2022 Feb 8

FOSS and Socialism

Sometimes comparisons are drawn between the free software movement and socialism. In an article about software licensing, Drew DeVault described free software as a “socialist utopia… ripe for exploitation by capitalists”. Andrew Keen accused Lawrence Lessig, a prominent free-culture activist, of being an “intellectual property communist”. An article published in Jacobin Magazine claims “free software isn’t socialism for your computer”. What is the relationship between socialism and the free software movement?

Full disclosure: I’m a member of Democratic Socialists of America.

The complexity of free software and socialism makes a definitive relationship impossible. However, we can use claims like those above as point to stimulate our discussion. Before that, let’s clarify some terms.


Socialism has no single definition, but Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a useful characterization:

Both socialism and capitalism grant workers legal control of their labor power, but socialism, unlike capitalism, requires that the bulk of the means of production workers use to yield goods and services be under the effective control of workers themselves, rather than in the hands of the members of a different, capitalist class under whose direction they must toil.

Free software, however, has a clear definition, which I will not reproduce here. Read it if you are not sure.

Keen’s communism

Keen’s comment, while it does not mention the free software movement, still applies to it because it pertains to the free culture movement, which includes free software.

Keen is an entrepreneur and critic of “Web 2.0”. His main beef seems to be that the Internet provides people not fortunate enough to have received a certain kind of education the chance to be listened to. Though I don’t know his official political affiliation, his defense of the previous social order (in which a small number of people had greater control of media production) suggests a conservative disposition. His opposition to social change entailed by tech enterprise, however, is not inherently conservative.

Keen’s argument against free culture reuses an old defense of inequality: Equality is Mediocrity. Therefore, his argument inherits the weaknesses of that cliché, and is susceptible to its counterarguments.

DeVault’s socialist utopia

DeVault’s political position is clear. While he too is an entrepreneur, he has critiqued capitalism as ultimately about self-enrichment at the expense of ethics. He claims to have crafted his business model to yield more consumer-centric incentives. In particular, he rejects outside investors and makes services freely available to customers who explain why they cannot pay. For DeVault, socialism is about circumventing markets to broaden distribution of software benefits, and enterprise is about meeting the constraints of capitalist society (acquiring a minimum of goods on a finite budget) to attain social ends, such as breadth of distribution.

There is much evidence to support a view of DeVault as a social entrepreneur. He emphasizes both business model as means to social ends and consumer choice—voting with your dollar—as a means to ethical ends. He’s also made a conscious personal choice to devote his life to free software instead of politics, going so far as to emigrate to the Netherlands for political refuge.

Not all socialists criticize privileged individuals such as DeVault for exercising their personal freedom, in part because the exercise of such privileges, though they may be inequally distributed, is not always seen as an obstacle to socialism. Indeed, socialists advocate for a world in which everybody has such freedoms; rather, they oppose a system that keeps it only for the few.

A more common factor, regarding socialists' judgment of DeVault, is his status as an entrepreneur who potentially profits from others' labor. Social entrepreneurs are a mixed, sometimes slippery bunch in terms of their political allegiances, and socialists tend to receive them with skepticism. Nonetheless, socialism is not incompatible with enterprise. A reliable way to tick off socialists is to oppose worker empowerment; worker-owned cooperatives are the preferred business structure. Nevertheless, few socialists see starting cooperatives as a strategy. Given the small scale of DeVault’s operation, he’s not likely to take much heat from socialists, who reserve their vitriol for the most accomplished labor exploiters.

Jacobin’s free software movement

Both of these invocations of socialism focus on consumption. Yet socialists see production as the main turf on which capitalist power can be challenged. Capitalists own the means of production, and depend on workers to operate it.

Thus the concern for socialists is how software freedoms relate to the broader project of worker empowerment. Free software undoubtedly achieves a more equal distribution of software than would otherwise exist. However, most free software authors are not paid for their work, relying on income from other sources. It is widely acknowledged that while free software isn’t non-commercial, it’s very difficult to monetize. Many open source projects are sustained on donations; most have no income at all. Free software workers, like all technology workers, are not invulnerable to exploitation.

Theoretically, both movements are egalitarian: they want to achieve some kind of equality. Socialists focus on material equality, and propose social policies that tend to elevate ordinary people. Free culture grants freedom to consume and produce in equal measure to everybody.

The similarities would end there, if not for copyleft licensing, which is free software’s strategy to defend the commons against enclosure by exploiting copyright law. Socialists too, oppose enclosure of the commons (“privatization”), but because their purview is society as a whole, not just the informational artifacts of cultural production (“intellectual property”), they rely on political organizing. This is not to say free software has had no political dimension. Rather, free software grew to a dominant position without modifying existing political institutions.

Evidently, the aims of free software are not outright anti-capitalist, otherwise the movement would not encompass such an array as venture capitalists, technology workers, and anarchist hackers. Free software, in its broadest sense, embraces all these people as legitimate users and contributors, if only because free software licenses ensure their equality.

Socialism, in contrast, embraces workers over capitalists. It is not opposed to enterprise; it is opposed to enterprise that diminishes worker power. Socialists see worker-owned cooperatives as a way to empower workers, but their strategy for growth involves political organizing, such as unions and electoral campaigns, rather than entrepreneurism.

It’s clear that capitalism has embraced free software, to some extent, although not without ill intent. A common concern is that businesses are trying to coopt the movement for their own benefit. It’s unclear whether free software licenses are sufficient to resist this.

Free software hinges upon copyright law; it hijacks a system meant to enforce intellectual property rights. In this way, it plays a role similar to cooperatives in Denmark, which hijack private property laws to prevent housing and infrastructure from being sold to capital.

In summary

All strains of the free software movement embrace the four freedoms. As such, free software tends toward a consumerist value which has no direct relationship to replacing capitalism or empowering workers, even if it may result in more equitable distribution of software benefits. Socialism is a project to replace capitalism by shifting the balance of power in favor of workers. Insofar as free software exemplifies strategies to resist enclosure of the commons, socialists may find it inspiring.

Speaking personally, it was as a technology user that I came to appreciate free software. It was as a technology worker that I came to appreciate socialism. Could it have been the reverse? Would being a technology user make me appreciate socialism? Not obviously. Would being a technology worker make me appreciate free software? Yes; it could make my job more convenient, make me feel better about the work I do.

It becomes clear why free software isn’t antithetical to capitalism. It can serve as an impotent concession to workers. It potentially heads off an objection to the concentration of ownership. It allows a company to brand itself ethically without granting any actual decision power to workers.


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© 2022 Karl Schultheisz — Lancaster, PA, USA