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Open source and exodus through the commons

Through history, capitalism has gone through different cycles in each of which workers have found ways to resist and revolt, and in response to this resistance capital has been forced into crises. The crises have resulted in a restructuring – a move to new forms of production and exploitation, allowing for yet new forms of worker resistance, creating another cycle. The thesis of this musing is that we are approaching another such moment of crisis. The purpose of the musing is to go from a theoretical understanding of the nature of the crisis to political action.


Signs of the Coming Storm

There are a number of signs of the coming crisis, many of which are in the forms of contradictions and increasingly obvious inefficiencies in the capitalist production system.

It is quite clear that the production today is not rational in almost any sense. If one were to define rationality in the context of production, a reasonable first stab would be to state that production should be organized so that it efficiently provides food, shelter and maximal happiness to the world population given a finite amount of natural resources while minimizing the amount of human labor. However, the current mode of production seems to be efficient achieving the exact opposite, producing products that are not only different from what the users need and want (for a lengthy discussion on the distinction between false and true needs and wants, see Roland Paulsen, 2010, Arbetssamhället), but also often socially, and sometimes even physically, harmful to their users, as they are sold by exploiting people’s social worries and anxieties. It seems that it would be difficult to create an alternative system of less efficiency. The relevance of the efficiency of the production system for enabling societal change, will later be argued for, thus going back to a discussion among early socialists. The purpose of this section is to show how capitalism is undermining its own efficiency, thus opening up possibilities for the introduction of alternatives.

In a time when the human labor has become more superfluous than ever before, mankind has become more adapted to work than ever. New technology has enabled to multiply the efficiency of human work multi-fold – what took days and twenty workers to produce in the 19thcentury can today, with the help of modern technology, be produced by a single person in the matter of just a few hours. However, instead of representing the triumph of the human kind, this efficiency, transformed and twisted by capitalist owner relations, has instead become a curse. (This and the following three paragraphs are in part based on discussions from Arbetssamhälletby Roland Paulsen.)

This curse can be seen in many different aspects of production. One central such aspects is how the production today is to large extents based on creating new needs. According to some studies, up to a third of the work today goes into creating new needs to be filled by new products. More than leading to production of unnecessary artifacts, studies show that this has catastrophic social and emotional side-effects, since much of the advertisement is based on using, and thus increasing, social insecurities (The Spirit Level by Pitckett and Wilkinson discusses this in more detail).

However, the irrationality of the current production systems does not exclude itself to the creation of false needs, but are also evident in the design and production of these unnecessary artifacts. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the industry research in timed death of artifacts, where the quality of products is reduced in such a way that the product breaks after a certain time. In that way, consumers are forced to buy a new product and the company income is guaranteed. Selling a product that never breaks is for obvious reasons not a good idea if ones goal is to maximize profits. While this is rational from the perspective of the maximization of company profits, it shows both how the production of artifacts is not democratic, in the sense that consumers cannot get what they want from the market, and it also illustrates the irrationality of the current production system when seen from the perspective of minimizing the use of natural resources and human labor.

Furthermore, the labor of the modern middle-class put into production is often empty, in the sense that the tasks are too few to fill the day, and that the employment rather motivated by other factors. Different mechanisms uphold this emptiness, which in practice reduces work to the task of being confined to a certain space during a certain time and covering up the fact that one actually has nothing to do. Offices thus become meaningless prisons, illustrations of the ultimate alienation from the goods produced; it could never be more obvious that one’s work is meaningless than when it only consists of waiting.

This inefficiency of capitalism is becoming more and more obvious as the development continues along the current capitalistic production cycle. The contemporary production is to higher and higher degree dominated by immaterial goods, and living labor must be deployed to produce this perpetual stream of novelty, meaning, affects and context. This innovation or construction of meaning requires the cognitive and analytical efforts of living labor, and thus personal engagement, something that labor theoreticians and management consultants have concluded that Fordism and Taylorism lay waste to. This has forced the production into a retreat to a new management paradigm, which wasby the French Regulation School dubbed post-fordism. In the post-fordist approaches the goal is not to directly, by force and authority, make workers produce, but instead to motivate workers by making them internalize the interests of the company. Thus the carrot of Human-Resource Management and the clichés about teamwork have replaced the old taylorist whip. But behind this new human face of capitalism, of course, remains Moloch, with as little regard for human life as ever.

