The class structure of peer production

Readers may remember my own take on the lines of tension and class structures in the social web and peer production generally, which appeared in Re-public. I have a page monitoring various ‘class theories’ here, and they are also monitored through a tag in Delicious.

Here is another interesting take, from the same essay by Graham Seaman that we mentioned two days ago, which focuses on the social groups within the free software programming community:

Graham Seaman:

“Free software producers cannot live on their own produce. Until the free software economy has spread to more areas, they need money to survive, and only a very small proportion currently make this money by producing free software. Grouped by source of income, the three main categories of free software producer are student, employee, and self-employed, with a smaller category of people supported by various other means: unemployment benefits, inherited money, etc. The FLOSS survey showed 65% of respondents to be employees, 14% self-employed, 17% students, and 4% not working. This is a very high proportion of the self-employed; as a proportion of the total employed respondents, it is nearly 19%. This compares with a general rate of self-employment in the US of 8.6% in 1997, and 12.6% in the UK in 1999. On the other hand, in proportion to the population as a whole the percentage of students is also high; what is not known from the FLOSS data is what percentage of those categorized as ’employees’ are in the university or state sectors or in the private sector. The FLOSS data certainly includes information which would provide support or disconfirmation for other aspects discussed in this section, but that data has not yet been released.

The three primary groups within free software development, arranged by source of income, would therefore be the self-employed and workers in small businesses; university and other state employees and students; and employees of larger companies. All three categories are likely to include at least some who develop free software at work, as well as in their own time. Further, at least two of the categories are quite permeable: in general, it is well known that self-employment has a negative correlation with unemployment levels, and many software developers move between employed and self-employed status at different times, depending in part on the state of the economy.

These three primary groups provide a possible explanation for some of the ideological differences among free software developers. Historically the first (pre-FSF) free software came from the universities (Spice, TeX, Colossal Cavern, etc) in the 1970s; and the FSF itself has always been strongly linked with MIT. Ideologies linked with this group (and state employees in general) are likely to be linked to support for state funding, education, and an emphasis on social justice. Given the length of state-funded education in Europe, these ideas may be more prevalent among Europe developers than in the US (perhaps reflected in the FLOSS survey’s massive preference for Debian as distribution of choice; a result which would have seemed far more surprising in a purely US survey). The left form of this set of ideas is not so far from the ideas of traditional left parties, or newer parties like the Brazilian Worker’s Party.

Large-scale self-employment in software really only became possible in the late 1980s and 1990s. Ideologies linked with this group are likely to be linked to freedom from state interference (and taxes in particular); in the US this has taken the form of Libertarian Capitalism – in many ways ideas that go back to the Levellers themselves. The left form of this set of ideas is strongly linked with anarchism; the independent shoemakers and cobblers who formed much of the core of Proudhonism in the 19th century being the classic example.

Though these two groups have major differences in themselves, as free software developers they have as much in common as they have separating them. The idea of ‘freedom’ as the overriding principle behind free software is a unifying factor, though in practice it may well be interpreted in different ways by the two groups.

The newest element comes from those involved in free software from within traditional companies, or employees of larger firms. This group are generally less likely to be ideologically motivated, and to emphasize the importance of quality of software rather than freedom.

Actual free software projects usually cut across the boundaries of each of these groups; as programmers, the economic situation of each participant may be irrelevant. Effectively, free software is based on an alliance of the three groups held together by the act of programming itself. And this is the core of the real washing-machine question: can such an alliance not only hold together but also expand to include other groups, groups who may not have any interest in programming itself?”

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