INTERVIEW WITH STEFAN MERTEN
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.
Geert Lovink: Could you tell us the history and context of the Oekonux list?
Stefan Merten: 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 Ã–konomie?" ("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 address. 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 â€¦ 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 â€¦ 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...
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 today's world 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 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 lived in. 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: The Krisis group's main position is that capitalism is in 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. Capitalism may continue to exist for hundred of years. But it won't ever be able to hold its old promises of wealth for all. 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: 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 out?
SM: On the Oekonux list we are actively trying to see the whole picture â€¦ 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. 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 picture.
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 selforganization 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 trans- formed into a different organization of a society very well. Actually I'm astonished over and over again how good this works. 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. 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 present 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 original. 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. Particularly the cooking recipes show how useful global cooperation and sharing of information is. 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. I'm not saying that these trends will become dominant all by themselves; 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 needed.