consult and
aggregate the interests of potential inhabitants of
utopia in drawing up his/her plans, particularly if
s/he follows Rousseau, Marx and others in believing
that corrupt social institutions pervert people’s
desires (and preference orderings). Even if s/he
~took people’s present interests as proper and permanent, intransitivity, conflict of interests and other
problems would make aggregation impossible. Therefore, the rational method for devising a utopia is
the elaboration of collective rationality as analysed
by the utopian. The rational method for realising a
collective good, objectively and benignly conceived,
such as utopia, must be its imposition irrespective
of expressed personal preferences, if necessary by
coercion. Coercion need not be physical or violent:

it may, as Olson suggests, consist of fines or the
25

threatened loss of privileges of those disinclined
to cooperate. Admittedly, a transition to utopia
involving such methods would violate Pareto optimality, but this constraint of liberal economic and
social theory is inherently inimical to any social
change and cannot be accepted as the major criterion
for judging any change. A privileged section of
the population in existing society cannot be granted
the right to veto utopia for others in perpetuity
merely because its own vested interests would be
threatened. If such a conviction is authoritarian,
then authoritarianism is a justifiable part of the
process of inventing and realising utopias.

Those who find frightening shades of totalitarianism in thi~ tentative justification of the utopian’s
role must nevertheless concede that large sections of
modern society, particularly in a welfare state,
operate on just such principles, without intolerable
intrusions into individual freedom. The justification
of interventionist or welfare politics is that
follective or community rationality is being substituted for the aggregation of subjective, personal
interests in important policy areas: this takes
place, for example, in the provision of a health
service or of motorways paid for by taxes. In fact,
given that there are supra-individual goals in
any society, a utopian approach is the most rational
appr~ach.

The utopian attempts to create a rationality of the whole community, superseding that of the
egocentric individual, to whose partiality liberaldemocratic politics is a constant prey. I would
argue that it is the only possible approach to
thoroughRoing social change since the dominance of
expressed interests and ideology would prevent radical change coming about in a democratic fashion.

The operation of individual rational choice in a
given community could never achieve utopia. My
remarks here apply to utopian theorising primarily,
since there has been so little utopian practice, and
do not apply to utopian communities set up as
enclaves in existing societies, since their membership is voluntary and so such problems do not arise.

The argument drawn from Arrow’s theorem would apply
both to the transition to utopia, where it would
justify an imposed solution, and also to the operation
of utopia in the first instance, where social-welfare
functions would have to be imposed until the inhabitants of the new-born state had been re-educated
sufficiently to see their reasonableness. It remains
to convince those who deny the existence of a collective interest, or who argue ‘better spontaneous-misery
than contrived, artificial happiness’. The latter is
a precarious value-judgement, the former is based on
a view of politics which is contradicted daily by
political practice, even in the most laissez-faire
of countries.

Even the champions of utopia cannot deny that the
realisation of any utopia would impose unwelcome
changes on at least some people, however gently it
did so. Critics such as Popper find this so distasteful that they immediately object to utopian theory as
a genre. I have suggested some reasons why the
utopian mode is the one which must be adopted in
attempting any radical social improvement; I would
now like to o~fer a further positive defence of the
use of the so-called authoritarian utopian mode of
thinking in contemporary society. The special virtue
of utopianism is that it takes a ‘global’ or holistic
view of the reorpanisation of society. In our current
state of permanent economic crisis, the adoption of a
‘utopian’ approach is urgent for theorists and practitionpT~ of politics who wish to improve on the
existing free-for-all-but-freer-for-some-than-others.

Undoubtedly, on practical grounds alone, the ‘authoritarian’ or imposed method of the utopian can be justified. lVhere there are scarce resources with no
imminent likelihood of abundance, people must accept
26

an authoritative allocation of resources by criteria
agreed to be fair, or which they would agree to be
fair in the absence of vested interests. This imperative becomes compelling in the face of threatened
scarcities and even the most libertarian of liberals
now countenance some such control because refusal
would constitute mass suicide. Authoritative allocation can arguably be justified in all cases where one
person’s appropriation of an extra portion detracts
from another’s chance of enjoying an adequate portion,
as in any zero-sum game. Property is the paradigm
case, but the formula might apply equally to the right
to have a large family and other matters which many
would consider to lie in the sphere of private choice.

Even where an abundance of material and other goods
could be attained, the ultimate limitations of space
and human mortality justify some degree of directed
allocation.

The zero-sum formula suggested is reminiscent of
~1ill’s enabling criterion for individual liberty
(which forbade interference except when direct material harm was threatened) but has the opposite disabling emphasis, and rests on the un-Millean supposition that all individuals and activities in society
are indissolubly interconnected, so that ‘private’ or
‘economic’ decisions cannot be taken in isolation.

