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[ox-en] Free Software and Anarchism

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Dear All

Find attached and pasted a minimally revised version of my text regarding Free Software and anarchism. The pasted text somewhat lacks the footnotes, the pdf has it all.

I'm looking forward to any criticism and remarks!



Free Software and Anarchism
- does this compute?

Sandro Gaycken
Institut für Wissenschafts- und Technikforschung (IWT) - Bielefeld
Institut für Philosophie, Abteilung für Wissenschaftstheorie und Technikphilosophie - Stuttgart
Universität Bielefeld

Abstract: The mode of production in free software development is often being described as anarchical. Despite this attribution seems not initially intended in any fundamental political sense, this sense starts to transfuse the discussions. This invites to a closer look at the reference: what it is, what it's not and what it could be. And once viewed from general anarchist theory and the anarchist theory of technology, a political relation seems to vanish. But despite this first stance, a demonstrative value can still be obtained as soon as some critical remarks are acknowledged and some developmental frames would be changed.

Anarchical elements in free software development
Technologies (before marketing) have a tendency to take on functional names, indicating their specific technical character. So does free software. It is free software. „Free“ here means the entailment of a few degrees of freedom for its users. Its specific claims have been outlined most clearly along the lines of Richard Stallman, the inventor of GNU, more than twenty years ago, as a reaction to some restrictive tendencies in software research and development. They are as follows: a user of software should be free to use a program for any purpose, to study its functions and fit it to own purposes, to make copies and propagate them to help others, to alter and develop the program and freely publish the results to promote the community and – resulting logically – he should be able to access the source code of the program. Thus, free software can be developed by anyone who aquires the program which mostly (but not necessarily) includes that the program is freely downloadable somewhere. Since this mode of software production has been introduced, it has had its own history. It took long years to actually develop and establish the first free operating system, GNU/ Linux, but ever since that has been achieved, free software has been flourishing. By now, free browsers, office and media applications and many other useful to funny free programs made their way onto ever more harddrives, much to the annoyment of their main commercial opponent: Bill Gates with his (sometimes) operating system Microsoft Windows. But now what is the connection between anarchism and free software? This association actually does not seem to appear with the initial programmers. Stallman and Torvalds for instance were mainly interested in securing free and open research conditions and in the technical task at hand. This was political in a rather detailed way, but apart from that, any far reaching political or even revolutionary implications directly referring to anarchism cannot be found. The association seems to mainly have been established by opponents and commentators from the press in their usual daily warmongering. They used the term „anarchy“ in its rather undefined colloquial meaning to describe the specificly new phenomena of free programming. In this colloquial meaning, anarchy broadly describes a state in which no property exists, nor do rules or authorities and which thus has no stratified order in any (common) sense (which in addition is generally thought to result in nothing but sex and violence and the end of humankind within a couple of (sexy and violent) days). Free software development now is associable with this state when it is seen as a kind of technological development and thus compared with the standard industrialized pattern for that. The industrialized pattern is normally strictly hierarchical, guided rigidly by corporate interest, controlled and organized and accompanied by all sorts of regulations such as licenses and laws. This is of course owed to the huge amounts of money involved in any kind of industrial development and this also includes that it is largely a secret thing – neither the source code nor any intermediary steps are to be published or even discussed among developers. Compared to this rigid framing of standardized industrial development, the developmental method of free software seems well described as: anarchical. Of course this association initially also entailed some rhetorics. It also intended to draw on the sex and violence and end of anything image of anarchy. Gates for instance still tries to hold that free software development actually hinders a safe and high-quality development due to its lack of financial interest and directive order, thus posing a lethal threat to „good“ development in general. What followed this first phase of rather rhetorical uses of the term was a phase of politicisation of the whole topic of Free Software. Its developmental pattern seemed to radiate consequences to some of the implict foundations of our capitalist-monopolistic society, making it appear a strikingly contrastive alternative. And suddenly, the association with anarchism took on a real, substantial and rather positive political value. This was also accompanied and enhanced by two other factors, First, there was the rising success of Free Software. At least after Linus Torvalds' breakthrough with Linux, free software and its anarchical method turned from an exotic dream into a groundbreaking idea. Its development was fast compared to its dinosaur industrial rivals – and almost entirely without costs. Second, many developers actually liked and embraced the political and the anarchist image. Quite a few of them already were anarchists of course, especially the hackers, and did not feel uncomfortable with the term after all. But also the politically less exited gladly adopted the term to express a principle opposition to industrial methods: commercial programming and, as Stallman did, the propagating rule of ever more secret, „everyone for himself“-development. Both of these evils, now stretching out the dimensions of the dark side of the force in programming, have their rich and reckless emperor in the figure of Bill Gates and not at last due to his active engagement against free software, defining oneself as a (somewhat techno-)political activist whithin the whole issue soon started to be a personal thing as well. Thus, radiating from the rather rhetorical reference to the free software production method as anarchical, we now find the establishment of an overarching general political attitude towards free programming as political action in a more general sense than merely within the copyright-debate, in turn placing the latter into its larger social context with capitalism. Projects like the diverse Open-X-initiatives or Oekonux speak vividly of this change. A crucial point however about this identification is that the rhetorical use of the term „anarchy“ draws on the rather unfounded, preconceptive and largely false public image of anarchism which was briefly mentioned above. This being the case and ever since neither in its first phase nor now, any substantial discussions about the connotation between Free Software and anarchism from within the theory of anarchism have been undertaken, the question arises just how Free Software actually compares to anarchism as it is outlined by its own theories.
This is what shall be investigated in the remainder of this article.

