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Free software and the extraction of capital

This essay will asses the relationship between free software and the capitalist mode of accumulation, namely that of the extraction of various forms of capital to produce profit. I will perform an analysis through the lens of the Marxist concept of extracting surplus from workers, utilise Bourdieu’s theory of capital, and the ideas of Hardt and Negri as they discuss the various economic paradigms, and the progression through these.

The free software movement is one which states that computer software should not have owners (Stallman, 2010, chap. 5), and that proprietary software is fundamentally unethical (Stallman, 2010, p. 5). This idea is realised through “the four freedoms” and a range of licenses, which permit anyone to: use for any purpose; modify; examine and redistribute modified copies, of the software so licensed (Free Software Foundation, 2010). These freedoms are posited as a contrast to the traditional model of software development, which rests all ownership and control of the product in its creators. As free software is not under private control, it would appear at first to escape the capitalist mode of production, and the problems which ensue from that, such as alienation, commodity fetishism and the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few.

For a definition of the commons, Bollier states:

commons comprises a wide range of shared assets and forms of community governance. Some are tangible, while others are more abstract, political, and cultural. The tangible assets of the commons include the vast quantities of oil, minerals, timber, grasslands, and other natural resources on public lands, as well as the broadcast airwaves and such public facilities as parks, stadiums, and civic institutions. … The commons also consists of intangible assets that are not as readily identified as belonging to the public. Such commons include the creative works and public knowledge not privatized under copyright law. … A last category of threatened commons is that of so-called ‘gift economies’. These are communities of shared values in which participants freely contribute time, energy, or property and over time receive benefits from membership in the community. The global corps of GNU/Linux software programmers is a prime example: enthusiasts volunteer their talents and in return receive useful rewards and group esteem. (2002)

Thus, free software would appear to offer an escape from the system of capitalist dominance based upon private property, as the products of free software contribute to the commons, resist attempts at monopoly control and encourage contributors to act socially.

Marx described how through the employment of workers, investors in capitalist businesses were able to amass wealth and thus power. The employer invests an amount of money into a business, to employ labour, and he labourer creates some good, be it tangible or intangible. The labourer is then paid for this work, and the company owner takes the good and sells it at some higher price, to cover other costs and to provide a profit. The money the labourer is paid is for the “necessary labour” (Marx, 1976a, p. 325), i.e. the amount the person requires to reproduce labour, that is the smallest amount possible to ensure the worker can live, eat, house themself, work fruitfully and produce offspring who will do similar. The difference between this amount and the amount the good sells for, minus other costs, which are based upon the labour of other workers, is the “surplus value”, and equals the profit to the employer (Marx, 1976a, p. 325). The good is then sold to a customer, who thus enters into a social relationship with the worker that made it. However, the customer has no knowledge of the worker, does not know the conditions they work under, their wage, their name or any other information about them, their relationship is mediated entirely through the commodity which passes from producer to consumer. Thus, despite the social relationship between the two, they are alienated from each other, and the relationship is represented through a commodity object, which is thus fetishised over the actual social relationship (Marx, 1976a, chap. 1). The worker is further alienated, from the product of their labour, for which they are not fully recompensed, as they are not paid the full exchange amount which the capitalist company obtains, and do not have control over any further part in the commodity than the work they employed to put in.

If we study the reasons participants have for contributing to free software projects, coders fall into one or more of the following three categories: firstly, coders who contribute to create something of utility to themselves, secondly, those who are paid by a company which employs them to write code in a traditional employment relationship, and finally those who write software without economic compensation, to benefit the commons (Hars & Ou, 2001). The first category does not enter into a relationship with others, so the system of capitalist exchange does not need to be considered. The second category, that of a worker being paid to contribute to a project, might seem unusual, as the company appears to be giving away the result of capital investment, thus benefiting competitors. Although this is indeed the case, the value gained in other contributors viewing, commenting on and fixing the code is perceived to outweigh any disadvantages. In the case of a traditional employee of a capitalist company, the work, be it production of knowledge, carrying out of a service or making a tangible good, will be appropriated by the company the person works for, and credited as its own. The work is then sold at some increased cost, the difference between the cost to make it and the cost it is sold for being surplus labour, which reveals itself as profit.

The employed software coder working on a free software performs necessary labour (Marx, 1976a, p. 325), as any other employee does, and this is rewarded with a wage. However, the surplus value, which nominally is used to create profit for the employer by them appropriating the work of the employee, is not solely controlled by the capitalist. Due to the nature of the license, the product of the necessary and surplus labour can be taken, used and modified by any other person, including the worker. Thus, the traditional relationship of the commons to the capitalist is changed. The use of paid workers to create surplus value is an example of the capitalist taking the commons and re-appropriating it for their own gain. However, as the work is given back to the commons, there is an argument that the employer has instead contributed to the wider sphere of human knowledge, without retaining monopoly control as the traditional copyright model does. Further, the worker is not alienated by their employer from the product of their labour, it is available for them to use as they see fit.

The second category of contributors to a project, volunteers are generally also highly-skilled, well-paid, and materially comfortable in life. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1943), as individuals attain the material comforts in life, so they are likely to turn their aspirations towards less tangible but more fulfilling achievements, such as creative pursuits. Some will start free software projects of their own, as some people will start capitalist businesses: the Linux operating system kernel, The GNU operating system and the Diaspora* [sic] distributed social networking software are examples of this situation. If a project then appears successful to others, it will gain new coders, who will lend their assistance and improve the software. The person(s) who started the project are acknowledged as the leader(s), and often jokingly referred to as the “benevolent dictator for life” (Rivlin, 2003), although their power is contingent, because as Raymond put it, “the culture’s ‘big men’ and tribal elders are required to talk softly and humorously deprecate themselves at every turn in order to maintain their status.” (2002). As leaders, they will make the final decision of what code goes into the ‘official’ releases, and be recognised as the leader in the wider free software community.

Although there may be hundreds of coders working on a project, as there is an easily identifiable leader, he or she will generally receive the majority of the credit for the project. Each coder will carry out enough work to produce the piece of code they wish to work on, thus producing a useful addition to the software. As suggested above by Maslow, the coder will gain symbolic capital, defined by Bourdieu as “the acquisition of a reputation for competence and and image of respectability” (1984, p. 291) and as “predisposition to function as symbolic capital, i.e., to be unrecognized as capital and recognized as legitimate competence, as authority exerting an effect of (mis)recognition … the specifically symbolic logic of distinction” (Bourdieu, 1986). This capital will be attained through working on the project, and being recognised by: other coders involved in the project and else where; the readers of their blog; their friends and colleagues, and they may occasionally be featured in articles on technology web news sites (KernelTrap, 2002; Mills, 2007). Each coder adds their piece of effort to the project, gaining enough small acknowledgements for their work along the way to feel they should continue coding, which could be looked at as necessary labour (Marx, 1976a, p. 325). Contemporaneously, the project leader gains a smaller acknowledgement for the improvements to the project as a whole, which in the case of a large project can be significant over time. In the terms expressed by Marx, although the coder carries out a certain amount of work, it is then handed over to the project, represented in the eyes of the public by the leader who accrues similar small amounts of capital from all coders on the project. This profit is surplus value (Marx, 1976a, p. 325). Similarly to the employed coder, the economic value of the project does not belong to the leaders, there is no surplus extracted there, as all can use it.

To take a concrete example, Linus Torvalds, originator and head of the Linux kernel is known for his work throughout the free software world, and feted as one of its most important contributors (Veltman, 2006, p. 92). The perhaps surprising part of this, is that Torvalds does not write code for the project any more, he merely manages others, and makes grand decisions as to which concepts, not actual code, will be allowed into the mainline, or official, release of the project (Stout, 2007). Drawing a parallel with a traditional capitalist company, Linus can be seen as the original investor who started the organisation, who manages the workers, and who takes a dividend each year, despite not carrying out any productive work. Linus’ original investment in 1991 was economic and cultural capital, in the form of time and a part-finished degree in computer science (Calore, 2009). While he was the only contributor, the project progressed slowly, and the originator gained symbolic, social and cultural capital solely through his own efforts, thus resembling a member of the petit bourgeois. As others saw the value in the project, they offered small pieces of code to solve small problems and progress the code. These were incorporated, thus rapidly improving the software, and the standing of Torvalds.

Like consumers of any other product, users of Linux will not have be aware of who had made the specific change unless they make an effort to read the list of changes for each release, thus resulting in the coder being alienated from the product of their labour and the users of the software (Marx, 1959, p. 29), who fetishise (Marx, 1976a, chap. 1) the software over the social relationship which should be prevalent. For each contribution, which results in a small gain in symbolic capital to the coder, Linus takes a smaller gain in those forms of capital, in a way analogous to a business investor extracting surplus economic capital from her employees, despite not having written the code in question. The capitalist investor possesses no particular values, other than to whom and where she was born, yet due to the capital she is able to invest, she can amass significant economic power from the work of others. Over 18 years, these small gains in capital have also added up for Linus Torvalds, and such is now the symbolic capital expropriated that he is able to continue extracting this capital fro Linux, while reinvesting capital in writing code for other projects, in this case ‘Git’ (Torvalds, 2005), which has attracted coders in part due to the fame of its principal architect. The surplus value of the coders on this project is also extracted and transferred to the nominal leader, and so the cycle continues, with the person at the top continuously and increasingly benefiting from the work of others, at their cost.

The different forms of capital can readily be exchanged for one another. As such, Linus has been offered book contracts (Torvalds, 2001), is regularly interviewed for a range of publications (Calore, 2009; Rivlin, 2003), has gained jobs at high prestige technology companies (Martin Burns, 2002), and been invited to various conferences as guest speaker. The other coders on the Linux project have also gained, through skills learned, social connections and prestige for being part of what is a key project in free software, although none in the same way as Linus.

Free software is constructed in such a way as to allow a range of choices to address most needs, for instance in the field of desktop operating systems there are hundreds to choose from, with around six distributions, or collections of software, covering the majority of users, through being recognised as well-supported, stable and aimed at the average user (Distrowatch.com, 2011). In order for the leaders of each of these projects to increase their symbolic capital, they must continuously attract new users, be regularly mentioned in the relevant media outlets and generally be seen as adding to the field of free software, contributing in some meaningful way. Doing so requires a point-of-difference between their software and the other distributions. However, this has become increasingly difficult, as the components used in each project have become increasingly stable and settled, so the current versions of each operating system will contain virtually identical lists of packages. In attempting to gain users, some projects have chosen to make increasingly radical changes, such as including versions of software with new features even though they are untested and unstable (Canonical Ltd., 2008), and changing the entire user experience, often negatively as far as users are concerned (Collins, 2011). Although this keeps the projects in the headlines on technology news sites, and thus attracts new users, it turns off experienced users, who are increasingly moving to more stable systems (Parfeni, 2011).

This proliferation of systems, declining opportunities to attract new users, and increasingly risky attempts to do so, demonstrates the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and the efforts capitalist companies go to in seeking new consumers (Marx, 1976b, chap. 3), so they can continue extracting increased surplus value as profit Each project must put in more and more effort, in increasingly risky areas, thus requiring increased maintenance and bug-fixing, to attract users and be appreciated in the eyes of others.

According to Hardt and Negri, since the Middle Ages, there have been three economic paradigms, identified by the three forms from which profit is extracted. These are: land, which can be rented out to others or mined for minerals; tangible, movable products, which are manufactured by exploited workers and sold at a profit; and services, which involve the creation and manipulation of knowledge and affect, and the care of other humans, again by exploited workers (2000, p. 280). Looking more closely at these phases, we can see a procession. The first phase relied mainly upon the extraction of profit from raw materials, such as the earth itself, coal and crops, with little if any processing by humans. The second phase still required raw materials, such as iron ore, bauxite, rubber and oil, but also required a significant amount of technical processing by humans to turn these materials into commodities which were then sold, with profit extracted from the surplus labour of workers. Thus the products of the first phase were important in a supporting role to the production of the commodities, in the form of land for the factory, food for workers, fuel for smelters and machinery, and materials to fashion, but the majority of the value of the commodity was generated by activities resting on these resources, the working of those raw materials into useful items by humans. The latter of the phases listed above, the knowledge, affect and care industry, entails workers collecting and manipulating data and information, or performing some sort of service work, which can then be rented to others. Again, this phase relies on the other phases: from the first phase, land for offices, data centres, laboratories, hospitals, financial institutes, and research centres; food for workers, fuel for power; plus from the second phase: commodities including computers, medical equipment, office supplies, and laboratory and testing equipment, to carry out the work. Similarly to the previous phase, these materials and items are not directly the source of the creation of profit, but are required, the generation of profit relies and rests on their existence.

