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Mitch SMith


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Syria: What is the core principle?

I have a friend who is a Syrian ex-pat.
He runs a grocery store in my town and I meet him almost every day.
When the Syrian conflict started getting bad I asked him about it. He said:

"We have a saying - when elephants fight, the grass is killed".

He went on to say: "I have a brother in a town that is at risk .. I plan to go in through Turkey and get him out of there." .. He has not been able to do that yet. And he explained to me the factional power that most Syrians understand .. the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Alawi .. but there are also Druze, Coptics etc etc..

And now, the USA wants to throw bombs to destroy critical infrastructure - regardless of who gets killed in the process.

This is a subject that is so complex that no one can really know what is happening.

My question to the TED community is this:

What is the basic principle?

My friend alludes to elephants and grass .. that seems basic.

Is there any other reliable abstract to be had?


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    Sep 13 2013: I think I have an important fundamental:

    Leaders are not part of the tribe they lead - they are of the tribe of leaders.

    So if, for instance, your "nation" has 350 million "citizens", that represents:
    1.75 million tribes .. which generates:
    8.75 thousand warlords .. which generates
    43.75 emperors .. lest call them 51 "states".

    Each emperor (in this scenario) must manage 8 or 9 warlords.

    The "national president" manages 43 - 51 emperors.

    Let's look at the global stat:

    7 billion people creates an extra level. But it constrains stable tribe-size to about 25 people.

    The global uber-uber-emperor must manage the same number of uber-emperors - about 25 of them.

    This is about 1/8 of human capacity.

    But there are 5 levels of political power - each level has no membership in the one above ..

    Given that hierarchical levels each inject adaptive delay - What does that mean for the adaptive range of the species?

    Can we afford such deep hierarchies in our governance structures?

    Can it be said that a nation is extremely sensitive to the population it serves?
    What happens when a single child is born that causes the whole tower to become unstable?

    Would it not be better to have no tower in the first place? A political economics that has tribes, conventions and no warlords? A network model?
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      Sep 13 2013: As you live in Australia, you might want to examine carefully whether your preferred model of same-size mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive tribes fits Australia well. Reliable model building may be more feasible by starting closer to home.

      If it fits for the data with which you are intimately familiar, that would be the first interesting finding and a prerequisite, I would think, for trying to see if it fits a different place you know less well. There are questions to ask about other countries if you want to get beyond assumptions that may be more convenient than descriptive.

      There are so many misconceptions about social organization, values, and everything else about places where we do not ourselves live.

      I know this is a great interest of yours and I am trying only to offer a methodological suggestion.
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        Sep 14 2013: Thanks Fritzie,

        I have the beginnings of the model coded up in netlogo.
        The numbers I give here are speculative - it's just dividing 200 up and down and looking at possible structures that emerge.
        The number 200 is a gross approximation, but serves the purpose: + or - 100 still yields the same structure. What is missing is entropic context - it assumes the same entropic potential across the board. That context will constrain the number. As you know, I like to bring all my analysis back to entropic gradient - I think this defines the limits of a "self" - and if a self exceeds those limits it will split - applies to bacteria, slime-mould, humans or tribes.

        Australia is a good place to start - the native peoples did, in fact, form such non-hierarchical relationships between tribes of about the size I suggest. They were not exactly peaceful, but nothing like the violence that was brought to them from England.

        So yes - it's hypothetical .. it suggests a dynamic that might be missing from other methods of dealing with political reality (if there is such a thing ;).

        I only use the number 200 because that is what Desmond Morris estimated to be the largest human tribe-size at the advent of agriculture. He argued that agriculture halted default evolution.
        It certainly modified the ecological evolutionary vector. I haven't seen any papers on the genetics before/after agriculture, and the Younger dryas must also be part of the mix.

        Nevertheless, the initial hypothesis does seem to be casting a structural shadow worth following-up.

        I appreciate your advice.
        The challenge with a netlogo model is that, if the agents get too complex it crashes the system before you get large enough stats for analysis. SO far it does a lot of boom/bust before it tunes to follow seasonal entropy .. all of it non-linear.
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          Sep 14 2013: I wasn't thinking in terms of simulation modeling on a computer and the limitations on that. I was thinking about rough fit of the model to actual structures.