The anarchist theory of technology
Since software is a technology and „Free Software“ describes a technological developmental method, the above question appears to be best approachable from within the anarchist theory of technology which will be outlined briefly now. To state that something like an anarchist theory of technology exists might sound a bit strange at first hand. What could a political theory of technology be? How can technologies be political at all? They seem to be rather neutral, mere means to a great variety of ends. This is a very common view about technologies. But it is mistaken, even more so for the industrial age. We need to look at this mistake and will thus dwell a bit on the relation between technology and social order. The most substantial relation arises from the fundamental insight which Marx had about the connection between production and social order. He stated that certain modes of production in the turn of history produce certain social orders. One very basic example for this is the division of work. It arose out of the knowledge how to grow crops and herd cattle which allowed prehistoric societies to gain excess production to store. This freed some of its members from the immediate need to produce food all the time and thus specialists could develop and the societies grew more complex and developed further. A political component got to this as some of the specialists became leader-specialists: priest-kings and the like. Thus a mode of production established a social order. This has now been the case ever since and at the core of every fundamental change in social orders, we can recognize some equally fundamental change in the mode of production. Many of these changes have actually been technological changes, as technologies are a substantial part of the productive force. The above example already suggests this since the knowledge on growing and herding is largely technical knowledge, including the introduction of a variety of new tools. Thus the relation between production and social order has a significant technological component to it and it is in this sense that technologies can be deemed political. It has to be noted here that within the philosophy of technology, there are of course a few more dimensions in which technologies can be regarded to be political as well. One such dimension for instance develops out of the fact that technology often is our means to get in contact with the world. As such, it predetermines our patterns of thought which deal with the world. Our worldview – in a fundamental sense – is than partly technological. Some devastating political consequences of this arrive in turn from the modern machine-technological worldview. It renders everything into a mere component, a ready-to-use part of some system and not only our modern bureaucracies and self-technologies can be viewed as fatalistic consequences of this. Also people like the Nazi organizer Eichmann, who conceived of the industrialized murdering of millions of jews as a solution to a logistical task, are a phenomenon of this worldview. This very idea has been the topic of the whole New Left since Marcuses book „One-dimensional Man“, which explored this issue within a marxist framework (although the basic idea has been stated before by Marcuses teacher Heidegger in 1954). But these rather specific and abstract consequences of technologies shall not be the topic here. What shall be considered for now are the more direct and material consequences as outlined by Marx. As such, as has been shown, technologies open up a specific range of possibilities for social orders. In most cases, this enlarges the range of human actions, but since the industrial revolution, technology also had a limiting notion to it. The complex tool-compounds called „machines“, by means of their design, their size and complexity, have to carry a number of necessities like conditions on how to handle them, a special division of work, sometimes specific hierarchies and so on. Thus the specific range of social possibilities opened up by technologies is not only a positive thing, free to choose. With the advent of machines, technologies also entailed some rather ugly social necessities, some fait accomplis. Marx had recognized this and within his concept to actually turn the tables by not having production dictate social order but social order dictate production (in communism), the appropriate technological change to allow this played a significant part as the „scientific-technological revolution“ which has been a constant issue to all communist societies ever since.

