Lessons of emancipation: the example of free software movement - by Hervé Le Crosnier

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Submitted by can.axis on Thu, 05/07/2009 - 04:57

Translation of the article entitled "Lessons of emancipation: the example of free software movement", published by Hervé Le Crosnier on the site Attac France, on the 27th of April 2009. (distributed under a Creative Commons BY-NC License).

Source : http://www.france.attac.org/spip.php?article9864

A movement seldom speaks of itself. It acts, proposes, theorizes sometimes its own practice, but it only exceptionally interferes with the impact of its action in other areas, either they are similar, such as the other movements in the domain of the "intellectual property", or they are more globally anti-systemic.

The remarks on the political role of the free software movement nowadays and its power of emancipation are therefore nothing but my own interpretations... even if a major part of the movement is sharing them, if not in form, at least in substance. But some others, yet members of the same movement and representatives of the common good of free software might think that their reasons for support and their objectives remain largely different, whereas dealing with the development of free software as a different approach of capitalist and market activity whom they find more appropriate to the intellectual domain.

« Pragmatic » approach and « philosophical » approach are not incompatible, they represent at least the main political lesson I think I could figure out from this movement and its overall impact on the whole society.

Because if a movement does not speak of itself, it «makes news» and gets a message across as much as it avoids speaking of itself.

The free software movement and its various trends, is still more in this scenario, because its initiator, Richard M. Stallman does never hesitate, as he is concerned, to place philosophical principles at the very base of its movement.



To capture the genesis of the free software movement, but also its real liberating impact on the whole society, we should return to the very basis of software. The neophyte often tends to assimilate the software to productivity tools, such as the word-processing packages or the browsers. But we should understand that the software comes into action as soon as a machine, a microprocessor, knows to «process the information » i.e. transform the input signal (mouse, keyboard, network, but also different kinds of input device) into output signal used directly either by human factor ( screen, printing, …) or used as an entry by another machine of « processing of information ».

Software is everywhere in the computer world:

  • it is the essential device for access to knowledge and information stored in digital memories.
  • by its very nature it is a form of recording of the knowledge and world models produced by the computer experts.
  • finally each software is a necessary brick for the functioning of computers (operating system), of networks and even more of all technical apparatus which incorporate an element of « processing of information », from industrial machine-tools to communication tools of «the internet of objects ».

Thus software is a « product » (an asset/ a good/ that we purchase in order to get him play a role in the private or industrial activity), a service (a system, certainly automated, to whom the user will assign tasks) and a method (a way of representing the world and the possible actions). This ubiquitous status of software is essential to understand some of the claims of freedom of the movement actors: it is not simply a tool (a product of the type « tool- machine » ) , but a world-system where the vast majority of human activities are slowly sliding into, every domain, from industrial production to culture, from communication to education, ….. Andre Gorz speaks of a « softwarisation of all human activities » [1].

The design of software is therefore affected, as well as its classification which gives it a specific place in the very framework of « market». Software is at the same time:

  • a work of creation : we can really speak of a « creator » of software, at least collective, thanks to the development of techniques of code-sharing and maintenance (software engineering and programming by objects). Every software is the result of a particular design of the one who programmed it;
  • an incremental work : every software has « bugs », which can only be corrected according to the user’s experience; at the same time the software must follow the evolution of its computer environment (the other software). This implies the cooperation as a basis for the construction of reliable software, scalable and adaptable to various needs;
  • a production of knowledge (the "algorithms") which might become privatized if the methods of reasoning and the forms of calculation could not be taken over by other programmer (this is the main argument the free software movement uses to refuse method and software patents ).

The computer development and the extension of the network and digital to all aspects of the production, consumption and interpersonal relationships (both private and public level) create a real « ecosystem » in which:

  • each program must rely on « lower » layers (from applications already existing to drivers of electronic machines aka « peripheral ») and convey information to other software. The definition of « interfaces » between programmes becomes essential and therefore the standardization of such exchanges becomes a vital necessity.
  • The programmes may read or write data from other programmes or devices. That’s the interoperability.

