There’s a growing sense of outrage in the Burning Man community that our culture is being commodified. I think it’s great for us to be having these conversations, and I’m a little alarmed at the tone of some participants, which shows a lack of civility that seems misaligned with the broader spirit of the Principles. Worse, I smell a whiff of religiosity in the air, a sense that commodification is bad simply because it’s bad, a sin against one of our precious Principles, rather than something with a practical impact on our lives.
So in the spirit of examining unexamined beliefs, I’m going to suggest that we put down our pitchforks, snuff out our torches, and take a look at what Decommodification really means, why we value it, and why and how we ought to seek to preserve it as a practice in our community.
The 10 Principles were never meant to be Commandments. They were not written to delineate rights and wrongs, and in fact do not even directly express values. Instead, they describe a set of behaviors that, when taken as a whole, create a certain social environment, and by inference, a set of values. Leaving No Trace, for instance, pretty clearly implies a value of respect for the environment. Radical Inclusion implies a value of tolerance, and so forth.
But what about Decommodification? I mean really – what about that one? Not only is it unclear what underlying values it might express, or why we should care, but let’s be honest: what does the word even mean? We have Larry Harvey to blame for this; he loved sending people to the dictionary. But he was also trying to say something that, in the vocabulary of a profoundly capitalist American society, simply could not be expressed without resorting to a made-up word.
If you type it in a word processing app, it will set off your spelling alarms. If you try texting it, you will be auto-corrected. I remember doing a web search on it years ago, and I got some indecipherable article about deregulation of the natural gas industry. Wikipedia currently defines it as “the strength of social entitlements and citizens’ degree of immunization from market dependency.” Which is the kind of definition only a political economist could love.
It’s easier to think of it as the opposite of commodification, which is rather more clearly defined as “the transformation of goods, services, ideas and people into commodities or objects of trade.” Emphasis added on “people” — because that’s the worst of it: the dehumanizing part. There’s no denying that we are all economic actors, that we all at various times play the roles of buyer and seller, maker and consumer. We swim in a sea of commerce and consumption. What sets us apart as Burners is our refusal to be defined by these economic roles.
“In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.”
Harvey wrote those words in 2004, but the idea goes back to the earliest days of Burning Man in the desert. The Cacophony Society and its members were no fans of capitalist consumerism, but their critique was more Dadaist than Marxist, and among the early organizers of Black Rock City there were in fact quite a few small business owners.
But you don’t have to be a Marxist to see the widespread alienation in capitalist society, just as you don’t need to be a socialist to recognize the steady erosion of community institutions and a growing sense of isolation in American life.
Have you ever had a “playa provides” moment? Experienced “playa serendipity?” Met an amazing person that you never would have met otherwise? Received a gift beyond value, or had the opportunity to give a gift that changed someone’s life for the better?
When a group of people act in accordance with the 10 Principles, it creates a unique social environment of openness, tolerance and trust, which facilitates what we like to think of as “playa magic” — an atmosphere of curiosity, generosity, kindness and humor that leads to amazing encounters and delightfully unexpected outcomes.
It takes all 10 Principles to make the magic happen, but as I see it, Decommodification is something of a lynchpin.
It’s certainly the one that sets us apart most clearly from other events and festivals, and even if it’s not more inherently important than the others, it seems to play a key enabling role. That much is clear from the first eight words of the Principle: “In order to preserve the spirit of gifting…”
By short-circuiting our default market behaviors, the practice of Decommodification forces us to deal with each other as human beings, not simply as economic actors. In Black Rock City you can’t sidestep an interaction by turning it into a transaction, as we so often do in the default world, and so often to our disadvantage.
Watch Your Wallet
In everyday life, if you left your wallet at home it would be a catastrophe. How could you even function? But when you’re at Burning Man, your wallet loses all its power, and it has no power over you. Carrying it feels just as nonsensical as not carrying it would feel back in the default world. This can be an enormously liberating experience.
