Friday, September 18, 2009

Free Software economics for Indigenous Nations

Information in the computer age is the last genuine free market left on earth except those free markets where indigenous people are still surviving (Russell Means)

Some of the surviving nations in North America have tried Casinos and call centers. Others have tried meat packing for freedom. Yet, unemployment remains high, over 80% for some communities, such as on the Lakotah reservations. Similarly, per capita income often remains below the poverty line. On the Lakotah reservations, per capita income is typically less than $4,000 annually. The exact story is of course different for each nation, but the overall results of these efforts have usually been rather bleak.

Worse still, each of these efforts require nations to participate in a culturally foreign social-economic model. Each time doing so, a small part of the culture dies in the process. That is because this model requires people to compete against each other, often by any means necessary, and to do so while using the labor of others for personal gain in a market that is often closed and where goods and services often become artificially scarce and demand is artificially generated to further extract wealth rather than meeting real needs.

Certainly, for the American Indian working at a meat packing factory or a call center a job is a means of survival for a family. But it leads to no real economic development or further growth, whether for the worker or for the nation. It is a relationship that exists because the cost of bargained labor is so very cheap on the reservation. If the standard of living and income expectations did actually rise, those so eager to place some temporary facility or industry on the reservation will often simply pull up and leave to someplace cheaper. In fact, this relationship specifically discourages investment in the kind of economic development that would produce long term growth, infrastructure, and economic facilities, because doing so both will create higher future labor costs and make it far more difficult to later leave.

Even in the case of Casinos, there are issues. Where a nation is fortunate enough to be the direct beneficial owner of a casino rather than simply licensing the rights and profits to an outside entity, this casts the nation itself in the role of extracting wealth through deliberate deception of others. It may be ironic, given that this is essentially a reversal of roles, since often indigenous lands were acquired through such tactics, but this too means people must forget who they are and what their lifeways mean and take up the very same behaviors of the invader that they found to be so very offensive. In this way, also, the nations and culture can surely also slowly die.

As I noted there are basic cultural questioned tied to economics, and this is especially true for American Indians who's cultural experiences were originally formed in a classless society. This was best explained to me once by Russell Means. While at the time we were talking about the social and cultural consequence of western styles education, what he said that most stuck with me at the time was, and to roughly paraphrase his words, “Indians do not compete”. Clearly the logical way forward is to look at sustainable models based on voluntary cooperative economics with direct or collective ownership over the means of production. Fortunately there are a number examples found practiced today which do not require high levels of (presumably external) investment to get started and which have already been demonstratively effective. One example of this is found in the economics of free (as in freedom) software.

Free software underpins not just the technological foundations of the global Internet, but even the financial success of large capitalist corporations. Examples of this include IBM, who claims to make over $1 billion in revenue annually through free software, and RedHat (rhat), which is a publicly traded company that develops and sells free software for enterprise uses. But while free software scales even to sustain very large businesses and commercial activities, it also enables individuals and much smaller and entirely autonomous entities to successfully economically participate by making the means of production available to everyone, and hence often with very minimal startup costs.

Free software is often expressed and provided through a copyright license, such as the GNU General Public License. The terms of such a license essentially are that one who receives free software is free to provide the software to others, whether in original form or modified, so long as they add no additional restrictions or conditions when they do so. Since they originally received the software with the full source code to compile and build it, it is necessary to offer it to others with the same. This, in economic terms, is a transaction, but not an exchange of money, it is rather an exchange of consideration. This is often called copyleft.

This relationship does not in any way prevent free software from being commercially sold in any fashion. However, it does mean one cannot artificially control or otherwise restrict the freedom of what the purchaser may do with what you have sold them. Free software also offers entirely new ways for buyers and sellers to relate. Since the downstream seller may choose to make changes or fixes and then redistribute the improved version, those changes too become public, and can make their way back to the original developer and to all users of said software, who then benefit. This is where true cooperative benefits scale, and in a manner that is both socially and culturally consistent with the lifeways of many indigenous nations.

Certainly not are all free software relationships expressed as buyers and sellers, it is simply the one most clear to explain to a larger audience. In fact many kinds of cooperative relationships can exist, many different kinds of business models can be applied, and these too often will align well with traditional lifeways. Equally important, free software allows cooperative expertise. Since one cannot derive exclusive benefit at the expense of another, there is much greater incentive for people working on similar problems to do so together rather than competitively.

With no artificial market barriers to participation, and with the possibility for zero cost in distribution, much of the cost of commercially starting in free software are entirely infrastructure and equipment costs. Given the cooperative nature of free software, this too could lend itself to shared or cooperative costs. Individual nations could even minimally invest in setting up small community development centers where equipment and infrastructure are particularly scarce.

Free software certainly will not solve all the problems of the surviving nations alone. However, it certainly can even in a small way help contribute to the establishment of sustainable economic development as well as a means to enable individual and communal economic sovereignty even in the present world, and hence to do so without having to compromise core social and cultural principles in the process.