[ox-en] interview with stefan merten
- From: "geert lovink" <geert xs4all.nl>
- Date: Tue, 24 Apr 2001 23:47:09 +1000
Interview with Stefan Merten
By Geert Lovink
Oekonux is a radical German mailinglist discussing free software from
green-alternative and post-Marxist perspectives. The tone on the list is
unusually open, not to say utopian. There is a true sense of possibilities
felt: a free software revolution; revolution through free software. This
weekend the Oekonux list is holding its first conference, in the grey,
industrial city of Dortmund. Stefan Merten is the initiator and moderator
of the list and co-organizer of the upcoming conference.
GL: Could you tell us the history and context of the Oekonux list and
OpenTheory site that you are running?
SM: Your question gives me the nice opportunity to correct a rather common
misunderstanding. I, Stefan *Merten*, am maintaining the Oekonux project,
while Stefan *Meretz* maintains OpenTheory. Though both of us are involved
in the other project, respectively, though we often have similar views,
and though our names are very similar, we are two different persons with
But now for the history and context of the Oekonux list and project.
Personally I had the idea that Free Software is something very special and
may have a big potential for a different society beyond labor, money,
exchange - in short: capitalism - in 1998. In September 1998 I tried to
make that an issue on the Krisis list. However, that didn't work since
next to nobody was interested.
In July 1999 there was the "Wizard of Open Source"
conference in Berlin. I attended that conference and was especially
interested in the topic "Neue Ökonomie?" ("New economy?"). However, on the
background of the idea mentioned above, I found the talks presented there
not very interesting. After the talks I took the opportunity to organize a
spontaneous BOF session and luckily it worked well. So we sat there with
about 20 people and discussed the thoughts presented in the talks. At the
end I asked all the people at the BOF session to give me their e-mail
After the WOS conference the organizers of the conference (Mikro,
`http://www.mikro.org/') created a mailing list for us - and that was the
birth of the Oekonux (Oekonux stands for "OEKOnomie" and "liNUX") mailing
list. From the start we had a very interesting discussion with some silent
periods but usually rather much traffic. The atmosphere on the list is
very pleasant and flames are nearly unknown. The discussion is focussed on
content and covers a rather big number of topics. At the moment we have
about 160 subscribers at `liste oekonux.de'. Though the traffic is quite
high we have nearly no unsubscribe messages which I think is a proof for
the quality of the list.
As far as I can see the subscribers come from a quite wide range of
thinking traditions and areas of interest. Though of course they all share
a common interest in political thinking, there are people from the Free
Software and Hardware area as well as hard core political people as well
as people with a main interest in culture and so on. Thinking about one
and a half year back, our discussion made big advances and though we have
some very skeptical people on the list, today there seems to be a common
sense and common understanding, that we might have a very valid and
In December 1999 I created the web site `www.oekonux.de'. It's main
purpose is to archive the mailing list. Of course some material created in
the realm of the project is presented there also as well as a link list
listing links to web sites and pages relevant to our discussion in some
way. There is also an English / international part of the project
(`www.oekonux.org' archiving `list-en oekonux.org'), which, however, is
nearly non-existent until today. I find this a pity but unfortunately
until now there is nobody with enough free time and energy to give this
part a real start. So until today all the material is in German. In June
2000 I created another mailing list (`projekt oekonux.de') which is
concerned with the organization of the project. Meanwhile we have some
people there who are really working and so reduce my personal load and
responsibility for the project.
Currently the project team is mainly concerned with the first Oekonux
conference (`http://www.oekonux-konferenz.de/') we will have from April
28-30, 2001 in Dortmund. The conference's main goal is to bring together
people from different areas all interested in the principles of Free
Software and are thinking about possible consequences these principles may
have in their particular area. We'll have people from the Free Software
movement, political persons, people with a scientific background, people
interested in cultural things, people involved in Free Hardware projects
and so on. I think it'll be a very exciting conference and another
milestone in the way we and - if we're not completely wrong - the whole
world is going.
GL: The relation between Marxism and open source is a highly debated topic
on Oekonux. For some this might be a unusual combination. There are even
discussions about general principles of a "GPL society", extending the
legal framework of free software into a variety of social and economic
fields. That's pretty ambitious, not to utopian, with the fall of the
Berlin Wall a little over a decade ago. Don't you think that it would be
better to debunk failed leftist principles than to come up with new ones?
