Germ form theory: Peer production in a historical perspective

Author: Stefan Merten
Author: Stefan Meretz


Germ form theory - conceptual frame


How can development be conceived? The answer, in our opinion, is anything but obvious. This text is intended to seek an answer to this question and to present a number of historical and contemporary examples underlining our views. In general, development apparently is conceived as the expansion of possibilities by a process of accumulating increasingly greater means to advance development. In other words, this is a perspective of mere quantitative growth. However, development is also characterised by qualitative jumps. Thus the question arises: When does a quantitative process transform into a qualitative process? What are the reasons and what are necessary conditions for this to happen? One of the most advanced models to answer these questions is the Five Step Model we present in the following.


The Five Step Model has been influenced by a number of precursors. For one, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, one of the most important idealist philosophers, developed a formal system of the sciences. In his »Science of Logic« [Hegel-Logic] he analyses the relationship between being, essence and concept, and how one develops into the other. His notion of development, however, is purely logical, not historical. It was Karl Marx [1] who joined Hegelian dialectics to history and who discovered principles of historical development. Quite contrary to Marx' own views, the ensuing Marxist movement translated these principles into »laws« by oversimplifying and formalising Marx' original analysis. Thus, Friedrich Engels propounded the »three laws of dialectics« that have been used by generations of Marxists.

One prominent aspect Hegel emphasises is that the principles of development can and should never be separated from the subject of the original analysis. Why so? The danger of any law formulated in terms of a general statement is obvious: The law once discovered by studying a specific subject is applied to another subject and now guides the analysis of this new topic. In other words, this so-called law works as a pair of glasses that filters one's perception and predetermines whatever can be viewed and conceptualised. Nevertheless, there are a number of general principles of development, and how change takes place is not arbitrary. But any analysis must be careful and take into account, that each concept functions as a filter. This also applies to the Five Step Model we present here.

It was Klaus Holzkamp, the founder of German Critical Psychology, who--in the Hegelian sense--pursues an in our view viable approach: In a first step, he analyses his subject and discovers its principles of development. In his opinion some of the Marxian and Hegelian insights have to be specified in more detail. His aim is an explication of the historical evolution of the psyche in phylogenesis. From this starting point, the generalisation of his specifications covers five steps. With Holzkamp's views, the core of the Five Step Model was born.

The next step in the development of the Five Step Model was the transmission of the model from phylogenesis to the history of society. Being aware that there are qualitative differences between evolution and human history, Stefan Meretz assumes, that on a general level there are also similarities. It would be wrong to explain human history in an evolutionist fashion, but there are comparable structures of development, which can be transfered. However, this has to be verified by transforming and applying the Five Step Model to the new subject-matter of human history. Two examples are presented in support of our position. If our views can be sufficiently supported, we will gain a powerful tool to analyse contemporary and new phenomena such as Free Software and we will be in a position to address the question of how capitalism can be overcome.

Essentially we will try to show that the results of our examination lead us to a new understanding of the qualitative transformation of society. Our findings are not new in the sense, that the aspects we have found have never been thought of before. So, don't let yourself be carried away too easily into a warm (or cold) feeling of agreement (or disagreement) when some aspects sound familiar--the overall picture we give is quite new. Of course, we stand on the shoulders of giants, too [Wikipedia-Shoulders].


While we attempt to explain the skeleton of the Five Step Model in the following, keep in mind what has been said until now. Holzkamp generalises his Five Step Model of development from research on qualitative steps in phylogenesis on its path towards the development of human society. Here are the headlines which we will put forward in detail later:

  1. Emergence step: emergence of the germ form
  2. Crisis step: crisis of the old form
  3. Expansion step: germ form becomes an important dimension
  4. Dominance step: germ form becomes the dominant form
  5. Restructuring step: Restructuring of the entire system process

These steps are not to be understood as chronological in order, but rather as logical. To introduce you to germ form theory let us first sketch an example from evolution, which we will use to illustrate the steps of the model. The example is taken from the Holzkamp book [Holzkamp-Grundlegung]:

Simple organisms moving around in water depend on the environmental conditions they live in, because they sustain by the assimilation of nutrition from this environment. By moving to nutritionally rich regions they heighten their chances and improve their ability to survive. Orientation plays a crucial role. Early forms of visual orientation, of »seeing«, are coupled with motor skills. Light and dark areas in the surrounding are detected via the sensible surface of the organism during locomotion (scientifically: »gradient orientation«). Now, let's assume that lighter regions systematically contain a higher amount of nutrition. These water organisms use the environmental differences in illumination in order to find nutritionally rich regions; this increases their possibility to survive. However, for these organisms depending on their ability to move in order to find orientation, locomotion, on the other hand, is also a very risky thing to do in an extremely hostile and dangerous environment. Other organisms, that are able to detect visual differences from a more remote stance have a much higher chance of survival because they are independent of their locomotion to detect nutritionally rich areas; in other words, they have a far lower risk of lethal movements. The question of development now is: Why and how does the population of organisms with a simpler structure develop qualitatively higher forms of orientation? (And we know for sure, that it did happen!)

1. Emergence step: emergence of the germ form

Anything that exists on a new level of development appears to us as being self-evident and ubiquitous. We should keep in mind that the prevailing principle derived from the observed system did not exist before, but instead another, an old principle ruled the observed system then.

In our example above, the system is the population of simple organisms living in water. They use primitive orientation to help them find nutritionally rich regions. Everything is fine as long as the immediate environmental conditions are well for the sustenance and reproduction of the population. However, these organisms always risk lethal movements, because their orientation is fully dependent on their continuous moving around; they have no form of orientation that would allow them to »see« sappy grounds ahead of them from a long distance.

New forms always occur as mutants; they are ignored because they are useless for the time being. There are niches where such mutants survive. Some mutants represent early forms of new variants for example of »seeing« over longer distances. They are germ forms of a qualitatively new function emerging during the next steps of development. We can assert this today, because we know a lot about how e.g. the visual functions in various organisms have developed in time and how they work. By analysing we look backward in order to reconstruct forward to understand what has developed. Thus, our knowledge tells us: A germ form develops in niches; it survives within the old modes of sustenance and reproduction, but has new features that will become dominant in the future. On a current stage of emergence, these germ forms--mutations and deviations--are new functions, perhaps as useless for reproduction and survival, as other non-germ form deviations. Whether these new functions become useful is decided during the next two steps.

2. Crisis step: crisis of the old form

A new form receives a chance for further development, only if it is able to play a positive or decisive role in the given system based on the old forms. On the other hand, an existing old form only requires new forms, when the existing system can no longer reproduce itself as successfully as before. When the old forms and principles no longer work efficiently, the old system runs into a crisis.

A crisis can be the result of inner or outer disturbing conditions or causes. Often it is due to changes in the environment of the given system. In the case of our simple water population, for example, the nutrition level can decrease. Changes in the environment generate inner contradictions. The given system may, in some cases, be able to cope with these contradictions on the basis of the old principles; in other cases, it may not.

Even more interesting are inner conditions of a crisis being transformed into inner contradictions. This is the case, when all of the potential for further development immanent to the given system is exhausted while the system faces new challenges that it cannot deal with the existing resources. For instance the population of our simple organisms grows to an extent, that the speed of its locomotion and the precision of its orientation become critically slow and imprecise so that it fails to reach new nutrition regions early enough to prevent starvation. Thus, this system of organisms runs into a crisis due to its own successful development. Grown too large in size, on the basis of the old form of orientation and movement it is unable to meet the challenge of increased nutritional needs.

Now, there are three possibilities of what can happen: stagnation, collapse, qualitative development. In the first case, a part of the population starves and the system stagnates within the limits of the existing conditions and on the old level of its functioning. In the second case, the growth of the population is so rapid that the whole population collapses and disappears. In the third case, a qualitatively new property develops within the population which enables further growth and expansion. We will follow the third option, and our candidate for this is the already existing germ form from the emergence step, as shown above.

3. Expansion step: the germ form becomes an important dimension

Under the conditions established by the prevalent old principles and the ensuing crisis the relatively new germ form can leave its niches and expand quantitatively. This is possible because it is needed for further development. It becomes an important and qualitatively new dimension of development within the old, as yet dominant form. The establishment of the germ form within the old logical system can have two results: First, it can lead to an integration of the new form into the old one, whereby the the old form assimilates the germ form, accommodating, adapting and modifying itself due to this process only slightly. Second, the germ form performs continuously better and establishes itself side by side the old principles of the given system.

In the first case the germ form character is lost. In the second case the new features encompassed by the germ form are strengthened. In both cases the old system benefits from an integrated and strengthened germ form. Thereby, the old system attenuates its own crisis phenomena. Moreover, it is a key precondition for the development to a next step that during the germ form phase of expansion, these new but disparate principles be in the service of the logic of the old system: i.e. the new system must work for the old one, otherwise it will be absorbed or defeated by the old prevailing system.

