February 27, 2006

A third way: freedom, open source, and populism

Category: Anthropology,Ethics,F/OSS,Hackers,Liberalism — @ 2:09 pm

I just finished reading an article written and recommended by David Berry that he mentioned on my blog: The Contestation of Code: A preliminary investigation into the discourse of the free/libre and open source movements. The piece does a marvelous job at running a fine comb over the terms that dominate the discourses of open source vs. free software and in so doing, brings into stark relief the differences between the two philosophies. For example, while free software promulgates a host of terms like code, freedom, power, progress, community, and rights—knotting them together into an ethical package that includes community, public good, ethics, and Enlightenment ideals of progress—open source uses a different set of meanings to animate some of these same categories and places them into a different package, one that includes the language of choice, markets, rational choice, individualism, and efficiency. And as Berry argues persuasively, Eric Raymond hitches these within an evolutionary framework that “seeks to give deterministic causes” (p. 79).

I tend, however, not to treat these as two movements, “that differ radically in their underlying philosophies” (p. 67), but more as movement that exhibits two positions that maps to a continuum rather than a stark dichotomy; and these reflect the differences and points of tension that are always part and parecel of any shared movement or tradition.

Elsewhere I have written about hackers, in general, and free and open source software, in specific, as a means to examine the heterogeneity of the liberal tradition, all too often treated in unitary terms. While free software draws on the communitarian end of the liberal spectrum, OSS sits at the other pole. According to Raymond, OSS’s virtues follwo from the fact that the enjoyment of programming and the reputation programmers derive from doing it well–these are simply better incentives to produce good software than a salary. While Stallman envisions a community maintained through shared norms and values (and sits more closely with folks like Jefferson and Mill and also perhaps has anarchistic influences), OSS hearkens back to thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Mandeville.

That said, the reason I don’t see these as radically distinct, however, has less to do with these two positions, which really do, as Berry shows so well, diverge into different ethical territory, but because at the level of ordinary social life, most developers I met and interviewed, even those from the Debian project (the most ethically committed to free software), expressed and dabbled in hybrid discourses that included language from both camps. For many of these developers, free software development was the more efficient thing for their technical art, and also held moral overtones. For many, free software/open source could guarantee a more open market. For many developers who chose open source, they chose copyleft licenses because they were personally motivated and compelled by deep seated ethical beliefs, but were eminently uncomfortable with passing on such moral to others. Others really disliked any whiff of moralism. Many developers were very uncomfortable mapping this realm to any politics outside that of software freedom and when they did, they inhabited a “recursive” political reflexicity as described by Chris Kelty. But many free and open source advocates did move comfortably between these two poles, sometimes choosing one label over an other one to make a point or to emphasize one facet of what one label could only thinly capture.

Berry also claims that “Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, is the exemplar of the vision of Raymond and the OSM,” (p. 81) which I think can be thought of in a slightly different way, perhaps as a third way. First, his rise to prominence as the leader of the first large scale free software project came well before the birth of open source discourse. Certainly, while Stallman was a political crusader salvaging culture, Torvalds was a technical pragmatist who worked from home and was receptive to feedback from peers through newsgroups. But by following his hobby and using a free software legal scheme, Torvalds accidentally inaugurated a unique global volunteer project of “collective invention” whereby programmers could contribute bug fixes and improvements that, if deemed worthwhile by Torvalds would be incorporated into new versions of the Linux kernel. In the process of rewriting the kernel, Linus became a leader, coordinating the contributions of all those who were willing to volunteer their time. His innovation was as much social as it was technological. And to be more specific, he inaugurated a strain of populism, that was later carried into and accentuated into other projects such as the Debian project. Over time, Linux as a project did move more toward the open source camp, but still retains a healthy doses of its early populism that defined a new era in UNIX hacking from its predecessors (such as with the Berkeley Software Distribution camp) whom operated along a more elitist logic. Below is one older Debian developer who is describing contributing to BSD before the Linux era:

There was a process by which you wrote some code and submitted in the ‘I am not worthy, but ‘I-hope-that-this-will-be-of-use-to-you supplication-mode’ to Berkeley and if they kinda looked at it and thought, oh this is cool, then it would make it in and if they said, interesting idea, but there is a better way to do that they might write a different implementation of it.