In the context of IT, this change in the dominant paradigm was most aptly demonstrated by the handover of power from the mighty IBM to new upstart Microsoft in 1979, when the latter retained control over their operating system software MS-DOS, despite the former agreeing to install it on their new desktop computer range. The significance of this apparent triviality was illustrated in the film ‘Pirates of Silicon Valley’, during a scene depicting the negotiations between the two companies, in which everyone but Bill Gates’ character froze as he broke the ‘fourth wall’, turning to the camera and explaining the consequences of the mistake IBM had made (Burke, 1999). IBM, the dominant power in computing of the time, were convinced high profit continued to lie in physical commodities, the computer hardware they manufactured, and were unconcerned by lack of ownership of the software. Microsoft recognised the value of immaterial labour, and soon eclipsed IBM in value and influence of the industry, a position which they held for around 20 years.

Microsoft’s method of generating profit was to dominate the field of software, their products enabling users to create, publish and manipulate data, while ignoring the hardware, which was seen as a commodity platform upon which to build (Paulson, 2010). Further, the company wasn’t particularly interested what its customers were doing with their computers, so long as they were using Windows, Office and other technologies, to work with that data, as demonstrated by a lack of effort to control the creation or distribution of information. As Microsoft were increasing their dominance, the free software GNU Project was developing a free alternative, to firstly the Unix operating system (Stallman, 2010, p. 9), and later to Microsoft products. Fuelled by the rise in highly capable, cost-free software which competed with and undercut Microsoft, so commoditising the market, the dominance of that company faded in the early 2000s (Ahmad, 2009), to be replaced by a range of companies which built on the products of the free software movement, by relying on the use value, but no longer having any interest in the exchange value of the software (Marx, 1976a, p. 126). The power Microsoft retains today through its desktop software products is due in significant part to ‘vendor lock-in’ (Duke, n.d.), the process of using closed standards, only allowing their software to interact with data in ways prescribed by the vendor. Google, Apple and Facebook, the dominant powers in computing today, would not have existed in their current form were it not for various pieces of free software (Rooney, 2011). Notably, the prime method of profit making of these companies is through content, rather than via a software or hardware platform. Apple and Google both provide platforms, such as the iPhone and Gmail, although neither companies makes large profit directly from these platforms, sometimes to the point of giving them away, subsidised heavily via their profit-making content divisions (Chen, 2008).

Returning to the economic paradigms discussed by Hardt and Negri, we have a series of sub-phases, each building on the sub-phase before. Within the third, knowledge, phase, the first sub-phase of IT, computer software, such as operating systems, web servers and email servers, was a potential source of high profits through the 1980s and 1990s, but due to high competition, predominantly from the free software movement, the rate of profit has dropped considerably, with for instance the free software ‘Apache’ web server being used to host over 60% of all web sites (Netcraft Ltd., 2011). Conversely, the capitalist companies from the next sub-phase were returning high profits and growth, through extensive use of these free products to sell other services. This sub-phase is noticeable for its reliance on creating and manipulating data, rather than producing the tools to do so, although both still come under the umbrella of knowledge production. This trend was mirrored in the free software world, as the field of software stabilised, thus realising fewer opportunities for increasing one’s capital through the extraction of surplus in this area.

As the falling rate of profit reduced the potential to gain symbolic capital through free software, so open data projects, which produce large sets of data under open licences, became more prevalent, providing further areas for open content contributors to invest their capital. These initially included Wikipedia, the web-based encyclopedia which anyone can edit, in 2001 (“Wikipedia:About,” n.d.). Growth of this project was high for several years, with a large number of new editors joining, but has since become so small as to find attracting new users very difficult (Chi, 2009; Moeller & Zachte, 2009). Similarly, OpenStreetMap, which aims to map the world, was begun in 2004, and grew at a very high rate once it became known in the mainstream technology press. However, now that the majority of streets and significant geographical data in western countries are mapped, the project is finding it difficult to attract new users, unless they are willing to work on adding increasingly esoteric minutiae, which has little obvious effect on the map, and thus provides a less obvious gain in symbolic capital attained by the user (Fairhurst, 2011). For the leaders of the project, this represents higher and higher effort to be put in, for comparatively smaller returns, again the rate of profit is falling. Rather than the previous, relatively passive method of attracting new users and expanding into other areas, the project founders and leading lights are now aggressively pushing the project to map less well-covered areas, such as a recent effort in a slum in Africa (Map Kibera, 2011); starting a sub-group to create maps in areas such as Haiti, to help out after natural disasters (Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, 2011); and providing economic grants for those who will map in less-developed countries (Black, 2008). This closely follows the capitalist need to seek out new markets and territories, once all existing ones are saturated, to continuously push for more growth, to arrest the falling rate of profit.

According to Hardt and Negri,

You can think and form relationships not only on the job buy also in the street, at home, with your neighbors and friends. The capacities of biopolitical labor-power exceed work and spill over into life. We hesitate to use the word “excess” for this capacity because from the perspective of society as a whole it is never too much. It is excess only from the perspective of capital because it does not produce economic value that can be captured by the individual capitalist (2011)

The capitalist mode of production brings organisational structure to the production of value, but in doing so fetters the productivity of the commons, the productivity of the commons is higher when capital stays external to the production process. This hands-off approach to managing production can be seen extensively in free software, through the self-organising, decentralised model it utilises (Ingo, 2006, p. 38), eschewing traditional management forms with chains of responsibility. Economic forms of capital are prevalent in free software, as when technology companies including advertising provider Google, software support company Red Hat and software and services provider Novell employ coders to commit code to various projects such as the Linux kernel (The Linux Foundation, 2009). However, the final decision of whether the code is accepted, is left up to the project itself, which is usually free of corporate management. There are numerous, generally temporary exceptions to this rule, including OpenOffice.org, the free software office suite, which was recently acquired by software developer Oracle. Within a few months of the acquisition, the number of senior developers involved in the project dropped significantly, most of them citing interference from Oracle in the management of the software, and those who left set up their own fork of the project, based on the Oracle version (Clarke, 2010). Correspondingly, a number of software collections also stopped including the Oracle software, and instead used the version released by the new, again community-managed, offshoot (Sneddon, 2010). Due to the license which OpenOffice.org is released under, all of Oracle’s efforts to take direct control of the project were easily sidestepped. Oracle may possess the copyright to all of the original code, through purchasing the project, but this comes to naught once that code is released, it can be taken and modified by anyone who sees fit.

This increased productivity of the commons can be seen in the response to flaws with the software: as there is no hierarchical structure enforced by, for example, employment contract, problems reported by users can and are taken on by volunteer coders who will work on the flaw until it is fixed, without needing to consult line managers, and align with a corporate strategy. If the most recognised source for the software does not respond quickly, either due to financial or technical reasons, because of the nature of the licence, other coders are able to fix the problem, including those hired by customers. For those not paid, symbolic capital continues to play a part here: although the coders may appear to be unpaid volunteers, in reality there is kudos to be gained by solving a problem quickly, pushing coders to compete against each other, even while sharing their advances.

Despite this realisation that capital should not get too close to free software, the products of free software are still utilised by many corporates: free software forms the key infrastructure for a high proportion of web servers (Netcraft Ltd., 2011), and is extensively used in mobile phones (Germain, 2011) and financial trading (Jackson, 2011). The free software model thus forms a highly effective method for producing efficient software useful to capital. The decentralised, hard-to-control model disciplines capital into keeping its distance, forcing corporations to realise that if they get too close, try to control too much, they will lose out by wasting resources and appearing as bad citizens of the free software community, thus losing symbolic capital in the eyes of potential investors and customers.


The preceding analysis of free software and its relationship to capitalism demonstrates four areas in which the former is relevant to the latter.

Firstly, free software claims to form a part of the commons, and to a certain extent, this is true: the data and code in the projects are licensed in a way which allows all to take benefit from using them, they cannot be monopolised, owned and locked-down as capitalism has done with the tangible assets of the commons, and many parts of the intangible commons. Further, it appears that not only is free software not enclosable, but whenever any attempt to control it is exerted by an external entity, the project radically changes direction, sheds itself of regulation and begins where it left off, more wary of interference from capital.

Secondly, however, the paradigm of free software shows that ownership of the thing is not necessarily required to extract profit with it, there are still opportunities for the capitalist mode of accumulation despite this lack of close control of it. The high quality, efficient tools provided by free software are readily used by capitalist organisations to sell and promote other intangible products, and to manipulate various forms of data, particularly financial instruments, a growth industry in modern knowledge capitalism, at greater margins than had free software not existed. This high quality is due largely to the aforementioned ability of free software to keep capital from taking a part in its development, due to its apparent inefficiency at managing the commons.

Thirdly, although free software cannot be owned and controlled as physical objects can, thus apparently foiling the extraction of surplus value as economic profit from alienated employees, the nominal leaders of each free software project appear to take a significant part of the credit for the project they steer, thus extracting symbolic capital from other, less prominent coders of the project. This is despite not being involved in much, or in some cases any, of the actual code-writing, thus mirroring the extraction of profit through surplus labour adopted by capitalism.

Finally, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall seems to pervade free software in the same way as it affects capitalism. Certain free software projects have been shown to have difficulty extracting profit, in the form of surplus symbolic capital, and this in turn, has caused a turn to open data, which initially showed itself to be an area with potentiality for growth and profit, although it too has now suffered the same fate as free software.


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Rooney, P. (2011). IT Management: Red Hat CEO: Google, Facebook owe it all to Linux, open source. IT Management. Retrieved October 25, 2011, from http://si-management.blogspot.com/2011/08/red-hat-ceo-google-facebook-owe-it-all.html

Sneddon, J. (2010). LibreOffice – Google, Novell sponsored OpenOffice fork launched. Retrieved October 29, 2011, from http://www.omgubuntu.co.uk/2010/09/libreoffice-google-novell-sponsored-openoffice-fork-launched/

Stallman, R. (2010). Free Software Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman. (J. Gay, Ed.) (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: GNU Press, Free Software Foundation.

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Torvalds, L. (2001). Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary. London: Texere.

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Veltman, K. H. (2006). Understanding new media: augmented knowledge & culture. University of Calgary Press.

Wikipedia:About. (n.d.).Wikipedia. Retrieved October 29, 2011, from https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Wikipedia:About

Is free culture enlightened?

This essay was written for my sociology studies at University of Auckland – it will examine the concept of free culture from the point of view of the enlightenment, i.e. the idea that humanity can be improved through the power of reason, particularly the suggestion the latter demands critique of one’s surroundings and situation.


An in-depth definition of free culture is not of importance here, as it has been discussed in great detail elsewhere (Paulson, 2010; Stallman, 2002); suffice to say it involves creating works which are not under the monopoly control of one entity, as is the case for most content generated by the current capitalist system, but are instead owned by ‘the commons’. This content includes creative works such as films, music, photographs and computer software. The lack of monopoly control is achieved through a large group of individuals working on projects which are then released under a particular group of licences. These licenses allow other entities remarkable latitude to examine, use and re-distribute the work more or less as they see fit (Lessig, 2004; Stallman, 2002), albeit with some minor restrictions. This freedom to re-use these products appears to challenge and critique the existing order and the products themselves, thus somewhat fulfilling the requirements for enlightenment, as defined by Kant when he states “Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority” (1996, p. 17), and “For this enlightenment, nothing is required but freedom, …” (1996, p. 18).

