I was listening to The Servile State by Hilare Belloc this morning and pondering whether or not I possessed the means of production, as did the peasant of the Middle Ages; as did not his descendants after the oligarchs of England forced him into servitude.

The means of production was the arable land that the serf was seated on, which, even though not legally his, was illegal to evict him from.

So, as programmers, with the hitherto unknown supply of free tools and resources, have we reclaimed as a class of workers, unlike any others, the means of production? Given the chance, a midrange PC and a stable internet connection, could we not each of us be wholly self-sufficient and not just wage-earners?

  • See discussion of this question here on meta.
    – Adam Lear
    Jun 21, 2011 at 15:25
  • "could we not each of us be wholly self sufficient and not just wage earners?": I do not think that the work of an individual programmer can compete with the organized work of the programmers of a big company like Microsoft or Apple.
    – Giorgio
    Sep 5, 2012 at 21:49
  • 1
    @Giorgio A single programmer wouldnt compete with the entirety of a company like microsoft, but could compete against niche products produced by larger companies. They can also compete in those areas where the return would not be enough for large companies, but are for an individual/smaller company. Sep 5, 2012 at 22:11
  • @GrandmasterB: Of course, I agree with you that some programmers can have their own activity and produce some niche software. But as far as I understand, the question concerns programmers in general, and most programmers do not have this opportunity, because many products are not small niche products. Can you imagine that the majority of programmers will be self-sufficient instead of being wage earners any time soon?
    – Giorgio
    Sep 5, 2012 at 22:19
  • @Giorgio that, my friend, sounds just about perfect Sep 6, 2012 at 1:47

10 Answers 10


To expand on Jeremy's answer a bit, the important distinction lies between labor and capital. Labor is simply the blood, sweat, and tears you put into making a good or service that is sold on the market. Capital, on the other hand, is an productive property (tools, raw resources, land, IP, etc.) and liquid assets (i.e. money) that is converted by means of labor into the aforementioned good or service. In a modern economic relationship, a corporation (i.e. it's owners/investors) will provide the capital (or "means of production") and the employees provide the labor. While there is no formula for determining how much of the sold value a given good or service should go to those providing the capital and those providing the labor, Capitalist societies have generally favored those who own capital (no surprise here).

However, Belloc advocates a society in which most people provide both the capital and the labor for the goods and services they sell. This is what is meant by "self-sufficiency" in this context. You are self-sufficient if you own everything you need to make and sell sell a viable product on the market. Furthermore, since ownership is what provides one with economic power, a person who owns all aspects of production has the resources to ensure they are not abused in economic interactions. An employer will need to pay you more than you could earn with your own resources before you will work for them, and clients will honor their contracts when they know you have the resources and the will to take them to court should they refuse. One is still dependent upon the web of economic interactions that make up the market, but one's ability to participate effectively is more secure.

In the context of software, this would entail something like a start-up or independent contractor. I know people who do this, and the low barriers to entry of software development make this much easier to do than many other fields. Even those of us who work for an employer still do fairly well, but as skilled labor in a high demand market we have a fair bit of economic leverage. Even so, we employees don't have the same independence or power as we could. The main reason we don't is that we are too afraid. There are many barriers to entry to independent producers of all kinds in the forms of laws, taxes, and regulations which are often championed by big businesses and signed into law by our government. Beyond the rational concerns, there is also the cultural image we have from the height of American capitalism. The notion that getting a good job (perhaps after getting a degree) and working hard will provide you with all the economic stability you will ever need. Despite the fact that the real wage has not kept pace with worker productivity for the past 40 years (forcing most families to be 2-income out of necessity, never mind women's rights) most people didn't begin to realize the sham until the recession.

The fact of the matter is that our form of capitalism is one of boom and bust cycles, and we will never be secure so long as the failures of a few "too-big-to-fail" companies determine the livelihood of millions and billions of people. If our economy was a sever farm I don't think it would even have better up-time that the PlayStation Network. Frankly we need better load balancing and redundancy.

