A recent discussion I was having about the future of Burning Man raised the question: “is it really part of Burning Man’s values to do end runs around scalpers? Is that a key part of the mission? What’s wrong with letting the Market decide who goes to Burning Man?”
Let me stop right here to say: I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT HOW BURNING MAN WILL HANDLE TICKET SALES IN THE FUTURE – DON’T ASK ME. LIKE MANY OF YOU, I OCCASIONALLY TALK ABOUT THINGS I HAVE NO INVOLVEMENT WITH. THE SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS, FOR EXAMPLE … AND THE U.S. SPACE PROGRAM. THIS WAS THAT KIND OF CONVERSATION, HAD WITH SOMEONE WHO WAS NOT A REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ORGANIZATION, AND HAS NO INVOLVEMENT IN BURNING MAN TICKET SALES. HE WAS ALSO NOT AN ASTRONAUT. THANK YOU.
Most of you are turning a little red now – I was – but it’s a relevant question. What is the appropriate relationship between Burning Man and market capitalism? “Decommodification” is a key Burning Man principle … yet when Burning Man is critiqued from the political left, it’s generally for not being decomidified enough. There are people who see the fact that we still sell tickets as proof that we are in league with Halliburton.
When it comes to capitalism, where’s the sweet spot for Burning Man between “Too Much” and “Oh, for God sake get a job you smelly hippie”?
Is “creative destruction” creative enough for us?
I think a compelling case can be made that Burning Man does have a vital interest in thwarting scalpers … but I think it’s not expressly because of decommodification.
What does that mean? Well, like most of Burning Man’s principles, Decommodification is clearly not an absolute value. Tickets are sold, ice is sold, and there’s not a hard-and-fast ban on plug-and-play camping. So clearly “no commerce” isn’t a rule for its own sake: there are times we do it and times we don’t.
My sense is that decommidification is a key principle because the early participants of Burning Man found that there comes a point at which taking commerce out of the equation heightens the experience that we’re aiming for.
In another space I’ve suggested that the 10 Principles are aspirations, but that the key Burning Man activity is the creation of a kind of experience – a verb for which “to burn” is the infinitive form. I’d suggest that Burning Man’s organizers realized – correctly – that past a certain point it is easier “to burn” when money is off the table. I’d even go so far as to suggest that money … and the table … are a big part of what makes it difficult “to burn” outside of Burning Man. Money has waaaay too much bullshit.
From this vantage point you can see why we’d want to keep scalpers and third parties out. Their desire isn’t to be part of our process or to help more people burn – it’s to profit for its own sake by making the process of getting to Burning Man more difficult. That just doesn’t support the experience we’re trying to develop. One has to be a pro-market partisan to say “a process that makes distribution more difficult for participants is better because it allows for the uninterrupted flow of capital.”
Although I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what was said by TicketMaster about all-access passes to John Galt’s underground fortress.
Works for me – but it also doesn’t rule out a market-based system for tickets. If the principle is to decommodify when commerce makes “burning” more difficult, then commerce is likely still legitimate when it supports the “burning” experience. Selling ice directly to Burners on site is a perfect example: the idea is to get ice to people who need it without wasting any. The market based solution is perfect. It can be done without gouging – it can even be done in such a way that it becomes a whimsical experience in and of itself – and it makes everyone’s lives so much easier, allowing them to focus on art and experience. Meanwhile people who don’t actually need ice are deterred from grabbing extra by the nominal cost
In this case, market-based activity supports what Burning Man is trying to do – we burn easier with it than without it – and it therefore has a place.
The line the Org is trying to walk with plug-and-play also reflects this. On the one hand, the more havens of exclusivity pop up on the playa the more difficult it will become for the playa as a whole to enter into the magic collaborative state we strive for – and the existence of a “servant class” at Burning Man is toxic. On the other hand …
… well, there isn’t really an other hand. These are terrible things. But it’s also true that new approaches to Burning Man can bring their own energy and that hard-and-fast rules about “how to burn correctly” tend to backfire. So instead of gunning for commercial activity happening outside the playa (where all plug-and-play transactions have to take place already), the Org is asking how this activity … which is an opportunity to spread Burning Man’s message and culture … can be drained of the toxicity.
Burning Man’s not interested in an ideological debate about market forces: this is a case where a principle follows from practical issues about how we can work with this. Sometimes commerce can get us closer to where we want to be than Gifting can.
So while Decommodification is one of Burning Man’s core principles, that doesn’t make the culture reflexively anti-market. Burning Man is pragmatic on questions of market capitalism. Often this pragmatism puts us on the side of economic radicals because, let’s face it, our society has an unhealthy obsession with wealth … and like all obsessions, that has to be put aside if one wants to pursue a more profound experience of life.
Anybody who’s in it for the money will never really be able to get Burning Man.
But no one can deny that market capitalism often brings out creativity, efficiency, and motivation. When those are part of a toxic package, it’s not worth it. But we’d have to be willfully ignorant to try and throw qualities like creativity and self-motivation away in those cases when commerce can be drained of poison and used for the common good.
Aren’t creativity, motivation, and the common good key elements of what we’re going for?
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com