          Otherwise the conclusions are just artifacts driven by assumptions.
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        Sep 14 2013: True.

        Might take a few days :)
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        Sep 14 2013: Bit of a glitch in the data:
        There are multiple aggregation schemas in the existing data.
        For instance, I can look at established town populations.
        Or I can look at religious domination aggregations,
        Or I can look at commercial operation aggregations
        Or I can look at organised association aggregations

        They all have formalized breakpoints in organisational hierarchy.

        The problem is that my hypothesis challenges the formal breakpoints.

        It is necessarily inductive - there is no formal data available to make deductive conclusions.

        If I follow the inductive, I would say that, in the formal political boundaries, the USA has a fairly good tribal balance, but that Australia is supporting an under-utilized hierarchy (too many states).

        But on top of that, the internet changes everything - tribes are formed that have no geographic constraint.

        I will have to live with my artefacts and record how they behave.
        Will take more than a few days. But if the concept takes hold, induction will do its work and prove itself(or not) over a few generations.

        But not to despair - I have a good track record in the inductive.
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          Sep 14 2013: I thought what you are doing looks more like a deductve formulation in the sense that you are making deductions for societies at any time from tribal organization and then running simulations without matching up with rigorous contemporary observation..

          Once you have done your work, I expect you will place it into the Netlogo modeling commons so anyone can look at it and see whether to them it seems to simulate something that approximates how things operate where they are?

          Maybe a year ago, we had a participant who used to pose questions like "what will happen the day ____ happens?" He had an image of something he thought was realistically imminent in the United States and wanted to play out his scenario.

          The problem was, his assumption from half the world away was not close to a realistic scenario, even as it matched something that seemed valid to him based on his assumptions and biases about America and Americans based on what his media conveyed to him and the information he gathered selectively from sources he chose to believe.

          I am hoping your model will be something that can be tuned to real situations and therefore have some predictive power.
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        Sep 15 2013: Hi Fritzie,

        What I am trying to do, in this case, is to determine - if formalisation of tribal dynamics can be improved - by identifying a computational factor that may have been missed. ("Computational" in the Wolfram sense - cellular automata). The hypothesis is that tribe-size is a fundamental aspect of the self-organising principles of community/society.

        If an observation can be made in that space, we would be able to improve much of political economic thinking. The paradigms of communism, socialism, capitalism, democracy, anarchism etc will all atrophy and give rise to the next evolutionary period.

        There is a problem with the rigour - I am not funded.

        Of course, the netlogo models will pass to public domain for review.
        I have one early model that looks at resource stratification affects on simple individual behaviour. It is over-abstract, but fun because I use music as one of the graphs (ran out of graph-space) - I can send it if you give me an email contact. It's not published because there's a long way to go, and the code is a bit unstructured. But I'm happy with the musical graph ;)
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          Sep 15 2013: I have a cellular automata enthusiast around here. I have to steer him to netlogo to take a look.
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        Sep 15 2013: Cool!

        netlogo is made for that stuff - it is also brilliant in doing neuron/synapse models.

        btw - have you noticed the formation of attractors in this discussion?
        I'm finding it quite instructive! Ideology is revealed nakedly.

        Local minima! WooHoo!
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          Sep 15 2013: "Wool-loo" may be a local term where you are, or perhaps I have run into my typical lack of familiarity with modern slang. Please define for me.

          Of course I know what a local minimum is.
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        Sep 16 2013: It always gives me a joy when I observe things form-up.
        I suppose it's the nero-peptides etc .. hate to guess what mix.

        The chemistry of "aha" .. yes, I know it's also the chemistry of confirmation bias ;)
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      Sep 14 2013: You forget that each leader and warlord has to follow the same set of rules. They can't just make them up as they go, well, in Iraq and Afghanistan maybe, but not in most western, democratic nations.

