Role of Oekonux in Developing a Germ Form Theory for the Emergence of Peer Production

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George Dafermos:

"Needless to say, Benkler was not alone in theorizing FOSS as a new mode of production. Already by the late 1990s, the phenomenal growth of FOSS projects like Linux had captivated the attention of several researchers and thinkers, who argued that FOSS should be seen as the quintessential example of a new mode of production brought to life by the distributed networks of cyberspace. On the other side of the Atlantic, no-one delved into the subject of peer production more deeply than the group of critical theorists associated with the so-called Project Oekonux (1999-2013). Launched in Germany in 1999 by Stefan Merten, a software programmer with an anarchist-Marxist background, Oekonux was essentially an online discussion group interested in exploring the mode of production of FOSS and its transformative potential from an anti-capitalist perspective. Members interacted mainly through two mailing lists: one for German speakers and another for anglophone members.

In addition to the debates on its mailing lists, which attracted thinkers from all over the world, such as Michel Bauwens (Thailand), Franz Nahrada (Austria), Mathieu O’Neil (Australia), Graham Seaman (UK), Johan Söderberg (Sweden) and Raoul Victor (France), Oekonux organized four international conferences (in 2001 in Dortmund, in 2002 in Berlin, in 2004 in Vienna and in 2009 in Manchester), which were globally the first ones that looked at FOSS and peer production from such a clearly political perspective. What is commonly referred to as ‘Oekonux theory/ies’ is basically a particular analysis of FOSS and peer production, which formed the epicentre of longlasting debates on the Oekonux mailing lists and conferences.5 Generally speaking, the theory of Oekonux echoes many of the fundamental points of Benkler’s analysis. ‘Oekonuxers’ were well acquainted with The Wealth of Networks, so it should come as no surprise that they were influenced by its theses. Characteristically, Oekonux adopted the term of commons-based peer production in the mid-2000s (Meretz 2012). As in Benkler’s book, the starting point of Oekonux is the acknowledgment of the catalytic role of the Internet in spawning a new mode of production, which contrasts sharply with the capitalist mode of commodity production. The epitome of this new mode of production are FOSS projects like Linux, which are ‘created on a voluntary basis, unlike any commodity’ (Merten 2000). Thus, in consonance with Benkler’s analysis, Oekonux highlighted the fact that FOSS is not a commodity produced by wage workers in a corporate structure, but the fruit of volunteer labour done for the sake of the pleasure and ‘self-unfolding’ involved in this activity (Merten 2000). In short, like Benkler, Oekonux conceptualized FOSS as a mode of nonmarket production driven by the ‘pleasure principle,’ rather than by the profit-motive. Similarly, it paid a great deal of attention to the pivotal role of self-organization in this setting. Its significance is epitomized in full-swing in one of the early Oekonux texts by Merten (2000), which underlines that ‘no one tells the GNU/Linux developers what to do...Everything they do is done through their own initiative...No boss tells them what to do….GNU/Linux is organized by the developers themselves.’ Another point that Oekonux has in common with Benkler concerns the potential of peer production to become dominant in the digital economy. A main conclusion that Oekonux drew from its analysis of FOSS is that the peer production model, on account of its productive superiority, ‘promises to surpass and overcome the competition from commercial products’ (Merten 2000).

However, what sets Oekonux apart from Benkler is its thesis that FOSS is prefigurative of a post-capitalist society ‘beyond labor, money, exchange’ (Merten interviewed in Richardson 2001) and the emphasis it put on the zeitgeist-grabbing potential of peer production to supplant the capitalist mode of production on a global level, triggering thereby systemic change on a planetary scale. This is a conclusion that Oekonux was driven to by examining the historical development of peer production from a dialectical perspective. The approach of Oekonux, as we shall see, constitutes the first attempt at a methodical analysis of FOSS and peer production from a Marxian perspective. The key elements of this analysis are as follows: innovations like FOSS, the Internet, as well as related techniques and methods of production, represent ‘a tremendous advance in productive forces’ (Victor 2004). All these new technologies and techniques have been developed at the heart of the capitalist system. And so, they are initially dependent on that system. This means that those who produce them ‘are not nourished by their own product...[For instance,] those who work for free or are paid by an enterprise to create free software remain dependent on the revenues provided by the market world’ (Victor 2003). On top of that, the same technologies serve as critical infrastructures for the daily operation of the capitalist system. Quite simply, the modern economy would have been unthinkable without the Internet.

