Some prominent people have called free software “communist” in an attempt to bring Cold War bugaboos to bear against the movement—a kind of “nuclear option” of FUD. I remember the paranoia of the Cold War personally, and I thought then (and I still do now) that it was “just stupid”.
So rather than react as some have done with a knee-jerk “no it’s not!”, I propose to accept the label and see where that insight takes us. Maybe there is something communist about free software? I think we will see, however, that the idea behind free software is far more radical: no less “communist” than “capitalist”, but no more so, either.
The tired rhetoric of the Cold War
August 6th is known as “Peace Day”. It’s an ironic name for the day that commemorates the day in 1945 when the United States became the only country ever (before or since) to use a nuclear weapon on live human beings. It might be argued that that final offensive act of WWII was also the initial offensive act of the Cold War. We had cooperated uneasily with Soviet Communists to win the war, and when it was over, our political machine began the first go at the “New American Century”, with American monopoly control of nuclear weapons as the big stick needed to police the world.
Sometime in the next few years, the Soviets overcame that disadvantage; the “red scare” was started; and Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunts began—and the word “communist” became more than an academic classification of a particular socio-economic philosophy. It became a dirty word, synonymous with “traitor”, and if Bill Gates can still get a rise out of using it to describe the free software movement, then we’re apparently still not quite over that paranoia.
But in the end, it is just a word—an idea that, right or wrong, appealed to millions of human beings for decades. I believe that there is some insight to be gained from considering free software from the communist perspective. Maybe in certain important ways, free software is worthy of the name “communist”. Not the dirty word, not the strawman totalitarian threat of the communist party, but the pure concept behind it. The part of communism that convinced millions of people that it might be a good idea.
Communism was a political philosophy attempting to solve certain kinds of social problems in the Capitalist West that were (and are) quite frankly real problems: poverty, class stratification, and social injustice. That it did not seem to solve those problems when applied on a national scale during the 20th century represented a human failure, but hardly an incarnation of evil. And you’ve not yet given an idea a fair hearing until you’ve looked at it from the point of view of its supporters. Communists themselves do not see the central state control of the economy as the point of communism—only as a means. Marx argued that it should be expected to “wither away” in fact.
No, the point of communism, as communists would describe it, is to implement the communist ideal:
From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.
In this particular sense, free software development does indeed follow. Since there is often no direct and exclusive material remuneration for the work done, the principle reasons for doing software work on free community projects are the abilities and desires of the developers. We have an “interest-ocracy”, as some have described it—those who care enough about the design to do the work, get to determine how it is done.
Likewise, the nature of software as information and the resulting near zero cost of replication of the work leads naturally to a condition in which there is no reason not to take according to your needs.
The essential, unbreakable connection between the give of production and the take of consumption is broken naturally by the nature of software itself. Fearing the economic consequences of this reality in a society which takes the conservation of number and mass (natural properties of matter, but unnatural for information), our capitalist societies have constructed elaborate, centrally-administered market-controls (sound familiar?) in order to force the information market, against its nature, to imitate the properties of the matter marketplace.
We call these controls, collectively, the “intellectual property regime”. And what was once a fairly innocuous implementation, limited in both time and scope, has become enormous. When 12 year old kids and senior citizens are being threatened with lawsuits and fines of more than they might earn in the next ten years for the horrible crime of listening to music and sharing it with their friends; when vast corporations use armies of lawyers to claim control of trivial ideas through software patents; when international treaties hinge on the application of stricter and stricter controls on the dissemination of information; when the act of merely writing software capable of breaking these manacles on intellectual freedom is made into a criminal offense—can we really pretend that “IP laws” are any less oppressive than the communist “command economy”?
Free software eliminates these unnatural controls, freeing the marketplace, and allowing information products to assume their natural behavior. A behavior, which—curiously—embraces the ideals of the communist society.
In fact, the free/copyleft license strategy and the whole concept of community-based peer production cuts right across this political spectrum, destroying the traditional boundaries, because it achieves the communist ideals without the restrictions that capitalists object to.
As a social contract, free-copyleft licenses like the GPL draw a very different boundary for personal “property” in the intellectual sphere than either capitalism or communism does in the material world. Attribution is accorded much greater importance, as the important fuel for the “reputation game” that keeps excellent creators in a position to create. But the ability to control the use and replication of the work is rejected. Indeed, via the copyleft requirement, this artificial market control is denied to all, ensuring that the work is free for use, reuse, improvement, and sharing of the improved work. The work is owned in that sense, not by any individual, but by “the commons”.
Thus it can be said to be both “communist” and “free-market”—at least from a certain point of view. We in the West have been conditioned to believe that the free-market always chooses competition, but in the case of free software, the free market chooses cooperation, or to put it more bluntly, communism (that is to say, it encourages people to behave communally and hold property in common). People can participate in a free software project with little or no “capital”, so there is no reason to raise large capital investments, hence no actual need for “capitalism” as such (as opposed to the case of proprietary software, you do not need a company to start a free software project!).
That, of course, is the cannonball that knocks the supports out from under the capitalist arguments for the importance of intellectual property controls to maintain production. They take it as a foregone conclusion that production is impossible without monetary capital investment and that licensing-fees are the only way to recoup that investment. However, free software production is demonstrably so efficient and reductive to cost that capital investment becomes almost irrelevant for all but a tiny minority of software projects. Hence, less restrictive means of collecting revenue—such as service contracts, commissions received beforehand, and investment based on personal use value—have proved adequate to meet the much more modest funding requirements of free software projects.
Contrary to the assumptions of our society, “free market” does not necessarily imply “capitalist”. “Capitalism” refers to the specific practice of accumulating capital to start enterprises. In the material marketplace, free markets appear to invariably lead to capitalism, but we can’t safely assume that will be so in information markets.
In the free-market of community-based peer production (CBPP), labor is spontaneously contributed to the completion of goals for the pure joy (or enlightened self-interest, if you prefer—which I generally do) of helping the communal effort, based on the skill sets of the people contributing. This happens completely without state coersion or market controls. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” occurs without any kind of state enforcement (i.e. in a free market). Hence, CBPP or free software development, is a real, working case of “free market communism”.
We already know that this system works. It built GNU. It built Linux. It built X. It built Wikipedia. It has accomplished things with little or no capital investment that cost corporations billions of dollars in capital (compare to Microsoft Windows, the Apple O/S (before Darwin/OS X), and Encyclopedia Brittanica). And far from being inferior copies as our Western capitalist education says they must be, they appear to be at least as good if not better than their proprietary equivalents. In some cases—such as the Internet itself—there are no proprietary equivalents.
A new revolution
This free market, bazaar economy doesn’t really resemble the real 20th century communist societies. But it might resemble the vision that Marx had in his head—of a communist society that worked, that didn’t need market controls or oppression to function. But that’s not something we should be eager to condemn, is it?
I think the only reason people don’t say this is that they are afraid of being labeled “communist” because of the historical paranoia. But I don’t think we should be so reactive. We should rise above that level, and realize that that’s exactly what we are doing with the free software movement and the bazaar—we are rising above the tired, 20th century conceptions of “communism” and “capitalism”. We are replacing them both in the way every old system should hope to be replaced—by building something that works even better.
Long live the revolution!
Copyright © 2006 Terry Hancock / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)
Originally published at www.FreeSoftwareMagazine.com.
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