Given that the problem is primarily that of scarce
resources, it would also be logical to extend the
principle of authoritative allocation from distribution to the process of production so that a social
contribution could be required from everyone. The
formula leaves many problems unsolved, of course:

questions of which goods count as scarce, and which
distributive criteria and values should apply, must
still be answered painstakingly. Such allocative
formulae might be imposed, but they need be neither
arbitrary nor unjust.

In a shrinking world there are cogent reasons exogenous to political ideology for accepting social
planninR on the basis of such a formula. Planning is
not utopia: nevertheless, the arguments for planning
may be the thin end of the wedge in persuading
liberals to abate their hostility to the utopian
approach. Also, the extending scope and predictive
power of the social sciences now make future-thinking
a more respectable and less hubristic enterprise than
it seemed previously. It is feasible, using economic
projections, to devise a Good, in terms of resourceuse and social organisation, for the next generation,
and perhaps to manufacture a utopia – not in the
sense of ‘a perfect society’, but a utopia which is
the best of all possible worlds in the circumstances.

These arguments from expediency for a greater degree
of state intervention are merely arguments for the
adoption of a utopian approach in its narrow sense,
which aim to counteract the liberal antipathy to anything which smacks of systematic planning. However,
my intention in this article has also been to justify
utopianism in its widest sense as an overall schema
imposed in the interests of a better, and more just,
life for all.

The persuasive force of the foregoing arguments

rested on the practical problems which the world now
faces, but the tota1istic and sometimes dirigiste
approach of utopianism has better justifications than
those of expediency: it represents a method of attaining social justice which does not rest on the precarious basis of individual choice. Fourier, for example,
solved most problems of distributive justice by predicting abundance (other utopians, conversely, have
postulated the absence of greed), but this failed to
solve the problem of permanently scarce resources,
which he was obliged to solve by authoritative allocation. So, regarding sex, he decreed that the sexually
talented lovers of the ‘Ange1icate’ group should sometimes bestow their favours on the less well-endowed,
who under a laissez-faire system of allocation would
have gone without. Liberals would find such an intrusion of authority into the most private area of sexual
choice offensive and perhaps bizarre. But Fourier’s
treatment of sex epitomises the central preoccupation

of utopianism, namely, the contention that people owe
the Good Life to their fellows, individually and
collectively, and are owed it likewise; they ought
therefore willingly to sacrifice a measure of personal
freedom and convenience to realise it. Beneath this
assertion lies the conviction that we are by nature
sociable creatures in the same small boat. This
utopian conception of altruism radically opposes the
egoistic premises of the dominant liberal ideology
and makes the liberal fear that utopianism equals
coercion and the loss of individual identity. But if
this notion of collective mutual responsibility and
the wholeness of society which is at the basis of
utopianism can be justified, then utopianism as
theory and practice can also be defended. Whether it
is branded authoritarian or not is a matter of ideological terminology, but the necessity for a utopian
rather than a liberal approach is clear.

Footnotes
Kcgan Paul, 1967, p.85.

1 • See K. Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia (English trans., 1936); K. Marx and
F. Enge1s, The Communist Manifesto (1848); F. Enge1s, Socialism: Utopian
and Scientific (1880); J. Freund, Utopie et violence (1978); E. B1och, Das
Prinzir Hoffnung (1917) and DeY’ Geist deY’ Utopie (1918); R. Muchie11i, Le
My the de “ia cit{} ideale (1961); J. Servier, L ‘HistoiY’e de l ‘utopie (1967)
and R. Ruyer, L ‘Utopie et les utopies (1951). This is only a selection of
commentaries, needless to say.

2 See, e.g., B. Bere1son et al., Voting, Chicago UP, 1954, esp. Ch.14.

M. Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, l1ethuen, 1962, Part I.

ibid., p.5.

F .A. Hayek, Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Rout1edge and

…..-….

………..

6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13

Communist Manifesto, Selected WOY’ks, 11oscow, 1970, Vol. I, P .134; Socialism:

Utopian and Scientific, Vo1.III, pp.119 and 126.

Selected ffOY’ks, Vol.I, p.134
K. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Rout1edge and Kegan Paul, 1945.

M. Oakeshott, or.cit., p.2l.

H.J.N. Horsburgh, ‘The Relevance of the Utopian’, Ethics, Vol.67, p.134.

See, e.g., A. Cobban, Rousseau and the ModeY’n State, Allen & Unwin, 1964,
2nd edition.

K. Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values, 2nd edition, Yale UP, 1963,
pp. 59-60.

M. Olson, The Logic of Collective Action, Harvard UP, 1971.

. .

emlnlst

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