Hacking Capitalism

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Book: Johan Söderberg. Hacking Capitalism: The Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Movement. Routledge, 2007


"The Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement demonstrates how labour can self-organise production, and, as is shown by the free operating system GNU/Linux, even compete with some of the worlds largest firms. The book examines the hopes of such thinkers as Friedrich Schiller, Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse and Antonio Negri, in the light of the recent achievements of the hacker movement. This book is the first to examine a different kind of political activism that consists in the development of technology from below."


The first chapter starts out with providing a background dossier on the struggle of hackers. This is necessary since the public only has previous knowledge of hackers from the biased reporting in mainstream media. But it would be foolish to try to sum up in print a field which changes so fast. The aim is therefore not to 'provide the dots' but to 'draw the lines'. Those lines run alongside two hundred years of labour struggle. With this perspective, the story of the hacker movement comes out very differently from how voices within the FOSS community present themselves. In particular, we must be more provisional when assessing the outcome of their endeavours. FOSS licenses might strengthen the position of labour by fostering open standards and free access to software tools. Capital's strategy of Taylorism is set back by such computer architecture. It is equally possible, however, that alternative development models involving volunteer labour are in alignment with a restructured, post-Fordist production process. An unfortunate side effect of free and open licenses might then be intensified exploitation of waged and voluntary labour. Some clues can be found by analysing FOSS business models with Marxist theory.

In the next chapter, the focus on the hacker movement is broadened, both theoretically and historically. Notions about the information age, which many hackers tend to draw from when conceptualising Internet-related issues, are contrasted with Marxist theory. It is argued that post-Fordist restructuring of the labour market provides a better backdrop against which we can assess the role of computer networks and digitalisation. This perspective calls into question many of the assumptions held in the computer underground, for instance, the willingness to attribute historical change to technology and the unique properties ascribed to information. Against those beliefs, it is contended that digitalisation originates in the antagonistic relation between labour and capital. Infinite reproducibility of digital information means the same thing as infinitely redundant labour. With a simple 'copy-and-paste', a given amount of objectified labour is instantly duplicated. Marxist theory suggests that this extreme form of automation in the computer sector forces capital to exploit living labour elsewhere in the economy. In the chapter it is proposed that the users have become a major source of surplus labour for capital. The enrolment of FOSS communities by corporations is part of a more general pattern in post-Fordist capitalism where audiences and users are 'put to work'.

The third chapter is concerned with the commodification of information, and, more to the point, the commodification of the labourers producing information. In the final analysis it is the freedom of living labour, not the freedom of information, which is our concern. Commodification of labour occurs when a subjectivity of individual authorship is fixated over the labour process. In his function as an author the individual puts his efforts into producing commodities for a market. But the fixation of individual authorship is constantly challenged. In mainstream media the violations against intellectual property on the Internet are typically framed as a consumer revolt. With this interpretation the main issue becomes the price of information content. We will argue that the surge of filesharing networks is part of a more radical upheaval. Defiance against copyright law, the advancement of an open technological platform, and the assertion of the right to share information freely, are rejections of the commodity form as such. The individual author is under threat to be dissolved into the anonymous, ambulant, and playful authorship of user collectives.

Chapter four moves on to look at hacking from the perspective of consumption and satisfaction of needs. The hacker movement, like other subcultures, is intimately related to the surge of a consumer-driven capitalism. It is argued that, on one hand, the provision of material needs has enabled people to engage in hacking, and, on the other hand, people are motivated to do so because of the dearth of non-material needs in consumer society. Boredom with commodity relations, both in work and in consumption, is the driving force. It is the motto ”not bored” that points beyond the endless game of conspicuous and semiotic consumption. A categorical renunciation of consumer society will not do, however, since the resistance draws its resources from the same society. Without markets in consumer electronics there would not be a hacker movement. Parallels can be drawn between hacking and the subversion of commercial messages and goods by consumers. Studies of consumer resistance are often associated with the tradition of cultural studies. Labour theoreticians have reproached the cultural studies' discipline for making too much out of the rebellion by consumers. They rightly insist that a serious challenge against capitalism can only be mounted from inside pro duction. Our argument here is that interesting things start to happen when consumer goods are taken by users as the departing point of a new cycle of production. Crucially, this cycle of consumption-production is disjointed from capitalist circulation. User-centred production models stand a good chance of outdoing markets in the provision of social needs. The reason is simple; it was the failure of markets in satisfying those needs that motivated users to side-step market relations in the first place.

