Burning Man, the Internet and late stage capitalism


Image credit: Duncan Rawlinson

Burning Man likes to see itself as a radical counter-culture. But what if it is in fact an incumbent culture and maintainer of the status quo? Corporations are looking to Burning Man for guidance and inspiration, but what if the popularity of the event is not because of its transformative potential towards something new, but its reinforcing potential of the current order.

This is an article that makes a case and then asks a question. It is a collection of thoughts on how Burning Man might be reinforcing the patterns of late-stage capitalism. I hope it can inspire a conversation on how to break these patterns, and act as a catalyst for those who care about finding a different path forward.

It’s often said that Burning Man and the internet grew up together. In an episode of the Philosophical Center podcast from 2018, Caveat Magister and Anslem Engle discuss that “some meta-movement might be emerging, just like modernism once emerged”, with the internet as its technical manifestation and Burning Man as a social manifestation. But what if that meta-movement already emerged and is now a high-culture, ready to be challenged by a counterculture? What can we learn from exploring the idea of Burning Man and the internet as the incumbent, rather than the upstart? In recent years, the shadowy sides of the internet have been in the spotlight. It would only stand to reason that if there is a social movement coupled with the technical movement of the internet, there might be shadows emerging within it too.

Frontier optimism

When I was a teenager in Sweden I lived on the frontiers of the internet. I am of the generation that came of age with it. We were the first to experience the freedom to radically co-create and develop our self-expression with infinite inspiration. The early internet was co-created, decommodified, expressive, strongly communal. When I became involved with burner culture decades later, I recognized the hallmarks. It was easy for me to adopt that culture because so much of it was already familiar to me.

This ethos was radically different from the mainstream culture it was countering. In many ways, the late 80s to the late 90s were the peak years of industrialized monoculture. Selling large quantities of a small catalog was the prevalent model. Burning Man and early Internet culture did something else, instead opting to build new worlds on the frontiers. On both of these frontiers, new cultures would be prototyped to challenge the old. In the year 2000 I was 12 years old, and early that year I downloaded Napster on our chirping 56k modem. The old order was about to notice the new as it challenged its models.

What followed was the internet culture-war of the early 2000s. As a teenager, I was on the front lines as a young foot soldier of the self-identified Pirate movement. We were misunderstood as rude punks who wanted to steal music and movies, but what they didn’t understand was how deep our ideology ran. Our mantra was that “information wants to be free” and our ethos was that it should be a right to share it as freely as air and water. Our identities had been formed by the very quality of the internet that was challenging the old order. We were not about to accept artificial boundaries on our beautiful frontier where there was infinite digital space. For many of us, it was deeply philosophical while still tongue-in-cheek, perhaps best exemplified by the Missionary Church of Kopimism which its founders managed to get registered as a religion in Sweden, holding copying information to be a sacred virtue.

For me, across the world from Nevada, this ideology existed in the same meta-culture as Burning Man. I first heard about Burning Man in 2004, on the same forums where I read about open source software and information freedom activism. Pictures of Burning Man became interlinked in my mindscape with the ideas of free and open internet. Indeed, it almost seemed like the material embodiment of the same creature. It made sense that there was a temporary city out there, build on sibling principles.

In these early years, like all starry-eyed teenage idealists, I was young and naive enough to think the revolution would bring something fairer and that the co-created and decommodified would become a serious challenger to industrialized mainstream culture. In the coming decade, it all played out quite differently.

The internet: Capitalism strikes back

Mainstream media was struggling and it was becoming obvious that it would lose the fight if it didn’t adapt. In the mid-2000’s we saw the first attempts at understanding what a new commercially successful model would look like. In my view, the most successful at predicting the future was “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More” by Chris Anderson, Editor in chief of Wired. This book foresaw how capitalism could regain control in a new landscape. In a world without the limits of shelf-space, the dopamine kick of discovering something new, being influenced to think something new, dance to something new – could be endless. This new paradigm foresaw that the success of DYI internet culture was not just that it felt authentic, it was also that it provided an endless stream of novelty which helped reaffirm to the consumer that they were experiencing something intimate and unique.

In the years that followed, the internet conquered all, and capitalism caught up. Through monetized social media, the Long Tail theory was proven correct. And more recently, the same approach has been applied to the modern versions of traditional media – Netflix and other streaming services operate on the same premise, to cater increasingly to smaller and smaller subsegments to keep the attention on the screens.

