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. 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 different backgrounds.   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 address.   After the WOS conference the organizers of the conference (Mikro, `‘) 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 `’. 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 important point.   In December 1999 I created the web site `’. 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 (`’ archiving `’), 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 (`’) 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 (`‘) 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 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: 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 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: 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 explanation?

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 preconditions.

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 worry-less optimism?

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 out?

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 needed.

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 Windows.   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.

Related URLs:
Website of the Oekonux list:
Oekonux Dortmund conference:
Wizard of OS, Berlin conference:
The Open Theory site:
Krisis Group (“Critique of the Commodity Society”)