I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but I finally got to it in response to a thread on the Trisquel forums. As Richard Stallman says on GNU.org, except for a handful of edge cases, every piece of “free software” is also “open source” software. The key question is, of course, “why are there two separate discourses advocating for what is, in practice, exactly the same outcome”?

The standard answer Stallman and others give, is that there are two distinct social movements, one about an ethical approach vs. one about a development style. In practice, this isn’t the case. Almost every major libre software development project cares about user freedom *and* collaborative development, whether they use the language of “free software”, “open source”, or some compromise (FOSS, FLOSS, libre, or my favourite, free code software etc). Again, with the exception of a few edge cases, user-abusing software systems (eg tivoization) are built by corporations who  raid the commons to reduce what they spend on development labour. They do this to GNU packages just as much as any package developed by “open source” development organisations. There are very few widely used packages developed by “free software” advocates behind closed doors with no acceptance of submitted patches, and since they are still under OSI-approved licenses, I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t accept them as “open source”.

So, why are there really two competing discourses within the wider libre software movement? To understand this, a class analysis is needed.

Stallman and the original free software hackers had a similar class role and outlook as organic farmers, that of the cottage industry, where everyone is both a producer and a consumer. Because they were also the users of the software they wrote, just as organics farmers eat food from their own farm, it was natural for them to prioritize the wellbeing of users. Because they relied for their economic survival on selling their labour to an employer, outside of their free software hacking activities, they were effectively working class, and saw the world in terms of what was good for the majority (ie workers not capitalists).

The group who founded the open source movement on the other hand, were small business-people, aspiring to make a comfotable living from libre software, or in O’Reilly’s case selling libre software manuals under ARR (All-Rights-Reserved) copyright. To achieve their goals while libre software was a tiny fringe movement, they needed to convince business customers and financiers that libre software was viable. To figure out how to do so, they had to adopt the class outlook of the business establishment, whose priorities are what is good for sales and profit, regardless of the long-term interests of the majority of people in their roles as workers and customers (or their environment). The technical term for this class outlook is petit-bourgeois.

This then, is the reason why the “open source” discourse seems more subject to corporate hijacking and reducing the issues of software freedom to questions of development methodology. Because the very purpose of coining the term was to give the impression that libre software is compatible with a capitalist system which, by its very nature, is about centralizing control over behaviour (or “workplace discipline” and “public order”), and monopolizing resources (or “accumulating capital”). The truth is that the nature of libre software, and to a lesser extend the internet is general, is to decentralize control and resources, allowing opportunities for self-managed work and free (as in beer) tools to be plentiful at the periphery. So, libre software may be compatible with modified forms of business, markets, and investment (social enterprise, crowdfunding etc), the kind advocated by the left-libertarian authors of ‘Markets Not Capitalism‘, but it’s perhaps more compatible with not-for-profit stewardship, and moneyless peer-to-peer distribution. A fact that corporations, despite finding free code useful, probably find very unsettling, which may be why they are now trying to hijack the larger digital commons movement with the discourse of “collaborative consumption” in a “sharing economy”.

Filed January 21st, 2016 under Uncategorized

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