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FOSS and the sublimation of commodity fetishism

Since a few people linked me to the recent article the ethics of unpaid labor and the OSS community, I figured I’d write my own blog post since I not only agree 100% with the content of the article, but have a few additional thoughts to frame the insights.

I recently wrote in my “Tyranny of Open” paper that:

However, there is nothing new about a mode of production that places able, white, cis, hetero men as the prominent leaders and as the primary recipients of the movement’s rewards – both economical and social. The only thing ‘new’, perhaps, about this, is the ways that this movement convinces many of it’s participates that their contributions of free labour will be equally rewarded or that, when exploitation is enjoyable, it magically stops being exploitation.

Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism is, to put it very simply, the means through which we come to value objects, instead of people. Alternatively, objects have value, but less so the labour that goes into creating them. It is one of the capitalist tools used to oppress workers (as well as feeding into a consumer based economy).

One of the interesting things about the economics and the way that the F/OSS community has structured itself and defined its values, is that they somehow manage to sublimate this notion of commodity fetishism in a very interesting way.

Of course, in many ways, on the surface of it all, commodity fetishism functions within the FOSS community as everywhere else: open source or free software is considered to be very valuable. But not in terms of money, since it is given away for free. The value, however, comes from creating a commodity out of the human relations (ie, labour and community) that creates the end product. This community, we are expected to believe, is fair compensation for the labour required to make the product.

But, as the ongoing problems with institutional and systemic oppression within the F/OSS community demonstrates, the community is only a reward for a select few people. People who belong to a demographic well positioned to not only have the time, resources, and infrastructure to support their free labour, but well positioned to uncritically and easily leverage larger social and economic inequities to their advantage.1

In many ways, the fetishizing of the F/OSS community itself is perhaps what makes it so difficult to criticize and challenge. Because once you decide to participate in the community, you are making an investment into the commodity. And you must stay invested and cling to the belief that the community has inherent value, lest your investment be jeopardized (perhaps by being ostracized or exiled).

And, we should also be very, very clear: the notion that people do not get ‘paid’ for participating (ie, investing) in F/OSS communities is false and misleading. This is the ‘sublimation’ portion of this post’s title. We can see this from the failed experiment known as ‘scholarly communication’. Scholars don’t get financially compensated for their work in journals (publishing, editing, reviewing) but they do receive social capital. Which they then are able to leverage for tenure positions, grant funding, etc. Whether or not you think receiving social or financial capital is more important is besides the point, since shifting to a model whereby scholars are paid for their publishing work won’t solve the problems created by commodity fetishism, it just shifts the details.

Likewise, this is all the F/OSS community has done, shifted the details and sublimated financial rewards for social ones. It has created a commodity not out of a product but of the human relations necessary to produce that product. It has not, in any way shape or form, despite its belief to the contrary, disrupted or even challenged business as usual. All it has done is shift the details and, indeed, done a much better job of disguising its exploitation of people. All while presenting itself as a ‘solution’.

The participants in F/OSS communities are, in fact, compensated for their labour. Not with money, but with social capital. The very impetus for this post makes that clear, since the topic was the requirement of F/OSS contributions as a metric for hireability. This is social capital.

It is also why it is pretty much already privileged people who are best positioned to take advantage of this, since the economic and financial benefits of social capital are deferred and require long-term commitment. If you do not know how you are going to pay the rent next month, you are not going to spend time working for social capital when you need money in the bank now.

Richard Stallman really is the best example of this, given that his commitment to free software is as absolute as I’ve seen. If all of his labour were truly unpaid, in every sense of the word, he would have died homeless, in the streets decades ago. Given that he is still alive and has a thriving career based on exerting hegemonic control over F/OSS discourse, I’m guessing his labour has been aptly rewarded.

In the end, all I can say is that the lack of diversity within the F/OSS community needs to stop being seen as bug. It is, rather, a feature. It isn’t accidental that a bunch of privileged white men created a community and economic model that, as thirty years of development have shown, mainly benefits them. A community whose threshold of participation is so high for people outside of the target demographic, that it has led to a very homogenous community in a globally connected world.