And it seems workers can sense this presence, as they are often not as easily fooled by the pretty words as management has hoped. In Consumption and Identity at Work, Paul du Gay studies this in retailing, concluding that workers often resist the internalization of corporate values, and instead, turn to e.g. cynicism. This has in turn resulted in the start of yet another capitalist retreat, and yet another step in the current capitalist cycle, as companies now turn to consumers to act as their workforce, often making them act as representatives and sellers, which is clearly illustrated by the Amazon book recommendation system. This post-fordistic tendency is an important part of explaining the current reduction of the gap between consumers and producers, e.g. illustrated by the new term prosumer. (However, as will be discussed later, this retreat may be part of a tendency that undermines the very foundation of the capitalist system.)

That this increased focus worker control and autonomy is only a façade can be seen in that other developments in capitalistic society goes in an opposite direction, as a result of other factors. One central such factor is the general tendency toward increasing abstraction and liquidity of the production as well as of what is being produced. This can today be seen in the computation, information and thus the means of immaterial production are moved into a cloud, and made abstract and liquid, and 3D-printers bring the same liquidity to hardware, foretelling a future where the differences between software and hardware are dissolved. At the same time work is becoming more liquid and abstract, precariousness allows capitalists to call in human labor from the labor market the same way that computation is called from the cloud.

One central motivating factor for this liquidity in the context of the workforce is that it has broken down the traditional forms of collective labor organization. The increased precariousness has made impossible the organized labor movements of the past, the ostensible success of which seem to be just a short parenthesis in the historical development. In practice, this takes the form of workers being forced to move to jobs, having multiple jobs and wait by the telephone each morning, in the hope of getting called in. In many ways, this represents a transition to the type of work organization which in its most extreme form could be seen in the American migratory worker, the hobos, of the 19th and early 20th century – the fluid workforce that was central to enabling the quick expansion of the American economy. Today this form of labor organization is becoming the norm, but despite of this, the precarious workers are still being seen as outside or alienated from society, while they should rather be seen as in the center of the contemporary societal development – right under the shoe sole of capitalist production.

However, while this increased flexibility is seen as necessary to increase profit margins and undermine workers’ collective organization, it is also in the opposite direction of the post-fordist ambition of worker autonomy, and thus destructive for labor efficiency in knowledge production. The increased precariousness and the post-fordist organization of work dissolves the boundary between work and non-work time, requiring workers to constantly be prepared and available, but in immaterial labor, it has become obvious that autonomous workers that are allowed control of their work environment are the most efficient. This goes in direct contradiction to the development toward increased precariousness, which strips workers of the control over their own time. (Of course, it can be argued that in more qualified work, the precariatization has not been as strong because of the weaker competition between workers for these positions. Such qualified work, however, represents only a small and ever-fleeing fraction. A more thorough discussion on the qualified white-collar work and its relation to technological development and post-fordism is saved for another musing.)

Furthermore, the move to an individualized and liquidized labor market opens up new forms of resistance and organization, perhaps with greater hope of constructive revolutionary change than the labor movements ever had, since it is dubious whether improvements in working conditions and pay raises could ever come near an emancipation of labor. It seems likely that unions are too deeply entrenched in wage relations to be able to be revolutionary – to organize effectively, unions needed to internalize the factory discipline that contributed to cementing work ethic and the repression of spontaneous resistance, in practice perpetuating the wage relations. (This has been the topic of a rather large theoretical debate. See e.g. Gorz Critique of Economic Reason: Summary for Trade Unionists and Other Left Activists)

