– Political Economy of the Internet Series
In the space of little more than 10 years an entirely voluntary and unwaged network of producer-consumers have collectively produced an operating system – GNU/Linux – that is not only comparable to, but in many aspects, superior to the flagship commercial product of global capitalism’s most successful hi-tech company – Microsoft….
…The rise of the free software and open source movements is a story in itself and one that is still very much in the process of being written. Indeed a number of books have already been turned out by media and academic commentators struggling to explain the phenomena and particularly to get to grips with the aspects of it that have most perplexed and disturbed the received truths of capitalist economics. In short, the free software movement is the product of thousands of software writers or hackers working collaboratively, without pay to create whole systems of software that are owned not by the producers but the common property of all.
Paul Bowman of the WSM discusses the open source movement conceived as an example of ‘actually existing communism’ under attack by the capitalist state and market.
SOPA & ACTA in the fight against actually existing communism
SOPA & ACTA are the latest attempts by traditional capitalism to reverse a transformation in the exchange of goods that has been escalating over the last couple of decades. In a widely discussed interview in 2005, Bill Gates called the free culture/open source movement “new modern-day sort of communists who want to get rid of the incentive for musicians and movie-makers and software makers under various guises.” This outraged many in the movement who were more inclined to identify with the Ayn Randite ultra-free market right than the traditional left, but in fact he had a point. Many failed to see it because ‘communism’ for almost everyone has come to mean something like the old Soviet Union. But the word means a lot more than that failed top down experiment. Why was Gates right and why is this to be welcomed?
Class and Resistance
As long as society has been divided into the privileged and the exploited there has been resistance, and that resistance has found voice and expression in the language of the oppressed seeking to define the road to their freedom. Communism, however is the product of the rise of capitalist society and the new conditions of oppression and new possibilities for freedom it brought. The introduction of capitalism involved the struggle for power of a new class excluded from the governance of pre-capitalist agrarian society and the voice they found to express and direct that struggle was political economy. Communism then begins as the other new class, the proletariat or working class, seeks to find its voice and finding itself in contest with the emerging capitalist class is forced to take on, confront and subvert the voice of their opponent.
Production in the modern world
Today we live in a world revolutionised productivity-wise by capitalism, where less than 5% of society’s labour goes into basic food production and we have been in a global food surplus for half a century. Yet given the timescale human cultures evolve over, it is no surprise that we have not yet adjusted to a post calorifically-limited world. Yet the basis of estimating the “going rate” of time necessary for production of a given good or service, is that the process of production is such that most people are capable of a similar rate of production. That assumption becomes less and less valid as the division of labour increases and production moves more and more away from basic physical effort and more towards intellectual problem solving or creative work.
As the continuing specialisation, sub-division and proliferation of the different strands of social production has progressed, it has become more and more evident that an increasing amount of production is not geographically specific. That is, many workplaces can be moved more or less arbitrarily from one place to another. This de-territorialisation of production is particularly pronounced for those engaged in non-material production – i.e. the production of information and communicative work, an increasingly significant sector of social production. Communication is a necessary part of any social production process and as long as face-to-face communication was unrivalled, in terms of cost and effectiveness, the workplace had the irreplaceable role of the physical assembly point for that communication. Recently, with advances in telecommunications we have seen the emergence of the ultimately de-territorialised social production process – one that no longer has any “work-place” at all where the participants need to assemble.
Free & Open Source as actually-existing communism
We should now move away from the abstract back to the real-world historical developments that we mentioned earlier that have overturned assumptions about the possibility of making any practical tests of the effectiveness of production free of capitalist constraints this side of a revolution. In fact such a practical experience has already been underway for some years, not as an initiative of any pre-meditated anti-capitalist or revolutionary movement, but as a reaction to the actions of capitalist businesses in the field of software development. The rise of the free software and open source movements is a story in itself and one that is still very much in the process of being written. Indeed a number of books have already been turned out by media and academic commentators struggling to explain the phenomena and particularly to get to grips with the aspects of it that have most perplexed and disturbed the received truths of capitalist economics. In short, the free software movement is the product of thousands of software writers or hackers working collaboratively, without pay to create whole systems of software that are owned not by the producers but the common property of all.
In the space of little more than 10 years an entirely voluntary and unwaged network of producer-consumers have collectively produced an operating system – GNU/Linux – that is not only comparable to, but in many aspects, superior to the flagship commercial product of global capitalism’s most successful hi-tech company – Microsoft. Given the short space of the time the free software movement has taken for this achievement, compared to the decades Microsoft has invested in its product, and the fact that the unwaged programmers have done this work in their spare time, the case for the relative efficiency of unwaged, property-claim free production has already made a strong opening argument.
