Critique of the View That the Government or State is Neutral: A Critical Look at the Assumptions of the Leader of the New Brunswick NDP (New Democratic Party) Mackenzie Thomason

Introduction 

On my Facebook page, I made some notes and comments on a post by Julius Arscott, a member of the supposedly radical organization here in Toronto called Socialist Action in relation to the public union strike in New Brunswick in the late fall of 2021. The poster referred to the following 49-minute podcast https://open.spotify.com/episode/45SB74uv1Hj0zRvQkPPa9z?fbclid=IwAR36H2KzFsopOUYcfwzkl5ocP1p3gNhdvIgLs-btRwZy4z_QtWEjpvWPJQw. The poster stated the following:

As striking CUPE [Canadian Union of Public Employees] NB SCFP [Le Syndicat canadien de la fonction publique] workers vote on a tentative agreement, check out the latest episode of The Red Review, brought to you by Socialist Action Canada, where Emily Steers and I [Julius Arscott] interview CUPE 1253 member, bus driver, and leader of the New Brunswick NDP Mackenzie Thomason!

Mackenzie talks picket line vibes, community support, demands of striking workers, taking on the Irving empire, government ban on land acknowledgements, and a surging New Brunswick NDP that puts people first, not profit!

I commented the following:

Fred Harris
Where is there evidence that the New Brunswick NDP “put people first, not profit?”
To answer that question, I did listen to the 49-minute interview, took some note an made a few comments. I will produce a more polished version in the future on my blog.

The following is a revised version of my notes and commentaries.

Mr. Arscott failed to respond to my commentaries.  The so-called radical political organization Socialist Action fails to engage critically with NDP views–which makes it in effect a social-democratic or social-reformist organization. Silence is golden for social-democrats or social reformers when their views are criticized, it would seem. 

A Fair Wage in a Society Dominated by a Class of Employers? 

An increase in wages was, initially, a sticking point during negotiations. Mr. Thomason had this to say: 

We were supposedly appreciated as heroes during the pandemic, but as the pandemic subsided, we were then undervalued and underappreciated. We no longer deserved a fair raise nor decent benefits.

It is undoubtedly true that the representatives of employer, seeing that essential services were indeed necessary to maintain, produce and reproduce our (and their) lives, referred to essential workers as heroes–until the pandemic crisis had been reduced, after which they then shifted to the typical attitude of treating essential workers as mere means for purposes defined by employers. Mr. Thomason is right to point out the hypocrisy of the representatives of employers in this instance. 

However, his reference to a “fair raise and benefits” implies that there is such a thing as a fair wage and benefits. The implication is that there is such a thing as “a fair raise and decent benefits.” Mr. Thomason does not question this assumption, but accepts it. The radical left should also reject it since the issue of exploitation is simply ignored. From Richard  Arneson (1981), “What’s Wrong with Exploitation? In pages 202-227, Ethics, Volume 91, Number2,
pages 205-206: 

,,, exploitation involves an exercise of power by some over others, to the disadvantage of the less powerful. Marx never tires of emphasizing that ownership of capital [and managers  in the hierarchical division of labour within the government or state]  confers power to command the labor of others. Within any class society wrongful exploitation will involve interactions between persons of markedly unequal social power, and the inequality will determine the distribution of benefits from the interaction. In market economies these inequalities of power assume the form of great disparities in bargaining strength between capitalists and workers.

Does Mr. Thomason take into account the necessary differences in bargaining power of unionized workers and management? Not at all. He addresses the issue completely in terms of the amount of raise which he and others consider fair “under the circumstances”–and those circumstances include the economic dependence of workers on employers and the general economic coercion that that involves. 

Just think of why you do not express your real opinions at work in front of management. Or why, when you or others are expressing yourselves freely in the lunchroom, when a manager comes in, the talk changes. 

