Hacking capitalism: A nomadic hackbase is trying to usher in techno-utopia

On an island off the coast of Spain, a group of hackers are trying to implement the end of work. Is an automation future possible?

Hackbase lounge 2013/ Totalism.org via CC

“Hacking is more than just ‘geeking out with computers. We see it as a determination to solve problems the non-typical way, ‘hacking through’ them,” says David, co-keeper of the hackbase Cyperhippietotalism (CHT). We’re sitting in Quinn’s pub in London, at the heart of Empire, discussing alternatives to soul-sucking nine to fives. “The other day, somebody asked me what a typical day looks like. I have no idea, do you have some sort of a routine where you wake up everyday and go to work?” he asks, much to my amusement.

Set up in 2011 in the island of Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Cyberhippietotalism or CHT describes itself as a “tactical post-capitalism research project, building hackbases (live-in hackerspaces) [as] free, sustainable lifestyle infrastructure”. What it offers is an integrated space for work and co-living, aiming to create a blueprint for self-sufficiency using open technology. The goal is to reduce dependence on money and trade, effectively facilitating a lack of dependence on capitalistic modes of production and the routine that comes with it. David describes his project in quasi-utopian terms: a space surrounded by ocean, providing greener infrastructure and free time to pursue “creative technological and art projects” at minimum cost.

“We are trying to survive and thrive in off-grid barren lands of Canarian deserts/mountains — working with architecture experimentation, new energy systems, water, communications, planning, as well as shopping, trying to grow food, working on our van, cooking, exploring. We document our processes, writing them down as strategies and tactics,” explains David.

Map of Lanzarote showing hackbase location/ Totalism.org via CC

“I wanted to establish an autonomous network of spaces where you wouldn’t necessarily need to own or rent a place in order to move seamlessly from one hackbase to another in this self-organised autonomous network. I saw it as a lifestyle — this was the kind of life I was already living and wanted to expand on.” The hackbase, a term David claims to have coined, draws from the Roommate Anti-Pattern of the classical hackerspace design with additional nomadic live-in infrastructure. He explains that while hackerspaces are “hobbyist” places one goes to during breaks from a job, the hackbase aims to reinvent the basic life & work infrastructure by eliminating the separation between the two. “It’s important that I have the free time to do my struggle, and that the struggle doesn’t get hampered by the necessity to work, to labour in a capitalist system of exchange.”

There are currently 1317 active hackerspaces all over the globe, and 355 awaiting execution. CHT, however, was one of the earliest hackerspaces in Europe to provide live-in hackerspace infrastructure in an attempt to “deploy postcapitalism”. “Capitalism cannot work due to internal inconsistencies: both societal and ecological. In capitalism, the majority of the workers labour for their own subsistence; however, I believe advanced technology is ushering in the end of work. People who used to work in factories previously will now be redundant, causing job cuts and leaving them with no means to pay for basic food and shelter anymore,” he says.

Towards an end of work

Logo/ Totalism.org via CC

In 1995, Jeremy Rifkin’s seminal work, The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era was published, addressing along the same lines, the impending worldwide unemployment with the growth in dependence on information technology and automation. Drawing on Marx’s hypothesis of the “last metamorphosis of labor” where “an automatic system of machinery” replaces humans in the economic process, Rifkin argues that, “technological innovations and market-directed forces [..] are moving us to the edge of a near workerless world”. He predicted the elimination of millions of blue-collar nine-to-five jobs in favour of automation in three developmental stages of the capitalist economy: agricultural, manufacturing and service sectors.

Similarly, in Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015), Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams identify the crisis in capitalism’s ability to provide employment to all. They argue that ‘there is a growing population of people that are situated outside formal, waged work, making do with minimal welfare benefits, informal subsistence work, or by illegal means’.

In recent decades, with job cuts resulting from austerity, the end of work due to automation has entered common parlance, much to the chagrin of Rifkin’s critics. A recent report by McKinsey found that existing technology was capable of automating 45% of activities people are paid to do. Since the 2000s, China has lost 2.4 million jobs due to automation, while in the US, 88% of the 5 million axed factory jobs have been to make way for the increased productivity of robots.