Another factor that makes the capitalist mode of production increasingly inefficient for the immaterial forms of production is the privatization and destruction of the commons that is inherent to the contemporary neoliberal capitalism. This can clearly be seen in the contemporary dismantling of public education, patent and copyright wars surging over the hills of innovation and knowledge production. However, this reveals yet another paradox. Scientific and knowledge production can only be cumulative if it is open and accessible to the scientific community, and if mechanisms exist allowing the cooperation between research groups. This type of knowledge production is only possible when built on commons. Thus, the development toward immaterial production breaks the traditional capitalist assumption of private property, which are now paradoxically contrary to the efficiency of production. Of course, this is not an entirely new phenomenon, the contradiction between the social nature of production and the private nature of accumulation has been criticized since Marx, but the paradox is dramatically intensified through development towards immaterial production. This implies a change in the production, in the opposite direction of private property and the modus operandi of capitalist production, towards the recreation of commons, something that has also been suggested by some papers (e.g. research in Open Innovation and Open Source Innovation, see e.g. Pénin, 2008, Open Source Innovation).

To conclude, the development toward immaterial production has emphasized the role of the commons in production, both as basis and product. It has also increased the extent to which the capacity of people is much greater than what they do at work. This enables new forms of organization, which are building the alternatives without ever leaving the system. While it is important to realize that individual capitalist enterprises are fully compatible with the existence of commons and that it can even be advantageous for their profit margins, this can still be incommensurable with capitalism as a whole.

Exodus Inside the Belly of the Beast

These developments have enabled new forms of resistance, based on the necessity of building alternatives inside the frame of the capitalist system. This takes the form of building new institutions and platforms for collaboration, based on and building on the commons, which Hardt and Negri , in Common Wealth, characterize as a form of exodus “while staying right where we are”. By building such institutions, we can “pursue a line of flight while staying right here, by transforming the relations of production and mode of social organization under which we live”.

In pre-capitalist societies, power was based on the direct personal relationship between the subject and the object. For example, in slave societies, the ruled were seen as property of the rulers, and the refusal to work as always an act of personal rebellion against one’s owner – an act punishable by that owner. In capital societies, the power is not based on a direct ownership, but it is the ownership over work and its products. Thus, since people are not directly owned, they can easily refuse to work for others and not risk any direct punishment. However, such a punishment comes indirectly, in the form of being cut off from the means of survival.

The possibilities laid open by the increasingly obvious inadequacies of capitalism is building up possibilities for change, however what is needed is something that can align the alternatives, and enable them to form a coherent project for change. These project do not only live of the commons, they also reproduce and spread the commons, opening them up once again for production – they are based on the access to the means of production, and they grant further access to these means. To in this way seize control of the means of production is the basis of any movement away from capital, and what enables the possibility of an exodus.

To achieve long-term organization, it is necessary for the alternatives to form meta-structures that enable the selection of optimal strategies and forms of organization, and to further develop the organizational structures. Something that can be argued to have been the underlying cause of the failure of many previous attempts.

Socialism, capitalism and alternatives

The traditional alternative to the capitalist mode of production has been socialism, seen as a way to organize production different from that of capitalist societies. Trotsky and Lenin were skeptical of the idea of the spontaneous organization of the masses, arguing that the revolution of the masses required revolutionary leadership claiming the responsibility of planning and controlling the mass. Whether this was true during their time is a debatable question, but it seems plausible that it need not be true today.

In all relevant regards, capitalism and Soviet socialism where twosides of the same coin – the coin being top-down management, control and alienation – something which was made obvious by Lenin’s love for Taylorist organization of labor in factories. While state control and regulation can certainly help to reduce the velocity of our plunge toward environmental degradation and societal collapse, it will hardly solve the core issue.

As Holloway (2002, Twelve Theses on Changing the World without taking Power) argues, the failure of radical socialist governments was not individual betrayals, but the symptom of an underlying problem. The underlying reason that the state cannot be used to bring about radical change is that the state itself is a form of social relations that is embedded in the capitalist social relations. In fact, the very fact that the state exists as an entity separated from society means that it takes active part in the process of separating people from control of their own lives.

According to Holloway, revolutionary movements inspired by Marxism have always been aware of the capitalist nature of the state, but their instrumental view of the state have convinced them that it is not necessarily so. The state is seen as a tool, one that is currently wielded by the capital, but that the working class can take from the hands of capital and use for their emancipation. However, this perspective separates the state from the socio-technical web of power of which it is part, and underestimates the integration of the state into capitalism something that has proven to have dire consequences.