      Even in Australia, they have rules that all leaders have to obey.
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        Sep 15 2013: Yes, this is part of the principle I wish to examine - the affects of formalisation. I suspect that formalisation is anti-evolutionary, and this is a time where we need to enhance our adaptability rather than constrain it.
        Just as Abbad is almost certainly screwed - along with his entire tribe, so too will be all the reeds who do not bend in this wind.

        What we forget is that human social organisation is self-organising - we tend to wreck it when we force extraneous structures on it.
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          Sep 15 2013: I think we have experimented enough with the evolutionary process of man's ability to get along and we, perhaps need to formalize our relationship. We are not that complicated, really.
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        Sep 15 2013: Hey John, gotta share this:

        With all the contributions here, once I get over my own amygdala responses I have found this:

        All policy is the description of a local minimum. Although it begins as a more-or-less accurate formalisation of reality, reality moves on - and policy becomes obsolete.

        It's not that policy is bad, but that blind acceptance of it prevents accurate perception of reality.

        A realistic policy dynamic will recognise and honour its own failure to evolve. It evolves through failure.
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          Sep 15 2013: That's why you should always used both eyes when making policy.
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        Sep 15 2013: It takes a special kind of silence to actually see what those 2 eyes are showing us.
        I think that is called "surrender" in some philosophies.

        I only engage in this discussion because I have a Syrian friend. My friend's issues are my issues.

        You will know this - when we accept our people - we become what we are supposed to be.
        I will tell my friend what I have learned. I hope it helps his brother.
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          Sep 15 2013: It is interesting how we all have friends from the Middle Eastern countries. I wonder how it is we have so many enemies that want to destroy us and our other Middle Eastern Friends. Or is it My Friends enemy is my friend -in the case of Israel and Lebanon.

          It's interesting, when you read the History of Syria, that they found so much interest in invading their neighbors and assassinating their leaders (Lebanon, Jordan, etc.)

          I think the Syrians have proven themselves to be disappointing as neighbors. I wouldn't want them living next to me. :)

          Maybe if the Syrians were to accept their neighbors, they might become the people they are suppose to be.
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        Sep 16 2013: Hi John,

        That's a slippery-slope .. if I were to denounce the Syrians for their leaders, I would have long since campaigned for the extermination of all Americans.

        I get the feeling that all social organisations larger than 200 individuals will produce mentally-damaged leaders.
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        Sep 16 2013: Hey John,

        It is in my self interest to influence my environment in very specific ways:

        1. towards peace
        2. away from boredom.

        we are not here to be bored or to suffer - we are here to have fun. The higher the quality of that fun the better.

        I have had huge fun in this life - and it's only limited by those barriers placed in my way that prevent the party going further - and you know what, finding ways to wreck those barriers is huge fun!

        Cop this - this guy is having fun:

        It is in my interest to encourage massive revolution - but I will warn everyone that - all those who get blood on their hands are not having fun. So find the way to get that done .. and the fun will never end.

        My interests? Great company along the way ;)
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          Sep 17 2013: Sometimes it's Real and sometimes it's fun, but it's not always real fun Mitch.

          No matter how much fun we are having we have to sit on the toilet sometimes. We have to rinse the dirt off our bodies, brush our teeth and comb our hair. House keeping is as real as having fun. And probably, more important.
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          Sep 17 2013: If I grow some corn and sell it to people who dig up gold out of the ground, are they exploiting me?

          I seek their business. They trade me gold for corn. That's capitalism "Trade".
          But, I can't eat gold so I keep some corn for myself.

          If this were the only business that existed, the gold diggers would soon die off because of hard times limiting the corn crop.

          What we call value, changes with the environment. A man with a pocket full of gold, who is hungry, walking through a field of corn could die of starvation if it were not for the good will of the farmer. The farmer is more a valued class of individual in this respect. The gold digger is of little value.

          Marx was a cool guy but a lousy house keeper.

          Exploitation can only occur during times of hardship, during times of limited resources or productivity. It's active in a political climate, more so than a communal arrangement. The politics of ownership and price fixing determine who gets the beer license.
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        Sep 17 2013: I'm gradually getting some clarity on all that.
        It certainly can be fun doing the mundane maintenance parts. In fact, when you do it right, the world joins in .. in surprising ways, it becomes the great company I mentioned.

