Free software and digital capitalism

- Politique

Recently, I've been doing a little research on the relationship between the free software movement and digital capitalism. I'm trying to find thoughts and practices of computer programming/construction that don't directly or indirectly participate in capital accumulation. It's pretty hard to find stuff, but I was lucky enough to come across an article few days ago that offers a great Marxian analysis of digital capitalism. Amongst the points discussed, one in particular interested me: why do the big digital companies invest so much in open source and free software?

Today, it is quite common to see large digital companies investing in open source, or even opening the source code of their products and libraries themselves. However, this has not always been the case. We remember, for example, Microsoft's very aggressive rejection of the free software movement, comparing its practices to "communism". For a long time, it was out of the question for companies to open their source code. It was even less likely to let anyone do anything with that same source code.

But all that has changed, notably thanks to the advent of the free software movement and the development of innovative programs that are now present in almost all our machines. I'm thinking in particular of the linux kernel which now equips more than half of the world's phones (Android uses the linux kernel), but also of software such as Mozilla Firefox, Libre Office or VLC, without forgetting the thousands of small utilities hidden in our machines and in the programs of our machines which are all distributed under a free license.

In short, there came a time when the open source movement became so important that it became much more practical for large digital companies to simply extend/reuse the development of this software to improve their own products and services. Worse, some even realised that it was in their interest to deliberately share the source code of their products from the start. There are now companies - such as Red Hat - that specialise in developing free software.

To explain this convergence of interests (which benefits companies much more than small developers), the economist Serhat Koloğlugil proposes to renew the Marxian analysis framework by adapting it to the digital economy, which he considers as "post-industrial". Considering that Marx's Capital dealt with a particular capitalism - industrial - that no longer corresponds to the one that structures the digital economy, Koloğlugil proposes a new way of explaining capital accumulation in the digital age by focusing on the concepts of "general intellect" and "immaterial labour".

I'll go very quickly over these two notions, firstly because I want to talk about other things, but also because I would be unable to go into the details of the debates surrounding them. What I can say is that in the first instance, the transition from industrial capitalism to post-industrial capitalism in our Western societies has led to a mutation in the nature of production labour. Today, "as the industrial division of labour dissolves, capital aims to appropriate more and more the intellectual, cognitive, communicative, and cooperative abilities of (immaterial) human labour".

Yet this transformation of labour is not without consequences for the conditions under which it is performed. The particularity of immaterial labour, Koloğlugil explains, is that it has an important tendency to self-organise and to create cooperations that exist and persist outside the logic of capital. Thus, the transition to immaterial labour also means the emergence of "the collective intelligence that arises spontaneously from within the network of cooperation constituted by immaterial labour" and that acts as a "productive force that is inseparable [from these networks] (...), and [which] can potentially exist and operate independently of capital".

To sum up, the overcoming of the industrial character of capitalism has led to a mutation in the nature of productive labour. The latter has been dematerialised, finally allowing capitalism to capture surplus value from the production of information, services, communication and cultural products. And in this post-industrial capitalism, we find the whole digital sphere which is structured around a digital capitalism.

We have thus just seen above that the digital economy - as post-industrial capitalism - has a significant particularity: it incorporates within it important networks of cooperation in which is carried out immaterial production of information and knowledge essentially based on sharing. At this stage of the presentation, it is legitimate (like Koloğlugil, what a surprise) to ask where capital can intervene in this story? Capitalism is hegemonic in the world, it is simply impossible for it to spare the digital sphere. We can ask the question in another way: if the internet is just a big network of sharing and cooperation, how can Google and Facebook make so much money?

For Koloğlugil, this contradiction is resolved through a new relationship specific to the digital economy between capital and labor. Thus, "capital in the digital economy is aimed not at the surplus value created by abstract human labor, as Marx theorised in his analysis of industrial market capitalism, but at the abstract intelligence generated by the collectivity of immaterial labor". He goes on to point out that this transformation also means a completely different relationship between capital and labour: the profit characteristic of the digital economy is now based on "abstract knowledge rather than abstract labour".

This significant change therefore forces capitalism to develop strategies to both allow the "general intellect" to flourish freely (by enabling the development of an "online community within a culture of sharing") and at the same time to be able to maintain control over this community in order to enable its integration into the capitalist economy. The purpose of this integration is of course to allow the creation of profit and ultimately the accumulation of capital. We know these strategies, they are the business models of any big tech company.