The suggestion of enlightenment as questioning religiously-held values is paralleled in free software, when Eco, albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek, suggests that the choice between operating systems from Microsoft and Apple is akin to making a choice between religious denominations (1994). Free culture, which values control over the products used by the owner rather than a content company, could be said to sacralise the individual and to reject the notion of an omniscient, all-powerful entity (represented here by a large, opaque private company which dictates how a user will conduct him or herself in certain matters). In this regard, free culture demonstrates a turn away from religious-like behaviours, which concurs with the suggestion by Bronner that “the need remains for an unrelenting assault on religious fanaticism” (2004, p. 14), (cited in (Toscano, 2010, p. 98)). However, this do.s not tell the full story; free culture is itself highly ideological and involves adherence to a fixed set of values (although perversely, the tools and methods used to achieve this aim are continually in an unstable flux) – the phrase “information wants to be free” has become so embedded that it has become axiomatic, unquestioned and unchallenged. In rejecting the prevailing ideology (Microsoft/Apple), there is a move towards the questioning and critique demanded by Kant. Unfortunately, this appears to fail, as shown by examining Toscano (2010) when he admonishes Brenner for his stance: the old ideology is merely replaced with a new set of entrenched values which are not to be questioned, demonstrating tendencies towards fanaticism, and thus the somewhat un-enlightened nature of free culture.

According to Habermas, there are three ‘levels’ of cognitive interest which make up the enquiry required for enlightenment. The appropriation of knowledge can take three forms: analytic-empirical (i.e. the means to achieve some task); hermeneutic-historical (understanding the world around us) and emancipatory (freeing humanity) (1972, p. 308). Modernity mainly concerns itself with knowledge lying in the first level, with little attention to the other two – hermeneutic-historical and emancipatory. Within free software there are, broadly, two different camps – those who use the products because of their quality, and those who use them for more ideological reasons. The first group clearly fall squarely into the first category – the software is generally of high quality and superior to that produced by traditional software companies. The potential for emancipation is hypothetically high, although the tendency within free culture is to fall into the same trap as the rest of society – typical neoliberal values, such as personal responsibility (implicit in the decentralised, DIY nature of the products), efficiency and high productivity are often referenced as being benefited by free software. This implicitly suggests little desire to question the values of the current system, pointing to a lack of enlightened thought in this area.

The freedom to modify, re-use, remix and re-distribute the artefacts released under free culture licences implies a freedom to critique – the work is no longer fixed and defined from above as those created by traditional content providers are. It is free to be re-interpreted as anyone else sees fit – in this sense, this somewhat fulfils the definition of enlightenment put forward by Kant.

However, this critique is tempered; the freedom stated above is highly ideological – the majority of free culture works are only distributed online, and the class system, replicated somewhat in internet access, says that if one is Western, well off and educated, one will be more likely to have access to the works than someone who is not. This is compounded by the requirement for a set of highly technical skills necessary to modify the works – computer coding, graphics design, etc., rendering the potential for critique by the masses close to meaningless; even those who can access the works are subject to the same inability to modify, and thus critique, as those who use non-free culture products.

Slashdot is a popular technology/politics website inhabited by a large number of free culture contributors, which hosts discussions on news topics of the day and thus forms an example of ‘the read/write web’. The site is well known for generating several memes in internet culture, including “First post!” (Forbes.com, 2000). Amongst a large number of users, creating the first post is highly sought after, something which must be done within seconds of the news item hitting the front page, thus necessitating one not read the article. In this forum, there is the possibility of extensively discussing and thus critiquing news items on highly influential topics, but for a significant number of users (enough for the site’s administrators to block this practise), speed is everything and content nothing, thus exemplifying “No one is concerned with the ideology, as long as it is expedient” (Adorno, 1981, p. 30).


On comparing the concept of free culture against several theorists’ ideas around enlightenment, it appears to offer much potential, but rather than this being fulfilled, it has instead repeated and reinforced the values of neoliberalism. The ‘freedom’ that it professes to offer is confined to those who have the skills to take advantage, leaving significant numbers of the population unaffected. Further, the views of those who follow the values sometimes border on the fanatical – free culture at all costs, regardless of the outcome. From a Habermasian point-of-view, the concept appears to reach as far as advancing technical knowledge, although this is hardly an area which needs any help under liberalism, while neglecting the higher, emancipatory values of knowledge.


Adorno, T. W. (1981). Prisms (1st ed.). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Bronner, S. E. (2004). Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement. New York: Columbia University Press.

Eco, U. (1994, September 30). Eco – “Writings: IBM vs. Mac.” Retrieved July 27, 2011, from http://www.themodernword.com/eco/eco_mac_vs_pc.html

Forbes.com. (2000). Net vs. Norm: The Slashdot Effect – Forbes.com. Retrieved July 27, 2011, from http://www.forbes.com/asap/2000/0221/043.html

Habermas, J. (1972). Knowledge and Human Interests. London: Heinemann.

Kant, I. (1996). Practical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lessig, L. (2004). Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock down Culture and Control Creativity. New York: Penguin Press.

Paulson, R. (2010). Application of the theoretical tools of the culture industry to the concept of free culture. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from http://bumblepuppy.org/blog/?p=4

Stallman, R. (2002). Free Software Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman. (J. Gay, Ed.) (1st ed.). Boston, MA: GNU Press, Free Software Foundation.

Toscano, A. (2010). Raving with Reason: Fanaticism and Enlightenment. Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea. London: Verso.

Collectives and cooperatives – an alternative to the current system?

This post is situated in the context of a country and a world recovering from an economic crash.  It was written to suggest an alternative to our current economic system, which is less than ideal.

To start the analysis, we must first look at what ‘the economy’ means.  Then we must understand the meaning of an ‘economic crash’.  Briefly, we (advanced Western countries, such as New Zealand, UK, France and USA) live in a society where the dominant method of exchange is capitalism.  What is capitalism?  It is a means of producing goods and services which requires  an investor who has significant ‘spare’ money, to invest in a business, with the expectation of getting a return.  By spare, I mean he or she does not need the money to live on, i.e. to eat, pay for accommodation, travel, clothes, entertainment, holidays, etc.  The business can be any type of business, either wholly-owned by the investor (such as a family business) or not (such as business which trades on a stock market); the only concern is that it attempts to operate at a profit.  At this point, we must define profit also – in general language, the word ‘profit’ relates to any activity a person or persons may undertake which results in a gain of money to that individual.  The profit I speak of here is more strictly defined that that – when an investor invests money into a business, they expect a return without carrying out any work themselves (this can be somewhat confused by the possibility of an investor also being the managing director, chief executive operating officer, or some other generally high-level position within the company – but the two sources of income to him/her are considered separate for the purposes of this analysis).  This profit is known as ‘surplus’, and is generated by relying on employees who receive a wage for producing some good or service, which is then sold at a higher value than it costs to make it.  There are those who object to this state of affairs, regardless of anything else, and this is a valid objection – the investor makes an income out of the work of others, whilst putting in no work themselves – but it is not directly of concern here.

We now turn to the nature of a country’s ‘economic growth’.  The Prime Minister and Finance Minister of any country will often talk of economic growth, and how it is good or not good enough.  What does this mean?  It is the net return on all invested money across the entire country – if the economic growth for a given year is 3%, then for an economy worth $100 billion at the start of the year, the value of the economy at the end will be $103 billion.  The $3 billion created has gone to the investors who invested their money in various companies, who may or may not have been successful – generally, most will gain, but some will lose.  Some companies will make money at a higher rate than others, but the net growth across all, in this case, is 3%.

The next question to look at, is how the money is made.  The answer is selling those goods and services to people.  A small amount is made by investors selling things to each other (high-value goods such as luxury cars, yachts and clothes).  However, this ceased to account for the majority of money flow in the early 20th century, when Henry Ford introduced high wages and short hours for his all workers, in the hope they would use these wages to buy cars and other items.  They did – resulting in the mass consumerism we have today.  Thus, the majority of the profit is made from selling things to the same workers that are being paid to produce those items.

Regardless of any perceived unfairness here, there is a further problem with this situation.  Over time, this must result in a net movement of money from those doing the work, to those doing the investing – the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.  This is somewhat muddled by the presence in developed countries of a large middle-class, who generally, through pension schemes, small-time share-trading and investment funds, own a fraction of profit-generating companies – but not usually enough to live on until they retire.  The majority of profit-making enterprises are still owned by 1-3% of the population in a developed economy.  If the flow of money is mostly one-way, then we end up with an unsustainable situation.  How does this lack of sustainability manifest?  In an economic crash – this destroys equity for a certain segment of the population (the bottom, sometimes part of the middle), and allows the cycle to start over.  Hence, an economy predicated on never-ending growth is fundamentally flawed.

How do we right this situation?  The key part appears to be an economy which must grow to sustain itself (if the economy stops growing, i.e. profit returns are zero, investors stop investing, and there is no work for everyone else).  Is it possible to have a zero-growth economy?  Communism gave one possible solution, although that failed – not due to any lack in the concept itself, but in the method of attaining it: huge, disruptive changes to society, which resulted in one oppressive system being replaced by an ‘interim’ situation of oppression from a different source – the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which merely transferred the power from one small group of individuals to another, who are unwilling to give it up – see Animal Farm for more on this.  It necessarily relies upon a violent, coercive effort to convince people to change – that’s no better than the system we have now.

I propose a different route: collectives/cooperatives.  There is nothing new in this concept, the Co-op in UK is one of the biggest supermarkets in the country, and also provides insurance, banking, car sales, funeral parlours and travel agencies, amongst other services.

why are cooperatives zero-growth?  The key feature of a cooperative, is the owners and the customers are the same people.  As customers, the tendency is for the price to be as low as possible.  This low price in a business is usually achieved by a variety of methods: mass-production, rationalisation of work (such as the division of labour, implementation of efficient, consistent procedures, etc.).  It can also be achieved by cutting margin.  In the case of a capitalist enterprise, this is undesirable, as it results in lower profits, to the point where there is no reason for the investor to invest, hence the business ceases trading, or goes bankrupt.  However, in the case of a cooperative, the profit is not important – the service or goods are the only aim, thus there is benefit in running the enterprise, even with zero profit.  Also, as the owners make profit from customers, there is nothing to be gained from a profit – the money goes back to the same people who paid it.

This also brings up another point – there is a long history, starting with Taylorism, and progressing through Fordism, lean manufacturing, McDonaldisation and many others, of rationalising the work force in not entirely positive ways.  These methods are used to improve productivity, but usually at the cost of turning the workers into drones – Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times‘ shows this to good effect.  If there is no profit to be generated, there is less of an impetus to rationalise in ways which mould workers in this way, showing a further benefit to this type of enterprise.

How to start this in New Zealand?  The same as anything else: from small beginnings (grow mighty oaks), to paraphrase someone or other.

Free Culture and Liberalism

This essay was written as part of my sociology studies at Auckland University. It concerns the intersection of free culture and liberalism, meaning the modern political movement.  Some knowledge of that concept may be useful before reading the work.


This essay will examine the concept of free culture and how it relates to liberalism. Liberalism is not a set, fixed concept, but rather has varied considerably over its history. It has evolved through a number of periods: classical, or laissez-fair liberalism dominated in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries; embedded liberalism held sway after the Great Depression until the 1970s and neoliberalism has been omnipresent from that decade until the present day. Within these variants of liberalism there were still further, more subtle variations (Richardson, 2001, chap. 3). Free culture will be examined against elements from aspects of liberalism across its history. The work will describe free culture, and examine the similarities between this concept and the grand, overarching themes generally present in all forms of liberalism, and go on to describe any discrepancies with these themes. It will analyse how and why free culture arose, how liberalism features in that event, and how and why the two interact currently. It will assess the drive and motivation to participate in free culture projects, how this relates to the drives and motivation in liberalism and how inclusive it is. There will be analysis of the ideology of ‘freedom’ which underpins free culture, and the reality of how it is practised.

Free culture – genesis

Free culture is a concept which suggests all creative works should not morally be owned and controlled by individual entities, whether for economic profit or any other reason (Stallman, 2002, p. 15).

