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Monday, January 3, 2011

2011-01-03 Free Software & Internet Show Communism is Possible

Probably because he didn't get what he really wanted for Christmas, on January 5 1991, Finnish computer science graduate student Linus Torvalds went out and bought himself an IBM PC. He then proceeded to waste the next month playing Prince of Persia before he began in earnest the work that resulted in the first iteration of what became the Linux kernel. While this means that Linux is now entering it's 20th year, the Free Software Movement is significantly older. Rooted in the hacker culture of the 1970's, it dates its formal beginnings to Richard Stallman and the founding of the GNU Project in 1983. The development of the Free Software Movement has been inextricably intertwined with the development of the Internet. Free Software could never have obtained the force that it has, had it not been able to utilize the power of the Internet to unite developers from around the world in massive programming projects.

At the same time, the vast majority of the software that actually runs the Internet, from websites to routers and search engines, is the freely given product of this community. The first web servers and browsers came from this community. As Open Source theoretician Eric Raymond has written:
Linux was the first project for which a conscious and successful effort to use the entire world as its talent pool was made. I don't think it's a coincidence that the gestation period of Linux coincided with the birth of the World Wide Web, and that Linux left its infancy during the same period in 1993–1994 that saw the takeoff of the ISP industry and the explosion of mainstream interest in the Internet. Linus was the first person who learned how to play by the new rules that pervasive Internet access made possible.
Free software and the Internet. Put simply, without one, the other ceases to exist. Both own their richness to the unalienated labor of those technical workers who have given us both.

The first time I ran the Linux Operating System on a computer was after Christmas 1995. I was mesmerized. Here was something that I previously had assumed was impossible! Here was a complete computer operating system, an interconnected, inter-dependent body of software code, then still in early childhood, that has grown into an adult that is every bit the equal of anything that has ever come out of Apple, IBM or Microsoft, and it has been created by thousands of programmers working in voluntary co-operation without corporate structure or bureaucratic controls. Here was a CDs worth of congealed high tech labor, the kind of thing that I had learned to expect to pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars for, and it was being given to me for free, or at any rate, for the cost of the CD! While every other computer OS that I had previously purchased from a corporation came with serious license restrictions and copy protections, this one allowed and even encouraged free copying and wide spread distribution. And while all of the above companies regarded the source code of their software to be of the highest level of trade secrets, these Open Source people made the source code as available and as free as the software, insuring that anyone can not only see it on demand but modify it as they like as well! The Linux movement even learned from the mistakes that caused Unix to splinter into dozens of sects and have built successful policies that have so far avoided the splits that tend to weaken any new movement. 20 years later, a unified code base is maintained as a commons by dozens of corporations and hundreds of Linux distributions.

The historical materialism of Marx & Lenin long ago showed how advances in technology drive economic development and how, in turn, economic developments drive everything else. Computers themselves are so new to the human experience that Marx never spoke of them and Lenin never used one. But since about the middle of the last century, the advance of the computer has shown itself to be, by a very wide margin, the single greatest area of technological development. From the tube based Univacs of the post WW2 period ["could calculate the trajectory of an artillery shell in 5 seconds, however it took 2 days to program it to do so."] to the Iphones [private property] and Androids [free software] of today, it has been this technological development that has driven all other development - economic, political and social, before it. Now an entirely new force was asserting itself in this critical area. A whole new way of doing the software "business" was being created and rapidly proceeding from victory to victory. By 2000, the Linux community was ready for its coming out party with a number of high profile IPO's and a documentary that gave public voice to some of the key leaders named the Revolution OS.
"You're free, now go help the others"
- RedHat Linux slogan
In the computer industry it is hardware development that most drives the process because it is the hardware capabilities that determine the limits of what a computer can do. But it is software development that leads the process because it is the software that gives the hardware it's social utility. In our modern world, software is an extremely important industrial product. Nothing can be expected to change that in the foreseeable future.

Software is also a very unique industrial product. While tools are slowly consumed in its production, almost no raw materials are required. It is almost completely the product of human mental labor. It contains within itself a very special unity of opposites. It is at once the perfect capitalist product and the perfect communist product, and for precisely the same reason: While the development costs of copy number one may be very high because it can be so labor intensive, the utility is generally very wide so those costs tend to amortize toward zero with distribution, and the cost of reproduction for software is extremely low in the case of CDs and DVDs or zero when Internet distribution is used.