As you might expect, the explanation for these novel results are related to specific characteristics of the object of production, i.e. computer software. To see what is different lets take a counter-example say a motor car. Conceptually we can divide the production of a car into two different production processes. The first is the production of a design for the car. The second is the production of a car from that design. In the world of mass production, such as that of car production, the physical product – the actual car – dominates the design goals for that model of car. The cost of manufacturing the physical parts for each individual car is far more significant than the cost of the whole of the designers’ wages, to the extent that it makes economic sense for a car company to hire an engineer to work for two years on shaving 5 cents of the production cost of a plastic moulding for a car sidelight (actual example).
Software Production and Re-production
In complete contrast, with computer software the cost of creating an individual copy of a software product and distributing it to the user is so negligible in relation to the effort to produce the original design that we can say that the design or prototype is itself the product. This is important because it means the labour cost of producing software is basically unchanged whether the end product is distributed to 10, 1000 or 1,000,000 users. This has an important implication: it is impossible to exchange software for a product of equal labour value. Consider a single programmer spends 30 days producing a given software utility, he then distributes it to 30 end users for the equivalent of an average days wage apiece. This has the appearance of exchange but consider what happens when the programmer then distributes the same software to another 30 users for the same terms, and then another 300, then to a further 300,000?
There is a further difference between the car and the piece of software. If a fault is found on a car and it is fixed all the other existing cars of that model would need to be fixed individually. With a piece of software however, any user who detects and or fixes a fault in their copy of that software can then share that fix or improvement with the entire community of users and developers of that software at virtually no cost. It is this multiplier effect that helps make the collaborative process of free software so productive. Every additional user is a potential adder of value (in the sense of utility) to the product and the communicative feedback between developers and users is an important part of the productive process.
There is a second barrier to incorporating software production into a scheme of labour valuation. That is the difficulty of commodifying original or creative labour. By commodifying we mean to reduce a given buyable good to a level of inter-changeability where a given amount can be substituted with any other equal amount of the same type, without any loss. Potatoes are commodified – roughly speaking one five kilo bag of spuds can be swapped for another without any appreciable loss of utility. The goal of much capitalist production is to reduce labour to commodity status where the output of a given number of workers is comparable to that of the same number of another group of workers. Which makes it easier to fire and replace assertive workers and keep wages low. However this process breaks down when the output relies mainly on individual original creativity. It is recognised that the productivity of the most gifted programmers is enough orders of magnitude beyond that of that of mediocre or averagely competent programmers that one gifted programmer can achieve in a few weeks what a large team of merely average coders would be unable to produce in months.
It is this possibility of excelling which forms part of the motivation for the core productive participants of the free software movement to participate. No less than climbing mountains or running marathons, the achievement of doing something well is a motivation in itself, particularly in a society where our waged-work conditions often force us to do things in ways far below what we are capable of. There is a saying within the free software community that “people will do the jobs they are interested in”. But by the same token, the jobs people find interesting are often the ones that best use their individual strengths. Freed from the constraints of exchange, people are free to seek out the particular lines of activity in which they can out-perform the “average socially necessary labour time”, to the extent that such an estimate can even be made any more. Naturally, if enough participants in a collective labour process manage to do this successfully, the whole process will be significantly more productive than any waged process.
Intellectual property & Exchange value
If all these features emerging from the relatively new field of software production and the even more recent phenomena of the free software movement were limited to software alone then they would be an intriguing case but little more. However many of the special features of software – i.e. the relation between the single design or pattern and potentially unlimited replication and distribution at little or no cost – also apply to many other “intellectual” products, such as cultural artifacts like books, music and films and the results of scientific and academic research, now that computers and the Internet have liberated them from the material media of paper, vinyl and celluloid. Indeed the whole area of products covered by so-called “Intellectual Property Rights” are equally problematic to reduce to a “just” exchange value.
Further the proportion of overall economic activity involved in the production of these non-material products is ever-growing to the extent of becoming the majority sector in the metropolitan hubs of the capitalist world. This tendency will of course not automatically bring in its wake radical social change, but its counter-tendencies – the growth of exchange-free productive networks and the increasing direct appropriation of consumer intellectual products like music, films, software and texts through free online sharing networks – will continue to make the struggle to defend capitalist Intellectual Property (IP) rights a contested battleground. In the struggle to extend and defend IP rights, both legally and practically, the champions of capitalism will be undermining the core justificatory ideology of exchange – that of labour value. The role of libertarian communists is in many ways unchanged – to participate in the present dynamic of class struggles while advocating a future beyond capitalist relations. Today however, we have the advantage that post-capitalist, exchange-free collaborative production processes are no longer hypotheses but reality. In contrast, it is the theories of the orthodox “a-political” economist defenders of capitalism that people will never produce socially useful goods without the incentive of money, that are shown to be empty hypotheses – a false god.
Taken from the Article ‘Communism: What’s in a Word?’ by Paul Bowman