2009 - Free Software, Free Society: Yes We Can! Yes We Will! - Stefan Merten de Oekonux

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In many respects Free Software is an interesting phenomenon. If we want to know what Free Software may mean for society we need to look at Free Software as implementing a distinctive, new mode of production. The talk describes the mode of production of Free Software and why it is desirable as a fundament of society. The talk then explains how change comes about generally and where Free Software stands today. It closes with an outlook into an Utopian future where the principles of the production of Free Software have taken over.


The Oekonux Project

A virtual project

  • Oekonux == Oekonomie + linux (German)

I.e.: Economy + Linux

German roots but meanwhile international

  • Discussion process about Free Software and society

Founded in 1999

Wide range of opinions and fields

Common interest in emancipation

  • Virtual project

Mailing lists

Web sites


  • 4th Oekonux Conference

2009-03-27..29, Manchester (UK)

Together with P2P Foundation

  • Feel free to join!

Yes, we can: Free Software as a mode of production

What is a mode of production?

  • Common perspective: Free Software as a technology
  • Common feeling: But something is different beyond technology
  • In this talk: Free Software as a fundamental societal phenomenon
  • Mode of production describes how a society reproduces itself
  • Important features

1.Products produced and means of production used

2.Societal embedding of production


  • Mode of production is the fundament of a society

That is why we need to look at when we think about a fundamental change in society

Examples for modes of production

To give you an idea of what mode of production means

  • Feudalism

Agricultural production, peasants and artisans

Personal relations in communities


Low productivity

  • Capitalism

Industrial production, workers

Exchange based relationships (aka money)


High productivity

* Mode of production shapes a society

* Free Software as a new mode of production

What is special about Free Software then?

Yes, we can!

--Barack Obama

What is Selbstentfaltung?

  • Enjoying task and project == Selbstentfaltung

Opposite: alienation

  • Two basic characteristics

1.Having fun individually

2.While maintaining a relationship to society

  • Important expression: Volunteering for useful tasks
  • Selbstentfaltung aims at absolute quality

If it is "your baby" you want to be proud of it No boss stops you from doing so

Impossible if you need to make profit

* Selbstentfaltung based quality makes Free Software successful

Other examples of this mode of production

  • Wikipedia

Similar to Free Software in many respects Openness, volunteers, transnational, ...

  • OpenAccess

I.e.: Free Science

Grass root movement from the scientists

  • More

Free Car projects

Free Music


  • General term: peer production
  • Peer production is generalizable beyond Free Software

Change we can believe in: Free Software as a germ form

So far: Potential by a new mode of production

Now: How it is going to happen

What is a germ form?

  • Germ form theory describes how development happens

Originated in critical psychology (Holzkamp)

Explains how the human psyche came into being

Applicable to other fields

  • Key characteristics of a germ form

Structurally new

Emerging from and existing in the old

Potential to take over

* Germ form theory explains how fundamental change takes place

The five step model

1.Emerging of the new

  • First appearances of the germ form
  • Think: Free Software in 1984

2.Crisis of the old

  • Slump of the old forms
  • Think: Crisis of classical Unices on midrange servers

3.Disseminating and expanding

  • Germ form becomes important in the old process

Think: Free Software today

  • Key question: Does the germ form keep its germ form features?

4. Achieving dominance

  • Think: Proprietary software replaced by Free Software

5. Restructuring of entire system

  • Restructuring of entire system

Change we can believe in!

-- Barack Obama

Where do we stand today?

  • For software

Free Software in phase 3: disseminating and expanding

Pretty obvious

Note: earlier phases were hard to recognize

  • For society

Peer production in phase 1: emerging of the new

...or rather in phase 2: crisis of the old

As early Free Software it may be hard to believe in its potential

* Don't hold you breath - but stay tuned

Capitalism as a germ form phenomenon

You may ask: Are there prior examples? Yes!

  • Emerging of the new happened long ago

Earliest forms appeared during the Roman Empire

  • Crisis of the old when feudal principles exhausted

For instance: Religious schism in the Christian church For instance: European Enlightenment and new forms of science transcended feudal principles

  • Disseminating and expanding started with textile industry
  • Capitalism achieved dominance in late 19th century
  • Restructuring society is still not complete globally
  • Note: Society changed after the productive fundament allowed it

Technical revolution was a precondition for a change of the mode of production

  • A new mode of production starting as a germ form cantake over

Yes, we will: A peek into the future

The Utopia

How will society look like after restructuring?

However: predictability is very limited

But on an abstract level things can be said

  • Selbstentfaltung (aka freedom) is...

...no longer a contradiction to society

...it is rather its fundament

  • More automation reduces unwanted activities
  • All goods are freely available
  • Overcoming labor society

No commodities, no labor

No exchange, no money

No alienation

* The dawn of a free society

Free information goods

  • The idea of Free Software spreads out already

As seen already

  • Creative Commons licenses are an important step
  • But remember: digital technology is the foundation

I.e.: New technology may be necessary for further dissemination

  • The basis is there already

Free material goods - the practical approach

  • Free design communities

Free car design


... Make production cheaper

  • User contribution become more important

Some corporations start to include user contributions

Gives them an advantage in competition

See: Eric v. Hippel

  • One of the key questions: Access to expensive means of production


* First steps starting from solid ground

Free material goods - the theoretical approach

  • Historical example: Capitalism and agricultural production

Agricultural production...

...was key in feudalism

...still exists

...became an appendage of industrial production

Proves: The focus of society moved

  • Next: Material production becomes an appendage of information production

Information already is an important precondition for material production

  • Restructuring will remove material production from focus

Wrap up


  • Peer economy establishes a new mode of production
  • Germ form theory shows how this can develop
  • We are witnessing the dawn of a new era

Thank you

  • Thank you for your attention
  • More on this: http://www.oekonux.org/
  • Contact: smerten@oekonux.de
  • 4th Oekonux Conference

Free Software and Beyond - The World of Peer Production

2009-03-27..29, Manchester (UK)


  • Questions? Comments?


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