“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
(to all my relations)
Today is a fine day, and while I have shared this elsewhere, I thought I would take the time to share this here. In many ways the struggle of the North American Indian remains to this day one to simply be recognized as and treated with common human dignity, and there remains I think an interesting and potentially important role for free software in this process, especially in overcoming some of the vast deprivations of both past and present faced by the communities in the captive nations. Given that I was asked several years ago to help speak for the people of the Lakota nation, it seemed appropriate to do so presently here once more.
Well before considering free software as an economic model, some of the captive nations in North America have tried many different things in the past to create self-sustaining economic development, including of course casinos and call centers. Some have tried meat packing for freedom. Yet, unemployment remains high, over 80% for some communities, such as on the Lakotah reservations in North America. Similarly, per capita income often remains below the poverty line. On the Lakotah reservations, per capita income in fact is less than $4,000 annually, and average life expectancy is now under 47 years. These are not statistics from communities in Haiti , but rather from within the United States itself. The exact story is of course different for each of the captive nations, but the overall results of even the best of these efforts have usually been rather bleak.
One essential problem with call centers and casinos is that they require nations and people 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 solely because the cost of bargained labor is so very cheap on the reservations. If the standard of living and income expectations did materially 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 often basic cultural questioned tied to economics, and this is so often ignored by the great economic theorists. This understanding came most clearly to me from a discussion I had with Russell Means. While at the time I was starting a GNU/Linux telecenter project on the reservations, we ended up discussing the social and cultural consequences of western education. What he reminded me, and to roughly paraphrase his words, “Indians do not compete”. This however is in reality very much a social-economic statement, and not just one about education.
Clearly a possible way forward is to look at sustainable models based on voluntary cooperative economics, and 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 of the best examples of this is potentially found in the economics of free (as in freedom) software, and this is where I think technological-social free software projects could have an important role that can effect the real future of families, and not just in enabling education.
As we all know, free (as in freedom) software is often expressed and provided through a copyright license, and the best example is 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 the information to build it (per gplv3 for example), it is necessary to offer it to others with the same. This, in economic terms, is also a transaction, but not necessarily an exchange of money, it is rather an exchange of consideration.
This relationship does not in any way prevent free software from being commercially sold in any fashion, as indeed demonstrated even by very large public corporations like IBM or very successful new ones like RedHat. 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. It instead offers new ways, including especially economic opportunities, 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 to the original developer and all users of said software who then benefit. This is where cooperative benefits scale, and in a manner that is both socially and culturally consistent with the lifeways of many nations.
When speaking of upstream providers, downstream sellers, and end users, this is an analogous representation of what many free software integration projects and true free software business models already do in terms of it’s upstream and downstream relationships. Equally important, free software allows cooperative expertise rather than forcing rivalrous knowledge. 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, even when the outcome is in free software that will then be commercially sold. This might be thought of both as a market of both abundance and mutual interdependency, and such markets are the only kind I have seen that can self-sustain without abuse.
With no market barriers to participation, and today with the possibility for near 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. We had looked at starting something very much like this in Lakotah.
Free software certainly will not solve all the problems of the captive 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.