Archive for the ‘Free / Open Software’ Category

Mutual Destruction

Posted: October 30, 2010 in Free / Open Software
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Capitalist dogma teaches us if everyone looks after their own self interests, then we’ll all be better off. But, of course, the proponents of this edict don’t actually believe that individuals will truly excel on their own, by themselves.

Suppose you decide to start your own business, and you go to the bank for a loan. The probability that you will receive credit is quite closely related to who you know. And here I don’t mean it’s best if you know the bank manager. I mean, if your business plan lists a catalogue of successful business people among your friends, acquaintances, or family, and lists them as people who will aid you, then hold out your hands for the bags of money you will receive. Further, should you happen to be the son or niece of a dominant political person, then your hands won’t be large enough. You’ll need a wheel barrow. So, we don’t need to listen to social critics to understand nepotism, cronyism, the way the world spins. Just look at the practices of banks.

The “self-made man” is a myth. When did he ever exist? The business man/woman needs allies, partners, customers, employees, relationships with government representatives, regulators, suppliers, etc. Even capitalism cannot deny our social nature. The mantra of small business advisers is “network, network, network.”

The sentiment in us all to engage in mutual assistance is so intuitive that it’s amazing that a book, Mutual Aid, was required to remind us of it. The greatest contribution that the internet makes to our well-being is as a vehicle for mutual assistance. People will give total strangers advice on how to tile a bathroom floor, how to make a raspberry soufflé, or how to trim Fido’s nails. And this is all natural.

But the unnatural thing about the capitalist order, is that we are meant to rally our troops for the purpose of committing combat with the opposition. Ultimately we are not meant to foster kindly relations out of mere chumminess. The relations are solely for the purpose of using our “friends” in order to annihilate the opposition. When will we move beyond this?

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Aren’t naked people something else? I’ll admit I get a hearty chuckle from them. But, no, I’m not thinking of the nudity that comes from sleazy, peeping-tommery, from the sordid dank-alley flasher, from the military monsters of Abu Ghraib. But, instead, I hold in mind honest, wholesome, public nudity, perhaps that streaker at the Queen’s garden party, no doubt a fine sort of chap who’s having a light-hearted bet with his pals one day and is showing off his crown jewels to Her Highness the next. He, I raise a glass to.

Enjoying the Olympics Curling

I’d like to unzip the breeches restraining my thoughts and expose a few naughty anarchist comments to the world, comments on clothes, costumes, uniforms, and the lack of such. Now, I’m certain an army of academics must have studied, analyzed and written on clothing, its role in cultural identity, its conveyance of rank and position, blah, blah. I bet a few curious professors have even been down to the nudie beach for the purpose, sirs and madams, of scientific exploration, you know. But when was the last time you heard an anarchy angle on this?

The nudists are easy to speak about, for they so obviously challenge society’s norms and the authority of the Church whose residual influence still coats our minds. The pre-Christians couldn’t have been as prudish as we. From the appearance of all that ancient art, the Greeks must have needed will-power of a Herculean proportion just to keep their togas on. And in more modern times, some “primitive” peoples hardly thought to wear a stitch at all—well, unless they were cold. Could it be that the more we layer society, the more we stack levels onto levels, growing the ponderous hierarchy, then the more we feel a necessity to add cloth and metal adornments into the mix? Robes, gowns, starched uniforms and polished Oxfords, three-piece suits with neckties, tiaras, medals, rolex watches, cuff links. Can you imagine Christ in a top hat and tails? Has the Pope ever skinny-dipped?

Nudists or naturists certainly have a liberatory spirit, not exactly of an anarchist nature but more in line with modern liberalism, a simple minority that want an additional right. But, nonetheless, they must be admired for their egality, their rejection of propriety, their ballsiness (I couldn’t resist). So, what appearances would the dress in an anarchist society have? I have three thoughts, one that I’ll dismiss right off. First, they wouldn’t wear a uniform like the Black Bloc anarchists. In this case, the uniform is part of the tactic that, I can only hope, is not a communal identity.

Second, the dress might be an assortment of working clothes. Let’s look at Barcelona, Spain in 1936. George Orwell writes in “Homage to Catalonia”, his greatest work:

The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing… Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. (Chapter 1)

It appears the attire, at least in a transitionary period, would be very workman-like. None would want to come across as the sort of individual who puts on airs. And even the fighting forces would be imbibed with this sense of (clothing) equality:

Everyone from general to private drew the same pay, ate the same food, wore the same clothes, and mingled on terms of complete equality. If you wanted to slap the general commanding the division on the back and ask him for a cigarette, you could do so, and no one thought it curious. In theory at any rate each militia was a democracy and not a hierarchy. (Chapter 5)

Third, I’ve argued before that a good example of modern anarchism at work is the free software movement (I even wrote a fairly lengthy and, I was told, lively essay on the subject.) What is the stereotypical dress of computer geeks? We might think of ill-fitting jeans and Star Trek t-shirts. But to be fair, the dress is more complex as described in the Jargon File: tie-dye shirts, hiking boots, khakis, and “a very low tolerance of suits and other ‘business’ attire.” Simply put: wear what you will.

