Hacking Capitalism: The Free and Open Source Software Movement

By Boffo, Marco | Capital & Class, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Hacking Capitalism: The Free and Open Source Software Movement


Boffo, Marco, Capital & Class


Johan Söderberg Hacking Capitalism: The Free and Open Source Software Movement, Routledge: London, 2008; 252 pp.: 0-415-95543-2 £80 (hbk)

Free and open-source software (henceforth foss) has long captured the attention of social scientists and advocates of social change. Blending highly skilled expertise, voluntarism and gratuity, through hybrid organisational features, it has puzzled academics across the social sciences, while constituting fertile ground for political interpretation. Among a growing number of contributions on the topic, Söderberg's Hacking Capitalism stands out as an attempt to renew Marxism through foss, firmly located within recent Autonomist Marxist debates on the nature of contemporary capitalism.

The thesis is easily stated: emerging from the 'contested terrain ... of technological development' (p. 2), hackers differ from traditional labour forces for having 'a technology of their own to draw upon', which, 'through the global communication network', matches the 'coordinating and logistic capabilities of state and capital' (p. 2). Depriving the latter of control over research and development, foss represents an 'alternative model for organising labour relations' and 'arranging labour power' (p. 2) promising to undermine 'the social division of labour as the regulating principle for technological development' (p. 4). Governed by political, aesthetic and technical considerations, and elusive in facing capital and the state, hacking is understood through the category of 'play struggle'. Consonant with labour struggle, it stresses the voluntary, self-determined, and non-instrumental nature of hacking (as opposed to labour), its politics consisting in distancing 'doing' from 'the wage relation', with play as labour's self-organisation of 'constituent power outside the confines of market exchange' (p. 3). Thus, hacking and foss subject technology, the archetype of instrumentality, to 'a model determined by the play-drive' (p. 10), simultaneously continuing and transcending 'the tradition of labour struggle' (p. 192).

Used as a magnifying glass to investigate capitalism's restructuring and the potential for resistance, hacking and foss's emancipatory potential is taken as departure point to review Marxism 'in relation to networked capitalism' (p. 6). With its focus on class composition and cycles of struggle, as well as its claims of a fading distinction between production and reproduction, work and leisure, and of the confines of the production process, Autonomist Marxism is the privileged analytical standpoint. Within this perspective, foss and hacking represent a challenge for conventional Marxist treatments of labour and class composition, exemplifying a labour process 'diffused to the whole of society' (p. 6), whereby 'audiences and users are "put to work"' for capital (p. 8). Therefore, 'software code is interesting' to examine exclusively 'as a cursor of the general intellect', illustrating 'how the mind has grown into a productive force in its own right' (p. 184). Thus, inspecting the multifaceted reality of foss, the argument stresses the tension characterising hacking and foss, accounting for factors suggesting their transcendental nature with respect to capitalism, as well as those aligning them with the logic of a post-Fordist, networked capitalism.

Through analysis of its history and internal politics (Chapter 1), hacking is identified as living labour reappropriating the means of production, driven by workers' refusal of work in response to factory despotism, Taylorism, and black-box technology designs. On the other hand, the mitigation of egalitarianism through voluntarism, the reproduction of hierarchy, power and exclusion along the lines of skill and merit, and the ambivalence of the foss business model are seen as factors fostering compliance with capitalism. Located within the broader Marxist debate concerning the information age and post-Fordism (Chapter 2), hacking and foss are understood as confirming the centrality of audiences and users in value production. …

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