What is needed is instead a process and organizational structure that enables collective decision making, placing the control in the hands of the masses rather than in somewhere above them. The productivity of local organization in social networks needs to be united in global institutions – institutional structures that should not negate or suppress the social revolt, but rather develop it. These institutions might be seen as to sail between Charybdis and Scylla – with hierarchical authorities on one side, and chaos on the other. But the possibility of this type of decentralized organization is becoming clearer through the contemporary organization of immaterial production, where bosses are seen as an impediment to getting things done, rather than a necessity. The post-fordist forms of work organization, focusing on creating structures and processes for the bottom-up emergence of efficient production, illustrates a possible path forward in creating decentralized democratic organizations. They are also illustrated in the ideas of governance popular in contemporary politics (perhaps especially the EU), although the talk of governance is often an alibi giving the process a false air of democracy, they do illustrate the possibility of decentralized governance through autonomous networks with horizontal communication. This could thus be seen as an appropriation of the concept of governance, subverting its imperial vocation, and reformulating it as a concept of true democracy.

The transition to this organization cannot be based on the whims of a temporary centralized organization – the failure of this solution has already been thoroughly illustrated – but must be made through democratic means. The revolutionary change must be made through and with an institutional process of transformation, with structures that is based on democratic decision-making.

Since immaterial production is more efficient when based on commons than when based privates, and capitalist management are having increasing difficulties integrating labor within its ruling structures, a reclaim and decentralized expropriation of the commons is made possible inside capitalism. This is in practice a form of revolutionary reform – a reform that is fundamentally incompatible with the system, thus causing revolutionary change. Through a continuous accumulation of the commons, pursued and aided by the interest of individual capitalists, capital digs its own grave. Once the commons reaches a certain threshold “the multitude will emerge with the ability autonomously to rule common wealth” (Hardt & Negri, Common Wealth).


This part of the musing will try to walk down the stairs of the ivory tower of theory, abandoning the luxury of a panoramic overview for the dusty ground of action in the hic et nunc, with the goal of answering the fundamental question: what can we do today?

The running argument here is that open source is a practical example of the theoretical ideas discussed above – it is based on the common and extends the common. The fundamental questions in this discussion will be: can the viral nature of the techniques and ideas of open source be generalized to other forms of economic activities than software development?

First, however, we need to better define this concept. Open source is a phenomenon that emerged in a community, and it is thus associated with many different properties, none of which is necessarily part of a given open source project. As a term, it is thus quite impractical. The following list illustrates a number of properties with which the term open source is related.

Access to code: The code or description needed to make changes to the artifact is open and accessible, and possible to change and adapt.

Licensing: The licensing of the artifact is such that it is legally allowed to make changes to the product and redistribute those changes. Furthermore, the license can often force any changes made to the product to be made public.

Organization of work and a development methodology:The development of the artifact is often performed in decentralized groups, allowing anyone to contribute in some way. While the groups sometimes have a leader, who can take decisions on certain occasions, the organization is generally democratically organized and decisions are made through voting. Furthermore, the possibility of forking (i.e. splitting the project group into two) the project undermines any attempt at creating a repressive dictatorship.

Business models: Commercial companies often use open source to lower their costs and draw different advantages. The requirements on the code being freely available and legal to makes traditional software business models difficult to uphold, and open source is thus associated with a set of different business models.

A Culture and Community: Open source is also associated with a certain culture, sometimes referred to as the hacker culture. This culture has a strong heritage in the American New Left of the 70′s, and is generally characterized by e.g. a strong interest in tinkering and understanding technology, anti-corporate, pro-privacy and so on.

Open Source – unalienated work organization in the commons
It seems clear that open source fulfills the requirements of both being based on the commons and extending the commons, through that software and algorithms are the means of production, and they are also part of what is being produced (computers are an obvious prerequisite to participate in this production, but in the western world, they are ubiquitous enough for this not to be problematic). With information as part of the common, the capitalistic problem of the contradiction between private property and social production is resolved.