  • 4
    To give a short answer to the OP's question: yes, we could be self-sufficient, but it would be a lot more appealing if a few things happened first: -reform of copyright/patent laws -real health care reform -tax reform favoring independent and cooperative enterprises -net neutrality laws -better competition among hardware vendors and ISPs
    – Rahs
    Aug 31, 2011 at 7:48
  • 1
    There's the answer I was looking for. Fear and debt are the factors that cause me to be servile, same as my plebeian ancestors. Sep 6, 2011 at 15:25
  • "important distinction lies between labor and capital": There is no such distinction: capital is both living labor (labor that is being expended right now) and dead labor (labor that has been expended in a previous stage of the production process, i.e. tools, machinery, raw materials that have been extracted, and so on): both forms of labor (living and dead) are the inputs of the capitalistic production process, and in fact both living labor and dead labor have a price in money (wages and prices of commodities).
    – Giorgio
    Sep 5, 2012 at 21:47

In the traditional economic sense, the "means of production" referred to the NRE (non-recoverable expenses) that you invest in order to start in a trade. If you were a smith, it'd be your smithy. If you were a musician it'd be your instrument. During the industrial revolution, if you were a factory worker, it'd be the factory. Obviously this was an insurmountable obstacle for most workers.

Fast forward to the beginning of the computer age. Computers are massive, and massively expensive. The whole idea of a person owning a computer is inconceivable. If you real old scifi novels, you'll see that they predicted that computers would be massively powerful and sentient...But not that they'd be small, or within the reach of individuals.

Once computers shrunk in cost and size, the main barriers were software. Expensive operating systems (a la proprietary unix), expensive custom IDEs and expensive closed-source compilers. Cheaper, but still very expensive.

Enter the OSS movement, which did for software what the personal computer did for hardware. Sure, you still need a computer, electricity, and internet access but that's the only real outlay (and you could just lurk in coffee shops and leech their wifi and power). IDEs, compilers, tools, server software...it's all free now.

So, to answer your question, I'd say that they're not wholly owned, but the barrier to entry is extremely low. You need very little capital to start programming.

  • 10
    Even (lack of) talent/abilities isn't always a barrier to entry! Jun 20, 2011 at 19:57
  • 4
    What nonsense. The first IDE was Turbo Pascal, and at $49.95 it's hard to imagine calling it expensive. Most people didn't pay for MS-DOS directly at all. If anything, I think open source has actually increased costs for many developers. Even taking inflation into account, the $10K versions of Visual Studio are much higher than anything you found 15 or 20 years ago. Those these clearly aren't open source themselves, I think their pricing is an indirect result of open source. Jun 20, 2011 at 21:06
  • 1
    @Jerry Coffin, if you followed Turbo Pascal into Delphi, you probably saw a bit of a price jump, without the OSS malfeasance. I do agree that if the means of production were an MSDN license, then we would not have those means without the permission of the uppercrust. Fortunately those means are becoming as irrelevant to advantage and redundant as electricity. Bytes are as free as dirt and no one can take your bytes. Jun 20, 2011 at 21:18
  • 1
    Also, very usable Visual Studio Professional 2010 is around $1400, which is more than a trifling outlay of cash, but still not insurmountable.
    – Stephen
    Jun 20, 2011 at 21:31
  • 1
    @Blrfl NRE stands for both non-recurring engineering and non-recurring expenditures, depending on the context.
    – Thomas Owens
    Sep 6, 2011 at 0:45

Like I said in a comment, it's been a while since I've taken an economics course, but a couple of things stand out to me.

could we not each of us be wholly self sufficient

We can't be wholly self-sufficient. As developers, we have dependencies on other companies to do things that we simply can't afford to do on our own. We depend on computer manufacturers (or at least hardware manufacturers) to produce the hardware we use. We depend on ISPs to provide access to the Internet. Software developers also depend on each other. We depend on other computer scientists and software engineers to produce the tools that we use, from the operating systems to the languages. No one person has the knowledge to build and maintain everything on their own.

and not just wage earners

Based on what we do, we have to earn money. Writing software doesn't (by itself) provide food, clothes, shelter - any of the basic human needs. Instead, we have to rely on the needs of other people and then create or maintain software that meets those needs. In that sense, we rely on other people to create a need for software that we can fill.