What remains to note from these considerations is the fact that technologies open up specific possibilites for social change and this is a point of consideration for anarchism much like it has been for communism. It will first have to asked which technologies would be needed in an anarchical society and this will point to some general technological characteristics fundamental to positively promote anarchism as a fundamentally new social order. Following these, a few negative demands can be stated as well, more or less as the negations of the positive characteristics, to not only state what should be the technological case, but also what it should definitely not be. The positive characteristics will point to genuine anarchical technological structures whereas the negative demands will clarify which structures oppose anarchism.
Now, finally, to the anarchist theory of technology.
Like Marx, a basic intend will be to turn the tables and have social order dictate the mode of production, not vice versa. The basic idea in mind should thus be the positive vision of the free, decentralized anarchist community. Now which mode of production does it need? This is easy: a decentral, local production. Only then will people be able to live autonomously and thus free from outside rulers. But how can this be achieved? The current, globalized economy is quite the opposite of this. It grows things in one country, boils them in another, packs them in yet another and finally sells them somewhere entirely else. Can this irrational organization be rearranged to local models? Anarchism believes: yes. And as mentioned above, this is to a large extent a technological task, a task of rearranging the technological designs surrounding us. At this point, Murray Bookchin comes into play. He is a known socialist and anarchist and has written about the technological foundations of anarchism. His thoughts are quite logical. For anarchist communities, localized technologies have to be developed which are able to gather ressources and produce goods in the most easy and comfortable fashion possible. They should be workable by only a few people (the less the better, but up to a hundred probably if we imagine standard-sized communities of 1000 to 2000 individuals), they should be able to regulate themselves and even repair themselves if possible. This somewhat points to the old enlightenment conception of technology which has also been at the core of the communist scientific-technological revolution: technology as the saviour which abolishes all work for humans so they are free to live the lifes they want to live without being bound to the ugly necessities of daily production for daily survival. As such, anarchism is substantially technology-friendly, even very dependent on it. Entirely without it, work would much likelier have to be regulated, thus administered again by rulers and enforced. In addition, anarchism even embraces the highest possible state of technology, that of a full automation, to fully liberate humankind – at least with Bookchin. And in that case, Bookchin holds, computers play a significant part as well. They will eventually conceptualize the work, operate the machines, organize everything and so on. Within his further theory, Bookchin also states that an equilibrium between humans and nature has to be achieved with the help of technology. This is important so the ressources are not wasted too excessively to an extend that they would exhaust. A lack of ressources has always been a reason for a war and unequalities, but this is a perfectly known fact and does not have to be explored any further. For now, this brief look will suffice to demonstrate the technological task at hand for anarchism. We can now state the basic positive technological characteristics anarchism needs. Its technologies will have to be such that they can be produced and maintained locally and they have to enable small communities to freely, easily and with the least possible amount of work produce their commodities. Further, they should be such, that they do not irrevocably exhaust local ressources or need very exotic ones. Technologies which comply with these characteristics would not necessarily need a hiercharical social order any more. They would not create and reinforce dependencies from owners of ressources or lacks of ressources, from central monopolizing producers, highly skilled specialists and so on. Thus they would have a liberating effect on a society and could be called anarchical in a very close and genuine sense. Bookchin also mentions an example of such a genuine anarchical technology: the sun-furnace. It uses photovoltaic cells to produce more than 5000 degrees celsius, it can thus melt iron and steel, it's easy to build and maintain and can be operated by just a handful of unskilled workers. Thus it promotes anarchical interests in a genuine, clear-cut way. It promotes freedom and equalness and diminishes dependence and asymmetric inequalities as they are transparent in current industrial production. And this directly leads to the negative demands. After it has been shown which technological characteristics are demanded by a free humankind, it can now be stated which kinds of technologies hinder the development of a free society. Such technologies are namely designed in such a way that they either premise or reproduce the principles of authority and hierarchy, either in their production or in their later use. A clear example to contrast with the afore mentioned sun-furnace is current heavy-industrial steel production. Steelworks as machine-compounds often need thousands of workers, from iron ore mining to melting to transportation and administration. Thus they need and propose hierarchical structures. They need specialists, a central organization, authority, enforcement. And they suggest larger communities. The workers will need food, housing and entertainment and that leads to larger cities as we find them frequently with steel production. All this opposes the anarchical ideas of non-hierarchical structures, autonomy, decentralized, smaller communities, of comparatively free lifes and little work. Thus we will demand of technologies to be free of such wanting structures which invite social complexity and class-construction, which are followed by suppression and hierarchy. Of course, the negative somewhat follows from the positive. But it still felt necessary to mention it to achieve a contrast between what can now be called a genuine anarchical technology (as the sun-furnace), a technology somewhat opposed to anarchism (as the huge steelworks) and probably technologies which could be deemed neutral from an anarchist point of view (as a simple excavator probably). Now Free Software can be investigated. First, it will be looked at as a technology, since that is what it is materially, second, it will be considered as a technological developmental method which of course it is connoted to more intimately.

