My Facebook feed, which had nearly gone dormant for the past week, is once again teaming with life; this means that somewhere, in a nondescript plot of desert, 50,000+ souls are packing tents, scrubbing dust from their hair, and beginning an exhausted journey home from their annual pilgrimage to the Burning Man festival. After last year’s impulsive decision to fund the the trip on student loan debt, I find myself once again relegated to the social media sidelines by financial constraints. One benefit of watching this year’s event unfold at a distance is that it has given me time and space to reflect on my experiences with Burning Man 2012.
I believe that festivals, in general, and Burning Man, in particular, do much to enrich the lives of their attendees. I frequently encounter people who consciously divide their life into time spent “on the Playa” (a term Burners use to describe the festival grounds) and time spent “in the default world” (i.e., the rest of their lives off-Playa). These phrases indicate just how much attendees experience Burning Man as a transformative event. Similarly, in my own personal experience, I found Burning Man to be an creative, inspirational, and highly collaborative environment, where people take time to treat each other as people and not as a means to an ends in some sort of transactional relationship.
With its 10 Principles, its rituals (e.g., Burning the Man, spanking festival “virgins,” respecting the solemnity of The Temple, lamp lighting ceremonies, etc.), and its symbols (Burners will instantly recognize this little ASCII icon: )’( ), Burning Man transcends the mundanity of default life and takes on aspects of (what Durkheim called) “the sacred.” In fact, I think it is perfectly legitimate to describe Burning Man as the foundation of a secular religion.
While there is much to discuss regarding the significant place that Burning Man occupies in the lives of its participants, I’d like to focus on the complex social and economic relationship Burning Man has with the default world and how this relationship reflects the changing nature of capitalism in the 21st Century. Let’s start by examining two key principals:
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
By elevating gifting as a virtue, Burning Man distinguishes itself from the default world which is dominated by transactional relationships between people who have no personal connection to one another. (For example, the bagger at the grocery store sees customers as largely interchangeable and the customer also sees baggers as largely interchangeable. To each the other is just a means to an ends.) Gifting is, ostensibly, about putting the needs of the other above oneself.
The principle of decommodification attempts to further separate human interaction at Burning Man from market logic. In fact, the description of the principle of decommodification even employs a Marxist concept: exploitation. (Though in the strict Marxist sense, culture cannot be exploited, only labor.)
Because no money is exchanged at Burning Man* and because gifting and decommodification are key principles of the community, Burning Man is often described as “outside the system” or anti-capitalist. However, the notion that Burning Man opposes capitalism is misguided, if not naive. In a recent interview with TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein, Burning Man founder Larry Harvey spoke to this point, insisting, “We’re not building a Marxist society.” While Ferenstein’s interview highlights the comfortable relationship that Burning Man has with capitalism (particularly Silicon Valley-based enterprises), Ferenstein oddly concludes that what it opposes, instead, is consumerism.
Were Burning Man’s goal to get people to consume less, it would be failing miserably. Anyone who has traveled the Reno Airport to Black Rock Desert circuit knows that an enormous consumer economy has evolved around the event. From the second you step off the plane through the very last Native American reservation before Black Rock City, advertisements suffuse the landscape, offering a wide array of commodities (bikes, tents, glowing el wire, “Indian tacos,” water, etc.) and services (e.g., rides to the Playa). And, all this pales in comparison to the vast amounts of consumer spending done in advance of the events. Camps from every major US city fill shipping containers with supplies and haul them to the desert on 18-wheelers. Many of the gifts given at Burning Man were first bought via the market economy. Burning Man’s principle of “radical self-reliance” often feeds a “get the gear” mentality of hyper-preparation, encouraging attendees to purchase supplies for every contingency they may encounter in the (admittedly harsh) desert conditions.
“Participatory experiences” alone will not shield 50,000 people from the sun or protect them from dust. It won’t even produce a fashionable pair of furry leggings or tutu. The Burning Man experience is the product of tens (or even hundreds) of millions of dollars flowing into the consumer economy and is inextricably linked to disposable incomes of Silicon Valley’s digerati. (It is also this requisite spending that keeps Burning Man as an exclusive and relatively privileged event.)
Larry Harvey’s pro-capitalist sentiments are surprising not because people misunderstand Burning Man but because people misunderstand modern capitalism. While there is certainly no causal relationship between the two, it is not entirely coincidence that a Man was first raised in the desert the year that the Berlin Wall fell. The Cold War-era perception of an irresolvable antagonism between capitalism and communism–market and commons–had begun to appear less tenable. The innovation economy that Silicon Valley has come to represent proposes to link sharing (of information) and capitalist production in a mutual reinforcing relationship. Tech companies benefit when the level of common knowledge in the employment pool increases or when innovations in the commons can be commoditized and brought into the market. (See Fred Turner’s excellent work on how Burning Man ties into Silicon Valley’s innovation economy.)
Commentators from Lawrence Lessig to Paulo Virno recognize the marriage of market and common as the underlying logic of the information economy and its chief instrument, the Web. In fact, we experience this marriage daily when we give and take freely in the gift economy of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. (and, in doing so, make fortunes for the founders and their investors).
Similarly, the story of Burning Man isn’t a battle between capitalism (or the consumerism it encourages) and communism; instead, it is a story of the ritualized integration of market and commons. Burning Man demonstrates how market-driven consumption fuels a new commons and how this commons, in turn, creates new markets. It embodies what Virno called “the communism of capital.”
Recognizing that The Playa is inextricably linked to the market structures of the default world does not delegitimize it as a commons or as an experience distinct from our daily lives. It does mean, however, that we are responsible for the broader economic and social consequences of our big party in the desert. We cannot simply ignore, for example, the extraordinary amount of exploited labor that makes Burning Man possible or that the (mostly foreign) laborers who supply tens of thousands of tents, boots, goggle, backpacks, lights, etc. for the event will likely never be able to afford the price of admission.
It is unrealistic for anyone to expect Burning Man to exist outside of capitalism, but it is possible for Burners to participate in the economy in ways that are more socially-responsible and in ways that are less socially-responsible. If the Burning Man community truly wants to embody the progressive values of inclusivity, communalism, and civic responsibility, Burners need to start thinking seriously about issues of class and economic justice.
* Most attendees do, in fact, exchange money for ice, coffee, and drugs. The first two are sold by the organizers.
PJ Rey (@pjrey) is a sociologist and photographer now based in Austin.
Photo credits: Buy More Stuff, The Temple and The Man by Michael Holden; hand holding by PJ Rey; truck by alxndr; bikes by papertygre; woman in mask by damaradeaella; supplies by nayrb7; tents by donotlick