Interview with Stefan Merten


<< Interview with Stefan Merten, Oekonux, Germany >>

by Joanne Richardson, November 2001

>> Q: Oekonux - an abbreviation of "OEKOnomie" and "liNUX" - is a
German mailing list discussing the revolutionary possibilities of Free
Software. Many people speak of Free Software and Open Source Software
interchangeably - could you explain how you understand the differences
between them?

The term "Free Software" is older than "Open Source". "Free Software" is
used by the Free Software Foundation [] founded by
Richard Stallman in 1985. The term "Open Source" has been developed by
Eric S. Raymond and others, who, in 1998, founded the Open Source
Initiative []. It's not so much a question of
definition as of the philosophy behind the two parts of the movement -
the differences between the definition of Open Source Software and Free
Software are relatively few. But whereas Free Software emphasizes the
freedom Free Software gives the users, Open Source does not care about
freedom. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) was founded exactly for the
reason to make Free Software compatible with business people's thinking,
and the word "freedom" has been considered harmful for that purpose.

>> Q: Free software means the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study,
change and improve the software, and these freedoms are protected by the
GNU General Public License. The definition presupposes open sources as
the necessary condition for studying how the software works and for
making changes, but it also implies more. The definition of Open Source
is quite close: it means the ability to read, redistribute, and modify
the source code - but because this is a better, faster way to improve
software. Openess = speed = more profit. The Open Source Initiative
proclaims quite proudly that it exists in order to persuade the
"commercial world" of the superiority of open sources on "the same
pragmatic, business-case grounds that motivated Netscape." But recently,
it is the term "Open Source" that has gained popularity and by analogy
everything has become "Open"–open source society, open source money,
open source schooling (to echo some of the titles of panels of the last
Wizards of OS conference in Berlin.)

Indeed the Open Source Initiative has been extremely successful in
pushing the freedom-subtracted term into people's heads. Today people
from the Free Software Foundation always feel the need to emphasize that
it's the freedom that is important - more important than the efficiency
of production, which is the primary aim behind open source. Of course
open sources are a precondition for most of this freedom, but open
sources are not the core idea of Free Software and so Open Source is at
least a misnomer.

>> Q: How do you mean it's a "misnomer"? The two movements exist and
the names correspond to the different ideas behind them. And "Open
Source" is the name the people from this initiative chose for themselves,
and seems quite an accurate characterization of their focus.

Free Software and Open Source Software are not two movements, but a
single movement with two factions, and as far as I can see the
distinction plays a major role mostly in the more ideological
discussions between members of the two factions. They are collaborating
on projects, and sometimes unite, for instance, when it is a question of
defending against the attacks of Micro$oft

And, no, "Open Source" is not an accurate characterization of this
faction, since their focus has been making Free Software compatible with
business people's thinking. A more correct name would have been "Free
Software for Business" - or something like that.

>> Q: What seems misleading to me is that the leftist intelligentsia has
begun to use "Open Source" as a cause to promote without realizing the
pro-capitalist connotations behind the term.

Today the widespread inflation of the term "Open Source" has a deep
negative impact. Often the core idea behind Free Software - establishing
the freedom of the user - is not known to people who are only talking of
Open Source - be it leftist intelligentsia or other people. I think this
is a pity and would recommend using only the term Free Software because
this is the correct term for the phenomenon. You don't call "green"
"red" if "green" is the right term - do you? After all, even "Open
Source" software would not be successful if the practical aspect of
freedom was not inherent in its production and use. Interestingly, in an
article entitled "Its Time to Talk about Free Software Again," one of
the founders of the Open Source Initiative also considers the current
development as wrong.

>> Q: The idea behind Oekonux began, in kernel form at the first Wizards
of OS conference in Berlin in 1999. How did the motivation to begin
Oekonux develop from this context?

I had the idea that Free Software is something very special and may have
a real potential for a different society beyond labor, money, exchange -
in short: capitalism - in 1998. In September 1998, I tried to make that a
topic on the Krisis mailing list. However, next to nobody was
interested. In July 1999, I attended the first "Wizard of Open Source"
[] conference organized by mikro in
Berlin, and was especially interested in the topic "New economy?".
However, in the context of the idea I mentioned above - the potential to
transform society - I found the ideas presented there not very
interesting. After the talks I took the opportunity to organize a
spontaneous BOF (Birds Of a Feather) session and luckily it worked well.
So we sat there with about 20 people and discussed the ideas presented in
the talks. At the end I asked all the people to give me their e-mail

After the WOS conference, mikro created a mailing list for us - and that
was the birth of the Oekonux mailing list which is the core of the
project. In December 1999 I created the web site []. Its
main purpose is to archive the mailing list. Texts and other material
created in the context of the project is presented there as well as
links to web sites and pages relevant to our discussion in some way.
There is also an English/international part of the project
([] archiving []), which, however, is
still nearly non-existent. I find this a pity but unfortunately until
now there is nobody with enough free time and energy to give this part of
the project a real start. So until today all the material is in German
and there are only a few translations of the texts. In June 2000 I
created another mailing list ([]) which is concerned
with the organization of the project.