Free software as a technology
Is Free Software as a technology genuinely anarchical, opposed to anarchism or rather neutral? This question will be approached by first stating some clear intuitions. First it has to be noted, that software is a technology basically in charge of controlling other things. It operates machines, tells them what to do. As such, it is not a technology on its own. It is always combined with some other machine which it controls. In the case of Free Software, facing the lack of free machine software, this is always a common personal computer, not a harvesting machine, a steel press or anything. So without personal computers, there is little use for Free Software. Thus the question arises, in which way a personal computer can be seen as an anarchical technology if it is being controlled by freely developed software. To repeat: such computers could be rated genuinely anarchical if they would promote decentralization, autonomy and the creative and free development of humans. If on the other hand such computers are rather proliferating control, the concentration of capital, centralization and such, they should be viewed as rather opposed to anarchism – in this case: whatever the mode of production of its software was. The verdict is reached quickly. It stems from the current production of personal computers. This production is highly monopolized, in very centralized structures, the assembly-lines are globalized , exploit the poverty of foreign countries by means of financial power and need very sophisticated ressources. This holds for any major personal computer brand. Personal computers have to be viewed as a typical product of a high industrialization, involving all of its clearly anti-anarchical structures. Thus free software as a technology is clearly opposed to anarchism by means of its current dependence on personal computers. The included obligation to buy a personal computer affirms and reinforces the corresponding industry and the principles of its conduct. In addition to the concept of Free Software, a concept of Free Hardware (so to speak) would be needed as well to render Free Software into an anarchical technology. We might question though whether such a thing is even conceivable. The production of up-to-date PCs is so highly specialized, drawing on extremly specific components and ressources, that it seems rather impossible to conceptualize any decentral, small and local fabrication for them. To achieve this, much more research and development would first have to be undertaken into a direction entirely different than the current, industrial one. Thus, a concept of „free hardware“ for the bearers of the current versions of free software, the up-to-date PCs, seems still a little too fictitious to help the concept of Free Software onto an at least principly safe ground. Here, Bookchin has to be critized, or at least relativized as well. He placed great emphasis on computers for the liberation of technologies, but that was back in the 60ies and the computer Bookchin mentions as an example is the DDP-124 from the Computer Control Company in Framingham. This was still a rather simple device (although it already included ICs), not too demanding in its production and the semiconductor-ressources and he probably didn't foresee the development computers would subsequently undergo. However, in comparison to these negative judgements, a point can be made about a sensibly anarchical Free Software as well. It could be conceivable, given our current technological situation, to program free software for simple computers which are in use in simple machines as the ones I have mentioned above: harvester, steel presses or things like that. Given the case that these simple machines and computers can principly be constructed and handled locally and decentral, without an immediate dependence on large-scale industries, Free Software would very genuinly promote a technological liberation of these small communities which are now still very dependent on their deliverers. To give a case in which this would be of actual relevance, Siemens and its „engagement“ in Third-World development can be stated. It has contracts with development agencies and institutes and in turn provides many developing countries with a lot of machines for agriculture, water and waste management and so on. The machines are relatively simple to handle, but they draw on specific parts and specialized machine-programming, thus securing Siemens a huge and very dependent aftermarket. Free machine-software in this case for the Siemens-machines would greatly proliferate the freedom of the concerned countries. However, the Free Software movement is not found here. Thus the political difference Free Software makes materially, as a technology, is rather small, not to say: zero. In its current shape, it is only operated in personal computers, but these are severly monopolized and reinforce centralization. Buying computers promotes the according industries with affirmation and financial support. In addition, personal computers have developed into a highly advanced and technically demanding state which fundamentally hinders even the conception of a thing like „Free Hardware“. Resulting from these consideration, free software as a technology has to be regarded as rather opposed to the idea of anarchism. The term doesn't fit here at all.

