Hacking Culture: a radical challenge to Capitalism, not its offspring

There has been attempts, for example by Linus Torvalds (Himanen, 2001), to link hacking culture and its ethics to the protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism. This perspective, I would argue, misses the fundamental ethos of hacking culture, which can be said to have emerged as a radical challenge to capitalism and big centralized structures. The hacking culture was deeply rooted in a countercultural movement of the 1960s that aimed to "overturn the machine". From an anarchic perspective, hacking represents a call for mutuality and collective cooperation, rather than an embrace of capitalist values. The hackers of that era were not seeking to mimic capitalist ideals but to subvert them. They wanted technology to be a tool for regular citizens, not just a means for corporations to consolidate their power. To suggest that hacking culture shares the same values as capitalism fundamentally misrepresents its core intentions.

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The 1960s counterculture, which in some sense gave birth to hacking culture, was a period of revolt against oppressive systems and authority. The ideal of "overturning the machine" meant dismantling hierarchical structures while abolishing the monopoly of experts. Hackers appreciated technology, and we still do, but not as a means to enhance the power of big corporations. Hackers then envisioned technology as a way to empower individuals and communities, to liberate them from oppressive systems, not to strengthen them.

Hacking, as an activity, is open to interpretation. Some may argue that individuality is an inherent aspect of hacking, and it can indeed be a way for individuals to express and explore aspects of themselves in a digital world. However, this individuality does not equate to embracing capitalist values. It’s about personal expression within a collective framework.

Hacking culture, at its essence, embodies principles of anarchic mutuality and collective cooperation. Hackers often work together in various projects, where knowledge and code are shared freely for the common good. This ethos promotes the idea that technology should be a collaborative effort that benefits everyone, not a tool for private and individual profit within centralized control.

The ethos of Hacking Culture

Through an analysis from the perspective of an anarchist hacker, the ethical principles of hacking culture instead offer an anti-capitalist view. These principles challenge conventional capitalist norms and, indeed, question the alignment of hacking with capitalist values. However, these ethical principles are not without scrutiny. Let’s explore these principles in-depth.

  1. Unlimited access to knowledge: The belief that access to computers and the knowledge they provide should be unlimited and total emphasizes the importance of open and total access. This aligns with the anarchic idea that information should be freely accessible, allowing individuals to empower themselves and their communities. It questions the hierarchical control of knowledge that mirrors capitalist structures.
  2. Freedom of information: The concept that all information should be free aligns with the anarchic ethos of breaking down oppressive power structures. It advocates for the open dissemination of information, challenging the notion of information being controlled or monetized, which is often tied to capitalist interests.
  3. Mistrust authority – Promote decentralization: This philosophy underscores the idea that an open system, free from bureaucratic boundaries, is the best way to facilitate the exchange of information and tools for hackers in their quest for knowledge and improvement. It challenges centralized authority, and instead mirrors the decentralized principles of anarchism.
  4. Judging hackers by their hacking: While the principle that hackers should be judged by their hacking skills is by many seen as a form of meritocracy, it’s essential to recognize that this perspective is not in line with the anarchic spirit of hacking. Hacking should not be about establishing a hierarchy of superiority, but rather fostering creativity, collaboration, and the liberation of knowledge and technology for the betterment of all. It’s a challenge to the conventional meritocratic view, emphasizing inclusivity and the value of individual contributions without imposing arbitrary hierarchies. Hacking should be about fun, liberation, and the exploration of possibilities, rather than a means of judgment. This anarchic approach is also deeply decolonial, challenging commonly accepted social rules and norms, while rejecting irrelevant criteria like degrees, age, race, or position.
  5. Creating art and beauty on a computer: Acknowledging that computers can be used for artistic expression and creating beauty is a testament to the creative potential of technology. However, it prompts a discussion about the ethical boundaries of such art. Is there not then a responsibility for hackers to consider the impact of their creations on society and individuals, particularly when it comes to addressing oppressive, misogynistic, and racist art that instead upholds commonly accepted social rules and norms?
  6. Computers changing lives for the better: While computers have brought about positive changes, they have also been used to perpetuate oppression through means such as surveillance and biased AI implementations in critical systems, including the judicial system. The ethical challenge lies in how technology is harnessed and the consequences of its use. These technologies can perpetuate systemic biases and inequalities, making it crucial to critically examine the role of computers in social justice and equality from an anti-capitalist anarchic perspective.

Ultimately, hacking ethics are a dynamic and evolving domain, reflecting the ever-changing landscape of technology and its impact on society. It’s then crucial for hackers and the wider community to continually assess the consequences of their actions, recognizing that the line between liberation and opression can be a fine one. The ethical compass of hacking will continue to guide and provoke discussions in the quest for a more just and equitable digital world.

However, the attempt to link hacking culture to the protestant work ethic and capitalism is, indeed, a misinterpretation of its core values. Hacking emerged as a radical challenge to the capitalist status quo and centralized power structures, with the aim of empowering regular citizens. From an anarchic perspective, hacking stands for mutuality and collective cooperation, which are fundamentally at odds with the individualistic and profit-driven nature of capitalism. Hacking, in its true essence, is a powerful force for dismantling oppressive systems and advancing a more equitable and decentralized society.


Himanen, Pekka (2001). The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age. New York: Random House.