Whether these exchanges are « open » or « at the discretion of an owner » they become a key issue. In the first case, the innovation is based on what exists, and can remain competitive (new entrants, but also new ideas); in the second case, any assistance to monopolization ( as it is defined by industrial monopolies, but also as a way to restrict the creativity.). All the more so the « network effect » (privilege to the first arrived [2].) comes to reinforce this phenomenon.

All these technical points form a set of constraints and opportunities for the software industries as well as for the individual programmer:

  • the ability to « provide services to users » without having to master a whole complete chain. Which leads to the creation of « a service market» and the ability of social diversion of all digital system: increasing innovation , mass use, ambiguous relations between the facilitators – producers of open software or interoperable services – and the users,…;
  • the establishment of a space for personal investment for programmers (self-fulfilment, expression of creativity, ability to make associative and cooperative services). We encounter here an emancipatory change, even more general, that Charles Leadbeater and the institute Demos called it « the pro-am revolution » [3]..

The free software movement

Free software reside on such a complexity of software, knowledge and content: everything that restricts access to source code of programs will:

  • limit the dissemination of knowledge.
  • privatize the content (with the dangers that it may represent for the individuals, but also for the public structures, i.e. universities, States).
  • restrain creativity

The « source code » is the readable version by a « man of the art» of software. The access to this code is a means of understanding, learning, changing, verifying, and developing the software. This freedom is the key player of the free software movement.

It is all about building the « freedom to cooperate » between the programmers. Free software respects four freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

It should be noted that this set of « freedoms » represents a new « freedom to cooperate » and not a «right » in the sense that the responsibility of the continuity of this freedom would be based on structures and forces which are external to the communities involved. It is because they need to cooperate to set their creativity free (but also often to earn their living with the creation of software) that the developers installed, in the field of computer and software companies, the freedom spaces that they might need. The maintenance of this space for freedom can obviously require the intervention of « the public power »: trial, respect of license contracts, but also funding of new free software or improving/adaptation of existing free software, … but at any time, it is the ability to extend and sustain the tools, methods, standards and reflections by the very community of developers of free software which shapes the area of this « freedom to cooperate ».

One of the consequences, often significant for the general public, so much that it might eclipse everything, comes from the ability of all programmers to rebuild the functional program (the « object » software) starting from the « source code »... If the « source code » is accessible, for all the reasons listed above, thus it may always exist a version of the software « for free» . But this is only a consequence: free software can be paid-for which is often the case: but the copies will be in the hands of the one having bought the software. If he wishes, he can redistribute them for free. The paid-for product, if any « reason of being » involved, even in case of a market model, must incorporate a complementary service. Here is the transition from a « product » model to a « service »model.

Thus the economic issue for the community of developers of free software turns to the phenomenon of « stowaway » the one who will benefit from free software produced by others, without even participating to the evolution of the ecosystem. Even worse, the one who will privatize the knowledge encoded in free software. For example, the non-free system Mac OS X is based on the Berkeley’s Unix. Apple benefits from the choice of the Berkeley’s Unix designers, in the pure university tradition, and considers their software as a « knowledge » built at the University and therefore issued by this one for all purposes, without rules and without constraints... a subtle governance issue within the free software movement, which has relevant social consequences.... In the common property theory, the maintenance of the capacity of communities to continue to have access to the common property that they have produced is central.

The « free software movement » resides on this double constraint:

  • facilitate the cooperation on the computer code for extending the ecosystem.
  • let operate a computer« market » (any service deserves retribution).

The invention of the GPL (« General Public License ») [4]. in 1989 by Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen will mark a turning point:

  • formerly the « university » model was producing knowledge goods whereof the users (students, but also industries) could benefit without constraints. This allowed the development of several products manufactured on the basis of the same knowledge (positive vision), but also the privatization by the companies associated with university or public research centres.
  • written to protect a community construction, i.e. the GNU project (GNU’s Not Unix), the GPL produces a form of governance adapted to a type of property, to a series of rules and community standards, and to a political project (represented by the Free Software Foundation).

