Calafou – An Experiment in Collective Living

Calafou – An Experiment in Collective Living

If you’re all about alternative lifestyles, collective living might be for you. Taken from Jamie Bartlett’s book The Dark Net:

Calafou is an experiment in collective living. It is currently run and managed by its thirty or so permanent residents, in partnership with an organisation called the ‘Catalan Integral Cooperative’ (CIC). CIC’s vision is to find new ways of living sustainably, ethically and communally outside the capitalist system, based on the principle of economic and political self-determination.

Everything about Calafou is big. The plot must be 200 acres, although I can’t really tell because it’s so busy with buildings. Ther eare around thirty or so flats, each containing four small rooms, and over 10,000 square metres of former industrial floor space, including a communal dining area and an old abandoned church, which served the spiritual needs of the factory workers who used to live here. The place looks to be in a near-permanent state of creative destruction, cluttered with motorbike engines, half-built bicycles, a row of plasterboard, empty beer bottles, a tractor tyre on its side, a pile of bricks, two 3D printers. I eventually find the hackers’ space towards the back of the complex. It is reached through a large, roofless hall, and up a couple of flights of concrete stairs. It’s about the size of a tennis court, packed with old computers, boxes full of modems, wires, cables and telephones (I later learn every computer they have is recycled or second-hand). A couple of worn sofas line the far wall and a large table in the middle houses more computers, food and a landline telephone. A huge spray-painting of Captain Crunch, the infamous telephone hacker from the 1970s, and Alan Turing, the genius British cryptographer, leaves little doubt about the group’s loyalties.

Arial view of Calafou.

There are a few people coding – two young men in one corner, and a slightly older man in a hoody sitting in front of three computer screens, smoking a cigarette. He’s deep in concentration. This must be Pablo, Amir’s chief collaborator. Pablo is responsible for the ‘front end’ of the Dark Wallet, the bit you see on your computer. I walk in. No one looks up from their computer. I introduce myself to Pablo, and ask if he has time to talk. He doesn’t, he says, because he’s grappling with a programming problem, but he might soon. I sit down on one of the sofas. This is how most computer programmers and hackers work. Advanced coding is a creative endeavour, Amir had told me back in London. When you’re on a roll, you keep going. Pablo was obviously on a roll.

Eventually he stops typing, expertly rolls another cigarette, and joins me on the sofa. We begin talking about the factory. Pablo is a full-time resident at Calafou. He tells me it’s an exciting time at CIC because the residents are currently in negotiations to buy the entire factory complex, with each person paying 25,000 euros for a flat. For now, it’s all rented. Just over 100 euros will get you a room and working space for a month. Throw in the communal cooking system, and you can get by on very little, and be free to develop your own projects (when you’re not putting in some free labour for the community). Dark Wallet is one of dozens of projects at Calafou, Pablo says. Just before I arrived there had been a session on 3D printing. In the room next door, there is a scientific experiment to grow a strand of amoeba that can store energy. The long-term plan is to create organic computers. Other residents are creating compost toilets, manufacturing solar panels, selling clay ovens and building open-source telecommunications. All the apartments are now full, but there are always extra people couch surfing, especially if there is a public event on, which is often.

Calafou is more than a living space, says Pablo. It’s also a philosophy, inspired and partly funded by a man called Enric Duran. ‘He’s an amazing man,’ says Pablo excitedly. Indeed he is. In late 2008, Duran – dubbed the Robin Hood of the banks – circulated 200,000 copies of a free newspaper called Crisis to explain how he had spent the previous two years fooling thirty-nine banks into lending him nearly half a million euros. He paid back early loans to ensure a good credit rating, borrowed more, stopped paying and gave it all away to social activists (including, I was told, to Calafou) and to pay for future editions of Crisis. In 2009, Duran began promoting the CIC as a practical example of the ideals detailed in his second newspaper: We Can! Live Without Capitalism. He was arrested in 2009 on charges brought against him by six of the banks, and spent two months in prison before being released on bail. When, in 2011, the state prosecutor requested an eight-year prison sentence against Duran, he went into hiding.

