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<nettime> The Will to Code
David M. Berry on Mon, 10 Oct 2005 23:54:52 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Will to Code

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The Will to Code: Nietzsche and the Democratic Impulse

- David M. Berry & Lee Evans
Department of Media and Film/Dept of International Relations,
University of Sussex., Falmer, Brighton. BN1 9RH


This paper examines the moral claims of free software through the lens of a
(re)reading of their theory and practices together with aspects of Nietzsche's
works. It seeks to make a preliminary sketch of how such an analysis might draw
attention to oft-neglected aspects of the free software and open source movements.
Does an aristocratic moment within the free software (and more generally the free
culture) movements point toward a necessary revitalisation of the res publica and
should we view this movement as central to the democratic project rather than
anathema to it.

Introduction: The Moral Claims of Free Software

'To refrain from injury, from violence, from exploitation, and put one's will on a
par with that of others: this may result in a certain rough sense in good conduct
among individuals when the necessary conditions are given (namely, the actual
similarity of the individuals in amount of force and degree of worth, and their co-
relation within one organisation). As soon, however, as one wished to take this
principle more generally, and if possible even as the fundamental principle of
society, it would immediately disclose what it really is =96 namely, a Will to the
denial of life, a principle of dissolution and decay'. [Nietzsche, Beyond Good and
Evil, =A7259]

Free Software has been described by theorists such as Benkler (2002) as
commons-based peer-production. It is hailed for the revolutionary potentials
inherent in its oft-described decentred, non-hierarchical and egalitarian (dis)
organisation (e.g. Moglen 1999; Hardt & Negri 2004). However in this paper we intend
to see whether reading Nietzsche offers an alternative insight into the workings of
free software projects. Particularly one that starts from a different point to that
of an egalitarian theory and points rather to explanation that may cohere around a
coding aristocracy. Does an analysis that focuses on the will to power (or perhaps
more accurately the will to code) provide any explanatory value in understanding the
extremely complex interactions and processes involved in software development in
copyleft groups? How might reading Nietszche help us to question the morality
instantiated in such software and associated cultural projects? This short article
is a preliminary sketch of how we feel a reading of the practices of the free
software movements could be usefully understood through Nietszche.

In Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals and elsewhere, Nietzsche
examines the origins of 'conventional' morality, claiming that prevailing
ascriptions of the labels 'good' and 'evil' are the secularized legacy of
Judeo-Christian 'resentiment'. Ideals of compassion and neighbourliness, originating
in the 'slave' mentality of the oppressed and marginalised Jewry of antiquity have,
through the rise of Christianity, come to exert a pernicious sway over European
morality and politics. Reflecting upon the 19th century European milieu, he argued
that the democratic-egalitarian impulse is not intrinsically 'good' at all, but
rather the product of an extended historical process of contest between aristocracy
and slaves, rulers and ruled.

But this genealogical analysis was not the endpoint of Nietzsche's investigation.
His work can be understood as an extended commentary upon and dialogue with this
democratic impulse in which its core premise - that of the possibility and
desirability of the drawing of moral and political equivalences between human beings
- is subjected to normative (r)evaluation. Possibility, because in the concept of
'will to power' he claimed that humans were fundamentally = competitive rather than
compassionate; desirable, because he forcefully claimed the implications for the
health of the community of a moral complex which elevates facility to its central
ethical core, was fundamentally deleterious.

The claim that the democratic egalitarian impulse is immoral makes for difficult
reading, particularly in an age notable for its proselytizing of choice, freedom and
liberty. But in the spirit of 'untimely meditation' - to think outside or against
the times - it raises some pertinent questions about the form and consequences of
morality instantiated in contemporary contestations over intellectual property
regimes. The aristocratic moment in Nietzsche's philosophy, where the majority exist
to facilitate the pursuit of Beauty, Truth and Legacy by a select group of
ubermensch, is redolent of a hierarchical social form to which few would today
subscribe. And yet, insofar as he sought to rethink the legitimating narratives of
his day in such a way that the contestation of authority became problematic for the
'health' of the community, rather than its salvation, we argue that it provides an
important corrective to uncritical, unreflexive assumptions that the morality
inscribed in the free software moment is 'good'. Indeed, reading Nietzsche calls on
us to (re)consider how to understand and evaluate the moral claims of the free
software movement and its contributors in toto. So, for example, insofar as this
movement accentuates the democratic- egalitarian impulse, do its members not
inadvertently contribute to the ongoing enervation of the res publica in which they
are located?  Or, conversely, might they be understood as a code aristocracy which,
in undertaking a 'copyfight', instantiate a process of self- overcoming though which
the res publica is revitalised? And what moral judgement might we ourselves pass on
them as a result?

The Morality of Free Software - A Code Aristocracy?

