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[ox-en] Interview with Stefan Merten, Nov 2001

<< Interview with Stefan Merten, Oekonux
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 address.

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
[list-en]), 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
([projekt]) which is concerned with the organization of the

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
[liste], 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
ine=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 strong.

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

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 "economy"?

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

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

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

* 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 :-) .


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