Thus we are led over to the topic of the fifth chapter, production. The case is made that the success of the FOSS development model over proprietary software development is an important cursor. It tells us about the inadequacy of capitalist relations in organising labour in the information sector. The justifications for property-based research find little support in economic history, it is contradicted by empirical data, and it cannot even be convincingly argued in theory. The shortcomings of the proprietary development model translate into advantages for user-centred innovation models based on less strict license schemes. A paradoxical series of events have brought about user empowerment. We trace it to the termination of craft skills inside the capitalist production process. Deskilling of employees has come full circle with the reskilling of non-employees. Tools and skills are cheapened and spread from the capitalist production site to the whole of society. Arguably, the means of production are being re-appropriated by the proletariat in this way. It should be kept in mind, however, that user-centred innovation models are enrolled in capital's valorisation process. Capital might have lost its monopoly over the means of software production, but it has other methods to discipline the 'user force'. It can rely on its control over circulation, and, if worst comes to the worst, fall back on the state.

The sixth chapter approaches hacking from the perspective of circulation. Our discussion connects back to the century-old dispute between market liberals and state socialists on the most efficient method for distributing resources in society. The advent of filesharing networks has actualised the question if there could be a third way of allocating information resources, different from both markets in information and state planning. That model might be called an information commons, or, what amounts to the same thing, a high-tech, anarchistic gift economy. Hackers have borrowed the concept of a gift economy from anthropology in order to describe the economic activities in the computer underground. It goes without saying that gift economies in tribal societies and the giving of information on the Internet are essentially different. On closer inspection, we will find that filesharing networks are hybrids that combine the impersonality of market exchange with the non-coerciveness of gift giving. It is thus we can envision a third method for allocating resources that lies beyond both markets and planning.

The final chapter returns to the core argument of the book, that hacking is a showcase of play struggle. This struggle is at its heart a reaction against alienation. However, the resistance of hackers looks nothing like the kind of struggle we know from industrial conflicts. Instead of confronting the wage relation heads on, in strikes, sabotages etc., it attacks alienated labour by circumventing it. A different labour relation is being invented in the play of FOSS developers. The Utopian hopes of Friedrich Schiller and Herbert Marcuse are accentuated with the current development in the computer underground. The chapter reviews scholarly definitions of play, and calls attention to ludic forms of resistance against the factory discipline previously in history. The triviality commonly associated with play is owing to the fact that the activity is non-instrumental. In contrast, the development of technology is archetypical of instrumentality. The hacker movement has submitted the development of computer technology under a model determined by the play-drive. That can hardly be called trivial. an


The excerpts are from draft versions, and may not entirely correspond to the final text of the book.

Hacking and capitalism

The skirmishes between the hacker movement and corporations and governments have deeper roots than is shown by the confrontations over treacherous code, hostile legislations, and public smear campaigns. More fundamental is that the norms and aspirations motivating people to be hackers are at odds with at least some aspects of capitalism. The central claim of this book is that the hacker movement is part of a much broader undercurrent revolting against the boredom of commodified labour and needs satisfaction. These sentiments, however, can be made to cut in two ways. In business literature, managers are often advised to encourage a 'hacker spirit' among their employees. Dennis Hayes gives a good account of how such a hacker spirit among engineers in Silicon Valley educes them to work harder without asking for anything in return. While he acknowledges the autonomy that software engineers enjoy, he doubts that any serious political agenda can arise from it. "Capital and modern technology apparently have seduced the computer builder with rare privilege: a genuine excitement that transcends the divide between work and leisure that has ruptured most industrialized civilizations. [...] When computer-building becomes an essential creative and emotional outlet, any politics larger than those governing access to work and tools seem distant concerns" Dennis Hayes' doubts are very justified, though his observations are limited to in-house programmers. The demand for 'access to tools' becomes political dynamite once it is articulated outside the wage relation, i.e. by people who are denied access to the tools. When the 'hacker spirit' sticks among workers with no foothold in the creative business, the spirit warps into a 'refusal of work'.

