Freedom/Privacy

Nine signs that Open-Source is fast becoming a fascist movement

There are technology purists who – no matter what Microsoft does – will believe them evil. After all, they charge for their software.

Linux’ most compelling argument has been that – for the same power as Microsoft – you get a free product. Only tech junkies can really use the extra features in Linux, and most people buy something to use, not to modify, so editing source-code is of no interest to them.

Now Bill Gates has announced that Microsoft is bundling a complete suite of software and selling it to emerging market governments for US$3 apiece. In this his business strategy is flawless and honours his roots. DOS was given away free to schools throughout the 80s, which is how I became proficient in it as a child here in South Africa.

The Open-Source movement has defined itself virtually entirely as in opposition to established commercial software companies. Their language mimics the struggle language of political resistance movements. And it is inherently flawed.

Why when a motor company is charging for the products of its labour shouldn’t a software company – whose product is used in the manufacture of those vehicles – be paid for theirs? Why should the employees of that software company be forced to work for free?

The militancy of thought and ideal within the open-source movement reminds one of fascist political movements with their calls to arms and declarations that the enemy is upon us.

Lest we forget, Umberto Eco, in his seminal “Five Moral Pieces”, lists a few of the signs that you may be in the presence of a fascist ideal:
1. A rejection of modernism and the capitalist way of life

How can the open-source movement be accused of rejecting modernism? But there it is; software is only a small and superficial component of modern society which includes all the systems and processes that allows a vast complexity of people – with all their different cultures and beliefs – to live and work together. The power of modernism is in its ability to distribute what people want to where they want it. The open-source movement relies entirely on infrastructure created by earlier entrepreneurs and capitalists: electricity, communications cables, electronic hardware manufacture, and the systems of law and economics that allow a company in South Korea to comfortably manufacture to order for a US engagement. While ignoring all that modern capitalism makes possible, Open-Source chooses a specific slither of that economy and attacks it as if it represents the whole.

2. Dissent is betrayal

Microsoft is the über-enemy. When Microsoft distributed free notebook computers to popular bloggers as a promotion the open-source community went up in arms at the suggestion that Microsoft was attempting to buy popularity and questioning the morality and propriety of all who had accepted these pcs. Yet the open-source movement is all about free stuff. Microsoft certainly recognises the danger of engaging with a movement that despises them, yet they did so anyway. And the movement responded as if mere engagement was betrayal.

3. The appeal to the frustrated poor and middle classes

The open-source movement appeals to the needs of the poor. Their claims that massive profits take cash away from the poor and give it to companies and individuals already making massive profits. Their right to freely remix popular songs or redistribute copyrighted material is a form of struggle against oppression. Yet this is not a problem that the poor of the world have. If they go to bed hungry it is because of a lack of food, not software. This is where the argument becomes the weakest with the One-Laptop-Per-Child campaign attempting to engage with African governments who deny their citizens any education at all. It is simplistic and naïve to imagine that profits equates with theft. Poverty is caused by a myriad of things.

Manuel Castells, on visiting South Africa, was asked by the government, “What do we need to do to participate in this digital world?” To which the wise man responded with devastating candour, “If Africa wants to enter, then recognise that across the whole of Africa there are as many telephones as in New York. If you want reliable connectivity then you need a reliable electricity grid. If you want a reliable grid then the biggest inhibitory factor is the absence of peace. If you want to move Africa to the centre, then do these: establish peace, build democracy, and create freedom.”

4. An obsession with conspiracies

This is almost self-evident. If Microsoft charges for their products it is because they are stealing form the weak. If Microsoft gives most of its profits away to charity then it is simply attempting to buy good will. The big music companies are conspiring against public trade in their products. Governments act to protect big business at the expense of the needs of the people.

All of these are beliefs that call on the need to be permanently besieged by enemies all around.

5. The enemy is both too strong and too weak

The open-source movement believes it is dealing with agencies raised against it that are both inimically entrenched but that they can still be easily defeated. It is a self-defeating delusion since it means that, by defining themselves entirely in relationship to their enemies, the movement can never be anything. They are also incapable of assessing the real purpose, activities or endeavours of their self-defined enemies. Microsoft’s dramatic gesture of giving software to developing nations will be treated with disdain and not the applause it deserves.

