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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.

Kategorien: English, Praxis-Reflexionen

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13. August 2009, 21:13 Uhr   18 Kommentare

1 Martin (13.08.2009, 22:40 Uhr)

From reading  the discussion, I get the impression that one of the problems of FeF is the will to self-reliance. This has historically always led to small, hierarchical communities, as the history of American settlement shows. Since then, the volition to be independent of the larger community has been a strong tradition in the US, but the price seems to be authoritarian structures in the small group (because it has to be so close-knit, to work so hard).

I always had the impression that Marcin stands in the tradition of American right-wing anarchism which reviles every form of centralism or dependency on society at large. This also explains the strong hierarchies purporting to be „meritocratic“: Marcin sees himself as a natural leader, he has the vision, etc. To me, this recalls Ayn Rand, who preached the doctrine that individualism is the highest virtue and that some people have superior capabilities, while others are „objectively“ not that gifted (expressed in her famous programmatic novel, The Fountainhead about a rightly egotistic genius architect modelled after Frank Lloyd Wright).

Though right-wing anarchism and its dreams of autarchy and hate of society have had their merits in the political climate of 20th century, they are not able to solve the problems of the future, which can only be solved in cooperation of larger groups, in some cases (like climate change) of mankind as a whole. And progressive Americans like Marcin will have to learn that society is not a priori bad, rather it has to be reorganized in a way that makes it compatible with individual freedom.

Historically, the creation of big societies with lots of differentiation and specialization has been one of the great achievements of capitalism, because they offer possibilities to find the space for yourself which is exactly right, encourage differentiation, etc. I think we should not fall back behind that. Reading the stories of what happened at FeF, I think that small close-knit communities are not the answer.

2 Michel Bauwens (14.08.2009, 12:01 Uhr)

Some remarks:
1) though I personally prefer ‚democratic modalities‘, it could still be legitimate, if the a priori social contract is clear, that some projects have a leader, think of kitchen chefs, or movie directors, we can accept that someone has a personal vision; however it is difficult to ask for both free work, and obedience; and it does seem as if the leadership style demands  a lot from the volunteers, and exhausts many of them to the point of exhaustion and burn-out
2) but, this is crucial, this individual choice of a locale, has to be distinguished from the global open design community, what you call public depository, as a whole, and this project, though it theoretically allows it, does not communicate it in such a way, indeed, everything is personalized around the particular locale and the demand to follow one’s individual vision
3) I don’t think that Marcin can be accused of not thinking through valuation, on the contrary, he has speficic ideas about the reproduction of a free production community within the existing economic system; which works along the lines of the free software community, i.e. only charging for work and materials, not for intellectual properties
IF you have in mind that there are alternatives to this adaptation, do tell us what they are?

3 StefanMz (15.08.2009, 18:19 Uhr)


I don’t think that Marcin can be accused of not thinking through valuation, on the contrary, he has speficic ideas about the reproduction of a free production community within the existing economic system;

Yes, within the existing economic system, but without any idea of damages this could bring to the project. To say „let’s finance our project via selling kicking out our competitors with our cool and cheap products“ is a „naive“ standpoint or worse.

which works along the lines of the free software community, i.e. only charging for work and materials, not for intellectual properties

Free software does not charge anyone for work and materials, because you can download the software for free (as in free beer). Of course, you need a computer and internet access, which you have to pay, but you don’t pay for free software. Thus this is a false comparison.

IF you have in mind that there are alternatives to this adaptation, do tell us what they are?

Recruit may people sharing your vision, create a good concept collectively, analyze all the market-driven traps and dangers aof alienation, find a way to use network-effects, decide of a way to finance the project, weight advantages and disadvantages, answer the question how to decouple the internal social process from the outside alien market logics etc. etc.

This has to be done first, and if you don’t do this or even worse, reject these thoughts of being irrelevant, then you run into the trap. This is sad.

Did you expect, that I found the philosopher’s stone of making money? No, I didn’t. My point is to be aware of the alien valuation logics importet by naively financing a project by market-usage.

Maybe we need a kind of free project consultants being aware of these dangers…

4 P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » Crisis at the Factor E Farm (2): Stefan Meretz (17.08.2009, 12:09 Uhr)

[…] following is the point of view of Stefan Meretz about the recent crisis at the Factor E […]

5 Christian Siefkes (28.08.2009, 17:35 Uhr)

Marcin has declared the crisis to be resolved:

This is a chance to gain clarity:

  1. Factor e Farm is a research project with a community of researchers
  2. I’m the director of that project
  3. People who want to help solve these problems with us can come and help, but I’m not interested in governance by committee

Let me keep it simple: I started this, I intend to finish it, you can help.

That’s a sad development. Clearly Marcin isn’t interested in peer production, but in blind obedience. Though why people should volunteer to work for him (not: with him) under such conditions is anybody’s guess…

I doubt that much will come out of that project until they turn their leadership style 180% around.

