Externalities and Affordances


In the study of economics, at least in the current made up nonsense of economics, an externality is a factor outside of an enterprise that isn’t something the enterprise need concern itself with. For example, profit comes from coal mining, using the local river to wash the coal and fill the river with dust that kills the fish is an externality. The microcosm of the mine is viewed solely on its own terms and is making a profit and working fine. The macrocosm of the surrounding environment does not figure in any calculations. Downstream does not exist.

This willful ignorance is part of the human condition. It’s also, when you think about it, just the way animal populations behave. The future doesn’t exist for a deer that’s eating all of the vegetation. Without predators there will be a collapse. We are lucky, we can observe and think things through, we can think of better ways of doing things.

It’s also been said, but I haven’t yet researched this, that all capitalist profit comes from abusing externalities. The enclosure of the commons that began the accumulation of capital in the hands of a few, the industrial wastelands where dumping waste carelessly into a lake caused an ecocide and so on being the results of this. The profits from the processes were made, and the damage carried by everyone else.

As we sit now at the beginning of the phase change for the climate this forcing externalities is becoming ever more obvious, but it’s not hard to see that it goes way back to the beginnings of the industrial revolution and the processes that had to happen as a precursor to it.


I came across this term in the past few years in my job writing software. It’s used by the User Experience (UX) specialists to mean the way in which software encourages the user to behave in particular ways, that guide the experience so that it is easy to get what you need from the software without much friction. It promises accurate information entry, and happy customers.

It’s interesting to think about this. If you don’t have a mental model that matches that of the software designer it could easily be a hostile and unforgiving process no matter how much effort they’ve put into designing it. We’ve all seen messages like error 46 at line 5, which are no use to the end user of the software but might have been to the original developer.

We live in an intensely bureaucratic society. There are electronic and physical forms we have to fill in all the time to get anything done. Clever algorithms that are replacing humans in decision making are every bit as biased as the humans were because the assumptions behind the data used to train the algorithms was also biased. In the USA skin colour is never mentioned explicitly, but the ghettoising of people of colour means that algorithms that check addresses and social environment are carrying on the racist assumptions that they are supposed to prevent. We have the same thing on a smaller scale everywhere.

For a UK-based example, children from deprived areas who couldn’t sit exams because of Covid 19 found themselves marked down because of the area they went to school in, not because of anything to do with their actual potential to pass the exams. Let’s also draw a veil over the better-off privately educated children sitting slightly easier exams that still count the same when allocating university places, which has been a scandal for years.

Our owners have done this for several reasons:

  1. Dealing with a complicated mass of individuals is expensive, so reducing them to form filling and a couple of easily managed metrics means they can control us without us even realising or being able to do anything about it if we did.
  2. They control the bureaucracy. This means the rules only affect people like you and me. You can see this arrogance when Covid rules were being applied in a partial and biased way.
  3. You don’t get to see your oppressor, they’re on the other side of the forms, and the poor stooge policing the form has no authority to do anything other than insist it’s filled in correctly, whatever that means.
  4. Reducing people to forms also means their human needs, not addressed by the forms, can be safely sidelined and left unnoticed and unresolved.
  5. You can police people solely by whether or not they have certain documents, and whether those documents have the right things on them. This allows mass discrimination without having to actually deal with the individuals. Suffering can be automated and kept invisible to the people that ultimately cause it.

So we have affordances that lock oppression in at very low cost, and we have affordances for our owners that keep them distant from us. We have affordances that mean no-one has to engage with us as human beings with needs. It’s all very tidy.


The biggest wheeze the owning class came up with was the fiction of the corporation. Originally the idea was a group of people with a common interest, say creating a canal from Liverpool to Leeds, would get together and raise finance to do this mutually beneficial thing. So we had corporations creating and running infrastructure. It also meant that the infrastructure was managed and paid for in a way that benefited the people using it. The recent concept of selling these assets to financial institutions so they can screw us all out of cash wasn’t thought of.

The next step was the idea of limited liability. A corporation has assets, materials etc. that it uses. If it causes some damage or death then only these assets can be used to pay for any repairs. The owners of the corporation are not personally liable and neither are the directors because their only legal concern is making a profit.

I think we can all see where that one is going. We now have corporations that rent everything, own nothing, do enormous damage, and then shut up shop without the people who did the actual rapine facing any consequences. We have long supply chains where the minerals are torn out of the ground in grossly unsustainable ways by poor peasants but the damage isn’t the fault of the companies that buy them, at least those companies like to pretend they have clean hands, but do they?