The ranks of these people by far outnumber those of the professionals in the media and information sector. And even among the lucky few who enjoy stimulating jobs, many of them will in due time find themselves deprived of their privileges. Programmers are being thrown into the lower tier of the labour market since the computer industry is maturing. Occupations that recently were felt as gratifying, such as writing software code, are becoming as routinised as any other field of activity that has fallen under the spell of exchange value. Ironically, the deployment of computer technology has been decisive in degrading work elsewhere in the economy. The growth of the software sector, which is providing exciting new jobs for computer programmers, rests in no small part on the usefulness of software as a means for deskilling the workforce in other sectors. This connection is laid bare when we consider the role of the first computer engineers employed by the industry. These programmers worked in the same company and side-by-side with the blue-collar workers who were subjected to computerisation. David Noble has documented how the embryo of computer software: templates, hole cards, recordable tapes, and numerical control (N/C), was deployed in heavy industry exactly for the purpose of intensifying the techniques of Taylorism. "By making possible the separation of conception from execution, of programming from machine operation, N/C appeared to allow for the complete removal of decision-making and judgement from the shop floor.

Such 'mental' parts of the production process could now be monopolized by managers, engineers, and programmers, and concentrated in the office". Crucial to this strategy was to keep the workers 'in the dark' about the source code. In the same breath as N/C technology was designed to lock workers out, workers were held in contempt for being too simple-minded for programming tasks. Nonetheless, supervisors attested that workers learned on their own to read the program language backwards. It was useful for them to know the program in order to anticipate the next move by the machine, and to foretell malfunctions and possible accidents. Workers were not meant to have this knowledge though. The routine was that upon discovering a bug, the worker had to report it to an engineer. It was a cumbersome and frustrating procedure to both the worker and the programmer. Instead of following the correct procedures, workers often showed ingenuity in fixing bugs by themselves. Such initiatives by workers were beneficial to the bottomline of the firm. In order to take full advantage of the N/C technology it had to be opened up to allow feedback loops from the workers back into the work process. But managers had embraced the technology for exactly the opposite purpose. The machinery had been devised to regulate the performance of workers and to force a higher work pace upon them. With insight into how the machinery and the software functioned, workers also knew how to use the technology to their own advantage. They could now alter the instructions of the machinery and reduce its speed. This practice spread spontaneously yet rapidly in factory districts and was occasionally discovered and documented by supervisors. Managers fought back by trying to make the clockwork of the machinery impregnable and incomprehensible. Antagonism between capital and labour was contested on code level and 'access to tools' was the name of the game.

The dream of managers to build away workers' discontent through black-box technologies has continuously been frustrated by hacking. Computerisation has not eradicated workers' resistance but displaced it, from the execution stage to the conception stage. When more and more people are assigned to conceptualise rather than execute work processes, capital must economise this labour force too. The same tight regime is imposed on engineers and programmers as has previously been, with their help, forced upon blue-collar workers. At this point, however, Taylorism runs into its own limits. There is no easy way to deprive 'knowledge workers' of knowledge and still have them working. One unexpected outcome from the mechanisation of the office is that the opportunities for hacking and sabotage abounds. The fact that these attacks are charged with labour discontent almost always goes unreported. Managers are anxious not to inspire other employees to work the same deed. With these reflections in the back of the mind, Andrew Ross insists that the perspective on hacking must be broadened. The media image of hackers as apolitical, juvenile pranksters belittles the issues at stake: "While only a small number of computer users would categorize themselves as 'hackers,' there are defensible reasons for extending the restricted definition of hacking down and across the case hierarchy of systems analysts, designers, programmers, and operators to include all high-tech workers—no matter how inexpert—who can interrupt, upset, and redirect the smooth flow of structured communications that dictates their position in the social networks of exchange and determines the pace of their work schedules."

