Check out our new issue Our spring issue , looking at the democratic revolts of , is out now! Subscribe or renew today. In principle the annual Burning Man festival sounds a bit like a socialist utopia: Ban money and advertisements and make it a gift economy. Encourage members to bring the necessary ingredients of this new world with them, according to their ability.
These ideas — the essence of Burning Man — are certainly appealing. Yet capitalists also unironically love Burning Man, and to anyone who has followed the recent history of Burning Man, the idea that it is at all anticapitalist seems absurd: On the desert playa, an alien world is created and then dismantled within the span of a month. Burning Man grew from unpretentious origins: The search led them to the Black Rock Desert. Burning Man is very much a descendent of the counterculture San Francisco of yesteryear, and possesses the same sort of libertine, nudity-positive spirit.
Hence, much of their art involved cutting up and reassembling maps, and consuming intoxicants while wandering about in Paris. Participation sounds egalitarian, but it leads to some interesting contradictions. The most elaborate camps and spectacles tend to be brought by the rich because they have the time, the money, or both, to do so. Wealthier attendees often pay laborers to build and plan their own massive and often exclusive camps. The rich also hire sherpas to guide them around the festival and wait on them at the camp.
In , Mark Zuckerberg flew into Burning Man on a private helicopter, staying for just one day, to eat and serve artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches. From the New York Times: He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.
The emergent class divides of Burning Man attendees is borne out by data: This number is especially significant given the outsize presence 1 percenters command at Burning Man. In a just, democratic society, everyone has equal voice. At Burning Man everyone is invited to participate, but the people who have the most money decide what kind of society Burning Man will be — they commission artists of their choice and build to their own whims.
They also determine how generous they are feeling, and whether to withhold money. They carry over into the real world, often with less-than-positive results. Traditionally, public education has been interwoven with the democratic process: School boards then make public decisions and deliberations. This might seem like an unrelated tangent — after all, Burning Man is supposed to be a fun, liberating world all its own.
The top-down, do what you want, radically express yourself and fuck everyone else worldview is precisely why Burning Man is so appealing to the Silicon Valley technocratic scions. It fluffs their egos and tells them that they have the power and right to make society for all of us, to determine how things should be.
This is the dark heart of Burning Man, the reason that high-powered capitalists — and especially capitalist libertarians — love Burning Man so much. It heralds their ideal world: Burning Man foreshadows a future social model that is particularly appealing to the wealthy: It is a society that we find ourselves moving closer towards the other non—Burning Man days of the year: But when the commons are donated by the wealthy, rather than guaranteed by membership in society, the democratic component of civic society is vastly diminished and placed in the hands of the elite few who gained their wealth by using their influence to cut taxes and gut the social welfare state in the first place.
The real social cost of charitable giving is the forgotten labor that builds it and the destructive effects that flow from it. Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient. Indeed, the idea of radical self-expression is, at least under the constraints of capitalism, a right-wing, Randian ideal, and could easily be the core motto of any of the large social media companies in Silicon Valley, who profit from people investing unpaid labor into cultivating their digital representations.
It is in their interest that we are as self-interested as possible, since the more we obsess over our digital identity, the more personal information of ours they can mine and sell. Little wonder that the founders of these companies have found their home on the playa. It became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core; and, without any semblance of democracy, it could easily be controlled by those with influence, power, and wealth.
As such, it is a cautionary tale for radicals and utopianists.