The GPL relies on the « copyright » to complete the latter by a « private contract » (a « license ») which authorizes any use (and therefore offers the four freedoms of free software), but forces the one relying on the code free to give back to the community the additions and corrections that it might have provided. We are talking about a « viral licence »: any software which uses free software must also remain free software.

This legal invention is the founder, not only of the free software movement and the maintenance and extension of this alternative space of freedom, but also of a founding member for other movements which are going to exploit the capacity of holders of knowledge (or the producers of culture) to voluntarily build new spaces of cooperation and freedom.

An emblematic movement

The free software movement represents a major scale social experience, which has deeply changed the computer world. Just imagine a world in which the very purchase of software would give the possibility of testing computer products and services : in this world there would be no internet available, (the rules of the technical body that sets the standards, the IETF imposes the existence of at least a single free software to validate a protocol), no exchange of digital music, the evolution of websites would be submitted to the decision of economic opportunity of oligopolistic giants which would have taken control of the communication devices, the learning of methods of computer development in the universities would be submitted to the « certification » of any béhémot of software or networks in particular...

We should say the same thing with other words which will perhaps speak more clearly to the heirs of the social and working movement: the free software movement has made the revolution, created new spaces for freedom, ensured a turnover of powers and released more widely around it something which could have become a new order, guided by the decisions of a few companies. Like any revolution, it is fragile, has some vague aspects, some « risk » of loss of control or retrieval. But above all, like the social revolutions, they represent a real hope that will revive not only the main actors, but also the other partners involved into the dynamics, as we will see later.

The free software movement highlights the concept of « common goods »: created by communities, protected by these communities (GPL license, permanent surveillance in order to avoid the software intrusions [5].) and promoting the expansion of recipient communities. The governance of common property, especially when it applies worldwide and billions of users can benefit, is a central issue for the redefinition of emancipation. The free software movement stands as an example.

It is a movement which builds « new alliances ». The free software divides do not cover the traditional social divides. For example, the sovereignty does not know how to position in view of the global common goods: there is no more capacity to defend the «national industries ». Only the services can locate the economic energy opened by such property. The free software movement is not defined as « anti-capitalist » since many companies, among the leading and most important (IMB on top) understood that the computer ecosystem could not operate without distributed innovation and access and creation capacity starting from common bases ( the internet operating and interoperability standards). It is rather « post-capitalist », since it follows in the footsteps of the « cognitive capitalism » pattern [6]., which has to generate positive externalities to develop itself.

Actually, since its very creation it is a social movement in line with the political domain while producing an innovative juridical utilisation (the GPL) as a way of constituting the community and protecting its common property. Thus, this movement acts as « parasite » on the supporting industry. There are elements of the 19th century socialism: wait no longer to organize « cooperative » and « job centres ». A logic long tested by the experience of the so-called alternative («Californian »): to build here and now the world we would like to live in.

This symbiosis between the movement, its radicalism (however, it is one of the few social movements which produced and won a revolution in the last thirty years) and the developments in the capital prove that there is another way of emancipation, other than « the taking of the Winter Palace », especially in a globalized and multipolar, where there is no more « Headquarters » [7].

Actually, the free software movement built an empowerment strategy with its members. The «community» protects its members. There are obviously the legal rules of GPL on the one hand, but it is also the«capacity» to offer a code available for all clients so that they might rely on an ever-increasing ecosystem in order to find the tools they need or to adapt the existing tools to their needs. It is one of the key factor of the impact of this movement: while making its members more confident and strong, it gives them the possibility to inhabit the noosphere[8]. This empowerment owes much to feminist movement (even if paradoxically there are few women and more often they are not taken seriously in the free software domain field. Like the empowerment of the feminist movement, it is the daily life and the creative human activity which is at the very heart of the reflection of the social movement. The stake is high in the « competition » between free software programmers: « the excellence » within the scientific communities: i.e. to provide a « clean » and quality code, along with the best services, as well as to give the beginners the possibility to follow the global logic through their initiatives and specific activities, without the necessity of being an element within a « global project ». This is a self-education promoting movement (lots of online tutorials, discussion forums, use of open forums…)