Last year, the UK has provided some of the most striking instances of this. Capita, a British company with an FTSE 100-listing, which collects the BBC licenses among other contracts, axed 2000 jobs, investing instead in automated technology for higher profits. Following suit, Foxconn, the supplier for Apple and Samsung, cut 60,000 jobs in favour of automation. Last December, Amazon announced the new automated check-out system, which will effectively eliminate employees from the purchasing process at stores.

But the industrial jobs, mostly assembly line processes, are tedious, and their elimination should be resulting in a shorter work week, not a job crisis. David Graeber, author of The Utopia of Rules, calls them “bullshit jobs”, explaining how technological advancement failed to free us from work. Currently writing his new book by the same title, Graeber defines it as a job “so completely pointless that even the person doing it won’t try to deny it, at least, if they’re absolutely sure their boss isn’t listening”. This presents a necessary counterpoint to the dystopia of advanced capitalism where robots displace the working class: “Seems to me if you want proof that a society’s economic organisation is completely irrational, it’s that it sees the prospect of unpleasant work being eliminated as a problem”.

At a seminar in London at the University of Westminster early this year, Nick Srnicek proposed four solutions towards the end of work to a sceptical audience: full automation; a reduced working week; universal basic income; and the end of the work ethic (where unwaged labour is valued less than waged labour). A reduced working week would mean less time spent commuting, and thus a greener option in the face of climate change. When Jeremy Corbyn (of the Labour party) announced four new bank holidays during his election campaign, Nick posted on Facebook: “It’s not a 4 day work week, but more free time is always a good policy.”

CHT is one response to this current crisis of labour under capitalism. “The project aims to build an environment that provides subsistence based on the double ideas of liberty,” says David, referring to Isaiah Berlin’s concept of positive universal liberty, and negative liberty i.e. liberty from external interference, here work under capitalism. “If we can get a system together where we don’t need money or have the need to participate in capitalist exchange, where we have the technology needed to work alongside people who inspire or with whom we can collaborate, then we’ve effectively won.”

Moving from hackerspaces to hackbases

Camping in the desert/ Totalism.org via CC

The germination of the hackbase concept is influenced by cyber anarchist culture that surrounded the hacker scene in Slovenia during the turn of the century. Cyberpipe was an early European hackerspace set up by techno-libertarians in 2001 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where David had moved to study at university. “I briefly collaborated with them before starting this,” he says. “In Ljubljana, I had organised my flat-shares around this concept of sharing space and equipment- having a nice living room with servers, instruments and creating a semi-public place for people to come into, which naturally evolved into wanting to create a hackbase in around 2009.”

If the nine-to-five routine is absent, what is life in a hackbase like? David chooses not to define it. He says, perhaps romantically, “There is nothing like life in a hackbase. A hackbase is a place of struggle, of hope and optimism in the face of capitalism, a communal subsistence effort.” It is the blurring of margins between work and life, and the abundance of free time, that adds to its appeal, but life inside a hackbase is more structured than ‘normal’ life, he argues. “Your work has immediate ties to your current situation because you’re building tools to support yourself-in that moment personally, and in a universal, replicable way.”

The location in Lanzarote was chosen for strategic reasons: it offered a cost-effective rent plan in line with their initial capital; accessibility in terms of the major airport in Arrecife; and of course, the appeal of the place itself. “It’s much easier to say to somebody, come live and work with us in the Canary Islands,” he laughs.

Subseasons: Survival and subsistence in the desert

Desert friends?/ Totalism.org via CC

The hackbase is set up for subseasons that last for a few months, and planned using their collaborative web platform. Generally nomadic in nature, each subseason operates as a temporary camp to experiment and explore the territory on the island. The first three subseasons were in a rented house on an island, but since 2014, they have been fully nomadic, experimenting with the camp infrastructure while trying to buy their own land.

However, in the absence of a subseason, the base has the collectively-owned infrastructure needed to set one up for those interested in visiting: this includes camping gear, diesel generator, solar, tools, network equipment, and more. A working map is curated by members to find and develop spaces on the island to inhabit. Among their latest acquisitions last year is a 1984 Volkswagen van for mobility to other islands in future subseasons. There is also a music studio in development.