        That's one of the things I've been hunting for - what is our disconnection, our barrier to life's reality?
        I have found one bit of it - we get lost in our autobiographical selves .. it's amazingly fundamental - and ancient. We are living in stories .. fictions.
        It all depends on where your attention, your identity resides.
        Most of our stories are miss-directions - sending us off into the past and future - there is no fun in those places.
        It's been going on for millennia, so it's not easy to remember.
        The instability of over-heated tribal congregation seems to be the fatal departure from fun into suffering and boredom.
        A stable tribe requires no leader, no money, no law. Our totems are corrupted by religions and ideologies - all designed to extract military potential and servitude from the tribe - for the benefit of strangers.

        it's pretty basic - and a thing that requires massive revolution.
        But the funny bit is that the revolution is only very slight .. not much needs to change, and only strangers will resist it.
        If it is done right, it will take them by surprise.
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          Sep 17 2013: What you need is a village of artists, with a strong, open-minded sense of self.

          There are many blogs around that support this type of mind-set and they are very informative and interesting. Still, they tend to get lost in their own life-stories. I guess it's a human thing to be individual in thought and communal in need. Getting lost along the way, venturing from the straight path, it's all part of the fun of exploration.

          I agree. A revolution that simply changes hands is a wast of time.

          Speaking of being taken by surprise, have you ever wondered what the world would be like if the Athenians had lost the battle of Marathon?
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        Sep 17 2013: I enjoy hearing people's life-stories.
        .. it's particularly good when they render it in poetic form. Specially when people talk about their parents.
        I know the stories are embellished and skewed, but I'm gregarious.

        Yes, the artisans are fun. They tell great stories too.
        Last year I drove to a festival with a pair of bagpipe makers. It was like a day with the elves or damn hobbits .. gods or something.

        The individual/communal is a thing that has occupied my curiosity for quite a while now.
        "Self" seems to be layered in a shell structure - always questing outwards, from protein to cell to organism to animal to communal - and beyond.
        With the communal, the experiments are still reaching for the stability required for a defined layer beyond the hunter/gatherer tribe.

        Had Marathon fallen? Now there's an interesting thought-experiment. The details are far too complex to trace .. I think the city-state was inevitable ..
        hmm .. seems the most significant turning point was the Younger Dryas. This was the last time that humans got pushed to the wall - they came out of their Eurasian enclaves with some serious trauma. We celebrate agriculture, but it caused tribal instability that is still playing out.

        I suppose it would help humanity to realise what all the fuss is about.
        The industrial revolution certainly caused the decline of slavery, and even that is incomplete.
        The mechanisms of elite tribe formation needs resolving - and I think the world is sorting through that now. Syria may be an example of that as the Allawites are being displaced.
        Perhaps if we can recognise that elites are simply tribes, we could grapple with it in a more cognitive way?

        (edit: you know, I don't think that anything can change without an adjustment at the protein level - the DNA has to change, but it needs a clear signal to do so. Currently there is not enough stability for any clear adaptive pathway. A political signal might do it)
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          Sep 18 2013: "With the communal, the experiments are still reaching for the stability required for a defined layer beyond the hunter/gatherer tribe."

          Yes I agree. To get stability we have to start over and let the technology go. I don't like that idea of letting it go.

          So, how about Monks and Monasteries? Do you think they present a degree of stability in the pursuit of life on a communal level?

          How about quiting the reproduction process? Would we finally find peace?
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        Sep 18 2013: We've drifted way beyond the Syrian question .. or have we?
        WHen seeking fundamentals, it can go way deep.

        Reproduction .. that is a fundamental of life. And as you suggest, life may be expressed at the super-organism level. So what that infers is the role of specialisation - can the superorganism afford individuals that specialise beyond their own self-reproduction?

        Absolutely everything about life has a balance of specialisation - in neural science it's called "potentiation" and you can observe it from gene expression to neuron connections - and it happens in a step-wise manner.