The wear-what-you-will freedom unfortunately vanished in Catalonia just a few months after Orwell’s initial observations as hierarchy reasserted itself :

The militia uniform and the blue overalls had almost disappeared… [T]here was a definite social difference, expressed by the difference of pay and uniform. The men wore a kind of coarse brown overalls, the officers wore an elegant khaki uniform with a tight waist, like a British Army officer’s uniform… (Chapter 9)

And the revolution was over.

Clothes don’t make the person; they make the society with all its stratification, coercion and domination. Emperors need clothes. None would take orders from a man in a loincloth or less.

According to anarchist revolutionary, Mikhail Bakunin: “Man is not only the most individual being on earth, but also the most social.”i Proof of this assessment of humankind is seen in the free / open source software (FOSS) movement where individuals participate in the production of program code in a community enterprise and then share it with the world as has happened with WordPress, Firefox, Open Office, Linux and thousands of other applications for sharing files and photos, sending emails, creating websites, writing blogs, connecting socially, mixing music, and editing video.

The more prominent proponents of FOSS (when they are not talking to Boards of Directors or the business press) often emphasize the social value of this communal computing. They may talk about the goodness of emerging economies using FOSS due to its zero cost. They may discuss the threats to cultural or national sovereignty that result from software created in the corporate model, and how FOSS can be the solution.ii They may criticize today’s form of capitalism where profit is valued over efficiency, and the two are not always in agreement.iii They may even dream of a post-scarcity future when non-productive activities such as bureaucratic meddling and “isometric struggles against competition”iv are eliminated, when humans will work just ten hours per week making a living tending to “required tasks such as legislation, family counseling, robot repair and asteroid prospecting” with all the others hours freed for fun activities (such as programming!)

Naturally, with all this talk of free software and communities sharing and helping one other, disingenuous critics will conflate the FOSS phenomenon with communism.v This tactic is nothing more than FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt), a form of propaganda using false information and logical fallacy. Of course, the counter-response is not too difficult to devise. To be sure, a culture of positive liberty can be ruinous in a hierarchical, authoritarian system and can lead to anything from unreliable cathedral-type software to liberalism’s social contract to state communism at the extreme where “sharing” is forced. But the required action is not to abandon the positive liberty piece of the equation in favour of “free markets”vi where capital always wins (e.g. Microsoft), but rather to abandon the authoritarianism piece, to abandon the cathedral, to de-commodify software and remove the market, so the powerful lose interest in ownership.

(This post is a short extract from: On the Nature of Software Anarchism)

i A. Lehning, 1973, “Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings”, page 125

iv Richard Stallman, “The GNU Manifesto

v Eric Raymond, Communism and Free Software, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69ZyX5sN2NA#t=0m40s

vi If we are to believe Torvalds (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVTWCPoUt8w#t=36m22s) that none of us know what we’re doing all the time (and that’s why open source software works), then the markets cannot behave rationally. There is no such thing as an invisible hand as Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz would say. Guardian newspaper Friday, 20 December, 2002

According to anarchist revolutionary, Mikael Bakunin: “Man is not only the most individual being on earth, but also the most social.”i Proof of this assessment of humankind is seen in the free / open source software (FOSS) movement where individuals participate in the production of program code in a sort of “communal computing” enterprise and then share it with the world as has happened with WordPress, Firefox, Open Office, Linux and thousands of other applications for sharing files and photos, sending emails, creating websites, writing blogs, connecting socially, mixing music, and editing video.

The more prominent proponents of FOSS (when they are not talking to Boards of Directors or the business press) may talk about the goodness of emerging economies using FOSS due to its zero cost. They may talk about the threats to cultural or national sovereignty that result from software created in the corporate model, and how FOSS can be the solution.ii They may criticize today’s form of capitalism where profit is valued over efficiency, and the two are not always in agreement.iii They may even dream of a post-scarcity future when non-productive activities such as bureaucratic meddling and “isometric struggles against competition”iv are eliminated, when humans will work just ten hours per week making a living tending to “required tasks such as legislation, family counseling, robot repair and asteroid prospecting” with all the others hours freed for fun activities (such as programming!)

