BY TOMISLAV MEDAK
A contribution to the Political Economy of Copyleft
In the age of real existing socialism in Yugoslavia, social production was supposed to be governed by the principles of public ownership & workers' self-management, whilst in fact, all along the circulation of capital continued to rely on the solid principles of industrial capitalism. The capital could generate surplus value only if those who workers who were selling the productive commodity - their labour force - on the labour market, were also the ones who were buying back the commodity products of their labour. As it turns out the radical re-foundation of social production in the Yugoslavian socialist project remained half-way radical - although the production relations and management of means of production were imagined in a thoroughly different fashion, the issue of circulation was not addressed adequately. This might be the reason why, when the socialist economy converted to free market, consumption was the first element in the economic make-up of society to adapt to the new environment - it wasn't all that new after all. But what constituted the failure on behalf of the socialist project was that it rehearsed the divorce between the productivity and consumption in the subjectivity (differentiation between worker and consumer otherwise also known as alienation of producer from his products) and the mediation between them via the process of abstraction and mediation by means of the general equivalent in the same manner that the capitalist project did. In this regard it remained a tributary to the capital relation and was thus essentially deserving of the name that it got - state-capitalism.
This putative critique of really existing socialism from the dated machinery of political economy should not serve here as a point of departure for yet another account as to what were the inherent reasons that the entire thing fell apart. As a failure to set straight the workings of capitalism, it should rather serve us as a tool to better illuminate how the free cooperation paradigm of production created in the free software community is remodelling these workings in its own right. The point made is not that this endeavour necessarily stands as a successor to the socialist one, but rather that it offers a different intervention in the same nodes of the capitalist system - those of production and circulation. And maybe a better one.
Using the privileges of a small scale community with a global reach, an epochal coincidence of production and consumption in the digital medium and a legally sanctioned relation of exchange based on the copyright, free software succeeded in a relative erasure of the functional differentiation between producer and consumer. Instead of abstracting labour into the general equivalent, it opted to convert it into the knowledge it needed to communicate in order to coordinate the collective effort of creating a commons. As the market mechanism of scarcity is not applicable for something that is digital, non-competitive and non-exclusive, the way to feed back the demand into development are not price signals but knowledge, information. This is the reason why the free software developer community includes the entire range from hackers to users - because it is first and foremost a continuum of knowledge, and this is the reason why copyleft is its fundamental feature - it is a safeguard for knowledge to be free to circulate.
Free software certainly cannot be measured with the socialist projects from the last century. It is also not the first and only thing of its kind. However, it addresses the basic politico-economic parallax at the heat of those projects, i.e. how to reinvent the organizational principles of mediation between productivity and circulation that do not take place via the alienation implied by commodification and the general equivalent of money, but would conceive them as a form of labour that is, along with being a product, also a knowledge generated in labour and a form of circulation that is, along with giving a product up for consumption, also conveying that knowledge. And in being a politico-economical strategy of autonomy - albeit maybe but a temporary one; one that might eventually dissolve under the sway of market or development of technology - it has the merit of not following the methodology of socialist projects. It does not liberate the multiplicity of production and circulation by making a work out of the re-foundation of the social. It rather liberates the multiplicity of the latter by re-founding the former.