At this point, it is very important to understand the dialectics of this step. Using dualistic logics, one would say, that a new form is either incompatible or compatible with the old one. There is no third. This concept of »tertium non datur«, also known as »principle of the excluded third«, dominates contemporary thinking, and workers movements have not been free of it. Dialectic thinking overcomes and includes dualistic logic by recognising the relationship between the opposites. In reality opposites are never isolated from each other. In particular isolating opposites from each other is not useful for understanding historical processes of development, at all.

Returning to our example, for the first result type, the population of our simple organisms could integrate the newly developed function of »distance-seeing« into the old form of orientation by using the improved sensibility of the organisms' surface detecting light-dark differences. With an improved sensibility the organisms movements will be more intricate and attuned to environmental conditions so that lethal risks decrease. However, concerning distance orientation nothing has changed. A population with a more sensible moving orientation may be fit enough for the current stage of growth. The integration is completed and the new function of distance-seeing disappears, because it is no longer required.

The second result type could be, that the new function of distance-seeing, which is a special property pertaining to only a few organisms within the population, enables the whole population to perform better in reaching higher nutrition levels by using these few as leaders. Thus, the whole system then takes advantage of these few organisms with more precise and expedient orientation faculties. The new function can expand, because it is needed by all. It is helpful to the whole population even while the old logic is still dominant. Thus, organisms featuring the new function survive with a higher probability than other organisms and the new function spreads out over the following generations.

4. Dominance step: the germ form becomes the dominant form

At this point of development, the former subsidiary germ form becomes the dominant form of development. The new principles prevail because they are an improvement in respect to the important dimensions of the entire development process. At this stage the typical novel character of the germ form comes to an end. Now, it is its principles that determine further development. These new principles replace the obsolete and no longer functional principles of the old form, either step by step or abruptly. Now the new form becomes self-evident and ubiquitous.

Becoming dominant is the second qualitative step: First, the germ form conquers a new qualitative position, where it can no longer be ignored (expansion step). Then, the new form replaces the old form by now determining the system's direction of development. This second step brings along a completely new potential for further developments. These new possibilities are far more ample and more far reaching than those that had developed under the old circumstances. However, before this new potential can fully come to bear, the entire system needs to adopt the new principles as a whole (restructuring step).

Applying these ideas to our example, the dominance step means that distance-seeing is so useful for the entire population that organisms employing the old primitive function of orientation via locomotion are now at a reproductive disadvantage compared to those members of the population applying the new function. They vanish, and the new function will be taken over by all the organisms of the following generations. This process can be slow in nature, taking many generations, if there is only little pressure to adapt to the new conditions; or it can be quite fast, but not too fast, which would also endanger the survival of the population.

Remember that in case of organisms, the mode of development is over generations via mutation and selection. In comparison to measures taken by human societies to engender historical development, this is very slow. While the time scale of those five step developments in natural vs. societal environments can be completely different, the qualitative steps to cross the respective developmental boundaries are just the same.

5. Restructuring step: restructuring of the entire system process

When a new form has been established, then the entire system with all of the other aspects of its life needs to be rebuilt. This reconstruction of all other subsidiary derivative processes is very important in order to realize the entire systems new potential for further development based on the principles of the new form. Now, new contradictions can occur, new germ forms can occur, the new system can develop into new crises etc. The first step of a new cycle is reached again by closing a former cycle. Finally we get a picture of a spiral where it took five steps to perform one turn ending up on a higher level where a next turn higher above will again encompass five steps and so on.

So what, at this stage, has happened to our population of organisms? Well, perceiving, seeing and scrutinising an object from quite a distance is now the dominant form of orientation for these organisms, while other--e.g. motor--functions adopt to these new functions. Qualitatively new organs of perception have been developed, »eyes« in our case. An improved and qualitatively new orientation now also needs an improved nervous control. Due to a more precise orientation, moving organs--fins, claws, tentacles etc.--develop, in order to also facilitate adaptation and precision of movements. Other functions of the population system reconstruct themselves and develop further in respect to the new challenges activated by the new dominant mode of orientation. However, this, as yet, simple and unrefined form of seeing is not capable of distinguishing different types of objects from a long distance; it merely gives approximate information about the direction in which the organism is to move. Thus, due to further population growth new contradictions emerge, new germ forms develop etc. The restructuring step is the first step of a new turn in the spiral.

Generalising the Five Step Model

While using examples from biology, we delineated the Five Step Model in a more general perspective. Thus, in many cases historical processes can be seen in this view. Keeping in mind that the Five Step Model is not intended to represent a universal model of development, it is nevertheless always interesting to examine whether historical processes can be construed in terms of the steps of the model. In the following, we will do precisely this, using the historical emergence of Free Software as a case of peer production to show the validity of the germ form model for historical processes. We will argue, that the Five Step Model can be used to understand where we currently stand in an historical process of transformation. This view sheds new light on questions being commonly answered by applying formal dualistic logics (market vs. planned economy, labour vs. capital etc.).

This generalisation of the Five Step Model was first introduced by Stefan Meretz in the context of the Oekonux project starting in 1999. Oekonux is an acronym of »Economy and GNU/Linux« (in German) [Oekonux-Site]. The project is a discussion and research platform for those interested in the understanding, application and proliferation of the principles of Free Software and peer production to the entirety of society. The Five Step Model plays an important role for understanding the various and partly contradicting phenomena of Free Software; it guards us from stepping into some of the well-known traps offered by dualistic logics: Is Free Software in favour of capitalism or against capitalism? This type of question needs to be rejected, because it does not help us understand either the principles of Free Software or its role in capitalism. The only possible answer to this question is »It is as much in favour of as it is against capitalism«; and that explains nothing. In the following we will show that in using the Five Step Model we can attain a deep understanding of Free Software and peer production, both as a general phenomenon and of its role in contemporary capitalism.

Capitalism as a Germ Form

After we gave a sketch about what germ form theory and the five-step model is, we now give an outline of an analysis for the development of capitalism using germ form theory. We are particularly interested in how the shift from feudalism to capitalism can be perceived using germ form theory, because in the following chapter we give an example of a contemporary germ form which--according to our thesis--is in its expansion step. [3]

Early Capitalist Elements

If we talk of capitalism here, we are thinking of two main fundaments of capitalism: Abstract labour and exchange on the one hand and an industrial way of production on the other hand.

In capitalism societally separated producers buy and employ labour power, in order to produce commodities, which are exchanged on markets then. When exchanged the societally average amount of labour being necessary to produce the commodities is compared. This societally average amount of labour is the abstract labour and it is expressed by the exchange value of commodities. However, consumers are interested in the use value of the goods they buy, which is created by concrete labour. Abstract and concrete labour are two aspects of one process: producing goods as commodities. However, in capitalism the concrete aspect of labour is dominated by the abstract one: It doesn't matter, which good is being produced--be it milk or bombs. In capitalism the main goal of production is, that the product can be sold on a market, and thus its exchange value can be realized.

Capitalism is also an industrial way of production. Big machinery and mass production is applied, which is beyond what were possible to organise in a feudal society. This applies to the technical side of industrial production as well as to the social side necessary to support the technical side. While in Fordist capitalism workers are only an appendix to machinery, today creativity and self-education is highly demanded. We'll come back to this aspect in the final chapter.

According to the five-step model we need to check where these fundaments of capitalism--abstract labour and commodity exchange as well as industrial production--appeared in history to find the spots where capitalism can be seen in its emergence step.

Exchange as just defined is represented well by the money system where money is an expression of the exchange value. Of course money as a phenomenon has been around for quite a long time in human history. However, most of the time money was a mean to facilitate the exchange of goods. That is what Marx named the C->M->C type of money usage. Marx distinguished that usage type of money from the capitalist usage type of M->C->M' where M' > M [Marx-CMCvsMCM]. Only in the second variant money is capitalist money, capital, as we know it today. As the formula expresses in this form its function of a facilitator of exchange becomes secondary and the accumulation of profit becomes dominant.

If we compare the money phenomenon with the example about our simple organisms then money represents the feature of orientation as such. It is a common phenomenon throughout many human societies. The original usage type of money C->M->C is a common phenomenon. The capitalist type of money usage M->C->M' is, however, a deviation of the common money usage. This type of money usage is a mutant like the eyed organisms in our example above.

We can see this mutant in pre-capitalist forms like in the North Italian cities around 1300 but also in the mercantile usage of money later on. At that time money existed but in general for the society as a whole money was a rather marginal phenomenon far outweighed by the feudal structures which depended on completely different things than money. It is a historical truth that at this time there were deviations which later ended up in capitalism but at that time did not succeed and even vanished again. These are nice examples for a germ form in its emergence step but which did not realize its potential immediately.