While the Berkeley Unix gurus accepted contributions from those who were not already participating on the project, it was difficult to pierce the inner circle of authority and become an actual member of the team. When Linus Torvalds and Ian Murdock developed their own projects (the Linux kernel and Debian respectively), they did things differently than the earlier cadre of Unix hackers by fostering a more egalitarian environment of openness and transparency.

I think the most interesting claim brought on by Berry is that open source discourse is a neoliberal one. On the one hand neoliberal language and open source language do share many similarities, that of choice and free markets most notably, but I think open source, especially as it is carried out in the vicissitudes of social practice, falls short of neoliberal ideology (but, to be sure, can be easily changed into those terms and thus I think of them more as holding affinities).

Because while a neoliberal worldview unabashedly promotes the privatization of every last thing, even open source states there must be limits. And just this claim, alongside a healthy and somewhat contagious (in that good sort of way) social practice of collaborative development, undermine neoliberal ideology and especially neoliberal trends in IP law. As Siva Vaidhyanathan has written elsewhere “the brilliant success of overtly labeled Open Source experiments, coupled with the horror stories of attempts to protects the proprietary model have added common sense” toadvocates fighting for reform and change. The way open source has functioned, at least it seems to be, is more than less, as a break, a limit point to neoliberal trends. I am still open to thinking more about open source as part and parcel a neoliberal creed, but I would like to see more of those discursive and sociological links and if we are to call that neoliberal, what do we call the massive transformation of IP law that have been intimately linked these modes of regulation to trade treaties and the like? I guess I am not ready to tag open source as neoliberal as that term helps to explain other trends in IP law.

If you can’t notice from the post, I am in the thick of major dissertation revisions for a book manuscript so am gladly reading more about free and open source to get me through some of my hitches.


  1. Thanks for the review of the paper – I think your comments are really well argued and interesting. I think you raise some very important questions that have not been completely resolved yet.

    I was struck particularly by your discussion of FS and OS as points on a spectrum of liberalism. However, I wondered how you then positioned Moglen’s neo-marxism and the claims about a GPL society made by Stefen Merten et al.

    Regarding the neo-liberal direction of open-source I think Raymond’s attempts to create property rights in projects (i.e. as the website/source of information/rights to distribute versions etc) in Homesteading the Noosphere particularly this chapter have to be considered within the wider (and sometimes disturbing) aspects of Raymond’s wider politics.

    hope the links work.



    Comment by David — March 1, 2006 @ 8:06 am

  2. Hi David

    Good questions that deserve more time than I honestly can spare tonight or the next few days but let me say a few things (because the questions are so good) before I get back to them next week.

    I think the “Moglen perspective” as especially interesting and enticing to think with and through in relation to hacking because it opens the door to the much wider and underexplored issue of anarchism in hacking (I think of his position as more anarchist than marxist but these in some ways are similar enough [in their difference to liberallism] to collapse them for now for the sake of simplicity).

    His position, however, while an inspiration to many, and does exist, seems to me as more marginal than central when it comes to most mid to large sized f/oss projects where we can actually trace the ways in which free and open source values are encoded and realized as I tried to do here.

    The Moglen spirit, I think, lives most vividly and tangibly in the more explicitly radical technology projects and collectives such as Indymedia, riseup and genderchangers (and dozens more). These are where activists and hackers animate and try to realize anarchist values (such as mutual aid and egalitarianism) through project structure and technology, where liberal modes of governance such as meritocracy that define, in a strong way, most free and open source projects, are notably absent. Here there is also a strong value for mutual aid and a strong rejection of the idea of property and not just those of IP.

