Book Review – “Hacking Capitalism: The Free and Open Source Software Movement”

Is open source software provocative to capitalism because it is free,
or because it is authored in a way that subverts the
labor-wage-consumption relations that are so central to Post-Fordist
capitalism?

This is the central question taken up in "Hacking Capitalism: The Free and Open Source Software Movement" (Routledge, 2008) by Johan Soderberg.
He comes down on the side of the latter, arguing specifically that the
hacker movement has replaced the increasingly ineffective labor
struggle with a new form of struggle: play struggle. "Resistance has
here become a game" (183).

hacking capitalism cover
Soderberg has a knack for interdisciplinarity, traversing a vast
terrain of historical, technical, and theoretical material without
sacrificing depth in any particular area. Hacking Capitalism is
the sort of thought-heavy book that you read slowly, not because it is
inaccessible or esoteric, but because it is appropriately dense and
informative, and you want to both take in every word and enjoy the
read.

Soderburg also has a knack for framing theoretical work in larger
discourses and contextualizing it in history, which makes the book a
useful resource for students seeking a broader understanding of Marxist
and NeoMarxist thought in general.

The bulk of Hacking Capitalism is an overview of the usual
suspects in NeoMarxist critiques of capitalism – deskilling &
alienation of labor, excess commodification, and the cycle of
production and consumption – but with a particular emphasis on the
networked society and its impact on the labor struggle. Soderberg clearly believes that the underlying productive processes of
hacking are more important than the products that result, or the
methods of distribution. "It is not pirate sharing that makes
peer-to-peer networks subversive, though, but the peer-to-peer labour
relations of which this technology is an example" (123).

Pulling from a weatlh of examples – ranging from GNU/Linux to file
sharing to fan fiction – Soderberg argues that the hacker movement is part of a
larger revolt "against the boredom of commodified labour and needs
satisfaction" (44).

In other words, living standards have improved
enough (in developed nations) that workers, particularly middle class knowledge workers, no longer have an incentive to work harder to
improve their living standards, or to participate in the antiquated
labor struggle, and they are instead simply becoming bored with work. The expression of this boredom, for Soderberg, is play struggle. Noting that scholars frequently fixate on the question of hacker’s
incentives – "What drives hackers to write code when there are no
direct economic incentives for them to do so?" – Soderberg dismisses the
very idea that hackers are motivated by the market: "All of that is
invalidated once we start taking play seriously" (165).

As Soderberg’s first book, Hacking Capitalism is clearly
paving the way for future research, and he admits as much from the
beginning, dedicating his book to those "who make something new and
interesting with it." Viewed in those terms, the book is certainly a
success, but it is not without its limitations. Two, in particular,
stood out to me.

First, the term "hacker," so central to the book, is loosely defined
and inconsistently used. Soderberg discusses both the libertarian and
anarchist tendencies of early hackers and, more recently, content
pirates, as well as the distinctly non-libertarian perspectives of the
Creative Commons, but he fails to either distinguish between these
perspectives or justify grouping them together. He invokes Pekka
Himanen’s "hacker spirit" as an umbrella term for a wide variety of
activities, but neglects to pin the term down. While he correctly
observes that "no-one can represent the hacker community since there
are no clear borders" (179), the lack of precision in defining the
boundaries of his own object of study hurts the overall argument.

Second, Soderberg’s primary topic, his theory of play struggle,
occupies only a liminal place in his book (though traces of it persist
throughout). I felt, as a reader, that I spent the majority of the book
anticipating his ultimate argument, rather than experiencing and
understanding it. In the closing chapter, I felt a rising sense of
panic as the final pages slipped past too quickly, without
enough depth to satisfy me, and I closed the book with a touch of
disappointment. Perhaps Soderberg was wary of overstating the
significance of the "hacker spirit", and opted to conservatively understate it
instead.

However, despite these criticisms, my overall opinion of the book is
that it is a phenomenally well-written and invaluable resource,
particular to young scholars like myself. Hacking Capitalism
is a must read for anyone doing research on hacktivism, the commons,
the information economy, the future of technology, and any topic that
starts with "free," "open," or "hack."

Brad Weikel

Brad Weikel received his MA in Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) from Georgetown University in 2009. His thesis, "From Coding to Community: Iteration, Abstraction, and Open Source Software Development" argued that programming practices, particularly iterative workflows and abstraction models, can help explain both the success and struggles of open source software. His work was a technocentric complement to prior explanations from economists, lawyers, and political and cultural theorists. While writing his thesis, Brad blogged about his topic at OpenCulture.cc, where he has since continued blogging, more broudly, about collaborative production and the commons at large. Brad was Managing Editor of gnovis during the 2007/2008 and 2008/2009 school years, and Creative Director in 2006/2007. He is currently the Web & Communications Coordinator for EarthRights International.