Economic coercion involves oppression and exploitation despite the exchange between employers and workers

From Arneson, page 219:

It appears that the worker exchanges a day’s labor for a day’s wage, but according to Marx it is really labor power that is exchanged for the subsistence cost of its reproduction; and furthermore, according to Marx this latter exchange is only apparently an exchange,
whereas in reality the capitalist coerces the worker who has no genuine choice in the matter. The appearance of exchange conceals the worker’s “economical bondage”; “In reality, the labourer belongs to capital before he has sold himself to capital.” [or the government or state]

Rather than criticizing an economic form such as the wage and the economic coercion that arises with that economic form, Mr. Thomason assumes its legitimacy. What is illegitimate for him is not the qualitative question of whether wages are legitimate or illegitimate because they involve the lack of freedom of the workers, at the level of classes (since there is indeed some freedom of choice at the individual level of trying to find a particular employer), but the quantitative question of the level of wages.

To be sure, the level of wages is indeed of concern for workers–in order to be able to live–and live with at least a variety of choices as consumer and to provide for one’s family. To deny the importance of the quantitative level of wages for workers is absurd, but to focus on this aspect of the employer-worker relation without looking at what the wage relation involves in terms of the lack of freedom of workers is to be blind to a large part of what life involves in a society dominated by a class of employers. 

A fair raise or wage in the context of the class power of employers is social democratic—not socialist. Exploitation and oppression constitute necessary features of such a society, and to refer to fair raises or wages in that kind of society is reformist and does nothing to enlighten workers about how to address this inherent exploitation and oppression and to seek to solve them once and for all.

A Social-Democratic or Social-Reformist Justification for Defined Pensions

Although wages were a sticking point for negotiations, the union decreased its wage demands and management increased its wage offer, so some kind of meeting of minds took place over wages. 

However, the sticking point has been the government’s insistence that workers’ pensions should be in the form of a shared-risk model rather than the current defined benefit model for the locals 1253 and 2745: bus drivers, custodians, maintenance workers, payroll clerks, administrative assistants, educational assistants, and administrative workers broadly.

A defined benefit pension provides a stable and steady income for pensioners regardless of the economic conditions of particular employers, and in this instance it is the government as employer which is burdened with variability in economic conditions of the stock market.

A shared-risk pension, on the other hand, shifts the variability of stock markets onto the pensioners. 

Mr. Thomason’s justification for defined pensions reflects a social-democratic or social-reformist point of view: “you have worked hard, you have done what you have been asked to do by society and by the economy.”

This fails to even question the present class power at work and the class and alienated structure of the economy. Workers allegedly deserve a defined pension because they have kowtowed to their employers and to the general oppressive and exploitative economic, political and social conditions (what else does “you have done what you have been asked to do by society and by the economy” mean?)

Note the complete identification of “society” and “economy” with the present class society and class economy. By identifying the two, Mr. Thomason forfeits any opportunity to oppose the class nature of “society” and “economy” in general and the particular kind of class society and economy in particular–a society and economy dominated by a class of employers. (In other periods and places, serfs were subject to the power of lords, or slaves were subject to the power of slave owners, or peasants formed part of a village economy and so forth). Mr. Thomason performs the trick of identifying the present specific class structure, with its class of employers, with “society” and the “economy” in general. 

What he could have said to justify defined pensions is something like: the government as employer uses workers as things to achieve the government’s goals without permitting the workers the right to participate in the formulation of purposes of the government. Given this lack of freedom at work, workers should struggle to abolish such a situation, but they lack the power to do so for now. For those who retire from this situation, they deserve to experience a stable income if not a stable life (unlikely in a society dominated by a class of employers), and defined pensions provide a more stable form of income than a shared-risk pension.

Not only did Mr. Thomason fail to use the situation as an opportunity to expose both the historical nature of modern class society but, by referring to the “economy” and “society” without qualification he becomes an ideologue of present economic, political and social relations of power. He undoubtedly does not intend on being such an ideologue, but objectively he does in fact serve as such an ideologue. 

The New Brunswick Billionaire Family the Irvings and the Social-Democratic Cliché of Having the Rich Pay Their Fair Share of Taxes

The social-democratic or social-reformist left are full of clichés. I have already criticized the cliché above of “fair wages.” Another social-democratic cliché is the idea of having the rich “pay their fair share of taxes.” Mr. Thomason continues with his cliché-ridden talk by claiming that the New Brunswick billionaire family the Irvings should somehow pay their fair share of taxes. He says:

They [the Irving family] will have to play ball with us and help us to invest in public services by paying their fair share in taxes and their fair share in property taxes, or they can leave.