Open source also returns the control of production to the workers, and can perhaps provide a possible way out of the alienation of labor. This mode of production once again dissolves the boundary between work and play. A boundary which, once labor theory is consulted, is found to be a historical parenthesis, as agrarian society mingled work with playfulness and the separation between work and play was introduced first with the industrialization. The reason for this change was that play was seen as source of unrest, since for example carnivals were often associated with political uprisings. Because of this, the upper class worked against this type of playful activities, attempting to replace them with commercial entertainment.

While definitions of unalienated work are hard to come by, for example Marx was famously uninterested in defining this; such definitions generally come in the form of control over work and work conditions. Herbert Marcuse argued that non-alienated work may be similar to play or art. In play, the production process is guided by aesthetic principles.

Open source production is quite similar to the type of play production represented in the pottering about in one’s garden, but with the productive efficiency of open source being greater that of the corresponding production under capital, through the processes discussed in the theoretical section. At the same time, the post-fordist tendencies in capitalist production takes this form of work closer to this type of playfulness, leading to that the demarcation line between emancipating play and alienated labor is no longer in any way straightforward. It is true that the production of ones food through collaborative play production and ones software through open source development would to be compatible with the framework of capitalism. However, the central question is that the frame would have a hard time to remain standing if all production was done in this way.

In short, open source play production seems highly compatible with Marx’s characterization of unalienated work:

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

Generalizing Open Source

A central issue with the possibilities of open source is that it has to a large extent been restricted to software. While the distinction between the online world and reality can be criticized (Söderberg, 2009[DL1] , Hacking Capitalism: The Free and Open Source (FOSS) Movement), it remains the case that this limits the implications for the hungry farmer in Bangladesh, who is unlikely to see any hope of change in the protagonist programmer’s rather abstract activities.

There have been multiple attempts to generalize different aspects of open source to other sectors. For example, as previously mentioned, research in Open Innovation and Open Source Innovation (see e.g. Pénin 2008,Open Source Innovation) represents the business idea that companies should pool their innovations to increase their profits, thus interpreting open source as being equal only the free access to blueprints. But there are also more interesting ideas in this tradition – one such initiative, called Open Source Ecology (OSE), will here be further described and analyzed.

Open Source Ecology is a network of farmers, engineers, and supporters quite similar to many open source software development groups, but with a different skill-set. This group is working with creating what they call the Global Village Construction Set, a set of 50 DIY-technologies needed when building a small sustainable civilization. The group state that the purpose with providing these technologies is to make it easier to create sustainable economies, whether in the developed or in the developing world. The technologies include things like tractors, wind turbines and bakery ovens, the blueprints of which are available online on a wiki.

This initiative puts focus on a central property of open source, which was discussed in the theoretical part: to be based simultaneously on the access to the means of production and increase the access to these means, to build on the common while expanding the common. Putting machines online enables them to be further developed by their users, in much the same way as the source code in open source projects improve over time.

While it should be noted that the machines described are not truly independent from the existing system, they consist of materials produced within capital wage relations and that they furthermore depend on fossil fuel. As discussed by human ecologist Alf Hornborg (2008, Myten om Maskinen), this means not only a dependency, but in some ways also that the endeavor is based on time and resources taken from the producers of the artifacts used. It would hardly be fair to demand any more from the first iteration of an initiative such as this, and what is relevant is rather that they have managed to create a new mean of innovating and producing these products. However, if the project continues, the usefulness of the machines will need to be judged by other standards than in the traditional technologies that are based on and embedded in a power-structure, where they act as platform for transmitting work and resources from poorer parts of the world. When technology is no longer used in this way, it will appear more costly and less useful, since the investment in time and resources will more often outweigh the output (it is for example possible that industrial crop production becomes completely irrational, since the energy input versus output is exceptionally low). But this is of course something positive from a global perspective, since it is directed toward more rational and long-term goals.

Let’s once again take a step back to a more theoretical viewpoint, but this time firmly based on the empirical reality of open source organization. What is a possible future towards which we can strive based on these ideas?

