How do we make capitalism more human? What can free software and open source learn from each other?
At IndiaFOSS yesterday, Rushabh Mehta ended the talk about “FOSS United: The Story so Far” with an interesting slide. It said “Be a part of FOSS United! Remake Capitalism”.
It kept me the whole day going. When IndiaOS was renamed to IndiaFOSS there was only a small debate. But from the beginning of FOSS United, I have felt like it is an open-source group, that FOSS United misses the point of free software.
Capitalism is completely compatible with open-source. I don’t think free software is as much compatible with capitalism though. And I felt that free software was taking another hit when I saw Rushabh’s slide.
But then I remembered I’m no longer an activist. I had discussions with Joice, Ganesh, and a few others about it. I skipped the second day of IndiaFOSS today and sat at home thinking about it. I believe I understand Rushabh in some ways. I will explain, but I have to talk about a few things before that.
The spirit of the commons
When I say free software is different from open-source, I am thinking in terms of the spirit.
The spirit of open-source, as Kiran puts it, is that of shared infrastructure. Like roads. You need roads, I need roads, we can all do better business if we have better roads. So let us build some roads.
The spirit of free software is that of humanity. That sharing is better for humankind. That collective ownership is how we make everyone’s lives better. It doesn’t think about roads alone. It thinks about the sky, and the planet, and the houses, and the shops, and everything. Free software is about sharing everything.
I can give examples of why this maybe a right way to characterize the spirits of the two movements.
Free software folks love the GPL license. They like the virality of it. They want everything to be free. The whole stack. Open source folks love the MIT license. They want to be able to build proprietary stuff on top of open-source libraries.
When people claim that they’re pro-FOSS because they use FOSS libraries (85%), the camps differ in their response. Free software folks are angry. Open source folks are happy.
I am going to call the free software spirit as I defined above “the spirit of the commons” in this article.
Organizations in the commons
Some of you might know I am working with SOCHARA to nourish an online movement in community health. SOCHARA is an organization that has been working in community health for more than 25 years. I went there for the first time a couple of years ago. I went there for the second time this year or so. After a few visits and talking to the folks there, suddenly I started feeling about the organization differently. I used to feel like a visitor before that. But then I started thinking like I own that place. Like it is my place. I can do whatever I want with that organization. It is my organization.
I felt ownership.
That is the commons feeling. The feeling of shared ownership. The feeling that no single person owns something, but everyone does. That if there is something wrong, it is everyone’s responsibility to fix it. That if there is something good, we gotta share it with everyone.
This sense of shared ownership is very important. Let us look at a different scenario.
Open-source maintainer burden
We keep seeing tweets about open-source project maintainers somehow sabotaging their project because of various kinds of burden. Be it deleting a package because of 2FA, or unmerged PRs, or burnout. There are so many angry rants about how open-source maintainers do not owe anyone anything.
I think open-source maintainer burden occurs because there is no shared ownership.
When the one person who created the project is the “owner” and everyone else is “contributor”, there is no shared ownership. The owner is forced to take all the decisions and do many chores. The contributors are forced to not take up more ownership.
Personal projects in github and individual uploaded packages in npm/pypi/etc force open-source projects into this pattern of single owner and multiple contributors.
To create shared ownership on github, creating a project as an organization and adding all contributors as maintainers is probably a good step.
The more open-source truly embraces the spirit of commons, the lesser is the burden on the “owner” - because there are more owners.
I do think that by default we tend to think in capitalistic terms of “ownership”. That because a project was started by me, I own it. That it is forever mine. That I have a special power over it.
That’s not the commons spirit.
But that brings us to the next point about practicalities and realities.
Tragedy of the commons
To avoid tragedy of the commons, individuals need to think about and act in the common interest of the group.
But human beings are human beings. We cannot predict how exactly they are going to behave.
The capitalists tend to think that human beings cannot act in the interest of the group. The socialists/communists tend to think that human beings will act so or can be forced to act so.
Human beings are human beings though. They don’t listen to ideologies when they act. They act in various ways in various situations.
The productivity of capitalism
Let us think about an “ideal” world where there is no capitalism. There is universal basic income. And human beings are free to do what they want to do.
What would human beings do in such a world?
Sing? Dance? Draw? Eat, sleep and make merry?
Clean up the sewers? Treat the sick? Build houses? Do mining?
Why would human beings work hard if there was no pressure of capitalism?
Without deadlines and managers, how can human beings remain productive? Without the rewards of capitalism, why would human beings take large risks?
Who will build the homes for the homeless in a world where human beings have the complete freedom to do whatever they want to do?
I’m not talking about resources. I’m talking about the physical act of building homes.
Who will transport the bricks and the cement? Where will those come from? Who will work in the brick factories?
How do hospitals work in that world? Who will do the night shifts? Who will do nursing?
I refuse to believe that we can sustain the demands of our present civilization without the performance pressure of capitalism.
If we want to get rid of capitalism, we will have to downsize our luxuries and go back to basic pleasures like agriculture.
The other side of capitalism
The problem is that there is no inherent checks and balances in capitalism. If you can exploit humans, you can exploit them to the maximum. If you can exploit nature, you can destroy the planet. Morality is grey and breaking rules is “creativity”. There is nothing within capitalism that prevents capitalists from becoming evil human beings.
That’s where the opposition to capitalism becomes important. It is the constant negotiation by the opponents of capitalism which keeps capitalism in check. That’s where worker rights and minimum wages come from. That’s where environmental impact assessment and social responsibility comes from.
If not for these counterbalancing forces, capitalism would have destroyed the planet. If not for the brakes, we wouldn’t be able to drive cars fast.
The blended mode
The best capitalists are those who get into capitalism for the society. They are the ones who will respond to the opponents. They’re the ones with social responsibility. They are the ones who create inclusive workforce. They are the ones who build ethical businesses. They’re the ones who share ownership. They’re the ones who make the world better without making it worse.
Perhaps that’s what Rushabh was talking about.