Thursday, October 22, 2009

Open Source, a modern day Marxist Utopia?

I have been palling around with Marxists. I know, I shouldn't. I feel like the odd duck... a multi-millionaire, reading modern marxist utopias. The Marxists underground still exists, it is even experiencing a bit of a revival. They feel even emboldened by the current soiled diaper mess western ultra-liberal capitalism has created.

Obviously choosing to be a Marxist economist wasn't a fast pace track to academic success. Truth be told, the main reason I relate, is that they are the only ones modeling banks and modern fiat money in a way that makes any sense to me.

(Main conclusions basically state that interest bearing instruments, a la bonds, are detrimental to a society's economy when said economy is not growing at a brisk pace)

But mostly I think some old Marxist conclusions, such as "Banks are pigs that are detrimental to society", are worth dusting off. They should be revisited in light of the current abuses of ultra-liberalism and the banking disgrace it has engendered, where those that caused the most pain, reap the most rewards. Free markets self-regulations, fairness and other bollocks.

Anyway... enough digressing. I was reading a paper by one of my favorite academics these days, Trond Andresen. You can find the paper on "Utopia/Dystopia" here. Handle with care, modern Marxist utopias are not for the faint of heart and mostly take root in science fiction ... The relevant passages to the OSS topic are

Another objection is “why should people at all work in/with factories and manufacturing plants when they instead can do all this more meaningful and/or entertaining stuff?” The answer to this is twofold:

• A minority of people is deeply fascinated by tinkering with technical processes, and gradually making them run even better. And they are not very interested in interacting with people as the central point of their job.

• Pride: The select few that control the utopia’s manufacturing plants and process industry are the persons enabling society as a whole to enjoy its very high living standard. They know it, and the others know it too

These factors have been already identified as driving forces behind Open Source. Open Source is done by geeks fascinated with infrastructure and plumbing. Yes, I did take pleasure in solving complex problems. There is a certain pride in being a alpha dog amongst alpha dogs. I always got off on that. Most of you also do. This need to create, even for free, for the sake of creating or showing off will always remain, in a monetary society or not. The profit motive isn't always the motive.

A final point in this section about a long-term utopian scenario, is “can we get there gradually”? Ignoring the controversies on the political left about “reform versus revolution”, I will here suggest that a modern market economy may (at least in theory, assuming that persons/parties with the political will for it is in power) be gradually changed in the direction of the utopia, by – among other things – carefully selecting activities that are “ripe” for being made public and cost-free for the users. Such selection can be done based on at least one of the following criteria being fulfilled for the product or service in question:

1. Limitless consumption is no problem, capacity- or environment-wise (example: local phone calls, Internet access). (This is the sole – and therefore unrealistic – premise of Marxian “higher-stage communism”.)

2. Consumption is due to its nature inherently limited or rationed (example: schools, hospitals, funeral services, local public transport but not long-distance travel).

3. Neither, but attitudes have changed, so that people voluntarily abstain from over-consumption of a certain good/service.

Hmmmm, are modern marxists completely underestimated? They have also laid out a clear reason why we were succesful in OSS. It was just a low hanging fruit. Is OSS's success, the clear first sign of a "higher-stage communism"? Afterall, limitless consumption of bits is harmless, production is low cost and work is play as per the first quotes. "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" could definitely sum up how goods move around in the OSS communities: a few produce according to their abilities, the mass consume according to their needs. What may not apply or simply be obvious in industry that are "people intensive" becomes a plain truth in software.

Yet, a part of me shuts down when I realize this is making sense. What is wrong with me? After all, I spent most of my short professional life, making sure we made money at OSS and monetized our success. I still feel passionately that outstanding individuals should get rewarded in OSS, how "Ayn Rand" of me, how so 1990's!. That we would get paid for producing software, that we would market goods in order to make a living and beyond seemed like a foregone conclusion yesterday, it stills seems so today. I have not compromised on that point. And I am obviously very grateful for the luck we have had and in no way would I change what we have done with professional open source for some vague promise of a better tomorrow. I am still a realist at heart?

But are they incompatible belief? Can you be a communist in a monetary society?? In that light, isn't professional open source, a socialist utopia that embraced making money? More on the topic of monetary modern marxism soon.


Keif said...

The flaw with your thinking is that software is a science, and science has always free. Even Milton Friedman believed that scientists should freely work together.

The free market is completely compatible with science. Even in the software field, look at all the hardware companies FOSS development.

Free software doesn't validate Marxism. Nothing will except a world with unlimited resources.

Andrew Meyer said...

What was it F. Scott Fitzgerald said:

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

Marcf said...

Keif, I think the point is that "humans creativity" isn't unlimited but truly a function of talent, resources and time. Therefore it isn't "Free" as in beer and it deserves pay. Freely working together, as in "freedom" will yield unbounded collaboration and peer review. Also the "consumption" is unbounded by distribution and licenses in FOSS.

