Book of the Week: Hacking Capitalism. Part One: presentation

Book: Johan Söderberg. Hacking Capitalism: The Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Movement. Routledge, 2007

We expressed our enthusiasm for this book before, so we would like to present it more formally here.

Below is the short description, followed by the chapter by chapter outline.

Short description:

“The Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement demonstrates how labour can self-organise production, and, as is shown by the free operating system GNU/Linux, even compete with some of the worlds largest firms. The book examines the hopes of such thinkers as Friedrich Schiller, Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse and Antonio Negri, in the light of the recent achievements of the hacker movement. This book is the first to examine a different kind of political activism that consists in the development of technology from below.”

Chapter by chapter outline:

Johan Soderbergh:

“The first chapter starts out with providing a background dossier on the struggle of hackers. This is necessary since the public only has previous knowledge of hackers from the biased reporting in mainstream media. But it would be foolish to try to sum up in print a field which changes so fast. The aim is therefore not to ‘provide the dots’ but to ‘draw the lines’. Those lines run alongside two hundred years of labour struggle. With this perspective, the story of the hacker movement comes out very differently from how voices within the FOSS community present themselves. In particular, we must be more provisional when assessing the outcome of their endeavours. FOSS licenses might strengthen the position of labour by fostering open standards and free access to software tools. Capital’s strategy of Taylorism is set back by such computer architecture. It is equally possible, however, that alternative development models involving volunteer labour are in alignment with a restructured, post-Fordist production process. An unfortunate side effect of free and open licenses might then be intensified exploitation of waged and voluntary labour. Some clues can be found by analysing FOSS business models with Marxist theory.

In the next chapter, the focus on the hacker movement is broadened, both theoretically and historically. Notions about the information age, which many hackers tend to draw from when conceptualising Internet-related issues, are contrasted with Marxist theory. It is argued that post-Fordist restructuring of the labour market provides a better backdrop against which we can assess the role of computer networks and digitalisation. This perspective calls into question many of the assumptions held in the computer underground, for instance, the willingness to attribute historical change to technology and the unique properties ascribed to information. Against those beliefs, it is contended that digitalisation originates in the antagonistic relation between labour and capital. Infinite reproducibility of digital information means the same thing as infinitely redundant labour. With a simple ‘copy-and-paste’, a given amount of objectified labour is instantly duplicated. Marxist theory suggests that this extreme form of automation in the computer sector forces capital to exploit living labour elsewhere in the economy. In the chapter it is proposed that the users have become a major source of surplus labour for capital. The enrolment of FOSS communities by corporations is part of a more general pattern in post-Fordist capitalism where audiences and users are ‘put to work’.

The third chapter is concerned with the commodification of information, and, more to the point, the commodification of the labourers producing information. In the final analysis it is the freedom of living labour, not the freedom of information, which is our concern. Commodification of labour occurs when a subjectivity of individual authorship is fixated over the labour process. In his function as an author the individual puts his efforts into producing commodities for a market. But the fixation of individual authorship is constantly challenged. In mainstream media the violations against intellectual property on the Internet are typically framed as a consumer revolt. With this interpretation the main issue becomes the price of information content. We will argue that the surge of filesharing networks is part of a more radical upheaval. Defiance against copyright law, the advancement of an open technological platform, and the assertion of the right to share information freely, are rejections of the commodity form as such. The individual author is under threat to be dissolved into the anonymous, ambulant, and playful authorship of user collectives.

Chapter four moves on to look at hacking from the perspective of consumption and satisfaction of needs. The hacker movement, like other subcultures, is intimately related to the surge of a consumer-driven capitalism. It is argued that, on one hand, the provision of material needs has enabled people to engage in hacking, and, on the other hand, people are motivated to do so because of the dearth of non-material needs in consumer society. Boredom with commodity relations, both in work and in consumption, is the driving force. It is the motto ”not bored” that points beyond the endless game of conspicuous and semiotic consumption. A categorical renunciation of consumer society will not do, however, since the resistance draws its resources from the same society. Without markets in consumer electronics there would not be a hacker movement. Parallels can be drawn between hacking and the subversion of commercial messages and goods by consumers. Studies of consumer resistance are often associated with the tradition of cultural studies. Labour theoreticians have reproached the cultural studies’ discipline for making too much out of the rebellion by consumers. They rightly insist that a serious challenge against capitalism can only be mounted from inside pro duction. Our argument here is that interesting things start to happen when consumer goods are taken by users as the departing point of a new cycle of production. Crucially, this cycle of consumption-production is disjointed from capitalist circulation. User-centred production models stand a good chance of outdoing markets in the provision of social needs. The reason is simple; it was the failure of markets in satisfying those needs that motivated users to side-step market relations in the first place.

Thus we are led over to the topic of the fifth chapter, production. The case is made that the success of the FOSS development model over proprietary software development is an important cursor. It tells us about the inadequacy of capitalist relations in organising labour in the information sector. The justifications for property-based research find little support in economic history, it is contradicted by empirical data, and it cannot even be convincingly argued in theory. The shortcomings of the proprietary development model translate into advantages for user-centred innovation models based on less strict license schemes. A paradoxical series of events have brought about user empowerment. We trace it to the termination of craft skills inside the capitalist production process. Deskilling of employees has come full circle with the reskilling of non-employees. Tools and skills are cheapened and spread from the capitalist production site to the whole of society. Arguably, the means of production are being re-appropriated by the proletariat in this way. It should be kept in mind, however, that user-centred innovation models are enrolled in capital’s valorisation process. Capital might have lost its monopoly over the means of software production, but it has other methods to discipline the ‘user force’. It can rely on its control over circulation, and, if worst comes to the worst, fall back on the state.

The sixth chapter approaches hacking from the perspective of circulation. Our discussion connects back to the century-old dispute between market liberals and state socialists on the most efficient method for distributing resources in society. The advent of filesharing networks has actualised the question if there could be a third way of allocating information resources, different from both markets in information and state planning. That model might be called an information commons, or, what amounts to the same thing, a high-tech, anarchistic gift economy. Hackers have borrowed the concept of a gift economy from anthropology in order to describe the economic activities in the computer underground. It goes without saying that gift economies in tribal societies and the giving of information on the Internet are essentially different. On closer inspection, we will find that filesharing networks are hybrids that combine the impersonality of market exchange with the non-coerciveness of gift giving. It is thus we can envision a third method for allocating resources that lies beyond both markets and planning.

The final chapter returns to the core argument of the book, that hacking is a showcase of play struggle. This struggle is at its heart a reaction against alienation. However, the resistance of hackers looks nothing like the kind of struggle we know from industrial conflicts. Instead of confronting the wage relation heads on, in strikes, sabotages etc., it attacks alienated labour by circumventing it. A different labour relation is being invented in the play of FOSS developers. The Utopian hopes of Friedrich Schiller and Herbert Marcuse are accentuated with the current development in the computer underground. The chapter reviews scholarly definitions of play, and calls attention to ludic forms of resistance against the factory discipline previously in history. The triviality commonly associated with play is owing to the fact that the activity is non-instrumental. In contrast, the development of technology is archetypical of instrumentality. The hacker movement has submitted the development of computer technology under a model determined by the play-drive. That can hardly be called trivial.”

1 Comment Book of the Week: Hacking Capitalism. Part One: presentation

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