In this text we would like to explain why Free and Open-Source Software – FOSS for short – is the closest thing we currently have to widespread Socialism and outline what that means for leftist endeavours in the 21st century.
What the fuck are you even talking about?
Let's start by clearing up what the hell FOSS and Socialism even are.
Free and Open-Source Software is software distributed under a free or open-source license. There are some minor distinctions, but it always means that anyone with access to the internet and a computer theoretically able to run the software in question can get its source code for free to read, build, run and modify it to their hearts content.
In the case of free licenses, it also means that any commercially used modification of the source code has to be published, adding a legal guarantee that things based on it stay in the technological commons the FOSS movement has built.
Another outgrowth of the FOSS movement is Free and Open-Source Hardware, bringing many of the advantages of FOSS into the physical world.
Whether free or open-source licenses are better is a long-standing feud within the FOSS community. We have differentiated views on this, but those are outside of this articles scope.
Socialism has many competing definitions, but at their core, they all boil down to one central thing, the public ownership of the means of production. This is the meaning we will use in this article.
The digital means of production
A whole range of software qualifies as means of production.
This is the most obvious for the tools to produce digital products like all the video essays, anarchist agitprop, podcasts and music you can find online as well as the all the tools involved in software development.
But it is also true of many of the tools needed for physical manufacturing. Machine design tools (CAD), control logic for industrial machinery, resource allocation and monitoring solutions like ERPs are all software.
Production has become digitized – and with FOSS, the ability to both use and shape a huge swathe of the means of production has become available to anyone willing to wield a keyboard.
Software benefits from the fact that in the digital world – with exponentially increasing storage capacities and network bandwidth – a couple of decades ago, we suddenly found ourselves in a post-scarcity economy concerning the transmission and storage of data.
Storing and distributing software is dirt. cheap. This basically eliminates any technical cost to collaboration and led to people collaborating on ever more ambitious open technology projects. And even tho corporations have long since joined in the fray, the roots of collaboration between individuals of all classes and creeds still runs strong in the movement.
Anyone with a computer and at least occasional access to the internet can collaborate on FOSS development and you don't have to be a programmer to do that either – community support, writing documentation and translations, testing and reporting issues are all essential parts of tending our technological commons.
Deserving of a special mention in the context of public participation and control are forks. A fork is a split in the development of software (or hardware) where a new team starts maintaining their own version of the software, mostly or completely independently from the original project.
This most often happens because the new team has major disagreements with the direction a project is taking and can be used as a counter to malicious actions like corporate takeovers or the introduction of antifeatures like built-in trackers exposing all users of a piece of software to surveillance.
This participatory nature of FOSS grants an amount of control to everyday people not found in most other places, least of all traditional capitalist production.
Another advantage of FOSS is that it's the only software you can trust from an information security standpoint. This is thanks to the fact that the source code is freely available and viewable by anyone.
In particular by infosec researchers, for whom the ability to read the original source code makes their research much easier and who are always eager to find new and interesting vulnerabilities to publish.
These days, many projects even offer bounties to anyone finding a vulnerability in their software.
Many of the same points might also be made about "source available" software, but this kind of software is still pretty rare and often involves jumping through hoops to get the source code. These hoops can involve signing a Non-Disclosure Agreement that barrs anyone viewing the code from speaking publicly about problems they found, which at least partially invalidates this argument.
Closed-source software in contrast has a huge barrier to entry for security researchers, greatly hampering their work. On one side by having to analyze machine code, which is harder and often illegal (you ever read those ToS or EULA things?). On the other by only being allowed to view the source if you happen to be hired by the Owner™ of the software to do an audit of their code, which then hampers independent verification of the findings and might also involve signing an NDA prohibiting you from publishing your findings in the first place.
Thus FOSS gets a lot of positive attention from infosec researchers, the vast majority of whom depend on FOSS for their security needs in turn – meaning it enjoys a big edge security-wise when compared to closed-source software, which can and does contain all sorts of nasty things.