Those two characteristics of FOSS -i.e. its integration into the operation of the agents of the dominant economy and the material dependence of its developers on capital- imply the compatibility of peer production with the hegemony of capital. However, that stateof-affairs is ephemeral. Oekonux shared Marx’s famous thesis that the potential of the new productive forces cannot be fully honed within the context of the capitalist economy, which, as a result, leads to rupture in the dominant system. At a certain stage of economic development, as Marx (1977) wrote in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or –this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.

In a nutshell, ‘Capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it’ (Marx 1990: 929). To Oekonuxers, it was obvious that Marx’s theory was now more relevant than ever. It could deepen one’s understanding of FOSS and peer production by illustrating the clash between the new productive forces and the old social relations of production in the bosom of the software industry. At the heart of that clash, as Oekonux remarked, lies the question of property. By contrast to the capitalist mode of production, which is predicated on restrictive intellectual property rights such as copyrights and patents, peer production is intertwined with an entirely different type of property, which, in fact, constitutes an objective precondition for its emergence (Söderberg & O’Neil 2014: 2).

That explains why the historical development of peer production has been going hand in hand with the creation of free/open licenses, which ensure legally the free sharing of digital artifacts. The archetypal licensing mechanism of this kind, the GNU General Public License (GPL), was created in 1989 by Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), as a legal weapon in the struggle of the hacker community against proprietary software (Stallman 1999). The GPL is colloquially referred to as ‘copyleft’ due to the fact that it is the opposite of copyright: software that has been ‘copylefted’ under the GPL is free from the usual restrictions that copyrighted software imposes upon end users. Today, thirty years later, there is a plethora of GPL-inspired free/open licenses available to software developers.

In parallel, their popularity with FOSS developers has led to the development of similar licensing mechanisms for other types of digital artifacts. The Creative Commons licenses (whose first version was released in 2001), for instance, are geared towards the needs of artists and cultural producers. In any case, from the vantage point of Oekonux, the significance of copyleft rests on its opposition to and subversion of copyright. As Söderberg (2002) writes in Copyleft vs. Copyright: A Marxist Critique, one should not lose sight of the fact that ‘to oppose copyright is to oppose capitalism’ (Söderberg 2002). For Oekonuxers, the implications of Söderberg’s point were obvious: viewed from that perspective, the development of FOSS could be construed as ‘a revolt of the new productive forces against the old capitalist relations of production’ (Victor 2004).

The elucidation of the subversive edge of FOSS remains to this day the most recognizable contribution of Oekonux to the development of the theory of peer production (Söderberg & O’Neil 2014: 3). One should not, however, forget that the debates on peer production in the early 2000s were characterized by polarization (Meretz 2012). On the one side were the proponents of peer production, for whom it signaled a radical break with capital. On the other side, the critics of peer production were convinced that it posed no threat to the dominion of capital. The approach of Oekonux was undeniably more balanced and methodical, allowing it to counterpose the characteristics of FOSS that render it compatible with capital against those which are disruptive toward its hegemony. More precisely, it allowed Oekonux to discern that the mode of peer production is characterized at one and the same time by the unity of these antitheses and by their struggle, both of which determine the changes which peer production undergoes over time.