6. Scorn for the weak

Obviously, anyone using a commercial product or paying for it must be brainwashed or simple. No matter how difficult or clutzy free software may be, it is still infinitely preferable to the soft laziness inherent in the commercial. As such the open-source movement believes themselves to be a select elite. Their attitude to the general public – the same people they claim to represent – is at once patronising and scornful. The feel “sorry” for those of us still caught in the web of commercial interests.

7. Machismo and sexual transfer

The open-source movement is driven by a bunch of skinny male geeks. They don’t get out enough and they don’t meet enough women. Machismo, as Eco says, “implies contempt for women” and so it is no surprise that the Internet is largely a place for the exchange of pornographic images.

8. “Qualitative populism” must oppose the corruption of parliamentary government

The Internet loves voting and you would imagine that this implies a form of direct democracy. Yet, despite all this voting, the people participating in these activities are a minority amongst the societies in which they live. Access and general engagement with the medium implies a particular economic status, and the interests define the individuals involved. All this voting and activity misleads this community into believing that they represent the popular will of all the people everywhere. They are continually surprised by popular political elections voting for candidates they don’t agree with or returning responses of which they don’t approve.

Clearly vote rigging is the norm and parliaments are inherently corrupt. Every time a popular open-source leader casts doubt on the legitimacy of parliaments there is a whiff of fascism.

9. Fascism uses Newspeak

All fascist movements have been based on poor vocabulary and elementary syntax with the hope of reducing the language available for dissent and reasoning. Blogs, with their derivative containment of the ideas of others, and their banal contempt for society, are a pure expression of this.

When any new idea stops being about the pursuit of genuine opportunity and becomes a self-reflecting idealism – that the idea itself has value by virtue of its enunciation – then we no longer have popular engagement.

For all the screaming about free software, it must be of continual shame to the open-source movement that there are more freely purchased versions of commercial software in regular use, then there are freely downloaded versions of open-source software.

More South Africans use MXit – a paid SMS chat tool – than use email.

The greatest incentive that anyone ever came up with is the idea of profit. The surest proof of the popularity of one idea over that of another is when a person faced with that choice chooses – voluntarily and uncoerced – to part with their own money in preference of one over the other.

As a market strategy – as Microsoft has proven – giving away your product to encourage use and gain support is brilliant. To claim that this is an end unto itself is spurious.

And the surest proof of this are the words on every single open-source project home-page: donate here.

11 replies »

  1. An interesting take, but I would like to ground this a bit, starting at the jumping-off point: Microsoft.

    Bill Gates has turned into something of a global statesman, and his philanthropy in recent years has been simply breathtaking. At the same time, your post notes ways in which Microsoft has behaved quite responsibly, even generously. I’m in no position to argue any of your points about how open source culture has evolved. And you’re absolutely right about the company’s and employees’ right to earn a profit for their work.

    So if I’m an alien landing on Earth for the first time and forming my assessments of how things are based on a snapshot of the present moment, my opinion is probably going to look a lot like yours.

    But let’s not pretend that the world woke up this morning and arbitrarily chose to hate Gates because he’s rich. Public opinion of MS got where it did for a reason. Throughout the 90s especially the company manipulated and bullied, using its sheer heft to drive out competition and stifle innovation. Anti-trust regulators in the US and Europe haven’t pursued them for nothing. Our software landscape is currently worse because of those actions.

    As an example let me offer up the case of WordPerfect, the newest version of which may be some of the very best software on the planet. As of about 1993 WP’s share was over 70%. From that point it continued to innovate, producing better and better and better products. Yet, for some odd reason, its share dwindled to nearly nothing. How did that happen? It happened because MS used its OS dominance to strong-arm computer companies into bundling Office and ONLY Office with all new machines.

    I have managed to find three or four things that MS Word does as well or better than WP – and I have used both extensively over the past decade, so this is the informed opinion of a guy who knows Word – but that’s about it.

    So we can’t place too much focus on the snapshot when we have a library full of video that provides a backstory. I’m damned happy with how Gates is behaving these days and acknowledge that I’ve screamed “I fucking HATE MIcrosoft” less in the past year than ever before. And as I say, the open source community might be all you say and then some. I just want to get this one fact into evidence – people reacted against MS the way they did for actual reasons.

    Had Gates behaved himself the OS movement might be significantly smaller, even…..