Naturally, with all this talk of free software and communities sharing and helping one other, disingenuous critics will conflate the FOSS phenomenon with communism.v This tactic is nothing more than FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt), a form of propaganda using false information and logical fallacy. Of course, the counter-response is not too difficult to devise. To be sure, a culture of positive liberty can be ruinous in a hierarchical, authoritarian system and can lead to anything from unreliable cathedral-type software to liberalism’s social contract to state communism at the extreme where “sharing” is forced. But the required action is not to abandon the positive liberty piece of the equation in favour of “free markets”vi where capital always wins (e.g. Microsoft), but rather to abandon the authoritarianism piece, to abandon the cathedral, to de-commodify software and remove the market, so the powerful lose interest in ownership.

i A. Lehning, 1973, “Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings”, page 125

iv Richard Stallman, “The GNU Manifesto”, http://www.gnu.org/gnu/manifesto.html

v Eric Raymond, Communism and Free Software, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69ZyX5sN2NA#t=0m40s

vi If we are to believe Torvalds (see end note 19) that none of us know what we’re doing all the time (and that’s why open source software works), then the markets cannot behave rationally. There is no such thing as an invisible hand as Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz would say. Guardian newspaper Friday, 20 December, 2002 http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2002/dec/20/highereducation.uk1#article_continue

Rudolf Rocker

This post is an adapted excerpt from: On the Nature of Software Anarchism

Anarchist Rudolph Rocker reminds us that “[p]ower and culture are, in the deepest sense, irreconcilable opposites….”[1] “[C]ulture has its roots in the community”[2] and is a force for creativeness while power concentrates with a select few and “is never creative.”[3] Countless online communities can vouch for the truth of this. Free and Open Source Software development can vouch for this.

But forces are in play that aim to undermine the entire internet freedom project. State-crafted corporate law has unleashed armies of rapacious lawyers slobbering over the money to be made in defending “intellectual property rights.” It is a complete impossibility to devise a software program that is wholly unique; no program beyond the minutely trivial (not open source, not proprietary) will contain all-original code. And yet the software patent system gives licence to the strong to defend their mythical property thereby threatening innovation and freedom among the weaker.[4]

Of course the attacks do not end there. File sharing sites are shut down, down-loaders are sued, banks and governments go after undesirable websites such as wikileaks, and even the internet itself is in danger of losing its neutrality.

Power is never freely given but is always taken by force. As a consequence, the elites of society will always find an enemy in freedom for the masses. And those who possess no desire or possibility to attain power themselves must always be on guard against coercion by society’s controllers and designers. Sometimes the coercion is stark and obvious. It takes the form of torture rooms, or, if we are lucky enough, mere legislation. But often it is sly and difficult to perceive. It is “the tuning of all human feeling to one note, the rejection of the rich diversity of life, the mechanical fitting of all effort to a designated pattern.”[5] It shapes our ideas and sets our biases. It lurks in the language we unwittingly use such as “intellectual property”, “software piracy”, and “theft” limiting our intellectual capacity. We must be careful what we think. We must be careful what thoughts the words we use allow.

[1] Rudolph Rocker, “Nationalism and Culture”, Rocker Publications Committee, 1937, page 85
[2] Ibid., page 81
[3] Ibid., page 83
[4] Richard Stallman, The Danger of Software Patents, Government Model Engineering College, India
[5] Rudolph Rocker, “Nationalism and Culture”, Rocker Publications Committee, 1937, page 165

This post is an adapted excerpt from: On the Nature of Software Anarchism

An insightful work by anarchist Peter Kropotkin is “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution” which begins with Kropotkin recounting his observations of animal life in Siberia. He first notes the extremely severe conditions with which life need contend in that part of the world. His second observation –or lack of observation –is that he could find no evidence that individuals of a given species compete with each other, let alone compete bitterly as Darwin contends. Colonies of rodents, flocks of birds, herds of wild horses, deer, squirrels, insects all illustrate the importance of mutual aid and support in the mutual struggle for survival in nature.

The phenomenon of mutual evolution is not lost on the adherents of open source software either. Linus Torvalds talks about “communal computing” being a process of evolution where numerous people –none of whom understand what they, themselves, are doing all the time –contribute small ideas and assimilate small progresses from others in order to adapt to the environment. Both the community and the software evolve into something that no one ever foresaw, that no one ever planned. According to Torvalds, this process can be contrasted with commercial software which –to its credit –will often be designed and implemented efficiently to reach certain goals –but very often the wrong goals, dead-end branches on the evolutionary tree.

And so, upfront design and business-focus place limits on evolution and repress the innovation and flexibility needed to produce optimal results.