Open source manichaeism

Opinion — ZDNet sparked a thread — or is that a troll? — on whether open source is communist or not.

I previously mentioned that I think software patents are ridiculous and that the open source model has limits, but this calls for further development because it is an irrelevant manichaeist question.

The marxist theory is about a supposedly fundamental conflict, which opposes the strong — the capitalist, or shepherd — and the weak — the exploited, or herd — since the beginning of history. It is a charming, wonderfully inspiring fable. And as you surely know, the story’s last chapter is an appeasing state of anarchy called Communism.

A state of anarchy should not be understood here as utter chaos; rather, it is organic, based on self-organization and should be opposed to a totalitarist state which methodically eliminates whatever is labelled as waste — think Shoah. The typical organization is anywhere between these two bottom-up and top-down extremes.

Now, the key merit of Marx — or Proudhon, since it reportedly was the latter’s ideas — is to have tried to theorize how we evolve towards a state of pure organicity. And I understand Marx was sufficiently educated and lucide to doubt his own conclusions at the end of his life. Don’t get him wrong, though: It’s not that his ideas are entirely silly. More simply, a shepherdless herd spontaneously sprouts lead goats, i.e. new shepherds.

Assuming and by the time Marx realized this, though, the evil was done: The “socialist rats” (Nietzsche) had inspired unpreceded hopes for welfare and triggered a bizarre collective hysteria that arised and went on for an entire century. During this time, the syndicalist movement created its Gold Calf, submissively worshipped the idol, and allowed history’s top two murderers — Stalin and Mao — handily defeat Hitler on the casualty count in the name of the Communist Ideal.

Note, as an aside, that we’re still facing remnants from the anticapitalist movement every now and then. You know who I mean… They unite every year so as to discuss how “another future is possible”. But then again, a shepherdless herd spontaneously sprouts lead goats; and most herds hate black sheeps. Up to you to decide which lead goat’s odor you feel more comfortable with.

That in mind, is open-source communist, as in syndicalist movement? Free software certainly is comparable to the Communist Ideal and the GPL certainly is comparable to a communist institution: The first is the totem around which the tribe unites; the second is the banner without which fighting — in court — would be meaningless.

But then, the important aspect here is that free software and the GPL unite against a clearly identified Evil — say, everything Microsoft symbolizes. And the ensuing reinforcements must be the most natural group behavioral patterns there are when two groups compete.

Moreover, the fundamental question here is not who, of the capitalist and the sweatshop programmer, gets the best bite in the meaty profits — whereas this criteria would be characteristic to the syndicalist movement. It is whether a software company can make an intellectual property claim on a work that derives from open source code.

As such, the relevant question, in retrospect, is not so much whether open source is Communist. Rather, it is whether the competition the GPL creates between open source and closed source is absolutely necessary.

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