As we know, attention is the hard currency of the internet economy. And those who make the most amount of money are those who hold most of that attention. This attention is turned into data, which is sold for profit. This has led us to a media landscape where we take in more experience, more different content in a day than we used to in weeks. Much of it is the DYI work of YouTubers, podcasters, online pundits, Instagram models, and other independent producers. Most of it is free and personalized, and we can all participate. The monetary value is not in the content itself, but in the attention it produces.

Today, many of us who championed the internet in the early 2000s have had to see it fall into the hands of large corporations. That freedom we fought to have as citizens has been misused and appropriated, with the dawn of “surveillance capitalism” as a direct result. In response to this, many of the radicals have abandoned hope for the World Wide Web and are moving towards technologies of decentralization and many internets that cannot be fully owned or controlled. Our mistake, in my opinion, was to underestimate what capitalism would do with the freedom we fought for. I can’t help but ponder how to keep the burner culture from falling into the same trap.

Is Burning Man a pillar of Bay Area capitalism?

When people rant about the “commercialisation” of Burning Man, they usually talk about people making money with art from the playa and the industry of “turnkey camps”. I think this is the wrong place to look when considering late-stage capitalism. In the context of the industrial economy, capitalism depends on the skills of the workers producing the goods, as well as on people then buying those goods with the money they earn. How this leads to a concentration of wealth and increased inequality is well documented. It is also a position of many, like myself, that this is a problem and the cause of much social and economic instability and even violence and war. So this begs us to question, who are the proletariat and who are the capitalists of the “attention economy”? In asking these questions, we are exploring the perspective that Burning Man might be supporting an incumbent culture – a sort of social arm to the internet capitalism of the Bay Area and beyond.

The Attention Factory

First of all, there is a direct comparison to be made between Burning Man and the Internet as incumbent high cultures. Both have replaced an old paradigm of mass-produced monolithic culture with co-created and highly pluralistic expressions. In both cultures, your individuality is highly catered to and celebrated. Both cultures depend on self-expression to thrive and grow stronger. In the age of YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and Twitch, an event with endless attention-grabbing co-created content is really highly conformist to the incumbent culture. Burning Man as a phenomenon is also a phenomenal backdrop for co-created online content, as we have seen with the rising numbers of connected influencers on the playa. As we have noted, the most grateful benefactors of the popularity of clickable Burning Man content are the platforms on which this content is shared, as it is phenomenal at grabbing and keeping attention. From that perspective, the workers of the attention economy are both those who produce the art at Burning Man and the influencers themselves. Even though the influencer might be receiving some compensation for their work, it is really negligible compared to the combined value generated for the platforms. Attention is harvested from their work, and that attention is converted into financial capital. This is one way in which Burning Man fits perfectly into the incumbent order, as a sort of “dream mine” or “attention factory”.

Mirrored values – the world in our image

Burning Man is largely created and funded on an American philanthropic model. Black Rock City acts as proof to tech-libertarians that their utopia is possible, one where we can all co-exist and be excellent to each other, but where the people who have the most money decide what to fund on their own whim.
This sort of world plays well to the tastes of the digital pyramid building boy-Pharaohs of Silicon Valley. This perspective was explored in a 2015 article by Keith A. Spencer. While the article does not fully understand the culture and it’s more benign aspects, it is well worth a read to integrate that perspective into a more complete picture. Spencer goes so far as to blame the principle of Radical self-expression itself.

The root of Burning Man’s degeneration may lie in the concept itself. Indeed, the idea of radical self-expression is, at least under the constraints of capitalism, a right-wing, Randian ideal, and could easily be the core motto of any of the large social media companies in Silicon Valley, who profit from people investing unpaid labor into cultivating their digital representations.

There is an important key-concept in that paragraph: radical self-expression, at least under the constraints of capitalism. This distinction is important. With a higher degree of radical critique, these pitfalls are perhaps not unavoidable, but they require a long hard look at ourselves.

A marketplace for social capital

In the last decade, the percentage of Burning Man participants who make more than $300,000 a year has more than tripled from 1.4% in 2010 to 4.8% in 2018. What is driving this development? Burning Man is becoming more expensive, but it doesn’t really make that much of a dent if your annual income is $100,000+. So why is the highest income bracket growing so much faster?

