New Forms of Production

Open Source and how it relates to Capitalism.

Within the last couple of decades, there have been many interesting developments in the software world, specifically relating to the revolutionary nature of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), which have not been given the attention they merit by western socialists.

These developments should be of importance to any socialist, regardless of their relationship to the production of software.

This is because it is possible to observe in the FOSS community the creation of goods and services in a model that follows the "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs" pronounced by Marx in his Critique of The Gotha Program.

To explain I would touch upon three issues relating to the free production of software:

  1. What FOSS is and why it exists in the first place.
  2. It’s understated revolutionary character.
  3. It’s internal contradictions and it’s dialectical relationship with capitalism.

So, first things first, what is Free and Open Source Software? In it’s most basic form, it consists of programs and tools which’s code is publicly available for anyone to look at. This does not necessarily mean that it has no monetary cost to the user, but only that by following certain restrictions anyone can read, copy, modify and expand upon the underlying code to their liking.

The vast majority of Open Source tools are perfectly available for anyone to use as long as they are not looking to make a bussiness out of selling whatever the code builds to as a product or a service. The prevalence of open source tools in the software community thus means that a programmer can build virtually anything they aspire to by using tools that the FOSS community offers to them unconditionally and free of charge.

The privilege of belonging to a community which adheres to the “to each according to his needs” half of the slogan is not exclusive to programmers, artists can build wonderful things exclusively by using tools like Krita, Blender and Inkscape, gamemakers can use Godot, and virtually anyone can watch media using VLC, browse the web in Firefox, send emails through Thunderbird, write articles in LibreOffice, etc, etc.

So, who creates these wonderful tools, who offers their living labour to be turned into dead labour that escapes it’s fate as capital and ends up as collective wealth? Well, people dedicating their free time to do (mostly) unpaid and voluntary labour because they wish to build marvelous things alongside each other. It is usually workers looking to build tools that they’d like to have at their disposal, hoping to escape the division of labour that plagues their everyday lives, to escape the alienation of selling their labour-force to a capitalist and wishing to prove their potential as something more than money-making machines.

It’s workers trying to break free of their condition as workers and return to being people, who contribute as they can and who take as they need. They have found a certain freedom in their labour which they are robbed of in their day-to-day jobs. These are the people who fulfill the “From each according to their abilities” half of the slogan. They contribute as much as they can, whenever they can, however they can.

The anti-capitalist nature of Open Source Software should be evident in this quote from Marx, from Chapter 5 of Wage Labour and Capital:

Capital does not consist in the fact that dead labour serves living labour as a means for new production. It consists in the fact that living labour serves dead labour as the means of preserving and multiplying it's exchange value. [link]

It should be fairly obvious now that the production of Open Source Software consists of dead labour serving living labour as a means of creating new tools and services and not as a dominion of dead labour over living labour in the pursuit of profit.

The reader might still argue that there exist many, many capitalist enterprises which make free use of FOSS to build their products and services, which they then sell to make a profit and multiply their capital. At first glance it would seems as if these companies are engaging in some form of neo-slavery, taking the labour-force of workers, without paying them a cent and making billions of dollars in profit off of their living labour.

But this would be a superficial and misguided analysis. Quoting the previously mentioned chapter from Marx:

It is only the dominion of past, accumulated, materialized labour over immediate living labour that stamps the accumulated labour with the character of capital. [link]

When a capitalist firm uses FOSS to their own benefit they are not making use of their capital to dominate over living labour. Firstly, there is no sort of dominion of anyone over anything taking place, other than the company’s dominion over the living labour of it’s own employees. Secondly, capitalists aren’t making use of the living labour of open source developers but of already existing accumulated labour.

To think that capitalists are somehow “robbing” developers by making use of this dead labour they freely offered to the world is to engage in a capitalist understanding of “intelectual property”, which a socialist should usually avoid.