Hence, by taking account of the dialectical opposition between peer production’s immanent and transcendent characteristics, Oekonux avoided the trap of binary thinking into which the majority of peer production critics and proponents alike had fallen. Most importantly, its dialectical approach allowed it to resolve the antithesis between the forces of immanence and transcendence through the concept of the ‘seed-form.’ Using this metaphor, Oekonux drew a parallel between peer production and the stages of development of a seed. Like a seed, a new of mode of production needs the appropriate substratum and the right environmental conditions in order to emerge and break through the soil. According to that theory, in the beginning, a new mode of production usually occupies a ‘niche’ in the economy without posing any threat to the mode of production that dominates the broader economy. Oekonux argued that this was indisputably the case with peer production, which emerged and established itself in the software industry as a production model that is fully compatible with market imperatives. But as we mentioned before, that compatibility is quite fragile. The reason, according to Oekonux, rests on the endemic nature of crises in the capitalist system, which create the objective conditions for the expansion of the peer production model into increasingly more sectors of the economy. Under these circumstances, peer production ‘gains relevance for the reproduction of the old system.’ Despite the fact though that ‘it can be used for the sake of the old system...its own logic is and remains incompatible with the logic of the dominant old system’ (Meretz 2012).

Thus, due to the ever-recurring cycle of crises, Oekonux argued that the model of peer production finds fertile ground to grow and its field of application shifts from the periphery into the core of the economic system. Under this pressure, the capitalist mode of production is forced to fall back to ‘marginal domains.’ Logically following then, in the course of time, peer production evolves into the new dominant mode of production. This stage is marked by world-historical changes: ‘market mediation using money is no longer required...The entire system has now qualitatively changed its character’ (Meretz 2012). As a result of the transformation of the economy, then, a new society arises, which is characterized by the principles of peer production: a communal form of property and a new type of social relations without the alienation, the exploitation and the coercion inherent in capitalism.

Oekonux did not attempt to invest this future ‘GPL society,’ as it calls it, with an eschatological mantle. The role it plays in the theory of Oekonux is not that of an anticapitalist version of the ‘end of history.’ As in the past, new contradictions may appear in the GPL Society, thereby triggering a new cycle of transformation (Meretz 2012). To its credit, Oekonux did not try to account for the conclusions of its analysis by reference to any ineluctable laws of historical necessity. As it recognized, there is no certainty that peer production will ever supplant the capitalist mode of production. That peer production has the potential to transcend capitalism does not mean that it shall actually realize that potential in praxis. In fact, as Oekonux warned, if commoners and peer producers do not fight to defend their principles, they run the risk of being co-opted and assimilated (Meretz 2012). In the last instance, therefore, a lot depends on their struggle. When, twenty years ago, Oekonux formulated the argument that peer production is the germ of a post-capitalist society, it caused a stir among intellectuals and activists drawn to the subject of the digital commons. Admittedly, Oekonux was home to one of the most interesting and theoretically rich political analyses of FOSS and peer production. Its provocative theses fueled a plethora of heated debates on its mailing lists, which were buzzing with life for about a decade. Then, around the end of the 2000s, without any particular reason, the discussions on the mailing lists started to dwindle until they became inactive. Feeling that this was the end of Oekonux, in 2013 Merten announced his decision to discontinue the project.7 Thus, without much fanfare, Oekonux ceased its activities.

Yet, in spite of its short life span, Oekonux had a lasting impact on the development of peer production theory. Its theses had a tremendous influence on some of the most important contemporary thinkers. The case of Michel Bauwens, who was a long-time contributor to the debates on the Oekonux mailing lists and conferences, is characteristic. Bauwens became involved in Oekonux around 2002 at a time when he had just begun to theorize ‘peer-to-peer’ as a new paradigm of production that was going to shake the world (e.g. Bauwens 2002). His approach had many points in common with Oekonux, as well as with Benkler. As in their case, Bauwens’ theses were the result of analyzing Linux and FOSS as an alternative mode of production, governance and property, which is enabled by the distributed technological infrastructure of the Internet. He similarly conceptualized peer production as a mode of production that is neither directed to market exchange, nor governed by bureaucrats and managers. The antithesis between the immanent and the transcendent characteristics of peer production was, as we have seen, of decisive importance in the development of Oekonux’s theory." (