SM: The question is what leftist principles are. Personally, I think Marx
created a very good and still very valid analysis of capitalism. Of course
some of his thoughts must be brought into a contemporary perspective, but
that doesn't make them worthless. However, rethinking Marx in the
framework of the world is of today is something leftists of all currents
seldom do. In the history of workers movement there are very few
exceptions and most currents concentrated on other things. Leninism and
Stalinism had further negative influence on rethinking Marx in an adequate
way. Even the people calling themselves "Marxians" are rarely very
interesting. My main criticism to the very most of those leftist (Marxian)
currents in the past is there lack of a utopia. The "utopia" they had was
not more than an improved labor society rather similar to the one they
Well, of course this analysis is very shortened and omits a number of
points, but to defend earlier leftist currents, I think they had one big
disadvantage: They didn't live at the decay of capitalism where the new
society already starts to raise its head. In Oekonux there is a common
sense, that Free Software might be exactly this: an early form of the new
society embedded in the old society. (We call this new society "GPL
society" to have a word for this new thing we're trying to explore.) And
if you have some knowledge about Marx' theory you will note, that a lot of
phenomena fit perfectly into his analysis of capitalism and its intrinsic
contradictions which it can't overcome.
GL: Some on the Oekonux list seem close to the "Krisis group" around the
'apocalyptic' Marxist critic Robert Kurz. Could you explain to outsiders,
not familiar with contemporary German Marxist currents, Kurz's position
and what he has got to do with Linux, open source and the network society?
SM: Well, the thinking of the Krisis group is manifold and not easy to
describe in a few sentences. They are not widely accepted in the German
leftist scene. In fact there are some people which you might call fans and
there is a big number of people which with some right you might call
enemies. However, my personal impression is, that the enemies of the
Krisis group mainly don't understand what the Krisis people are talking
about. This is a real pity because of this the Krisis people have nearly
no one to discuss with besides themselves.
May be the Krisis group's main position basing many of the others is, that
capitalism is on its decay because the basic movement of making money from
labor works less and less. Of course this doesn't mean that capitalism
must end soon. Of course capitalism may continue to exist for hundred of
years. But it won't ever be able to hold its old promises of wealth for
In my opinion meanwhile this is clearly visible even in our Western
societies and I find it astonishing how good leftists are in defending
capitalism and expecting a long life of it. However, the reality of
capitalism is apocalyptic - take the climate catastrophe as one of the
most visible and dangerous signs. In some way it's not fair to call the
Krisis position "apocalyptic" just because they say how things are.
The relation of the Krisis group to Free Software is non-existent. I tried
to talk with Robert Kurz about that once in a while a few years ago, but
learned that this is simply something he isn't concerned with and doesn't
know anything about. However, at the start of December 2000 there was a
workshop with Stefan Meretz and Robert Kurz in Dortmund, which I attended
as well. This was the first time I think Robert Kurz was really confronted
with the thoughts discussed in Oekonux and I think he understood a number
of points. Maybe there are new developments to expect.
GL: Development of open source software seems to be particularly
successful amongst Germans, so it seems. Statistically, Germans come
second after the Americans. Would you know of any specific cultural
SM: First of all I question how meaningful the figure is as a basis for
your question. Germany is the country with the biggest population in
Europe. To have a really meaningful figure you need to calculate the
number of German free software developers per capita of the German
population and compare that with the same figures for other countries.
Besides that I guess that the share of people with academic education is
quite high in relation to some other European countries which are among
the most industrialized countries of the world. In addition the English
language is pretty well known in Germany - opposed to e.g. Japan. So the
preconditions in Germany to enter the free software scene are relatively
good and the high absolute numbers simply may be a result of these good
GL: It strikes me that participants on the Oekonux list are not that much
worried about attempts of certain IT-companies such as IBM to gain control
over the production of open source software. Could you explain this
SM: Well, I guess most people on the Oekonux list don't recognize IBM's
activities as to gain control over the free software scene. I think IBM
and some other companies simply start to understand, that they should
better not slaughter the cow they want to milk in the future. Many of
these companies are mainly hardware manufacturers or sell services and
they have their own good reasons to have a flourishing free software
scene. They seem to understand that they may break this with their
activities if they are not careful.
