Monday, March 13, 2006

RMS Interview: Free Software as a Social Movement

There is an interesting interview with Richard Stallman (RMS) at Znet. It seems they have been pondering the idea of converting to 100% free software, and spoke to RMS about it. For those that have heard RMS speak, the first part of the interview is a condensed version of his History of GNU and Free Software speech that he gives frequently. It gets interesting near the end, however, venturing into territory most interviewers neglect.

Unlike some confused thinkers (and nicely debunked here), I've long thought that the Free Software movement was decidedly capitalist, in that it accepted software as a commodity and encouraged competition and offered a profit motive for those who offered high-quality services around Free Software. RMS touches on this:

JP: I have read other interviews with you in which you said you are not anti-capitalist. I think a definition of capitalism might help here.

RMS: Capitalism is organizing society mainly around business that people are free to do within certain rules. ... JP: -- But "anti-capitalists' use a different definition. They see capitalism as markets, private property, and, fundamentally, class hierarchy and class division. Do you see class as fundamental to capitalism?

RMS: No. We have had a lot of social mobility, class mobility, in the United States. Fixed classes--which I do not like--are not a necessary aspect of capitalism.

However, I don't believe that you can use social mobility as an excuse for poverty. If someone who is very poor has a 5% chance of getting rich, that does not justify denying that person food, shelter, clothing, medical care, or education. I believe in the welfare state.

JP: But you are not for equality of outcomes?

RMS: No, I'm not for equality of outcomes. I want to prevent horrible outcomes. But aside from keeping people safe from excruciating outcomes, I believe some inequality is unavoidable.


I'm a Liberal, in US terms (not Canadian terms). I'm against fascism.

JP: A definition would help here too.

RMS: Fascism is a system of government that sucks up to business and has no respect for human rights. So the Bush regime is an example, but there are lots of others. In fact, it seems we are moving towards more fascism globally.

Something else I haven't heard about RMS before, is that he discounted political action for direct action (i.e. coding) early on, given that this was where his strengths were:

JP: It is interesting that you used the term "escape' at the beginning of the interview. Most people who think about "movements' think in terms of building an opposition, changing public opinion, and forcing concessions from the powerful.

RMS: What we are doing is direct action. I did not think I could get anywhere convincing the software companies to make free software if I did political activities, and in any case I did not have any talent or skills for it. So I just started writing software. I said, if those companies won't respect our freedom, we'll develop our own software that does.

Still, RMS doesn't do too badly at politics, either, as he deftly fits the Free Software movement in with the ideals of Znet's reader base:

JP: Many of ZNet's readers see themselves as part of some movement -- anti-poverty, or anti-war, or for some other form of social change. Can you say something about why such folks ought to pay attention and relate to the free software movement?

RMS: If you are against the globalization of business power, you should be for free software.

JP: -- But it isn't the global aspect of business power, is it? If it were local business power, that wouldn't be acceptable?

RMS: -- People who say they are against globalization are really against the globalization of business power. They are not actually against globalization as such, because there are other kinds of globalization, the globalization of cooperation and sharing knowledge, which they are not against. Free software replaces business power with cooperation and the sharing of knowledge.

That one idea, replacing business power with cooperation, is one place where I think the Free Software model doesn't fit with the definition of "perfect" capitalism, which is defined so as to exclude altruism. There is no such thing as "perfect" capitalism, however, and there are many businesses have made hefty profits and still have been socially responsible.

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