Open Source and Anarchism?

Summary, in case you want to skip this.

Open Source development is pretty close to Anarchism. Still, we rely on the courts and government to protect Open Source. What if we were to lose that support, what would the Open Source ecosystem look like then?

Before i begin, let me redefine Anarchism away from the bad taste in your mouth, purely chaotic society where anyone will kill his parents if it means a few bucks. It's really an insult to the decency of mankind to presume anyone would act in such a way. When i refer to anarchism, i refer to a self regulating, self ruling society where the individual decides which rules are important.

I was watching an interview with Eric S. Raymond where the interviewer asked him the million dollar question: "Is Open Source Communism?". His response was extreme disgust, and his argument against this was about the very nature of Communism. Communism forces the individual to share and participate in a single monoculture society, where if you chose not to be a member, you were thrown in the Gulag, shot in the back of the head, and even buried in an unmarked grave. The question was raised around the 'viral' aspect around the GPL, in how it forces the redistributor to retain that license on all modified code. But let's face it, very few people actually want to force people to use the GPL and nothing but the GPL.

Let's take this completely the other direction. Economically, Capitalism is considered the economic polar opposite* of Communism. The idea behind Red Hat is that Open Source makes perfect business sense, because it's been proven to encourage faster economic development than the traditional methods that preceded Open Source development. Capitalism is certainly akin to Anarchism, in that they both encourage a certain free growth, unimpeded by any other limitations. For example, in our society, most capitalistic economies are limited by government regulation, but are otherwise completely subject to the consumer demand.** Capitalism, especially as Open Source moves into it more, relies on a set of organically grown collective agreements between the different corporations. Still, it relies on a level of government regulation and intervention to support and maintain these agreements. For example, corporations rely more than ever on the court systems to enforce trademarks worldwide, because without an overarching court, any individual can use a trademark freely with little retribution. Open Source moves corporations into a space though, where they no longer compete with each other directly, but actually support each other. This is fairly close to an anarchistic economy.

Although Anarchists vary widely on what a post-revolution anarchistic society would look like, there is a consensus that individuals who recognize the value in serving other people's needs will provide the needs selflessly. Issues such as protective militias, police forces, social welfare, care of the sick, production of food, etc.. would all be handled by volunteers. There would be no governmental safety net to fall back on, and a truly independent individual will realize this. Likewise, if the 'community' feels an individual is taking, but not giving back, that person will get an automatically diminished say and respect in the 'society'. Furthermore, the society could choose to find a way to address the issue, or leave it alone. The development of Open Source, initially as a purely volunteer movement, and a shift to a cooperative corporate and volunteer culture really parallels the ideals of many anarchistic thinkers. Individuals and corporations alike have donated countless man-hours, server power, storage and hosting space, and money to do everything the Open Source ecosystem needed.

Open Source succeeded because of its licensing model. I would like to say a set of 'strong' licenses, but no one has really challenged them in court until very recently. Presumably, either they are weak, and we don't know it yet***, or they are so strong that lawyers are afraid to touch it with a 10 foot pole. The licenses are one of the key factors that supported the anarchistic model in a non anarchistic society. The GPL in particular, because of it's 'virility' (sorry, couldn't resist the half pun), has pushed this anarchistic ideal more than anything else. It's license/contract rules force the consumer of GPL licensed software to participate in the anarchism. On the contrary, the BSD license has a key fundamental difference. The rules allow the consumer to release changes under proprietary terms, which lets consumers retain the non anarchistic methods of our society. You could call the GPL non anarchistic, in that it forces the rules on the consumer, but this is simply not true either. The consumer is still fundamentally choosing the software out of free will.

In an anarchistic society, there would be no overarching court system that must be obeyed. If a consumer wanted to rerelease GPL software under another license, the copyright holder would have some alternatives, but none of them include getting the courts to physically stop this person. The copyright holder could convince the offender to cease and desist under a mutual agreement, or he could ask some friends to force him creating ill will. Anarchist argue, of course, that this situation is still fundamentally better, because it encourages people to think more about direct and peaceful confrontation. But here's my question to you, dear Lazyweb reader. This is a bit of a thinking exercise. What would the GPL in a truly anarchistic society work? Without a court to actually enforce the GPL, how would we, the open source developers, convince corporations that Open Source is the way to go? What do we do, when a corporation takes an objectivist point of view, argues that the financial gains outweigh the damages of disrespect, and violates what is essentially now just a Social Contract? What methods do we have to encourage the continued development and momentum of Open Source and Free Software, even when people have a right to do otherwise?

It hit me, that while writing this, this doesn't just have applications in a doom and gloom scenario where some government collapses in our current economic crisis. This could have some very real and practical application, even if the sky doesn't fall. Let's take another thought exercise. Let's say a bunch of high powered and expensive lawyers for Cisco manage to overturn the GPL in courts. What if the government decides not to enforce the GPL, and we lose the ability to enforce our own beloved anarchism? How do we continue the ideals of Free Software and pretty much bluff our way into winning?

* Don't take my word for it, i'm just an academic hack.
** Yes, this oversimplifies things immensely.
*** And let's hope to $deity_or_other that we never get to this point.