Although many associative structures organize and represent the movement, its structuring as a global social movement is much vaguer. Therefore, it is through the use of the movement’s products that someone can become a « member» of the movement and not through the delivering of a speech or even lobbying or awareness campaign. Here is the membership formula « à la carte» of all the other social movements. It is also obvious that all movements speak out beyond any speech delivered by its members, individuals or organisations…

Extension: the new digital movements

Another essential component to understand the importance and the stake of the free software movement is to see its impact upon other digital-related movements. Like any movement, the actors of free software are not all of them aware of the impact of their actions. Many members are just pleased with the « technical » rules and standards established by the movement as well as the practical aspect of the result. But yet, the rules and methods established by the free software movement are to be found in other domains.

We are talking about a « society of knowledge» or « of information » which is an ambiguous expression, in terms of future perspective [9]. Briefly, this expression underlines that the intellectual property / the property of knowledge, the capacity of mobilizing « the collective intelligence » are essential issues of the future world economy; also that these issues re-establish the forms of domination ( for example the rise of major « vectors »[10] on the internet, such as Google, Yahoo, Orange, Adobe,... which often rely on free software) as much as the forms of emancipation, and the concept of ‘’contournement’’, of situation ( with regard to situationism) and parasitic symbiosis.

There are new distinction criteria within the « class » opposition related to globalized and high tech capitalism; consequently new regrouping of « resistance fighters » or « social innovators ». There are still in use some attempts of theorization of this situation, starting with the theory of Multitudes by Toni Negri and Michael Hardt [11], to the theory of Hacker Class of MacKenzie [12], which describe some aspect of this new emerging world. However, these interpretations cannot answer two main questions. First, traditionally the one so-called of « class alliances », i.e. the relation between these social movements and the freedom movements, the result of the industrial age. « Alliances » conceived not in « tactical » terms ( "unité de façade ou d’objectifs" - see Why “Open Source” misses the point of Free Software), but in programmatic terms (what society do we want to build ? What utopia guides us? What link between equality – social objective - and elitism – with view to scientific community and companions: to be « somebody » in his very area of expertise- ?). Then, the other one so-called « of transition », particularly about the relations between the alternative and the political arenas. The capitalism, as a form of witchcraft [13], may not collapse by its very nature under the burden of its internal contradictions. The politics, with all the necessary transformations of the arenas where it shows off (media, elections, institutions,...), hold its place in the global layout of different alternative devices – or internalized and collected- which are put in use.

These issues can move forward when we are witnessing the evolution of the free software movement, which is born out of a legal innovation (the GPL), and defends nowadays its alternative space through multiple actions against the attempts, often diverted and perverse, to put in action some enclosures on knowledge and culture. The place of the free software movement in France, in particular with the APRIL association [14], alongside the specialized movement so-called « La quadrature du net» / [15], pertaining to the latest laws on the "intellectual fallacy" ( the DADVSI and HADOPI laws) stands as an example. The approach of the politics is not « "frontal », but relies on the defence of spaces of freedoms, created « common goods », and their recognition as essential forms of community life. There is also the logic of the 19th century socialism, of cooperatives and of the First International.

The free software movement, if it is the most successful and most powerful of these new movements, is not alone. It is in the field of knowledge and the intangible, therefore the « property » where the GPL and free software movement experienced an important impact. The issues of the property of knowledge and of the construction, maintenance and governance of the common goods created by the respective communities are two key elements of these new social movements.