On the other hand in the past companies, who tried to exploit the free
software scene solely for their own advantage, had some bad experiences.
For instance the free software scene didn't like the activities of Corel
when they started to create their own distribution. Until now to my
knowledge at least no big player has been able to really betray the free
software scene. This is a result of the power the free software scene
itself already has today.
GL: Even on the Oekonux list the interests seem to be very much focused on
open source related issues and not so much to create a wider network. Many
computer users are saying that open source will only become a success if
it is able to transcend the (male) geek culture of software engineering,
making alliances with interface designers, activists and artists,
cross-linking with broader cyber-cultures such as the games communities.
Do you think that the withdrawal into the technical is only a temporary
phenomena? When is the free software/open source movement ready to break
SM: IMHO on the Oekonux list we are actively trying to see the whole
picture. The conference has its focus on exactly that: Bringing together
people from as many professions as possible who are all interested in the
model of free development the free software is only the most visible
example of. On the other hand we are talking of a new model of goods
production in general, which transcends the industrial model. So it is
clear, that a big part of the picture has to be technical and that people
with knowledge in engineering of any kind play an important role in that
GL: Yes, this is what you and others call the "GPL society." Could you
explain this? Isn't free software and open source more like a source of
inspiration and metaphor rather than a model for the entire society with
all its complex relations? The digital economy itself is everything but
open source. The Internet Economy is all about accumulating intellectual
property. What makes you think that the free/open source models can go
beyond the realm of software production?
SM: With GPL society we describe a society beyond capitalism. The main
difference is, that this society is no longer based on exchange and
exchange value and thus the term labor doesn't make much sense any longer.
Instead the basis of this new society will be the individual
self-unfolding ("Selbstenftaltung") combined with self-organization and
global cooperation. Goods in this society are not sold but simply
available and taken by those who need them. Of course such a society is
difficult to imagine for people who grew up with only money on their mind.
To my knowledge the historical new thing of this concept is, that the GPL
society will transcend the industrial model of production into a new form,
which allows human potential to really flourish. In particular the work
machines are doing is actually used for setting people free in the sense
that the machines do the necessary things while humans can be artists,
engineers, ... whatever they like. This way the permanently rising
productivity no longer results in the curse of unemployment but in the
benediction of freedom from the necessity for mankind. A world where the
individual freedom of each single person is the precondition for the
freedom of all.
These aspects of absence of exchange value (i.e. money), self-unfolding,
self-organization, and global cooperation are the ones in the Oekonux
project we recognize in the principles of free software development.
Indeed many people on the Oekonux list think free software is a germ form
of the GPL society. Insofar it is much more than a metaphor, because the
analysis of the phenomenon of free software constantly brings up new
aspects which often can be transformed into a different organization of a
society very well. Actually I'm astonished over and over again how good
Of course we don't have a full-blown concept in our drawers how the new
society will look like - and we better should not have such a drawing
table model IMHO. Of course today there are many questions which can't be
answered honestly. However, it is possible to think about this GPL society
and which trends in the presence may extend and lead us into this GPL
society. Indeed given the frame work of Oekonux you can find a number of
aspects already existing today, which may also be seen as germ forms. For
instance, NGOs share a number of interesting aspects with the development
of free software and may be seen as a non-technical counterpart among the
germ forms for the GPL society. And even in the midst of capitalism you
can see how the production process more and more depends on information.
Today the material side of material production is rather unimportant even
in capitalism. And information is something very different from the
material world simply by the fact that you can copy it without losing the
What is known as the new/Internet/digital economy is indeed the plain old
money economy on new territories. What this economy does is to try to make
profit from things which are inherently not profitable.
The very basis for any profit is scarcity. Since the invention of
computers and particularly the Internet, however, scarcity of digital
information is difficult to keep. Once a digital information has been
produced it is reproducible with extremely marginal cost. This is the
reason why information industries of all kinds are making such a fuss
about intellectual property rights: IPRs could make digital information a
scarce good you then can make profit with. Personally I think the
technical means of reproduction, which meanwhile are distributed among
millions of households, opened the bottle, the ghost is out and nothing
will be able to put it back in there.