The biggest commons in human history
FOSS is BIG; It's fucking everywhere – this is not overstating things.
Are you perchance visiting this site on an Android device?
Then your Operating System is based on the Linux kernel, which is FOSS.
No? An Apple device like an iPhone or a MacBook maybe?
That's built on Darwin, Apples FOSS operating system base, which in turn takes a lot of its code from FreeBSD – the FOSS OS we run this service on.
The vast majority of the internet is, in fact, run on FOSS Operating Systems. Hell, even Microsoft, one of the strongest antagonists of the FOSS movement since decades, runs its own infrastructure on a Linux-based OS. And the main product of those asshats is a closed-source Operating System of which they even sell a server version! Just think about that for a minute:
Microsoft itself prefers a FOSS OS over its own OS!
We're sure there's nothing to worry about here. 🤪
Are you actually on a Windows machine and think there's no FOSS involved?
Well, your browser is definitely built on top of FOSS. All of them are.
Chrome, Opera, and even Edge are all based on the Blink browser engine – which is FOSS.
Safari is built on WebKit, which is also FOSS
And Firefox is of course completely FOSS.
In addition to all that, this technological commons holds tools for the production of every kind of digital good out there. To name just a few great examples from the staggering diversity of tools this ecosystem offers:
neovim is a modular text editor to do all of your writing and programming in.
Inkscape is an extremely powerful vector graphics editor to create your anarchist agitprop with.
OpenSCAD is a CAD tool for the design of industrial objects in a truly parameterizable fashion.
Ardour is a complete Digital Audio Workstation which can easily integrate lv2 plugins like the calf and guitarix collections for synthesizers and effects.
Blender is a huge creative suite for the creation of 3D Models – including rigging, animation, texturing and even a complete video editor.
Godot is a complete, easy to use game engine. It's progress has been downright stellar and we expect it to become one of the larger players in the video game market within the next few years.
Mastodon is a decentralized FOSS social network that's easy to use, free of advertising and doesn't use algorithmic distortion or filtering like all the commercial social networks do. Anyone can run their own instance and connect it to the wider fediverse.
Prosody is the XMPP server we use to bring you this service and…
nginx is a powerful webserver we use to deliver this website to you.
Of course, it's not all sunshine and black roses, so we should look at what problems within and adversaries without FOSS faces.
The central one, from a leftist perspective, is definitely corporate control.
Corporations have become major actors in the development of many critical components of the wider FOSS ecosystem. Often, this had arguably positive impacts on projects, for example with Linux and FreeBSD. But it also opens the door for corporations that have acquired a controlling interest in one form or another to take projects into a direction not reconcilable with the goal of a free and equitable society.
A good example of this process in motion is the World Wide Web, the part of the internet you reach through your browser – which incidentally is also one of the places where this is felt most.
The development of the contemporary web is completely dominated by corporate interests – primarily Googles. How did it come to that? Let us explain…
Back in the early days of the internet, internet-based businesses were way, way less consolidated. Everybody had to do some stupid shit on the web and call it a business. That's what we now know as the dot-com bubble. Accordingly, the corporate part of the internet was made out of a great many companies that were independent from and often competing with each other.
Most of the players with any real pull based on sheer size and market share were those who were already big before the internet came around. Microsoft, for example.
Then of course, the bubble burst and thus began the first big wave of consolidation. Over the next couple of years, a new order of things began to crystallize as the losers of the bubble either disintegrated or where bought up by the winners. After the dust settled, five corporations stood tall, we call them GAFAM – short for Greedy-Ass Fraudsters And Megalomaniacs.
By name, these are:
By and large, these act in different markets with little overlap. And so, most of the tech sector was carved into five big Thiefdoms. Amazon had the retail market, Microsoft the market for operating systems, Facebook monopolized online social interactions and Apple yuppies with too much money.
Google meanwhile increased its control on the technological basis of the web. Involvement of Google Engineers in the standards that make up the web as well as the internet itself ballooned.
