F/OSS - Towards a post-capitalist society

Published on Thursday, 21 June 2012

~ Farhad

The software industry plays a major economic, social, and political role in the Information Age. It at once enables the freeing up and the corporate restriction of digital resources and careful restriction of digital information itself has become a rather lucrative industry. As our capitalist society moves into the Information Age, we begin to see how the owners of means of production can put software to use in restricting who can access and what can be done with digital information. So far, advanced capitalism, whether by chance or design, has fostered the widespread ontological belief that ideas can be expressed clearly and definitively in language and exchanged like any other commodity on the free market. This false ontology allows the mega-corporations not only to make profit selling back to culture its own excrement, but also to perpetuate themselves by convincing the working classes that even their ideas do not belong to them.

The software industry is arguably the most important industry of our age. Modern programming languages offer society an unprecedented degree of control over machinery of all sorts, and led to the creation of some of the most advanced symbolic architectures ever conceived. Modern programs not only tell machines"What to do", but communicate, learn and even argue with each other.

Software programming is sometimes patronized as an arcane black art that is the preserve of techies. And that may or may not be true. But it is not well appreciated that software itself has ramifications that reach far beyond the techie community and even the software marketplace. It is becoming the invisible architecture of our emerging digital culture. The structures that are embedded in software – and in the technical standards of the Internet – determine what kinds of inter-relationships we can have as a society. Software is becoming a key component of the hard wiring of our culture. And software programmers represent at once capitalism's most important ally and its most dangerous enemy. They not only produce the code that increasingly controls all technology but also have developed a rich and sophisticated system of thought. Breakthroughs in coding practices have not only led to radical changes in the capitalist economy, but are also penetrating into the public sphere in the form of questions about the current class structure and whether it truly serves the interests of the majority. In particular, programmers are becoming concerned and aggravated with the capitalists over the latter's awkward efforts to control and restrict access to information for the sake of private gain. It is becoming increasingly clear that the future of "intellectual property" will not be waged in courts but in computer labs, where software architects determine whether the future of information will be freedom or slavery.

It is interesting to me that the "architectural power" of software is barely known among politicians or other policymakers in both developed and developing countries. I have observed that only a few of them had heard of Linux and most could not explain why it -- or Free/Open Source Software (F/OSS) more generally – is important beyond its curiosity value. Most people not only don't understand the technical differences between proprietary and Free/Open Source Software (F/OSS). They don't realize how those differences radiate outwards, affecting the countrywide and global communications infrastructure, the structures of national and international markets – and inevitably, the ways that people can communicate with each other, pursue creative works and debate civic and political issues. The difference between Free/Open Source Software (F/OSS) and proprietary software -- and its deeper strategic and philosophical implications -- is something that is barely acknowledged in mainstream political conversation, let alone analyzed in probing ways. Free/Open Source Software (F/OSS) has been gaining momentum in the software industry. Not only academics but also practitioners want to know why the F/OSS phenomenon succeeds in our capitalist world, where intellectual property rights and control over patents are considered to be key to successful innovation. The scientific method might be regarded as similar to F/OSS practice, sharing information to facilitate scientific discovery and replication; the former is to enable other scientists to go forward where one cannot. And the latter is to enable justification under specific test conditions. Where scientists talk of replication, F/OSS programmers talk of debugging; where scientists talk of discovering, F/OSS programmers talk of creating. F/OSS is not a new way of doing things – rather it might be regarded as the original way of doing things.

F/OSS affects our society in many ways. It helps make markets more competitive, innovative and consumer-friendly. By providing a common base of technical standards – with no proprietary impediments at one bottleneck in the network or another -- no single company can commandeer a market and monopolize it. It is much harder to erect artificial barriers to competition. Companies are forced to compete more on a merit basis. Real innovation can rise to the top – which has predictable benefits for consumers and the economy as a whole. The history of the Internet is a case study of how open standards provide a rich host environment conducive to innovation. Another significant result of an open regime is the structural, automatic pressures against monopoly. The benefits to consumers are obvious – lower prices, greater choice and flexibility, greater control and higher quality products. But while we usually talk about monopolies in terms of their consumer or marketplace impacts, we don't often discuss the civic and political implications of monopoly.