Take for instance the freely available music files Napster started to
establish. The music industry may destroy Napster but what for? The clones
and even better, non-centralized ideas are already there and these things
will survive everything - even a hoard of hungry lawyers.
However, there is a even more fundamental reason why I think the free
production of information and in the end of free material goods as well
will overcome societies based on exchange: They simply produce better
goods. You can see that with free software and there are more and older
examples proofing that the free flow of information results in better
products. Science and cooking recipes both are good examples IMHO.
Particularly the cooking recipes show how useful global cooperation and
sharing of information is. As well as capitalism with its industrial model
was able to deliver better products than the former feudalistic models and
therefore overcame feudalism, free production of goods will overcome the
former model of capitalism.
But wait a minute. I'm not saying that these trends will become dominant
all by themselves. IMHO they are only potentials humans must actively put
forward to transform the world into something better. That's the deepest
reason I think the Oekonux project is not only useful but ultimately
GL: What would you advice new media artists to do if they want to get
involved into free software but find it too hard to learn programming
themselves? How do you think the gap between those who program and those
who don't should be dealt with? Should everyone become a technician?
That's not very likely to happen. Many people simply look at the available
free/open source software and conclude that there is almost nothing ready
to be used. There are no drivers available etc. In part this is a
prejudice, but anyway, it is the common attitude, even of those who have
worked with computers for decades. How could they be convinced?
SM: Well, the idea of free information goods is not limited to software at
all. Every piece of information possible to represent as bits is instantly
subject to exactly the same form of free development as software is. So my
advice to media artists who are interested in the principles of free
software is to set up free art projects, which make possible the
fundamental principles of free software (absence of exchange value,
self-unfolding, self-organization, global cooperation). There are already
a number of them out in the Internet e.g. for writing and music. As long
as the free art fits onto a computer monitor or another computer device,
there are next to no limitations given the broad availability of web space
at next to zero price.
What can be done about prejudices - good question. And it's a even better
one when M$ starts demonizing free software. I think the best what can be
done is to confront people with reality and facts. Today even for a person
used to Windows it's no problem to use a Gnu/Linux system for the same
office work s/he does on M$ products. Take KDE and StarOffice and you will
notice only a few minor differences. Well, a major difference you may
notice: The system is far more stable than say for instance M$ Word on
Actually today IMHO for a lot of computer users there is no technical
reason not to use free software. Most things are readily available and I
know a number of people who are interested amateurs who had no problem to
install e.g. a SuSE distribution on their computer. And if you won't do
that yourself, it's likely, that you'll find a Gnu/Linux enthusiast in
your environment who will hurry to install whatever you need.
GL: Do you have free software projects, which are under way at the moment,
that you personally particularly like?
SM: Not really. Personally I'm using a number of free programs: Emacs,
Perl, gmake, CVS, SDF, TkDesk, fvwm2, StarOffice, Netscape (which is not
really free) a hell lot of standard Gnu/Linux tools, and so on.
Unfortunately I don't find the time to offer my software to the world.
It's a pity :-( .
Well, I'm keen to see what the GPL-ization of StarOffice / OpenOffice will
bring. Actually I'd had some wishes about a integration with command line
oriented processing of data.
GL: Could you tell us what the main discussion in Dortmund is going to be
and what outcome you would like to see?
SM: [laughing] Fortunately not! In Dortmund we'll have a very broad
spectrum of people, and to me it's exciting to think of the many, many
discussions which for sure will take place there. Personally I hope, that
I'm not too loaded with organizational work so I'll have a chance to
attend some talks and workshops.
Of course I would appreciate if the conference is able to spread our ideas
a bit more and to make them fruitful for others as well as the opportunity
to take into account new thoughts, perspectives and ideas from others.
Given the big attention the conference has got during the last few months
I think the plain existence of the conference alone has already done part
of the work.
Website of the Oekonux list: www.oekonux.org
Oekonux Dortmund conference: www.oekonux-konferenz.de/
Wizard of OS, Berlin conference: www.mikro.org/wos
(the second WOS will be held from 11-13 October, 2001)
The Open Theory site: www.opentheory.org
Krisis Group ("Critique of the Commodity Society") www.krisis.org