After an hour or so, Amir rolls lazily into the room with two friends from the anti-capitalism movement Occupy London, who are visiting. He doesn’t notice me, and doesn’t really register Pablo either. ‘Amir,’ shouts Pablo, ‘I’ve received the first Bitcoin transaction from the stealth address!’ Amir stares intensely at Pablo’s screens for a moment, nodding slowly as his eyes dart about hurriedly. He seems fairly unmoved. ‘Cool,’ he says.

Amir was born in London to an Iranian dad and a Scottish-English mother, but was raised in nearby Kent. He taught himself computer programming at school, and quickly found himself in trouble after shutting down the school’s CCTV network. He excelled at maths, and eventually went on to study it at university – a course he started and abandoned three times. He became a squatter, and met Pablo, with whom he then spent five years working on an open-source computer game. Shortly before it was due to be released, the project collapsed. ‘Politics and people got in the way,’ Amir explains. ‘I suddenly found myself with no money and no education. I felt that I’d just wasted five years.’ Although he and Pablo got on well, the experience of working in a large team was not a success: ‘The worst thing in your life,’ he adds, ‘is listening to other people.’

He then spent an increasing amount of time online, making money as a professional poker player. For two years, he played hundreds of poker hands a day, multiple hands at once. He didn’t earn a fortune – but enough to get by. This was the unlikely venue of his political education too. On ‘Black Friday’, in April 2011, the founders of the three largest online poker companies in the US were indicted in a criminal investigation and the FBI seized the websites. (In 2012, the US government dismissed all civil complaints against PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker.) Thousands of players – including many of Amir’s online poker friends – lost their money somewhere in cyberspace. Amir started experimenting with his own peer-to-peer poker site to cut out the online poker companies (and the stake they charge for each hand) but he couldn’t find a decent, secure, payment system. Then in 2011 he stumbled across Bitcoin. He started working on a number of Bitcoin-related projects, and even founded and ran the UK’s first Bitcoin exchange called ‘Britcoin’, which allowed people to exchange Bitcoins directly into pounds sterling, rather than via dollars. Digging around the Bitcoin protocols, he noticed it wasn’t quite as secure and anonymous as everyone thought. It was a brilliant invention, of course, but with a few additions could be made even more subversive. That’s when he came up with the idea of Dark Wallet. He moved to Calafou, brought in Pablo alongside Cody Wilson – the American crypto-anarchist who created the first 3D printed gun – and together they raised $50,000 in a month via the crowdfunding site Indiegogo.

Although Amir’s technical know-how and experience are admired, his ideals and motivations have put him on the fringes of what has become an increasingly respectable Bitcoin community. Dark Wallet has pitted itself directly against organisations seeking to capitalise and control Bitcoin and its market. ‘Many prominent Bitcoin developers are actively in collusion with members of law enforcement and seeking approval from government legislators,’ reads the Dark Wallet blurb. ‘We believe this is not in Bitcoin users’ self-interest, and instead serves wealthy business interests that make up the self-titled Bitcoin Foundation.’ In a 2014 interview withNewsweek, the chief Bitcoin Foundation scientist, Gavin Andresen, said that he thinks of Bitcoin as ‘a just-plain-better, more efficient, less-subject-to-political-whims money. Not as an all-powerful black-market tool that will be used by anarchists to overthrow the System.’ Some within the broader Bitcoin community worry that Amir’s radical politics will stop the currency from being taken seriously. ‘This fuckwit Taaki takes the absolute cake . . .’ wrote one on the popular Bitcointalk forum. ‘It is upon us as a community to cut them loose!’ I emailed Mike Hearn, one of the chief programmers for the Bitcoin Foundation, who told me that, although he doesn’t mind if government’s power to control people through the banks is diminished, ‘I consider Bitcoin principally a technical project. I think people [like Amir] are going to be disappointed when it turns out that bankless money doesn’t actually create anarchy.’

Amir doesn’t care about this sort of talk. A tool to overthrow the System is precisely how he sees it. ‘People at the Foundation are trying to censor Bitcoin,’ he tells me. Both he and Cody Wilson have been on record stating they hope Dark Wallet will be used tobuy drugs more securely, and that any negotiation with governments betrays Bitcoin’s vision. He fears its radical libertarian potential is being diluted. ‘The Bitcoin Foundation says, “Oh we need to make it better for the consumers.” No we don’t! What these people forget is that Satoshi himself was political.’

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