One gets the impression that many Burners thought that when Burning Man got big enough for the forces of liberal consumer capitalism to notice it, that those forces would just roll over and plead for Larry Harvey to rub their belly. Or that the New York Stock Exchange would hang the 10 Principles on the wall and replace the opening bell with dub-step.
That was never going to happen. Burning Man’s entry into the world as a genuinely large scale movement was always going to be a complicated, messy, clash of ideas.
And now that Burning Man has grown big enough and popular enough to be co-opted by market forces, those forces are trying their level best.
Burning Man has been imitated – on the surface – by people trying to make money for some time. This attempt at full-on appropriation is beginning in earnest now, as opposed to 10 years ago, because without a merchandizing arm (which Burning Man has always refused to do, its recent asinine experimentation with scarves as donation premiums aside), it is difficult for appropriators to make money without scarcity. Not impossible, but difficult enough that the massive machine of the marketing/lifestyle complex didn’t really turn its sights on Burning Man.
Now that we’re living in an era of ticket scarcity, however …
Yet as the conflict is joined, the many Burners who talk about Burning Man as though it had “sold out” – as though it had been defeated – are confusing the ending with the beginning. They are declaring that the civil war has been lost because shots have just been fired against Fort Sumter, when in fact this is a prelude to the massive conflict to come.
Burning Man culture and the Burning Man organization haven’t lost a fight against liberal consumer capitalism – they’ve only just begun it.
This – what Burning Man is going through right now – is what that looks like at the beginning. The early stages. When market forces decide not to care that we have 10 Principles or that some people put their life into a theme camp for others to enjoy and now can’t get tickets.
What’s happening now was not only inevitable, but predictable: from Walter Benjamin to Theador Adorno to every fucking post-structuralist some of us were forced to study because we took an English class in the 90s, there is a huge body of literature and research showing that yes – yes indeed – when a counter-culture gets big enough, the forces of liberal consumer capitalism try to appropriate it for their own ends. And, so far, they have been successful every time. That’s how Che Guavara ends up on T-shirts made in third world factories and sold to college students whose dorms are cleaned by immigrants making minimum wage.
The fact that it’s happening is why discussion about Burning Man has largely transformed from a dialogue into a primal scream.
Which is fine – primal screaming is certainly radical self-expression (so long as you’re not screaming just because the cool kids are), and we ourselves, or people we know and respect, are getting left on the outside. If that’s not worth screaming about I don’t know what is. But what’s interesting is that we’ve heard so many of these primal screams elsewhere. The things people are screaming about Burning Man are not only not unique to Burning Man, they’re practically derivative of the wider culture.
Recently the author Broke-Ass Stuart wrote a screed about trying to live in San Francisco – and he hit all the same beats as many Burners outraged by the Org’s inability to get them a ticket.
Replace “San Francisco” with “Burning Man” and even the headline fits perfectly. “San Francisco is Slowly Shifting Away from Being Our Neverland” – that could be the title for any number of angry manifestos about how Burning Man has lost its authenticity and become a playground for the rich.
Make the same replacement and this paragraph works too:
“Idealism can be a dangerous thing when you live in a place that so thoroughly encourages it, but it’s even more treacherous when it feels like that place is crumbling away. When you’ve built your whole life around living in San Francisco and not ever really growing up, what do you do when San Francisco grows up without you?”
Some parts of the article don’t even need to be transformed from the city by the bay to the city in the desert:
“(A)s more and more Peters and Wendys and Lost Boys and Tinker Bells are pushed out of the city, I wonder if we can continue with this fantasy. Can a Peter Pan like myself survive in a Neverland diaspora?”
What we’re seeing is that one of the primal screams that people frequently make about Burning Man is structurally identical (sometimes word-for-word) with one of the primal screams people are making about being gentrified out of San Francisco or New York.
That’s not the only time this happens.
The accusations that the wealthy and powerful have taken control of Burning Man echoes quite closely the accusations that the One Percent have taken over democratic government and institutions. The complaints made about the rich gaming the system in the one align very closely to the other.