Liberalism brought about the enclosure of various areas of previously common land, used for acts such as grazing cattle and growing crops; as the land was enclosed, so they were forced to pay exorbitant rent 1. Capitalism has driven this enclosing, or privatising, of a slew of previously commonly-held and -used assets, first in Western Europe, later spreading to the rest of the world during the colonial period. So it was also with copyrighted works: the US government devised copyright in the eighteenth century, to allow for creative works to be owned by their creator, solely under his or her control as for any other chattel (Woodmansee, 2007).

Traditional copyright as we know it today is thus a somewhat artificial concept, created as a means to allow the extraction of surplus from creative works. At the time of its inception, the period of copyright was limited to 14 years from the date of publication, thus allowing a reasonable profit to be made and hence encouraging the production of creative works, whilst demonstrating the government’s understanding of the part cultural works played in wider society.

After this 14 year period, the work would have all protections afforded by copyright law removed, and it would become public domain, thus effectively owned and controlled by the commons. Traditional copyright law suggests that the creator of a work is solely responsible for its creation, however anything more than a casual glance reveals that any work is necessarily at the very least heavily influenced by other creative works, and thus society as a whole. The succeeding pieces would not exist without the work of their antecedents, thus potentially rendering the notion of a single creator redundant, and a gross over-simplification (Stallman, 2002, p. 11).

This situation remained more or less the same until the late 20th century, when the owners of creative works, such as Disney, Sony and Warner Brothers 2 lobbied the government to increase the term of copyright, which currently (2010) stands at 95 years, and is set to be extended further – there is a somewhat cynical observation in the free culture community, that whenever Steamboat Willie (an early Disney cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse) is about to come out of copyright, Disney merely lobbies congress to extend the term of copyright (Sprigman, 2002).

Embedded liberalism in the form of Keynesianism had, amongst other things, brought about the state ownership or regulation of critical infrastructure of many Western nations; in particular, the US telecommunications company AT&T was heavily-regulated by the American government from the 1920s onwards. The charter of this organisation called for it to maintain Bell Telephone Laboratories, a ‘blue-sky’ project division, which would undertake somewhat leftfield ventures, not necessarily with any immediately obvious commercial use. Thence Unix, the computer operating system, was born in the 1960s 3. Initially a minor side project, it later developed into a major force in IT, but as AT&T was a state-owned organisation, it was forced to give it away to non-profit institutes such as the University of California and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who assisted AT&T by providing fixes for bugs, and also modified the code to suit their own purposes (Garfinkel, 1994, p. 8; Wayner, 2000, p. 34). As Keynesian liberalism came crashing to a spectacular halt in the 1970s, so governments around the world began selling off their assets. AT&T was privatised and, freed from its charter of the state-owned days, started charging universities for licences to use UNIX – now a mature, sophisticated and powerful system underpinning many large organisations. Much to the horror of various researchers, lecturers and students who had previously worked without recompense on the system, AT & T also refused to hand over the source code, leaving the users at the whim of developers, who were now under the cosh of commercial profits, to make the changes they required. This angered various programmers and academics, amongst them Richard Stallman, who under the guise of the GNU project was motivated to create a clone of Unix, free for all to use, modify, improve and redistribute (Stallman, 2002, p. 17; Wayner, 2000, p. 42).

Free culture using liberalism

Free culture has been derided as communist 4 and socialist by prominent figures, and historically it has generally been associated with the political left (Hughes, 2008; Lea, 2000). However, a more in-depth look suggests it owes much to ideologically pure (but never arrived at) classical liberalism/libertarianism, in its eschewing of state interference beyond establishing a minimal framework to exist within. This minimal framework includes the protection of property rights, through copyright; reliance upon individual contracts, in the form of the licences; extensive use of the law courts (there have been numerous court cases testing the licences, in Germany and the United States – mainly brought by gpl-violations.org (Welte, 2006) and the Free Software Foundation) and radical decentralisation. The reality of liberalism is that it could never exist in its pure form, without destroying the society which it exists within and which is necessary for its survival. As such, it has long relied upon the state to intervene – the areas and extent determined by the type of liberalism, be it the embedded liberalism which constituted the social democratic Keynesian welfare state of the 1930s to 1970s, or neoliberalism and its lobbying of government to enact more and more economically-enabling (and socially-restrictive) legislation. Even during its alleged golden era, in the 18th century, classical laissez-fair liberalism relied heavily on interventions such as the Corn Laws and the Poor Laws, to provide a framework for the hegemons of the day to operate within, by imposing socially restrictive policies on the masses. Free culture appears to depart from this necessity – the majority of free culture projects request little government intervention or help.

The unfreedom of free culture

Taken literally, the central tenet of liberalism is freedom. Liberal democracies, and the ideologues who argue for their creation espouse freedom for all subjects, freedom to act as they will. Closer inspection reveals an inherent mild hypocrisy of this concept – perhaps it is nothing more than a simple habitus, a way to quickly sum up the ideals of a philosophy, a system, which encourages each to create his own path, his own route to fulfilment. Regardless, there are inconsistencies within its aims. Key parts of liberal ideology, such as property rights, reveal a philosophy with a very proscriptive set of rules at its centre (Latham, 1997, p. 121; Watson, 1992, p. 14), which necessarily results in a certain direction for society. The idea of freedom for all is thus a gross over-simplification; in reality it manifests as freedom for a certain type of person, to engage in a certain set of activities for a certain gain – it is freedom within certain parameters. Respectively, the bourgeois classes to carry out capitalistic enterprise, to gain money and power (Harvey, 2005, p. 6).

Free culture revolves around the licences; they define what can be done with a project, and inform and shape the methods of collaboration (Stallman, 2002, 4; Raymond, 1999, p. 3). These licences can be roughly divided into three groups: GNU General Public License (GNU GPL), GNU Free Documentation License (GNU FDL) and Creative Commons BY variants (CC-BY); Berkeley Software Development (BSD), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Apache; Public Domain and Creative Commons Zero (CC0) 5.

As can be seen from reading the text 6 of the licences (Free Software Foundation, 2008; “OpenBSD Copyright Policy,” 2007; “Creative Commons — Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand,” n.d.; “Open Source Initiative OSI – The MIT License:Licensing|Open Source Initiative,” n.d.; “Apache License, Version 2.0 – The Apache Software Foundation,” 2010), the majority of free culture licences are relatively similar in their permissiveness around rights for the user; the differences occur when developers who modify and re-distribute are considered. The first group listed above is relatively restrictive towards the developer – he or she must fulfil certain conditions in order to re-publish the original product, either in part or in full. The second group similarly has restrictions, but these are far less onerous on the developer, generally allowing the work to be enclosed so long as the original creator is acknowledged. The latter group have no restrictions at all, there are no prerequisites and no limitations on what developers can do. At a casual glance, the third group would appear to be the most liberal, followed by the second – anyone implementing them has little in the way of requirements, thus they are free to do as they wish.

However, the liberalness of the second and particularly the third group itself creates a potential problem in the view of some adherents: free culture (as the name implies) prides freedom as central. The relatively more restrictive licences such as the GPL and CC-BY are allegedly so, to protect the code/data from being “closed-off” or enclosed. This is the process whereby an entity – it could be any, but a big corporation is often seen as the most likely to do this (“License/We Are Changing The License – OSMF,” 2010) – takes a body of work created by a community and makes improvements, but due to the permissiveness of the more open licenses (such as the BSD and PD variety) is not required to contribute them back to the community; the entity has got a free ride from the commons. The popular Apple operating system OSX is perhaps the most high-profile example of this practice, that company having taken a variant of BSD 7 and modified it to produce a commercial, closed-source product which has generated millions of dollars in profits. Microsoft (the similarly-licensed BIND utilities), many mobile phone manufacturers (Sqlite) and countless others 8 have likewise re-used these products as they see fit. This has caused some ill feeling towards the companies in question, although the more ideologically libertarian members of the free culture community are perfectly content for their work to be re-used in this way. Using a Lockean analogy of land enclosure, the community has not strictly lost anything 9, but the gain to the corporations is huge. As a result, by far the most popular free culture licenses are the former group, the least free of them all. This causes some disagreement on virtually every free culture project, with considerable debate over the semantics of ‘free’.

A major difference to liberalism perhaps lies in the stated aims of free culture adherents: Richard Stallman (generally considered the first person to formally define free software specifically, and thus free culture in general) for one, has openly said his aim is freedom for the users, rather than the developers (and a simple analysis of the aims of these two in traditional copyright models demonstrates that freedom for one will generally reduce the freedom of the other), and ultimately a complete blurring of the distinction between the two. In this sense, his ideology appears to fit with what he preaches at a level of action, and the licences he created (the GPL family) sit very well with this notion. This is in distinction to liberalism, as the ideologues of that principle have often espoused the pure principles, whilst when it comes to action and policy, have been more likely to advocate interventionist methods. This was true even during the alleged heyday of Adam Snow-sponsored classical, laissez-faire liberalism, but has become even more so during the neoliberal movement of the late twentieth century. Further, Stallman has said a number of times that his true wish is to remove the necessity for the GPL and similar altogether; it is seen as an interim position, while the free culture movement generates superior alternatives to proprietary works 10.

In what may be seen as a rather contradictory situation, the text of the GPL is itself released with traditional copyright protections: it can be copied and re-distributed, but not changed (Stallman, 2002, p. 195). This is argued as necessary to prevent developers from changing the text, and then re-applying it to existing works, thus allowing them to be closed-off. In a pragmatic sense it is necessary, but it nonetheless creates a perhaps unfortunate point at which to depart from the overarching ideology.

Capital and Motivation

Liberalism revolves around the notion that each liberal subject is a rational-acting, self-interested individual (Wingo, 2003, p. 43), who will thus behave in ways which provide the best possible outcome for him or her, without the requirement of support or interference from other parties. This best outcome is manifested in the US constitution as being the “pursuit of life, liberty and happiness”. The reality, of course, is that these ideals have been usurped by the never-ending chase for monetary profit, and a cult of individuality which wreaks havoc upon society and the environment. It is also somewhat of an oversimplification, ignoring the effect society has on the individual, who cannot be considered an atomic, isolated entity.

Free culture appears not to operate in the same realm, as products are generally given away for no monetary exchange. There are exceptions to this rule, when developers are individually paid to work on projects, either as employees of a corporation or as individual contractors. This is becoming more common as corporations such as Google and Redhat realise the cost to them of writing code which is then given away to the commons, is significantly less than the gain to them of improving an already high-quality product and using it as a platform for other services. Applying a Marxian analysis of value, as there is no artificial monopoly (for, as discussed earlier, this is what copyright is), exchange value must tend towards labour value – i.e. the rate of profit has dropped as far as it can, and there is no surplus extracted by those who control the means of production (Marx, 1946).

This lack of reward for effort appears to turn on its head the entire notion of actors working solely to increase their own value. Kohn and Kilmister found that explicit reward for carrying out some act has little motivating factor; in fact it often serves to demotivate the individual concerned, by turning a potentially pleasurable act into a menial chore (2007; 1980). A task, such as creating a piece of software, composing a piece of music, or writing a book can be viewed as reward in itself, by fulfilling a desire 11 through being creative. This notion is further explained through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This theory suggests that individuals require a variety of needs, the most basic being the physiological necessities of life (breathing, food, water et al), followed by longer-term safety (of: employment, the family, health, property) (Maslow, 1943).

The typical liberal ideals would thus appear to lie in the lower levels of the hierarchy 12. Looking at the results of the studies cited above, it becomes clear that the aspirations, drive and motivation for free culture lie more towards the high end of the hierarchy (the upper two levels being esteem – self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others and self-actualisation – morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem-solving), suggesting a more utopian ideal perhaps in line with what ideologically pure liberalism, and perhaps true Communism, were envisaged as providing.

Further, Raymond remarked upon the lack of monetary reward for free software programmers, and described the mechanism which appears to motivate them as follows:

The peacock’s gaudy tail and the stag’s massive rack of antlers are sexy to females because they send a message about the health of the male (and, consequently, its fitness to sire healthy offspring). They say: “I am so vigorous that I can afford to waste a lot of energy on this extravagant display.” Giving away source code, like owning a sports car, is very similar to such showy, wasteful finery – it’s expense without obvious return, and makes the giver at least theoretically very sexy (2002)

This bears a striking resemblance to Bourdieu’s symbolic capital (1986), i.e. the accretion of status within the community and latterly without, demonstrating that the practice of giving away work is not as altruistic as it at first appears, although as Raymond continued to explain, due to the nature of the licences, this drive for individual gain is necessarily carried out in a more humble and universally beneficial way:

…the culture’s ‘big men’ and tribal elders are required to talk softly and humorously deprecate themselves at every turn in order to maintain their status (2002).