The economics of this has long made Bill Gates the richest capitalist in the world, thanks to the Windows OS, while his biggest competitor, the Linux OS, is not owned by anybody and is available for free. [Some would argue that the Mac OS is currently MS's biggest competitor on the desktop but I would remind those people that as of OSX, the Mac has a GNU heart so for the purpose of this discussion, that question is mute.] If fact, thanks largely to Linux and other Free Software products including Google, most Internet appliances, most websites, Android phones, and more and more desktops worldwide. Bill Gates was demoted to the 2nd richest capitalist in the world this year.

Software is the perfect communism product because although the initial labor costs are very high, the very nature of the work and the existence of the Internet allows that burden to be born by many hands worldwide with each contributing according to his ability and since the cost of reproduction is zero, it can be freely given to each according to need.

Linux represents a philosophy about property rights, openness, equality and cooperation that is an anathema to everything Microsoft and the other proprietary software companies stand for. That is why, in 2001, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said "Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches." A *revolutionary class war has been raging in a key sector of technology for the past two decades and what is even more important, the workers and progressives have been proceeding from victory to victory, even if few people have looked at it that way.

*[If hackers banded together to demand higher wages, that would be class struggle but it would hardly be revolutionary. But hackers banding together to promote a radically different view of intellectual property and property rights in general, and then proceeding to actually built a new system based on those radical views, and setting in up in public opposition to the bourgeois model, that's what I call revolutinary.]

Popular Linux T-Shirt also reported to be on the wall of Red Hat Headquarters

That was just on background. Now on to how Free Software and the Internet show that communism is possible:

A modern computer operating system has an awful lot to handle. It is the living brains of the computer that brings it alive when you turn it on and boot it up. It has to carry out or track literally millions of individual tasks and arbitrate access to disk drives, screen, memory, mouse etc for thousands of processes. It has to do all this without screwing up and it must have sufficient safeguards in place and have effective recovery plans in place for when something does screw up. The scope of tasks to be administrated compare favorably with those of running a small country. Several years ago Linux was calculated to be composed of 204.5 million lines of code representing a development cost of over $10.7 billion, but it has grown a lot since then.

Creating a modern OS is not easy because a computer is one of the most authoritarian constructs imaginable. A computer operates by certain rules and it is not flexible. The laws of a computer's operation are like the laws of nature of which they are a subset. They must be absolutely adhered to or bad things will happen. A modern computer operating system like Windows, the Mac OS, Unix or Linux consists of millions of lines of code produced by hundreds if not thousands of programmers working in concert. It is a collection of hundreds of utility programs that perform all of the basic tasks a computer must be able to perform before it can run an application or do anything useful. Before it is compiled into machine code, an operating system is nothing more than a collection of text files written by many different people. However, it is not like a collection of poems by different poets or an anthology of writings on a certain subject brought together by an editor. All of this writing must adhere to rules as absolute as those of physics. All those processes must communicate precisely with each other. Every writer must agree exactly on how, when and were a particular task will be handled. Everyone must agree to the letter on how information will be formated and passed from program to program. It is a jig saw puzzle in which a thousand workers create a thousand pieces and they all must fit together with no gaps or overlaps. Here practice is the final judge and that judgment is absolute. If any part of the OS fails to follow the rules of the computer or fails to work co-operatively with the other parts, the computer will crash. End of story.

For this reason, while there have been many applications programs written by individual programmers or small teams and made available for free or as shareware, the creation of a complete, high level modern OS with a GUI interface and all the bells and whistles we have come to expect might seem to be another matter entirely. That would appear to be the exclusive preserve of large capitalist, institutional or state enterprises that could hire, and therefore direct, the activities of thousand of coders, designers, engineers, artists and testers. The authoritarian nature of the computer itself would almost seem to imply the need for an authoritarian hierarchy to manage the task of co-ordinating and strictly regulating the work of the incredible number of sub-groups that must work in concert if the final product is not to be constantly plagued by something like the famous Windows' "blue screen of death."

That was the conventional wisdom in OS creation before Linux and that was pretty much the way it was done. Early on AT&T created Unix in house, then licensed it out, mostly to other corporations who developed their own fork or brand. Apple developed the OS for their computers in house. So did IBM before the PC. For that they turned to a small software house in Seattle that in the course of producing the most dominate modern OS, also created the prototype of the modern authoritarian corporation, strictly controlling the work of it's thousands of Microserfs.