Indeed also the other major element of capitalism has been seen before the 18th century. There actually were manufactures involving abstract labour and sometimes even big machinery as early as in the Roman Empire. However, as of this time this type of production did not take off and stayed a niche phenomenon vanishing again after the fall of the Roman Empire. Instead the feudal organisation of labour involving peasants and artisans and using crafts as the most developed forms of production had several hundred years to live.

When looking back from the developed germ form like we do here, according to germ form theory we can conclude that there were either elements of the germ form missing or the crisis of the old form were missing. Indeed probably both is true and so feudalism stayed dominant until the 18th century and the germ form stayed marginal or vanished completely.

The Potential of Early Capitalism

In the 17th century and 18th century development was more mature. Especially in Europe the Enlightenment brought up a whole new way of thinking emancipating at least from the church and revolutionising the natural sciences. The Enlightenment brought a massive paradigm change for all of the European society fabric. A paradigm change indeed for which thinking back beyond it is very hard to do with a modern mind set--if at all possible.

The breakthroughs in natural sciences posed hard philosophical questions. In fact they put the whole God centred model of the world at stake--a development the echoes of which still can be heard today.

Those breakthroughs in the natural sciences made new technologies possible. These new technological possibilities like big machinery, however, did not fit into the societal framework of feudal work organisation. In fact the early industry needed abstract labour which as of this time was not very common. In fact »liberating« people from their feudal roots was necessary to create abstract labour power.

Also the industry of this time used money in a new way: It has been invested not only in machines but also in human labour, and the results of these investments--the products--have been sold on a market. On the market the surplus value has been realized and this gave way to the next cycle. Capital as we know it today was born and for the first time the mutant of money usage became visible on a large scale on the historical stage. Indeed the technological development of this time together with the changes in the overall societal framework made this positive feedback cycle possible increasing speed of development.

In addition at this time the governance system which feudalism was based on eroded. Just take Louis XIV. of France as an example of how much the aristocrat class has separated itself from the real social movements compared to Carolus the Great (XXX name?) about thousand years before him. Or think the early revolutions in the United Kingdom questioning the old governance system more and more in favour of those parts of society who represented elements of the germ form.

However, none of these aspects would have had much meaning if capitalism had not shown some potential in terms of improved products. Indeed from the perspective of the users of these products there were a couple.

First, the new industrial way of organising labour together with the improved technology resulted in higher productivity which in turn lowered the prices of the commodities produced this way. Where money already played a role this was of course an advantage of the products. These cheaper products had so much of an advantage over the old home manufacturers' and guild organised products that these groups representing the old system started to rebel against this--see for instance the Luddites [Wikipedia-Luddite].

Second, the mass availability of products was another advantage of the capitalist model. This was especially useful for those fields where you had mass consumption. At this time one prominent example is the feudal lords needing mass production to equip their modern armies. Today it seems obvious that a mass equipment with uniforms, weaponry and all the other stuff is only feasible with an industrial way of production. But also the mercantile field appreciated the mass availability of products because it made it much simpler--and thus cheaper--to acquire the products which are sold later on some arbitrary market.

Third the industrial production--and at that time that meant already capitalist production--were able to produce things which had not been possible before. Especially the heavy industries which needed lots and lots of free workers were able to produce things like railways, huge bridges like the Forth Bridge and so on. Again war played a big role here because at least part of the new products like cannons were weaponry. But of course the germ form already created its own positive feedback cycle here: Railways were needed for the industrial way of production and the industrial way of production was needed to have railways.

Forth the industrial products showed new features like uniformity which is one of the typical results of a uniform production process as distinguished from an artisan production process. This in turn simplified the industrial use of those products because for a uniform process it is always good to have uniform input--another positive feedback cycle. Please note, however, that those positive feedback cycles were no end in themselves. They were necessary to expand the germ form but if the germ form would not have been useful for the overall process these positive feedback cycles would have lead nowhere.

The advantages in the resulting products were the final reason why capitalism and industrialisation had their major breakthrough. Though some elements existed in earlier historical phases they were not mature enough to lead to a breakthrough or the old system was still too vital. Only at the dawn of capitalism the preconditions were mature enough to make way for this new mode of production.

As noted once this new mode of production gained size there were several positive feedback cycles. The most important one was the new logic of abstract money M->C->M'. Together with the crisis of the old feudal system these positive feedback cycles through a historically very short time changed the whole societal fabric massively. They unleashed a technical development which was unknown to mankind. But they also unleashed massive social changes--just because the new mode of production »called« for these changes. In particular the organisation of human work was revolutionised. Free workers like capitalism needed did not exist before but are standard today.

Capitalism improved the efficiency of material production at this time as far as was possible and it liberated material production from the limitations of the feudal system--namely guilds and the old feudal system of privileges. Today we see it also as liberation for the people from the feudal regulations which had been in effect for several hundred years.

Dialectics of the expansion step

In the early 19th century these features made capitalism an important part of the overall development process--the precise definition of a germ form in the expansion step. During this expansion step contradictions between the old and the new form are a logical consequence. Indeed if there are no or little contradictions the supposed new form is probably not really new but can be integrated somehow. According to germ form theory, however, these contradictions happen deeply inside and throughout the whole social fabric and they are not as obvious as one may think.

If germ form theory can be applied to capitalism as a germ form, then there should be contradictions and dialectical movements. Indeed there were. The most important probably is how many aristocrats reacted to the early forms of capitalism: They used it for their own needs. Especially war and armies are a field where capitalism was just able to deliver [Kurz-War]. One less obvious common denominator is that the alienated nature of late feudal wars is nicely reflected by the alienated nature of capitalist production.

There were even a few feudal Lords which furthered Enlightenment and with it capitalist values [Wikipedia-Josephinism]. All this did not prevent capitalism from gaining control over society step by step obsoleting feudal rule at the same time.

Indeed here is something very important to learn about fundamental historical changes in general: The roots of the change emerge and grow in niches but there must be a expansion step where the germ form contradicts the old system full-scale while being important for the old system. If it does not contradict fully then there is probably not much potential. If it does not become important it is not (yet) strong enough compared to the old system and can be absorbed or vanishes again.

Dominance of capitalism and restructuring of society

As we know today capitalism took over slowly and feudal societies have been replaced by capitalism. This process took time. At least 100 years in the most industrialised countries but even today there are countries where pre-capitalist relationships are still important. One of the most important signs of the victory of capitalism over feudalism is that religion doesn't matter much nowadays [2].

Since with capitalism we can survey the development of a germ form from its early beginnings to its--as we suggest--replacement by a new mode of production we can also ask: What happened to the dominant production of the earlier form? Indeed part of the dominant production of the feudal form was agriculture. In feudalism agricultural production was really the main basis of the society--be it, because the big majority of people were involved in it.

Of course as far as the use value of the products is concerned, agricultural production is still an important basis for mankind. People need to eat and agricultural products are for eating. In fact in feudal times the majority of the people literally worked to eat.

Though agricultural production is of the utmost importance it became an appendix to industrial production step by step. Today agricultural production at least in the industrialised countries is totally dominated by the logic of industry and thus capitalism. Though agricultural production once dominated the social fabric today this is no longer the case. Though people still need to eat today they do not work for food but for money--and this difference is important because it indicates a fundamental change. Indeed this is a typical development if a germ form is in its restructuring step and takes over all of society.

If we think of peer production as a new germ form then if peer production reaches its restructuring step it will have organised industrial production according to its own logic. And probably as agriculture today differs largely from agriculture in the feudal ages this type of industrialisation will look differently from what we know today.

Mode of Production as the Driver

Following Marxian analysis it is the mode of production which was the most important driver for the change from feudalism to something new: capitalism. It was a fundamental change in the mode of production which changed not only the way goods are produced but the complete social fabric and--over time--this happened on a global basis. It was a fundamental change in the mode of production which ended one era of mankind and started another one.

One fundamental change for the germ form capitalism was the type of money usage and following from that the dominance of exchange based societal forms. Of course there are lots of phenomenons which are based on that--for instance capital and labour and its contradictions or property relationships to name just a few. But the core of capitalism is that success of a system based on exchange of commodities from isolated private producers.

A germ form inside capitalism pointing to a new logic must challenge this exchange based system or otherwise it will be absorbed by the dominant logic. And it needs to do this in a way which can be generalised enough. Otherwise it will stay a marginal phenomenon. A germ form with the capability to overcome capitalism must be a mode of production which works beyond any exchange based system--and at the same time does a better job. Just like capitalism did a better job than feudalism.

The shift from feudalism to capitalism shows what a change in the mode of production can mean once it is unleashed. Germ form theory gives us a perspective to understand how that development happened: In retrospective we can see how the germ form of capitalism developed. But--with the necessary caution--germ form theory can be applied to contemporary phenomenons as well. In the next section we will do that. We will explain the phenomenon of peer production mainly using the example of Free Software and show, where peer production is today using germ form theory.