I have discussed this elsewhere in my review of the book Ecocide

The idiot consensus

Another interesting point is that the post war boom had what seems like eye wateringly high taxes compared with now. If you were a ticket clipping share holder who had no personal income from a job but a lot of what was bluntly called unearned income you paid a lot of tax. Similarly corporations were taxed highly and had to put their profits to work reinvesting in actual research and development or plant because they would be similarly punished with heavy taxation. This was a deliberate forcing of growth to recover from the war.

We have had forty years of financialisation since then. Corporate taxes are far lower, rich individuals’ income is now subject to the pretense they earned it, even if it came from non-productive investments like property. Executive bonuses now depend on share prices so profits are put back into buying shares in the company so they will make their bonuses as the share price rises. This benefits nobody but a tiny number of people who will make money from the rising prices. There is a similar non-productive sea anchor that comes from spinning property prices and forcing the poor into rent and debt peonage.

I have read that there is a balance between financial services that allow the economy to run, and the financialisation that solely works to enrich a very few people gambling (or pretending to gamble – if they lose we pay through bailouts) with shares and property. The figures I saw suggested this balance was reached as long ago as the 1970s, at least in the UK. All the subsequent growth has done is act like a parasite on what might be called the real economy and caused crashes from speculative bubbles.

We have an idiot consensus that happily carries on with this fantasy. Our banks have been rendered too big to fail. The services we all need have been privatised so that their new owners can make money from things the rest of us need to survive. Somehow this engine of inequality and ecocide running along is deemed to be fine, even though by any human measure it is not.

New affordances

What do people actually need?

Let me quote myself from my Eco Socialism or Annihilation article.

In order to say we live in a world that is equitable, moral, and worth defending everybody must have unfettered access to these five things:

  1. Decent shelter
  2. Food autonomy
  3. Health care
  4. Education
  5. Meaningful work

Mixed in with this there must also be the democratic ownership and control of resources by the people who need and use them. The nonsense of nationalisation as it was originally done still kept the old structures of hierarchical companies. Rethinking how things are organised is a fundamental part of this. Otherwise it’s back to creating systems that can easily be stolen and sold again. Making it almost impossible to undo this work by organising it so that undoing it cannot be done is paramount. The organisations that provide the things we need must be incredibly democratic and well run, and also incredibly difficult to steal from us again.

We need affordances that give us the five pillars of human dignity without any fuss or ceremony. We also need to start undoing the damage caused by unthinking bureaucracy. Capitalism is perfectly logical in its own narrow terms. You can’t reform it, if you remove the corporation’s immunity and start working on ensuring the five are everybody’s without fear or favour then most of modern capitalism, with its silly market fetish and redirection of resources into the pockets of the few will be undone. As I discussed in the TINA disease the artificial scarcity from capitalist productive anarchy would have to be brought to an end. If they still need it, we can let our former owners build themselves a casino to play their bloody games in without beggaring the rest of us.

Thinking Downstream

In the first place we need a philosophical shift to always think of the downstream for whatever you do. For example, one of the things Trump did was relieve mine owners of the obligation to stop waste getting into the water table because it was burdensome and made it hard to make money mining. The obvious idea, of maybe doing something else that wasn’t so destructive never entered their tiny minds. Downstream destruction is their problem, whoever they are, and for some reason this went unchallenged.

Similarly, in the UK, the Environment Agency isn’t allowed to pursue cases that may damage growth. Plus it’s also tiny compared with the size it should be. Yet no-one questions this.

Look for the downstream, look for who is affected by what you do, and make sure everything still works properly. This is simple humanity and it isn’t even hard to do. We need to let go of the idiot consensus and create a new one that includes all of us. We must make sure all of us have the affordances we need to live a decent life. We must stop listening to the short sighted fools who pretend there is no downstream, no macrocosm that needs attention.

Mother Time

Mother time

I remember how we used to stand together
Waiting for the train to come
It was a goodbye
But not forever

If I knew now what I knew then
I would never let you go
Never let you go

Mother time had new ideas
Mother time says the end of all meeting is parting
The end of all building is destruction
But how else could we meet again
How else could we meet again

If I knew now what I knew then
I would never let you go
Never let you go

The TINA disease

Capitalist Realism

The late theorist, Mark Fisher, coined the phrase Capitalist Realism. He used it to mean the way the discourse has changed so that we now live in a world that, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, does not appear to have any viable alternatives to capitalism. We have the world catching fire and we have been sold the old Thatcher phrase there is no alternative or TINA.

This is bunk.

Humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years. We’ve organised societies in hundreds, if not thousands of different ways. People got fed, kids got raised, blah blah. We now have the technical know how to create a just world without poverty and hunger, a world that can release the potential of billions of human beings, but the millstone of our restricted vision prevents us from realising it.