If we take a look at the money circuit of capital (The Money Circuit of Capital), we can see that workers are used as mere means for obtaining more profit (or, in the case of the government, for purposes undefined by workers). For Mr. Thomason, as long as the Irvings pay “their fair share of taxes”–they can continue to exploit workers. Such is the logic of the social-democratic left. How do these social democrats represent the general interests of workers (the class interests of workers)? 

Furthermore, although looking at “billionaires” may be useful in some circumstances, it completely overlooks the structural logic characteristic of a society dominated by the class power of employers; this structural logic needs to be criticized and abolished. This structural logic, in part, is expressed in The Money Circuit of Capital (other aspects of this logic include, but are not limited to, the productive circuit of capital and the commodity circuit of capital as outlined in volume two of Marx’s Capital). 

A Brief Look at the Issue of Taxes

Mr. Thomason not only uses the cliché of employers “paying their fair share of taxes” but does not even bother to inquire into how taxes hide the exploitative nature of the “economy.” Surplus value, which has its unitary source in the first instance in value (and  expressed in money–see    Economics for Social Democrats–but Not for the Working Class, Part One: Critique of Jim Stanford’s One-Sided View of Job Creation in a Capitalist Society) and in the second instance in surplus value derived from directly exploited workers in the private sphere–appears as separate–as profits, interest and rent on land. Since profits, interest and rent on land (natural resources) is related to wages as the rate of surplus value (surplus value as a whole in the form of profits, interest and rent added together) divided by wages, salaries and benefits), the treatment of each category of surplus as a form of income on the same level as wages (and as taxable income) makes it appear as if there is no connection between the level of wages, salaries and benefits on the one hand, and the level of profits, interest and rent on the other. Marx’s theory of the dual nature of labour (concrete and abstract labour), this theory of money and his theory of surplus value are meant to expose the internal or intrinsic relation between the level of wages and profit, interest and rent.

As John Passant (2015) says, in “Some Basic Marxist Concepts to Help Understand Income Tax,” pages 263-312, The Journal Jurisprudence, page 287: 

It [the income tax system] not only hides the exploitation of workers, it mislocates the creation of profit, interest, rent and dividends – specific examples of the general category of surplus value – in the hands of capital rather than labour. It views workers as being rewarded for their labour rather than the reality of the reward being for their ability to labour and taxes them accordingly.

What the tax system deals with is the phenomena arising in the distribution of
surplus value, not its production.

Taxes can be derived from a variety of sources, and can be direct (such as an income tax) or indirect tax (such as government taxes on commodities that we purchase, such as gas, alcohol and cigarettes). In either case, the source of the taxes is hidden since all sources are aggregated or summed up in the general form of “taxes.” There is a corresponding subject who pays taxes–the “taxpayer.” The division of income into wages on the one hand and and profits, interest and rent is dissolved in the form of taxes. 

Or, as Passant writes in another article, “Income Tax in Australia: From Appearance to Reality,” page 1: 

This idealization of the tax system is typical of social democrats or social reformers.

The income tax system reflects the idea and the surface reality that businesses earn their income in the form of profits or rents or dividends or interest rather than extracting that income (what Marxists call surplus value) from the value that workers create in the process of production which is then realised or monetised in exchange. Income tax also applies to the wages workers receive. Wages are the surface expression, the price, of the value of workers’ labour power or ability to work, not a payment for the work they do or reward for the value they create.

The Political Implications of the Social-Democratic or Social-Reformist Position: The Iron Fist of Social Democracy

The view that there is such a thing as employers paying their fair share of taxes implies that workers, too, ought to pay their fair share of taxes. After all, workers also are obliged to pay income tax.  Therefore, since the government or state forces corporations and workers to pay taxes, if corporations are said to pay their fair share of taxes, then workers who do not “voluntarily” pay their fair share of taxes should, according to this reformist reading and logic, be forced to pay their “fair share of taxes.” 

Is there really any wonder why some workers have turned to the right, when the social-democratic or social-reformist left adopt clichés whose implications involve the legitimation of political coercion by the government or state? 