    That said, there is a longer history of anarchism and hacking, going back to the Yippies and phone phreking that is begging to be explored more closely (which I hope to do later). My feeling though is that “anarchism” tends to stand in for decentralization, which is also one of the core values of liberalism too (think the division of powers in the American government) and if you don’t have a strong sense of mututal aid/non-hierarchy, than it becomes harder to call some mode of governance or forms of social relations as anarchistic. But these are very incipient sets of ideas that require a lot more thought. And if nothing else, my future research on anarchism and hacking will be a way for me to not just think about hacking but see the lines of convergence and divergence between liberalism and anarchism. Both of them are, after all, children of the Enlightenment, which idealize forms of human freedom and emancipation.

    But there is a case to be made that free software can act as a form of marxist/anarchist critique of property and this is most famously argued by M. Wark. And I certainly think that F/OSS acts as a pretty trenchant critique of IP but I have also seen the case, much more often too than the reverse, in which F/OSS developers, advocates, lawyers involved in this movement, etc use the example of IP and F/OSS to argue for an essential, hard line, difference between material property and (non-rival) IP, so that real things should be subject to property rights. And this move is always going to sit uneasily with conceptualizing F/OSS as a Marxist/Anarchist critique. (not sure if that made sense but if not, it will have to wait till a little later to fill out :-) )

    ok i need to get back to reading, but thanks for the comment. i hope to give it a more proper response a little later.


    Comment by sato — March 2, 2006 @ 6:37 pm

  3. This question of the differences between ‘official’ movement language and the daily practice of individual developers is such an interesting one!

    Bracketing the questions of neoliberalism for a moment, I’m not sure there’s such a gap between your position, Biella, and David’s. One of the things Samir and I have been thinking about a fair amount is that Stallman (and Moglen, who indeed seems much more comfortable using explicitly political — Marxist and anarchist — language than Stallman) appear intentially to occupy an extreme position (where that’s in no way a pejorative term) on the ‘spectrum of liberalism.’ This both establishes one end of the spectrum (and possibly extends the spectrum itself) and also provides a sort of lodestar for the community.

    I interpret most of Raymond’s writing as an effort to serve similarly as an ideological guidepost for the corporate opensource folks; I’m not certain that places him at the opposite end of the liberal spectrum, but he certainly does put language to work distancing himself from Stallman and his unruly band of ideological tub-thumpers.

    So Stallman/Moglen and Raymond do stake out dichotomous positions, but positions that establish, rather than obliterate, a continuum.

    Re: neoliberalism. It doesn’t sound like you’re contesting David’s claims that Raymond’s language is neoliberal (I don’t contest them, myself); rather, you’re suggesting that there might be an overstrong identification being made between Raymond’s language/politics and “open source on the ground.” Which, I think, is a very good point. I think many of us (certainly Samir and I continue to be guilty of this) have a tendency to view FS/OS as some kind of Kinsey scale, where we could theoretically measure the FSuality of a particular developer as 42%. It’s a very useful simplifying assumption, one I don’t think we should abandon–but
    I’m fairly sure that were we to include less formally published writings in our analyses we’d need to deploy a theoretical structure significantly more complex than either dichotomy or continuum.

    Ramble ends.

    By the way, I think I have only a rough idea of what you’re saying here:

    “I am still open to thinking more about open source as part and parcel a neoliberal creed, but I would like to see more of those discursive and sociological links and if we are to call that neoliberal, what do we call the massive transformation of IP law that have been intimately linked these modes of regulation to trade treaties and the like? I guess I am not ready to tag open source as neoliberal as that term helps to explain other trends in IP law.”

    Could you restate/clarify?


    Comment by Scott — March 2, 2006 @ 7:11 pm

  4. I wonder if the collapse of anarchism and marxism into one ‘type’ of political movement is a sustainable argument?

    Anarchism and Marxism are both distinct and contradictory in their theoretical ideals (for instance ‘smashing the state’ vs ‘seizing the state’) or party activism to raise class consciousness (i.e. working class consciousness) rather than de-centred, non-hierachical self-organisation.