Contemporary germ forms

Peer Production

For 30 years we have been witnessing a tremendous transformation of global capitalism. We can observe a change from a Fordist to a neo-liberal accumulation regime, which aims at integrating a growing number of previously state controlled sectors into a private exploitation process. This process is accompanied by disconnecting large parts of society that are no longer profitable enough. However, another type of disconnecting process is taking place what we call: the emergence of peer production. This is the focus of the following chapter.

We are convinced that the reorganisation of social processes around new modes of production bears the potential to overcome capitalism. Furthermore, we claim that peer production can be viewed as a germ form of a new society which is based on a mode of production beyond exchange, market mechanisms and money. This far reaching hypothesis is substantiated by the germ form approach. Within the general emergence of forms of peer production, so far Free Software is the first, the most developed and the most visible form. Thus, in this chapter we will examine Free Software in more detail in order to learn something about the principles of peer production.

By peer production we mean phenomena characterised by a number of distinct features [4].

Though there are a lot of peer phenomena, peer production is first and foremost about the process of production not about distribution. This differentiates peer production from say barter exchange or other distribution related approaches.

Peer production is based on voluntary contribution, not on coercion or command. Nobody can force others to do anything; and nobody is forced to obey others. However, this does not mean that there are no structures. Quite to the contrary, usually there are maintainers who decide, for example, which contributions to accept and which to refuse. But there is nobody who can compel others to do anything they do not want to do. Moreover, nobody is forced to accept the existing structures as they are. Whenever participants of a project are unhappy about some aspects of the project, they can try to convince the other members to change them. If that fails, they can opt to fork the project: they can break away from the others and establish their own project based on the results so far achieved together.

Only when the members of a peer production project are open for influences from outside, the project can appreciate and use all useful ideas and other contributions, regardless of their origins or convictions. This unlimited openness is indeed one of the decisive advantages of this mode of production--at least as far as the resulting products are concerned. One result of this unlimitedness is the global character of peer production projects. This global character of peer production projects is usually mediated by the Internet; thus, the Internet is an important tool for peer production.

If exchange value is an incentive for a project, alienated objectives are brought into the project. This is not useful. We all know how profit orientation in capitalism can ruin the most interesting projects. If, however, exchange value is not among the incentives, then the use of the product itself is the only driving incentive for its production. We call this use value orientation. Peer production projects have a deep use value orientation, the resulting products are of a higher quality [5]. A peer production process is not limited by the quality which is necessary to sell a product on the market. Instead most peer production projects strive to develop the conceivably best product in their respective field. This is striving for absolute quality, as compared to the relative quality on an exchange based market. Another result of the missing exchange value orientation is that ampleness is not viewed as a threat, but rather as something useful. This contrasts sharply to commodities which are based on scarcity--i.e. the opposite of ampleness.

Contributing to a peer production project has strong elements of Selbstentfaltung [6]. In a peer production project Selbstentfaltung is the individual key incentive for the contributors to make an effort. That is to say that the people making these efforts do so due to their inner motivation and not for attaining alienated goals. There is no external incentive, such as to earn money, so people are able to pursue goals that suit their needs best. In fact, this Selbstentfaltung-orientation is what makes peer production an interesting thing for people who are generally interested in emancipation. Selbstentfaltung really stands for the maximum possible freedom. One decisive point is that Selbstentfaltung and alienation are antagonists.

Freedom of the results is both precondition and outcome of the process itself. This rule transforms the above mentioned openness into a positive feedback cycle. A positive feedback cycle of this kind is needed for any sustainable project. This positive feedback cycle also strengthens the distinctive features of the peer production project.

So far peer production is an easy venture in the realm of digital information. This is a consequence of two aspects. On the one hand there is the ubiquitous use of digital machines and networks. On the other hand the process of digital copy is independent of the meaning of the copied digital information. We say that digital copy is universal with respect to the copied content. In the following we will discuss the emergence of Free Software and Free Culture as subsidiary developments within the overall process of peer production. These developments can also be explained by using the germ form theory; at the same time they serve as further examples to illustrate the theory. Nevertheless we should keep in mind, that the concept of digital copy is not directly applicable to the production of material goods. Whether or not the principles of peer production can be transferred to the material sphere or what at all that might mean is as much an interesting as open research question.

Free Software

As indicated in the designation, Free Software [7] is software--i.e. it consists of programs and data which are needed in order to run your computer or to write texts, to surf the Internet, to play music or games and so on. In this respect, there is not much of a difference to the proprietary software you may be using, say, from Microsoft. Compared to proprietary software the interesting thing in Free Software is its creation process, its mode of production.

One important expression of this special mode of production of Free Software is the openness of the production process. Here, the human readable source code containing all the know-how is available to everyone; it can be seen and read by each and every individual interested. In contrast, the source code of proprietary software--which in short is software built the capitalist way--are a well-kept secret [8]. Vendors of proprietary software take great efforts to prevent any unauthorised access to their source code. This secrecy in proprietary software is needed because the access to the know-how contained in these sources might give competitors an advantage. In this respect the source code of proprietary software is very similar to other business secrets.

As mentioned before, in Free Software this source code is openly available to everyone. In fact, it is a stated goal that others should be able to learn from the know-how contained in the source code [GNU-FreedomRights]. Even more, if you have the source code of some software at hand, you can improve it by changing and adapting it to your own personal needs and preferences. In fact, this is a further stated goal of Free Software. By contrast, usually the vendor of a proprietary product will also want to earn money from selling modifications of or amendments to the original product [9].

A further aspect we would like to point out is how the mode of production influences the particular way in which a production process is organised. Let me explain: For a proprietary software vendor it is vital to hide the know-how from competitors. Thus, you have a closed process. In fact, the secrecy employed by proprietary software vendors is an inalienable feature of that mode of production because the production process is based on exchange. For Free Software, however, openness is not seen as a hindrance, but rather as an advantage for the production process. So even this small part of the big phenomenon gives us some hints on how the mode of production we see here is different from what we know from capitalism.

Another important expression of this alternative mode of production in Free Software is the right to share the results of the production process. Indeed, this type of sharing is fiercely fought by the proprietary software vendors for their products. For proprietary software the type of sharing which is expressly allowed for Free Software is known as pirate copying--quite probably you heard of it. For Free Software, however, everyone is entitled to distribute the software [10]. And this is precisely what happens. There are huge repositories of Free Software. Here, you are not only allowed, but also very welcome to simply help yourself by taking whatever you need. And there is nothing you have to give in exchange. One aspect of this right to share has entailed that most of Free Software comes indeed without a price. Partly this is due to the fact that a lot of Free Software is created by volunteers during their leisure hours.

These aspects of Free Software development again show the new quality arising in this specific mode of production. These fundamental features make it impossible to make a piece of Free Software a commodity in the capitalist sense. Existing Free Software is readily available to everyone; scarcity as the basis for a commodity simply can not be created. When there is no scarcity of a good, you can not sell it--why should you pay for something, you can get for free?

Emergence step: Free Software in the 1980s/1990s

Now that we have a rough idea about Free Software and peer production let's look at how Free Software came about historically. Indeed it can be seen as a germ form development process in the realm of software production.

Free Software started out in the 1980s. A good part of the initial initiative for Free Software came from Richard M. Stallman who started the GNU project in 1983 and founded the Free Software Foundation in 1985 [Wikipedia-GNU]. Richard M. Stallman had worked at the MIT and from the practice there he was used to a very open style of developing software. Before the 1980s software was generally considered an add-on to the expensive hardware--rather like a manual for your new TV. People who worked with software were used to a free and unhindered flow of software artefacts and to changing these artefacts to their own needs. Mr. Stallman loves to tell the story where he was suddenly confronted with a new era in which software became a commodity [Stallman-Printer]. He personally ran into the limitation that to be a commodity software must be made scarce and secret--the exact opposite of the practice Stallman was used to. The end of that story was that Stallman founded the GNU project and created the first Free Software tools [GNU-Manifesto].

As is typical for a germ form during the emergence step, in the eighties of the last century, the phenomenon of Free Software was hardly even discernible. The term Open Source--may be better known than Free Software today--was invented 15 years later and main stream media did not notice Free Software at all. Nevertheless, the experts in the field became acquainted with Free Software by the communication channels and forums already existing in the Internet that was slowly emerging [11]. Thus, the open development process and the sharing of Free Software did lead to the formation of communities who wrote Free Software and made it available by the means of their time.

Many experts in the field of software development experimented with Free Software that was available. Let me (Stefan Merten) give you a personal example. During my first job I needed a C compiler that ran on an SCO operating system. SCO delivered a C compiler as part of the operating system. It did, however, have some really bad bugs that introduced errors into your programs. Proper programming is a difficult enough task. So the last thing you need is buggy tools that even add to the errors, you yourself are making. In this desperate situation, I tried out the GNU C Compiler which was one of the initial GNU products. I was thrilled, instantly, because it worked out of the box and--most important--it had no errors, whatsoever. Like me, many experts were quickly convinced by the Free Software products available at that time.