According to the federal government website (currently a Liberal government):

What are the consequences of tax evasion?
Tax evasion is a crime. Whether you’re cheating on your taxes here in Canada or hiding assets or money in foreign jurisdictions, the consequences are serious. Tax evasion has a financial cost. Being convicted of tax evasion can also lead to fingerprinting, court imposed fines, jail time, and a criminal record.

When taxpayers are convicted of tax evasion, they must still repay the full amount of taxes owing, plus interest and any civil penalties assessed by the CRA. In addition, the courts may fine them up to 200% of the taxes evaded and impose a jail term of up to five years.

The only current social-democratic provincial government is in British Columbia, where the New Democratic Party (NDP) holds power. On its government website (https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/taxes/report-tax-tip), it has a webpage for reporting tax evasion:  

Report a tip on suspected non-compliance with B.C. tax laws

Tax revenues help fund important government programs and services such as healthcare, infrastructure and education. You can play an important role to ensure there is tax compliance in B.C. With your help, people in B.C. can continue to access programs and services and support a fair tax system in the province.

If you know or suspect an individual or business isn’t complying with B.C. tax laws, you can anonymously report them by using the online tip form 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

You can use the tip form to report concerns, such as individuals or businesses:

  • Only accepting cash for payment (for instance, they don’t take credit cards, cheques or e-transfers)
  • Not providing receipts or invoices when you pay
  • Not collecting tax on products or services that are taxable
  • Collecting tax but not reporting or paying it to the provincial government
  • Not reporting all sales or income
  • Importing products or possessions into B.C. but not paying tax on them
  • Not paying or avoiding tax on real estate (such as houses, condos, property taxes) 
  • Reporting incorrect values on vehicle transfer papers (such as reporting only $1 to pay lower taxes on a second-hand car or boat)
  • Not collecting or paying tax on tobacco sales (such as singles or packs of cigarettes, cigars, loose tobacco)
  • Receiving a benefit they’re not entitled to

Helpful information you can provide us includes:

  • Details about the individual or business (such as names, contact information, names of shareholders or related companies if it’s a business)
  • Details about the allegations (such as what, where, when, who and how)
  • Supporting documents (such as invoices, contracts, financial statements)

You can also report a tip over the phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-877-977-0858.

We will work with the reported individuals or businesses to educate them on how to file and pay taxes correctly. 

We take tip submissions seriously. We may follow up with you for additional information if you choose to disclose your contact information. However, we will not update you on the results of your tip. We can’t disclose any personal information, including details about our contact with anyone or potential outcomes of tip investigations.

Submit your tip now

Given the assumption that employers who pay “their fair share of the taxes” can legitimately obtain profits by hiring workers and using them to obtain more money (see my reference to the money circuit of capital above), then workers who fail to pay “their fair share of the taxes” would, according to the social-democratic or social-reformist way, force workers to pay their taxes–with the threat of fining or jailing them, or both. Such is the nature of a government that allegedly “puts people before profits.” 

A government that is indeed a government that expresses the interests of workers could legitimately force particular workers to comply with laws established by that government in order to ensure that the struggle against employers achieved its maximum effectiveness. (The anarchist view that that discipline and force would not be necessary simply ignores the probable organized resistance of employers to a workers’ government.) 

However, the implicit illegitimate assumption made by Mr. Thomason is that a government or state that does not question the legitimacy of the existence of employers as a class–and the economic, political and social structures associated with the class power of employers–is somehow neutral rather than a class state. Such a  class state treats workers’ exploitation and oppression as legitimate (as Mr. Thomason himself evidently does–even if he is unaware of it). Such exploitation is a consequence of economic coercion as well as political coercion (by ensuring that workers comply with the conditions for their continued economic coercion). 

Behind Mr. Thomason’s rhetoric of putting people before profits is the opposite–putting profits before people–backed up by the iron first of the government or state. 

Consequently, as I argued in another post, the social-democratic or social-reformist left are themselves partly responsible for the continued oppressive situation in which we live in general and the continued exploitation of workers in particular (see for example Ontario Election of Conservatives: Will the Social-Reformist Left Learn?). 

