Psybernet > Ideas  > Political Economy of Free Software

The Political Economy of Free Software.

In Peter Wayner's book "Free for All"1 the author describes a hypothetical scenario where the whole free software2 project dies in a mess of forked and buggy software. He then quotes Richard Stallman as saying:

"He has pointed out a theoretical problem, but if you look at the emp
irical facts, we do not have a real problem. So it is only a problem for theory, not a problem for the users. Economists may have a challenge to explain why we DO produce such reliable software, but users have no reason to worry."

RMS advocates being political and principled about software, but he also to leave this sort of theory in the hands of economists.  Thus it is true that he is not a communist. A communist would look into what was in that tradition is called political economy.

So why is the software so reliable?  How about this:

Free software is produced socially and owned socially and thus there is no contradiction in the relations of production, workers are not alienated. Software is a significant component in all means of modern production. In the case of free software the workers own the means of production and so does everyone else.

My way of putting it here puts free software into a context of a whole historical and political perspective. It forces us to think of how it might relate to heart of Marxist political economy.

The free software is fundamental in education, health, transport, politics and all modern production.  It is available to the poorest countries.  It becomes "appropriate" technology for development. That it is important there is no question. It has a part to play in how the future will unfold. Just how important it is may go well beyond the simple fact that it does good. It is a new paradigm, yes, but, significantly one that is an attempt at a resolution of a fundamental contradiction in capitalism, i.e that production is social and ownership is private. Free software may well be a model of things to come, certainly a model for ownership of information and knowledge.  In science and education the free versus closed battle is raging.  Software is akin to other information and knowledge, knowledge is power. Those in power today will not relinquish it easily.

If my proposition about this fundamental nature of the Free Software Movement has merit it certainly puts the struggle around its survival against the commercial and legal opposition into a context with very high stakes.

I would not go so far as to say free software is revolutionary, the word is misused.  The development of free software with its implications for social production and ownership may well have a part in a larger social and political movement that could accurately be called revolutionary.  Just how these flows, forces or battles of history will turn out we can't say right now, but we will be there, will can observe and participate as it is all happening now.

1. Peter Wayner, 2000, Free for All - How Linux and the Free Software Movement Undercut the High-tech Titans. Harper Business.

2. I am using the term free software to refer to software that can not become the property of any one individual or company, unless it is stolen in violation of the license it is distributed under.

Created 26 May, 2002. Last Updated 28 May 2002