The lost cause of the Free Software Foundation

:: doomed

The Free Software Foundation has reelected Richard Stallman to its board. At first glance this looks like a wilful act of self-harm by the FSF: RMS has expressed opinions which are abhorrent and has behaved appallingly towards women, at least. This is to misunderstand both what the cause of the FSF really is and what their options for that cause now are.

[What follows is wrong in some important ways: please see this article which has both corrections and an apology.]

The cult of Richard Stallman

RMS is, to put it rather mildly, someone who a large number of people find extremely toxic but who is unsurprisingly also supported by other groups of people. The people who support him are generally exactly the sort of people you would expect to support him – white male programmers – and have exactly the sort of views you would expect: they’re bigots. They’re not people with whom it would be pleasant to work if you were female, not white, or both. In fact they’re not the sort of people with whom it would be pleasant to work at all if you were a decent human being.

It seems likely that RMS himself is ill, or at least not neurotypical, rather than malevolant: he almost certainly is someone who really finds it very hard to understand that paedophilia is abhorrent, for instance. And like most people, he wants sex, but unlike most people he fails to understand that the way to get it is not to repeatedly harass women1. If so, he is clearly someone who deserves sympathy and understanding. But he also should not be in a position where he has any kind of power over people: after all, psychopaths are also people who are ill, or not neurotypical in a different way, and you definitely don’t want psychopaths in positions of power or responsibility.

Some of the people who support RMS within and outside the FSF are probably also not neurotypical in similar ways. But the great majority are: they are simply the sort of people who believe in the innate superiority of white men, that women are inherently inferior and exist to satisfy the sexual needs of men regardless of their own desires: in other words they are racists and sexists of the worst kind. They also, perhaps, don’t have any serious problem with sex with young girls2. These people are malevolent. And RMS is a quite convenient figurehead for them as he is enabling them to do exactly what they want to do anyway. While I and many other people believed ten years ago that racism, sexism and other bigotries were fading into the past in many advanced countries, the events of the last decade have made it very clear that this is not the case. Very many people have always held horrible views: between perhaps the late 1970s and the mid 2010s they simply were less willing to speak those views in public. The ascent of ‘populism’ – which really means, among other things, white male supremacy – means that they are no longer so hesitant about expressing their views in public. You don’t have to read far into the comments on, for instance, The Register to see how common some of these views are3, and they can also be widely seen elsewhere: this is not something I am making up.

So it seems like what is happening with the FSF is simple: white male programmers have maintained their position of dominance and will continue to drive out everyone else. The FSF continues to be a white male supremacist organisation as it has always implicitly been.

Well, that’s all true, but there is more to it than that.

A guild

The FSF is essentially a guild:

guild or gild /gild/
[…] A mediaeval association looking after common (esp trading) interests, providing mutual support and protection, and masses for the dead
– Chambers

Like all guilds this one’s underlying purpose is to benefit its members, who regard themselves as uniquely, innately blessed to be members of the guild, and to forbid entrance to those they regard as inferior. As with many guilds this is dressed up in what are essentially religious clothes: only those blessed by the god of the guild are allowed to join. Guilds are distinct from unions in this way: anyone can join a union if they pay the fees, but only the elect of god can join the guild. The FSF and much of the culture around the broader free software movement4 isn’t socialist: it’s mediaeval.

The free software guild has also been very successful. Because it has become so dominant in the fields in which it operates it has all but driven out the groups it regards as not blessed from those fields. It’s not currently legal to do this (see below), but since the guild is so dominant it is inevitable that anyone starting work in one of the fields it operates in will encounter guild members, who will then make their lives so miserable that they leave, and pretty quickly non-elect people simply don’t even consider working in those fields. The guild got started in the mid 1980s and you can see its success in the figures. In 1984 one group of the non-elect made up 38% of those entering the workforce in one of the guild’s areas: by 2011 they made up under 18%. In areas directly under the control of the guild they now make up under 10% (and may never have made up more than that).

Well, of course mediaeval trade practices are even more hostile to capitalism than socialist ones are: the whole elect-of-god thing is just toxic to capitalism as it restricts the workforce enormously, and the weird religious ornamentation surrounding everything the guild does is also not helping anything. Capitalists want the guild to die or become irrelevant, so their available workforce can be much larger, they can drive down wages to reasonable levels, make more money for themselves and everyone else.

Capitalists are also often working in legal systems which make what the guild is doing illegal, and they are worried about that. So this is a rare case where the desires of the plutocrats and those of decent human beings align: neither wants the bigotry and pseudo-religion that is what the free software guild stands for.

Almost inevitably, the capitalists will win, and at some level the guild probably knows this. It is faced with two options.

It could chose to diminish and go into the west: remaining in existence but achieving an accommodation with the capitalists. This is pretty much what, for instance, the Anglican church (a descendant of another hugely powerful mediaeval institution) is doing: gradually relaxing all sorts of restrictions on things in order to avoid an outright confrontation with the rest of society. The Anglican church, in England (and its episcopal equivalents elsewhere in he UK) is now all but irrelevant in practical terms to most people: there are probably gay men who still worry that having sex with other men is ‘sinful’ but the number is diminishing, as one example. But it still exists, it still owns property, it still is involved in all sorts of ceremonial occasions.

Or the guild could choose to fight. It will lose, we must hope5, but, like the nazis at the end of the second war, it will go out in a blaze of what its members consider to be glory. Because it is quite powerful, this fight will cause a great deal of damage: it will destroy the guild of course, but many people and organisations not directly involved in it will also be badly hurt. But, from the perspective of the more fundamentalist members of the guild, this is a war for their religion and a war which they are obliged, therefore, to fight. They must fight even though they know they will lose, and even though the damage caused to others and to society as a whole will be severe.

And so, although they know their cause is already lost, the guild has chosen to fight.


  1. And, given how hard it is for him to understand that paedophilia is wrong, perhaps girls as well. 

  2. They will, of course, deny this. But they also will defend the remarks RMS made about paedophilia as not being particularly problematic, and talk about how unreasonable it was for various people for whom Jeffrey Epstein procured underage girls to check that they had consented, or could consent, to what was being done to them. And, after all, why should someone who believes that consent is not required for him to have sex with a woman really have a problem with having sex with a child, who cannot consent? Remember that these views were completely standard until quite recently in many societies. 

  3. Note that this is not intended to reflect on the staff of The Register, or its editorial policy, merely on the demographic of some of its commentariat. 

  4. To be very clear: I am not against free software, which I believe has done a lot of good. 

  5. We, together with the plutocrats, must hope it will lose because we must hope that the populist parties which have gained so much ground in recent years are eventually defeated and that democracy does not give way to regimes which are explicitly white male supremacist. Those regimes would destroy both liberal democracy and plutocratic capitalism, just as the nazis did in 1930s Germany. The rape of the UK by the Johnsonist party (still known as the ‘Conservative party’ although it is no longer a conservative party) makes it clear that this is not a safe assumption.