Overestimation of the Ease of Controlling the Class of Employers In the Neoliberal Epoch

We need to enter briefly into the nature of capitalism in the neoliberal epoch. Mr. Thomason vastly underestimates the power of employers and overestimates the power of the government or state in the face of the economic and political changes that have occurred over the past four decades. He indicates that, if the Irving family resists paying its “fair share of taxes,” the government will simply take over their companies and put the workers to work as the Irvings had done before. He says: 

I am willing to take on any billionaire who thinks that he deserves services that the rest of don’t.  If the Irvings do not do what the future NDP government requires them to do and threatens to move, then they can try, and we will nationalize their corporations, employ everybody as they did before, and use the revenue to move into a sustainable, green economy.

I have already criticized the view that it is an illusion to develop a sustainable, green economy without the elimination of the class power of employers and transferring that power to the workers themselves (see The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One). This irresponsible, utopian view of the environmental crisis in its various facets (climate change, the destruction of biodiversity and so forth) is coupled with the irresponsible, utopian view that the power of employers is somehow magically eliminated through nationalizations (for a critique of the view that nationalization is the same as socialism, see my post The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Seven: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government and Nationalization in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part Two).

Moritz Muller (2019),  in his article”Of (Anti-)Capitalism, Countermovements, and Social-democratic Bedtime Stories. A Review of Recent Literature on Polanyi,” pages 135-148, Culture, Practice & Europeanization, Volume 4, Number 1, page 136, accurately characterizes the social-democratic attitude that Mr. Thomason expressed: 

… social democracy’s concept of socialism centers around the idea that private ownership should be replaced by public and/or cooperative ownership, together with the state’s acceptance of its role as the responsible institution for social welfare.

Furthermore, Mr.Thomason ignores some earlier historical efforts to nationalize industries by more powerful governments than the New Brunswick provincial government–such as France under President Francois Mitterrand in the early 1980s. 

President Mitterrand had more power than any premier (head) of an NDP premier would have if elected. Firstly, Mitterrand was the president of an entire country and not merely a region (equivalent to a Canadian province administratively). 

Secondly, the office of president in France has centralized powers that a premier would unlikely have in New Brunswick. From James Bond (2012), “French Elections and the Euro: What the Candidates Are Not telling the Electors,” in Sens Publique: 

France’s current presidential system, introduced by General de Gaulle in 1958, confers widerpowers on the country’s President than in almost any other developed country. … Today, these powers mean that the President and his team for the most part define
economic policy, with few checks and balances from parliament or the judiciary, and dramatic changes in direction are possible.

Despite the centralized power, the Mitterrand government was forced to retreat when it tried to implement Keynesian (not socialist) measures of nationalization: 

For example, at the start of the first term of Socialist President François Mitterrand in 1981, the government nationalized broad swathes of the economy which were the electoral promises outlined in the Socialist/Communist coalition’s “Programme Commun”. Massive capital flight ensued, and the value of the French franc plummeted. President Mitterrand had to backtrack, but not before significant damage had been done to the economy.

Undoubtedly the nationalization of the Irving property would not have the same effect on the Canadian dollar as nationalization of industries in France on the franc, but there would undoubtedly be pressures to backtrack, from other employers in New Brunswick and other employers within Canada (if not internationally), as well as from both from other provinces and from the federal government 

Even if there were no such pressure, the nonchalant manner in which Mr. Thomason expresses the supposed ease with which nationalization would occur–because it is vague. Mr. Thomason does not even address the issue of whether the nationalization would involve compensation or not. If it did involve compensation, then the New Brunswick government would have to borrow money for such compensation, raise taxes or reduce services. All of these involve their own problems, but Mr. Thomason simply ignores them–in a typical politician-style fashion of making vague promises that may not be able to be realized. 

Conclusions to Be Drawn from the Above

Those who claim to represent the interests of workers, such as unions and leftist political parties (such as the New Democratic Party (NDP) and Socialist Action here in Canada( have a lot to answer for. Their rhetoric is often just that–rhetoric. When analyzed, their own contradictory political position becomes evident.

That perhaps explains why no one on Facebook engaged with my comments. Given the lack of engagement, it can be inferred that the left here in Toronto simply want to cling to their views regardless of what anyone says or writes. The workers of course, need to learn who really represents their interests and how to critically look at the rhetoric expressed by the social-democratic or social-reformist left (sometimes parading as the radical left). 