Employees crashing the computer systems of their employers gives a clear indication of that hacking can be an act of labour resistance. How does this observation reflect upon hacking done by students, unemployed, and sparetimers, in other words, hacking unrelated to the workplace? After all, both the self-image and the stereotype of the hacker portray someone positioned outside and against the profession. The conflict over surplus labour that characterises the antagonism between labour and capital at the workplace has little explanatory power in the computer underground. Hackers volunteer to write software applications. They are more likely to be happy about spending an extra hour in front of the computer than trying to sneak a shortcut. As far as money is concerned, many hackers couldn't care less if a corporation profits from a project that they have contributed to. From the perspective of a trade unionist, amateurs labouring for free are nothing short of alarming. The unsuspecting hacker is ripe for exploitation, and what's more, while working away he is weakening the bargain position of employed programmers too. What hackers do care about, mainly free access to information, seems peripheral in comparison to social, labour, and environmental concerns. The glaring ignorance towards labour issues in the hacker movement has convinced Alan Liu to write off cyber-politics as subcultural 'bad attitude'. He charges that the demands for free information are individualistic, consumerist and entrepreneurial. Alan Liu is mistaken because he portrays information in the same way as 'content providers' do, as merely a consumer product. From this perspective, the hacker's wish to have information for free appears like just another angry customer demanding more value for his money.

If we acknowledge that information also is a means of production, it becomes clear that the demand for free information is the same thing as 'access to tools'. With free licenses the tools to write software code are made accessible to everyone, thus they are free as in free from knowledge monopolies, white-collar professionals, and corporate hierarchies. Hacking undermines the technical division of" labour that is pivotal to Taylorism. Furthermore, the failure of hackers to mention labour issues is consistent with the fact that their politics is the politics of 'zero work'. At first it might sound odd, but the statement above is consistent with the extreme motivation and discipline of many hackers when they develop software code. The radicalism of the FOSS development model springs exactly from the distance it places between 'doing' and the wage relation. Hackers are contributing to radical social change because they prevent the labour market from being the sole determinant over the allocation of programming recourses in society. As a consequence, the economic rationality and instrumentality of technological development can not be taken for granted anymore, at least not in the computer sector. The model for developing technology invented by hackers is guided by the most non-instrumental of human activities: the play-drive. Software code is not the end-purpose of hacking but rather an excess flowing from the playful form of life that hackers are choosing for themselves. Hackers may or may not be conscious about and motivated by the wider political implications from promoting access to computer tools. Linus Torvalds, for instance, has repeatedly proven his political innocence in rows with the Free Software Foundation. Nonetheless, he made the key decision to license the Linux kernel under a free license. The demand for free information is not grounded in ideological convictions as much as in the fact that the public space that hackers draw from can be sustained only if software technology stays open and accessible. It is the form of life of hackers that command resistance. Their commitment to sustaining the FOSS community is in conflict with at least some priorities of capital, though, admittedly, it also plays into the hands of capital in other respects. Would it not be fair to object that with corporations making millions of dollars out of FOSS applications, the liberating potential of hacking has been lost? In that case we must also say that the struggle of waged employees is non-existent since corporations make millions of dollars out of them. The fact that the hacker movement has partially been recuperated by capital does not falsify hacking as a radical praxis, unless we badly want to think so. The hacker movement is in continuation with more than two hundred years of labour struggle.

Play struggle

The notion of hackers becoming 'revolutionaries just for fun' would have appealed to the eighteenth century poet Friedrich Schiller. Disappointed by the failure of the French Revolution, he sat down to ponder over how to make it work better the next time. Friedrich Schiller saw the 'aesthetic play-drive' as the primary force which could foster a more wholesome human being, whose maturing would also create and be able to sustain a post-revolutionary aesthetic state. Schiller meant that the aesthetic education of man was necessary to heal the rift within man caused by specialisation: "[. . .] If man is ever to solve the problem of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through Beauty that man makes his way to Freedom." Both adherers and critics of Schiller have pigeonholed him in the tradition of romanticism. Marxist scholars have followed Marx's lead and passed over Schiller's work as a footnote in German, idealist philosophy. The noteable exception was Herbert Marcuse. He declared his indebtedness to the old poet for his own life-long investigation into the liberating potential of aesthetics and play. Shiller's philosophy ought to be reclaimed from the fine art scene and high-browed poetry. It would do him more justice if his words were applied to the politics that flow from the 'beauty of the baud' and the play with source code in the computer underground.

