The Cybercommunist Manifesto

Are free-software hackers undermining capitalism and the free-market economy with their code giveaways?

Published September 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Richard Barbrook is causing trouble again. In his latest manifesto, "Cybercommunism," Barbrook argues that all those free-software hackers blissfully giving away their code on the Internet are actually "superseding capitalism" and "successfully constructing the utopian future in the present." Just as Karl Marx predicted.

OK -- maybe Marx did not exactly foresee the rise of the high-tech gift economy, but it's kind of fun to imagine that he might have. The key nugget of "Cybercommunism" is the idea that members of a privileged community -- hackers who can afford to give away the fruit of some their labors -- are constructing a new form of exchange that is transcending the soon-to-be hopelessly outmoded free market.

And it's not just free-software hackers who are engaged in this new economy -- it's all of us who participate in the Net.

"Within the Net, working together by circulating gifts is now a daily experience for millions of people. As well as in their jobs, individuals also collaborate on collective projects in their free time. Freed from the immediate disciplines of the marketplace, work can increasingly become a gift. The enlightened few are no longer needed to lead the masses towards the future," writes Barbrook. "Everyday, they are sending e-mails, taking part in listservers, making Web sites, contributing to newsgroups and participating within online conferences. Having no need to sell information as commodities, they spontaneously work together by circulating gifts."

In 1996, Barbrook, a left-wing sociologist at the University of Westminster, leapt into Net-consciousness with the publication of "The California Ideology," a lucid lambasting of right-wing libertarian digerati domination of the Internet. Despite a vitriolic response from Wired magazine's then editor and publisher Louis Rossetto (who called Barbrook "out to lunch," "utterly laughable" and "anal retentive") -- the essay still stands as one of the most penetrating critiques of neo-conservative digital hypesterism yet published. "Cybercommunism," released by Barbrook to the Net on Monday in a four-part posting to the nettime mailing list, is a naturally evolving sequel.

Drawing heavily on the obvious success of the Linux-based operating system and other free software flag-bearers, Barbrook suggests that "circulating information as gifts can be not only more enjoyable, but also more efficient than commodity exchange." Those who wish to make a profit off their software will have to figure out how to accommodate the gift economy, or be doomed to, as Vladimir Lenin was wont to say, "the dustbin of history."

Barbrook's Marxist terminology and predilection for sweeping pronouncements will no doubt encourage conservative readers to dismiss him out of hand. He also does himself a disservice by focusing on the free software/gift economy phenomenon as if it were an exclusively all-American production. As a European intellectual, Barbrook should know better -- programmers from all over the world are actively contributing to the free-software movement; Germany and Finland, to pick just two European countries, play a disproportionately large role.

But Barbrook's analysis does jibe well with fears expressed by some software programmers concerning the possibility that free software could prove to be an economic disaster for the software industry. As these programmers see it, the GNU General Public License that ensures that source code to GPL-protected programs will always remain free is a real-live communist virus designed to wipe out profitability in the software biz.

Those fears are probably overstated -- at least right now, the free market is putting a very high value on programmers who can demonstrate technical proficiency with free software. Red Hat's sky-high stock price also suggests, for now, that Wall Street has no immediate fear that capitalism is in danger of being superseded.

But strange things are undoubtedly afoot. As Barbrook observes, Karl Marx himself observed that "sooner or later, the development of the forces of production would democratize the relations of production." Or, in other words, capitalism's own success has led to the rise of a class of people (free-software hackers) and an infrastructure (the Internet) that together are carrying out and facilitating the successful subversion of capitalism. Who cares if the Soviet Union failed? Capitalism itself may be its own worst enemy.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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