Why Socialists must learn from the Free Software movement

redtux
Image by redtux2000 via Flickr

Socialism is a very difficult thing to achieve. Up until now there have been two attempted paths towards reaching that goal: Revolution and Reformism. Neither has succeeded. The first path (usually) fell victim to counter-revolution and nowadays lacks enough traction in its necessary base, the working class. The second path always gets corrupted and sidetracked too much and simply ends up perpetuating the status quo while keeping the name.

There is however one method which not only has not been attempted yet but also shows considerable promise of success. The peer-organised, distributed, lead-by-example method of Free Software.

For those not familiar with the history of the Free Software movement, the basic thing you need to be aware of is that it was initiated in a completely hostile environment (of propriertary software), without any help “from-above”. It was simply based on a simple ruleset that ensured that the fruits of this effort would not be corrupted or misappropriated and thus lead to fragmentation. The GPL.

Thus, there was no need for leaders1 or sponsors.

This result-oriented method has been a tremendous and monumental success. From an obscure hacker’s hobby in universities and basements, in 20 short years it has become a force to be reckoned with, respected and supported by major software players while still ensuring that they cannot abuse it for their own ends.

I believe there is here a method that not only has not yet been attempted but perhaps might be the key to finally breaking the stranglehold of Capitalism.

The method is simply to work within the system. Show people how much better Socialism can work and then, once they have given it a try for practical reasons, introduce them to the ideology behind it.

Now do not be alarmed. I am not talking about reformism but about subversion. Let me explain:

The Free Software movement is based on Copyright law. It gains power and utility by using the same system it was created to oppose! How does it achieve this? By placing additional terms and restrictions on its supporters in order to ensure that the effort they put towards the movement will always remain with the movement and not leave with them. Like a Judo master, it uses the considerable power of the system to defeat it.

Supporters come because the development method of Open Source is simply superior, it is easy to join, progressive and free. Then, not all of them, but a sufficient amount get to hear about the philosophy behind it, adopt it and continue spreading it. And guess what. It not only worked but this socialistic culture has spread outside of Software (See Wikipedia, Creative Commons etc).

To put things into perspective, lets see how the current two paths to Socialism would have worked when attempting to achieve a Free Software world.

  • Revolution: The Software developers would forcibly or simply arbitrarily take the source code of the programs they had been hired to write and distribute it to their peers. This would of course trigger a “counter-revolution” where the software bourgeois would attempt to stop such a unaccepted distribution.
  • Reformism: The Software developers would attempt to become company executives or shareholders with the purpose in mind to liberate the source code to their peers when they had enough power. Unfortunately, not only power corrupts but the people in charge would never allow one who is incorruptible to achieve power.

Not only would it have been extremely difficult for either of these methods to succeed (as has been the case with similar Socialist movements) but without having a GPL to back them up, simply releasing the source into public domain would allow the effort to be subverted by the remaining active forces, thereby giving them a competitive advantage over our (alternative universe) free software movement.

I hope you’re still with me.

So how can socialism use a similar method? How about working within Capitalism? Here’s a rough idea

  • Create a constitution of similar ideals to the GPL that is a legally binding contract. The whole point of this constitution would be to prevent the labour put into Socialism to be turned against it. For example, have the clause that once a person becomes a member, he agrees to redirect all wealth acquired as a member back to the group. He retains previous wealth (so if at any point he decides to leave, he can be as when he first joined). Thus while a member, he eschews private property.
  • Create a commune based on this constitution. People joining this commune will have their future acquired wealth redirected back to this commune which should then ensure that individual members have a much higher standard of living on the bottom end than any other system. If the commune has rules such a direct democracy and the like, based on Socialist ideology, it should also ensure that it is not corrupted.
  • Because of the superior bottom level of the commune, more people living in the bottom end of the current society will wish to join. Such individuals can easily then be monitored to make sure that they follow the constitution and rules and slowly bring them into the ideology so that they follow the rules on their own volition.
  • To preserve direct democracy, Communes that become too large should be able to split and create smaller ones. A clause in the constitution could be that any number of people can leave the commune with a direct percentage of the current wealth provided they create a new commune under the same constitution. Thus the number of people living in such communes could increase without necessitating the formation of a state system within.