This requirement arises from the permissiveness of the licenses, which allows anyone to take the code, and “fork” the project at any time, and set their own direction – in order to not split the community, all must behave themselves, and not overtly seek praise or individual gain which harms the project. Thus, while free culture engenders individualistic gain and fulfilment, similarly to liberalism, it appears to do so in a way which is not only not destructive to the society in which it is situated, but which it positively benefits.

Continuing the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs analysis, the creators of free culture projects generally are composed of individuals of a certain class and position in society, being otherwise secure from a physiological and safety point-of-view, thus giving them the freedom to spend time and other resources on projects to benefit the commons. Spending time partaking in discussions on free culture mailing lists, wikis and forums, it quickly becomes clear they are predominantly: middle-class; male; well-educated, generally in a technical discipline; without children and have a high disposable income 13. While the skills and tools (higher education, generally from university; broadband internet and consumer technology such as personal computers, GPS devices and cameras) used for producing free culture have greatly reduced in cost due to capitalism, more distributive government policy and latterly neoliberal knowledge-economy policies, and thus been somewhat democratised, there is still a gap (often referred to as the digital divide, in the case of access to technology) between those who have, and those who do not. This shows one of the great conundrums of liberalism: anyone can take part, i.e. generally no-one is prevented by law 14 from taking part in any project, but in reality class boundaries create the same somewhat invisible barrier as they always have in the rest of society.

The One Laptop Per Child project is working to remove this barrier; it is mass-manufacturing a range of cheap computing device, to be used by students with no previous exposure to computers, in developing countries (“One Laptop per Child (OLPC): Mission,” n.d.). The device is wholly open; all software plus the hardware designs are released under free licences. Two million-plus units have currently been sold, to countries including Venezuela, Tonga and Liberia (“One Laptop per Child (OLPC): Children > Countries,” n.d.).

While this project is on some levels admirable, it could nonetheless be seen as involving a certain amount of cultural imperialism – rather than trying to right the Western-imposed wrongs of the past, including colonialism, ever-increasing debt, climate change and structural adjustment, through restoring independence and reducing interference, the educated technocrats of Massachusetts Institute of Technology are imposing the ways of the capitalist, technology-loving West upon various countries. This will hopefully allow them to engage with capitalism in a way which resembles Blair, Clinton and Clark’s attempts to include the underclasses in capitalism in the UK, USA and New Zealand, by establishing an inclusive framework which takes account of cultural differences (Lather, 2009, p. 11). It is salient that the applications installed on the devices are generally in the areas of natural science, including physics, electronics and computer programming. There is little to teach the recipients about the social sciences, or anything which may encourage them to question why they are in the situation they are, and why they must learn to use a computer. This is explained away as “pragmatism” by the leaders of the project, as the vast majority of software coders are interested in the natural sciences, with little to represent the humanities.

Neoliberalism – the system fights back

Capitalism is not a fixed, static beast – the very nature of liberalism allows it to morph as necessary. In the face of threats, it has long twisted, adapted, created and destroyed, all in a bid to survive and continue chasing increasing profits. Any challenges to the system, often created by the system itself, pose a threat, and after a brief struggle, are re-appropriated to further allow capitalism to grow (Deleuze, 1988).

The first reaction to a challenge is often to protect the existing market position, to destroy or discredit the new technology, the new way, the usurper; as free culture has become more prominent and influential, so it has become a target of this behaviour. The old, slothful and set-in-their-ways technology giants of the 1980s and 1990s have set out to discredit free culture, to smear and to scare. Microsoft have variously described open source 15 as “Communist” and “cancer-like” (Brodkin, 2010). ASCAP, a multi-billion dollar organisation charged with collecting royalties for music copyright holders, has recently stated that Creative Commons is undermining the concept of copyright, and thus stealing from poor songwriters 16 (Wilson, 2010). These attempts generally prove useful in the short-term to temper the spread of free culture, but latterly it has won the upper hand in more and more situations. Microsoft, perhaps realising its software empire is unsustainable in its current form and that Google and Facebook 17 pose the greatest threat, has recently declared it “loves open source”, and has sponsored projects to promote various Linux distributions, whilst providing tools allowing the free software community to interface with its own products (Perilli, 2009; Brodkin, 2010; Foley, 2010).

In the above cases, there was apparently little the companies involved could do, bar spreading propaganda to stave off the inevitable – as noted by many commentators including Marx and Beard, technology and progress stop for nothing, be it an insignificant human, long-existing tradition or mighty transnational corporation:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned… (1848).

Technology marches in seven-league boots from one ruthless, revolutionary conquest to another, tearing down old factories and industries, flinging up new processes with terrifying rapidity (1927).

Other attempts have been more successful so far: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, lobbied for by a number of technology companies and enacted by the Clinton government in 1999, amongst other things introduced law (in the name of halting allegedly rampant copyright abuse) which heavily restricted the use of tools and methods employed by various free culture communities (Wayner, 2000, p. 142). In a more overt attack upon free culture, a leaked draft of changes to Czech copyright law reveals a proposal requiring all producers of works released under open licences to prove their ownership to the copyright office (Michálek, 2010). This demonstrates a particular ideological attention to free culture which may significantly stunt the free community in that country, as it adds a potentially onerous amount of administrative work to what are generally volunteer projects. These cases show the apparent willingness of the state to interfere in the market, after intense lobbying by privately-owned corporations – classic cases of neoliberal interventionism, acting against their supposed ideology. In contrast, there is a consistent trend amongst free culture adherents to mistrust interference from the government (perhaps due to the above type of behaviour); Eric Raymond is one of the most vocal in espousing these libertarian principles, but others are noteworthy for taking a similar path, including Richard Stallman (Wayner, 2000, p. 141). Free culture thus seems to actively resist any significant intervention from governments, beyond the setting up of minimal frameworks under a broad ideology. An interesting turn in the 2000s, has been for free culture projects to lobby for the release of various government data sets under free licences; the request usually being in the form of (paraphrasing) “give us the data, we’ll manage and distribute it more efficiently and widely than you can” (“LINZ – OpenStreetMap Wiki,” 2010; “Ordnance Survey – OpenStreetMap Wiki,” 2010; “TIGER – OpenStreetMap Wiki,” 2010) 18. This appeal coincides neatly with neoliberal/third way policies which devolve responsibility out to non-government groups, thus relieving the government of involvement in a particular area.


Free culture appeared as a product of freedoms created by embedded liberalism, which were then severely restrained by neoliberalism – it is a direct reaction to the enclosure of various cultural artefacts in the name of profit.

To achieve its aim, it has been shown to use the very concepts developed by liberalism. It appears more pure ideologically, although there are still inconsistencies, but in contrast to liberalism and neoliberalism, most are openly acknowledged by their promoters, and explained and understood, if not always fully accepted. Despite (or perhaps because of) free culture’s ideological purity, neoliberal policy has often tried to destroy and limit it, through lobbying government to enact legislation, and instituting media-driven smear campaigns – in the process further revealing inconsistencies between its ideology and practice.

From a motivation point-of-view, free culture uses similar methods to those of liberalism, but without the expense of turning human against human in a mutually destructive relationship, or allowing the vast accumulation of wealth and power by a small slice of the population.

Recently, this latter ideal has been somewhat subverted, as more and more corporations realise that though free culture products provide little possibility for directly extracting surplus, they are very useful as platforms for other products and services – Google for one owes a lot of its success and wealth to a range of free software tools. The flip-side is free culture communities can similarly use the products as a platform; the frameworks (economic and technical) can be used by both sides.

Additionally, it has also been shown that class is as important a divider in free culture as in liberalism, although there are attempts by free culture itself to fix this (and again, neoliberal/third way government frameworks are helping those who can take advantage in this area); they are somewhat in their infancy, a fact revealed by a certain clumsiness in their methods – time will tell how they evolve, and the nature of this inclusiveness.


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1This, along with mass mechanisation of farming, also partly precipitated the shift of the population towards city dwelling, as living off the land was no longer sustainable.

2It is important to note here that the owner of a work is rarely the creator; more likely the recording/movie/TV studio which employs the nominal creator has control and receives the majority of the profits from the sale/license of creative works

3In between developing this operating system, Bell Labs was also noteworthy for developing the transistor, C computer programming languagel

4Meaning the commonly-understood definition of Communism, i.e. the totalitarianism of Stalin, rather than the stateless Communism envisaged by Marx

5It should be noted, that there are many more free culture licences than are listed above – these are however, the most popular, accounting for over 90% of free culture projects, and hence the most relevant for defining what free culture is and is not (“SourceForge.net: Software Search,” 2010)

6It is perhaps not a coincidence that the free software licences are generally written in far plainer language, making them accessible to a larger audience than are the content of most End-User License Agreements, associated with proprietary, i.e. non-free products

7BSD refers to a license and an operating system, both a product of the University of California, Berkeley campus. The latter product is released under the former licence.

8The very liberal nature of the licences does not require the developer to even divulge use of the software. Sqlite, a PD-licenced database engine, has an unknown, but highly speculatively estimated 300 million installs worldwide.

9Apart perhaps from an opportunity to receive contributions, but of course having to contribute work back to the community for free reduces the number of changes made, but the entity has gained something from the commons without any payback – it somewhat mirrors the enclosure of land, and although it is far from a zero-sum game in the way losing physical property would be, significant numbers of the community object nonetheless. Somewhat ironically, this situation exactly mirrors the alleged ‘loss’ suffered by media companies when their films, music and other content are copied without permission.

10There is a parallel here with the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, as espoused by Lenin: short-term, enforced control over all subjects is necessary to achieve greater freedoms later, when all control can be relaxed, as true Communism is achieved

11Generally referred to as “scratching an itch” in free culture communities

12It should be noted, that each level does not necessarily require the attainment of the one below for it to be achieved – the obvious exception being the first level

13Sources: various means of electronic messaging, involved with Wikipedia, Openstreetmap and New Zealand Linux User Groups

14Although certain activities currently in the ?focus? of free culture are banned in countries including China

15A subset of free software so named to be more appealing in the corporate world

16Neatly ignoring the reality that the majority of profits go to the recording/publishing house itself anyway.

17Both widespread users of free culture products

18It should be noted that US government data has always been released under a Public Domain licence; the willingness of independent groups to re-use the data has significantly increased in the last decade, with many groups such as Wikipedia and Openstreetmap taking advantage of this policy

Creative Commons License
Free Culture and Liberalism by Robin Paulson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License.
Based on a work at bumblepuppy.org.

Auckland Creative Space

Auckland needs a Creative Space, also known as a Hacker Space or Maker Space. So, a few of us have got together, done some research and collected other like-minded souls. We’re currently working through what it will look like, where it will be, and how much it will cost, etc.

The people involved are musicians, radio presenters, artists, electronics and robotics geeks, programming nerds, artists and many more.

The drive behind the Creative Space is twofold:
Firstly there is a recognition that technology, despite it’s claims to be all-empowering and to make life better for its users, does the opposite. Marshall Mcluhan based his concept of ‘The Medium is the Message’ on the realisation that media is used in ever more-controlling and divisive ways. Despite its claims to be about connecting people and empowering relationships, the more sophisticated the technology becomes, the more it interjects between people, dividing them further from each other. There is much evidence that increased use of electronic media to communicate results in less and less real human-to-human interaction. This results in subtle but important parts of communication being stripped away, leaving a less rich and meaningful interaction behind. A conversation is so much more than the meaning of the words; facial expressions, body language, hand gestures, tone of voice, eye contact, and hundreds of other factors, all of them are picked up at a conscious or subconscious level, and become part of the communication.  All are lost when the communication is mediated by e-mail, IM or text. Phone conversations keep some of the content (such as tone of voice, speed of speaking, pauses), but a lot is still lost. Even video messaging is not perfect – the camera is often placed in a way which cuts out the hands and feet, depth perception is close to zero affecting interpretation of gestures, and people are often nervous or overly self-conscious compared to person-to-person. An associate of mine who has Asperger syndrome, on learning of the above opinions on e-mail and SMS argued that to him, e-mail was a fantastic form of communication – off-line he found it very difficult to have a conversation with people, but e-mail, due to it’s inherent removal of all the aspects of communication that he could not pick up on (voice tone, body language, etc.), resulted in everyone else communicating in the same way as he did. So, there we have it. E-mail, IM and SMS; it’s like giving the whole world Asperger Syndrome.