A few examples:

  • The free culture movement (Creative commons [16], Free Art License,...) is built around legal rules that allow authors to authorize some uses for better circulation of their ideas, music, various work. This movement is much inspired by the GPL « soft revolution » on its subversive side and by the fluidizing of the cultural market as a result of the extension of creative commons. A pragmatic way to come up with such issues which avoids the limitation of infernal alternatives [17].
  • The movement of sick persons who want to share knowledge with their doctors. With a strong political participation of the persons suffering from AIDS in opposition to ADPIC, which resulted in the adoption of some exceptions concerning drugs in the Agreements of DohaC [18].
  • the movement of scientists in favour of the free access to scientific publications and to scientific data.
  • The renewal of peasants' movements around the refusal of the ownership of seeds by multinational corporations (against the GMO, in favour of the status of common good of the « farm seed » [19] – a symptomatic example is the achievement of a issue of « Campagnes solidaires » Journal of the Peasant confederation with Richard Stallman)
  • The movement for a new way of financing pharmaceutical research (particularly the proposals of James Love for the KEI association- Knowledge Ecology International [20] and in favour of the use of new property regimes in order to enable the development of drugs for the « “neglected diseases » ( Medecins sans Frontières, DNDi [21],...)
  • the global movement for the free access to knowledge (a2k : access to knowledge) which reunites institutions (States, especially for the Agenda for Development to OMPI, formation of the group of «like-minded countries»), networks of associations (IFLA, international association of librarians, Third World Network,...) or academics (it is interesting to remind that this movement held its first world conference at the University of Yale [22])
  • the OER movement (Open Educational Resources [23]) which brings together both great institutions (MIT, ParisTech) and teachers willing to share their course, with the sponsorship of UNESCO... and HP !
  • the so-called « civil society movement » [24] during the WSIS (World Summit on the information society, under the auspices of the United Nations in 2003 and 2005) or to the Forum for the governance of the Internet, and all the movements interested in the evolution of networks, fighting the technological irenism….as well as the refusal of new means of communication.
  • movements on the « intellectual precariousness » from the part-time workers in showbiz to the emergence of a « hacker class » (MacKenzie Wark) which practice the hacking as ‘’a pièce de resistance’’.
  • the movements of refusal of the advertising dominance over the mental collective space, which organize the denunciation and the rejection of the influence industry .(Resistance to the advertising aggression ) [25]
  • the Science and Democracy World Forum [26], whose first edition was held in Belèm in January 2009. This movement comes up with the issue of common property of knowledge at the very heart of a new alliance between the scientific and technical producers and social movements. This movement comes up with the issue of common property of knowledge at the very heart of a new alliance between the scientific and technical producers and social movements.

The forms of politicization by the empowerment of members and « users » of these movements are widely different from those of the previous wave of the twentieth century social movements. The ability of these movements to apply directly to the political arena is also a particular aspect. It is not only to « make pressure » on policy makers, but also to impose on the political society the approach of the common property already established and developed.

The issue of common property has not finished producing a turnover of the design of an emancipatory revolution, of the dynamic of the activism and the relations between the communities of choice and the communities of destiny. A driving force for the existing theoretical reflection remains the dialectic between the individual and cooperative/community empowerment by the creation and maintenance of the common property, and the defense of the most fragile (financially, but also legally by rights allowing them a new governance, access to knowledge or respect of their forms of knowledge, see the « indigenous movements » [27].

We should put forward some theoretical, practical and political policies between the various forms of resistance to different kinds of emerging societies: of control, militarism, influence and manipulation.

Therefore, all the practices, reflections and successes in the field of the free software movement are both an encouragement and a corner stone of an action reflection. Here and now. To dare to oppose the new powers and dominant figures.

text distributed under a Creative Commons BY-NC License


[1] L’immatériel, André Gorz, Galilée, 2004

[2] Network effect, wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Network_effect

[3] The Pro-Am revolution, How enthusiasts are changing our economy and society, Charles Leadbeater, Paul Miller, Pamphlet, 24th November 2004 ISBN : 1841801364. http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/proameconomy

[4] http://www.gnu.org/licenses

[5] This is for example, this type of analysis of proprietary software that helped us find the « rootkit » (software spy) installed by Sony every time we read a Sony CD on a computer. Free software, permanently under the scrutiny of users and community members involves much less flaws and risks of infections by viruses or other « badware ».

