Projects in crisis — for example »Factor E Farm«

Open Source Ecology[Es gibt eine deutsche Version dieses Textes]

Shit happens. Again and again. We make faults, we create our own crisis in our projects. Frustrations and chances of learning are close together. The question is not how to avoid crisis, because we can’t look into the future. The more important question is, how to deal with crisis once they are there. Either commons-based peer projects distinguish from proprietary projects especially at this point or there is no other quality.

This is so crucial, because commons-based peer projects live from the contributions of the participating people to be integrated into the project — instead of out-competing an enormous part of the people as Martin has well shown (german). But the »end of selection and normalization« does not only occur, because we wish it so much, but only because peer projekts are structurally designed in a way, that integration and conflict resolution is possible.

The project »Factor E Farm« (FeF, also »Open Source Ecology«, OSE) has crashed now. Publicly, which is good.

The FeF-project has become a somewhat show-case with regard to transfering cultural peer production approaches to the physical world. The idea of FeF is to develop all necessary means of production for a sustainable »economy« in a rural area as »open source«. And by a factor 10 »cheaper« as commercial suppliers of machines can offer. In the end the product should be »profitable« and should »sell« on the market, in order to finance the project.

The superficial and finally futile cause for the current project crash, which lead to a kick-out of two members (of four) from the farm, was a hose which slipped off from a water pump.The two guys thrown out where accused of sabotage, which turned out to be a mistake. However, like in other cases it is not about the given question, which is a ridiculous one, but about accumulated crash energies, which unleash at an arbitrary point.

But what is behind can be read into the discussions: How can a »visionary project« achieve its goals, how can and should it be »led«? The reputation-based »benevolent dictatorship« has shown its funtionality in peer projects in the non-physical realm. But there too, not everything is gold which is glittering and partly there are serious »issues« (like gender), however, in many senses it works quite well.

At FeF there are grave disputes exactly at the point of »leadership«. Does the project need a »benevolent dictator« like in other peer projects, in order to keep the »vision« as much as »consistent« to implement it in a most »effective« way? Or are there much more grass root oriented structures needed like being used in other alternative projects? Is Marcin, the »leader« of FeF, a visionary person or an absolutely loony psychopath?

Let us look at the structure, at the material base of FeF. The farm is owned by Marcin, he has bought the farm. His concept is to produce cheaper than others by using »open source«, in order to out-compete proprietary producers on the market. The income should finance the project, advance »liberation«, and save the »world«. Actually donations should feed the project at first, but they are not coming. The economic pressure must be massive.

Criticism of the commercial orientation, of the reproduction of the logic of valualization by the project has always been rejected by Marcin as being irrelevant. Even in the current discussion this argument does not play any role. But one can imagine how much this aspect penetrates the project, if one reads the contributions carefully. Especially this becomes obvious by the comments of Jeremy (one of the kicked outs). He is talking about »timelines«, which have not been met, »business plans«, which not have been finished, products, which not habe been brought to market — and everything completely focused to the »leader«.

Inga, a defender of Marcin, writes: »it’s not about working hard, it’s about working hard in total alignment with Marcin’s vision.« Jeremy answers. »I did try working hard, but I also tried to understand and follow everything that Marcin wanted. How could I have followed it better?« — Whow, this does not sound like self-development, but rather like a sect behavior. Sorry to say that.


The FeF project has some exciting aspects, and partly it was welcome being very promising. Exciting aspects are, for instance, the concepts of modular production (a technological »LEGO-system«), the techno-critical perspective and belief, that means of production have to be constructed differently, when used in free projects. Less exciting and worth to be criticized are the social structures and the fatal ignorance of the logic of valualization affecting the internal social processes. A stupid hose being slipped of a pump has never got such a meaning, if not all participants have been exerted under such enormous pressure (and yet they are). Instead, problems will be personalized: X did not meet the timelines and Y did make it to bring a product to market. And all participants together, they did not get the »vision« of the »leader« — a »leader« the members depend on, since the land belongs to him. Since always persons »fail«, it is no miracle, if FeF fellow campaigners jumped off over and over again, so that finally the »leader« remains almost alone (after three years).

The problems occuring at FeF can not be solved simply by »good will«. Starting such project of an »open source production« in the realm of physical goods is an enormous risk. If one want to take that risk, some central points have to be clarified and bindingly agreed upon. I state three points.

It doesn’t work without commodity critique and awareness of the fatal logics of the valualization machine penetrating our acting and thinking. Especially not in the realm of production of physical goods. Here, there is indeed a fundamental difference to nearly effortless copyable cultural goods. Each new piece needs effort or money (or both), and with every new piece the logics of market calculation are imported into the project. If there is no consciousness about this fact, and if there is no agreement on clear rules about how to use (or not to use) the interface of the surrounding world of valualization, then the project only can fail, because it complies blindly the external coercion.

It doesn’t work without conscious organisation of processes of consensus and dissent. At this point the project and its »leader« could learn from the a broad variety of experiences of the global movements against neo-liberalism. The goal must be to create a frame of unfolding for each single human, who are contributiing to the goals of the project.

Without learning from the experiences of free software and other peer projects important insights get lost. For instance, the maintainer model of free software contains a moment of »leadership«, but there is also the aspect of fork (dividing the project), which is a central regulating factor within the project dynamics. There is no such thing at FeF. Although project dropouts are easily shout after to create their own FeF, but without soil and means of production this is not so easy (like in free software). Furthermore, it would make sense not only to publish the design of productive means, but — following free software — also to create and improve them collectively. However, this would require the setup of a public repository.

Best wishes to the project, that they make necessary the steps of  learning. We will see.

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