Large concentrations of corporate power tend to undermine democratic values. John Adams warned that the people are free "in proportion to their property" and its division in small quantities among the multitudes. Monopolies or hugely dominant firms like Microsoft can exert a disproportionate political power to set public policy, abuse consumers, milk taxpayers by charging government too much for their products, and changing the very structures of markets to favor themselves over others. So to the extent that F/OSS militates against corporate concentration and monopoly, it is an active force not just for strengthening market competition but also for strengthening the democratic exercise of power. The problem is, we don't really have conceptual scaffolding for talking about the civic, cultural and democratic value of F/OSS. We have a highly developed vocabulary for talking about economic and commercial matters. But the values of civil society; social and humanistic values, ethical concerns, democratic values? These tend to have little standing.

We can get a more full-bodied understanding of the actual value of F/OSS by seeing it as a common, the result of collaborative creativity. Intellectual property law has no categories for recognizing the commons or collaborative creativity – and it has no explanation in its philosophical premises to explain how F/OSS is conceivable. After all, copyright law insists that people won't work unless they have strict property protection and economic rewards for their work, yet here we have thousands of programmers working for free – and those who are paid as employees generally capture the gains from their work in the most indirect ways. The idea of the common can fill an important void in our understanding of how creativity in the online world actually works. Duke Law professor Jamie Boyle has pointed out that the idea of "the environment" literally didn't exist in the 1950s and early 1960s. It had to be culturally invented. No one quite realized that bird hunters and bird watchers might actually share the same interests until the language of "the environment" helped articulate the common ground. "The environment" helped showcase the natural world and created an overarching narrative that helped make sense of seemingly unrelated phenomena. In so doing, the new language gave voice to – and made possible -- a political and cultural movement.

Karl Marx deemed the cellular form of capitalism to be the commodity, a good produced for exchange between private owners. His model of the circulation of capital traced the metamorphosis of the commodity into money, which commands the acquisition of further resources to be transformed into more commodities. By analogy, it might be suggested that the cellular form of an emergent communism, a "coming community" that is neither capitalist, socialist nor anarchic is the common, a product to be shared in association. The circuit of the common traces how shared resources generate forms of social cooperation – associations – that coordinate the conversion of further resources into expanded commons. On the basis of circuit of capital, Marx identified different kinds of capital – mercantile, industrial and financial – unfolding at different historical moments yet together contributing to an overall societal subsumption. By analogy, we should recognize differing moments in the circulation of the common. These include terrestrial commons (the customary sharing of natural resources in traditional societies); planner commons (for example, command socialism and the liberal democratic welfare state); and networked commons (F/OSS, peer – to – peer networks, grid computing and the numerous other socializations of techno-science). Capital today operates as a systemic unity of mercantile, industrial and financial moments, but the commanding point in its contemporary; neo-liberal phase is financial capital. A twenty-first century communism can, again by analogy, be envisioned as a complex unity of terrestrial planned and networked commons, but the strategic and enabling point in this ensemble is the networked commons. These must however, also be seen in their dependency on, even potential contradiction, with the other commons sector. The concept of a complex, composite communism based on the circulation between multiple but commons forms is opens possibilities for new combinations of convivial custom, planetary planning and autonomous association. If the cellular form of capitalism is the commodity, the cellular form of communism is the common. A commodity is a good produced for exchange. A common is a good produced for shared use. Capital is an immense heap of commodities. Communism is a multiplication of commons. The commodity, a good produced for exchange, presupposes private owners between whom such exchange occurs. The commons presupposes collectiveness within which sharing occurs, collectiveness that coordinate, organize and plan this sharing. We can call these collectivities Associations. We can thus postulate a circulation of the common. This traces how associations of various types, from tribal assemblies to socialist cooperatives or F/OSS networks organize shared resources into productive ensembles that create more shared resources which in turn provide the basis for the formation of new associations.

