A critique of the commonist ideology

The Other Spiral critiques commonism for its lack of clear analysis of the current political economy:

“The commonists tend to give us an overly-optimistic portrait of how socialism is spontaneously arising out of capitalism, and is just around the corner (luckily we don’t have to figure out how it will work!). The article “The Emergence of Benefit-driven Production” by Von Christian Siefkes is very much indicative of this intellectual tendency, which is utopian and best, and dishonest at worst.

Christian Siefkes combines the work of thinkers as various as Yochai Benkler and Nick Dyer-Witheford in describing how open-source “benefit-driven production” heralds the coming of commonism. The article is interesting, but suffers from the romanticism characteristic of autonomist writing, it lacks a serious analysis both of how the political economy of open-source actually functions, and the limitations of the open-source model in showing the way towards a socialist future. The author very much plays down the important role played by (often corporate sponsored) foundations in the open-source community, and fails to make the vital distinction between the production of public goods, versus that of private goods. It is certainly true that “benefit-driven” production has been an amazing progressive development, and that volunteer work is an integral part of this production system, but the author avoids a proper materialist analysis of open-source production.

A great deal of production of free and open software is done in the producers’ “free time.” Recognizing this fact naturally leads one to ask what these producers are doing in their “unfree time” in order to gain the material use-values of food and shelter which “benefit-driven production” does not provide. The answer is by and large that they are working as wage slaves in the capitalist system producing something else. The only way that the production of free and open software can secure the necessities of life for the producer is if they are “sponsored” in their work by donors (either in the form of individual donors or foundations).

I believe it is fair to say that Linux and all its associated software would not be in the position it is today without the work of paid producers who “anchor” the work of unpaid contributors and help to provide a general direction to their “stigmergy.” This paid work would in turn not have happened without the monetary contributions of IBM, Novell, Red Hat, Oracle, Google, Nokia, Canonical, etc.

For example Ubuntu has become the most popular Linux distribution since its launch 8 years ago. This is largely seen to be the case because of A) its user-friendly orientation and B) its steady funding. Prior to the creation of Ubuntu the notion of creating a user-friendly Linux was often looked upon with outright hostility by elitist members of the Linux community, who argued that it would “encourage stupidity.” This accusation is still often leveled at Ubuntu despite its successes in spreading the use of free and open software. “Stigmergy” was not predisposed to creating a democratic form of Linux. This only occurred after the creation of a well-funded project with a definite direction.

Ubuntu is not the only such example. The popular GNOME, Unity, and KDE desktops, the GTK project, the LibreOffice project and many more fall into this pattern. Even the development of the Linux kernel itself receives corporate support!

This is not to say that “benefit-driven production” requires corporate funding. There is nothing in its structure to suggest that, as the foundations that drive its development often operate at “arm’s length” from their corporate sponsors. The funding could just as easily come from “the associated producers” and this is what truly indicates the progressive character of the “benefit-driven production” model. The current system of free and open software production should be subjected to a critique of its actual political economy, and not romanticized with rose-coloured boosterism that ignores its fundamental contradictions and injustices.

We should not celebrate the fact that the majority of contributors to the development of open-source projects cannot receive the essentials they need to reproduce themselves from their work. Contributions to open-source are not wage labour, but they are still an unsatisfactory solution to the problem of wage labour. The fundamental problems of building socialism remain real problems, and cannot be wished away.”

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