During April 28-30, 2001 in Dortmund we had the first Oekonux conference
([]), which brought together people from
different areas who were interested in the principles of Free Software
and the possible consequences of these principles on their particular
field. The conference was attended by about 170 persons from a very
broad range of ages and backgrounds, from software developers, to
political theorists and scientists. It was a very exciting conference
with a perfect atmosphere and another milestone in the way we and - if
we're not completely wrong - the whole world is going. The next
conference is planned to take place in Nov 1-3, 2002.

>> Q: How active and large is the list?

From the start we have had very interesting discussions with some silent
periods but usually an average of 6-8 mails a day. The atmosphere on the
list is very pleasant and flames are nearly unknown. Fortunately it has
not been necessary to moderate the list, as it regulates itself very
well. The discussions are very contentful and this interview would not
have been possible without them. They cover a wide number of details but
nearly always stay on the central topic of the list: the possible
impacts of Free Software on society. At the moment we have about 200
subscribers at [], who come from a wide range of
intellectual traditions and areas of interest. Though of course they all
share a common interest in political thought, there are people from the
Free Software and Hardware areas as well as engineers of different
brands, hard core political people as well as people with a main
interest in culture and so on. Though the traffic is quite high we have
nearly no unsubscriptions which I think is a proof for the quality of
the list.

>> Q: In a previous interview with Geert Lovink
bin/wilma_hiliter/nettime/200104/msg00127.html?line=8] you mentioned
that the relationship between free software and Marxism is one of the
central topics debated on the list … Do you think Marx is still
relevant for an analysis of contemporary society? Could you give an idea
of the scope of this debate on the list?

First of all we recognize the difference between Marx' views and the
views of the different Marxist currents. Although different brands of
Marxism have distorted Marx' thought to the point where it has become
unrecognizable, I tend to think that only Marx' analysis gives us the
chance to understand what is going on today. The decline of the labor
society we are all witnessing in various ways cannot be understood
without that analysis. The Krisis group [] has
offered a contemporary reading of Marx, claiming that capitalism is in
decay because the basic movement of making money from labor works less
and less. This doesn't mean that capitalism must end soon, but it won't
ever be able to hold its old promises of wealth for all. A number of
people on the Oekonux mailing list have built upon the Krisis theories
and carried them onto new ground. On the list among other things we try
to interpret Marx in the context of Free Software. It's very interesting
that much of what Marx said about the final development of capitalism can
be seen in Free Software. In a sense, we try to re-think Marx from a
contemporary perspective, and interpret current capitalism as containing
a germ form of a new society.

>> Q: According to many circles, Marx is obsolete - he was already
obsolete in the sixties, when the mass social upheavals and the so-
called new social movements showed that not class but other forms of
oppressive power had become determining instances and that the economic
base was not the motor that moved contradictions.

I think that at that time the economic base was not as mature as it has
become today. In the last ten to twenty years Western societies started
to base their material production and all of society more and more on
information goods. The development of computers as universal information
processors with ever increasing capacity is shifting the focal point of
production from the material side to the immaterial, information side. I
think that today the development of the means of production in
capitalism has entered a new historical phase.

The most important thing in this shift in the means of production is
that information has very different features than matter. First of all,
information may be copied without loss - at least digital information
using computers. Second and equally important, the most effective way to
produce interesting information is to foster creativity. Free Software
combines these two aspects, resulting in a new form of production.
Obviously Free Software uses the digital copy as a technical basis. Thus
Free Software, like any digital information, is not a scarce good;
contrary to the IPR (intellectual property rights) people, the Free
Software movement explicitly prevents making Free Software scarce. So,
scarcity, which has always been a fundamental basis for capitalism, is
not present in Free Software: Existing Free Software is available for
next to zero price.

More importantly, however, the organization of the production of Free
Software differs widely from that of commodities produced for maximizing
profit. For most Free Software producers there is no other reason than
their own desire to develop that software. So the development of Free
Software is based on the self-unfolding or self-actualization of the
single individual. This form of non-alienated production results in
better software because the use of the product is the first and most
important aim of the developer - there simply is no profit which could
be maximized. The self-unfolding of the single person is present in the
process of production, and the self-unfolding of the many is ensured by
the availability of high quality Free Software.