        I call it a balance of specialisation - because every specialisation is done at the expense of versatility - adaptation at the expense of adaptability: A turtle(highly adapted) cannot fly, but humans(highly adaptable) can fly.

        A lot of our technology relies on un-balanced specialisation, I think it calls for trimming, not elimination. This idea is the true heart of the Luddite movement - most just assume they were against all technology - machine smashing loonies, but they were not. They saw the unbalanced nature of specialisation - they were opposed to the hidden exploit of industrial class stratification. The over-skilled are trapped in their specialty,
        Obsolescence creates social exile.
        Re-skilling becomes more difficult with the depth of specialisation
        Acceleration of obsolescence makes the frequency of re-skilling exceed human capacity
        Fundamental skills create unaccountable priesthoods.

        So use the 200-member-tribe yardstick: how many specialist skills can a stable tribe sustain?
        Can tribes themselves specialise without creating elites?
        If a tribe was constrained to create it's own reproductive value, then elites could not form.
        One really has to ask "which technologies are worth keeping?"

        I don't like priesthoods - they are always beyond audit and are almost corrupt-by-definition.

        We have amassed a vast body of knowledge - I think it should be preserved.
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          Sep 18 2013: In the military the squad is the basic form of grouping with a platoon being the simple village group. A platoon of soldiers can generate a lot of muscle power in addition to it's firepower.

          A whole company can build and maintain a village. The only elites are the company officers.Who must, at all times maintain the moral and respect of their men.

          While officers are trained, it doesn't take long for any enlisted man to master the techniques to replace an officer. The Sargent is, in most respects, a direct officer replacement, under battlefield conditions, within the platoon grouping.

          In the military structure, elitism is due, in part, to a mastery of skill, experience, and training. Money can't buy you a place in that village.

          We need to militarize the whole civilian population before it is too late. :) That way we get rid of fake elitism.
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          Sep 18 2013: Syria is pushing the idea the Rebels gassed their own people. What is your take on that?

          I've looked around for some evidence but I can't find anything on the internet.
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        Sep 18 2013: Yes - the art of Ninjitsu is the art of what works - nothing else.
        The highest skilled Ninja never sees battle - all battles are won in advance.
        Battles are caused by the inept.

        The military are a subsidised tribal group. It would be an interesting thing to see if a platoon could run a self-contained, self sufficient village - and if it did, whether it would have any time left over for warfare.

        To Syria then.

        Syria represents the result of an over-burdening elite. When the means of reproduction are denied to the populace, it will eat the elite or starve - no choice in the matter. The trigger supplied by the "Arab spring" was largely spurred by food shortages .. These countries are not poor by aggregate, but have large elite burdens - the food shortages were the evidence of over-subsidy of specialist tribes (elites).

        I think the USA would be well advised to look at the parallels demonstrated here - USA is resilient because it is a big farm coast-to-coast, but that resilience is being pushed.
        I note that Australia is not far behind - it is not a big farm, it's marginal.
        We just elected the most extreme elite government in our history.
        One spark and up she goes. And it will spread just as it did in the middle east.

        The fundamental underpinning the Syrian conflict seems to be tribal specialisation. Exploitive specialist tribes have over-stepped the resilience of the inter-tribal network.

        The remediation seems to be a re-organisation of political units to reflect proven military organisational metrics - plus a comprehensive set of laws to govern inter-tribal trade and crisis management. Tribal units must be constrained to provide their own means of reproduction, with appeal to the tribal network when the means is constrained by external aggression or environmental crisis.

        The resulting global structure would be necessarily without hierarchy - with the constraint of self-sufficiency preventing power elites from developing exploitation skills.

        Food for thought.
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        Sep 18 2013: OK - I'll conclude this with some observations:
        (this is really hard to not get captured by the detail - so I'll make some over-simplified statements - happy to do the detail for anyone interested - my contact is in my profile)

        1. Externalities can no longer be excluded from corporate responsibility.
        2. Within corporations, the intangible benefit of business cases must take equal status to the tangible.
        3. It's the environment stupid.
        4. tribal exploitation is done by syphoning the surplus via the totem - purify your totem.