Mr. Thomason’s view that there is such a thing as a “fair raise” and, by implication, a “fair wage or salary” gives away his social-democratic or social-reformist views. Since there is no such thing as a fair wage in a society dominated by the class power of employers, his views ultimately lead to an apology for the continued exploitation and oppression of workers. 

Similarly, although it is certainly necessary to defend defined pensions as opposed to shared-risk pensions, Mr. Thomason’s justification of why workers deserve a defined pension as opposed to a shared-risk pension assumes not only the legitimacy of the existence of the class of employers but the legitimacy of workers having to subordinate their lives to that class power. 

The issue of billionaires (and corporations) paying their “fair share of taxes” raises the issue of how the government, by treating wages and various forms of surplus value (profit, interest and rent) on the same level as different forms of taxable revenue hides the exploitative and oppressive nature of working for employers. It also raises the issue of whether workers should be legitimately be forced to pay taxes–and how the far right have captured workers’ dissatisfactions with the coercive nature of government in order to restructure the government by reducing benefits to workers (reduction of unemployment insurance benefits for example) and reducing the benefits to non-workers (social assistance recipients, for example). 

Mr. Thomason’s underestimation of the difficulty of nationalizing industries, his silence over whether the nationalization would involve compensation or not and his silence over whether nationalized industries would still involve exploitation and oppression express the typical idealization of “public services” characteristic of social democrats or social reformers. 

Mr. Thomason’s conception of socialism is really just humanized capitalism. 

Turning to the Mr. Thomason’s implicit conception of socialism, his conception reminds me of a Winnipeg teacher. I was working as a casual library clerk in the school where she worked in Winnipeg. She was the teacher librarian, and she claimed to be a socialist. She instructed me to label some of the books with labels and a felt marker according to the Dewey Decimal library classification system. She then left for a few days (I forget why). 

My printing abilities (as well as my writing abilities in terms of legibility) leave much to be desired; my typing accuracy and speed, on the other hand, are much better. I already had been a bilingual library technician in Prince George, British Columbia for over two years. I had been used to the labels for library material to be printed by a printer and did not have to worry about the legibility of my printing and writing.

I did the best that I could. When she returned, she was shocked for two reasons. She thought that I would have progressed much more quickly (quantitative critique), and she was very critical of the quality of the printing on the call number labels (qualitative critique). I was never called back to that library or school–with no explanation. She did not even inquire into why her quantitative and qualitative concerns had not been met. 

The teacher’s “socialism” was restricted to supporting public welfare services–welfare capitalism, if you will. She obviously believed in some form of hierarchical command system at work and not humanized forms of work; she showed little understanding of my own limitations in a given context and my own capacities in another context. This is likely Mr. Thomason’s view as well as well.

This socialism is really aiming to reestablish a social-democratic government that arose after the Second World War. Such a social-democratic government is unlikely now that globalization has arisen. The Second World War saw a massive destruction of means of production (and workers) so that the proportion of what Marx called constant capital (machinery, plant, raw material, auxiliary material and so forth) was lower than before the War. The reduction of constant capital improved the rate of profit for a time, but as the accumulation of capital proceeded, economic crises were bound to arise, and with such crises, crises in the relatively temporary truce between workers and employers via collective bargaining and collective agreements. The attack by the class of employers, and the capitalist government or state through a retrenchment of real wages, reductions in welfare measures and in many cases increased in expenditures in government bodies dedicated to increased oppressions of workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers was hardly surprising. 

Another example also comes to mind. When I was working at the brewery, there was a lab assistant who tested the beer for quality control. We talked in the lunch room occasionally, and he indicated that he was somewhat of a socialist. He later became a foreman–and oppressed us just as much as other foremen. His socialism was similar to the socialism of the teacher; both conceived of socialism in terms of welfare capitalism and not in terms of the elimination of the class power of employers. 

Socialist Action, at least as represented by Mackenzie Thomason, conceives of socialism in a similar manner to the teacher and the lab assistant/foreman–welfare capitalism. It is hardly what I would call socialism (for my conception of socialism, see for example Socialism, Part One: What It May Look Like and the subsequent posts in that series). 

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