6 Michel Bauwens (01.09.2009, 17:55 Uhr)

when you write:

Free software does not charge anyone for work and materials, because you can download the software for free (as in free beer). Of course, you need a computer and internet access, which you have to pay, but you don’t pay for free software. Thus this is a false comparison.

then that is somewhat misleading. In fact, quite a bit of FO/SS is sold anyway, through red hat etc.. but I concede your point. But more importantly, for FS development to be sustainable, developers have to sell their work, and as I understand, so do you, thereby introducing the ‚alien logic‘. But OSE is not making downloadable software, but hardware, and the materials costs, thereby necessating cost recovery. Unless you find a working alternative exchange system, or a commons system of material exchange for that matter, you will need to deal with cost recovery. Marcin’s project, whatever its governance issues, is squarely within the open hardware tradition, i.e. not charging for IP and designs, only for labour and material. That is right now the only alternative, as you well know. He/they intent to use that income to continue to produce open hardware, i.e. they use the existing system, that alien logic, to sustain their own logic, just as the free software movement does, which is embedded in the same system, and gets the same type of income to sustain itself.


7 StefanMz (14.09.2009, 15:01 Uhr)

@Michel: FO/SS is not sold. RedHat does sell a lot of things, but not software! They use free software, to make their business, but again: the software is not sold. Developers do not sell their work, because nobody buys their work (=software). They obtain an income by companies being interested to be part of the free software development. This is a different thing.

But the point is FeF/OSE. You can’t compare free software movement with OSE. On general level you can say, that they are »embedded in the same system«, but this is valid for all people in the world. The difference is: Free software is not a commodity, OSE-products aim to be. FS is not sold, OSE products should.

You tend to blur these differences in order to legitimate problematic practices by OSE and others. Feeling a general solidarity for these alternative attempts should not lead us to a simplistic affirmative standpoint.

8 Michel Bauwens (18.09.2009, 13:25 Uhr)

Dear Stefan,

As Richard Stallman and others insist, FO/SS can be sold, and sometimes is, but this is not done generally because it is a non-rival good that can be downloaded on the internet for free. But open hardware is not free, because material goods require cost-recovery and are rival goods. Hence, OSE must sell them, but at a very moderate price without monopoly rent. The latter is so because free designs means others can make it at cost if they want. This is not a sinister plan to destroy the competion. The FOSS equivalent of this is developers getting a wage or selling their labor time, because that is a rival good and they need to feed their families.

This means that Marcin’s project is equivalent in this crucial sense, they both give their design for free, and get money for cost-recovery.

So the issue should focus on the legimaticy of a hierarchical order within a peer project, not on the fact that Marcin has to operate on the marketplace to survive, just as FOSS developers do, except for those who are rentiers.


9 StefanMz (18.09.2009, 15:44 Uhr)

@Michel: RMS and especially the GPL insist, that you can take a fee for preparing free software for distribution. This does not imply »selling« of the software itself. Since we know, that free software is not a commodity, it is clear, that the software itself is not sold.

Anyway: material goods require cost-recovery. This is a different case. You can not compare it with free software.

However, from the necessity of cost-recovery does not compulsorily follow, that OSE must sell their product. It is a decision to do the cost-recovery that way! There are other ways as many projects show.

I only want to emphasize, that a) it is a special case for rival goods, b) we should be aware, that selling imports alien market logics and overlays internal commons relationship.

If you trivilize this danger the way you do (»it’s all the same cost-recovery«), then we are not able to be sensible enough, to go against the alien forces imposed from the market logics by binding the project success to conquering market share. The result occurs in those crashes we have here with OSE.

10 Michel Bauwens (20.09.2009, 12:50 Uhr)

Hi Stefan, I think your objection to the word selling is ideological, so I won’t press the issue, the fact is that some people charge for delivering you free software, for packaging, distributing, or developing. So let that pass.
You are right that cost-recovery does not automatically imply selling, but in this conjucture, in which we still mostly need capitalist money to survive and eat, how much of these alternatives are there? You really must enlighten us on this one, especially as I recall your opposition to any improvements and transformations of transactional methods.
OK, one example would be some kind of barter-type exchange through resource-based economics. It has some traction in B2B, but concretely, what do you propose for OSE among the available alternatives that you know?
You are of course right that selling to the market is risky in terms of recuperation through capitalist logics, but I see ’not selling‘ not as very realistic at this point, unless you show me what’s available.

11 StefanMz (20.09.2009, 15:20 Uhr)

@Michel: If have no objections to the word selling, I simply want to understand what the case is, my position is analytical. I feel, that your position is ideological by rejecting all deeper insights.

Why is my position so hard to understand? All I am saying is, that we have to be aware of the massive drawbacks of blindly accepting alien market logics. And I observe, that nobody is doing that. Why?

You are arguing, that because you see »’not selling‘ not as very realistic« we have to sell. Dot. This position stops any critical analysis at this point: »We are selling because we have, so why are you disturbing us with your weird questions?« This is your message to me. By that you are turning reality upside down: I have to explain, why I am disturbing you by my warnings, instead of you have to explain, how to prevent alien logics affecting internal relationsships of the projects — crazy! I seldom read critical self-reflections of projects like OSE. And then at some point they fail. Surprisingly. Does this have anything to do with importing alien logics by selling? Noooo, selling is quite natural, simply a means for good goals. Etc. — How naive.

