Proposal for an Alliance between the Social Economy and Free Libre and Open Source Software
Appeal: Social Economy – Free/Libre and Open Source Software: Time of Alliance
By Bastien Sibille
Two worlds coexist that raise the ramparts against the hegemonic temptation of capitalism. One is old and has its roots in the 19th century industrial age – the world of social economy (cooperatives, mutuals, associations). The other is younger and has its roots in the 21st century information age – the world of Free/Libre and Open Source Software. If the Free community and enterprises of the social economy have already rubbed elbows together for more than a decade, they don't often see how close their struggles are. The time has come to speak of the closeness of these struggles and the urgency of their alliance.
Reasons For Alliance
For about 20 years communities of computer programmers, as well as information technology companies, have developed what they call Free/Libre and Open-Source Software (FLOSS) FLOSS is software that anyone can use freely, study, modify, and distribute around. It contrasts with proprietary software in that its code is “open” while that of proprietary software is “closed”. The openness is technical and legal at the same time. On the technical side, the source code of FLOSS is “readable” by human beings while that of proprietary software is distributed in machine code which renders it unreadable even by computer programmers. On the legal side, FLOSS is protected by open licenses which assure it can't ever be privatized and remains a common good.
The Principals surrounding the production, distribution, and usage of FLOSS display important synergies with the principals of the social economy. One should first notice a synergy in the connection to the accumulation of capital between the enterprises of the social economy and the FLOSS community. A software program, because it is the accumulation of the work of the women and men who created it, is capital – immaterial capital. Proprietary licenses arrange remuneration on this immaterial capital: Each time it is duplicated, and sold, it generates a gain without supplementary work being furnished. In the case of free software, there is no remuneration of capital: Only work pays. There you have it, the first trait that places FLOSS so close to the historic fight of the social economy.
Next, the modes of production of FLOSS respects at least three other fundamental pillars of social economy enterprises. The freedom of entry and exit : A person enters freely into an association and leaves it just as freely. This freedom is very present in the philosophy and practice of free software : Every user who wishes can go into the code, use it, and leave freely. The democratic principle: one man, one vote. This fundamental freedom of functioning of associations is at work in free software: Every user of the code can take part in the creation or the modification of the code. The user community of free software thus takes part in their improvement by indicating to the developers the bugs they have repaired. This stands in contrast to the modes of production of proprietary software, in which a few programmers decide for all how the software will function. Lastly,the unsharability of the reserves. When women and men together create a wealth of software, when they write together the computer code then decide to protect it with an open licence, it assures that the wealth produced cannot be privatized : the code stays open to all. No one can appropriate it. The immaterial wealth placed under open licence can only remain communal.
Urgency of Alliance
The alliance of social economy enterprises and FLOSS communities is a strategic necessity. The intensification of computer use, since the 1980s, from microcomputing – word processing, spreadsheets, agendas – and, since the middle of the 1990s, information networks – email, websites, intranet, facilitation of services and online payments – has driven the enterprises of the social economy to depend more and more strongly on computer software.
Today these programs are primarily produced by capitalist enterprises. These enterprises obtain a return on their investments by “closing” the source code, in a way such that
- (1) those who want the services of these programs are
obligated to buy them, and
- (2) those who want to read files created by these programs are obligated
to purchase the programs.
Proprietary software programs are trojan horses of the capitalist economy placed in the heart of the social economy. Their utilization by social economy enterprises is extremely worrying. First because it signifies that the structures of the social economy depend, for a large proportion of their activities, on software tools that, by their mode of production and their architecture, do not correspond to their values. Then because it makes organization of the social economy dependant on capitalist enterprises. This dependence is worrying beyond just the discrepancy in values. It signifies, for example, that all the information stored (files, text, images, spreadsheets) by social economy enterprises depends for its future use, on the survival or the goodwill of the capitalist enterprises that produce the software.
Today, the independence of social economic organization vis-à-vis the capitalist editors of computer code is possible. FLOSS offers to the structures of the social economy a powerful alternative. It is powerful first because the open code is a perpetual code: it can always be taken, reworked, remodeled, in order to mirror best the needs of the structures that deploy it. It is also powerful because the open code is a solid code: in that when it is open, all competent actors in the free community participate in its improvement. This is the assurance that the weaknesses are quickly identified and corrected. It is powerful next because the open code is a united code : The programs developed by some organizations of the social economy could benefit others. In having the possibility to freely distribute the programs that they use, social economy organizations facilitate their electronic communications with partner organizations and notably with those partners who would not have the means to buy the programs. It is powerful finally because it permits the social economy organizations to use, in their daily actions, information tools that are coherent with the values for which they fight. In the same way that social economy enterprises equip themselves with specific financial and legal instruments, it is urgent that they equip themselves with computerized instruments that respect their principals.
An alliance is necessarily a movement in two senses. The reasons that encourage FLOSS communities to form an alliance with the social economy are no less strong than those that push the structures of the social economy to adopt FLOSS.
To equip social economy enterprises with FLOSS, is to equip enterprises whose way of functioning and work are closely related to the model of production of FLOSS : the cooperation, the working in a network, the volunteer work are elements particularly present in the daily structure of the social economy. FLOSS in social economy enterprises therefore presents an opportunity for intensive usage by users who are quicker than others to report bugs to the community so they can realize benefits from improvements to the software. The quality of FLOSS is bound to increase substantially if it is largely used by the structures of the social economy. Additionally, the computing strength of the social economy enterprises is considerable. Numerous social economy enterprises mobilize computerized services that are important for the number of computer programmers who work there as for the development that they produce. In allying with the social economy, the free communities can count on their computing firepower.
Free software and the social economy are emancipation movements. In allying with the social economy, the free movement joins a force of progress and justice sensitive to the move toward new horizons ; it joins an ancient historic fight, deeply entrenched in our societies, capable of mobilizing extended and varied networks. Otherwise said, in allying with the social economy, the free movement integrates with a larger movement which it can rely on to continue to construct its legitimacy. That is not all. The free communities are today at a turning point : the quality of their software production drives them to be more and more at the heart of strategies of very large computer enterprises. The freedom of yesterday is not the freedom of today, and the spirit of the pioneers may soon not be there as an influence, except marginally. The capitalist stakes start to leave a noticeable mark on open source projects : the risk is that the success of the free does not lose its potential as emancipator. Here, the alliance of free communities with the social economy structures takes full dimension - it assures that the success of the free will not be used to the detriment of their deepseated politics.
Stakes of the Alliance
In the end, it is imperative to say that taking a strong position in favour of open software licenses marks, for the allies, engagement in a much larger debate. In a world where the modes of production are turning more and more toward immaterial goods, the socio-political stakes linked to intellectual property become crucial and do not stop with software. Patenting of plant and animal genomes, of active molecules of medicines, or increasing the duration of author's rights applicable to works of art are examples of the violence of the current mechanisms of the privatization of the immaterial. Intellectual property is thus at the heart of the present and future fight in fields as varied as agriculture, health, or art. By taking a clear position in favour of open source software, open licenses and modes of production and the diffusion of products in the spirit that they organize, FLOSS communities and the social economy enterprises engage themselves in a contest that is larger than the individual domain of computers : it is the winning back of common goods. This combat is crucial for the future of our societies.