A next important step was taken in the early 1990s, when Linus Torvalds created the Linux kernel. This kernel, together with the big amount of GNU software already at hand, led to the development of a complete operating system based exclusively on Free Software [Torvalds-LinuxAnnouncement]. For the first time in history, you were not only able to run Free programs on a proprietary platform, but also you had a system in which everything--from the very basis to the most sophisticated application--was Free Software. In contrast to the earlier Free software projects, the Linux project also employed a different development style. This style was first portrayed by Eric S. Raymond [Raymond-CathederalBazaar]. It was even more open in character than the one employed by the GNU project, and, together with the quickly growing availability of the Internet, it brought the final breakthrough for Free Software.

Though the movement gained momentum during the 1990s, it was still difficult to discern the phenomenon of Free Software. Among experts, however, Free Software, in the meantime, was already well known. Quite often, technical staff in big companies began to use Linux boxes, while the official management still swore by Microsoft and other proprietary software vendors. In 1998 then, when the Open Source movement hyped up, those same managers proudly announced, that they had already a Linux box running. Ironically enough, only a few months before, these guys didn't even know, that Free Software existed.

While the historical development of Free Software, in itself, is interesting, in our context, it is far more important to see, that right from the early beginnings, the phenomenon of Free Software has shown the very two key features, which we consider to be crucial for a contemporary germ form and which are deeply embedded in the mode of production of Free Software. The first key feature is the non-alienated nature of the production process. When Richard M. Stallman started the GNU project, he was keen on creating the best software thinkable in order to replace the proprietary variants of the Unix operating system which existed at that time. A motivation of this kind is fundamentally different from that, wanting to sell a commodity. When you want to sell a commodity, it completely suffices to create something which is sellable. Absolute quality is not a goal [12].

This is different in the case, when interested experts work on a project. They do contribute because they are able to employ the best of their abilities and because they are proud of doing so. They do contribute to create the very best possible. In other words: When you take the effort to produce software on a voluntary basis, then you are interested in the use value of the resulting product. As mentioned above, this non-alienated relation between the effort taken and the result of that effort is an important aspect of what we call Selbstentfaltung.

The second key feature which we have been seeing all along is the unlimitedness of the project. This unlimitedness comes in two ways. Free Software projects are unlimited externally in that everyone can use and share the results of that Free Software project. However, Free Software projects are also unlimited internally in that anyone interested can make his or her contributions to the project. That, in fact, really takes place. Every user of a piece of Free Software can talk to its developers and contribute the desire for a certain feature, a bug report [13] or even pieces of code. In fact, in many Free Software projects there is no clear division between inside and outside. Instead there is a continuum in respect to how far a contributor will or will not be involved in a certain project.

While the internal unlimitedness is usually achieved by open mailing lists, wikis, or forums, where users can present questions and contributions, the external unlimitedness is warranted by Free Software licenses. Free Software licenses are the legal means we have in order to embed the phenomenon of Free Software into a predominant capitalist environment [Merten-Licenses]. Indeed, today the GNU General Public License (GPL) is the most commonly used license; it is one of the very early achievements of the Free Software Foundation. Amusingly enough, the GPL is a genius hack which uses the logic of copyright to turn it against the idea of copyright: Whereas normal copyright restricts the use of the pertaining material, the GPL gives you a lot of rights.

Crisis step: inferior quality of proprietary software

While Free Software was slowly developing in various niches, a major crisis was evolving in the proprietary software world. This crisis mainly spread out within the area of medium sized server operating systems and the associated software. For the relatively rare and expensive mainframes--for the so called »big irons«--special operating systems were available. Customer software was developed in-house for these mainframes. On the other hand, after the invention of the IBM PC, there was a tremendous surge in the field of small personal computers, which mainly ran Microsoft operating systems, and for which there was a great variety of commercial off-the-shelf software available.

For the relatively numerous medium sized workstations, Unix was the perfect operating system. Among experts in the field, Unix, to this day, has been considered an operating system with a few, but ingenious concepts. The most ingenious characteristic is probably the building block system which allows you to build complex functionality from basic building blocks. Nevertheless, after a long open history, Unix eventually turned into a proprietary system, with different vendors having developed different versions of it [14]. Here the problem arised, that these versions were incompatible--which is understandable, when you keep in mind, that each and every vendor strives to sell a set of unique features that differ decisively from those of his competitors. [Weber-SuccessOpenSource]

It is commonplace that in big, coupled systems, network effects are tremendously important for market growth to take place. This is especially true for software, where a product is the more useful, the more computers you can run it on, and the more users apply it. To gain network effects, then, you need standards that unify different products to the extent that they are interoperable. Standards, however, come in two flavours: On the one hand, there are official standards which are defined by a more or less powerful standardisation institution. These standards are open because usually they are readily available and they can be followed by everyone. On the other hand, there are monopolies that define standards rather implicitly. Proprietary monopolies are not open in that they embody only a certain set of practices. These practices are not documented on a regular basis; they can change in unexpected ways and at any time, making it dangerous to rely on them at all.

Microsoft serves as a good example to demonstrate, how network effects are attained by monopolies. Even though the quality of Microsoft products has often been mediocre in comparison to those of competitors [15], Microsoft has managed to leverage the network effects that were set off with MS-DOS.

For the medium sized workstations, there was neither a monopoly, nor a common general standard, that could have unified the technical basis of the different vendors sufficiently. Actually, there even were attempts to create such a standard, but these never took off. As a result, eventually, the Unix market died off. As a result, in 1980s/1990s many experts in the field were worried that Microsoft would prevail by extending its monopoly to those middle sized servers.

Expansion step: Free Software today

Parallel to these developments, however, the germ form of Free Software had also grown enough to restore hope. During the 1990s, it became more and more common to use GNU software and the GNU/Linux operating system on medium sized servers. In fact, the Internet today is inconceivable without Free Software. One of the major success stories in this field is the Apache web server [16]:

Apache has been the most popular web server on the Internet since April 1996.

Apache home page

Side by side with the World-Wide Web, e-mail is the other most important Internet service which is firmly based on Free Software. In addition, all of the software running the basic network infrastructure is, for the most part, also Free Software [17].

So when we regard the ongoing expansion of the use of Free Software on the server side it seems justified to assume that Free Software has the potential to win the competition as far as the servers are concerned. Even though today we take notice of a large-scale endorsement to this view, the consequences of this development can be all but overestimated: A new mode of production embodied by Free Software is potentially able to overcome the traditional mode of production embodied by capitalism in one of the most important and advanced facilities of our time! In fact, this might be the only example of its kind since the shift from feudalism to capitalism.

Even though the server side may be considered won, the final frontier for Free Software is the desktop. As mentioned above, Microsoft has been able to leverage network effects and still holds a near-monopoly on desktop computers. However, our hopes are rising that step by step this monopoly will also be overcome by Free Software. The most interesting development during the past years is probably the Ubuntu software distribution bringing Free Software to an ever greater number of desktops. Microsoft, one of the richest companies on earth, will probably have to suffer the greatest losses if Free Software does continue to gain momentum. So it is interesting to see the reactions of this multi-national company. The history of Microsoft's reactions can be summarised well by a quote from a well known non-violent revolutionary:

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.

—Mahatma Gandhi [18]

For a long time, at least officially, Microsoft ignored Free Software. Internally, however, studies on that new phenomenon and what it could mean to Microsoft [Raymond-Halloween], were conducted. Then, for a short period, Microsoft publicly ridiculed Free Software. Finally, Microsoft began to fight Free Software. This has been going on in many fields. It started, for instance, by comparing Free Software with cancer [Microsoft-Cancer]. Then, a great number of times, Microsoft did whatever they could to keep the governments of developing nations from adopting a Free Software strategy [Microsoft-ThirdWorld]. Today, Microsoft is beginning to embrace companies earning money by selling services associated to Free Software [Microsoft-Novell].

Free Software has been declared dead and gone ever so often, during the past 25 years; nevertheless, as always, it is still alive and doing very well. According to our own analysis, the very reason for this is that a number of fundamental principles of Free Software--namely the possibility for Selbstentfaltung and the unlimitedness--can not be copied by the capitalist logic. Capitalism can not cope with unlimitedness because you need scarcity to sell a commodity. Copyright is a way to make information goods scarce and thus subject to commodification. Copyleft turns this around and destroys scarcity. On the other hand, Selbstentfaltung is the opposite of alienation. However, the money system of capitalism is built upon one of the most massive alienations mankind has ever seen, so far, and alienation destroys Selbstentfaltung, at least to some extent. If the reasons for the success of Free Software in fact do lie in Selbstentfaltung and the unlimitedness, then capitalism will not be able to cope with this unless it relinquishes its fundamental positions. In other words: Capitalism is not able to absorb the principles underlying the success of peer production.

