Why Socialists must learn from the Free Software movement

It is my impression that the Free Software movement has one of the best recipes for Socialism. Perhaps we can apply it to real life somehow.

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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 leaders ((While there are some recognisable figures in the movement, they are no more leaders than Marx or Engels were)) 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.

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