With this in mind, and realising the more concrete negative aspects of on-line communities – flamewars, misunderstandings due to sentences with multiple subjects, cultural differences and more, it seemed a natural step to provide a real, person-to-person environment which catered to anyone who was interested.

The second, more obvious reason for the Creative Space was to allow the sharing of tools and skills through the pooling of resources. There are lots of projects I would like to work on (more on this in later posts), for which I have neither the money, space, skills nor agreeable neighbours. A Creative Space would provide all of these.

So, get out from behind the computer, come along and meet us – all are welcome. To join in, or see what we’re doing, click here for details on our (physical) meetings.

This post is a work in progress, and will be expanded on.

Application of the theoretical tools of the culture industry to the concept of free culture

This is an essay I recently wrote as part of my sociology studies at University of Auckland. It is a very focussed, narrow analysis from a certain point-of-view. Some understanding of the culture industry and Freudian psychoanalysis may help situate it in its intended context.


This essay will apply relevant aspects of The Frankfurt School’s culture industry theories to the concept of free culture. It will describe free culture and the culture industry, and analyse parts of the former to assess its conformity or otherwise with the thesis of the latter. It will include relevant aspects of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, upon which the culture industry is based. It will also, if any incompatibilities or unexplainable concepts arise, attempt to explain these differences with other theoretical frameworks.

The rationale for choosing free culture stems from my involvement in various projects which can be roughly categorised as belonging to that genre. My interest was initially piqued by the idea of software, data and music which could be used/enjoyed/consumed without any payment. As I graduated from using the products to contributing to them, I became aware that these projects appeared to engender (both through the works themselves, and the mindset of the individuals involved) an active engagement with not only the works and their direct environment, but also the world at large – including politics, mass media, monopoly capitalism, ecology and social values.

The Culture Industry thesis is relevant here, as it appears to offer one of the better explanations for the increasingly unfulfilling aspect of humanity exemplified by my frustrations and boredom with the passive, non-engaging content of the majority of mass media – particularly music, TV and film. My experiences in free culture, including knowledge of crude statistics such as the increase in use of and contribution to free culture products including Firefox, Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap (“Browser market share,” 2010; “Statistics – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” 2010; “Stats – OpenStreetMap Wiki,” 2010), possibly indicate a growing resistance to the Culture Industry theories of Adorno et al. Thus at a superficial level, free culture appears to encourage engagement, active participation, informed critique, and thence increase freedom for the individual, indirect . This thesis is examined further in the essay.

Free culture is a concept which states that cultural artefacts such as music, films, computer software, photographs, knowledge and data are currently (late twentieth/early twenty-first century) subjected to overly restrictive laws and corporate action, resulting, as Lessig and Stallman suggest, in restricted freedoms of the individual, a reduction in social interaction and increasing concentration of power in the hands of the few (2004, chap. 2), (2002). This is known as a “permission culture” (Lessig, 2004, p. 8). Netanel also writes of how extensive copyright policy is necessarily analogous to censorship and speech regulation (2007, p. 8). There is a movement active in re-orienting this permission culture to a “permissive culture” (Lessig, 2004, p. 8), where individuals are significantly more free to use, adapt, modify and re-distribute creative works in ways which benefit themselves, rather than the traditional centralised owners and controllers of media. Pinter writes of “…the new models arising out of the confrontation between the traditional economy with ever tighter regulations benefiting multinational corporations,…” (Free Culture and Creative Commons in The Cultural Economy, 2008, p. 85), suggesting the increasingly authoritarian control over society via cultural products, is facing a backlash. People are taking back their culture; becoming more engaged.

Pre-modernity, the concept of ownership over cultural artefacts did not exist as it does today; poems, stories, dance and songs were shared, passed down from generation to generation, adapted and modified to reflect the society they were a part of, and were free for all to do with as they wished. The works were owned by the society, also known as the commons.

When the concept of copyright was first developed in the United States in 1790, it was created by the government as a temporary, artificial monopoly for the purpose of allowing the creator of a work to extract capital; after a short period, this monopoly control of the work would cease and it would enter the public domain, free for all to use as they wished (Andersen & Konzelmann, 2007, p. 4; Grosheide, 2007, p. 39). It was envisaged this monopoly would encourage individuals to be creative, by allowing them to be compensated for their effort; creativity and culture were therefore somewhat commoditised, whilst retaining a balance with the perceived social value of cultural works. The original term of copyright in the United States was 14 years; during the nineteenth and twentieth century this was steadily increased by a number of amendments to copyright acts, and currently (2010) stands at 70 or 95 years, dependent on the circumstances of the work. This has not resulted in an increase in creativity; the number of literary copyrights per capita registered each year barely fluctuated in the period 1900 to 2000, despite the claims of big content providers who lobby for these changes (Boldrin & Levine, n.d.).

The drivers behind this lobbying are revealed by examining the concept of the falling rate of profit, i.e. the idea that as capitalism progresses, increases in production efficiency and commoditisation result in smaller and smaller profits for industrial companies (Harvey, 1989, p. 142). Intellectual property, mostly in the form of copyright, but latterly patents also, enables this falling rate of profit to be temporarily halted, as monopoly control over works results in competitors’ inability to compete through lowering prices. As explained by Perelman: “…the protection of intellectual property has become a substantial counterweight to the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. ” (2003, p. 307). When tied to the following observation from the culture industry thesis: “The cultural commodities of the industry are governed …, by the principle of their realization of value, and not by their own specific content and harmonious formation.” and “The entire practise of the culture industry transfers the profit motive naked onto cultural forms.”, it becomes clear that cultural artefacts are more than ever seen as a means (perhaps the only ongoing-profitable means) to making money (Adorno, 1990a, p. 86). Put in more concrete terms, the music of The Beatles is owned by a single entity; no other music publisher can undercut their exchange price while the work is covered under copyright, and hence Sergeant Pepper still sells for as much of an artificially-assigned price now, i.e. one not defined by market forces, as it did on release in 1967, despite the musicians, publishers, producers and all other parts of the manufacturing and supply chain having long been compensated for their investment. What other commodity can this be said of? Thus it can be seen that for capitalist enterprises to continue making the profits they demand, and continue in their position of power, extending copyright effectively forever (for it has been extended a number of times, and looks set to be increased still further in the US and other jurisdictions), provides a virtual monopoly with the as-expected guaranteed return for little further investment (“Music copyright to be extended to 70 years for performers,” 2009). As explained by Rutherford “Just as early industrial capitalism enclosed the commons of land and labour, so today’s post-industrial capitalism is enclosing the cultural and intellectual commons…” (2008)., and Jessop “…the leading capitalist states are intervening to subordinate knowledge as a collective resource to the profit-oriented, market- mediated logic of economic competitiveness” (2007). Aside from the negative aspects of this process mentioned in the culture industry thesis, the above-mentioned idea negates the “standing on the shoulders of giants” aspect of humanity – the idea that no person can ever be though of as a sole creator; behind them is “… an army of teachers, friends, peers, producers, editors and managers who all contribute in different ways to the final artefact.” (Berry, 2008, p. xii), not to mention the preceding creators who inspired the works in a less obvious, but still critical way: would The Rolling Stones (and the shareholders of their record company) have amassed their vast wealth without the work of African-American Delta blues guitarists in the 1920s and 30s; where would Lady Gaga be without Madonna as an antecedent; and what sort of music would New Order have produced had Kraftwerk and Can not laid the groundwork they did? This increasing use of knowledge and cultural artefacts for the generation of profits, at the cost of being neighbourly (Stallman, for one has often talked of the eminently social nature of free culture) (2002, p. 12) and acknowledging one’s inspiration has thus incited a small but growing revolt at the grassroots level; consumers and producers alike (and free culture increasingly and intentionally blurs the distinction between the two) have taken it upon themselves to create a new commons, outside the traditional, closed schema of modern commercialised culture.

Culture Industry

During the 1930s, members of the Frankfurt School were uncomfortable with firstly the conventional theories of Marxism (Held, 1980, p. 110), as they took no account of the actions of the individual upon the society they were contained within (or vice versa), and as they did not posit culture as anything other than a response to the economy (Cox, Krysa, & Lewin, 2004, p. 10). They took Frued’s psychoanalytic theories, particularly around the development of the super-ego, and used it to demonstrate how the modern family conditioned people, from early childhood onwards, to develop in such a way as to be compliant for the purposes of extracting capital under the bourgeois-owned means of production (Adorno, 1974, p. 23; Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, 1973, p. 142).

Further, they contended that this underdevelopment of the super-ego through the emasculation of the father, left individuals susceptible to readily accepting authority and whatever it suggested – in the case of the culture industry, this suggestion included buying more consumer goods, and accepting whatever political and economic system was ordained by the mass media (at the time laissez-faire liberalism; later national socialism and more recently neo-liberalism), thus further entrenching the system of capitalism.

This acceptance of authority was further exploited by mass media, named by Adorno as the culture industry. The culture industry, they allege, produces mass culture, which they claim is distinctly different to the culture of the masses, something spontaneous and representative of them, in forms including books, TV, films, magazines and music, with the sole purpose of rendering the public stupefied, docile and uncritical . This mass culture is highly commoditised, and “… the differences on offer are illusory because no such product can be realized independently of the logic of commodification” (Hammer, 2006, p. 76). This stupefaction, it is suggested, allows the masses to be fed any lie or manipulation, which they will not question, and take as the truth – the masses are happy in their unchallenging, consistent world with no shocks, surprises or demanding situations. They are happy relying on others to make decisions for them, so long as they are left alone in apparent comfort. Thus the majority of the population disengages from not only cultural products, but also politics, economics and any other debates and decisions which affect them. Following this transfer of power and responsibility away from the masses, class structures can be re-introduced, increasing amounts of consumer products sold, wars for commodities in foreign lands justified and dissenting groups silenced. The products of the culture industry thus soothe any discontent, and in this sense bear a striking qualitative resemblance to the religion as talked of by Marx, which he suggested was the “opium of the masses” (Marx, 2009), i.e. a pacifying force to quell any revolutionary thoughts of the proletariat.

Free culture is relatively recent as a formally-defined concept; in this sense it has only been defined since the early 1980s in the case of free software, and the mid-1990s in the case of creative works such as art, movies and poetry. In another, it is as old as human culture itself – humans have always shared cultural artefacts such as stories, poems, music and dances. The more recent, formal definition, which this work will focus on, has had little theoretical analysis or empirical study by sociologists, thus restricting any rigorous in-depth analysis, as the majority of the evidence available is either produced by members of free culture projects, anecdotal or both. Perhaps the most relevant analysis comes form Schäfer who, on discussing the grassroots communities which are inherently part of free culture, notes that

“Taking the cultural production of users for free or even worse to integrate it into the companies’ intellectual property … could suppress this voluntary labour. The GNU General Public License is an attempt to avoid such mistreatment. … [as are] the Creative Commons licences … . Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s culture industry perfectly describes a monopolistic, unidirectional organised industry. But since the 1980s valuable cultural/technological production and distribution takes place outside these structures.” (2004, pp. 201-202).