I agree with Satanicpuppy's response, however. The barriers to entry are extremely low. Most people could probably learn how to write software, whether that's scripting an existing application to make their life easier or being part of a large project team developing things on the scale of the code that runs a Boeing 777.

I think that the community that I mentioned above is key. No software developer works in a bubble. From open-source projects like the Linux kernel to large closed-source projects made by Microsoft, Apple, and Oracle, there's always a team. Some projects started off as an individual's idea and a large number of hours put into it, but in the end, the contributions of dozens or hundreds of people make software possible.

But in terms of owning the means of production (in the way I understand it, anyway), no - I don't even know if that's possible in today's world for anyone. But like I said...it's been a while since I've looked at economics.

  • I know by itself it doesn't provide us will food and clothes. But couldn't programmers specialize in one field like optical character recognition and sell all his excess optical character recognition libraries, the same way a beet farmer who doesn't like beets might sell all his extra beets? Jun 20, 2011 at 20:05
  • 2
    "Writing software doesn't (by itself) provide food, clothes,..." but then again, neither does being a smithy, or a carpenter (unless you can wear/eat wood or metal). Of course, the finished products of those trades can be exchanged for food/clothing/shelter, IFF someone with food/clothing/shelter finds the trade agreeable. Jun 20, 2011 at 20:06
  • 1
    @Peter Turner: no, because there is probably only going to be one or two libraries, that can be copied many times. But unless he's making copies on physical media, there is never any excess. A beet farmer cannot copy his beets inifitely. Which changes the "scarcity of resources" idea... Jun 20, 2011 at 20:07
  • True, although some of them can provide one of the needs. Farming can produce food and clothing. Carpentry can provide shelter. Smithing might lead to some semblance of clothing (or components of clothing). Software provides none of the basic human needs.
    – Thomas Owens
    Jun 20, 2011 at 20:07
  • 2
    @Thomas Owens: Good point, though in a more complex society, there are many more specialized professions that do not directly lead to food/clothing/shelter (or immediately contributing components). Such as doctors, teachers, lawyers, priests, (and assistants/auxilliary staff to all of those) and many other activities that do not directly work physical material. Jun 20, 2011 at 20:22

Yes, a lot of programmers entirely own their means of production.

Some people are misinterpreting "wholly self-sufficient". This does not mean you do not use tools produced by other people; it means you are the source of the capital that procured those tools or licenses and you alone are entitled to the rewards of your labor.

Now a lot of contractors and consultants are wage-earners.

People who write and sell original software are definitely not wage earners. There are some other cases in-between.

  • What implications do you think that might have for society at large? Is the world too big for a new serfdom of coders to topple the oligarchs? Jun 20, 2011 at 20:38
  • Well software isn't a very large part of our economy compared to agriculture or manufacturing, and even in Software most individuals are wage-earners; the difference is it is realistic to operate independently when you are only considering production capital.
    – Jeremy
    Jun 20, 2011 at 21:33

Not any more than writers who sell their books to publishers. Intellectual property is the means by which rent-seeking capitalists extract profit from the labor of programmers, writers, et al.

And then ideas themselves are turned into property via the patent system. One only needs to watch Stallman discuss how many lawsuits he faced when developing Emacs.

These ugly property regimes can be seen as the rash that formed on the cold hands of capital after high-paying jobs didn't require expensive (i.e., capital-intensive) machinery.


Realistically, to posses the means of production you need to be able to produce something using only equipment you own, and turn that product into cash. So, farmers dependent on a railroad monopoly to actually sell their crops don't really own the means of production.

The barrier to entry of producing a computer program is still relatively low. Actually getting cash for that program requires a lot more capital unless you are targeting niche markets. The top programs that earn the lion's share of money usually are harder to even produce, and getting big money out of them usually needs a lot of marketing. The internet has helped make hitting it big easier, but patent law has added a lot to the expense.

So, programmers do posses the means of production at the less profitable low end of the market, but at the high end the means of production include marketing departments and huge teams of lawyers, and programmers don't have those.