Andy, thanks for the words of encouragement. ;)

Keif said...

Scientists freely working together doesn't mean they don't get paid. As a FOSS person, I thought you'd already understand that there are plenty of ways for software scientists to make money in consulting. Or to be hired by hardware companies, or companies who use software as part of their business, but who aren't interested in licensing revenue.

I just meant that scientists freely working together is completely compatible with free market capitalism. Ergo, FOSS is not evidence of the validity of Marxism.

Anonymous said...

if you're looking for a way to understand the banks -- look to the austrian economists, not the marxists.

Marcf said...

Keif, nowhere have I claimed both things you think I have claimed.

Anon: I have read a lot of the austrian stuff, in fact that is where I started. On the website with desoto's excellent history of money and banking. In a sense they both say the same things, exploring the perils of central banking and fiat money.

It is good stuff however nowhere as incisive or insightful or rigorous as what the neo-marxist I highlight are doing. Check it out if you are so technically inclined. Banks more clearly appear as a massive defrauding by the "roving cavaliers of credit", they can quickly become a parasitic class.

Bill Burke said...

Marc, I think you're much like a husband and wife who decide to have another child forgetting how much of a PITA pregnancy, birth, and the first few years are....

Beyond the fact that most OSS developers don't want to maintain their constributions, have you forgotten how much the OSS community eats their own? Without the financial (or even employment) incentive, this eatting your own can be a big detriment to continueing contributing...I know I would have quit 5 times over without the financial incentive.

I agree with some of the new-Marxist statements of making certain things free, specifically:

* telecommunications
* education
* medical care

IMO, I think we even have the technical ability to make energy free if we put the investment in. Its too bad we don't have the will. Not even Obama is willing to socialize energy.

pcleddy said...

Roy Russo said...

"I agree with some of the new-Marxist statements of making certain things free, ..."

Nothing is free. Even reading the Marxist mental-diarrhea costs me a few more hairs from my head.

... and those are rare and priceless! ;-)

Nathalie said...

Great analogy, Bill! That's up there with another one of yours that I remember: Spring is like a meal at McDonald's, or something like that--just remember the part about it being initially tasty, but difficult to digest later on...

Alain said...

I think that OSS is not homogeneous, and the large part is not marxist utopian at all...

There is OSS foundations such as Apache Mozilla, BSD. And the developers there are motivated by the pride and their ideals (close to marxism utopia), and they can afford it if they have a job somewhere else, that'll let them pay the bills...

and there is commercial OSS, and there're no differences than proprietary software(see Eric Barroca's post (coming-out ?) about OSS: The profit gained from those companies is not shared with users, but with the shareholders...I guess, that this is what you did with JBoss.... I think that you choose OSS as a way to ramp-up your revenue... this is marketing ... and you built a very capitalist business model...

Am I wrong ?

Marcf said...


yes and no. I didn't choose OSS as a marketing ploy. I chose OSS because I wanted to code and find like minded developers. Which I did. After working at SUN in Silicon Valley I realized it was a lonely place and headed online to find a "community".

It did turn out to be a great marketing ploy but not by design.

Yes, the company I built was definitely capitalistic in the sense that a lot of reward went to capital, if you enlarge capital to include "intellectual capital" and rewarding the developers that participated. The monetization was a necessity to live but not to deliver the product. Efforts like most of Linux where 90% of the development is funded by corporation and the result distributed for free prove you need some 'fuel' but the distribution is rather easy and as such monetization of the distribution, which is the basis for most proprietary models is not necessary or easy.

But I am rambling, the point I believe was that "communistic" like efforts would appear in fields that were not resource constrained. The internet is such a field and it has triggered a communistic wave, of which OSS, I repeat, may be a first instance of such modern models. They are hybrid models. Many other industries are feeling the impact, music, video, news, porn, home automation, medicine and the list goes on.

Marcf said...


LOL, thanks for keeping me grounded. Yes I tend to forget what a fucking pain in the ass it was. A more balanced view would be to say that communistic free resource was the enabler. At first we were able to reach early developers (such as yourself) and customers and beat SUN at marketing all because we had the internet. It was a communistic game changer and by and large we were a product of it (a symbiotic product given that wrote internet enabling software in return). But at the same time, you are entirely right, the only way we would have drudged through the whole ordeal was for a profit motive and that motivation it brings. That and a bunch of drugs to get through the day :) Yes there was nothing fun some days and the individual rewards felt justified and felt good at the end of the day. Again thanks for keeping me honest, I trust you are doing well.

Bill Burke said...


You live in fantasy land to think that just because a successful project lives at Apache it will automagically be maintained by the community, be well documented, and have developers willing to do the monotonous stuff that is required of a polished piece of software. It is very hard to get passed these problems without direct or indirect commercial interest. Linux is a prime example of this. Without IBM, Red Hat, Novel, etc. it would just be a toy and never gotten off the ground.