11 flames:

Anoniem zei

In an anarchist society there is no government and hence no copyright. Therefore in anarchist society copyright licenses would not exist. The topic of free software/open source in the absence of copyright is an interesting one that we could all do well to think about, especially Debian.

Yankee zei

An anarchistic society could very well have a copyright, so long everyone chose to respect that right. The premise is that the consumers of the Open Source code would choose to abide by a social agreement that would essentially be the same Open Source licenses.

I'm making a presumption that many people will continue to play by the same rules, more or less, even if there were a revolution tomorrow morning.

Vit Pimenov zei

Thank you. Your words make sense.

I think it is not a problem of an Open Source itself, but rather a problem of human nature.

The search for some idealistic society is useless, because all these ideas are based on single presumption, that people will behave the same way (whatever its name is), which is not true at all.

All we can do is to anticipate changes and adapt to them quickly.

Michael zei

You confuse anarchy with a meritocracy of ideas.

Joel Davis zei

>An anarchistic society could very well have a copyright, so long everyone chose to respect that right

no, if you have stupid transfers of wealth from one class to another like that you're UNDOING anarchy.

Kurt zei

@ Vit Pimenov above:
"The search for some idealistic society is useless, because all these ideas are based on single presumption, that people will behave the same way (whatever its name is), which is not true at all."

On the contrary! The beauty of an anarchist society is that it makes no such assumptions, and allows people to truly behave in their own way as long as doing so does not exploit others and prevent them from doing the same.

Anarchy is the ideal of inclusive societies, because it (or rather, the conditions that create it) explores all possible methods of accommodating the behavior and needs of others.

Where problems occur, an anarchist society would look at other non-coercive options, such as mediating a mutual agreement to resolve the issues - on an ongoing basis if necessary.

If that didn't work and the individuals concerned still could not resolve their issues, then the final option is for those individuals to drop out of the society, and thus lose the privileges which go with that - a sort of "exile".

Sure, a few people would probably do this, but they'd be choosing an unnecessarily hard life for themselves - which is hardly human nature, is it!?

Also, don't forget that once an anarchist society was established, people would behave pretty differently in the first place. Freed from the current dog-eat-dog mentality (largely a creation of external economic circumstances which pit us against each other), we would be far more likely to understand, accept and accommodate the needs of others - who would in turn be far more likely to understand, accept and accommodate our own needs.

Nobody is particularly saying it would be easy to get to this point, but it's not an insurmountable problem either. We start by understanding the problem and changing ourselves and our own treatment of others.

A final point: Anarchy is not an "ideal" society in that it can be defined and created by following a recipe to arrive at a static "perfect" point. Instead, Anarchy is a constantly adaptive, dynamic way of organising society so as to maximise liberty (including economic liberty) for all, while at the same time dealing with problems in a co-operative, non-hierarchical, non-coercive manner.

The "ideal anarchist society" is not one in which everything is "perfect", but one in which it is possible to resolve problems in an adaptive, truly democratic and non-coercive manner.

Creating anarchy in reality is therefore a constant, adaptive, living human process.

linuxcanuck zei

Our strongest defense is our lack of centralized authority and organization. One of the things that protects Linux from takeover is that it is more than the basis for an operating system. It is community driven and even chaotic at times.
What Microsoft would like is for there to be only one distribution and for it to have central authority. That way they could understand it and destroy it. As it stands, it is like trying to nail Jello to the wall. They don't quite know what to make of it and that has protected us.

Yankee zei


Anarchy does not preclude a meritocracy. The main argument for Anarchy is what Kurt definitely expressed well. People that choose to participate on the inside willingly accept certain rules put on them. People that choose not to accept them sit on the outside.

An analogous comparison is the classic debate question "Should all software be open source de facto?". In one class, a professor mistakenly assigned me the con side of that in a debate. He presumed i was completely 100% pro open source. I argued that you can't force anyone to actually choose to play by the rules of open source. It has to be a willing choice. Then i countered that open standards are far more critical.

Even in an anarchist society, market pressures will most likely lead to open standards. The only catch is that in an anarchistic society, there will be no DMCA blocking people from cracking closed standards. And yet, it is still ultimately up to the individual which rules he wants to play by. If other individuals have problems with it, the must find a creative solution to the issue, and can't rely on government to enforce their personal point of view. Ultimately this means that a meritocracy can exist, but to make it function, the participants have to convince others of its value over pure chaos.

Yankee zei


That's a one sided argument for anarchism that i've seen alot. I'm not going to go into the details on how one individual might actually respect the works of another individual. It implies that people place valuation into copyable goods.

Better question though. Who knows what an anarchistic society would actually look like? I don't know, and neither do you ;).

Yankee zei


I like your summary.

To be on topic though, how would you encourage the value of open source though, if copyright and therefore license and contract law did not exist anymore?

Yankee zei


You're dead on. We definitely have an anarchistic model that has proven that true anarchy creates a better product. The clincher is that you have corporations and government investing in true anarchy.

The value in anarchism is the positive side of things. On the negative side, if you don't participate in the anarchism, you can be sued in court. How would you encourage people to retain the positive side of things when the negative side does not exist anymore?