This already gave Google the capability to dictate the direction the web went, we mean, like, all of it. Big G oogle had pretty much gained majority control over the standards that define the basic technologies the web is built on.
Then Google® Chrome™ was released and became a major player in the browser market over night. Basically you went to sleep one day and after waking up, this happened:
The result was a web that became increasingly conducive to surveillance.
Google Analytics alone is in all likelihood the largest surveillance system in history with Facebooks combined surveillance on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp being a strong second contender.
Over the years, most major browsers moved to Googles browser engine, including Microsoft Edge. The only notable holdout being Mozilla Firefox.
Firefox has been the champion for privacy on the web since its inception, but even it has begun incorporating surveillance and other antifeatures years ago. One of the earlier ones was their "user studies" feature, which allows Mozilla to add arbitrary code to the browser, after the installation and without any interaction from users, with the explicit goal of finding out more about their users. They initially even planned on anonymizing the data they got… by just handing it straight to Google! A little weird for an organization championing privacy on the web, but not at all surprising when you consider that Google is providing the absolute majority of Mozilla's funding. The same Mozilla that in 2020 fired a full quarter of its employees and decimated the team for the development of their actual browser.
Thus concludes the saga of how Google conquered the web.
As we already mentioned tho, even Googles browser engine is FOSS. So if we're dissatisfied with the direction taken, we could fork it, right? In principle, yes – with just the little hitch that browsers are by far the most complex pieces of technology everyday people ever have any contact with.
Theoretically, we still have the advantage of us and security researchers having easy access to the source code to check for malicious features and vulnerabilities, but even with malicious features known, nobody can really challenge Google on them because the Chromium Project which governs the development of the Blink browser engine is directly controlled by Google.
The previously mentioned direct control is probably the single biggest deciding factor in whether a project benefits capitalists or the public. Corporate-owned FOSS projects like Chromium have a pronounced tendency to work against public interests and should be met with scepticism. FreeBSD is trustworthy because it's independent – Android is less trustworthy because it's "owned" by Google.
As we can see, some (tho not all) of the advantages of FOSS can be cancelled out or diminished by corporations either by literally "owning" a project, or by less direct means like throwing people or money at a project – but all is not lost.
Forks are still a working defense in most cases. In fact, there even are forks of modern browsers (not browser engines) that remove antifeatures like built-in tracking – LibreWolf for example – but they're usually either light on actual modifications, chronically outdated, or both.
Forks still work because "ownership" of a FOSS project does not infer the level of control we usually refer to when talking about owning something. What makes FOSS special in the context of ownership is that it transfers a sizable chunk of what we usually refer to as ownership – the right to access, modify and distribute it – to the public and this is very much by design.
Kinda ironic that collaboration is such a powerful force that it's profitable for capitalist organizations that are supposedly based on competition to engage in it, isn't it? 🤔
The fact that FOSS can be used by anyone can be a bit of a double-edged sword.
Corporations are getting a lot of mileage out of the results of free labor, often without sharing back at all and always without sharing back as much as they gain – otherwise they wouldn't be profitable. From Operating Systems to server software to development tools – the vast majority of the software tech giants use for their everyday operations is FOSS. Or to put this into marxist terms: The FOSS movement is being exploited.
Capitalists aren't the only antagonists of a free society benefitting from FOSS, tho – literal fasciscts are, too. One example of this would be Telegram, which has quickly become one of the most important gathering space of modern fascism.
Another would be Mastodon, which is used by far-right social networks Gab and Trumps "Truth" Social. Both were promptly blocked by the operators of virtually all other Mastodon (and compatible) servers, so their ability to propagandize and spread their hatred in the broader network has been practically eliminated – still, the point stands that FOSS enables not only persecuted minorities and public interest groups but also literal fascists to build online spaces, produce media and more.