There is a wide range of opportunities to care for finances being necessary for a project. You know them, I don’t have to show you. All of them have some pros and some cons. Balancing them require analysis. Let’s do that instead of rejecting critical questions. And this is, what I propose for OSE to do, too.

12 Martin (20.09.2009, 17:13 Uhr)

I wrote a critical comment on the FeF blog. It was rejected (after a two-week-delay) on the grounds that „it is not clear to us whether your message adds value to our discussion“ and the blog was „intended to promote solutions-focused discussion on the development work of the Factor e Farm experiment“. I find that last reason strange since other participants there also discussed the crisis freely and in a personal fashion. Many supporters were allowed subjective and emotional responses. Therefore, critical and even harsh commentaries should not be deleted without good reason. Maybe this is another sign of deterioration of FeF? Or was my comment too harsh?

[29.08., 14.30:] Even if the progress up to now has been good, I doubt if you will be able to hold it up if you don’t change some things. Don’t forget that a new project is given some credibility in advance to do what it promises to do. If it should become clear that this is not really peer production, the dedicated and able people drawn to FeF in the past might no longer arrive.

A crisis is the time to learn. As far as I can see, you’re not doing it. Conflicts arise everywhere, they’re not the problem. But brushing this conflict away as a mistake with an excuse to the victims won’t help in the long run, because the “mistake” is just a symptom of something fundamentally wrong: Your authoritarian leadership methods, which have in the past led to mistakes, as testified by many former supporters on this site. Errors that would have been avoided if the knowledge and opinions of everyone then in the project would have been taken into account – if, in other words, this were peer production, because that’s what peer production is all about.

Peer production is about working together on a project, its advantage is using the potential and ideas of everyone involved. If you continue to think that “you have the vision” and the others have to follow, the project is in serious danger of failing.

13 Michel Bauwens (22.09.2009, 10:20 Uhr)

Dear Stefan,
You are deftly turning things around. <You> are criticising Marcin for selling his material. This is not a debate about non-market logics, you and I are discussing this at length and continuously in our respective online resources. As you know, the attempt to develop post-capitalist practice is at the heart of the P2P Foundation’s practice. The question is: how to do this in particular for open hardware.  So if you criticize Marcin for his attempts at cost-recovery through the market, you have to offer him an alternative. High-minded theoretical critique is not enough, because if you do not have an alternative, they’ll go bankrupt, it is as simple as t hat. The key issue here is: what do you propose. There is nothing a-critical about that.
So to be clear, I don’t know about the „wide range of opportunities to care for finances“ available to Marcin ..

So do please enlighten me, and him. Don’t chicken out on this one. This is a crucial debate, as most of the open hardware projects that I know, are selling their products.
Again, do let me know your knowledge about the alternatives,

14 StefanMz (07.10.2009, 14:37 Uhr)

Argh, my response was not saved! Days later roughly recovering my answer:

Michel, from my POV it does not make sense to play this pingpong game any longer. If you reject my central point of alienation and I reject yours of show-me-the-money, we don’t come further.

There is a nice book released some weeks ago (titled »Peninsulas Against the Stream«), which shows a lot of different projects (about 100) and ways to deal which the money-coercion we all can not not escape from. It was completely surprising to me, that only very few projects use selling to finance their project, and that there a lot of projects, which are quite aware of the dangers of alienation by simply using capitalist means (alternatives are very different: donations, state support, fixed membership contributions, dumpster diving, free shops, mutual support etc.). The book only covers projects in german speaking countries and was released only in german. I got the impression that the discourse here has come much further than in the english-speaking regions. But I also don’t have illusions.

15 Michel Bauwens (23.10.2009, 17:34 Uhr)

I agree it’s becoming a ping pong … so, I’ll just stop but repeat that you refuse to answer my key question which points to your main contradiction:

– you say you favour free software and free hardware, yet they are both based on respectively selling labour and hardware, but do not charge any IP rent

– Marcin does exactly the same, yet you condemn him …

So, why say you support it, but then condemn who does exactly what you support …

I’m sorry, but this position fails to make any logical sense,

If you want to be concrete, why be ‚for‘ Arduino, but against ‚OSE‘, if both use broadly the same strategy?


16 StefanMz (26.10.2009, 11:08 Uhr)

I did not condemn anyone. I explained my POV of critique which I don’t want to repeat.

17 Four Years of Factor E Farm — (30.03.2011, 06:28 Uhr)

[…] some crisis at Factor E Farm, now in their fourth year of existence they reported a big step forward in buildung the Global […]

18 Franz Nahrada (29.04.2013, 23:11 Uhr)

It seems a second serious crisis occured at FactorEFarm, one that also carries a potential. While the first crisis led to a clear „declaration of benevolent dictatorship“, the second one seems to initiate a huge forking process with at least one replica of FeF being built.

The danger however is the discreditation and loss of positive momentum that the TED campaign has created.

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