Linux is a Cancer (That’s a Good Thing)

I am on sabbatical for two quarters, and I am taking the opportunity to write about free (and open source) software for the first time.  It is ballooning quickly, chaotically, from a conference paper into a book–in a good way I think.  I am trying to relax and let the inquiry carry me where it will, not trying to discipline it into the conference paper.  That might be bad for the conference paper, but it is good for the overall inquiry (I hope).  We will see.

One of the many side flows I have been carried off into was the case of former Microsoft CEO (and current LA Clippers owner!) Steve Ballmer, who in 2001 said “Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches.”  The take-away from this is usually to vilify Ballmer because he called Linux a mean name, but I think there is something quite important here.  I think Ballmer is really worried.  What he is getting at is that the GNU General Public License, under which much Linux software is distributed, prevents the person receiving the software from enclosing it.  That is, when you receive software under the open-source GPL, you are not allowed to then turn around and make the code closed-source (i.e. you can’t transform it into “intellectual property”), even if you alter it significantly.  Since Microsoft’s empire is built on intellectual property, on code that is very closed-source, Ballmer is genuinely worried about the possibility that code licensed under the GPL, if it got into Microsoft’s stream, would bar them from claiming intellectual property rights on the whole stream.  [Here the scenario would be something like: a certain tool that is licensed under the GPL becomes dominant (something like, say, OpenSSH) and more or less has to be used as a part of a larger entity (say, a server OS).]  But Ballmer’s fear could have run even deeper.  Even if Microsoft were vigilant in keeping any GPL code out of their products, if everyone else adopted the GPL ethos, which is to make software freely available, open, and held in common, where would that leave Microsoft, which is dependent on the model of software as enclosed intellectual property?

A less-quoted Ballmer attack on Linux came in 2000, at Microsoft’s financial analysts’ meeting, where he said

Linux is a tough competitor. There’s no company called Linux, there’s barely a Linux road map. Yet Linux sort of springs organically from the earth. And it had, you know, the characteristics of communism that people love so very, very much about it. That is, it’s free.  And I’m not trying to make fun of it, because it’s a real competitive issue. Today, I would say, we still don’t see a lot of Linux competition in most quarters on the desktop, and we see a lot of Linux competition in some server markets. And we could either say, hey, Linux is going to roll over the world, but I don’t see that happening. That’s not what’s going on right now.

He is sort of right about Linux.  It did spring organically from the earth, in a way.  Significant parts of it are still community-managed.  But corporations (Red Hat, Canonical, Sun, and now Google) have played and continue to play a very large role in its development and distribution.  It does have characteristics of communism, actual communism rather than State-socialism-that-claims-to-be-communism, in that the code is meant to be held in common by all.  And, interestingly, in 2000 Ballmer got the competition part mostly right.  Linux was not and has not become competitive on the desktop.  But Linux very much became competitive in the (probably more important) server market, where is now holds a controlling position over Microsoft.  And, what Ballmer did not see, Linux (as the core of the Android operating system) became the dominant software on phones and tablets as well.

The struggle is over, and Microsoft lost.  Their closed-source, proprietary model, which was absolutely central to their success, has been mostly superseded by the open-source, un-owned, free-of-cost model.  In a way, Linux did roll over the world.

The question now is not so much open- vs. closed-source software, but whether open-source software will be developed, distributed, and maintained by active communities of people themselves, or whether that work will be done for them, by large corporations.  I think it is a vital question, and it is one the Linux community has lots of experience with.


Jean-Luc Nancy on Democracy


Truth of Democracy, p. 15:

Democracy has not sufficiently acknowledged that it must also, in some way, be “communist,” for otherwise it would be but the management of necessities and expediencies, lacking in desire, that is, in spirit, in breath, in sense.

Without communism democracy would lack spirit, inspiration, breath…life. I suspect he might have this backwards, that communism is the management of necessities, and it is democracy that breathes life into communism, but either way, I like that he sees that these two ideas–assuming they are understood properly, at their root, and not in their corrupted, actually-existing senses–should be intertwined, and each can and should draw strength from the other.

Marx and Bakunin


My students have just read Marx (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Communist Manifesto, and On the Jewish Question) and Bakunin (selections from God and the State and Statism and Anarchy), and there was a very distinct sense (in discussion and in their assignments) that M and B’s ideas therein made perfect sense to them.  Of course they have been trained to think that communism and anarchism are terrible and dangerous, but on actually reading some seminal writings, they found them quite reasonable and true.  This outcome made me feel quite hopeful, like my yearly ritual of making undergrads read the syllabus I make them readis not at all in vain, like they are taking in something that will serve them quite well in the decades to come.