There is an alternative, you just have to be able to conceive of it and see how the new is folded deep into the structures of the old. It often seems to me, looking at how we know full well how to feed far more people than actually exist, and distribute things so effectively, that all we need is the will to do it better. A gentle tug on the old way of doing things and a better world will unfold like some magic origami. This is the old Marxist dialectic, there’s nothing magical about it, the new can just unfold and the world be a different place.

Capitalism is moribund, dying, its over-arching success is a burning world. The group consciousness it creates that has been so successfully undermined by our owners we accept their lies about no alternatives. It was a great engine of effectiveness and change a century or so ago, indeed up to the 1960’s technological change was racing ahead. There have been no significant discoveries since about 1970. You might scoff at this, but no-one has discovered or invented anything like the transistor since then. What we have now is simply endless refinement of those old ideas with better and better quality control. The central ideas that were used to create the phone you’re probably reading this on all originate at the latest around 1970, most of them far earlier, and most of them came from government funded research.

Our owners hate having to do any work, or take any risks. So they socialise the risk in order to make sure they don’t pay for it. When viable technologies emerge they’re taken out of the commons and turned into products, based on the ownership of things that should belong to all of us. We’re so used to this we can’t see how ridiculously unfair and wrong it is. The billionaire parasites are not entrepreneurs, they’re just lucky, and are making sure things stay the way they are while the rest of us are fuel for their supper.

Stealing the commons is a centuries-old way of making wealth for the few. First the common land was enclosed and people (particularly women) driven off, eventually the hyper exploitation of women became the new commons when they were driven out of wage labour into subordinate positions, eventually wars meant re-organisation and changes undid at least some of this and the patriarchy is more subtle in some parts of the world. Now we have a commons in the internet that’s slowly being monetised again. Underneath all this endless capital accumulation and over production fill the world with useless crap and hunger in the vain pursuit of profit and growth.

The TINA disease

Being caught by TINA is a disease. Look around you, why have stories about dystopian worlds come to dominate the arts? Why is it becoming almost impossible to see anything that isn’t a warmed-over cliche from the past or a re-make of something that was OK but not great even when it was new? Why has there been yet another revival of discredited Malthusian and eugenic ideas in the past couple of decades? Why have discredited and dangerous concepts such as austerity become current again? Why have racists suddenly found their voice again? Why are apparently radical movements like the greens worrying about the very existence of human beings, rather than the owner class?

Our owners are desperate.

The old saw about if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail comes to mind. If all you have is hyper reliance on some meaningless platitudes about markets that were dubious when they were first mooted, no long-term strategy other than grimly clinging to what you’ve stolen from everyone else while lying through your teeth about it, then what can you do? Well, all you can do is make pap like Love Island and promote meaningless but ultimately harmful things like Brexit or irrational nonsense about immigrants or some other made up enemy to keep people distracted. Then you keep mouthing platitudes about markets and business expertise and hope no-one realises you’re actually in emperor’s new clothes territory.

The rest of us should take a breath, and think a bit more about who benefits from the way things are. It’s not us, is it? There are plenty of alternative ways of organising how things are done, but if everything gets turned into yet another project to rescue the unsustainable nonsense that we’re faced with, for example a green new deal that isn’t, or pretending fracking is green because you don’t count all of the emissions it creates, or defending jobs building disgusting weapons that are being used to blow children to pieces, then we’ve missed the real problem.

Recovering from TINA involves consciousness raising. Like the early feminist movement discussions that created conditions where women could see that they were all suffering under the same dead hand of patriarchy, and work together and support each other, we need to re-find our class consciousness. The great victory of our owners in the past few decades is not the propaganda of their market rubbish, but our forgetting the power we have and used to know how to wield. As the poet said: Ye are many, they are few. Our owners only own us because we let them.

It’s time to change that. It’s time they stopped thinking they can sell things that belong to all of us to force profits out of our suffering. It’s time to make them too afraid to take things we need to live and survive like housing, education and health care. It’s time to grow food everywhere it can be usefully grown, it’s time to completely rethink how things are done, and only we can do this.

We don’t need permission.

We already have permission, after all who already gave permission? It was us.

Over production – not scarcity

The other great lie, which is sadly one the Green movement have been taken in by, is scarcity. Marx pointed out that as well as a drive for endless accumulation, capitalism is driven by chronic over-production. It is unplanned and extremely inefficient – each enterprise may be a paragon of efficiency in and of itself, but the whole system of production is complete anarchy.

The old Soviet Union tried to fix this with bureaucratic central planning, but that didn’t work very well with slow paper-based systems and the technologies of the early twentieth century. In 2021 we have well-understood systems for just in time manufacturing and demand prediction that were unavailable to them. We can remove over production and make sure everyone has more than enough without burning up the planet to do so. It still wouldn’t be easy, but it is very possible.