Camping essentials/ Totalism.org via CC

CHT attempts to insulate itself from external control through self-funding. Each resident contributes €100 per week, which includes living costs, energy, tools for maintenance and investments in the base for the next subseason. “Hackbases have to be seen as a vehicle for providing subsistence, and the foundation to accomplish this. I reject the start-up vehicle as it’s not one that would give you the freedom needed to do important things,” says David. Over the past five years, over 150 individuals have stayed at and contributed to the base.

Their last subseason in January introduced an initiation process for newcomers with guidelines. However, since the base is “radically open”, there is no vetting involved. So what happens when you violate the rules? “Pain”, he says simply. “When you’re in the middle of the desert, there isn’t an option for somebody to not take care of water, food, power. We allocate responsibilities to ensure that each need is overseen. If a person shows up they need to be able to function in this kind of setup. For example, we get water from a mountainous area 10 km away- if the person in charge of this fails to ensure there is enough, then it will be both an impediment to the work we want to do and also potentially life threatening.” What provisions does this provide for the mentally ill to subsist in this setup, I ask. “That’s a big problem for us,” he admits, “because this is interesting in terms of who we get to the base, and we need to look at this better as a project and present this better for future subseasons.”

The money problem

Logo showing breakdown of historic expenses at the hackbase/ Totalism.org via CC

Their acquisitions however, point to the fact that they have yet to remove dependence on money. Their strategy to achieve that goal is through analysis and representation of their expenditures. “If you see CHT’s logo, it’s a pie-chart of our expenses. We look at what we have been historically spending money on- the big ones are rent, food, investments in the base. We see which is easiest to kill off and work towards it. We’ve minimised rent costs through nomadic camping. The next big expense is food so we’re following up on possibilities for that,” he says.

Since the current infrastructural resources needed for their work requires monetary investment, they have to remain open to money as a medium of exchange. “We don’t want to be completely closed off from the outside and make our own computers because it’s silly at this point. We won’t be completely self-sufficient right away so we proceed step by step. At this point, a lot of the stuff we need can be acquired through trade: that can be through money or favours. We minimise the stuff we buy and maximise on the stuff we can either produce ourselves or are able to obtain in non-capitalist exchanges.”

The need for reversing a capitalist system enticing skilled hackers with high-luxury (and high carbon footprint) lifestyles therefore seems central to their goal. However, David argues, “I reject the notion that we are just a fairer version of a system that is shittier to live in but nicer. We are trying to create a freer place to subsist and work: life in CHT is better because the weather is considerably better, you have five times more free time, a better lab, better social dynamics, and are creatively and intellectually more challenged.”

Over the past few years, however, there has been a significant growth in collectively-owned spaces for radical discourse and work. I ask him if the blueprint offered by CHT has been replicated. “Yes and no. Some projects take up parts of it but don’t share the political foundation that is central to what we do.” Their website curates a list of similar organisations, with an analysis of overlapping areas of differences. Among the ones he mentions is the Performing Arts Forum (PAF) in St Erme, France formed four years ago. “They bought a monastery for half a million euros, I think, and now it’s co-owned by a group of 30–40 people. They have better organisation and infrastructure than us. That being said, they charge 30 euros a day for rent and food, while we’re at 13 euros a day.”

It seemed absurd to be discussing the end of money, work and capitalism in London, which has a trade surplus of $100 billion, home simultaneously to 251 overseas banks and Generation Rent. David, however, is indignant, “We often hear, Oh you cannot escape capitalism. But capitalism is just a system that predominates the reality of most people. A person in London works for 8 hours a day and has almost no free time while at CHT we work for 10 hours a week.”

But the option of quitting jobs and switching to a hackbase lifestyle on the Canary Islands isn’t accessible to all, nor is the idea of ending all work realistic. Even Guy Debord, graffitiing “Ne travaillez jamais” (Never work) on a Rue de Seine wall, was complaining by 1960, “I am overwhelmed with work”. Besides, the broader crisis of capitalism is also its inability to provide meaningful work to replace bullshit jobs taken over by automation. “We’ve compiled a list of ‘non-shitty’ jobs, to provide labour to relatively non-shitty clients and institutions that still pay money,” David offers, “And we’ve also set up a workers’ co-operative we’re looking to expand.” Despite being a work-in-progress, CHT’s organisational framework appears to be striving towards what had previously seemed to be an impossible goal: the gradual minimisation of capitalistic modes of subsistence. And it is because of this that it appears as one of the many urgent answers to a system in crisis.

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