Is “Open Source” Socialist?

The following is an article originally published at Freedom Democrats.

Kevin Kelly’s article in Wired, The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online, has sparked some debate in the libertarian community. Kelly’s Thesis: The open-source software model is socialist in nature, and the success of this model online will lead to the revival of Socialism in the political sphere. Kelly’s thesis is tinged with the “irony” that it’s largely libertarianism that is driving this “neo-socialist” paradigm.

Bill Gates once derided open source advocates with the worst epithet a capitalist can muster. These folks, he said, were a “new modern-day sort of communists,” a malevolent force bent on destroying the monopolistic incentive that helps support the American dream. Gates was wrong: Open source zealots are more likely to be libertarians than commie pinkos. Yet there is some truth to his allegation. The frantic global rush to connect everyone to everyone, all the time, is quietly giving rise to a revised version of socialism.
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When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it’s not unreasonable to call that socialism.
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We underestimate the power of our tools to reshape our minds. Did we really believe we could collaboratively build and inhabit virtual worlds all day, every day, and not have it affect our perspective? The force of online socialism is growing. Its dynamic is spreading beyond electrons—perhaps into elections.

Arnold Kling, who sees a correlation between “neo-socialism” and civil societarianism, worries about State power being viewed as the natural progression of such cooperation. Larry Lessig, however, rips into Kelly’s thesis, arguing that Kelly is misrepresenting both socialism and libertarianism/capitalism. Lessig argues that the essence of “socialism” is coercion, whereas the essence of what Kelly is describing is “liberty.” Lessig then devotes a few paragraphs to argue that libertarianism/capitalism is wrongly conflated with a dog-eat-dog type of non-cooperative social theory, in the process invoking Adam Smith, Hayek and “emergent” public goods(sounding quite a bit like Kling’s civil societarianism).

In reality, “neo-socialism” sounds like libertarian socialism, or the old 19th century anarcho-socialism, where the means of production are part of the commons, meaning free and equal access for all. Of course, the 20th century meaning of the term “socialism” changed to signify “the means of production” being collectively owned by the State. This is quite a bit different than the former meaning. Collectivism imposes coercive obligations, duties, requirements on agent participation within the group or social order as a precondition for whatever “positive liberties” the social order offers. Kelly’s use of the term “collectivist” to describe “neo-socialism” conflates “the Collective” with “the Commons,” a not uncommon error(note: social institutions, collective action models built around managing “the commons” is not collectivism). Collectivism implies a coercive social order and in this sense, Lessig’s critique of Kelly’s thesis is correct.

However, even if we revert to the original meaning of the term “socialism,” it’s fairly apparent that “Open Source” itself is not exactly a “socialist order.” Richard Stallman, who thinks all software should be part of the commons(other than that, you should be “free” of any other collective obligations in the use of software, which is the meaning of “free” in free software. Free means freedom/liberty not “price.” After all, you are free to charge money for distributing “free software.”) devised the GNU “copyleft” license that requires derivative works be made available under the same “copyleft” license and that any such improvements can’t link to code under a non-copyleft license or that a non-copyleft software application can’t build from linking to copyleft code/libraries. Nonetheless, by last count, there are roughly 50 alternative “free software licensing” schemes(e.g. BSD, MIT), many of which that do not require derivative works to remain part of the commons.

In terms of social networking–“the frantic global rush to connect everyone to everyone, all the time”– Kelly seems unaware of the most of popular social networking sites/platforms are closed, proprietary systems, although most typically expose developer APIs to 3rd parties. There is a coordination effort by the major players to develop a standard (“OpenSocial”) that will allow interoperability between the social networking platforms, but this type of cooperation hardly exemplifies any definition of socialism.

Kelly’s thesis suffers from the simple fact that the knowledge economy isn’t socialist either in the collectivist or anarcho sense. The idea that the popularity of wikipedia, Facebook and Flickr is going to translate into increased popular support for collectivist, State Socialism is nonsense. Indeed, the real danger to the knowledge economy is the collectivist, Statist enforcement of IP law, which taken to it’s logical conclusion would outlaw reading itself. The undeniable fact is that a knowledge economy requires a robust “commons” to actually work, and Open Source accomplishes this; but it’s also fairly apparent that an open source knowledge economy would have to support a healthy “private means of production” as well.

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3 thoughts on “Is “Open Source” Socialist?

  1. Stallman’s “lesser GPL” also offers a 3rd way, wherein you can link a closed source program to it without it being subject to the same terms. When I release open source software (my main job is making closed-source software) I tend to use either that or the BSD, which I vastly prefer.

    I should also point out that the open source world has done much to end the Microsoft monopoly while multiple governments have tried and failed to do the same thing. Proving once again that free markets are the lava that melts monopolies.

  2. Well done. I really think the key factor that needs to be brought up in these arguments is the use of government force, which you have done. Clearly socialism is tied up with a lot of wishy-washy soft definitions and means different things to different people, much like capitalism. So the way I approach it is: Is it voluntary or not? It really cuts through the baggage these terms are carrying.

    • thanx for the comment.

      This essay is around 3 years old but after you followed me on Twitter , I took a gander at your blog and noticed your recent blog post on a similar topic.

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