It starts with not taking what we now have, and how we do things now, as givens.

Similarly, there is plenty of useful work to be done fixing the things our short-term profit driven masters have allowed to break or fall fallow. Just because they couldn’t make a profit, or enough of a profit, doesn’t mean things need to be left broken or human needs unmet. It’s the same with the overproduction of food, unused food is destroyed to keep profits intact. Despite small L liberal hand wringing, this has nothing directly to do with morals, but it is very much a function of the screwed logic of capitalist production. When you see people saying how silly this is and getting angry they need to get angry with the right thing, capitalism itself, in its own term its internal logic is faultless, but it doesn’t look after people’s needs except accidentally.

Bullshit Jobs

David Graeber estimated that up to 40% of jobs don’t serve human needs or wants and coined the phrase bullshit jobs. When you add in all the people who service the infrastructure supporting those jobs the number of empty jobs jumps to at least 50%.

Is it any wonder we have a climate crisis? Instead of pursuing hobbies, or meeting actual human needs, a vast proportion of us are simply burning resources so our owners can perform a pantomime that lets them extract value from us at no benefit to anyone but themselves.

Some people doubt Graeber’s analysis. Ask yourself, does the world need another e-commerce site selling the same stuff as everybody else? What does a commercial lawyer actually do? Have you notice there are a whole tier of jobs our political class had before they decided to pretend to be something other than human dross – PR consultants, financial analysts who do what a computer does better, assistant to a parent’s friend? The people at the sharp end get paid badly and treated badly, living in fear, the useless detritus thrive on networks where they wait for the largesse to fall from their fellow place men and women. None of them are honest enough to admit this.

The whole concept of work needs to be rethought. The idea of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay needs to be looked at critically.

Taking the fight to the parasites

Societies ebb and flow. After the second world war the systems were broken and worn out, destroyed by bombing in some cases. The owning classes were quite afraid of the working class taking control from them and remodelling society so they created the welfare state in the richer countries to keep their local populations quiet and obedient. Of course, this was paid for largely with colonial plunder, a fact carefully obscured or ignored by the empire socialists of the time.

It took nearly thirty years for things to recover and for the boom of rebuilding to finally ebb. That’s when the new thirst for money and allergy to paying for things infected the ruling class. In our complacency we didn’t notice how things we had paid for (but did not control) were slowly sold off to speculators and other forms of short-term financial carpetbaggers. Everything from water to telecommunications now costs far more than it did thanks to this faux quest for market efficiency.

The 40 years since have seen the replacement of class consciousness with an individualistic view of the world that makes the very idea of solidarity seem completely alien to so many people. Well, a solidarity past signing a meaningless petition or retweeting a clever meme. Collective action is uncomfortable, and people think about themselves first. Success is something individuals have, and the rewards coming to the minority, the nominal owners, seems to be the norm. There was a time when increased productivity meant at least some increase in wages, but now any benefits stay in the pockets of the owner.

TINA means that this new way of living and thinking, with its hard edged selfishness and lack of empathy, now seems to be the only way of doing so. The Bezoses, Musks and Bransons claim the vast fortunes they lucked into are the result of an individualised hard work and nothing else. The thousands of people who work for them and billions in state subsidies that their success is actually built on don’t exist in this fantastic con trick. They have conned the rest of us into thinking we could be them, even if we weren’t born into privilege and able to take risks like they were, as if potential failure would have had zero cost for us as well.

The bezel is the golden moment (for the scammer) when the victim of a con hasn’t realised the thing they hold in their hand is an empty chimera. We’ve been holding the bezel in our heads so long we no longer realise what empty nonsense it really is. We have been conned out of the commons, out of our human birthright, and taken to the slaughterhouse, all the while thinking the farmer is nice because we had a few scraps from their table.

This needs to be discussed and understood.

What we were given to keep us quiet in the developed nations is being slowly stolen from us because the distribution of power shifted and our owners no longer feel the need to buy us off. Our owners think we can no longer hold them back while they turn our countries into fire sales at the end of the world. The wholesale funnelling of funds into bogus projects that fill their friends’ pockets isn’t new, it’s just never been so brazen.

To even keep them at bay we must always be reaching for better. Merely holding on means all you can do is eventually lose what you have. Every loss pushes you backwards. Our enemies are always trying to take things from us. Merely keeping them back is a losing strategy in the long term. We need to become as ruthless as they are and always be looking to get more than we have. This is why there is no room for kinder, gentler politics we need implacable politics. Kind and gentle to our own, for sure, but the parasites should know their days as parasites are numbered.