Slowly, though such a system more and more communes would form until it becomes the obvious choice for the proletariat to belong in one for their own security. People could still choose to stay outside, but they would be at a competitive disadvantage. Once these communes start owning enterprises and reap their own surplus value, they will be capable of stealing the lifeblood of Capitalism. Labour.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
  1. While there are some recognisable figures in the movement, they are no more leaders than Marx or Engels were []

32 thoughts on “Why Socialists must learn from the Free Software movement

  1. It’s not really a goal of communism, as I understand it, to have people forgo personal possessions. A commune formed in the present society would presumably not have members who could be wealthy outside the commune, and so it would not acquire much capital. Giving income and ownership to the commune may therefore feel more like extremely expensive rent. 🙁

    Could the FOSS licenses be mimicked by a license for tangible goods? Call it “anti-property.” e.g. “If not in recent use, this item may be acquired by anyone. It may not be sold or traded, but only given away freely. If this item is used in the production of any other item, the latter must be offered under the same license.”

    1. It's not really a goal of communism, as I understand it, to have people forgo personal possessions. A commune formed in the present society would presumably not have members who could be wealthy outside the commune, and so it would not acquire much capital. Giving income and ownership to the commune may therefore feel more like extremely expensive rent.

      But I'm not talking abotu communes as they are commonly referred, that is as independent entities trying to work communaly internaly while existing within a capitalist system. In fact, I find such a tactics flawed. I am talking about communes where the people belonging to them work and interact in the larger capitalist system but pool their wages and resources together on their end to create a common social safety net. This does not require them to forego pesonal possessions at all.

  2. Ah yes. This is fairly similar to an argument I had with a theological socialist a year back. I was trying to explain that the restrictions and regulations under progressivism (in the American general political sense, not the way that you've used it elsewhere on this site) were effectively keeping him from establishing or joining a religious commune. Contracts fully allow for socialism to form on smaller scales within a capitalist society (and pointed him to information related to the various racial cooperatives that existed within the United States before anti-racism legislation destroyed them).

    Thus if socialism is successful, it can spread via emergence as cooperatives out compete purely individual institutions. And if socialism doesn't work, then we are left with a fully functional capitalist society, so no harm no foul. This is why libertarian socialists should abandon their current means of attempting to establishing socialism (union, regulations, etc…) and work with minarchist right-libertarians to restore a society based on voluntary contract. In many ways this was the anti-federalist (see State's rights) argument of early America, as the local governments in many ways functioned as egalitarian communes.

    1. This is a very common argument from right-libertarians and it doesn't cut much water. You assume that a minarchist capitalism is facilitating to socialism which is very far from the truth. Socialism is prevented from being achieved as long as it's being stiffled via wage slavery rent and usuary, which prevent the workers from using the fruit of their labours to improve the society around them.

      In short, you cannot speak of emergence, when you setup the environment to be against such emergence.

      Relevant: http://dbzer0.com/blog/why-anarchists-and-anarcho

      1. I'm no Anarcho-Capitalist and I had already read that article before coming upon this one. But being a minarchist it doesn't really apply to me so much, and it doesn't really pertain to the solution I'm discussing (well it does, but it assumes that the traditional socialist means of unions and regulations are indeed the best means to bring about socialism, a point that you directly refute in this post here).

        That said, why should any usury occur if a socialist society is self sufficient? And even if it is not self-sufficient, isn't the entire notion is that the benefits of being a member of the collective organization conveys (on average) an improvement in well being? Of course usury would exist in society greater while the socialist communes were first forming, but then wouldn't those communes grow or be emulated as they succeeded? What would stop them from growing? Perhaps you have another article related to this issue that I have not yet read?

        Here, as an example of what I'm talking about: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oneida_Community

        1. You assume that a socialist society will be exempt from any interference from the worldwide capitalist system, which is simply not true. You may ignore capitalism but capitalism does not ignore you. The hoarding of necessary resources would exert pressure to the commune to use capitalist and market relations, and not to mention the fact that no state would tolerate a commune being formed and being entirely separate from them (just look at how they try to destroy Christiania). In fact, when we did have situations where a socialist alternative was considered by a critical mass of people, not only did the state violently oppose it, but external states interfered to prevent their success. Just look at the Spanish Revolution of '36 for the greater sample of this, and the CIA covert internentionism and destabilization of the latter part of the 21st century which is well documented.

          1. Okay, that's a blatant straw man.

            1) The CIA is a government entity not a company.

            2) The United States Under FDR was by no means an example of a minarchist society.

            3) This was an example of an outside society interfering, not actions by a government against collectivism from within.

            The third is not a non-sequitur if you mean to imply that libertarian socialism must occur simultaneously in all societies to be successful, but if that is the case, then… well that would be a crushing blow for your ideology, so I assume that is not the case.