Marx: Pretty Good Communist Thinker


My students just had an extremely insightful discussion of two chunks of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts: “Alienated Labor” and “Private Property and Communism.”  The class has to do with the idea of community, and so we pay attention not just to Marx’s critique of the current society, but also to his imagination of the community to come.  This latter element is underdeveloped in the Communist Manifesto, but it is actually, to my mind on this reading, quite robust in the chunk on “Private Property and Communism,” especially if we augment Marx with Nietzsche and Deleuze and Guattari.

Marx develops his critique of capitalism by arguing it alienates people from 1) the product of their labor (which is owned by the capitalist), from 2) their species-being (they are not fulfilled in their productive activity but sell it as labor in return for a wage), and from 3) each other (from other workers with whom they compete, and from capitalists to whom their productive activity has been sold).

Communism, Marx argues, is the positive overcoming [Aufhebung] of alienation, and, necessarily also, the overcoming of the relations of private property.  One form of communism, crude communism, is merely the universalization of the property relation, whereby each individual becomes able to participate in owning property.  The second form is one in which either the state overcomes private property (presumably through a form of state-socialism) or the state has been overcome but property has been left in place [this passage is short and not as clear].  The third form of communism is the full form: a “positive overcoming of private property as human self-alienation, and thus as the actual appropriation of the human essence through and for man…the restoration of man as a social, that is, human being” (p. 71 of the Simon collection).  This process, this overcoming of alienation and private property, this movement to construct communism, is “the riddle of history solved and knows itself as the solution” (p. 71).

Clearly the liberals would worry about this vision, assuming it entails a Rousseauian absorption of the individual into a single and undifferentiated social whole.  But Marx is quite subtle here.  He says, basically, that what it means for people to restore themselves as social beings is to realize that the individual is a fiction, an invention of bourgeois society.  The individual is always already a product of, connected to, and dependent on others; s/he is, in other words, always already social.  This is true in a biological sense: each person’s bodily existence is dependent on the procreative and nurturing activity of many, many ancestors.  Similarly, the creative/productive activity of a given individual is utterly dependent on a host of other creators/producers from whom s/he has learned.  The things I make, in other words, are not really made by me alone, but by something I call ‘me’ that is really more like a dense knot of ideas and skills (what Marx called “senses and aptitudes”) that only exist because of the creative activity of many thousands of other humans.  To an extent my body, my senses and my aptitudes are mine, but they are also, just as much, everybody’s.  This is a lot like what Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil:

I shall never tire of emphasizing a small terse fact…namely, that a thought comes when “it” wishes and not when “I” wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think.” It thinks; but that this “it” is precisely the famous old “ego” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion. and assuredly not an “immediate certainty” (Section 17).

This is the immediate inspiration for the view of Deleuze and Guattari.  For them the individual is an assemblage, a complex open system that is constantly exchanging matter and ideas with its outside.  For them each of us is an intensity on the plane of consistency: we all arise out of the same collective soup, and while we are distinct from each other, none of us is in any way self-contained or independent.  We are intensities that exist only as part of millions of other intensities scattered across the plane of consistency.  I think this is a good way to read Marx’s line that each of us “is therefore a particular individual” but also “equally the totality” (p. 73).  “The overcoming of private property,” Marx writes,

means therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and aptitudes [Eigenschaften], but it means this emancipation precisely because these senses and aptitudes have become human both subjectively and objectively.  The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object derived from and for man…Need or satisfaction have thus lost their egoistic nature, and nature has lost its mere utility by use becoming human use (p. 74).

So overcoming private property means overcoming Locke’s argument in Chapter 5, where he says that God gave the earth to humans in common, but he also gave us property in our own bodies, so that when I use my body-labor to produce a product, that product is entirely the result of my own efforts (actually he says 99%), and so it belongs entirely to me.  Locke posits that this individual with a proprietary body exists already in the state of nature, but Marx refuses this ploy.  Locke’s bourgeois, independent, proprietary individual is for Marx an alienated version of ourselves, one that obscures our true social, or human, character.