Aside from this, there has been little work explicitly analysing free culture from the point of view of The Frankfurt School’s culture industry, although a number of writers have implicitly alluded to a resistance of the concepts derived by The Frankfurt School. Stallman and Lessig talk of the personal control and freedom aspects afforded to the users (and to a lesser extent the creators) of free culture products, juxtaposed with the systemic, centralised control inherent in non-free culture products (2002), (2004, chap. 1); this is important than it first appears, as the creators (distinct from the controllers, i.e. the shareholders and directors) of culture industry products are often as manipulated through the process as the end consumer, something which Adorno alluded to (1990a, p. 87). The anthropologist Kelty, writing on an ethnography with free software programmers, wrote this of free software “…it exemplifies a more general reorientation of power and knowledge.”, and “…[allows individuals to] focus on the radical technological modifiability of their own existence.” suggesting that this culture provides an outlet away from the mass-control of the culture industry (2008, p. 2). Similarly, Wayner’s view on free software was its ability to allow increased freedom from the likes of Microsoft, Apple and IBM (2000, chap. 8). The libertarian and computer programmer Raymond wrote of the decentralised organisation of successful free culture projects, further pushing the point of personal control over one’s existence (1999, chap. 2). Medosch comes close to asserting the presence of an escape from the culture industry through free culture, when he states:

“The General Public License (GPL) grants free usage of software, access to its source code, and authority to modify and distribute … [as do] other copyleft licences, including … the Creative Commons licences. … An important aspect here is that both free software and free content break down the barrier between producer and consumer. Every reader is a potential writer.” (2004, p. 149),

thus implying the possibility of increased decentralisation through the use of free culture licences; however, he takes this point no further. Hence, this work is intended as an initial, exploratory piece with a view to later empirical and theoretical work, possibly involving textual analysis, interviews, focus groups, and other forms of research.

The culture industry thesis states that the mass media industry “… refers to the standardisation of the thing itself … and to the rationalisation of distribution techniques …”, i.e. it mass produces near-identical products, which are highly commodified and interchangeable (Adorno, 1990a, p. 87). At the same time, it preaches choice (a common liberal and neo-liberal claim), suggests that the consumer is king, and accentuates the subtle, but trivial differences between otherwise alike products made by competitors. As explained further:

“In short, cultural goods cultivate interest through disguising their utter stereotypy by introducing isolated effects or details that give the impression of something novel or individual”. (Witkin, 2003, p. 47),

This re-packaging of tiny differences as an attention to the needs of the consumer was labelled by The Frankfurt School as “pseudo-individualisation”. Free culture appears to offer the possibility of true individualisation, from the intent of the licences under which products are released. For instance, the text of the General Public License, the most popular license (“SourceForge.net: Software Search,” 2010) designed for the release of computer software, states that “… the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change free software …” and “You may modify your copy or copies of the Program or any portion of it …” (Free Software Foundation, 2010); similarly, Jordan writes that “… freedom here means that … more importantly and fundamentally that the code that constitutes the software can be taken for free and adjusted for free…” (2008, p. 43). Also, the Creative Commons licences, recommended for creative works including books, music and films, include the following: “You are free: to Share – to copy, distribute and transmit the work; to Remix – to adapt the work” (“Creative Commons — Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand,” n.d.) further, the free on-line mapping project OpenStreetMap, whose data is released under a Creative Commons license, affirms that:

“… most maps you think of as free actually have legal or technical restrictions on their use, holding back people from using them in creative, productive or unexpected ways … The most important difference with OpenStreetMap is you get the map data, not just the map images created from the data. You need the actual data if you want to create your own maps or use the data on a variety of devices in other ways.” (“OpenStreetMap wiki – License,” 2010)

and as Weber suggests, free culture will “Empower people to experiment” (2004, p. 234). However, these examples are potentially rather hypothetical, at first glance bearing some resemblance to the liberal ideology that all humans are created equal, and are free in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness and will thus act in rational, self-interested ways to create ideal outcomes for themselves. As has been well documented, not putting legal obstacles in the path of individuals does not automatically imply they will take advantage of what is offered to them. However, examining the uses of, for example the data produced by OpenStreetMap, shows an array of novel applications, unpredicted by the original creators: a mapper named Christian Schulmann has used the data to provide stamped metal 3D maps for the blind, with textured areas and lines to represent different geographic entities – at no point has OpenStreetMap suggested he should use the data in this way, or provided the data in ways which only allow him to do so (“HaptoRender – OpenStreetMap Wiki,” 2010). Similarly, the makers of Flight Gear, the free software flight simulator, did not ask for permission to include OpenStreetMap data in their product. The on-line encyclopaedia Wikipedia similarly releases its data (“Wikipedia database extracts,” 2010) for anyone to download in its entirety and use as they wish: as a result, numerous programmers have created applications allowing it to be stored and read from a mobile phone, iPod or other portable device, in each case without needing to ask permission from the creators of the data or the software they re-appropriated, and often without their knowledge (“Building a (fast) Wikipedia offline reader,” 2009; “Evopedia – Offline Wikipedia Viewer,” 2010). These examples demonstrate the reality of the consumer (who can now also be seen as a producer) engaging with the works in ways which they find useful or fulfilling, thus implicitly critiquing them, and tending away from the control as exemplified by the culture industry: “… the single word ‘culture’ betrays from the outset the administrative view, the task of which, looking down from on high, is to assemble, distribute, evaluate and organize.” (Adorno, 1990b, p. 93). Indeed, it could also be said that in these circumstances, the specific (true, individual creativity) is not subsumed under the general (mass-production of near-identical works for monetary gain), to paraphrase Adorno.

Numerous commentators on free culture have written on the importance of the community (Raymond, 1999; Stallman, 2002, p. 19). This would be an understatement as in fact the project and the community are inseparable – without the latter, the former could not exist, and in fact would have no reason to exist; free culture projects appear to be almost entirely driven by demand, there is very little supply side coercion, implying still further the lack of input from modern capitalist forces. A project usually begins with the inspiration and drive of one person, or a small group of persons (Weber, 2004, p. 162). These trailblazers will begin coding, collecting data, making creative works, and may or may not gather a community around them to further develop the works being produced, depending upon their nature and the value of the product. These members of the community, as far as the project is concerned, are volunteers (including those employed by corporations to contribute; the corporations can also decide to withdraw their help at any time) – they choose to spend their time and effort on the project. Unlike traditional creative works, with a single owner and hence controller, the products of the free culture community are licensed under a contractual agreement, such as the above-mentioned GPL or CC licences, which are extremely liberal in their permissions. These permissions include the freedom for any person, contributor or otherwise, to do as they wish with the work being produced. Thus, if those nominally seen as controlling the project behave in inappropriate ways, there is a likelihood of unhappy contributors forming a new community, with new leaders and aims – the consumers and notably creators (for Adorno suggests they are as much objects of the culture industry as the end-user) of the products thus do not, as Held put it, have a lack of sovereignty, resulting in reduced “ … integration of consumers from above …”, both identified as a factor of the culture industry (1980, p. 91). Due to the relative ease of this process, known as forking, and the lack of power the community leaders (often tongue-in-cheek referred to as benevolent dictators (Rivlin, 2003)) actually have over other contributors, any suggestion of centralised, autocratic influence is removed. As Raymond suggests, “… the culture’s ‘big men’ and tribal elders are required to talk softly and humorously deprecate themselves at every turn in order to maintain their status.” (2002), further backed up by Chopra and Dexter who found that “These communities are devoid of coercion: authority figures emerge at the will of the community, and the ever-present possibility of forking renders their authority contingent” (2008, p. 170). Further evidence for this rejection of enforced authority from above in general, and specifically the encroachment of advertising on the commons, can be found in the use of AdBlock, a piece of free software which blocks all adverts in the Firefox web browser, another free software product. This piece of software has sat at or near the top of the most frequently downloaded list of extensions for Firefox since its inception in 2006, and is currently being downloaded over 700,000 times per week (“Popular Add-ons :: Add-ons for Firefox,” 2010). This suggests that unlike the culture industry, and the Freudian notions of authoritarianism upon which it is based, adherents to free culture value its inherently decentralised nature, promotion of individual control, and a questioning of all forms of authority including that of consumerism driving adverts. As Hullot-Kenter explained of the culture industry:

“… the contemporary American has been so overwhelmed by real and constant anxiety, has been so broken in on by heteronomous forces, that this autonomy and its capacity for involvement with extramental normality could no longer be presumed.” (2004, p. 192)

As explained by Adorno, this factor of the culture industry is generally blended so well in to cultural works, as to be virtually invisible “We can distinguish three stages in the developing formation of needs: advertising, information and command. As a form of omnipresent familiarization, mass culture dissolves these stages into one another” (2008, p. 73). Further, a similar piece of web software named “Shaved Bieber”, again released under a free license, has been developed for the sole purpose of blocking all mentions on the web of Justin Bieber, a singer who squarely fits the culture industry model of mass-produced, formulaic and unengaging (“Sick of Justin Bieber? Remove him | Stuff.co.nz,” 2010). Clearly, there is an increased perception of, and revolt against, not only mass-produced culture, but also the products it seeks to sell. However, there are exceptions to this avoidance of domination; despite the apparent lack of effective centralised power, and hence difficulty in spreading ideals through coercion, certain aggressive tendencies abound. Raymond writes of “… flaming and shunning – public condemnation of those who break custom …” (2002), used to coerce contributors and others into behaving in certain ways, generally as determined by those with experience and skills. This displays, as suggests Wiggershaus, “… extremely hierarchical thoughts and feelings, with submissiveness towards idealized authorities in one’s group …” (1998, p. 414), and bears, albeit in a toned-down way, a similarity to the tactics used by producers of mass culture to manipulate consumers into following their will. A popular epithet amongst hacker communities is “RTFM”, or “read the fucking manual”, often spat out to anyone asking questions deemed as simple or obvious (“Flame Warriors ~ View topic – The Use of Wikipedia in a Flame War,” 2008; “Old Nabble – fire-development – OSCAR / AIM over HTTP protocol question,” 2006; “Old Nabble – Rivet – Dev – RTFM,” 2010). The result of this is generally for the person the request is aimed at to carry out the suggested action, and do their own research rather than it be explained to them. This at once confirms and also contradicts certain aspects of the culture industry thesis; Adorno commented on “The pre-digested quality of the product prevails … It is baby-food …” (1990c, p. 58), suggesting that mass culture products are generally presented in simplified, trivial ways, which allow easy engagement with the content, thus resulting in the development of the cultural dopes necessary for the culture industry to be effective. The above response from established members of the community shows that a number are not prepared to pre-digest the concepts for the newer/less-educated members, preferring they learn for themselves and become more self-sufficient and independent. Although a worthy aim, this is clearly achieved in a way necessitating dominance by one party over the other, with resort to actions which attempt to take advantage of an under-developed super-ego. The ensuing action of the receiver of the flaming, often in a wish to fit in with community norms, shows the apparent reality of the under-developed super-ego in members of the community. The initial view of the hacker as under-developed socially, best exemplified by the actions of Richard Stallman in certain situations (Williams, 2002, p. 31), reflects a part of society which is not part of the mainstream. It instead shows an unwillingness to compromise, due to an ego which does not negotiate well between the Id and Superego. As free culture and free software in particular have moved more and more into the mainstream, the type of response detailed above has markedly decreased in frequency: the background and hence super-ego status of contributors appears to have gradually changed. This is in part due to the increased accessibility of the tools, which where initially arcane and required advanced knowledge to carry out the simplest of tasks, thus attracting a certain type of individual. This has resulted in a decrease in the dominating behaviour detailed here, which thus decreases the conformity to the culture industry methods in one respect, but has also seen an increased likelihood of simple questions being answered instead of the questioner being encouraged to find out for themselves.

It is a somewhat amusing irony to see the very actions which the vulture industry relies upon for its success, being turned towards it and potentially arresting its influence. My own experiences of becoming involved with free culture stem almost entirely from exposure to the projects through a variety of culture industry websites. These sites, such as Digg.com, Slashdot.org, Theregister.co.uk, and Wired.com are all commercial entities, generally funded by advertising and/or owned by large multinational corporations, such as the gigantic publishing house Condé Naste, currently one of the largest magazine publishers in the world, and the software company Microsoft (“Breaking News: Condé Nast/Wired Acquires Reddit,” 2006; “Digg: New ad provider | Digg About,” 207). In the case of Digg.com and Wired.com, they are currently ranked in the top 100 viewed websites in the United States. In their layout and design, they follow the culture industry definition of “… assembly-line method of turning out its products, all glossy and finished” (Witkin, 2003, p. 47).