    Also one can only see anarchism and marxism on a ‘spectrum’ of liberalism if one is looking through a liberal lens. To both anarchists and marxists, liberalism is the enemy to be ‘smashed’ or dialectically overcome. Such that many anarchists and marxists will refuse to stand for election into a ‘liberal’ parliament. So a simple two dimensional line between different FLOSS actors may be over-simplifying an awful lot…

    Regarding neo-liberalism – of course it is merely the restating (i.e neo- ‘new’) liberalism or classical models of liberalism, but in a pure form such that the state is seen (if it is seen as useful at all) as having absolutely minimal functions in society. Rather private enterprise and individual action is more important (hence most geeks’ dislike of microsoft – a monopoly, and IPRs as a state sponsored monopoly). This discourse can be readily seen daily on Slashdot by developers who may not realise that they are drawing on a neoliberal discourse.

    I would have thought that trade treaties that regulate an international global system of IPR law as totally contrary to the spirit of neoliberalism. In effect it is the granting of special monopoly rights to a distinct corporate group of private actors. Hardly the shrinking of the state! In fact it causes parts of the state to be co-opted by private interests… but thats another line of research… ;-)



    Comment by David — March 6, 2006 @ 2:14 am

  5. So, it’s your turn to give Samir and me some feedback. Here’s a thread of thought that has connections to this question of OS and neoliberal discourse….

    We’ve been wrestling with a question that goes something like, “Does it shed any light to think of OS as some sort of [capitalist] cooptation of [anticapitalist] FS?” (Yes, the capitalist/anticapitalist thing is far too blunt an instrument, but it’s illustrative.) Here’s a stab at an answer, which is probably controversial at best.

    We take ‘cooptation’ to refer to inducing someone to advance your agenda under the misapprehension that they’re advancing theirs. So what is the agenda of FLOSS? Roughly, it’s mainly (a) for people to have agency over the software on their machines, and subordinately (b) to write lots of free software, and (c) to encourage its widespread adoption.

    How could these be compromised? A partial taxonomy: (1) if there were fewer FLOSS programmers–either lured away by enticing proprietary jobs, or due to some kind of ‘bad marketing’ of FLOSS or to a shift in the economy such that FLOSS programmers could no longer support themselves; (2) if FLOSS products were driven out of the ‘market’ by monopolistic pressures–eg Microsoft’s attempts to embrace-and-extend Kerberos; or (3) a weakening of the shared norms that bind the community, in response to exposure to a different set of values.

    (1) we have little direct control over

    (2) can be largely protected against with effective licensing

    (3) we protect against by trying to influence discourse–and this is where David’s analysis comes in. There may be nothing wrong with corporate involvement in FLOSS, or FLOSS code advancing the ends of corporate users, but at the same time it seems as if there’s a very high potential for increasing corporate involvement to end up underminding the values of the FLOSS community, in a sort of subtle exploitation of the developers. That Raymond fails to acknowledge this possibility, that he seems to be advocating so hard for ‘acceptance’ without, perhaps, adequate consideration of the consequences, is one of the most alarming things about his writing.

    Comment by Scott — March 8, 2006 @ 10:03 pm

  6. I have asnwered some above and have re-enabled the disabled comments. And I actually do have an answer to cooptation. It is in fact the subtext (that comes out explicitly in sections) on the recent paper I presented at Indiana last weekend which is based on a dissertation chapter. So more to come.


    Comment by sato — March 9, 2006 @ 9:24 am

  7. I think a key point (that I will try to talk a bit more about after my teaching today) is that of the *depoliticisation* that open-source engenders – especially through a Raymond discourse but even through a reformist Lessig type approach. This is the idea of an autonomous technical sphere (or aesthetic for Lessig) that should leave the politics to the political sphere.

    Now of course, even a depolitisation is a political action, but this is a move that is very successful (if you look at Slashdot debates for example) and is a result of technical training. One only need to look at Wikipedia with its naive idea of NPOV and the completely unreflexive and biased way it is implemented to see how this depolitisation can serve particular interests.


    Comment by David — March 10, 2006 @ 1:20 am

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