Herbert Marcuse is best known for deploring the one-dimensional rationality of technology. Today, with the rise of a 'creative industry' and a cultural economy, art, language, and fantasy too have been put to work and incorporated in instrumentalist thinking. Conversely, however, technology is aestheticised and put to play. A hacker does not speak about a program script in terms of functionality. Neat source code is a matter of good taste. Aesthetics is the organising principle of their play, which, mostly by accident, also produces working computer applications. A paraphrase of Friedrich Schiller can underline the ramifications of what just has been said: The object of hackers' play is the beauty of the baud and its goal is software freedom. This reasoning is also consistent with how Marcuse envisioned that the instrumentality of technology could be resolved in modern society. Technology had to be returned to its origin in craftsmanship. Since the day when techne was split between useful arts and fine art proper, technological development has been defined by utilitarianism, while poetry has been relegated to the domain of the unreal and inconsequential. At least that is how things generally come across. A closer look will reveal that a play element has persisted throughout the history of technology. To the side of industrial and military innovations, there have also been innovations made purely for the sake of amusement. These technologies flourished in the renaissance courts. It was here that engineers of the day found their outlet since they were kept at bay from entering the industry by trade guilds. Architecture, gardens, water works, pyrotechnics, and automata are some examples. Moreover, to the list can be added cabinets, bestiaries, and scientific experiments that were as much performed as researched. It is this marginal and aristocratic lineage of technological development that has been picked up, and, to some degree, democratised, by hackers, by radio amateurs, and hobbyists.

The first generation of hackers nurtured a dream of making computer resources accessible. Members in the Homebrew Computer Club envisioned a small computer 'able to run on the kitchen table'. They were in part motivated by a desire to play with those machines; in part they were aware of the political importance of democratising computer technology. Present-day hackers pursue the same mixture of play and politics within the technological platform of small computers and open-edited software handed down to them by the first generation. The passion for writing software code is contagious and easily spills over to other fields of doing. A popular sideline within the computer underground is to build mechanical replicas of classic computer games and exhibit these gadgets at hacker conferences. The step is a short one to more ambitious hardware projects, such as the OScar project. It is a collaboration between car engineers and tinkerers to design an 'open source car'. What is gradually taking shape within the hacker movement at this moment is an extension of the dream that was pioneered by the members of the Homebrew Computer Club. It is the vision of a universal factory able to run on the kitchen table. The idea is not as far-fetched as it first might seem. Development trends towards flexible production within industry are pushing in the same direction. Researchers at the MIT laboratory, for instance, have experimented with computer-aided manufacturing facilities small enough to fit into a single room and easy enough to operate by lay people after a short, introductory course. The facility can be used to cut, solder, cast, compress, etc. almost any material into a finished product. Likewise, a group of engineers in Brighton try to construct a 'self-replicating 'rapid prototyper' that can mould everyday items out of plastic. The performance and significance of these research projects are open to dispute. In most cases, hardware developed from below will proceed through the novel combination of mass-produced, off-the-shelf electronic parts. More important than the individual technologies is that these dreams are now being articulated. This is not how cadres of revolutionaries visualised the 'expropriation of the expropriators'. Nonetheless, the desire for a 'desktop factory' amounts to the same thing as the reappropriation of the means of production. The seizure is unfolding as new productive relations are being invented in play.

Capturing the Value of User Communities

Our observations on this start out from the convergence of producer and consumer roles, a fact that for the last two decades have been commented on and invested with hype by a great number of futurists, mainstream economists, innovation researchers etc. (A. Toffler: the procumer, von Hippel: user-centred innovation models, the list goes on). In comparison, Karl Marx noted in Grundrisse:

"[...] the product becomes a real product only by being consumed. For example, a garment becomes a real garment only in the act of being worn; a house where no one lives is in fact not a real house; thus the product, unlike a mere natural object, proves itself to be, becomes, a product only through consumption."