Free Culture

Now you might reply: »OK, this special mode of production seems to work for software - but though this is interesting, software is still only a small part of the world«. That's true. However, the mode of production seen in Free Software is applicable to all information goods where creativity plays a role. Two important examples beyond Free Software are the Wikipedia and the OpenAccess movement.

You have probably heard of Wikipedia. It's that huge Internet based encyclopedia which has been created by volunteers during the past few years. Though the subject of Wikipedia is very different from the subject of any Free Software project there are still a lot of commonalities. Most important, both are information goods. Above, both, Wikipedia, as well as any successful Free Software project, have a visible and a worthwhile goal which can be shared by many. This, in turn, will attract many knowledgeable contributors, which makes the whole thing even more interesting for an even greater number of people, which in turn attracts even more contributions... As you can see, the positive feedback cycle is exactly the same in both cases.

At the moment, Wikipedia is facing serious governance problems. As opposed to Free Software, the biggest problem probably lies in the fact, that Wikipedia is dealing with information that influences very directly a great number of areas in the whole world. On the one hand, that's nice; it is an indication of Wikipedia's success. On the other hand, it attracts the attention of many groups who want to modify this information to suit their own interests. This poses serious problems to Wikipedia. Free Software projects have also had to deal with governance problems. Often they were able to solve them in one way or another. [19]

Even though you might have heard of Wikipedia, quite probably you are yet to be introduced to the OpenAccess movement [Suber-OpenAccess]. The OpenAccess movement is a movement grounded in the scientific community, more specifically in the natural sciences. Scientists from many fields began to demand that the results of their research should be free and publicly available. This contrasts sharply with the established practice of publishing research results exclusively in scientific magazines.

During the era of the print media, publications in scientific magazines were probably the most appropriate way to communicate; now however, in times of the Internet, print media seem inopportune and obsolete as means of transmitting information. This, plus the so-called magazine crisis--which arose due to the tremendous price increases of various scientific publishing houses--led to a number of initiatives currently creating publicly available scientific magazines directly in the Internet [Merten-Berlin4]. It is noteworthy, that this common practice of publishing openly has had a long history in the sciences. The technical possibilities made available by the Internet can help this practice and logic to expand. Nevertheless, also in this case, the scientists motivation and their interest in good research are at the root of this development. OpenAccess style science suits their Selbstentfaltung better than traditional approaches.

Apart from the examples mentioned above, there are plenty more phenomena of cultural peer production out there. The blogosphere, for instance, can be considered another peer production phenomenon. Or take Jamendo or similar sites, in the field of music, that distribute music under the CreativeCommons licenses. Especially in South America, there are interesting developments in music and in the cultural arts, in general. Finally, there are also peer production models with a commercial component like MySpace, Flickr and similar platforms. In summary, it can be stated that the Free Software initiative has been setting off a growing number of peer production projects in other fields. However, so far all of these projects have been restricted to the informational sector.

New front-lines

In fact, it is in the field of the production of information through which the main front-line between the old logic and the new logic runs, today. In the capitalist system, copyright and its restrictions have been in effect for a very long time. Indeed, copyright privileges and laws were actually established at the very point in history, when it became possible to make money with what today is called intellectual property [Wikipedia-CopyrightInvention]. Other laws and regulations concerning intellectual property, such as patents, have also been in place for very long. However, in the course of the last decades this area has been attracting increasing attention. In 1967, for instance, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) was founded, and has, since then, been trying to refine and implement restrictions on the flow of information, world-wide.

These new front-lines concerning intellectual property run through any of the pertinent fields. Let me draw upon the sciences again, to demonstrate this. On the one hand, those scientists involved in peer production join the OpenAccess movement. On the other hand we see how universities are urged to lock away their information and to run for patents. It is fascinating to watch the developments of these two opposing movements in respect to one and the same subject-matter. In our view this is an indication that the development of society as a whole is at stake.

Software is another good example. In software we have a copyright; it is the basis of all of the Free Software licenses. But while a copyright pertains to only a single, identifiable expression, patents, on the other hand, pertain to ideas. For some years now, in the USA, there are software patents which make ordinary software development a dangerous thing to do. This is so, because software patents are granted for the most simple and obvious ideas. This means that you or I could easily develop a piece of software which violates any one of the innumerable software patents existing, not even knowing about the trouble we have got ourselves into.

In practice software patents are mainly held by large companies with large software patent pools who also have non-aggression-agreements with other big players having their own patent pools. Needless to say, software patents restricting the use not only of software, but even of ideas, are completely contrary to the spirit of Free Software. Software patents pose a real danger for Free Software because developers of Free Software have no big patent portfolio to negotiate with. As a result, it is easy to endanger a Free Software project by claiming that it violates a software patent. And this is something that does happen [Hibernate-Patent].

In the USA, software patents are a fact. In the EU, to this day, they have been able to be prevented. In fact, this was one of the rare occasions upon which the Free Software movement materialised and fought for its rights with classical means, such as demonstrations. Together with a number of small and medium sized software businesses, the Free Software movement was able to keep the EU parliament from passing a law that would have introduced software patents in the EU [Register-EUNoSoftwarePatents].

There are many more examples showing that the front-line of intellectual property is very important. The attempts to privatise life itself by claiming patents on genes and organisms is one such instance. Another instance is the continually rising number of attempts to enforce patents on medical drugs. The problem is that many medicines can be produced at a very low cost. Common sense says that this is good news, because the people in need of them can thus afford them. Because, however, the pharmaceutical industry can not earn a lot of money by selling cheap medicine, they are not interested in putting these drugs on the market. As a result, the medical drugs are not produced and not sold at all; also because the developing countries particularly interested in them are not allowed to produce generics due to the patents on them. As a consequence, ever so many people in the developing countries suffer and die from illnesses which could be treated rather easily [MSF-Generics]. So if you have been looking for a further proof and demonstration of the inhumanity of the intellectual property system, here you probably have found a very convincing example.

Today: the expansion step has been reached

In the field of software, it is safe to assume that according to germ form theory the expansion step has been reached. Today, Free Software is an important aspect of development within the prevailing old form. For other fields this can not be assumed with the same certainty; but, as mentioned, we have found a number of promising examples which point in the right direction.

Let us keep in mind, that at this stage, approximately in the middle of a long revolutionary era, according to germ form theory, we are witnessing the onset of a new mode of production with a new logic replacing the old one, step by step. Presumably, a major change in the mode of production equals with a change of paradigms--with an extremely deep impact on the further course of human history. Therefore, at this point in the middle of the process, nobody can be expected to predict its consequences or the final result. In addition, on the expansion step, the old and the new logic are both strong; thus, contradictions are not an exception or an accident, but a logical necessity.

When looking at Free Software, for instance, people are often puzzled by the fact that Free Software developers still need a job and money to make a living. Well yes, of course, that's true. But that's not a problem. Free Software developers, to some degree, already live in both of these worlds. At present, the process of overcoming the old structures has not yet proceeded far enough in order for us to be able to rely on the new forms completely. But this type of contradiction does not imply that it is essentially impossible for a new logic to overcome an old one--all it needs is time and effort.

We would like to emphasise again that what we see today is not the final stage. Remember: we are in the third of five steps. When capitalism started its expansion step, nobody was able to envision a concrete capitalist world 300 years later. Nonetheless, today we are part of it, and nowadays we are having a hard time imagining a world based on new and unknown fundaments such as peer production. This is especially true for the field of material production. Today it is hard to see how material production can be organised according to the logic of information goods. Today, indeed, we see a big difference between digitised information goods which are more or less non-rival by virtue of the Internet, and material products, where a single instance of a material product can be considered rival [20].

Looking back in history gives us a hint. The production of food in feudal times was also organised according to a completely non-capitalist logic. Then we saw that the production of food, step by step, became subject to capitalism and nowadays has reached a stage, where food production is simply an annex to industrial and capitalist production. Thus, it is perfectly possible that in a dominance or restructuring step, the problem of how to embed material production into the peer production mode will be solved by means inconceivable to us as yet.

The historic potential of peer production

Development of the productive forces

Humans produce the conditions under which they live by developing the necessary means and performing the metabolism with nature. The changes in this relationship between the human being, the means it uses, and the outside nature (humans themselves are nature) is commonly called historical development of productive forces. This historical development was accompanied and reflected by the development of corresponding social forms, of different forms of societal mediation over time. The relationship between the productive forces and the societal form is a dialectical one. The driving factor is the development of productive forces, however.

So far this may be common knowledge. Now, we have to go into more detail to bring this in the context of the five-step model presented before, and it fits very well. Let's see.

The relationship between the three aspects--human being, means, nature--changes over time not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively. We can understand history (or »pre-history« following Marx) as a succession of epochs, where in each of these epochs one of the three aspects of the development of productive forces is dominant.

