Germ form theory: Peer production in a historical perspective

by Stefan Merten and Stefan Meretz

This text is licenced under the terms of the CreativeCommons BY-SA license [CreativeCommons-BySa]. It is an abridged version of a longer text which contains more examples and background [MertenMeretz-Unabridged].

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. In fact, it determines the principles of its own observation. 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 unabridged version, we 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 [2]. 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.

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. [3]

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

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. 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 [4]. 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. 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 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. 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.

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. 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?

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.

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 [5]. 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 [6] 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.

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.


[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.
[2]The unabridged version of this text contains another example: Capitalism as a germ form process.
[3]In the unabridged version there is a final chapter, where we will evaluate the historical relevance of peer production on a more general level.
[4]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.
[5]The unabridged version tells a brief history of Free Software and explains it as a germ form development process inside the field of software.
[6]The unabridged version uses germ form theory to explain the development of capitalism. Contradictions of this type are also considered there.


[GNU-Manifesto]The GNU Manifesto,
[Hegel-Logic]Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Science of Logic, cf.
[Hippel-Democratizing]Eric von Hippel, Democratizing Innovation; MIT press; 2005; ISBN 0-262-00274-4
[Holzkamp-Grundlegung]Klaus Holzkamp, Grundlegung der Psychologie, Frankfurt/Main: Campus, 1983
[Merten-Licenses]Discusses Free Software licenses from an Oekonux perspective (slides) URL:
[Siefkes-Peerconomy]Christian Siefkes, From Exchange to Contributions. Generalizing Peer Production into the Physical World, Ed. C. Siefkes, 2007
[Stallman-Printer]Sam Williams, Free as in Freedom. Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software, O'Reilly, 2002
[Weber-SuccessOpenSource]Steven Weber; The Success of Open Source; Harvard University Press; 2004; ISBN 0-674-01292-5

StefanMerten/Papers/CapitalAndClass/MagazineVersion (last edited 2009-06-02 17:06:19 by StefanMerten)

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