As previously discussed, this societal change will take the form of an exodus from the capital, thus forming an alternative economic sphere. Looking at the OSE project, this seems to coincide with the more practical ideas of Hornsborg. Based on ideas of sustainability and global justice, Hornsborg suggests that the world economy should be split in two: one local gift or need-based economy including the production of essential goods and one global market. While Hornsborg’s vision ends here, with all the advantages for environment and social bounds that this would bring, it could also act as a platform for further expansion. This vision seems highly compatible with an open source organization of work.

Generating the Cascade of Change
As discussed in the first part, our goal will be to use the increased efficiency of unalienated autonomous labor of the commons to create a cascade effect, through which the individual capitalists respond to contradictions in the capitalist system in such a manner that the economic system is pushed further into deepened contradictions and decline. This undisputedly seems to have happened in open source software development – but what underlies this effect, and can it be generalized to other types of open source production? What factors are needed for capital to become the diggers of their own graves?
In open source, this is basically driven by two different principles. The first is legal licenses, such as GPL, explicitly forcing anyone who makes changes to the source code to contribute these changes back into the commons. Such principles are of course based on the somewhat flimsy foundation that this is legally possible, and thereby on the positive will of the legal authorities and indirectly of capital. However, the viral nature of open source is only in part a result of such licenses; even the open source licenses without this demand accomplish the same effect. The mechanism behind this is that if a company base their system on an open source project, and then make improvements without contributing these back to the commons, they won’t be able to draw advantages from any future improvements made to the software. The only way to incorporate future changes, without the costly investment of manually repeating all improvements, is to commit their improvements back into the common. The investment needed to manually repeating any changes made to the open source system, would hardly be worth the competitive advantages gained. Through this mechanism, it is generally irrational for a selfish agent not to contribute to the common.

So, could this same effect occur with a hardware system? The idea that information is unique and special, sometimes called the information exceptionalism hypothesis, which is underlying much of the theoretical discussion on this question, is problematic (for a thorough discussion on this, see Dan Schiller’s Theorizing communication: A history). There can be no permanent demarcation line between software and hardware, but it is constantly subject to change. It seems this boundary is instead constructed as a result of the meeting of two opposing forces, with the purpose of specifically targeting the critique of intellectual property rather than including private property and free markets as a whole.

However, the question of practical matters remains: with software, it is trivial to update a system implementing changes made by others or to replace the system with an improved version, however in DIY hardware production, this is hardly the case. With factories this could perhaps to some degree be true, but it is difficult to see an open source production system implemented in such a centralized way. Another alternative path would be that of 3D printers, which might recreate this effect in hardware, since it blurs the boundary between software and material goods (for a more thorough discussion on this, see Söderberg and Daoud, 2012, Atoms Want to Be Free Too! Expanding the Critique of Intellectual Property to Physical Goods). Furthermore, the current almost ubiquitous inclusion of software in physical goods recreates the interdependency that underlies this effect. For example in an automatic DIY lawn-mower, there will also be interdependency between the software and the hardware: if one is to make a large change to the hardware, the system can become incompatible with the software, and vice versa (unless of course there is some kind of standardization). If the software is developed through open source, the viral effect will spread to the hardware design. Furthermore, given adequately general hardware platforms, a plausible development for any innovation platform that avoids the marketing ideas underlying the current wasteful and unsustainable consumption of hardware goods, this effect will become significantly stronger.

To conclude, the open source viral effect that does not lean on legal licensing is no doubt possible also with physical goods, but it will require socio-technological changes, meaning that both the design of hardware and of social organization will be necessary.


What is interesting with the Open Source Ecology initiative is that it comes from a perspective of seeing what needs to be produced, and creating a higher-level system for optimizing the technology needed to do this work. As discussed in the theoretical part, higher-level scaffolding structures are needed – ways to organize and optimize the work. No doubt, tailored ICT tools can without doubt be central in doing this, just as they have been in creating simple scaffolding structures in open source. The possibility of using tools such as these opens up new hopes for democratic forms of societal organization. Whatever path we take with regards to this, it will be one which cannot be predefined, but which we will have to constantly evaluate and question. It will in this sense be an exploration – but an exploration in which we shouldn’t be chasing the possibility of claiming power, but rather of dissolving it.

  • Lynne Pritt 01 May 2018

    Hi Open source and exodus through the commons – Insite

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