Taking commerce out of the picture, even for a few days, and even in an incomplete way, is one of the keys to creating an atmosphere of openness and trust, where we are less inclined to doubt each other’s motives and more likely to open up to strangers.
And by removing brand iconography, we foster a sense of joint ownership and control of the environment, as well as downplaying the social markers that too often serve as class barriers in our off-playa lives.
In the built world of our event spaces, we can create a more level playing field with fewer interpersonal barriers. It’s a place where anyone can talk to anyone, without fear of consequences — and where you can meet people from far beyond your usual orbit, leading to serendipitous encounters and unlikely collaborations.
Outside the Bubble
How does the Principle of Decommodification work outside the event environment, beyond the city limits of Black Rock City or Pyropolis or Nowhere? While I can’t agree with those who argue that it only applies on playa, or that we have somehow “outgrown” it, it’s hard not to acknowledge that the Principle has increasingly different implications on and off-playa, and that Larry in 2004 could not have anticipated how broadly the culture would spread in the world, and in what ways the community would evolve.
A close reading of the text suggests there’s a bit of a bubble around Decommodification: that it only applies in the “social environments” that our community collectively creates, and not necessarily outside those closely shared spaces.
But Black Rock City is no longer the only social environment we create, and our community is increasingly connected in adjacent social environments that still operate under conventional market rules. This can create a sort of cultural dissonance that’s uncomfortable to experience and not easy to resolve.
I’m not talking about the concierge-camp hustler who peddles the fantasy that you can have a catered luxury trip to Burning Man and still actually be at Burning Man. Or the rip-off fashion designer who mistakes the gifts of his fellow artists for a creative commons that can be harvested at will for his personal gain. Both of these clearly fall into the realm of commercial exploitation.
But what about the Burners whose day jobs — as celebrities or internet influencers — have transformed them into living brand avatars, as intimately linked to their sponsors’ brands as STD patients are to all of their partners’ partners. Can people who have so thoroughly commodified themselves ever practice Decommodification in a meaningful way?
And what about the makers who have turned their playa-genius inventions into commercial ventures in the default world? Or the art crews and theme camps who have formed their own legal entities, and now need to fundraise under what are essentially brand names?
While decidedly different, these two examples are alike in that neither was something any of us could have anticipated when the Principles first came to light.
In these emergent cases, I’d like to suggest that we tread lightly, and look more to intentions than to perceived effect. For those who mistake Burning Man for a religion, and the Principles for its gospel, it’s too easy to point an angry finger and shout “Commodifier!” when it might be more effective, and certainly more complicated, to unpack the issue without resorting to the language of sin and redemption.
In the examples above, for instance, an exploration of motives might reveal fairly quickly that the social media influencer is using Burning Man to sell stuff, and the artist or maker is selling stuff so they can contribute to Burning Man. I believe this is a critical distinction that we should always keep in mind: does the transaction or advertisement lead to a situation that somehow enriches our larger community? Or does it take from it, and leave us all with less?
Some observers, often newcomers to our community, accuse the Burning Man organization of being hypocritical, on the one hand espousing Decommodification and on the other hand selling tickets to the BRC event, as well as coffee and ice during its duration. But these transactions allow the event to take place, to foster community, and to support public health for our citizens. Taken together they have a humanizing, rather than a dehumanizing effect.
I started by questioning the underlying values of the practice of Decommodification, and why it matters. Values are a deeply personal matter, and I can only answer for myself. But since the stated purpose of the Principle is to “preserve the spirit of gifting,” for me that speaks to values of generosity and gratitude.
And since, as we’ve seen, it works to break down barriers between us and make us more open to seeing each other without the filters of money, I’d add the values of openness and mutual respect. As we proceed into the unexplored frontiers of Decommodification, I like to hope that we can do it in a way that embodies these values. With kindness, with a generous spirit, and with a radically open mind.
Top Photo: T-shirt Vendor at Baker Beach, 1990 (Photo by Richard Neill)