So based on my knowledge of the history prior to 1995, I just assumed that you must have something like a company to produce a modern computer OS, in the same way that most people assume you need a government or state to run a modern civil society. And while I have long understood and agreed with the theoretical proposition of Karl Marx that as history proceeds, and after a long period of socialism, under communism the state would cease to exist at all, it would winder away, I have always found the idea of a modern industrial country, in all its complexity, running without a government or state as we know it, quite beyond my ability to imagine, actually quite Utopian. But as I came to understand the inter-workings of the free software community, I realized that what Frederich Engels had said about the theory of Saint Simon could well be said about the practice of the Free Software Movement:
"Yet what is here already very plainly expressed is the idea of the future conversion of political rule over men into an administration of things and a direction of processes of production – that is to say, the "abolition of the state," about which recently there has been so much noise."
-- Frederich Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific
It is worth quoting Engels from Anti-Duhring, as he was quoted by Lenin in State and Revolution for reference:
The proletariat seizes from state power and turns the means of production into state property to begin with. But thereby it abolishes itself as the proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions and class antagonisms, and abolishes also the state as state. Society thus far, operating amid class antagonisms, needed the state, that is, an organization of the particular exploiting class, for the maintenance of its external conditions of production, and, therefore, especially, for the purpose of forcibly keeping the exploited class in the conditions of oppression determined by the given mode of production (slavery, serfdom or bondage, wage-labor). The state was the official representative of society as a whole, its concentration in a visible corporation. But it was this only insofar as it was the state of that class which itself represented, for its own time, society as a whole: in ancient times, the state of slave-owning citizens; in the Middle Ages, of the feudal nobility; in our own time, of the bourgeoisie. When at last it becomes the real representative of the whole of society, it renders itself unnecessary. As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection, as soon as class rule, and the individual struggle for existence based upon the present anarchy in production, with the collisions and excesses arising from this struggle, are removed, nothing more remains to be held in subjection — nothing necessitating a special coercive force, a state. The first act by which the state really comes forward as the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — is also its last independent act as a state. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies down of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not 'abolished'. It withers away.
Marxists have always held that the state was the product of class antagonisms and the final form of government or state they advocated for was in fact no state at all, that the end goal of communism was a classless society in which government as we know it is replaced by something almost mythically referred to as the "free association of producers" or some such. "Free association of producers" is actually a very good description of this new model of industrial production that has been created by the Free Software Movement. Far from being a Utopian theory it is being proven to be the most effective organization for creating the most complex systems, all the new super computers run Linux, while the capitalist legacy method, far from being the only workable model for OS development, is beginning to show the real limitations of that system, as exampled by the most recent Microsoft offerings.

The methods, organizations and principles created by these workers in the course of creating a free OS together with those created by many of the same workers to administer the Internet have shown in embryonic form how a complex society could dispense with the authoritarian state and be run by the free association of the producers. This is the first way that Free Software and the Internet have shown from real world experience that one of the most radical ideas of communists, that an advanced, high-tech world could eventuality get along just find without governments, is not quite as impossible as most of our recorded experiences would have us believe.

The sheer energy and creativity that has gone into creating those 208 million lines of code and making them available for free, puts the lie to another thing that is always thrown up into the face of communism, that it is entirely Utopian in its estimation of human character. It is held that notions such as "From each according to his ability and to each according to his needs" simply won't work because people are naturally lazy and greedy and unless there is some system that forces work, nothing will get done. And it must be said that if people are just naturally greedy and lazy, it is hard to see how communism could ever work and at the same time, it must be admitted that under capitalism there is no end to evidence that people are both greedy and lazy.

Yet if that were the case across the board, Google and the software that runs it wouldn't even exist today. The blogs of the Free Software Movement are filled with proof that when people aren't alienated from the product of their labor, they like working hard and enjoy giving it away. The Open Source Community is a very good example of a limited application of the principle of "From each according to his ability and to each according to his needs" that exists today and is having a great effect. As well described by Eric Raymond, in the Cathedral and the Bazaar, the Free Software culture breaks with the commodity exchange and private property relations of capitalism in favor of something more akin to the gift giving culture of primitive communist communities. But this is not primitive, this is modern high tech culture and that makes it very interesting.

Another feature that Linux shares with communism is its unashamed demand for Total World Domination!
Total World Domination

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