Another important factor is that capitalism is in deep crisis.Until the
1970s capitalism promised a better world to people in the Western
countries, to people in the former Soviet bloc and to the Third World. It
stopped doing it starting in the 1980s and dismissed it completely in
the 1990s. Today the capitalist leaders are glad if they are able to fix
the biggest leaks in the sinking ship. The resources used for that
repair are permanently increasing- be it financial operations to protect
Third World states from the inability to pay their debt, or the kind of
military operations we see in Afghanistan today.

These processes were not mature in the 1960s but they are today. Maybe
today for the first time in history we are able to overcome capitalism
on the bases it has provided, by transcending it into a new society that
is less harmful than the one we have.

>> Q: How can Free Software "overcome" capitalism from the bases it has
provided? The idea of a dialectical negation of capitalism (an immanent
critique from the inside that takes over the same presuppositions of the
system it negates) has frequently been discredited. Both Marx and
Lenin's ideas of a dialectical negation of capitalism preserved the
imperative of productivity, the utility of instrumental technology, the
repressive apparatus of the State, police and standing army, as a
necessary "first stage." And if you start from the inside, you will
never get anywhere else . . . the argument goes.

Free Software is both inside and outside capitalism. On the one hand,
the social basis for Free Software clearly would not exist without a
flourishing capitalism. Only a flourishing capitalism can provide the
opportunity to develop something that is not for exchange. On the other
hand, Free Software is outside of capitalism for the reasons I mentioned
above: absence of scarcity and self-unfolding instead of the alienation
of labor in a command economy. This kind of relationship between the old
and the new system is typical for germ forms - for instance you can see
it in the early stage of capitalist development, when feudalism was still

>> Q: In what sense is the production of Free Software not "alienated"?
One of the reasons that labor is alienated is because the workers sells
a living thing - qualitatively different forms of productive activity
which in principle can't be measured - in exchange for a general
measure, money. As Marx said somewhere, the worker does not care about
the shitty commodities he is producing, he just does it for this
abstract equivalent, the money he receives as compensation.

It seems you're talking about the difference between use value - the use
of goods or labor - and exchange value - reflected in the price of the
commodities that goods or labor are transformed into by being sold on
the market. It's true that the use value of goods as well as labor is
qualitatively different. It's also true that the exchange value of a
commodity - be it a commodity or wage labor - is a common measure, an
abstraction of the qualitative features of a product. But after all you
need a common measure to base an exchange on. One of the problems of
capitalism is that this abstraction is the central motor of society. The
use of something - which would be the important thing in a society
focusing on living well - is only loosely bound to that abstraction.
That is the basis of the alienation of work performed for a wage. In
Free Software because the product can be taken with only marginal cost
and, more importantly, is not created for being exchanged, the exchange
value of the product is zero. Free Software is worthless in the dominant
sense of exchange.

Free Software may be produced for numerous reasons - but not for
exchange. If there is no external motivation - like making money - there
must be internal motivations for the developers. These internal
motivations, which are individually very different, are what we call
self-unfolding (from the German term "Selbstentfaltung", similar but not
completly the same as "self-development"). Without external motivations,
there is not much room for alienation.

Of course self-unfolding is a common phenomenon in other areas, such as
art or hobbies. However, Free Software surpasses the older forms of self-
unfolding in several ways and this is what makes it interesting on the
level of social change:

* Most products of self-unfolding may be useful for some persons, but
this use is relatively limited. Free Software, however, delivers goods
which are useful for a large number of persons - virtually everybody
with a computer.

* Most products of self-unfolding are the results of outmoded forms of
production, like craft-work. Free Software is produced using the most
advanced means of production mankind has available.

* Most products of self-unfolding are the fruits of the work of one
individual. Free Software depends on collaborative work - it is usually
developed by international teams and with help from the users of the

* All products of self-unfolding I can think of have been pushed away
once the same product becomes available on the market. By contrast, Free
Software has already started to push away software developed for
maximizing profit in some areas, and currently there seems to be no
general limit to this process.

So contrary to older forms of self-unfolding Free Software provides a
model in which self-unfolding becomes relevant on a social level. The
products of this sort of self-unfolding can even be interesting for
commercial use.

>> Q: Some theorists have analyzed the internet as a kind of "gift"
economy. In other words, it is not subject to measure and exchange.
Things are freely produced and freely taken. And unlike exchange, which
has a kind of finality (I pay one dollar I buy one bottle of Coca Cola,
and it's over), the gift, since it cannot be measured, is a kind of
infinite reciprocity. Gifts are not about calculation of value, but about
building social relationships. Do you see Free Software as a gift

I don't like talking about gifts in Free Software or in terms of the
Internet in general. There is no reciprocity in Free Software as,
similarly, there is no reciprocity on the Internet. I have used
thousands of web pages and millions of lines of code contained in Free
Software without giving anything back. There simply is no reciprocity
and even better: there is no need for reciprocity. You simply take what
you need and you provide what you like. It's not by chance, that this
reflects the old demand of "Everybody according to his/her needs".