Another example: the idea that Burning Man’s system of art grants and money distributions isn’t fair to artists – that they deserve a bigger share for their labors, that they need to be able to make a living doing what they do – is also a close match to the arguments being played out about musicians making money (or not) on streaming music services and writers making money (or not) as publishing houses dry up and newspapers die.
I say this not to suggest that any of these issues aren’t relevant – they are obviously incredibly important – but to say that the things that most anger and divide us about Burning Man are also the things angering and dividing us outside of Burning Man.
Meaning that surprisingly little of the discussion about Burning Man these days is really about Burning Man. We are conflating Burning Man with the rest of the world. We are fundamentally angry at the mechanisms of appropriation themselves. Most of the primal screams are at the very least harmonious with this plaintive cry:
Can we please, PLEASE, have something good in our culture that doesn’t reduce down to what you can buy?
That’s a fair question. A great question. And it’s fair to ask it of Burning Man. Many of us cared about Burning Man in the first place in part because Burning Man appeared to offer an approach to dealing with these issues. The whole premise of Burning Man as a social movement, as a non-profit, as an alternative culture, is that Burning Man’s approach to life can mitigate or even overcome these issues. That may or may not be naïve, but it’s what a lot of people (myself included) think.
But understand the enormity of what we’re asking. We’re asking Burning Man to come up with an approach to gentrification that works for displaced people. We’re asking it to come up with an approach to governance that bypasses (or at least strongly mitigates) the disruptive influence of extraordinary wealth; we’re asking it to figure out how artists can be reasonably compensated for their work in the 21st century digital economy.
And we want them to do it now, so as to facilitate us and our friends making it to the playa next year, if possible.
That’s a goddamn lot.
I truly believe that Burning Man has a shot at not giving in to appropriation the way every other large-scale counter-cultural movement has.
But it’s going to be a struggle. And it’s going to suck. And there will be setbacks. There will be experiments: some will work, some will fail, some will seem like dumbass ideas in hind-sight.
But in the end, the question of whether or not Burning Man culture actually does stand for something that can’t be bought, or whether it’s one more lifestyle choice represented on t-shirts and fast food commercials, has virtually nothing to do with the Org and the decisions it makes.
It has to do with us. It’s our call.
Burning Man as an organization is a hybrid form between what organizations were and what they might become in this emerging culture. It has to be: nobody knows how to actually run a sustainable large scale organization according to Burner culture.
That means it’s going to have to make compromises, try half measures, determine what it can do – engage in “the art of the possible.”
But you don’t have to. And ultimately the fate of our culture hinges on whether or not we sell-out, not whether or not the Org does.
If a critical mass of people refuse to commoditize, regardless of what the Org says, then the culture changes. If on the other hand a critical mass of people ignore decommodification, no matter what the Org does, the culture will remain the same. The same applies to every principle, and every Burning Man tradition that we cherish.
This is a do-occracy, after all. If you expect Burning Man to just change the world for you while you wave glow sticks at passing art cars, then you are under the illusion that your role in our culture begins and ends at the gate.
It’s important that those of us howling a primal scream realize: when people say “if Burning Man isn’t doing it right, start your own thing, do it yourself so that it gets done right,” that’s not bullshit. That is the essence of what makes this culture work. That we don’t just leave it to the Org to Burn, but that we do it ourselves. And if the Org is getting it wrong, fuck ‘em. Do it right. Just don’t let the culture go.
Convincing people, one by one, that nothing can possibly change because nobody’s good and pure enough is one of the great weapons of the status quo.
But we don’t need saints. We just need people doing what they love about Burning Man. Especially as part of communities. Especially if you’re angry. Especially if you’re outraged. It won’t be easy – if it were easy it would have been done already – but if you once looked at Burning Man and thought “this has the potential to change the world,” then we need you to take that banner up. You don’t have to give the Org a penny. You don’t have to do it for Larry. But do it. The fate of Burning Man as a culture rests not on how many people are willing to pick it up as an excuse to be free libertines, but on how many people are willing to place its mantel upon themselves as a new conscience.
We are the culture, and the fate of the culture rests with us.
Go for it.