Productive Freedom and the Political Economy of Hacking

By Jo Bates

As I write this response to Gabriella Coleman’s fascinating work on the hacker communities that develop Free and Open Source Software, and engage with the question of the political role of such collectives, Edward Snowdon has become the latest protagonist in a protracted and deep struggle for “information freedom” to surface into the public consciousness.

Whilst the cases differ, the underlying sensibilities—and logics—of these various social actors overlap. As Coleman begins to explore, strong ethical commitments to a liberalism based upon freedom of speech and citizens’ right to privacy underpin a core element of these various collectives of “information activists” who are responding to a range of corporate and state violations of such values during an era of unprecedented, and expanding, rates of production and distribution of data and information.

Coleman’s ethnographic exploration of the hacker communities of San Francisco and online is incisive in its analysis of the developing tension within the liberal political sphere between a form of liberalism with a strongly North American emphasis on free speech combined with a more leftist praxis of productive freedom and positive liberty, and the neoliberal agenda of market expansion through an ever more stringent intellectual property regime which restricts such freedoms.

Whilst Free and Open Source Software communities may in general eschew articulating a political agenda behind their activities, as Coleman intricately explores, there is something fundamentally political in these ideas and practices, particularly when the impact of their collective action is considered in relation to the influence they have exerted within the political economy of global informational capitalism over the last two decades.

So, what are the political implications of these practices, and how do they fit within a broader political imaginary?  If we consider further the interconnectedness of these political ideals and economic practices, we open the way for a more critical interpretation of the political economy of productive freedom, both in relation to these collectives of F/OSS producers and more generally.

Whilst an undoubtedly emancipatory ethical commitment does drive much activity within hacker communities, it is also important to assess this claim in relation to the position of the vast majority of hackers as part of a class of producers within the global capitalist economy. This form of analysis places more emphasis on a political economic, rather than solely political, interpretation of F/OSS development, and prompts us to draw our attention to the class dynamics of F/OSS and how they relate to emancipatory political claims.

In Coleman’s study some of the class dynamics of F/OSS production begin to unfold in relation to her observations around the complexities of governance within the particular communities she explores. Coleman’s delicate unpacking of the tensions between “fiercely meritocratic” (p. 94) forms of “individual elitism” and “communal populism” (p. 105) within the Debian project begin to highlight what might be termed a form of producer exceptionalism that pervades the F/OSS communities in question.

Her discussion of hackers’ performance and “idealiz[ation of] cleverness as a characteristic par excellence” (p. 101), their engagement in “a form of stylized boasting, taunting, cajoling, and elitist disdain” (p. 112), and their placing of “an extremely high premium on self-reliance, individual achievement, and meritocracy” (p. 106), reflects a particularly Darwinian, and highly masculinised, form of exceptionalism  being articulated by these particular F/OSS developers in relation to their role as producers within the global labor market.

Critically, whilst Coleman’s hackers are keen to recognize the importance of their own productive freedom, there is little evidence of efforts to extend this push for freedom to those outside the collective; there is little sense of solidarity with other paid and unpaid producers in efforts to expand the space of productive freedom that F/OSS developers are beginning to enjoy. Further, there is little recognition that their efforts to construct their own productive freedom have in fact been propelled by their very particular position and skillset within, and offering to, the global capitalist market, rather than simply their own exceptional ability to carve out such a space for themselves. Indeed, this lack of producer solidarity and alliance-building outside of the collective functions to restrict the hackers’ understanding of the limits of their actual productive freedom as paid and unpaid producers of the critical infrastructures that global capitalism is built upon.

Coleman’s hackers are undoubtedly freedom fighters of a sort—as opposed to being “a danger to society”—however, the crucial question is what sort of freedom are they fighting for—and on whose behalf? Whilst the heart of F/OSS production beats with a radical demand for a form of productive freedom based upon positive liberty, that radicalism is quashed as soon as the vision becomes limited to particular, somehow exceptional, groups of producers. Whilst a wide reaching ethnography of F/OSS production across the globe might uncover such a broader emancipatory drive in a variety of developer communities in different locales, for the predominantly North American hackers of Coleman’s study the framing of their collective vision is instead relatively limited, thus diluting the claim on behalf of these particular hackers as “freedom fighters.” To echo the words of the legendary Scotsman John McClean, a truly emancipatory politics of productive freedom should be based upon the assumption that you “rise with your class, not out of it.”

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Hackers: Freedom Fighters or Danger to Society

One response to “Productive Freedom and the Political Economy of Hacking

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