Programmers of the world, you have nothing to lose but your chains!

Linux: An example of the creative potential unleashed when profit is not a factor


By Aaron Levin

Defenders of capitalism enjoy the notion that humanity cannot progress without a profit motive or some form of wealth incentive. This is common among their ‘human nature’ arguments that forget about the entire development of humanity prior to capitalism. Despite these cynical attempts to subordinate human progress to the profit motive, there exist many examples that give us a glimpse into the real capacity of human creativity outside of a framework of crude capital-driven competition.

One notable example is that of Linux-an operating system used for computers. In laymen terms, it manages the interface between your computer and the user (i.e. manages files, drives, and memory). Windows is the most popular operating system of our time, and like capitalism it is far behind the times and the potential productive capabilities of society.

In 1971 Bell Labs developed an Operating System for their servers called Unix. Servers need very sophisticated ways to handle file systems and remote users and thus require quite a sophisticated operating system. Unix was Open Source, which meant that the source code was distributed freely to users so that they could modify it to their needs. Any major computer software created today, such as Windows or Office, has the source code hidden from other users. This is done to maintain a monopoly over resources as well as a potential stranglehold over the market.

In 1991 a programmer named Linus Torvalds had the genius idea of trying to make a Unix-esque operating system for the PC. And thus he created Linux as a hobby. He released it to the public and asked for support from his friends to fix bugs and help make the system more compatible. This small quantitative accomplishment has lead to a huge qualitative leap in the computing community.

Linux, on top of being exponentially more powerful than windows in memory management, is also more customizable by the user. This allows users to turn their PCs into anything they want-from machines used purely for gaming to computers that host websites. Its most notable achievement, however, is the fact that it is Open Source and free ( This means that users all around the world can use and help develop Linux without any cost.

For computer enthusiasts and professionals, this has revolutionized the concept of the operating system. We need no longer be quashed under the iron fist of Bill Gates and Microsoft’s notoriously problematic Windows. This freedom has allowed volunteers to openly help the Linux community by contributing code, fixing bugs, writing FAQs, bolstering accessibility, and making it increasingly user-friendly, especially for beginners. And all of this has been accomplished without a profit motive. In fact, without the profit motive, there is no reason to cut corners in order to reduce costs or to make users dependant on costly add-ons and upgrades.

Slowly, a huge following of users grew, each contributing according to their ability while using according to their need. The Open Source movement continued to spread internationally as Linux became easier for newer users and as more programs were made to compliment it.

But how could such a system, built entirely by an international support network of volunteer users, stifle the ideas of heavily invested corporations like Microsoft? Simple – the users creating the programs know better what constitutes an ideal operating system, than do analysts, CEOs or the market. Capitalist apologists preach that only the market knows what the people want and that only it can deliver the pinnacle of product quality. This assertion is completely false. The market’s driving force is not quality or necessity, but profit. As far as quality is concerned, the race for profits is a race to the bottom. On the other hand, without the hindrance of profit motive, creative potential is unlimited. Open Source projects like Linux, GNU, OpenGL, OpenGLUT, BSD etc are just one example of what can be accomplished by a project developed by the people, for the people.

Ironically, the worker-developed Linux software is so cheap and reliable that even large corporations are using it (Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, McDonalds Germany and Central Bank of India, to name a few). The majority of websites are now hosted on Linux machines. More notably, after seeing the strengths of a Unix system like Linux the newest installment of Macintosh’s Panther Operating System has an OpenBSD (BSD is a style of Unix for the PC developed at the University Berkley) core built right in!

In the case of Linux, it has always been the users and supporters that have furthered its development. Unfortunately, capitalism limits this kind of user participation to the privileged few with the leisure time to do it in. But in a society driven by need and not greed, workers the world over would be not only allowed but expected to participate in the development of new and better products – better in terms of quality, efficiency, user-friendliness, and environmental sustainability.

What does capitalism really have to offer other than limitations on our creative capacity?

October, 2004  


Back to Fightback