Another kinda ironic thing: Fascists using software written by someone of jewish heritage. It's almost as if the ideologies of capitalism and fascism were inherently contradictory… 🤔
Much of this would also be true in a completely socialist economy, but still bears mentioning in the context of FOSS because we have to plan ahead in our struggle for a better world.
Niches, by definition, are comprised of comparatively few people. This usually translates to less available labor for the creation of FOSS solutions for them.
This has lead to a bunch of niches where FOSS has a definitive disadvantage.
FOSS does most assuredly exist in these niches, but often not as powerful and almost always not as easy to use as the commercial alternatives, this is especially true in niches that need extremely complex production tools.
Examples of this would be CAD as well as video and audio editing. The latter two having powerful, usable tools on the horizon just now (early 2020s) with usable professional-grade CAD still seeming a ways off.
FOSS has a demographic problem. The majority of the movement are white middle-class men. This means important voices aren't part of the conversation and important needs aren't met – this is true for both the software that's produced as well as the social spaces collaboration and exchange happens in.
As far as we can tell, this has been improving, but is still far from actually representing society at large.
In general, the FOSS movement is progressive and at least left-leaning. It contained a large queer community pretty much from the start and this community contributed a lot to the improvements the movement has seen.
We think right now is a great time to add more voices to the movement and ensure the technological commons not only continues being based around the leftist values of public access and control, but strongly integrates the perspectives and needs of underprivileged people everywhere.
Outlook: apocalyptic, with a chance of Utopia
So the question still remains: Is FOSS really Socialism?
Or, asking more specifically, is FOSS publicly owned?
By definition, the public can freely access, use and modify it – on that account we have to answer with an emphatic yes.
We do, however, see limitations in that control over the direction the technological commons takes is, like many things, an ongoing struggle. But it also seems like the inherent advantages of FOSS make the public much more successful in this sphere than in pretty much all others.
This struggle to keep the commons under public control is a natural outgrowth of everything in it being available to everybody, including corporations, and will persist at least as long as capitalism still exists.
FOSS enables us to take control of our digital lives and produce all sorts of digital goods. To build digital spaces for fun and collaboration that are humane instead of predatory.
FOSS enables journalists, whistleblowers and dissidents to protect themselves from surveillance and persecution. A big part why Edward Snowden for example managed to leave the US before the NSA got wind that he blew the whistle on them is that he used FOSS to protect his communications with journalists.
But this commons also already contains large pieces of what's needed to build a functioning alternative economy as well as at least functional, if not easy to use, tools for the development of everything else that's needed. As such, we consider the FOSS ecosystem to be the seedling for an alternative economic system based on Free & Open Source Hard- and Software – a whole industry in the commons. Hacker- and Makerspaces are already a step in this direction.
We have Socialism in the digital realm, let's bring it to the physical. 🌱
Get in on it
Okay, so FOSS is great, FOSS is Socialism, what now?
Well, first of all – use it. The more you use FOSS, the more you can eschew corporate control in your digital life.
Also, tell other lefties about how FOSS is inherently socialist and that this is something we should lean into not only to build our digital spaces but also to get production itself under public control.
If you already produce digital goods of any kind but with a commercial tool, look for FOSS alternatives to that tool and try those. If you're super nice, you can also release the source files of the things you produce for easy remixing – especially if you create soft- or hardware, but we also do that for our anarchist agitprop so people can easily remix it. 😉
If you currently don't produce anything, that's of course okay, but if you do feel so inclined, think about what sort of thing you want to create and play with the FOSS tools available for it.
If you have an account on this service and are using it with a FOSS client (all the clients we support are FOSS) or have an account on another XMPP server, we are also hosting a chatroom on the intersection of FOSS and Socialism: FOSSoc – feel free to join if you have any questions. If you're now interested to learn how to create free soft- or hardware, hit us up, and we'll see what we can do about getting you some mentoring. 🤟
Google was actually having problems in figuring out how to make money with their search engine – and this was after it was already being valued as a multi-billion dollar company. Some techbros just winged it and we've had to pay the price with our privacy ever since. ↩