Rob Hunter

Free vs. Open Source Software

I wrote about free vs. open source software for Jacobin. Unlike a lot of writing on the subject, I quite deliberately tried to use as few acronyms as possible…

Progress Without Politics

I reviewed Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Jacobin. Here’s a taste:

The Warren Court’s victories in taking on segregation, civil liberties restrictions, and invasive policing tactics prompted a legalistic turn in liberal political strategy. Judicial review — once regarded as a tool of reaction and a barrier to reform — became more attractive as a method for achieving political goals. The Supreme Court’s higher political profile turned judicial appointments into valuable prizes.

Liberal intellectuals abandoned skepticism about judicial review (the Court’s role in tilting labor relations in favor of capital, and in thwarting of New Deal legislation, was no longer dwelt upon) and instead offered full-throated defenses of judicial supremacy: the view that only the Supreme Court can make authoritative interpretations of the values embedded in American public law.

Ever since, this turn toward legalism has furnished the hope that, even if liberals are unable to accomplish their policy goals through collective action, they can achieve them simply by being right. Judicial review by liberal justices is the alchemy through which attitudes and preferences may be transmuted into policy without organization, confrontation, or uncertainty — without politics.

Worse Regimes

Frances Stonor Saunders’s impressive LRB piece on Eric Hobsbawm’s file at MI5 is well-worth reading, but it ends with an odd coda:

The two sides in the Cold War, finding each other irresistible, ended up in a contrapuntal relationship where, as George Urban put it, ‘they marched in negative step, but in step all the same.’ They had their spies, we had ours. They had their files, we had ours. True, we didn’t have gulags. But what kind of democracy is it that congratulates itself on not having gulags? Never mind the dragnet surveillance, the burglaries, the smearing of reputations, the bugging of public telephone boxes, cafés, hotels, banks, trade unions, private homes, all this legitimised by the thesis that everyone is a potential subversive until proven otherwise – the problem is that the defenders of the realm took on the symptoms of the disease they were meant to cure.

Somehow, in other words – and despite adopting similar methods – during the Cold War, the West occupied a morally elevated position. Stonor Saunders hints that this is so because the “disease” – an Eastern Bloc with contrary geopolitical goals – antedated its Western “cure.” But the methods of control, surveillance, and repression listed by Stonor Saunders had all been pioneered in the capitalist world first. She also suggests a certain (dubious) moral superiority in the absence of gulags in postwar Britain. This is consonant with a tenacious conceit in Cold War history: despite mass internment and near-indiscriminate incarceration in the West in the twentieth-century and beyond, only the Soviet Union may be condemned for such practices. (It is also reminiscent of the persistent trope that the development of capitalism, unlike the development of communism, was free of violence, primitive accumulation, and mass dispossession).

Mass internment in the United States during World War II and the use of concentration camps in the decaying British Empire notwithstanding, only the Soviet Union can come in for opprobrium regarding such practices.

Stonor Saunders’ implicit assertion of a qualitative difference between the security services of two Cold War belligerents is only a recent entry in a long catalog of what might be called “worse regimes” claims, after the following passage from Piers Brendon’s The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997:

Throughout their imperial history the British always paid lip service to legality, but by the mid-1950s it was an open secret that Kenya had become a police state that dispensed racist terror … Frequent reports of institutional cruelty reached the outside world, some of them reminiscent of worse regimes. When Kenya’s interrogators ‘screened’ suspects, they generally began by softening them up with ‘a series of hard blows across the face’ – the standard shock tactic used on prisoners in Stalin’s Lubianka. In most cases further beatings followed, some of them fatal. This treatment was variously justified on the grounds that the Mau Mau were subhuman and that it would purge them of political sickness or sin. But those who administered the violence displayed ‘a strong streak of sadism … under the red heat of action.’ This was still more evident in further torments to which ‘screeners’ subjected men and women, mostly Kikuyu. These included electric shocks, burnings, near-drownings, mutilations and sexual abuse. (p. 566)

When “a series of hard blows across the face” were administered by the NKVD, we are meant to see them as prima facie evidence of the horrors of Stalinism. However, when the same tactic was employed by British security forces in Kenya – and it’s hard not to read “they generally began by” as synonymous with “the standard shock tactic” – we are meant to merely regret the fact that, somehow, the face of state power appeared no different in the British Empire than it did in the Soviet Union.

That there should normally have been such a difference is usually taken for granted by writers like Brendon and Stonor Saunders. Strangely, other explanations for the absence of such a difference are rarely considered.

The Civil Rights Movement’s Forgotten Radicals

I have a new essay up at Jacobin on continuities of radicalism between the Civil Rights Movement and today’s struggles against racism:

However devoutly liberals may wish for it, democracy cannot be depoliticized. Political change can only be pursued and maintained by political commitment and engagement. The sacralization of the Civil Rights Movement’s achievements through constitutional jurisprudence is the entombment, not the revivification, of the struggle for racial justice and equality.

As always, consider subscribing or donating; they do good work at Jacobin.

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.