          2. There is no strawman, I am pointing out what happened in the real world and why such a libertarian socialist system has not taken hold in an emergent manner. You're obviously arguing that we should first try to achieve a minarchist capitalist system and them aim for socialism, which makes no sense at all. Why should I do something antithetical to my idea society when there's a lot of indication to suggest that such a system would be just as hostile to libertarian socialism as a more statist one. In fact, I'd say that the Robber Baron Capitalism of a minarchist system might be more likely to overthrow by libertarian socialism, which is the primary reason why the ruling elite will never allow a capitalist minarchism to happen, any more than they would let an anarchist revolution build-up.

            Even if a minarchist capitalism were to happen, there's no reason to expect that same tactics would not be employed.

          3. Hold on. You're saying that I might be right about minarchism being more likely to lead to libertarian socialism, which is why the ruling elite will never allow it to happen, so that's why you should pursue alternate means of bringing about libertarian socialism? Am I hearing you right?

            Also, wasn't the entire point of the above post showing how the use of contract and property rights could be used as means to create libertarian socialist pockets within a capitalist society?

          4. Hold on. You're saying that I might be right about minarchism being more likely to lead to libertarian socialism, which is why the ruling elite will never allow it to happen, so that's why you should pursue alternate means of bringing about libertarian socialism?

            It's more likely to bring about a libertarian-socialist revolution sooner and be overcome by it easier (not sure of course) but it will in no way "lead" to LibSoc. But the effort of achieving minarchism and then waiting for a LibSoc revolution is by no means certainly faster than simply aiming for a LibSoc revolution under the current one.

            So naturally I would pursue the means that that is likely to bring about LibSoc, and that is convincing people that LibSoc tactics are a good idea and therefore subvert and destabilize the system through direct action until a revolution occurs.

          5. Also, wasn't the entire point of the above post showing how the use of contract and property rights could be used as means to create libertarian socialist pockets within a capitalist society?

            To an extent, and only because we cannot avoid contracts and property rights, anymore than Free Software can avoid copyrights. Naturally it would be far better to make away with contracts and Private Property altogether. So this solution is simply using the tools of the system to destabilize it until we destroy those tools

          6. The third is not a non-sequitur if you mean to imply that libertarian socialism must occur simultaneously in all societies to be successful, but if that is the case, then… well that would be a crushing blow for your ideology, so I assume that is not the case.

            Libertarian Socialism is international, so at the least, it does need a critical mass of land to allow for a self-sustained society to form around it (i.e. a society which does not have to rely on capitalist relations to sustain itself). And such a society, by its very existence would destabilize all capitalist nations that still remain, which is the reason why any such attempt was brutally suppressed every time it occurred.

        2. well it does, but it assumes that the traditional socialist means of unions and regulations are indeed the best means to bring about socialism, a point that you directly refute in this post here

          Unions do not need regulations and regulations do not need unions. Just because I advocate syndicalism does not mean I advocate state regulation. In fact, there's a very big difference between conventional trade unions as you know them, and anarcho-syndicalism which I suggest.

          1. Those two were simply listed as examples of common progressive political advocacy. They were inconsequential to the argument.

          2. They're very relevant to the argument. The kind of direct action that one supports in achieving socialism decides what kind of socialism they will get, or if they will get it at all.

          3. No they are not. We are not discussing the various different means of bringing about socialism, we are discussing the method discussed in the above post. If you would like to have that discussion, it will be very short, as it was already covered in your "why we can't be friends" article.

        3. Of course usury would exist in society greater while the socialist communes were first forming, but then wouldn't those communes grow or be emulated as they succeeded?

          If the greater system is geared to provide the advantage to cutthroat capitalism, then naturally communes would not grow enough to be succesful. You mistakenly assume that there is an equal playing field and do not recognise how skewed the whole system is towards a particular mode of production and distribution (i.e. capitalism and markets)

          1. What 'system' are you referring to? Are you implying that the very existence of contracts (and therefore also laws) biases a system in favor of capitalism?

          2. The existence of a centralized state required to enforce laws and contracts biases the system in favour of capitalism or other types of class societies.

  3. Socialism is an economic and political theory advocating public or common ownership and cooperative management of the means of production and allocation of resources.

    In a socialist economic system, production is carried out by a free association of workers to directly maximize use-values (instead of indirectly producing use-value through maximising exchange-values), through coordinated planning of investment decisions, distribution of surplus, and the means of production. Socialism is a set of social and economic arrangements based on a post-monetary system of calculation, such as labor time, energy units or calculation-in-kind; at least for the factors of production.

  4. Have you read the Telekommunist Manifesto? Its author has a similar plan for communes within capitalism that's based on copyleft.

      1. My mistake, the dotCommunist manifesto is linked. The teleKommunist Manifesto is a bit similar and I think I've talked to the guy who wrote it 🙂

Comments are closed.