Further, the incessant commoditisation of every aspect of manufacturing has resulted in huge numbers of cheap, high quality electronic devices which enable the production of free culture works. Bill Gates announced to the world that Microsoft would put “A PC on every desktop”, and over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, they have succeeded – it is considered the norm rather than unusual for a household in the Western world to have access to a PC, not to mention a GPS device, mobile phone and less popular but still not unusual, musical instruments. These were intended for consumers to use in ways directed by the manufacturers, respectively: poking each other on Facebook, driving to the closest Starbuck’s, accessing Facebook whilst drinking coffee in Starbuck’s, and singing along to the latest Justin Bieber effort. The vast majority are good citizens, and do as they are told. However, a tiny minority of the population resist, and use these tools of capitalist repression to create their own works, to show engagement with the world around them – through the creation of free culture works.

Whilst free culture often appropriates the products of the culture industry; the reverse is not often as simple. There are many claims that free culture, particularly free software, is anti-capitalist or communist in nature; Richard Stallman, originator of free software in a formalised, legal sense bears the brunt of these assertions, partly due to his anti-free markets stance (Stallman & ten Have, 2007). However, as he states, he has no issues with capitalism per se, and is happy to derive an income charging for his services as a tutor, lecturer and consultant. Reviewing the GPL license for instance, there is no explicit or implicit prohibition of commercial activity with the software, although an infrequently-used variant of Creative Commons expressly prohibit this (Free Software Foundation, 2010; “Creative Commons — Attribution-Share Alike-Non-Commercial 3.0 New Zealand,” 2010). As such, during the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, numerous companies large and small began using free culture products as part of their commercial activities: Google ATI/AMD and Sun Microsystems are some of the most notable (“24/May – FRF50 (Froyo) pre-rooted update zip + no radio option + online kitchen – Android @ MoDaCo,” 2010; “ATI Developer: Source Code,” 2009; “MySQL :: Sun to Acquire MySQL,” 2008), all with revenues and profits in the billions of dollars. The choice of whether or not to use and support the free culture products when viewed at a technical level appears simple: the products so licensed are available at no cost, are generally of high quality and do not require contractual negotiations for their use and re-distribution. They are also, as discussed earlier, designed to be modified easily, and are modular – many individual components can be relatively simply joined together to produce a complete, finished product suitable for any situation (Weber, 2004, p. 164). However, due to the licences, any changes made to the products must be released to the community – this is often referred to as their viral nature. Short-term profit and the fear of a rival having a technical edge over companies, could be said to form an externalised father figure to the shareholders and directors of private corporations; as Reich suggested: “… thought in general and man’s critical faculty also become inhibited.” (1970, p. 167) – it is not only the masses who are conditioned to behave in certain ways; all elements of society are manipulated into fulfilling their role by the same methods. The current capitalist hegemony of political and economic thought places these short-term profits and the power achieved by them ahead of any other considerations, thus the potential long-term consequences are not considered – tomorrow’s share prices is everything. The free/open products they take and improve (and they must improve them to add value, allow them to work with their specific hardware and/or make a point-of-difference to their competitors), appear to be a product of their world, for they are a part of modernity, a product of the technocracy and the onward march of scientific progress. However, although they appear to be aimed at the capitalist corporations, they are not a product of them, are not controlled by them and cannot serve them in the ways they wish. Use of free culture artefacts in their products, for example Motorola using the Linux operating system kernel on their Razr and Rokr mobile phones (“Motorola RAZR 2 V8 Linux phone review,” 2010), results in the necessary release of trade secrets and code in order to comply with terms of the GPL, hence giving free software hackers a further edge when subverting the device to their own ends, rather than dutifully following the wishes of the manufacturer. Similar effects have been observed due to businesses using OpenStreetMap data, and Creative Commons licensed images.

Reviewing the works produced by free culture products, particularly the music, they bear a resemblance to their non-free counterparts, in their lack of originality – the long-ingrained culture industry ethic of highly derivative art forms still shows through here, despite the resistance of the creators to mass-produced culture – the proliferation of childishly-simple rhyming couplets, overuse of the Antares Autotune and three minute thirty pop songs are indelibly embedded, and may take years to exorcise from the collective creative consciousness. The more mature aspect of free culture, free software, reveals that as the projects develop, so they cease to copy their proprietary compatriots, instead striking out into new, innovative territories. A damaged super-ego is not easily restored to healthy status; if free culture is successful in providing a space to escape from the culture industry and authoritarianism it may take generations for full freedom and autonomy to be realised.

As has been shown above, the terms of the various free culture licenses, by a number of routes, can potentially provide individuals with greater fulfilment, through enabling greater engagement with their culture, and by allowing each to create, distribute and use the work of themselves and others in ways they see fit. This in some way appears to subvert the notion of the culture industry rendering the masses passive and not engaged with the cultural products around them. However, any time spent involved with hacker culture reveals the commodity fetishism which still prevails. This “gear lust” as it is called (Ralph, 2008) is a seemingly never-ending chase for the latest computer processor, a bigger screen, a more powerful mobile phone. More and more, this has been tempered by hackers refusing to buy hardware which is not open, i.e. cannot be used with free software. Numerous manufacturers, including Google, ATI (the second largest graphics card manufacturer in the world) and FIC, (one of the largest laptop manufacturer in the world) have responded to this by releasing devices with their accompanying technical specifications, thus allowing the community to develop software as they wish, unimpeded by the necessity of waiting for the company to “pre-digest the material” (Adorno, 1990c, p. 58). Thus, despite the apparent increase in engagement from members of the hacker community, the corporations have got their wish – the masses are happy and spending money on commodities at the cost of only a slight increase of engagement with the products. This can be further investigated by analysing the transfer of power in the technology world, with the products at each stage a platform for the next stage. For decades until the late 1970s, IBM was master of computer technology – a huge empire spanning the globe, built upon powerful, high quality hardware and dubious business practices. Microsoft took the baton in the mid-1980s, after convincing IBM they should keep the copyright to their new operating system MS-DOS, which was to be included with all IBM machines; hardware was commoditised, with little point of difference between manufacturers, resulting in a falling rate of profit for hardware manufacturers. The power lay in the newly opened market of the software used on these machines, which were now merely a platform for the new level of high-profit cultural artefacts (Burke, 1999; Gardner, 2010). At the dawn of the web in the early 1990s, Microsoft chose not to focus on the new technology, believing the software was still key; people could do what they liked as long as they did it through Microsoft products (Rebello, Cortese, & Hof, 1996). The passing of power was repeated – software was now highly commoditised, and the different products very high quality and very alike, thus the rate of profit fell again, and software became yet another platform for the next stage. Google and Facebook, recognising that what people did on their computers was critical, did not follow Microsoft’s example, and allowed consumers to use whichever software they liked, even going so far as to sponsor the development of the Firefox web browser, and later create their own free software products with the help of the community– better software enables people better, quicker, more reliable access to the products of providers; the culture industry is regaining ground, as the platforms become ever more slick and polished (Dignan, 2007; “Chromium – Google Code,” 2010; Lardinois, 2009). Through free culture, the masses were beginning to engage more with the software, refusing to passively take what was given to them, preferring to create their own products. They wanted individualisation of the products, the ability to customise them as much as they liked, and the likes of Google were happy to provide it, so long as their services and products were used, and the attached adverts watched. Increased engagement of consumers developing one platform (software) thus allows the consumers to have better products at that level, thereby increasing their perception of involvement and also enabling improved services, which can then be used to give more power and control (to the culture industry providers) at the level above, i.e. data/content. This can be seen with the domination by Facebook and Google as a mediating party between individuals – as the software on which their site is hosted and displayed increases in quality and capabilities (in part through the efforts of the community), as the hardware and software becomes more and more commoditised and merely another part of the hosting infrastructure, so the company is able to deliver an even more “… pre-digested … product …” (Adorno, 1990c, p. 58). The commoditisation of software products is virtually complete – Microsoft cling on to their little remaining power through ethically suspect methods such as vendor lock-in (Hartley, 2009), while the content providers race ahead in accumulation of power, as they realise the platform per se is irrelevant (Google Finance, 2010). It thus appears that the concentration by free culture hackers on these platforms has done nothing more than aid the above-mentioned data gatherers, has provided better platforms for delivering culture industry content. To a certain extent this is true: while corporate users of free software are forced to contribute changes to the code of the software itself, they are not forced to contribute the data/content manipulated, stored or shown by that software – the corporations have successfully taken a product of the commons and re-appropriated it for their own ends: serving up better culture industry products; the Deleuzian rupture has been brought back under control, and capitalism continues on its way (1988, p. 220). However, the Creative Commons is increasingly gathering power – the commoditised, widely available platforms and tools serve the commons as well as the corporations, as the number of works such as books, films and TV programmes permissively licensed shows (“Elephant’s Dream,” 2010; “Jamendo – Open Your Ears,” 2010). Further, projects such as Yacy, the community-driven, distributed search engine (“YaCy Distributed Web Search,” 2010), the micro-blogging site identi.ca and Diaspora, the forthcoming non-commercial, distributed alternative to commercial social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace (“join diaspora – blog,” 2010), and the high levels of enthusiasm around them (shown, of course through culture industry channels such as Slashdot.org and Wired.com), show a deep understanding around individuals controlling their content, data and creative works, and resisting the invasion of advertising into their lives. This may form the final step in the previously unending commoditisation of cultural artefacts, and subsequent use of them as platforms to drive the production and sale of other products and concepts. If the creative works cannot be used as a platform for any other cultural products, this appears to be a rupture which will not be brought back in by capitalism. Is the creative content the end of the line? While the commons and hence the community keep control of this resource, can corporations never re-appropriate it? Or, is there another stage, is there always another level fed by the previous level, now commoditised platform?


The original thesis that free culture can provide an outlet for people’s creativity, appears partially correct. The permissiveness of the licences under which free software, music, films and other works are released encourages individuals to adapt these products (thus implicitly critiquing them), but also provides a system whereby multiple otherwise separate (in many senses of the term, including geographically, politically and economically) persons can collaborate to create products of immense value. The lack of any monetary reward, coupled with studies showing the drop in quality of products and also of personal enjoyment when hackers (or any individual who enjoys their work) are paid (Amabile, 1996), appears also to point to a culture which its members take part in solely for reasons which are fulfilling to those involved.

However, within the community, particularly around behaviour towards others, there are certain personality traits which tie in with the methods and underpinnings of the culture industry. The use of certain authoritarian methods reveals a wish to dominate those who are relatively new to the scene, and enforce decades-old cultural norms upon them. This appears to be diminishing however, as free culture becomes more acceptable in the mainstream, and thus the psyche of the average contributor shifts, bringing in the apparently radical idea that hurling abuse and insults at others is not a useful way to maintain a community.

One of the overarching themes of the culture industry is the domination of humans by technology. The inherent coupling of free culture both through the means of distribution and collaboration, and the gear-lust of a large slice of free software coders has resulted in perhaps more domination of humans, through an always connected lifestyle, and increased purchases of (some types) of commodity. Whether this is necessarily part of free culture, or merely a product of the contributor’s existence as cultural dupes, married with an increased awareness and understanding of technology, is not clear here. If part of the latter, then the questioning of political systems and the overriding quest for freedom which appear to be a part of free culture may result in this commodity fetishism by another name, gradually decreasing.

This gear lust, in part driven by the culture industry, coupled with the use of culture industry channels to provide a great impetus for free culture, further distancing the concept from Adorno’s ideas.

It appears however, that free software, the initial area of interest by free culture adherents, has been re-used by capitalism, as predicted by Delueze and Guattari, and is further fuelling the culture industry through increasing its power to placate and satisfy; the original thesis of the free culture providing an escape, appears at the moment to not be correct. There are indications, however, that the current direction of free culture, that of cultural works such as stories, music and art works, are potentially more resistant.

An investigation into whether or not the creative Commons can resist capitalism and the culture industry may form the basis for further research.


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Creative Commons License
Application of the theoretical tools of the culture industry to the concept of free culture by Robin Paulson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License.
Based on a work at bumblepuppy.org.