The first epoch can be described as the natural epoch, because the focus of producing the living conditions are directly oriented towards the use of outside nature. All ancient societies were agricultural societies. Of course, means are used to ameliorate the land and to dig for treasures of the soil, however, the means were not in the focus of development. The main energy to work on the soil comes from humans (as slaves, serfs, or other types of personal domination) and animals. Crafts were the most developed form of creating means.

This changes dramatically with the introduction of an industrial form of production. Industry overcomes the limitations of crafts, of natural energy sources, and--with the changing societal forms--the societal restrictions like guilds and booths. The free human is the ideal of this epoch--free to sell its labour power in alienated circumstances as we had pointed out in a previous chapter. The big industry represents the means epoch: »The tool or working machine is that part of the machinery with which the industrial revolution of the 18th century started.« [Marx-WorkingMachine]

While social relations during the natural epoch were always dominated by personal sway over subordinated people, the societal mediation during the means epoch got an abstract form. Mainly two opposite classes are bound together via the commodity-money cycle. Each of them are filling different roles, but both subordinated under those alienated goals of making profit on the one hand or selling labour power on the other hand.

Now, we are prepared to understand the deeper sense of the historical sketch given by Karl Marx in the »Grundrisse«:

»Relations of personal dependence (entirely spontaneous at the outset) are the first social forms, in which human productive capacity develops only to a slight extent and at isolated points. Personal independence founded on objective [sachlicher] dependence is the second big form, in which a system of general social metabolism, of universal relations, of all-round needs and universal capacities is formed for the first time. Free individuality, based on the universal development of individuals and on their subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth, is the third stage.« [Marx-ThreeStages]

Here, Marx describes three epochs, two of them we mentioned above. There is one missing: The epoch of the »universal development of individuals«, of the human development as an end in itself--the human epoch. We claim that we live in a transition period, where we can observe germ forms of this upcoming human epoch every day.

Technical developments facilitate peer production

Capitalism improved working with matter and the means employed are material means. Contemporary industry is perfect in producing material things. However, the material period has reached it's intrinsic limitations. What is needed today is the improvement of working with information and creativity. This is not only required for assembly line products, but especially for new modern products. The industry is good at producing well known material products in huge series, where the production logics are algorithmically fixed. However, the creation of something new can not be implemented in fixed algorithms. Creativity and flexible handling of unknown challenges can only come from living human beings.

Moreover, most contemporary products--even material ones--are based on a complex set of information. The information aspect of the products and of the production process becomes dominant during the last several decades. Using flexible production environments from robots to rapid prototyping tools changes can be made very fast. Thus, the production and working with information becomes more and more important. At the same time the digital copy occurred as something historical new. Using computers it allows for lossless reproduction at nearly zero marginal costs. The Internet is nothing but a monster application of digital copy, it is the global backbone of the production and circulation of information.

Material goods, however, differ significantly from information goods. Information can be easily copied while material goods have to be produced piece by piece. The use of material goods is rival while use of information is non-rival. Material goods are used up while information is spread when shared. But most important: The production of information needs human creativity to an extend the old mode of production can not support.

These technical developments are preconditions for peer production. However, peer production is not simply a technical means, it also changes the social relationships of production. Means of production are always technical and social.

Selbstentfaltung--universal development of individuals

Here, something Marx' called the »universal development of individuals« comes into play--or with a special German word »Selbstentfaltung« [21]. The concept of Selbstentfaltung is similar to self-realization, however, it overcomes its limitations. Bourgeois society needs the free individual only in a restricted sense: The individual should be free to sell its labour power or to command alien labour power. However, the restriction comes from the enclosure of the valorisation logic, in which workers and capitalists took opposite functions, but which forms a unique shell for both. Neither of them can escape, both of them have to function according to their »character masks«.

Marx recognised, that the societal relationships are constituted by objective relationships based on the exchange of commodities. This »fetishism« (Marx) is the alienated environment, wherein the individual can self-realize. However, the logics of the commodity framework, of selling and buying, can not be overcome within this environment. The basic logic is exclusion. Within the exclusion structure it is only possible to »self-realize« on the expense of others. The »free« individual is at the same time an isolated one, isolated from others and from whole society. To pull oneself at one owns hairs out of the swamp seems impossible.

The solution to this dilemma is the individual itself, and Selbstentfaltung is the mode. In contrast to self-realization the condition of Selbstentfaltung is not to exclude, but to include others. Selbstentfaltung creates a room of mutual support and enhancement. Having fun and being responsible joins, because responsibility is not a moral add-on, but it is the built-in pre-condition for success. Well known »flow experiences« can be described as a result of Selbstentfaltung. Wikipedia describes this experience very well: »Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterised by a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.« [Wikipedia-FlowExperience]

Selbstentfaltung is not a rare personal property of few people, it is a genuine mode of individual development of all humans. However, it needs a special social environment enhancing the inclusion logic. This environment must minimise alienation and indirection. Capitalism being based on a few abstract principles contradicts this requirement. The fetishism in bourgeois society produces alienated relationships. The use value of a commodity is a subordinated means to realize exchange value on markets. Thus, making more money from money is the alienated and indirect form of producing goods the people need.

Selbstentfaltung on the contrary requires direct relations to the products, to other producers, and to users. The product itself is the primary goal, not generating profit via selling the product as a commodity on markets. The cooperation with other peer producers is essential to get the tasks done, because the peer network is the social environment wherein the individual acts. And the direct relation to users is the way getting feedback and reputation. The better the product, the better the cooperation. And the better the user relations, the more people join the process and the higher the possibility to accomplish the goals of the project. The logic of successively including more people, knowledge, and experiences is a compelling power overcoming the exclusive principles of capitalist society. The core of this inclusion logic is Selbstentfaltung, which can now be defined in a short way: The Selbstentfaltung of the individual is the precondition of the Selbstentfaltung of others--and vice versa.

Due to Selbstentfaltung being primarily oriented in the use of the product, the quality is superior. This follows from the fact, that design and realization of the product is not limited by marketing considerations. While exchange value orientations results in relative quality, the quality orientation in free production modes based on Selbstentfaltung is absolute. Richard Sennet [Sennet-Craftsman] compared these modes with crafts, with »doing something well for its own sake«. In Free Software and free cultural works like Wikipedia he sees this »enduring, basic human impulse« re-emerging, which all people have and can bring out. Internal openness allows for contributions from all sources. People are invited to contribute, user innovation is employed [Hippel-DemocratizingInnovation]. Superior availability is a direct result of external openness. Often, the improvement rate is very high.

Universal development is an end in itself. Selbstentfaltung brings out the best qualities of humans, and at the same time, it is the best mode of living for humans. Individual being and social embedding, the one and the many are no longer opposites. However, Selbstentfaltung contradicts many capitalist principles. Capitalism does not allow for unlimited inclusion, because it is based on exclusion. Capitalism only uses cooperation, in order to reach better competitiveness to better prevail on the expense of others. Efficiency is not oriented in a good living for all, but simply in maximising profit as an end in itself. Thus development and production is oriented in goals raising from a »cybernetic« valorisation cycle, what Marx called »objective [sachlicher] dependence« (cited above), or with another word: alienation.

Using an systemic perspective during the industrial period, alienation is not really a problem, because industrial working with matter can be commanded. And alienation was personally acceptable, because the »objective dependence« was highly outweighed with good wages. But high-tech capitalism is based on working with information. Creativity and individual free development are needed--but they can not be commanded. At the same time huge industrial structures are separated into smaller parts, each of them directly subordinated under the market claims. Class relations which once have been clearly visible dissolve, each single group and each individual has to be an entrepreneur, capitalist and worker at the same time. Alienation is carried to the extremes: Self-valorisation and Selbstentfaltung become antagonist requirements.

The transition to the human epoch

The well known tendencies in contemporary capitalism, generally known as as neo-liberalism, support the potential to overcome capitalism--for the first time in history. This sometimes sounds weird to the traditional left, and it seems, that not much of them are able to see the germ forms of the new. The potential has to be analysed carefully, because there are many traps. One trap is to interpret all the different new phenomenons completely in the framework of neo-liberalism. Then this sometimes gets the form of a »conspiracy«--behind every development seems to be a plan to suppress and subordinate the working class. This view neglects the inner dynamics and dialectics of the ongoing process including the germ forms which contain the potential for something beyond capitalism.

Another trap is to overestimate the new potential at the current step of its unfolding. There is an expectation, that the germ form is already a developed final form representing all the properties we want to have. This view is often accompanied with the assumption or expectation of having »good people« with high level of consciousness within peer production projects like Free Software. However, this is neither true nor are »good people« necessary. It is the strength of peer production, that there are no preconditions before joining a common effort of a peer production project. Normal people can participate.