Free software as a developmental method
After these investigations into the implications of Free Software as a technology, another consideration can come into view: what about Free Software as a purely developmental method? This of course is the more decisive and genuine question since the whole political debate rather refers to Free Software as a new method of development which opposes some productive principles as such. Can this be regarded as anarchical? Does it promote or does it restrict autonomy and freedom? The case is not quite unambigious. It does of course operate without much apparent hierarchy or authority, it is decentralized and free for all (who already own a computer and know about programming) and these things are good and have an anarchical value in a different aspect which will be explored in greater detail in the next chapter. But on the other hand, one also easily finds restrictive tendencies. Not only do still too little free operating systems exist to speak of a truly decentralized, non-authoritative method. Linux is still a very central frame here and that is implicitly guided by Torvalds. But even apart from that, Free Software development in its daily conduct also uses a lot of the capitalist vocabulary, linguistic institutions and: regulations. These start with GPL and the five rules for free software development and currently end with the ever so bureaucratically growing forest of CreativeCommons licenses. Sure: these rules are intended to guarantee freedom and to protect Free Software and its developers from exploitation. But at this point, Foucault has to be mentioned. He has rightly wondered about where humans got the nonsense idea from that freedom has to be guaranteed by regulations and institutions. Freedom, by definition, is just the very absence of regulations and institutions and never has either of one really proliferated any real freedom. Regulations, even as moderate guidelines, are restrictive, hierarchical and authoritative by nature, they cannot reasonably be associated with freedom. And it is here that Free Software development as a method fails significantly in providing a genuine anarchical framework for any subsequent political use. It still very much complies with the patterns of industrialized and bureaucratized development in inventing new regulations, thus not leaving the frameworks of hierarchy and capitalism at all. It collaborates with these frameworks rather than it opposes them by principally affirming their righteousness. The difference in content and reach doesn't make much of a difference here any more: any method which principally affirms and reinforces the mere idea of the necessity of regulations for development can not sensibly be termed anarchical. In addition, accompanying these regulations, another peculiar phenomenon which also weakens the alleged anarchical character of Free Software in its non-capitalistic aspect can be found: Free Software is often being measured and valued in terms of its final proliferation of capitalism. Quite a few promoters actually argue that the developmental method is „effective“ not because it proliferates freedom and autonomy, but because it has a tremendous output with low costs which can in turn be used to promote businesses. These lines of arguments then continue to state the many new businesses which have opened up on the back of Linux and how many big computer companies actually already profit significantly from Free Software. If the developmental method of Free Software is being measured in this way by its own promoters, its intentions in as far as what these finally aim at cannot appear anarchical in any genuine way any more which in turn renders the method again and from another angle at least questionable.

