A short critique of Stallmanism

I like Stallman and tend to agree with him often: regarding software, or other politics. This article tries to constructively criticize some parts of the free software movement’s ideology, which I collectively refer to as “Stallmanism” (only as pun). It is not an attempt at a personal attack on Stallman, and by reading further you will probably see my politics are very far from that: I coined the term Stallmanism simply because he is at the center of the movement and himself a primary source of the ideas I am critiquing.

“Free software” means software that respects users’ freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”. We sometimes call it “libre software,” borrowing the French or Spanish word for “free” as in freedom, to show we do not mean the software is gratis.

We campaign for these freedoms because everyone deserves them. With these freedoms, the users (both individually and collectively) control the program and what it does for them. When users don’t control the program, we call it a “nonfree” or “proprietary” program. The nonfree program controls the users, and the developer controls the program; this makes the program an instrument of unjust power.

What is free software?

A familiar ideological mistake

Free software, at it’s core, is an emancipatory philosophy: it identifies unjust and oppressive social relations regarding computer software (the efforts of companies and governments to control and subjugate computer users and prevent social ownership of software), and informs the struggle against them. Richard Stallman, the figurehead of the movement, has been primarily correct in his general approach to software freedom advocacy, as he analyzes it as a wider social phenomenon (this is best evidenced by the phrase Free Software – Free Society and the paragraphs quoted above). However, his approach, and the approach of some organizations and individuals drawing inspiration from and collaborating with him, contains a crucial mistake: confounding individual virtue and purity with wider social liberation.

Stallman’s rhetoric is filled with this problematic logic on all layers: from trying to correct other people’s terminology and purify the language (however sound some of his premises may be), to promoting a type of technological asceticism by using, and encouraging others use, only free software for every conceivable purpose: from applications to firmware. Note, in advance, that I am not saying these should not be free, they absolutely should, this is a problem on the level of the philosophical framework and of strategy – not a factual mistake on the value level. Critiquing this can be problematic, especially when his advocacy has positive practical effects on illuminating certain issues such as software-as-a-service and complex nonfree JavaScript programs. His criticism of these phenomena is desperately needed, but his concrete reactions to it are not: it is not a solution for people to simply stop using e.g. Gmail.

Systematic analysis requires a systematic response: primarily rooted in collective political action to curb business and government intrusions into privacy and collective control, effective alternatives (yes I said it, see the next paragraph), and approachable education: not a puritan, individualistic, “good enough for me” stance. In general, this approach is evocative of, and indeed stems from, the familiar liberal ideological mistake of lifestylism: the belief that changes in one’s own personal preferences are the beginning and end of political action.

His demonstrations against the use of the “alternative” are illustrative of this:

We don’t describe free software as an “alternative” to proprietary, because that word presumes all the “alternatives” are legitimate and each additional one makes users better off. In effect, it assumes that free software ought to coexist with software that does not respect users’ freedom.

We believe that distribution as free software is the only ethical way to make software available for others to use. The other methods, nonfree software and Service as a Software Substitute subjugate their users. We do not think it is good to offer users those “alternatives” to free software.

Taken in isolation, it is obvious that no alternative to free software should exist: you must agree with this if you agree with the core teaching of the free software philosophy – the fact that proprietary software is inherently unjust. However, how is ignoring your enemies’ existence going to change the fact it exists? It is just as effective as not talking about race and racism when trying to combat it.

While the movement’s goals truly do lie in liberation, this is not just a rhetorical problem, it is a matter of reacting to incorrect analysis rooted in individualism. I believe this error harms the movement’s efforts at two important practical fronts:

1. Outreach

The problematic analysis crystallizes when it comes to outreach: telling people to use free software because otherwise they are exploited on an individual level is not a very effective appeal because it essentially puts the weight of the entire oppressive system on their shoulders by presenting it as a simple choice: you choose to be exploited. If everyone just saw this simple truth exploitation would cease to exist! This is clearly false, in the same way that people rarely have a choice when it comes to participating in other oppressive social relations. The answer is never to sever oneself from society, but to change it.

To primarily tech-savvy free software users, this might appear not to be true: we indeed have a choice regarding software we want to use. But again, underlying logic here is that of individualism. We ought to look at software not as mere isolated commodities among which we can freely pick, but rather as a social phenomena: defined by its production, usage, and its function in society. It then becomes clear that as the fruits of programmers’ labor are essentially closed down and rented to the rest of society, that society is not free.

This type rhetoric breeds elitism (perceived or actual): we give off the message, implicitly, that using free software makes us more virtuous than those who don’t. To the outsider, our demands can then seem as mere expressions of personal preference, in the best case, or, attacks on their own preferences, in the worst – even though our motivations really may lie in the desire for commonly owned software.

2. Political organization

The fight for institutional support for free software usually has very positive consequences, but the rhetoric and motivations behind it can be problematic: it is often intertwined with liberal cries for efficiency – the idea that governments and institutions should switch to ‘open source’ because it is in their financial interests. Instead of agreeing with this most likely correct statement, we should point out that software should be a public good, and that it’s generally irrelevant what governments and institutions use: what matters is that we control what we use, invest in it, and make it available to everyone. Of course, this is probably an extremely hard goal to reach, which only shows that, again, the struggle for free software is in fact the struggle for free society.

The dominant Stallmanist rhetoric is again lacking in this respect: among regular people, there is hardly any support for free software, or even awareness of its existence as an idea. There are political issues relevant to many computer users regarding software such as iTunes or Steam, centered around the fact that things which were once regular commodities – music and art – have entered an even more problematic mode of exchange: what was once our personal property, is being locked away from us and rented. The FSF rightly points out all the ways this is relevant to free software: essentially, non-free software and DRM are together used to impose private interests over public ones. But instead of addressing the wider political issue of how digital goods should be shared, Stallman even implies that this is only a problem insofar as DRM requires non-free software:

The motive for DRM schemes is to increase profits for those who impose them, but their profit is a side issue when millions of people’s freedom is at stake; desire for profit, though not wrong in itself, cannot justify denying the public control over its technology. Defending freedom means thwarting DRM.

How can our politics be effective, if we don’t connect them to the actual source of the problem: profit? I know Stallman personally espouses some very socialistic ideas about financing the production of art for social good (and maybe even all digital works?)–but such an approach should be crucial to the free software philosophy.

It is crucial to understand and accept the class dynamics of politics, and to realize that our efforts should not lie in explaining people their interests, but rather organizing to best achieve them. Imagine if all those who were outraged by, for example, Windows 10 spying on them, were given an integrated political platform to properly understand the root cause of these issues and the proper way to resist them!

Evgeny Morozov’s article on Uber expands on this idea on how to conceptualize privatization and technology.

What is to be done?

Free software activists should accept that software freedom is not an isolated issue, with its own, completely independent value set, but is just one aspect of a wider struggle for justice, and that we can never achieve full software justice under capitalism. Once freed from this isolated logic, the next obvious step is integrating it into our advocacy, critiques, and educational material.

A more general but also important realization should be that non-participation of this kind is a privilege, not an effective political strategy. We should turn the implication “Free Software => Free Society” on its head: Free Society => Free Software.

The header image was taken from here: http://hackaday.com/2016/01/13/stallmans-one-mistake/. Author: Joe Kim