The first of these strategies is the one that, in my opinion, thumbs its legendary nose at the free software movement. It is for capital to rely on an "innovative and productive network of peer producers who organise themselves independently outside capitalist production relations". This support can take different forms and depends on the objectives and position of the company in the digital industry. For example, there are all those companies that invest in free and open source software in order to benefit from their quality, user and contributor base, and then offer proprietary software based on those same free projects.

Koloğlugil give as an example IBM, which invests in GNU/Linux and then offers proprietary software that runs on servers... GNU/Linux. But we can also give as an example Google, which also invested in GNU/Linux by developing the free distribution Android. Today, Android powers more than half of the world's mobile phones, but there is not much free software left in the phones marketed under Android. By coordinating the development of the AOSP project, Google has been able to take advantage of the voluntary contributions to the project while allowing the operating system to complement, or even depend on, its own proprietary and commercial products. Try using Android without the Google overlay: good luck.

The second strategy is to build centralised and proprietary platforms where users "create and co-create digital use values". By digital use values, we mean information, media, resources, in short anything that calls for exchange and sharing. On social networks, profit is thus born from the exchange of millions of hours of immaterial labour (likes, scrolls, subscriptions, clicks, comments) for advertising targeting revenues. Moreover, the creation and co-creation of digital usage values also makes it possible to increase the attractiveness of the platform, and thus its hegemony in the digital space and - as a result - its monopoly on its own economic market.

It is this second strategy that characterises the business model of social networks and other web platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Of course, these two strategies can totally coexist. For example, the companies I have just mentioned have their own program to support open source and/or free development. Not only do their products benefit from past development of FLOSS layers, but also their libraries and programs are mostly shared under FLOSS licenses. This allows them to benefit from community support while retaining the assurance that only a substantial investment in business and technical infrastructure - which only they are capable of acquiring - actually leads to an increase in capital.

It is therefore time to make the bitter observation that the free software movement has not been able to defend itself strongly enough against the cleverness of capital. Or perhaps the movement didn't care? After all, the software movement was not based on a materialist analysis of capitalist relations of production, nor even on a simple critical analysis of capitalism. In the end, from the beginning it was nothing more than an individualising and liberal philosophical posture of a 'free' programming ideal.

As a reminder, the free software movement aims to respect four simple fundamental rights from which the entire movement must develop:

The consequence of these four rules is that today, the movement only concentrates on two defence strategies: the free license and the « free » morality. As for the licence, history has shown that it has not prevented any ethical or economic drift of the big digital companies (cf. the whole presentation above). As for morality, it is naive to think that presenting the right arguments to the greatest number of people will revolutionise digital practices. We are talking about capitalism here, and only a material balance of power can combat it. It is still and always a class struggle: ours, humble cybernetic proletarians, facing the goliaths of the digital world, real machines that crush our private lives, our freedoms and our minds.program

It can also be assumed that the free software movement has never sought to oppose capitalism. After all, it borrows its liberal vision of freedom. There is a striking resemblance between the philosophy of the free mouvement and libertarianism. Freedom to act as one wishes, to distribute (for free or by sale) what one wants, with the aim of guaranteeing the free choice of digital agents in the use of their programs, but also a free competition between programs in order to keep only the most "qualitative" ones. Added to this is the pre-eminence of the individual, the keystone of collective happiness (and not the defence of the interests of the collective, the keystone of individual emancipation).

The free software movement could have understood digital technology not as a social space in itself, but as an extension of social relations and thus of its structures of political, social and economic inequalities.  It could have considered that the support of companies was not an innocent complicity with their philosophical ideal, but an economic strategy serving their own interests. It could have considered the issues of technical and physical infrastructures, their concentration, centralisation and connection, and not exclusively those related to software.

This failure is not only leading to alienation from digital tools and increased profits for digital companies. It also cuts us off from incredible ways of using our machines. For example, it is because of the need to centralise user interactions in one controllable place that platform capitalism has made the client-server model the norm compared to the peer-to-peer model. The internet is not meant to be used in such a non-centralised way. We understood it well when Facebook crashed during a whole day. I don't have enough technical skill and imagination to understand what or digital practices could look like outside of capitalist logics, but if I know one thing about this economic system, it's that the pursuit of profit always limits human emancipation.

Perhaps it would be good to invent a digital world that carries within it a strong resistance to capitalism. This will be the subject of a future blog post about the possible overcoming of the free movement in the struggle for a real socialist digital transformation.