For example, if an agricultural association on the basis of its successful cultivation of a Common banana plantation joins together with other such associations, first to place more lands under cultivation, and then to form a industrial packing plant which then provides the nucleus for further cooperatively conducted activities, we have a circulation of commons. If the associative organization of a publicly funded education researches collectively created software that provides basis for F/OSS associations, we have a circulation of commons. And if these F/OSS is then made freely available to our initial agricultural cooperative to enable its planning activities, we have a further circulation. The circulation of the common is thus a dynamic in which commons grow, elaborate, proliferate and diversify in a movement of counter-subsumption against capital, generating the "complex and composite" forms of communism. It is a concept of emergence. Postulating the common as its cellular form, and the circular generation of common goods and associative organization as its dynamic of growth, it envisages a composite communism built from the aggregation and interlinking of such cells and cycles. Unlike the top down, seamless blueprints of some other left utopias, it envisages a communism bubbling from below. At the same time, there is something in capital's inner dynamic that works to the good. Karl Marx himself saw capitalism in a positive light; in its very progress he saw its demise. For is there not something about the media society and all the new, virtual electronic "products" that also loosens capitalism's grip on production? As we know, the Internet has spawned a vast and anarchic culture of file-sharing --- of music, text, software, film, and video – cultural events and knowledge. Is it so important to own it, when you can have it in your possession? The copy itself costs next to nothing to produce. If only the same applied to food – the disparity here still stands, the 800 million people starving in this world can testify to that.

Nevertheless, allow me to ponder the meaning of this new mentality of networked commons. A network of enthusiastic individuals stands behind the production of program code, text, pictures and video. The F/OSS movement shifted from compulsory labor to free collaboration. It has already made its mark through well-developed, free alternatives to the products of monopolistic Microsoft. Many of today's public sector organizations choose F/OSS. So download Firefox as your browser instead of Microsoft Explorer, the email program Thunderbird instead of Microsoft Outlook, word processing and spreadsheet programs with Open Office in preference to Microsoft Office, and Wikipedia as your free encyclopedia. And with iTunes and its descendents, who really needs to physically own music or video CDs? A nominal rental fee should be sufficient. Free, public-access broadband is already being rolled out. Databases will replace libraries once search engines like Google have scanned copious quantities of old books. Bookshelves, CD shelves, and DVD collections will become relics of the past – fixation that will baffle our children.

It is true that traditionally the governing powers have always sought to preserve their authority. In a similar way, the capitalists of the market economy attempt to block the production of "pirate" copies of AIDS medicines, Chinese Rolex watches and Hollywood films on DVD. However, today the customer is always right, the consumer sits firmly in the driver's seat, and the society hastens to the side of its rights – hungry citizens. There is democratizing effect when demand takes power. Consumer can penalize exploitative capitalist and shareholders can pull out of unethical ventures. Similarly, more and more often today, the PC and the mobile phone are the so-called modes of production, favoring small, dynamic enterprises over traditional industry leaders. The latter become too unwieldy, tripping over themselves in an effort to keep pace with rapidly unfolding diversity, innovation, relocation, and the dynamic of global communication.

In the past transitions from one society to another, humans had more or less the possibility to see in practice the forms of the new society. Feudal economic relations developed within ancient slavery, capitalist relations within the feudal society. F/OSS could represent in some years also a kind of "model", even if partial, of a post-capitalist society, where the concepts of equality and freedom are reinforced. F/OSS proves, in practical terms, that humans can produce the most modern and advanced products without merchant relations and without a State. For the moment, only a very small minority of the world population knows what is F/OSS, even in the most developed countries. It can hardly play the role yet. But remember, Marx reflected on capitalist industrialism while living within the confines of English agrarian society. Who would have thought that the country's hundred or so factories would precipitate global industrialism?

On Marx's gravestone one can read: "Philosophers have interpreted the world in different ways. The point is however to change it". F/OSS programmers are changing the world. Sooner or later they will need to have a general philosophy to understand all the dimensions and perspectives of their actions.

Additional Tags:

  • politics
  • science
  • phylosophy
  • software
  • economics