Emerging Capitalist Economy at Burning Man

Author's girlfriend in front of humble kin-based longhouse
Author's girlfriend in front of humble kin-based longhouse

The Burning Man Decompression parties are this weekend in LA and around the country, exactly one month from the ending of BM which is usually the first weekend free from unpacking and cleaning out the playa dust from all permeable fabrics and crannies. Perhaps such a party is necessary to remind oneself of the virtuousness of the event, otherwise cynical ideas about the sheer costs and the political economy of BM begin to plague the mind. For me, this is triggered by a memory of something a cashier at Home Depot in Reno said to me. I was buying two-dozen rebar stakes to secure the giant tent I designed and sewed for my girlfriend, sister, and best friend. The cashier recognized that I was going to BM and said, “not seeing as many of you as we usually do coming through this store, seems like more and more people are joining camps instead of making their own.” When I got to BM, I began to notice how many large camps are aggregates of strangers who basically Paypal-ed for community inclusion, the production of someone else’s art project, and a varying degree of life sustaining materials. This is what I am calling, “pay to play” (P2P). An emerging tourism industry in Black Rock City. I note this not to complain but to isolate instances of capitalistic intrusion in aggressively nonmarket communities.

BM is designed to resist the atomization of capitalist society. The theme this year was Evolution and I wonder if all social organization fall prey to convenience and evolve into reflections of capitalism. The impossible dust storms, the absence of cash money or commodities, the gifting economy (not bartering, but giving), the impetus to participate and play all work to destabilize the alienation and isolation of late-capitalist society. But as a free-range and malleable event I wonder if capitalism can be kept at the gate. BM is expensive: at $300 ticket, $200 gas, $200 food/water—it is easily over a G per person. It can be done cheaper, but those who do it cheap tend to mooch and/or not have the material resources to abide by the simple principles of BM: self-reliance, gifting, and radical expressivity.

It is difficult not to size-up the costs (and therefore the class) of the large-scale, privately-funded artworks and architecture. I was appreciative of the gifts of drink, food, leisurely rest spots, and free music and trinkets but with each gift I became more conscious that I was receiving from people wealthy enough to blow $10,000 on an extraordinarily philanthropic week. One camp included several dozen people who all flew from NYC, each couple had a massive RV, an AC-bedazzled igloo, their own private outhouse, hot water shower, and chauffeured artcar. I’d like to think I am alone with this burdensome class and capitalism consciousness—a personal by-product of anthropological training—in the supposedly declassed environment but I am not. From its inception Burners have hypothesized about how and when capitalism will infect and disease this experience. Critics of BM have called it weekend warriorship for the dot.commer, others have mined the contradiction between the immense carbon footprint and BM’s ecological subculture, others have highlighted the temporality of the autonomous zone, but the most ardent argue that the sheer costs and auto-dependency make it elitist and basically vapid. I tend to see it as a place and opportunity to experiment with improved forms of kin-bonding, environmental awareness, and social spatiality so it is important that my little tribe remain autonomous and self-reliant from the pay to play crews.

Traditionally, a small coterie would go to BM and have a great time in their humble camp, upon returning more friends and family would be encouraged to go next year, the camp would grow and with it a need for a communal bank to collectively pay for shared shelter, food, water, parties, gifts, etc. As the years go by some of these camps, driven by ambitious community organizers and artists, began to advertise to strangers via social networks for spots in their camp for a fee which might be anywhere from $50 for a daily shower or a nightly ride on a mutant vehicle to over $3000 for a deluxe tent, AC-fitted RVs, prepared gourmet food, and elite taxi services. For those electing to jump into these ready-made camps preparing for BM is as easy as online shopping for a travel package. This is becoming more the tradition and less the exception. It appears to be a semi-corporate work-around of the problem of decommodification.

BM’s original voluntary culture is analogous to the nonmarket social production of community and art that we currently see proliferating in social media. People make and give for the joy of making and gifting. Yochai Benkler, a social media and business professor at Harvard, champions this nonmarket social production but also recognizes the two threats to voluntary social production as being concentration and commercialization. My worry is that strangulating control is emerging in the trend of concentrating economic power into these specific camps.

With extreme heat and tornadoes that carry dust into eyes and down throats—and no provided water, shelter, food, or garbage cans BM forces clans to be self-reliant. But how one’s self-reliance is performed codes class positionality. When the accommodations are really swanky the difficult environment of dust storms and heat waves are made so irrelevant that the individual doesn’t ever face the ego-defying challenge of living for a brief brilliant week without the trappings of post-industrial society. Self-reliance is achieved through a credit card, community is achieved through shopping affinities, radical expression is found in buying-into someone else’s art project—these individuals are interpellated by capitalism and spectators of other’s creative expression—the only two unacceptable qualities for individuals at BM. To their credit, the big camp dons do acquire enough surplus funding to provide more gifts, shelter, and fun to more people. Also, it might be that population aggregation and consolidation is an urban historical fact and the tools of capitalization (surplus banking and strategic Potlatch-like re-deployment of resources) are useful in such high urban populations. Perhaps. But the emerging tourist industry at Black Rock City also gives convenient excuses for a bevy of investors to spectate through the windows of their provided RVs.

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

10 thoughts on “Emerging Capitalist Economy at Burning Man

  1. Interesting perspective. The material and transport costs of the big art pieces, the RVs etc. certainly make this yet one more pay and you go lifestyle event. (Did I tell I went to a monster truck rally in early Spring).

    When I went last year, I tried to accept the real money behind the free economy as a background illusion, and tried to see the event on different scales, from different physical points of view, and through the eyes of the minute sample of people I spent time with. What fascinated me was the way each person constructed the event for themselves, and the power both individually and collectively of those illusions.

