Free and open source software and ‘the anarchist-libertarian ethic’

February 5, 2013 § 6 Comments

Joseph Reagle’s recent paper on sexism within the free and open source software (FOSS) movement, ‘Free as in sexist?': Free culture and the gender gap, makes an important contribution to our understanding of FOSS, and particularly to those who want to build a movement which is more diverse and welcoming. However, I do feel that at least one aspect of his argument needs further development. Reagle sees the movement’s ‘anarchist-libertarian ethic’ as playing a significant role in sustaining a hostile environment, outlining this ethic as follows:

This personal-freedom ethic is not only intact in the free culture movement, the movement is now its most vital and popular manifestation. For example, Richard Stallman, geek exemplar, has “campaigned for freedom since 1983” (Stallman, 2010). Eric Raymond, famous for a number of technical and cultural contributions (e.g., fetchmail and as a progenitor of “open source”), is a self–described anarchist and libertarian (Raymond, 2003; 1999). Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, which lauds the autonomy of self–interested behavior and laissez–faire capitalism, had a significant influence on American libertarianism and early Internet culture. At Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales is reported to have named his daughter after a character in one of Rand’s fictions; Larry Sanger, too, was fond of Rand’s The Fountainhead and is a self–described libertarian (Deutschman, 2007; Schneider and Sanger, 2011). Mark Shuttleworth (millionaire entrepreneur, self–funded astronaut, and Ubuntu founder) was a “fan of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and great admirer of Ayn Rand’s vision” though he now identifies as a more tempered “fan of regulated capitalism” (Shuttleworth, 2008). In short, while there are significant differences in the political philosophies of these men — and each would be adept articulating their differences — they are creatures of the Internet’s ethos of freedom.

The Really Really Free Market (RRFM) movement is a non-hierarchical collective of individuals who form a temporary market based on an alternative gift economy. The RRFM movement aims to counteract capitalism in a non-reactionary way. It holds as a major goal to build a community based on sharing resources, caring for one another and improving the collective lives of all.

Really really free market, Perth

There are a couple of problems with this. Firstly, while key figures within the movement such as Torvalds, Raymond, and RMS certainly do play a role in shaping the movement’s politics, they don’t fully determine them. Neither their politics nor those of participants in the movement more broadly are as simply encapsulated as Reagle makes out here (as I’ve discussed elsewhere). The second problem with this is that ‘anarchism’ and ‘libertarianism’, while sharing a concern with individual freedom, are quite distinct political philosophies, and are associated with very different community ethics. Libertarians tends to privilege an extreme individualism, failing to acknowledge the role of structural oppression in creating inequality, and seeking to diminish (or extinguish) the role of the state in favour of more freedom for the market. Anarchists, on the other hand, tend to place individual freedom within the context of community, acknowledging the role of structural oppression, and critiquing both the state and the market as systems for allocating resources.

Reagle’s conflation of anarchism and libertarianism is more than a minor niggle for political scientists (and anarchists) – it also influences his discussion of potential solutions to the problem. Reagle argues, drawing on Herring’s work, that the alternative to the current open, ‘anarchic’  system is a more structured form of community, including a ‘group leader':

the anarchic–libertarian ethic requires a significant tolerance for adversariality that may be alienating to some participants. Such participants may actually feel freer to participate under a more structured form of community governance, including community leadership or conduct guidelines. As Herring (2003) writes: “While this result may appear initially puzzling — how can women be ‘freer’ to participate when they are ‘controlled’ by a group leader? — it makes sense if the leader’s role is seen as one of ensuring a civil environment, free from threats of disruption and harassment”. (And a preference for a friendly and civil environment is not limited to women.)

A long list outlining safer spaces policy

Safer spaces policy

This binary between ‘openness’ and governance is problematic. It’s quite possible for a non-hierarchical community to develop codes of conduct: many anarchist communities do just that, often in the form of safe spaces guidelines. It’s also not necessary for structure to imply hierarchy. Not only is it possible to build non-hierarchical structures, but some form of structure is often necessary in order to sustain non-hierarchical organisation. Anarchist communities, as well as many other communities that oppose hierarchy (including many feminist groups), have long experience with building spaces and organisational forms that are non-hierarchical (or at least, less hierarchical).

This is not to say that these experiences have gone smoothly. There are plenty of critiques of anarchist, feminist, and other supposedly non-hierarchical collectives which end up with invisible hierarchies based on race, gender, class, or even just more dominant personalities. Many groups on the left have acted to marginalise already marginalised groups: women had to (and still have to) push hard for equal inclusion within left-wing communities; women of colour have challenged mainstream white feminism; lesbians have challenged the primacy of gay men within ‘gay and lesbian’ communities.

What this history means, however, is that there’s a wide range of experience and practices to draw on when it comes to building decentralised, relatively-open communities in which there are structures in place to deal with ‘difficult’ people and behaviours, and with existing structural oppression. The problems which Reagle describes are by no means limited to the FOSS community, and in characterising them as such he neglects to draw on some of the solutions already available.

He also passes rather lightly over existing attempts within FOSS to challenge misogyny and other forms of structural oppression. Just as marginalised groups within other communities have pushed for greater inclusion, cultural change, and better processes, people of all genders within the FOSS community are pushing to create a safer and more welcoming environment. LCA 2013 was just one example of a FOSS space which had a code of conduct and a diversity officer, as well as providing childcare and taking other steps to ensure a safe and accessible space. Debian woman was founded in 2005 and was wholeheartedly embraced by the predominately male project. Python has for years an incredible diversity project and list in existence for years, and the CCC, one of the largest hacker groups also has an anti-harassment policy for their events. This is not to say that misogyny doesn’t still exist – it does, just as it does in most communities. But the answer is not more top-down control; initiatives that come out of the community and are lead by those who have previously been marginalised are far more likely to provide sustainable long-term solutions.

[Edits: I'm well aware that historically 'anarchism' and 'libertarianism' have been used interchangeably, and that people sometimes use terms like 'socialist libertarian' to mean more or less the same thing as 'anarchist'. This is a rather simplified version of a more in-depth discussion which would require more space than a blog post.

Joseph Reagle has replied here.]

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