Burning Book Club – Chapter 3 (part 2) – Money and Revolutions

(We’re basing this discussion on Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries)

To everybody who’s apologized for falling behind on Book Club:  I’ve fallen behind too, so let’s make it official.  Book Club moves slowly, and nobody has to be embarrassed.  A chapter a week was just not going to happen.

But we’re making progress!

Okay … here we go …

Today we’re going to talk about money and economics.

If Burning Man, as I’ve argued, has many of the attributes and contradictions if Romanticism, there’s one more that should be noted.

Here’s Eagleton’s description:

“If the movement is divided against itself, it is largely because it is both a product of middle-class society and a protest against it.  Its flamboyant individualism is among other things an idealized version of the entrepreneur;  yet it is also a rebuke to the faceless civilization he is busy fashioning, one in which men and women are reduced to so many cogs and ciphers.  Spiritual individualism is to be prized, but its more possessive variety must be countered by some more corporate forms of existence, whether in the form of Nature, Geist, art, culture, world-spirit, political love, medieval guilds, ancient Greece, utopian communities or the Kantian consensus of taste.”

There is it – and Burning Man has been living that contradiction for decades.  Burning Man as we know it could only exist in a world of capitalist excess, and it is easiest to participate in by those who are living high on that excess.  Can there be any real argument on these points?  Yet Burning Man’s values explicitly call for us to undermine the motives and impacts of these same systems of excess.  Burning Man is like the landlord who raises the rent while voting for public ownership of buildings.

This is often seen as hypocrisy on the part of Burning Man’s leadership, or a fracture in the culture of Burning Man itself.  But in fact this is not a novel contradiction – it has come part and parcel with “liberal thought” (in the classical, not the modern, political sense) for hundreds of years.  Burning Man in this area is part of a tradition, rather than a new development:  yet another movement that was fully empowered by the changes in society made possible by the embrace of capitalist individualism only to become one of the leading critics of capitalist individualism.

A century-or-so after the development of Romanticism, George Bernard Shaw’s play “Major Barbara” has a peace activist learn to love a munitions factory because the wealth it generates allows the workers it supports to have enough leisure time time to actually read peace pamphlets.  She discovers that a message of salvation better reaches people who have plenty than it does the starving.

Around the same time, Three Penny Opera made much the same point:  “Food is the first thing morals follow on.  So first make sure that those who now are starving get proper helpings.”

Fifty odd years after that Jack Keroac was only able to write “On the Road” and other works of literary social critique because his hard working mother would send him bus fair whenever he got stuck.  If she had followed the advice he advocated for everyone in Dharma Bums, the book never would have been written.

And of course Communism itself a critique of the alienation and injustice created by capitalism that itself was made possible by the wealth generated through industrial capitalism.

What we’re seeing here is a consistent pattern:  commercial capitalism produces its own antithesis in social and artistic movements, which thrive and prosper until they are in turn co-opted and subsumed by commercial capitalism.  Che Guavara on a t-shirt, punk rock bands getting promoted by major labels, avant garde theater directors being sponsored by soft drinks engaging in viral marketing.  One can only imagine that Osama bin Laden was this close to signing with a network.

This is the stage that Burning Man is now facing.  Appropriation.  At heart most of the questions about Burning Man and money, Burning Man and commerce, Burning Man and celebrities showing up, boil down to this question:  are the white blood cells of commercial capitalism going to change Burning Man before it can change them?

The only reason to object to plug-and-play camping, to object to rich people flying in with their entourages and doing whatever the fuck they want, is the idea that in the process of doing so they are changing the culture of Burning Man around us.  They are gentrifying Black Rock City.

Such gentrification was inevitable once Burning Man expanded beyond the core group of radicals who brought it to the desert.  People usually blame this on ticket prices and the cost of attending – and there’s truth to that.  But more significantly, as has been discussed elsewhere, is that people in a capitalist society who are struggling on the bottom rungs generally don’t want to experience an engine of possibility.  Engines of possibility are often terrifying, not thrilling, for people who don’t have a safety net.  But they have enormous appeal to the gentrifiers, who have everything they need except creativity, authenticity, and community.  A movement like Burning Man is naturally going to appeal to people who are looking for more than capitalist individualism can provide, rather than the people who are still struggling to experience its benefits in the first place.

In the case of most cities, gentrification is a process that there is little to be done about.  But Black Rock City – a “city of choice” that reinvents itself every year – may have other approaches available to it.  Rule changes from the top down are one option, as is cultural action from the bottom up:  I’ve suggested Art Vikings in the past, but a bully pulpit could be just as effective.

But the point isn’t “how can we stop the appropriation of Burning Man as a culture,” the point is that Burning Man has entered this phase of its development, a phase that no moderately successful critique of consumer capitalism has been able to avoid.   Every counter-movement has succumbed.

They have succumbed in no small part due to consumer capitalism’s success in raising standards of living.  It would be heartless to deny the progress generated by consumer capitalism to the world’s poor … or anyone else, for that matter.  The demand that the masses of the world live lives of renunciation has been easy for trust fund revolutionaries and die-hard ascetics to make, but everyone else has decided to take a pass, and who can blame them?

In the end, the question has always come down to this:  prosperity or culture?  That’s a losing question for culture in the modern era.  So long as culture is for sale, rather than a gift freely given but not available at the gift shop, capitalism will always win.