One might argue that it is neither new nor revolutionary to do unpaid, unalienated labour in one’s free time, and it is true that humans have been doing so for the longest time. But there exist a couple of unique characteristics which FOSS possesses:

Firstly, it’s international character. This one should be self-explanatory, I do not know of any other occurrence of so many different people of so many different backgrounds labouring for free and voluntarily on tools which are meant for public ownership.

Secondly, the specific efficiency that software has when it comes to creating copies of an already existing product. This means that, once a tool is built it needs barely any additional living labour to maintain and to create new copies of itself. The living labour necessary to reproduce an additional copy of a piece of software is practically null and so everyone’s needs can be easily met.

Finally, perhaps it’s most important characteristic, it’s permanence. Tecnological developments are borderline impossible to erase. Thus, any labour that goes into Open Source Software irrevocably becomes part of a source of collective wealth that benefits the entire planet indiscriminately.

These characteristics, combined with the possibility of escaping capitalist production both in labour and in consumption are what give Free and Open Source Software it’s revolutionary character.

Now, on the topic of actually existing contradictions within the Open Source community and the dialectical relationship it has with Capitalism.

There are a couple of such contradictions that one has to look at when studying this topic, the main one being the existence of exchange relationships and the profit motive within the community itself.

The most common example would be developers who built a tool following in the open source tradition and then decided to create a company around said tool. Usually they still provide the code for free, same as any other FOSS tool, but they try to make money either by selling development or consulting services related to the software or by taking donations from the community.

This is, I would argue, still a case of socialist production since the materialized labour still ends up as a public good and is not itself being sold on a market to make a profit. But it would also be easy to argue that this is a case of capitalist production, since there is a clear profit motive governing the actions of the developers, and without the monetary incentive they might be spending their time elsewhere, thus indicating a dominion of capital over living labour.

Another contradiction to look at when examining the dialectics of Open Source production is that of developers who are employed, ie. selling their labour-force, to traditionally capitalistic companies who hire them to build Open Source tools. For example, a company like Google developing a tool like Flutter or Facebook creating the React framework. This is a clear example of capitalist exploitation of living-labour except for the fact that, upon closer look, this living labour isn’t used to “multiply the exchange value of capital”. The tools they build are released to be used and reproduced by the community with few restrictions, so, what’s the catch?

Well, one might argue that these companies have ulterior motives when engaging in this practice, they might be looking to lock developer so that they exclusively use their tools on their frameworks, they might be engaging with the FOSS community as a marketing exercise to improve the image of the company among developers. But the end result is still the free and permanent development of technology. Everything that surrounds this companies is ephemeral, it will one day disappear, but the technological advancements and the Open Source tools that they build will not.

The point being that these contradictions that I’ve listed don’t argue against the revolutionary potential of this new form of production, but in favour of it. If the FOSS community did not engage with Capital in any shape or form it would be profoundly boring and not deserving of as much attention as it currently is.

Quoting Hegel:

Abstract self-identity has no vitality, but the positive, being in it's own self a negativity, goes outside itself and undergoes alteration. Something is therefore alive only in so far as it contains contradiction within it, and moreover is this power to hold and endure the contradiction within it. [link]

Any proper marxist should thus be able to agree that, if the creation of Open Source tools was completely isolated from Capital, and the community’s progress dictated exclusively by a linear dependence to it's quantitative output, then it would be impossible to find any revolutionary characteristics within it.

As Lenin puts it:

Dialectics is the teaching which shows how opposites can be and how they happen to be (how they become) identical--under what conditions they are identical, transforming themselves into one another,--why the human mind should take these opposites not as dead, rigid, but as living, conditional, mobile, transforming themselves into one another. (quote taken from Mao's On Contradiction)

Open Source appears interesting in that it seems to solve, as Mao puts it, “the contradiction between the social character of production and the private character of ownership”. But it becomes revolutionary in that, through it’s relationship with Capital, it develops new and complex contradictions which in turn need resolving. It is in these contradictions that we can see the ways in which capitalists end up aiding in the creation of a system which will ultimately render them useless.