  • "the means of production include marketing departments and huge teams of lawyers": Not only that. Sometimes a huge team of developers is needed too. How to organize this without a company?
    – Giorgio
    Sep 5, 2012 at 22:54

I think it is true that programmers (can) possess their means of production because, as pointed out by others, computers and basic software tools that we need to produce software come at an affordable price. Besides that, distributing software through the internet or by burning CD's / DVD's is also relatively cheap.

However, up to now independent programmers have only been successful in the following areas:

  1. Relatively small, niche products (tools, phone applications, and so on) that can be conceived, developed and maintained by an individual developer (or a relatively small team).
  2. Open source projects in which many programmers joined to produce something for themselves (i.e. general-purpose software like operating systems, web servers, compilers, web browsers, etc): they gave away their labor in order to have some software they could use in return. Of course, this could only be an extra activity besides their normal job in which they had to earn a living.

On the other hand, no (or at least very few) open source projects or independent developer teams have managed to produce large, sophisticated software for a particular class of customers (say, a flight booking system). Why? Because this requires the coordinated work of many programmers (and analysts, testers, and so on) to produce something that they will never use themselves. I guess this would require independent developers to organize themselves in cooperatives (developer-owned companies).

So it is not sufficient to own the means of production and have labor power: independent programmers have not managed to organize themselves in such a way that they can compete with the traditional software industry run through capital investment, and therefore many (most) programmers still have to work as wage earners.

Just my 2 cents.


I don't know how exactly "means of production" is defined in this context, but I can answer your last question pretty definitively: unless you can eat HTTP requests, no those tools do not make you wholly self sufficient.

  • It's been a while since I took an economics course, but I think means of production refers to the tools and infrastructure that you need to produce wealth. I believe the asker is referring to is an individual software developer having free access to everything needed to produce and sell software.
    – Thomas Owens
    Jun 20, 2011 at 19:46
  • Well in that case, it might behoove you to try out something new. I've just spent the last week programming stuff drawing to the HTML5 canvas and I'm beginning to think anything is possible. Jun 20, 2011 at 19:47
  • In that case then sure, programmers possess means of production. I'm not liking "THE means of production" because that makes it sound like there's only one way to produce useful stuff.
    – jhocking
    Jun 20, 2011 at 19:49
  • @jhocking: "THE means of production" means anything you need to produce software other than your brain, eyes and typing skills.
    – Giorgio
    Sep 6, 2012 at 5:32

Given the chance, a midrange PC and a stable internet connection, could we not each of us be wholly self sufficient and not just wage earners?

"self sufficiency" in a world where division of labor reigns is neither possible nor (IMHO) desirable. That being said, and to answer to the question whether a programmer could be an independent entrepeneur, of course, yes.

But note also, that the products of a programmer have a property that other products do not have: They can be easily copied. Therefore, in a hypothetical free market order, a free programmer had to devote most of his time to devise strategies how he can sell software profitably. This, again, is an opportunity for division of labor and for forming firms. Therefore, the lonely, independent programmer is not very likely to survive.

  • There's one thing that can't be as easily duplicated: support. If you're just selling DVDs with a bunch of bits burned into them, yeah, copying leaves you kinda screwed. But each copy out there, even an unauthorized one, can also be an opportunity to provide services that are difficult for an outsider (sans source code) to provide. You don't just own the means, you're potentially creating means.
    – cHao
    Jul 10, 2012 at 4:52
  • "self sufficiency" in a world where division of labor reigns is neither possible nor (IMHO) desirable.: Provided that a world without division of labor cannot exist, and therefore every individual depends on the actions of others to a certain extent, the point is how you define "self sufficiency". Should workers only depend on each other or on companies organizing the work life and earning?
    – Giorgio
    Sep 9, 2012 at 8:33

There is nothing unique about programmers. If you want to use classical Marxist terminology they are petite bourgeoisie. From the Encyclopedia of Marxism:

Petit-Bourgeoisie, lit., “little city-folk” – the small business people, sometimes extended to include the professional middle-class and better-off farmers.

Some of the more successful entrepenurial programmers enter the haute-bourgeoisie.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.