[6] The cognitive capitalism: the new great transformation, Yann Moulier-Boutang, Ed. Amsterdam, 2007

[7] These two references refer to the imagery of the communist freedom movement (clearly different from the power stalinism ). The takeover of the Winter Palace of Saint Petersbourg signed the beginning of the 1917 Revolution and the collapse of the tsarist dictatorship; the text of Mao Zedong « Fire on the Headquarters » was a call to the revolt against the bureaucratic establishment « par en haut » which was going to open the so-called period of the «Cultural Revolution». Finally history ended up by being right about the liberation movements, which does not contradict their protest impact , but shows that the vision of a centralized world , with knots of central power to undo, they still remain some exact forms of powers …and therefore the needs of emancipatory revolutions.

[8] Homesteading the noosphere, Eric Raymond http://catb.org/~esr/writings/homesteading/homesteading/ The French version available in Libres enfants du numériques, Florent Latrive et Olivier Blondeau, Ed. De l’Eclat.

[9] The Information Society/ the Knowledge Society, Word Matters: multicultural perspectives on information societies. This book has been coordinated by Alain Ambrosi, Valérie Peugeot and Daniel. C&F Editions

[10] Attempt to define vectorialism : Documentary Treatments and Practices : towards a paradigm change? Acts of the second conference Digital Document and Society, 2008, This book has been coordinated by d’Evelyne Broudoux et Ghislaine Chartron. Ed. ADBS

[11] Multitude : Guerre et démocratie à l’âge de l’Empire, Michael Hardt et Antonio Negri, La découverte, 2004

[12] Un Manifeste Hacker : "a Hacker Manifesto", McKenzie Wark, Ed. Criticalsecret, 2006 (French version)

[13] La sorcellerie capitaliste : Pratiques de désenvoûtement, Philippe Pignarre et Isabelle Stengers, La Découverte, 2004

[14] http://www.april.org/en

[15] http://www.laquadrature.net/en

[16] http://fr.creativecommons.org/

[17] Build the free access to knowledge, Hervé Le Crosnier :Between public and private, the common property of information. Symposium, University of Lyon 2, 20 October 2005 http://archives.univ-lyon2.fr/222/

[18] Aids: how to catch the lost time, German Velasquez, Pouvoir Savoir : Le développement face aux biens communs de l’information et à la propriété intellectuelle, C&F éditions, 2005. http://vecam.org/article1035.html

[19] Farmers protecting local seeds, Guy Kastler, soon to be published (online version: http://vecam.org/article1075.html)

[20] Prizes to stimulate innovation, James Love, KEI International http://www.keionline.org/content/view/4/1/

[21] Relaunch the research and development of drugs for neglected diseases, Bernard Pecoul and Jean-François Alesandrini, In: Pouvoir Savoir, op. Cité. http://vecam.org/article1033.html

[22] Accès à la connaissance : Access to Knowledge, Critical review of the conference - Access to knowledge hold at the Yale University, 21- 23 April 2006, by Hervé Le Crosnier http://herve.cfeditions.org/a2k_yale

[23] Accès à la connaissance : Access to Knowledge, Critical review of the conference - Access to knowledge hold at the Yale University, 21- 23 April 2006, by Hervé Le Crosnier http://herve.cfeditions.org/a2k_yale

[24] Relieurs (Bookbinders) , First Phase… of the World Summit of the Information Society- SMSI 2002/2003, Overview October 2004 by ….

[25] http://www.antipub.org/, AdBusters,...

[26] Sciences and Democracy World Forum

[27] World social forum: an appeal to « live well » rather than live better, Christophe Aguiton http://www.cetri.be/spip.php?article1037&lang=fr

N.B: Thanks Anna!