In sum, free software development as a method appears counter-capitalistic or anarchical only in a somewhat short-sighted and premature manner, despite its own understanding. As so many counter-movements do (if it can be accredited with this much of a meaning beyond press rhetorics at all), it uses the very methods, principles and words of its opponents in an only superficial (content-related) negation to define itself as different. And by doing so, it doesn't recognize that it still operates within capitalism and authority, just by the very use of its ways, even if they are in negation. It is in this sense that the method of Free Software has to be judged as bracketed by the ideological frameworks of capitalism and hierarchy. The extent to which this misbelief is actually embedded in free software can be shown in Toby Milsom who stated that the GPL uses copyright to express anarchism. A strange idea. The overall rating of Free Software development now doesn't look good. It only happens within industrialized computers, thus it doesn't help to build a decentralized society but rather promotes the opposite. And even as a pure method, it still reproduces capitalism and authority by using the according principles, concepts and standards. To judge it anything anarchical or somewhat revolutionarily political now seems a strange idea.

Free Software as a demonstration of productive anarchy
But is this the end of it? Does Free Software development really not have anything political to it? This does not have to be denied: A demonstrative value can be obtained from Free Software development as well. This notion will now be developed out of the anarchical aspects which can be found. To do this, an argument within which the idea of anarchism in Free Software development played a significant role has to be revised, namely the productivity-argument for Free Software development, directed against intellectual property rights and software patents. It is a very central argument in the whole story, but until now didn't come into consideration since the concern was with the more general relation between Free Software development and anarchism in a political sense, its factual appearance and possible shapes. The productivity-argument however is more of an argument about what is good for software development, not about what is good for anarchism. At this point however, the focus will be on this argument and it will be shown how it can be reinterpreted to state something essential about anarchism. The productivity-argument holds that the anarchical mode of production, in so far as it is unguided, open for everyone and (mostly) not primarily profit-oriented, yields a very good and sophisticated development, in fact, it even appears to be better than its capitalist counterpart in many possible comparisons. This is empirically easily proven and it is intended as a counter-argument to the capitalists' idea that real development needs profit as a stimulus and a structure to work efficiently and it thus has been a central point against the extension of intellectual property rights. Now in its current shape, this is an argument which basically states that a partly anarchical mode of production is actually good for software development. This has an attractive potential for anarchist theory, if it is being reformulated a little into the following: an anarchical mode of production is more productive and yields a better development than the capitalistic mode of production. This is a legitimite reformulation (in fact, a simplification) of the productivity-argument and now, the focus is on anarchism and software development can be taken to be a mere example. In this case, the validity of the argument, which would substantially draw on Free Software development as a case study, suggests that our current authoritative-capitalist order of the world not only has those many evils which it has already been accused of so frequently. In addition, it would have proven that the authoritative-capitalist mode of production is not even effective as such – which is sort of a core merit it assigns to itself from within its own measures. Thus seen from a global point of view, it is irrational to maintain the authoritative-capitalist world order not only in light of all its negative side-effects, but also as a mode of generally maintaining and promoting humankind. Because it does neither as good as an anarchical order would do. In comparison, it can now actually even be regarded proven to hinder the development of humankind. Such a conclusion would be of great importance since this topic so far has been only a matter of intellectual debate. Free Software now could help this debate onto an empirical footing, it could state a case in point for anarchism. However, the critical remarks on behalf of Free Software production as a method still have to be accredited to render the argument fully valid. The mere existence of the few anarchical characteristics which initially invited the equation does not suffice. To make the case of Free Software development a good and truly valid example, it has to be stratified. Free software would have to be produced entirely without any allegiance to regulations or authorities. Any development restricted by such regulative ideas can not be regarded as a genuine anarchical development and would thus belatedly weaken the demonstrative value. Only if better development also takes place in the total absence of anything regulating, Free Software development can be accepted as an example for a better, more productive and more creative humankind in absence of an authoritative-capitalist order.

Sandro Gaycken

Institut für Wissenschafts- und Technikforschung (IWT) - Bielefeld
Institut für Wissenschaftstheorie und Technikphilosophie - Stuttgart

Universität Bielefeld - Postfach 100131
33501 Bielefeld

fon: [PHONE NUMBER REMOVED]/ 521/ 106 4702 - mob: [PHONE NUMBER REMOVED]/ 162/ 695 3467


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