The newfound emphasis on consumption-as-production is predated by the change of heart in the 1980s wihin academia of where to look for acts of resistance, from industrial labour conflicts to consumer/audience resistance (S. Hall, de Certeau, Fiske...) As was pointed out at the time by the "political economist" camp in the debate that followed (Moscow), the decoding process by audiences does not offer much ground for resistance. However, as a cognitive and emotional investment and a source of surplus value for capital, we might percieve the decoding process as a sizeable factor.

This idea struck Dallas Smythe in the 1980a when he tried to apply the Marxist law of value-concept to interpret television audiences. He started with a maxim known since the advent of radio, 'the Sarnoff Law', which states that the wealth of a broadcasting network stands in proportion to its number of non-paying listeners. Smythe deduced that the commodity sold by media networks is the attention of audiences. The consumer buying into this product is the advertiser. It follows that the audience has the role of the producer, together with, to a lesser extent, the paid actors making the tv-shows. (from the angle of mainstream economics, the same idea comes across as the so-called attention economy, stating that the scarce resource is not information but attention, thus audiences become more highly priced than the information they are looking at). Smythe, mirroring the term "labour power", introduces the word "audience power" to describe the work performed by audiences. Smythe did not expand on the similarity between the reproductive labour of audiences and that of women. Still, the experience of women demonstrates that capitalist exploitation of unwaged, reproductive labour is neither a marginal nor a novel phenomenon. In the 1970s feminist Marxists brought attention to the fact that housewives and children link up to capitalist circulation. Women devote necessary labour and surplus labour time to cleaning, cooking, caring, childrearing etc., out of which the surplus labour is appropriated by the husband. The relationship between the members of the family is feudal while the household relates to capital through the man's employment. The exploitation of the woman's reproductive labour affects the ratio between necessary labour and surplus labour at the workplace. Hence, the man is basically relaying surplus value from his wife to his employer. With women entering the labour market en masse since the 1970s, coupled with expanded commodification of household sevices and products, we may elect to say that some of that reproductive, un-waged labour is now carried out by audiences.

Since so very little is done in the act of decoding a broadcased tv message, computer audiences are better suited for making this argument. A remark by Martin Kenney, writing on the economy of the high-tech sector, gives some clues: "But the software requires its users to learn how to use it. This means that the ability of software companies to capture value is related to our willingness to learn how to use their programs. [...] From this perspective, in the aggregate the users have invested far more time in learning how to use a software program than did the developers." The key strategic asset of computer firms is not their fixed capital, not their employees, but their user base. Increased interactivity in "digital media", hailed as the end of passive media consumption, amounts to increased exploitation of audience power. The desire among capitalists to establish communities (youtube, facebook) in order to amass value comes down to "virtual communities" being the best honey trap for increasing the willingness and the number of volunteer worker-audiences. The number makes up for the relative small contribution of each participant. Seen in terms of aggregated labour time, the time spent by world's Window's users by far outstrips the time spent by Microsoft's in-house developers to write the next version of the OS (which raises the question who's entitled to call whom a freerider/pirate).

The involvement of users and audiences in the production process answers the question how capitalism can sustain profits despite approaching a state of near total automation. Extensive use of machinery has not abolished the law of value or made it immeasurable (i.e. Negri) but it certainly has changed the terms of its operations. Living labour has been expulsed from inside the production process and the jurisdiction of trade unions. But labour returns from the ashes with a vengeance. The investment of living labour must be made perpetually in order to create the setting in which decontextualised, mass-reproduced, digital use values are to be consumed. The making of the product by employees and the use of the product by users are intertwined into a continuous labour process. The importance of emotional and educational investments made by user communities and audiences is reinforced in proportion to digitalisation and the corresponding downsizing of in-housed workers.

However, the goods produced by user-communities only has value in its relation to the value of waged labour working towards equivalent sollutions somewhere else in the economy. Hence, wage labour need still to be the norm in society (which goes some way explaining the expansion of intellectual property). Just as the invisible, gratis and (re?)productive labour of women in the feudal household creates value to capital only due to the wage realtion in which the man is entangled. Simplifying a bit, it is the wages of Microsoft's programmers that determine the value of Red Hat's GNU/Linux products. Gratis audience-labour organised in user-communities create value for capital in the same way as Marx described that a product found laying on the street has value to the finder-keeper, i.e. its value exist in relation to the same product being produced for sale elsewhere.