It’s a lovely notion that we might finally have reached a point of human evolution where we’re capable of putting culture above commerce, but this lovely wish kind of misses the point:  we HAD a period of history where culture routinely trumped commerce.  It was most of history.  We’ve been moving away from that ever since the Enlightenment.  And do you really want to go back?  Really?

I mean, really?  Have you seriously thought this through?

The advances made in human culture that led to consumer capitalism and capitalist individualism were, indeed, advances.  We have benefitted tremendously.  Part of what has made Burning Man so successful is precisely the many ways in which it hasn’t stood against them:  no one has to swear allegiance to anything at Burning Man, or subsume one’s individuality to a greater whole.  For those who wish to, it’s very much there as an option – but the fact that it is optional is what makes Burning Man so appealing in the modern world.  We’re asked to be more conscientious, more mindful, and to consider new approaches to daily living – but never to renounce any of the stuff we like, and that includes both material stuff and rights and freedoms.

This is all for the good, but the same factors that allow Burning Man to have mass appeal in a consumer capitalist world also make it more ripe for appropriation.  Why should we expect Burning Man culture to endure?

There are purely cultural arguments – aspects of Burning Man’s culture – that are legitimate (if arguable) answers to that question.   But following up on our previously discussed notion that a new mythology requires new material conditions, I think it’s relevant to point out just how much material conditions have changed between Burning Man of the present and … say … the 60s.

We are now in the midst of a number of profound changes to the economy:  a “digital revolution,” and “information age,” the Maker movement, 3D printing …

It is entirely possible that these movements have changed the equation:  that they make it possible for a movement like Burning Man to not stand in opposition to mass prosperity.  Or … more daring yet … that with these conditions in bloom, mass prosperity is even more possible with an approach like Burning Man’s than it is with traditional capitalism.

Could this be a bunch of bullshit?  Absolutely.  But there’s no question that the nature of the economy is changing, the nature of wealth is changing, and that will have some kind of impact on the most effective way to organize society … which in turn will impact culture.  From this perspective it’s no accident that the tech industry – the sector of the economy most ideologically committed to the idea of social change (however incoherently) – has gone head over heels crazy for Burning Man.

Burning Man could be able to avoid the fate of appropriation that so many movements before it were unable to:  all we have to do is not sell our culture to those who seek to buy it.  Seems so simple in theory, yet is so hard in practice.  The fact that Burning Man can accommodate much of what society will not want to keep about individualist capitalism helps in this pursuit.  Indeed, in many cases it doesn’t just accommodate these things (like radical self-expression, and self-reliance):  it champions them.

But whether or not that’s enough, the challenge may not be the same one the Romantics, the Dadaists, and other precursors faced.  The world may already have changed that much – and Burners may have already been involved.

Not that this is any reason to be more complacent about it.  If anything, it’s a call to be less so:  we may really have a shot at changing history for the better, this time.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

3 Comments on “Burning Book Club – Chapter 3 (part 2) – Money and Revolutions

  • susan kitten says:

    Or more accurately:

    The community experience so fondly trumpeted as the living skin of the Burning Man is pocked, scarred, and so lacerated that it is no longer the durable integument needed to sustain the Burning Man’s viscera. Last year’s community was such a stark and realistic representation of modern civilization that it reminded me of my own downtown Oakland.

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  • IndigoStef says:

    “In the end, the question has always come down to this: prosperity or culture? That’s a losing question for culture in the modern era.” It isn’t…we have the technology.

    “It’s a lovely notion that we might finally have reached a point of human evolution where we’re capable of putting culture above commerce, but this lovely wish kind of misses the point: we HAD a period of history where culture routinely trumped commerce. It was most of history. We’ve been moving away from that ever since the Enlightenment. And do you really want to go back? Really?

    I mean, really? Have you seriously thought this through?”

    Yes. Let’s do it. Capitalism is lame.

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  • Air Freshener says:

    One of the things I’ve begun to notice whenever I talk to Burners about their gifts, whether it’s some home-made lip balm or a portable stove made from old cans, is that more often than not they learned how to make them from Youtube or Instructables or some other website.

    So Caveat might be right in suggesting that the material conditions have changed significantly. The availability of all this information that’s freely available, coupled with the Burner notion that the amateur has as much to contribute to the culture as the expert, means that there’s less incentive to succumb to commodification. Why buy someone else’s attempt to package the Burning Man experience, when you can attempt to do it yourself, and have much more fun doing so? For many people, the first time they really “get” Burning Man is when they stop being mere spectators, and there’s simply no way for any third-party to package that experience of participation.

    Even religion has been prey to commodification, as judged by all the religious trinkets and symbols that one can buy near religious centres. Worse, many religions convince their adherents that only a specialised priesthood has the ability to grant spiritual salvation or render judgment in spiritual matters. In other words, many religions fight hard against decentralisation of power.

    If Burning Man is to have any advantage over religion, or any of the other attempts to replace religion, it seems to me necessary that it find a way to decentralise and disperse power through its network. And it can’t just say that it’s doing so. Burners on the ground level must experience this decentralisation, otherwise they won’t feel empowered. And when they don’t feel empowered, the process of commodification will have a foothold.

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