    I’m talking at USC on Monday and will be cruising UCLA on Tuesday. Will you be around?

  2. As a fairly non-academic novice, I wonder if this event even addresses the central injustices of the capitalist system. Not that I could ever live up to their examples, but the likes of Paul Farmer or Noam Chomsky seem to be more authoritative, albeit intimidating examples of addressing injustices. Facing the world as it is – in all its suffering, guilt and ambiguity – seems like a more appropriate strategy than building parallel societies.

  3. An ignorant anthropologist’s question: What evidence do we have that BM was ever about “addressing injustices”?

    Why not simply read it as a bit of privileged play, a modern equivalent of Marie Antoinette playing at being a shepherdess on the lawn at Versailles? There are, after all, plenty of special events, times and places where rich people pretend that money doesn’t count and object when the operation starts seeming too crass and commercial.

  4. re: John McCreery

    You’re certainly right that an ever increasing number of BM’s participants are the weekend anarchist sort with no physical investment in their politics, but Burning Man isn’t the type of event that can be “simply read” as anything. You can’t really ignore the attendance of those dumpster-diving, train-hopping ontological anarchists who permanently inhabit the limins and margins of the social structure. Sure there’s middle-class Silicon Valley programmers who mirror their principles and lifestyle, but there has to be something around for them to mirror in the first place. If there were no shepherds around than Marie Antoinette would have had a difficult time of knowing how to act out her pastoral fantasies.

    Burning Man is just the brightest start in a constellation of happenings, most of which are under the radar enough to actually qualify as Temporary Autonomous Zones. I think that as BM continues to be colonized by the dominant culture (which is trying to mine the one resource it dangerously lacks – radical self expression), that the permanent “drop outs” are just going to move on to new zones. And that’s really the whole point of the TAZ essay.

  5. I’m glad a stumbled upon this site. My first burn was this year. We camped in a cramped tent and were radically self-reliant; food, water, made our own costumes…..

    We were toying with the idea of an RV for next year. Guess we’re sticking with the tent.

  6. all points utterly well-spoken. it’s sort of the nature of evolution- what happens next is an offshoot- a phoenix borne from the ashes of BM that embodies the original spirit of the festival for a few years until that too becomes commodified. from woodstocktoglastonburytotibetanfreedomtoburningmanto_____________ and beyond, it is as it always will be.

    put your head in the river, l

  7. Brilliant essay! I am familiar with these kinds of theme camps but never stopped to consider how the organizers may actually be turning a profit by organizing them. I also was not aware that art cars are sometimes paid taxi services.

    I am becoming aware, as a political sociologist, of the implicit hierarchy emerging within Burning Man. I think more could be said about the formation of elites (BMORG volunteers, staff, but also people whose service status is unclear) and privileges ( early arrival, commissary, etc.).

  8. As a Burning Man camp co-leader for 3 years now, I can assure you that most of the “pay to play” camps, in keeping with Burning Man ethics, are entirely non-profit organizations. We donate our labor, for many months in advance, to make these art projects happen. A fee, usually between $100 and $200, is charged to help collaboratively pay for shared services and infrastructure, including: fuel, truck rental, storage lockers, art materials, generator rental, sound systems and rebar. Most camps dumpster dive for materials (ie: the temple in 08 was made entirely of donated used furniture, scrap lumber and trash), or have materials donated or loaned from the community. There are some rare exceptions — ie: some camps pay the chef, because it’s a kick-ass, full time job, and it requires total dedication and weeks of advance planning. There are cases where we pay “scholarships” to help someone with skills the camp needs (lighting or electrical, for example) with their gas money or camp fees. In some cases, a camp will sponsor the Burning Man ticket fees for a DJ or artist. But in general, everyone pays their own way, including camp leadership. (As a camp “mayor”, I not only paid for my own Burning Man ticket, but I’ve put thousands of dollars of my own money into these projects. I know it seems crazy, but we do it out of a love for the community we are creating, and the gift of creative inspiration. PS — our camp and our neighboring camp, Red Lightning, shared a solar array, and took pains to be as “green” as possible, by using sustainable building materials like dumpster dive carpet, scrap wood and locally grown bamboo.

  9. As much as it seems shocking and contrary to the principles of Burning Man, I think of it this way: those P2P people are still coming to Burning Man. They’re making the choice to support art through the Burning Man Org/art grants (with a percentage of their ticket $), and who knows if they’ll realize something Awesome while they are there?

    I’ve seen incredibly douchey weekenders suddenly Get It, and become a useful part of the community. (And then come back the next year as volunteers). I’ve seen people pull up to the Greeters gate pissed off, tired, and prepared to be unimpressed just sort of melt into a hug, relax and say “hey, people are nice here!” and you see their brains working as they reevaluate. I always tell these folks that “Burning Man is made of people. Individuals. Meet them. Hug them. Hang out with them. People are nicer here. Give it a shot.”

    At least these people are trying it. They might never use Burning Man as anything but a private playground/rave, but what if even a few of them carry back home the 10 Principles and end up better people for it?

  10. Thanks all….This post and thread is something I’ve been looking for. As a three time burner living in the boonies way up in Canada, I still have many questions about BM…the obviously rich people I see…the incredibly well dressed poseurs who seem to make anyone who is not making a expensive fashion statement feel unwelcome….
    I love Burning Man deeply, I’ve learned a lot from my time there. I want to be a part of it, I want to create, help, volunteer, bond. But I have definitely felt the presence of a B.M. ‘elite’ who do not want to let new people in. I feel them…feel like I’m being sized up and checked out. It’s very strange, but I just want to be a part of it without pretense. It is a part of who I am. Am I just being paranoid, or is there a kind of ‘pecking order’ going on? I certainly feel it, and I don’t think it’s all in my head……


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