The third trap is to expect, that the new is free of contradictions. The new has to occur in a pure and innocent form. However, using the five-step model, we can understand, that a qualitatively new form never emerges completely isolated from the old without any useful function for it. In the contrary, the new must have a useful function for the old, because otherwise it can not grow. At the same time it has to contain the potential for a entirely new mode of production--and this is the case with peer production.

Looking on current commons-based peer projects as Free Software, it can be learned, that peer production is not only a question of technical means, but it also changes the social means of production. The maintainer model mentioned above for instance can be viewed as a common governance model beyond democracy--commonly named meritocracy. It bases on reputation and responsibility.

Maintainer and project members are inclusively bound together. While the maintainer is interested in many and good skilled project members, those, on the other hand, are interested in having a good and communicative maintainer integrating all different individuals in the project and organising consensual decisions. A consensus is reached if nobody must object. If a maintainer tend to ignore needs of project members, then they can leave or »fork« the project. A »fork« is a split of a projects by taking all of the given results into a new project, because they are free. However, a fork is always a risk, because it also means the separation of human resources weakening the possibility to reach the intended goal. Thus, all opponents in a conflict have to clearly think about the chances and risks of a fork, and the chances and risks of a consensus, which drives the dynamics of conflict regulation.

This differs significantly from »democratic conflict regulation« by voting and representation. All goals and needs come from the people within the project, and they are focussed around the goal or product to be produced. Alienated influences are absent. Well, this is the ideal situation of a doubly free project. While in a singly free project only the product is free--mostly covered by a free license. Additionally, in a doubly free project the production itself is free. This is the case, when money and alienated goals are completely kept out of the project and all tasks are freely done.

This new type of post-democratic regulation gives us an impression on how to organise a whole society according to the needs of the people. Not only peer production projects with specific productive goals can be done this way, but also infrastructural tasks or meta-projects can be organised this way. [22] This, however, is a quite different transition image than old style types of conqueroring the power to control the (old) means of production. The new conception of a transition bases on changing the productive basis by establishing new social relationship, which are originally free of valorisation and alienation. It is not about taking the old power, but building a new one, which then cooperates-out the old one. This is the fundamental change of the perspective of emancipation the five-step model brought to us.

The human epoch, a society based on the »universal development of individuals« Marx dreamt about, becomes a real opportunity.


[1]When we refer to Karl Marx then we refer more to the philosopher and political economist than to the political activist. In particular we are referring to his analysis of capitalism.

In fact it seems like religion gains importance during the last few decades. However, we think this type of religion can not be compared to the feudal type of religion mainly because the new types of religion usually have no common church which is the centre of power as we know it for instance from the Christian church during the Dark Ages.

But even if the modern fundamentalisms of all sorts are considered a return of religion this is more an indication of the decline of Enlightenment than anything else. However, this type of fundamentalisms won't be able to create new societies which can be wished for by the children of the Enlightenment.

[3]It should be noted that this chapter is in some respects work in progress. A thorough analysis of early capitalism with germ form theory in mind is lacking very much and probably needs a major historical research program.
[4]A set of criteria to distinguish peer production processes from other phenomena is work in progress. There probably is some vague consensus in the research community around Oekonux but it is not yet settled. See [GermForm-Criteria] or [Siefkes-Peerconomy] for some suggestions.
[5]In fact there are peer production projects which have one or another commercial appendix which is not oriented in use value but in making profit. What this means and how it needs to be considered is in fact a difficult question which probably can not be answered on a general basis. Several examples from Free Software show, however, that it is fundamental that the core project keeps its use value orientation and the commercial interests are grouped only around the core process. Indeed peer production projects with a commercial part are a contemporary contradiction typical for the expansion step of a germ form.
[6]We are using a German term here because there is really no good English term for this concept. Even in German what we mean by Selbstentfaltung differs from a more general understanding of the word.

Actually there are two common terms for the phenomenon described here: Free Software and Open Source. Free Software is the older term while the term Open Source has been coined explicitly as a marketing term striving to strip the political context from the term Free Software.

On a practical basis the terms are interchangeable in nearly all aspects. This text will prefer Free Software over Open Source.


Computer programs exist in two flavours: On the one hand there is the executable code which can be executed by the machine. This type of code is on a very low expression level very close to the features of the machine. It is hard to understand for humans.

On the other hand there is the source code from which the executable code is generated. The source code is what humans use to express what they want the machine to do. It is much easier to understand than executable code and it is far easier to read and write. While from executable code it is next to impossible to understand the know how contained in a program a good piece of source code is exactly made to help this understanding.

[9]But see Eric v. Hippel's work on the importance of user innovation [Hippel-Democratizing] also in general production of material goods.
[10]On what terms you may redistribute Free Software in fact is governed by the license which allows you to do so. The most used license GPL contains the so-called Copyleft principle which not only obliges you to redistribute the executable form of the software together with the source code, but determines, that modified (derived) versions of the software also have to be covered by GPL when distributed.
[11]I for instance learned about the programming language Perl back in the late 1980s when its inventor Larry Wall published Perl 4 through the Usenet.
[12]Indeed quality in proprietary projects is less important the more a vendor has a monopoly. If you have a monopoly--such as Microsoft nearly has on the desktop market--quality doesn't matter at all. In fact it was the success of the Free Software Firefox who forced Microsoft do write a new Web browser replacing a years old product.
[13]The term bug is a technical term used for an error of some sort in a piece of software.
[14]The operating system Unix itself has an interesting history which can not be pointed out here. Its life started as a very open, university based project and then branched into several proprietary variants which co-existed with still open variants. The acronym GNU standing for "GNU is Not Unix" reminds of this history. However, only GNU/Linux were able to pick up the openness of the early Unices and become a big success at the same time.
[15]An easy reference for this is the comparison of Windows 3.1 and the Apple operating systems of that time. When Microsoft finally released Windows 3.1 it was really inferior to the operating systems which ran on Apple MacIntosh computers at the same time. However, the Apple operating systems were also proprietary at this time and not available for the hardware Microsoft products were made for and so were no real alternative.
[16]A web server is the piece of software which serves the pages of the World Wide Web so you can watch and use them with your Web browser.
[17]In fact some network routers which do not look like computers are running Free Software network stacks.
[18]Quoted after
[19]In fact peer governance is a major topic for which so far there is relatively little research. One of the central insights (not only) of the Oekonux project is that peer governance often involves an explicit maintainership including an explicit maintainer role.
[20]Something is called rival if my use of it prevents your use of it. Things which are used up by using them, such as food, are a good example of rival things. On the other hand my use of non-rival things doesn't interfere with your use of these things. Radio waves are a typical example of a non-rival thing.
[21]The concept of Selbstentfaltung has been used in the Oekonux discussion a lot and also in earlier works for instance in Holzkamp's work (as »generalised action potential«). Since there is no appropriate word in English and also because the concept of Selbstentfaltung used here is somewhat new even in German we decided to use the term in English as well.
[22]In an extensive and hotly debated study [Siefkes-Peerconomy] Christian Siefkes had shown, that peer production can be generalised into the physical world and the whole society can be organised according to the principles of peer-governance on a global level.


[Hegel-Logic]Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Science of Logic, cf.
[Holzkamp-Grundlegung]Klaus Holzkamp, Grundlegung der Psychologie, Frankfurt/Main: Campus, 1983
[Kurz-War]Robert Kurz, Schwarzbuch des Kapitalismus, Eichborn, Frankfurt/Main, 1999
[Marx-CMCvsMCM]Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Part. II: The Transformation of Money and Capital, 1867, online:
[Merten-Licenses]Discusses Free Software licenses from an Oekonux perspective (slides) URL:
[Siefkes-Peerconomy](1, 2) Christian Siefkes, From Exchange to Contributions. Generalizing Peer Production into the Physical World, Ed. C. Siefkes, 2007
[Weber-SuccessOpenSource]Steven Weber; The Success of Open Source; Harvard University Press; 2004; ISBN 0-674-01292-5
[Stallman-Printer]Sam Williams, Free as in Freedom. Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software, O'Reilly, 2002
[GNU-Manifesto]The GNU Manifesto,
[Hippel-Democratizing]Eric von Hippel, Democratizing Innovation; MIT press; 2005; ISBN 0-262-00274-4
[Hippel-DemocratizingInnovation]Eric von Hippel, Democratizing Innovation, MIT Press, 2006
[Marx-WorkingMachine]Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 15, Sec. 1, 1867, online: (2008-03-18)
[Marx-ThreeStages]Karl Marx, The Grundrisse. Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy, Ch. 3, p. 158, 1857, online: (2008-03-18)
[Sennet-Craftsman]Richard Sennet, The Craftsman, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2008
[Wikipedia-FlowExperience] (2008-03-18)

Oekonux/Texts/GermFormTheory (last edited 2009-06-02 17:04:48 by StefanMerten)

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