Indeed there are several attempts, which are at best misleading, to
understand the Internet and/or Free Software in terms of capitalist
dogmas. The talk about "gift economies" is one of them, because it
focuses on gifts as some sort of - non-capitalist but nonetheless -
exchange. Even worse is the talk of an "attention economy" which defines
attention as a kind of currency. The Internet, and especially Free
Software are new phenomena which can't be understood adequately by using
the familiar thought patterns of capitalism.

>> Q: In what sense is "GPL Society" beyond the familiar thought
patterns of capitalism?

With the term "GPL Society" we named a society based on the principles
of production of Free Software. These principles are:

* self-unfolding as the main motivation for production, * irrelevance of
exchange value, so the focus is on the use value, * free cooperation
between people, * international teams.

Though the term has been controversial for some time, today it is widely
accepted in Oekonux. I like the term particularly *because* you can't
associate anything with it that you already know. GPL Society describes
something new, which we try to discover, explore and understand in the
Oekonux project. Ironically, part of this process of understanding has
reached the conclusion that a GPL Society would no longer need General
Public License because there won't be any copyright. So at least at this
time maybe it should be renamed ;-) .

As I tried to explain Free Software is not based on exchange so neither
is a GPL Society. How a GPL Society may look like concretely can't be
determined fully today. However, at present there are many developments
which already point in that direction.

* One development is the increasing obsolescence of human labor. The
more production is done by machines the less human labor is needed in
the production process. If freed from the chains of capitalism this
development would mean freedom from more and more necessities, making
room for more processes of self-unfolding - be it productive processes
like Free Software or non-productive ones like many hobbies. So contrary
to capitalism, in which increasing automation always destroys the work
places for people and thus their means to live, in a GPL Society maximum
automation would be an important aim of the whole society.

* In every society based on exchange - which includes the former Soviet
bloc - making money is the dominant aim. Because a GPL Society would not
be based on exchange, there would be no need for money anymore. Instead
of the abstract goal of maximizing profit, the human oriented goal of
fulfilling the needs of individuals as well as of mankind as a whole
would be the focus of all activities.

* The increased communication possibilities of the Internet will become
even more important than today. An ever increasing part of production
and development will take place on the Internet or will be based on it.
The B2B (business to business) concept, which is about improving the
information flow between businesses producing commodities, shows us that
the integration of production into information has just started. On the
other hand the already visible phenomenon of people interested in a
particular area finding each other on the Internet will become central
for the development of self-unfolding groups.

* The difference between consumers and producers will vanish more and
more. Already today the user can configure complex commodities like cars
or furniture to some degree, which makes virtually each product an
individual one, fully customized to the needs of the consumer. This
increasing configurability of products is a result of the always
increasing flexibility of the production machines. If this is combined
with good software you could initiate the production of highly customized
material goods allowing a maximum of self-unfolding - from your web
browser up to the point of delivery.

* Machines will become even more flexible. New type of machines
available for some years now (fabbers,
[]) are already more universal in
some areas than modern industrial robots - not to mention stupid
machines like a punch. The flexibility of the machines is a result of
the fact that material production is increasingly based on information.
At the same time the increasing flexibility of the machines gives the
users more room for creativity and thus for self-unfolding.

* In a GPL society there is no more reason for a competition beyond the
type of competition we see in sports. Instead various kinds of fruitful
cooperation will take place. You can see that today not only in Free
Software but also (partly) in science and for instance in cooking
recipes: Imagine your daily meal if cooking recipes would be proprietary
and available only after paying a license fee instead of being the result
of a world-wide cooperation of cooks.

>> Q: This sounds very utopian: Free Software as the sign of the end of
capitalism and the transformation of the new society? How do you predict
this transformation coming about - spontaneously, as the economic basis
of capitalist production just withers away?

I hope these more or less utopian thoughts give an idea of the notion of
a GPL Society as it is currently discussed within the Oekonux project.
And it's not Free Software in itself which may transform capitalism.
Instead, the principles of the production of Free Software - which have
developed within capitalism! - provide a more effective way of production
on the one hand and more freedom on the other. The main question is how
is it possible to translate these principles to other areas.

I tried to explain how Free Software - as a germ form of the GPL society -
is inside as well as outside of capitalism. I think Free Software is
only the most visible of the new forms which together have the potential
to lead us into a different society. Capitalism has developed the means
of production to such an extent that people can use them for something
new. Of course, the transformation also requires a political process
and although historically the preconditions now are better than ever
before there is no automatic step that will lead to the GPL society.
People have to want this process. However, I'm quite optimistic that
they will, because Free Software shows us, in microcosm, how a better
life would look, so the GPL Society is in the best interest of people.
And Oekonux is there to understand the process of this change, and
perhaps at some point our thoughts may help to push the development
forward :-) .