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Open source as a case study in software reformism


Having read the Anarchist FAQ a number of years ago I found the brief mention of the open source movement quite interesting, no doubt owing to my personal interest in open source software.

I won’t summarise the FAQ here (that’s for another long post) only to draw a brief comparison of how open source projects resemble what an anarchist society is meant to look like across the entire spectrum of production. In the free software world:

  • The concept of central nanny state is meaningless and irrelevant (nation states)
  • The concept of a private corporation controlling the IP of the software is also meaningless and irrelevant (capitalist firms)
  • The fabric of society is centred around discrete open source projects (trade unions)
  • The open source projects interoperate with each other as required (resource sharing)

Open source production essentially operates in parallel with proprietary software production and, while including artificial state constructs like copyright, trademark and patent provisions as part of the final product, would continue unabated if the state broke down. If copyright did not exist every open source product would function as intended.

There’s no doubt open source is a revolution in software production, but for the purpose of this post I’ll discuss how it’s also a good example of reformism as well.

Anarchists consider “reformism” as developments intended for public good, but do not solve the root cause of social inequality. Welfare, public housing, land rights and education funding are all examples of reformism within the existing state-capitalist social structure we live in (monarchies and theocracies aside).

While revolutionary, open source projects, their sponsors and end-users (most everyone these days) are still subject to state-capitalist interests and can be on the receiving end of use exclusions, copyright and patent claims, trademark infringements and can be corrupted by capitalist interests. This is most apparent with today’s fascination with cloud computing and smart devices. Every cloud service and mobile device uses some open source software, but many are not very open systems (especially mobile) and are very tightly tied to the vendor’s interests.

Nonetheless, open source is still a leading example of reformism. The projects are not waiting for some fanciful “post revolution” era when the developers are all free to product what software they like without fear of prosecution. As anarchists say, their idea is to “create a new world in the shell of the old” and the open source software movement is doing just that.

Free software principles can also be applied to other industries. Take mutual banking (and to some extent crowd funding) as an example of pooled resources with interest and fees charged at a rate that covers the administration costs. While also an example of reformism with the current system, mutual banking is a worthwhile “new world in the shell of the old”. It would still have to stave off the established institutions, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a worthwhile to many people in need of financial services.

Open source software combines the platform of revolution with the practicality of reformism. Let’s hope the movement carries on strongly in parallel with the new era of cloud-mobile computing.

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