Before passing moral judgement, then, a moral assessment of the free software
projects and contributions to them is required. This assessment has two dimensions:
first, does the Free Software/open- source movement's elite group of individuals,
such as Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond, Linus Torvalds, Alan Cox, Bruce Perens, Tim
O'Reilly, Brian Behlendorf, Eben Moglen et al, amount to a Nietzschean coding
aristocracy; and second, does the will to power represented by Stallman et al
signify the refraction of a novel moral complex through the social whole in which
they are embedded, or are they merely (re)articulating more widely held and
understood concepts of what counts as good and evil? What then is the morality
instantiated in the free software movement by its contributors - the desire to
'level' or the desire to lead?

In the first case it is could be argued that there is indeed a case to be made for
the existence of an upper tier of programmers, self- selected and their authority
legitimated by the claims to 'hacker' status. These hackers are often extremely
productive and active in their coding activities, sometimes even having the title
'benevolent dictator' bestowed upon them (Linus Torvalds being a notable example).
They also feel free to proclaim the morals and ethics of the communities they
nominally claim to represent and sometimes take extremely controversial positions
and actions (e.g. the Torvalds bitkeeper debacle). Much research is underway in a
number of disciplines to understand the free software and open-source movements but
the empirical studies undertaken so far seem to point towards a large number of
developers in these projects but with a much smaller core cadre of programmers who
undertake the majority of the work.  When it comes to discussing difficult issues,
decisions and future directions, those that have a 'reputational' weight can carry a
particular position or decision (of course, notwithstanding the dangers of 'forking'
and the need therefore to keep some semblance = of consensus - or perhaps more
pessimistically, hegemony). The existence of an upper tier of programmers,
self-selected, their authority from a "hacker" status, demonstrates that democratic
or egalitarian = claims need to be balanced with more careful analysis.

Additionally, it is difficult to ignore the proclamations of individuals like
Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond (whose controversial and widely differing views on
the ethics of these software communities we cannot go into here, see for example
Berry 2004). But suffice to say that the two movements (i.e free software and
open-source) are important 'nodal points' around which discussions are often
polarised. Here we concentrate particularly on the arguments made by those who
support the position of the Free Software movement, as we believe that they can and
should be separated from the more individualistic and rational choice theory
presented by the open-source community. Additionally, their explicitly moral and
ethical claims allow us to examine their arguments within the framework we have
discussed. We intend to return to the question of the open-source counter-claims in
a later article.

Secondly, although a Kantian notion of a categorical imperative seems to underlie
the philosophical foundations of the position advocated by Richard Stallman (i.e.
what is ethical for the individual must be generalisable to the community of
coders), the nature of the language which is utilised by the Free Software
Foundation (FSF), and Stallman in particular, draws on the benefits and importance
to society as an original reading of the republican values of the US constitution. 
Separating a 'free as in free speech' (i.e. libre) from a 'free as = in free beer'
(i.e. gratis) he argues forcefully against the dangers threatened through the
ownership and control of knowledge. He advocates a voluntaristic project that can
counter the damaging constriction of human knowledge through corporate or
governmental control (i.e. the right to access code, tinker, use and reuse ideas and
concepts). He is also remarkably active internationally, giving Zarathrusta-like
warnings of the dangers from the coming intellectual dark ages in presentations to
governments, corporations and 'civil society' organisations.

A lone voice in the wilderness for many years, Stallman has had the last laugh, as
all warnings regarding the enclosure and restrictions placed on knowledge through
intellectual property law (e.g. patents and copyright) have come to pass. Yet,
during this time, although to a large degree distanced from the wider community, he
continued to (almost single-handedly) develop the most important tools necessary to
build a philosophy and an operating system that remained outside of the private
ownership of individuals (e.g. GNU). Indeed, it could be argued that the Free
Software Foundation, which controls the development, is more akin to Res
Universitatis than Res Privatae (i.e. it remains outside of private property as
normally understood due to both its non-profit status and the ingenious General
Public License). However, in a cruel twist of fate it was left to a young Finnish
student, Linus Torvalds, to write the essential core kernel, to name it 'Linux', and
thus complete the system. Perhaps more surprisingly, Torvalds also demonstrated a
political naivety and lack of appreciation of the underlying ethical and political
project that made his work possible in the first place. It could even be argued that
Torvalds apolitical technocratic mentality has aided Stallman's critics and the
open-source movement's project of de-politicisation of Free Software rather than
confirming Stallman's prescient forecasts. Nonetheless, Stallman's project of the
GNU/Linux system has paid off in a global debate which has truly unforeseen
consequences (witness for example the spectacle of a music industry finding itself
for the first time on the wrong side of the argument against 'the system', appearing
less a radical/progressive force in tune with youth culture and more as corporate
suits allied with the conservative hierarchy fighting file-sharing and peer2peer

The consequences of this project gradually revealing themselves: from technical
questions over software to the (always implicit but now increasingly evident)
concerns with morality...sharing or profit; our 'right' to information against the
private ownership of knowledge.