  2. All true, but that’s a bit like saying, “The Germans were Nazis in 1939 and I’m going to hold it against them forever.”
    People change, times change. What was normal business practice back in the 70s is different now. That’s how it works. People debate about ideas and the best ideas win.

  3. Like I say, I more than acknowledge the improvements in MS’ way of behaving (although – not to be too cynical about it, but it seems like their moral salvation commenced with all that regulator scrutiny) and can actually bring myself to pay for MS software without feeling like I need to take a shower. This is all good.

    And yeah, there’s a time to let go of that anger.

    Still, I don’t think even you could argue that open source hasn’t done a lot of good, right?

  4. Of course it has, and of course Microsoft would never have changed without the imposition of regulatory reform and open-source competition. The fact that Microsoft could act, initially, the way they did (and, trust me, I was opposed to them for many years too) was a sign that the market was anything but free of force or fraud, or fair. Regulations in a market are necessary to ensure free competition.

    My concern is simply that rhetoric has gotten in the way and become sanctimonious horse-poo. Combat asymmetry when you see it, once that asymmetry is reduced, then get on with things. Microsoft has responded.

    The biggest source for fear of limitations of free speech is, was, and always will be, governments. Privately owned companies can only ever sell you stuff. Not stifle your opposition to them.

  5. I think my problem with this post is that you do almost nothing to actually state your point. You go into huge detail correlating why Open Source is fascist (which I think is way bit over-the-top), and you don’t really offer any concrete examples as to why.

    I think if you want to improve the level of blog discourse above banality, you might want to start with demonstrating some concrete examples of your point, and not just rely on tired talking points like making fun of geeks for not getting laid enough.

  6. The biggest source for fear of limitations of free speech is, was, and always will be, governments. Privately owned companies can only ever sell you stuff. Not stifle your opposition to them.

    On this point I actually disagree with you. Fairly severely, in fact. At this moment in time corporations are probably a worse threat to freedoms than governments, primarily because governments have been so thoroughly captured and co-opted by corps.

    You think you have a right to speak? Sure, so long as you don’t mind the fact that you’ll never get a job again. And in a world where corporate collusion – either by policy or merely as function of how they respond to things in the same ways – creates a world it’s plenty safe to speak so long as you’re wealthy.

    And that’s when they’re not actively misbehaving, as in this case: http://www.nashvillecitypaper.com/index.cfm?section_id=33&screen=news&news_id=55709

  7. I’m totally with Sam on this one. People buy so completely into the illusion of “free markets” that they don’t realize how the corporatist state is anything BUT free. Indeed, when corporations start to view themselves as states, with their own laws and means of enforcement, we should all be ready to oppose.

    Here’s a great article from Barbara Ehrenreich that illustrates what I mean:

    http://www.alternet.org/workplace/50058/

  8. One of the projects I keep telling myself I’m going to do is a revisit of he Bill of Rights – what would the founders do today, or what ought they do. Something like that. One of the items at the top of the list is to clear up our little corp issue. Companies do NOT have the same rights as citizens, political donations are not speech, etc. Not that I want to crush businesses – hell, I AM a businessman. But companies can’t be allowed to tromple civil liberties any more than governments can, especially when corporate power approaches or rivals that of states….

  9. Fortune magazine and the World Bank came out with the list of largest economic entities in the world. Wal-Mart was #22, above BP (23), ExxonMobile (24), Royal Dutch-Shell (25), Indonesia (26), and Saudi Arabia (27). In the top 150, 95 were private corporations.

    We need to be protected from big companies as much as we need to be protected from governments, and more so in some respects. Check the link out – it’s damn impressive.

    http://news.mongabay.com/2005/0718-worlds_largest.html

  10. i think u got some very toughts provoking points around your post, but lets us not forget that microsoft in all their stragegies, they have a VERY STRONG policy of combating free and open source software because they see it as a major threat to their business ,
    futher more, u might not know that Microsoft loves FOSS, but they simply don’t wanna put it out there because it will ridicule their business. if u don’t know what im talking about, well ask your self this , what is codeshare? what does it do?
    then most probably u will find the answer,
    FOSS is not becoming a Fascist movement,!!
    FOSS is the for the People, and the people have the rights to it,
    especially in developing countries, why pay rediculous amount of money on an operating system, when u can get it for free?
    all these u don’t see, but u choose instead of outlining that FOSS is becoming a fascist movement,

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