Rob Hunter

H-node and the Trap of Anticonsumerism

h-node, the FSF’s repository of free software-compatible hardware, recently updated its guidelines to include Debian among its list approved GNU/Linux distributions. This is a welcome move for those who – myself included – prefer to use Debian because of its stability, security, and above all the large community of developers, hackers, and users who maintain it.

Debian still isn’t on the FSF’s list of approved distros, though, because of its inclusive policies toward non-free bits of software (such as video drivers).

I have sympathies with the tendency in hacker circles to prefer running only free software, but I have no qualms about using Debian despite its inclusion (outside of its main repository) of non-free software. In a political economy predicated on the accumulation and concentration of capital, individual consumption choices – including choices to abstain from buying certain kinds of hardware or using certain kinds of closed source software – do not redound to meaningful political actions. An ascetic approach to hacking does nothing to confront or challenge capital’s control over computing or computing’s usefulness to the project of centralizing and obscuring the mechanisms of power.

There’s a certain element of anticonsumerism implicit in the wholesale rejection of closed-source software, but as Ellen Willis observed almost fifty years ago, “there is nothing inherently wrong with consumption…The locus of oppression resides in the production function” and not in consumption. The problem with the uneven distribution of power in computing and software development today lies in the fact that production decisions are made based on profits, not in the fact that individual users are confronted with an array of consumption choices that includes very few options that are fully free software-compatible.

I’m glad that Debian is cooperating with FSF on h-node, but I doubt that I will use the site to guide my next hardware purchase. Coding, debugging, and donating time, money, and equipment – these remain far better ways to support software freedom than embracing an absolutist anticonsumerist ethos.