        That's it - and I know what's going to go down in the next few years - I am not going to say, because I want it to happen - those who are watching know what I mean. The fuse is burning.

        (edit: John - The Russians are watching? That's only the tip of it - and all these watchers .. they are humans ;)
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          Sep 18 2013: The Russian's are always watching. :)

          I think the surplus thing is overrated. Surplus implies that which is left over after everyone is well fed. If it is surplus people wouldn't be hungry. Exploitation occurs when you take the food off the table as well. Over working a population is the killer. That combined with low wages.

          We need more information about the investigation of the Gas attack. Not with standing the fact Syria is a nation of Assassins, We should have a fair trial on this issue. What if we were to learn the Rebels gassed their own people? How would that affect our feelings about the current conflict in that nation? Would we withdraw our aid from the Rebels?

          This is one issue where we need absolute transparency.
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        Sep 19 2013: Hi John,

        I have seen a few reports of the rebel gas involvement - one asserts that it happened because they were supplied it without any info on handling it, and it went off while they were moving it. There is some evidence of rebels training on chem-weapon deployment using mortars.
        The evidence of Assad deploying it is from a spurious bit of Mossad intelligence.
        But I can't believe any of it - the media is thoroughly gamed when it concerns ongoing war events. This is one reason why we have trials before convictions - there has been no trial, and there can be no trial while ever the war continues - so you nailed that one. To act as executioner is to destroy your own claim for justice .. so much for the rule-of-law.

        Surplus is fundamental. What happens is that the system extracts the surplus whether there is one or not. That's where the poverty is forced to happen. If you are a job-slave, more than half the effort you do is surplus - to ensure the reproduction of the "job" and put profits into the pocket of the boss.
        If you are being paid a poverty wage, your surplus is already taken, and absolutely takes food off your table. This is the essential heart and black soul of capitalism - those who think they are doing OK have not yet seen how badly they have been robbed.
        When I was doing business cases, the labour component had to return 10 times the amount paid in wages - after tax, working-conditions, direct operating expenses, raw materials, and maintenance. A good project amortises one-off investment cost in one year, maximum 3, after which the 10-to-1 generation of surplus is on-going.
        Part of that surplus is dedicated to future growth, some goes to management pay-increases and some goes to share-holders. None of it is earmarked for workers beyond a small training budget.
        The desperation of the worker is ensured by removing his surplus, and therefore his capacity to choose.
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        Sep 19 2013: I'll go on a bit more about surplus.
        The really horrific part of surplus-harvesting is that it is done in advance - by contract.
        Labour and trade contracts tie-in the worker, or the poor country.
        They are tied-in to promise their existing surplus as if there will always be the same, or more.
        When anything happens to reduce the actual surplus, it comes out of the health and infrastructure of the contracted. Contract law favours the rich.

        There is one saving grace to job-slavery - the investment dedicated to productivity increases - mandated by the employer's profit motive - means that the labour hours produce a lot more surplus than the individual can do alone.
        And some of that that increased surplus finds its way back to the workers in negotiated wage increase, and through additional value filtering through the economy.
        But skill demand will constrain wage negotiation - and as the technology improves, the skill requirement declines - therefore reducing the demand for human skill - therefore reduced wages.

        There is another booger-bear - profit needs somewhere to go. The managers and directors can only consume so much and have to deploy their plunder somewhere - and that requires expansion. Right now, there's no profitable expansion to be had apart from gambling and buying politicians.
        So that means that you don't need workers - so you just throw them away.

        There's another aspect of surplus that no one seems to look at - it's the most important one:
        Most human surplus is derived by groups conducting real-time networked task adaptation - think of a hunting team or a planting/harvesting team - each participant takes roles on-the-fly so that the whole task is done a lot quicker and at minimal expenditure.
        This is the inherent social surplus that got us genetlically selected in the first place.
        SO, for humans, surplus and adaptive specialisation-balance are everything.

        We formalise and reduce this social surplus at our peril.

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