Without Regard For Persons? Or, The res publica vs human beings

In turning to Nietzsche we tread a familiar path in contemporary political thought.
Such is the scope of his works that his texts have provided a rich seam for thinkers
during the past four decades or so. 

In fact, there has been no time since his death when he has not been a feature of
the political terrain. And yet for all this attention to Nietzsche, the normative
core of his political diagnoses is all too often elided, particularly where he has
been mobilised to refine various schema - democracy, feminism and socialism - to
which he was implacably opposed. To acknowledge the legitimacy of the method is one
thing - his work is a resource to be played with. But we argue that to invoke
Nietzsche it is necessary to recognise and engage with his emphatically
anti-democratic injunctions. We are not advocating Nietzsche's binary social
distinction: our intention is not to recalibrate the aristocratic moment. But we are
intrigued by the possibility of invoking his untimely challenge to the conviction
that human beings can be the subject of moral evaluation qua human beings. 

That we might, in Nietzsche words, be able to undertake some form of 'revaluation of

In this vein we suggest that it is not origins on which moral evaluation should be
based, but on consequences. In a era in which social democracy's pact with the
market demands that citizen's = rights be balanced by 'responsibilities', and
political philosophy = continues its Sisyphian struggle to resolve the unresolvable
- to proclaim the ethos of community while retaining that lonely figure of the
modern sovereign individual as its real ethical core - we wonder whether this
revaluation might include re-consideration of the yardstick by which we judge moral
agents. And to extend this line of thought, it might be possible to envisage a moral
schema in which evaluation of a citizen be accomplished in terms of the service they
perform to the community. In other words, that people be ajudged in terms of
actions, and that actions be judged in terms not of their service to human beings
qua human beings but to the social whole.

In the Free Software world that hackers inhabit, participants believe themselves to
live in a meritocracy, where only the best programmers rise through the ranks to
decide the rules of the game for others.  But even here there are stark differences
in how the contributions hackers make to a community might be judged: witness for
example the different ethical standpoints of the free software versus the open-
source movement (e.g. community based ethics against a form of selfish utility
maximisation). It is also instructive to see how technological tools are developed
by the hackers to discuss technical issues but also inevitably politics, economics
and social issues (see for example slashdot.com for a good example). Yet key to a
Nietzschean assessment of the morality of the Free Software movement is the
establishment of a meta-morality that enables us to view its claims not
oppositionally but historically: to provide a basis for moving beyond evaluation of
which is the 'most good' to think anew about what is 'good' in the first place.

If the defeat of old values creates nihilism, the task confronting us is precisely
not to place faith in our agency, to think that we can 'build' our way out of the
moral impasse (as might be implied by the moral topology of contemporary
resistance/struggle). The subversion of the old values by their own call to truth
does not mean that we now exist in a moral vacuum into which we can add our own
progressive morality (borne of countering authority, in this case in the form of
IPRs). No, reading Nietzsche compels us to pause and consider anew the moral
topography in which we are located and to which we all contribute. The task is not
to innovate values through our agency, but to think how we may contribute to a
revaluation of values through that agency - how we may help recalibrate the
hierarchy of values.  Not to make new morality but to refashion the existing one.
Within Free Software and Free Culture there is an assumption of a certain group of
norms and values, a commitment to an uncontested but implicit set of rights and
obligations. Here and elsewhere, Nietzsche, then, calls upon us to question whether,
in this age of utterly unreflective indulgence of the democratic impulse, we might
not serve ourselves, and our community better by pausing to think what we are doing.

Short Bibliography

Benkler, Y. (2002). Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm. The Yale
Law Journal, 112, 369-446.

Berry, D. M. (2004). The Contestation of Code: A Preliminary Investigation into the
Discourse of the Free/Libre and Open Source Movement. Critical Discourse Studies,

Bull, M.(2000) Where is the Anti-Nietzsche?, New Left Review, 3.

Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2004). Multitude: war and democracy in the age of Empire.
New York: The Penguin Press.

Moglen, E. (1999). Anarchism Triumphant: Free Software and the Death of Copyright.
Retrieved 01/03/2003, from http://www.firstmonday.org/

Nietzsche, F. (1997). Beyond Good and Evil, Mineola: Dover Publications.

Nietzsche, F. (1998). On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic, Oxford: Oxford
University Press.


David Berry is a researcher at the University of Sussex, UK and a member of the
research collective The Libre Society. He writes on issues surrounding intellectual
property, immaterial labour, politics, open-source and copyleft. See

Lee Evans is a doctoral student at the University of Sussex. He is currently working
on theories of civil society and civic republicanism in International Relations.

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