Pattern 10: Germ Form

This is part 10 of a weekly series of articles to appear in the journal Critical Studies in Peer Production (CSPP). In the series I try to describe analytical patterns developed by the Oekonux Project since over ten years of research on Free Software and commons-based peer production. Please visit the introducing part for the background. Already released patterns: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

Pattern 10: Germ Form

Last but not least, the most important pattern is the germ form or five-step-model (Holzkamp, 1983). It is a model to understand the concurrent existence of phenomena with different qualities. When discussing peer production the debate is often dominated by two groups: those who are in favor of peer production and who try to prove peer production is anti-capitalist and those who see peer production only as a modernization of capitalism. The challenge is to think it as both. The germ form model accomplishes this by viewing the emergence and development of commons-based peer production as a process of its own contradictory unfolding in time.

Normally applying the five-step-model is a retrospective procedure where the result of the analyzed development is well known. By mentally assuming the result of a transition towards a free society based on commons-based peer-production the emergence of this result can be reconstructed using the model. Here is a very rough sketch of the five steps applied to the case of peer production.

  1. Germ form: A new function appears. In this phase the new function must not be understood as a rich germ or a seed enclosing all properties of the final entity which only has to grow. Rather in this phase the germ form shows only principles of the new, but it is not the new itself. Thus, commons-based peer production is not the new itself, but the qualitatively new aspect it shows is the need-oriented mediation between peers (based on Selbstentfaltung, see pattern 5). During this phase this is visible only on a local level.
  2. Crisis: Only if the overall old system falls into a crisis can the germ form leave its niche. The capitalist way of societal production and mediation via commodities, markets, capital, and state has brought mankind into a deep crisis. It has entered a phase of successive degradation and exhaustion of historically accumulated system resources. The recurring financial crisis makes this obvious to everyone.
  3. Function shift: The new function leaves its germ form status in the niche and gains relevance for the reproduction of the old system. The former germ form is now double-faced: On the one hand it can be used for the sake of the old system, on the other hand its own logic is and remains incompatible with the logic of the dominant old system. Peer production is usable for purposes of cost-saving and creating new environments for commercial activities, but it rests upon non-commodity development within its own activities (cf. pattern 3). Cooptation and absorption into normal commodity producing cycles are possible (De Angelis, 2007), and only if peer production is able to defend its own commons-based principles and abilities to create networks on this ground will the next step be reached. Free Software as one example of peer production quite clearly is at this stage.
  4. Dominance shift: The new function becomes prevalent. The old function does not disappear immediately, but steps back as the previously dominant function to marginal domains. Commons-based peer production has reached a network density on a global level, so that input-output links are closed to self-contained loops. Separated private production with subsequent market mediation using money is no longer required. Need-based societal mediation organizes production and distribution. The entire system has now qualitatively changed its character.
  5. Restructuring: The direction of development, the backbone structures, and the basic functional logics have changed. This process embraces more and more societal fields which refocus towards the new need-based mode of societal mediation. The state is stripped down, new institutions emerge, which no longer have a uniform State character, but are means of collective Selbstentfaltung (cf. pattern 5). New contradictions may come up, a new cycle of development may begin.

This is only an epistemological model, not a scheme for immediate action. The main advantage is the possibility to escape unfruitful either-or debates. It allows for thinking the emergence of a new mode of production being useful for the old system while maintaining its transcending function towards a free society as concurrent phenomena.

The germ form model adapted in the Oekonux context is a dialectical conceptualization of historical transition.


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