Pattern 5: Beyond Labor

This is part 5 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.

Pattern 5: Beyond Labor

Free Software and commons in general is beyond labor. This can only be understood if you grasp labor as a productive activity specific to a certain historical form of society. Selling labor power – i.e. the ability to work – to some capitalist who uses it to produce more value than the labor power is worth, is unique in history. This has two important consequences.

First, it turns productive activity – which has always been used by people to produce their livelihood – into alienated labor. This alienation is not imposed by personal domination, but by structural coercion. In capitalism humans can only survive if they pay for their livelihood, which compels people to make money. Making money can be either done by selling their own labor power or by buying and valorizing the labor power of others. The result is a distorted process where structural requirements prescribe what a person has to do (cf. pattern 6).

Second, it creates the homo economicus, the isolated individual seeking for maximization of his/her own utility – if necessary even at the expense of others. Traditional economists then assert that the homo economicus is the archetype of a human being, which confuses the specific historical result with a natural presupposition.

Instead of labor, Free Software is based on Selbstentfaltung. The German notion of Selbstentfaltung is not easy to translate. On the one hand it starts from “scratching an itch” (Eric Raymond), “doing what you really really want” (Fritjof Bergmann), and “having a lot of fun” (the Free Software developer). On the other hand it integrates other fellow developers to strive for the best solution possible. This also means high engagement, passion, and effort, not just picking the low hanging fruits. It includes a positive reciprocity with others striving for the same goal in a way, that the Selbstentfaltung of the one is the precondition of the Selbstentfaltung of the others. Not by chance this is reminiscent of the Communist Manifesto where the “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Marx, Engels 1848). However, in Free Software it is not a goal of a future society, but it is an inalienable feature of the beginning new mode of production on the way to that new free society.

Instead of selling one’s energy for alienated purposes, usually called labor, Free Software is based on Selbstentfaltung which is the free development of all the productive forces of the people.


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