This is part 4 of a weekly series of articles to appear in the journal Critical Studies in Peer Production (CSPP). In the series I try to describe analytical patterns developed by the Oekonux Project since over ten years of research on Free Software and commons-based peer production. Please visit the introducing part for the background. Already released patterns: 1, 2, 3.
Pattern 4: Beyond Money
Since money only makes sense for commodities, a non-commodity (cf. pattern 3) implies that there is no money involved. Thus Free Software is beyond money. On the other hand, there is obviously a lot of money around Free Software: developers are paid, companies spend money, new companies are formed around Free Software. This has confused a lot of people, even on the left. They stick to an either-or thinking, being unable to think these observations as a contradictory process of parallel development in a societal period of transition (cf. pattern 10).
Money is not a neutral tool, money can occur in different social settings. It can be wage money, invested money (capital), profit, cash money etc. Different functions have to be analyzed differently. In Free Software there is no commodity form involved, so money in the narrow sense of selling a commodity for a price does not exist. However, Eric Raymond explained how to make money using a non-commodity: by combining it with a scarce good. In a capitalist society where only a few goods had broken out of the commodity realm, it is beyond question that all other goods continue to exist as commodities. They are kept scarce and they are combined with a priceless good. Using a perspective of valorization this is nothing new (e.g. spreading gifts to attract customers). Using a perspective of recognizing a germ form this way a new mode of production starts to develop within the still existing old model.
But why do companies give money if this money is not an investment in the traditional sense, but a kind of a donation, e.g. to pay Free Software developers? Why did IBM put one billion dollars into Free Software? Because they were forced to do so. Economically speaking they have to devalue one business area to save the other profit-making areas. They have to burn money to create a costly environment for their sales (e.g. server hardware). As the enclosure of the commons is a precondition for capitalism, the other way around is also true. Extending the commons in a field currently dominated by commodities means that this field is replaced by free goods.
However, the “four freedoms” of Free Software – use, study, change, redistribute – (Free Software Foundation, 1996) do not speak about “free” in the sense of “gratuitous”. The slogan “free as in freedom, not in free beer” is legion. This is completely fine and does not contradict the “beyond money” dictum, because the four freedoms do not say anything about money. The four freedoms are about free availability, are about abundance. Thus, the absence of money is an indirect effect. Abundant and thus non-scarce goods cannot be a commodity (cf. pattern 2) and cannot make any money. However, making money is not forbidden per se.
There have been a lot of attempts to integrate the non-exchange, non-commodity, commons-based free circulation of Free Software into the traditional economic paradigm, which is based on exchange and commodity. The most prominent one was the “attention economy” saying that the producers do not exchange goods, but attention (Goldhaber, 1997). They concluded that attention is the new currency. But this was only a desperate attempt do cling to old terms which neither worked properly nor delivered any new insights and thus was not relevant. Various other similar attempts are skipped here.
Being beyond money directly results from not being a commodity.