Yesterday, a collective of GNU maintainers publicly posted a statement advocating collective decision-making in the GNU project. I would like to expand on what that statement means to me and why I signed on.
For many years now, I have not considered Richard Stallman (RMS) to be the head of the GNU project. Yes, he created GNU, speaking it into existence via prophetic narrative and via code; yes, he inspired many people, myself included, to make the vision of a GNU system into a reality; and yes, he should be recognized for these things. But accomplishing difficult and important tasks for GNU in the past does not grant RMS perpetual sovereignty over GNU in the future.
More on the motivations for the non serviam in a minute. But first, a meta-point: the GNU project does not exist, at least not in the sense that many people think it does. It is not a legal entity. It is not a charity. You cannot give money to the GNU project. Besides the manifesto, GNU has no by-laws or constitution or founding document.
One could describe GNU as a set of software packages that have been designated by RMS as forming part, in some way, of GNU. But this artifact-centered description does not capture movement: software does not, by itself, change the world; it lacks agency. It is the people that maintain, grow, adapt, and build the software that are the heart of the GNU project -- the maintainers of and contributors to the GNU packages. They are the GNU of whom I speak and of whom I form a part.
Richard Stallman describes himself as the leader of the GNU project -- the "chief GNUisance", he calls it -- but this position only exists in any real sense by consent of the people that make GNU. So what is he doing with this role? Does he deserve it? Should we consent?
To me it has been clear for many years that to a first approximation, the answer is that RMS does nothing for GNU. RMS does not write software. He does not design software, or systems. He does hold a role of accepting new projects into GNU; there, his primary criteria is not "does this make a better GNU system"; it is, rather, "does the new project meet the minimum requirements".
By itself, this seems to me to be a failure of leadership for a software project like GNU. But unfortunately when RMS's role in GNU isn't neglect, more often as not it's negative. RMS's interventions are generally conservative -- to assert authority over the workings of the GNU project, to preserve ways of operating that he sees as important. See for example the whole glibc abortion joke debacle as an example of how RMS acts, when he chooses to do so.
Which, fair enough, right? I can hear you saying it. RMS started GNU so RMS decides what it is and what it can be. But I don't accept that. GNU is about practical software freedom, not about RMS. GNU has long outgrown any individual contributor. I don't think RMS has the legitimacy to tell this group of largely volunteers what we should build or how we should organize ourselves. Or rather, he can say what he thinks, but he has no dominion over GNU; he does not have majority sweat equity in the project. If RMS actually wants the project to outlive him -- something that by his actions is not clear -- the best thing that he could do for GNU is to stop pretending to run things, to instead declare victory and retire to an emeritus role.
Note, however, that my personal perspective here is not a consensus position of the GNU project. There are many (most?) GNU developers that still consider RMS to be GNU's rightful leader. I think they are mistaken, but I do not repudiate them for this reason; we can work together while differing on this and other matters. I simply state that I, personally, do not serve RMS.
Though the "voluntary servitude" questions are at the heart of the recent joint statement, I think we all recognize that attempts at self-organization in GNU face a grave difficulty, even if RMS decided to retire tomorrow, in the way that GNU maintainers have selected themselves.
The great tragedy of RMS's tenure in the supposedly universalist FSF and GNU projects is that he behaves in a way that is particularly alienating to women. It doesn't take a genius to conclude that if you're personally driving away potential collaborators, that's a bad thing for the organization, and actively harmful to the organization's goals: software freedom is a cause that is explicitly for everyone.
We already know that software development in people's free time skews towards privilege: not everyone has the ability to devote many hours per week to what is for many people a hobby, and it follows of course that those that have more privilege in society will be more able to establish a position in the movement. And then on top of these limitations on contributors coming in, we additionally have this negative effect of a toxic culture pushing people out.
The result, sadly, is that a significant proportion of those that have stuck with GNU don't see any problems with RMS. The cause of software freedom has always run against the grain of capitalism so GNU people are used to being a bit contrarian, but it has also had the unfortunate effect of creating a cult of personality and a with-us-or-against-us mentality. For some, only a traitor would criticise the GNU project. It's laughable but it's a thing; I prefer to ignore these perspectives.
Finally, it must be said that there are a few GNU people for whom it's important to check if the microphone is on before making a joke about rape culture. (Incidentally, RMS had nothing to say on that issue; how useless.)
So I honestly am not sure if GNU as a whole effectively has the demos to make good decisions. Neglect and selective attrition have gravely weakened the project. But I stand by the principles and practice of software freedom, and by my fellow GNU maintainers who are unwilling to accept the status quo, and I consider attempts to reduce GNU to founder-loyalty to be mistaken and without legitimacy.
where we're at
Given this divided state regarding RMS, the only conclusion I can make is that for the foreseeable future, GNU is not likely to have a formal leadership. There will be affinity groups working in different ways. It's not ideal, but the differences are real and cannot be papered over. Perhaps in the medium term, GNU maintainers can reach enough consensus to establish a formal collective decision-making process; here's hoping.
In the meantime, as always, happy hacking, and: no gods! No masters! No chief!!!