So for each of us, life in communism does not mean surrendering our natural individual freedom to a social whole.  Rather it means rediscovering the real condition of our lives: each of us is an intense accumulation of matter and ideas on the common plane of consistency.  We are each an assemblage that opens out onto other assemblages, that realizes itself only in common society with millions of other assemblages.

This line of thinking seems to dovetail quite nicely with Hardt & Negri’s idea of the common, and in particular Marx’s idea of our aptitudes being common resonates with H&N’s argument that the most important ‘common’ that is being produced today is the common intellect: the ideas, codes, affects, languages, norms that work best when they are freely shared [Marx seems to offer (here in EPM) a shadow of the “general intellect” idea that is most often thought to be found in the Grundrisse.  In addition to the discussion of common sense and aptitudes, he talks of “general consciousness” or “generic consciousness” (p. 73)].

This argument is certainly not yet fully formed in my mind, but I think I am clear on the point that in thinking communism today, we should very much  return to Marx (and especially the early work), not just as a formal historical exercise, but because he offers a rich kernel of ideas that are strikingly concordant with the way communism is being thought today.

Who Wants All That Shit?


In Communists Like Us, Guattari and Negri tell us that capitalism and socialism are two sides of the same machine that captures and corrupts our productive capacities.  The choice today, they say (this is in 1985), is between extermination and communism.

…but this communism must be more than just the sharing of wealth (who wants all that shit?)–it must inaugurate a whole new way of working together.

Emmanuel Terray: No to the State


Unplanned obsolescence

Another for my collection of those who want to think politics without the State: Emmanuel Terray, from The Idea of Communism 2.  He joins Deleuze and Guattari, Lefebvre, Badiou, Virno, Balso, Illuminati, Negri, and more.  Here is Terray:

The strategy of the Communist Parties, as we know, consisted of trying to seize state power in order to then put it to use as a lever for carrying out social transformation and securing the victory of the emancipation project.  This strategy thus relies on the all-decisive hypothesis that the state is an instrument adequate to this project — and it is precisely on this point that we might question it.  There can be no doubt that the state is an effective instrument for carrying out certain social transformations: in particular we might recall the role that it played in the period of primitive accumulation laying the ground for the advent of capitalist society.  But when the transformation we have in mind is that of collective emancipation, the generalization of freedom and equality across all domains of social life, is the state still the appropriate tool?  This is doubtful: by definition, the state is an authority separated from, exterior to, and above society; its very existence relies on the opposition between those who govern and those who are governed, between those who rule and those who are ruled.  Since communism must necessarily advance by way of the abolition of this opposition, we can say that there exists a manifest contradiction between the goal pursued — communism — and the means employed — the state and the party that mirrors it.

His understanding of communism fits almost exactly with my understanding of democracy, as that form of political life in which the opposition between rulers are ruled is abolished.  And so the project of becoming democratic that I advocate would mean a struggle on the part of everyone to become ruler, and to thereby make our present rulers obsolete.

Michael Hardt on the Potential of Autonomia


Nice Job!

I just re-read Michael Hardt’s introduction to the book Radical Thought in Italy.  Both the piece and the book are fantastic and recommended.  But what struck me this time was the beautiful job Hardt does of articulating the how the Italians tend toward a radical politics that focuses its attention not on the powers that be (what they often call constituted power), but rather on our own power (constituent power).  In autonomism this took the form, for example, of Tronti’s point that if all value is produced by labor (this is Marx), then the proletariat must be the leading class in society, the class whose activity shapes society.  The bourgeoisie, it follows, is thus continuously reacting to and trying to catch up to the action of the workers.  For the Italians, “the tasks of political theory,” while they do “involve the analyses of the forms of domination and exploitation that plague us,” nevertheless insist that “the first and primary tasks are to identify, affirm, and further the existing instances of social power [which already exist among people themselves] that allude to a new alternative society, a coming community” (7).  The point is therefore not to confront capital-and-the-state in order to seize their power.  Since we are the source of all power, we must instead withdraw our power–the power we already have–from the capital-and-state relation.  An exodus (Virno); a line of flight (D&G).

This line of thinking underscores the importance of Nietzsche’s critique of ressentiment.  If we spend all our time obsessing about the intricacies of how constituted power dominates us, and resent the power it holds over us, we are not being attentive to our own (constituent) power.  We are missing the point, we are ignoring the way out, we are blind to “the entire creative potential of our own practical capacities” (6).  In this power lies the seeds of a communist and/or democratic society, and so ressentiment’s obsessive critique does nothing so much as occlude the path to the possible.