Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Brave GNU World

Stallman's GNU Manifesto seems to have some very mixed feelings about the role of the free market in the theoretical "free as air" GNU exchange system. Since a major part of the manifesto contains a litany of questions which essentially challenge his "socialist" ideal with liberal economics ("Don't people have a right to control how their creativity is used," "Shouldn't a programmer be able to ask for a reward for his creativity", etc.) I would expect to find his answers consistent. But I am reading contradictions on two levels.

The first is the more superficial: while he relegates "creativity" in general to free and open distribution, he does not allow the "handholders" to take part in this system. The software itself, of course, "must be" free; the task of programming should not be associated with the software developers, but should be released into the realm of public domain; advertising will self-perpetuate without the need to pay for anything like an "advertising division." In this system, as Professor Chun pointed out in lecture, the circulation and development of GNU software seems almost Marxist. The workers are the same people who use the fruits of their labor. So it's a little bizarre to come across the "handholders," whom Stallman relegates to the position of concurrent but separate free-market trade. He writes, "The service companies will compete in quality and price; users will not be tied to any particular one." This is the anti-socialist model: a system in which the market takes care of itself.

The second in a little more nuanced: within the "socialist" or "Marxist" system of GNU-trading, there seems to be an inherent reliance on the principles of free trade. He writes that "many people will program with absolutely no monetary incentive," reinforcing the parallel to Marx. These programmers, he writes, program for the pleasure of creating new software, or new changes to software. They are intrinsically connected to their work, producing the technology that they will later use. Yet that system only applies to the programmers- an arguably elite group. It's a bizarre twist on Marxism, in that rather than allowing the proletariat (take his underpaid "sales clerk," for example) to reconnect with his labor, this system allows the more elite class of more highly paid programmers (his assessment, not mine) to do so. If the distribution of wealth begins to balance out, the revolution will have occurred from above, and not below.

Maybe it's ineffectual to talk about the technological "revolution" in terms of 19th century philosophy. Perhaps that's reverse-anachronistic or obsolete, and it would be better not to use the terms of manual industrial labor when today, the elite are those who know how to work (the programmers), and the proletariat are those who don't know how, or don't have to.

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