A key factor of being a successful capitalist is to make sure that your return on capital is always in your favor. Apart from Burning Mans’s role for personal development and the fact that the parties are second to none, might there be direct returns on capital from participating in Burning Man? One intuitive place to look for such a reason would be the role of Black Rock City as a place of networking and building trust. It has been shown that high social capital is key both in personal financial development and that trust derived from greater social capital allows for more stock market participation (Guiso, Sapienza, and Zingales 2004, 2008).

One possible avenue for future research might be to measure the exchange rate between money spent on Burning Man art and projects, and the gain in social capital. My hypothesis would be that Black Rock City is actually an extremely dynamic market for social capital, an environment where the exchange rate of financial capital to social capital is extremely favorable. Commissioning extravagant art, camps or art cars probably increases your chances a lot to gain social capital.

If this is the case, we find ourselves in a schoolbook example of Marxist theory – capital attracts more capital. In this case, social capital is bought for financial capital where it is cheap - much because of the contributions of tens of thousands of participants. This social capital can then be used to acquire more financial capital later. Of course, this is a dubious claim that should primarily be regarded as a thought experiment, as this conversion between financial and social capital is not well supported. However, if taken at face value, it is interesting to once more return to the increase of people in the $300,000 income bracket. Is it just that more wealthy people are coming to Burning Man, or is Burning Man also making the wealthy people of the $150,000-299,999 income bracket richer through improving their social capital?

This might all be fine if the social capital gain is not very unequally distributed among the participants. I have no idea how it is distributed in reality, but we can turn to the work of economist Thomas Piketty to make a prediction. Piketty has famously shown that when the rate of return on capital ( r ) is greater than the rate of economic growth ( g ) over the long term, the result is the concentration of wealth. In Burning Man terms, the total social capital of Black Rock City grows more slowly when the event grows more slowly. And it is growing a lot more slowly than it used to. If Piketty’s formula is indeed applicable (which is a complete shot in the dark), it would predict that if left to its own devices, Black Rock City is poised to become increasingly unequal. Those already at the top of the pyramid, the Bay Area tech elite, would stand to benefit the most.

A Saturnalia for the Bay Area

Another way in which Burning Man might be supporting the culture of late capitalism is paradoxically by being an inverted version of society. In Ancient Rome, Saturnalia was a festival celebrated in December in honor of the god Saturn. It was a carnival celebration where the social norms where overturned. Slaves were served at the table by their masters, gambling was permitted and little gifts were exchanged among all. It even had its own version of “fuckery” – the sort of mischief and pranks popular at Burning Man. A “King of Saturnalia” would be elected and give absurd orders to people to increase general merriment. It was seen as a time of liberty for all, and to use today’s terms, probably a time of some personal development and transformation.

Roman society was famously order-oriented, so why was this tradition permitted and encouraged? One theory is that having such periods of role inversion creates some slack in the system, making the status quo more likely to persist. In today’s terms, having that transformative moment in the desert with CEOs and investors might make the worker less likely to go on strike or vote to tax them heftily so that she can have health insurance and maternity leave.

Breaking the patterns

So what if these assumptions are right and Burning Man has become an incumbent culture in symbiosis with internet capitalism? If you agree that Burning Man should be paving the way for more equality and a society less controlled by the forces of capital, what can be done? By knowing the patterns, we can make decisions with the explicit goal to not reinforce them. Just as some of the proponents of early internet culture are reflecting on the last 30 years to course correct, so should burner culture.

I was at Burning Man in 2017, and it was a very powerful experience. I loved the project I worked on the rest of the rich experience of Black Rock City. Even though I enjoyed it a lot, and even though I have been very involved with the culture through the regional network, I have not had a strong enough drive to go back yet. Some of the things I didn’t like quite as much are being addressed in a recent course correction. While this is very positive, the issues this article touches on are of a different nature and perhaps harder to correct for.

I’m very involved in other events with similar principles, like The Borderland. Using Burning Man as a focal point in this article is easy as it is by far the largest and most prominent of the subculture, but I think that many of these points can be just as relevant elsewhere, even though I personally think that these patterns are a lot less pronounced at other events.

So where do we go from here? I leave that question open for now, hoping to add my own perspectives once I’ve had time to reflect on the first part. I am looking to collaborate on this. These are critical perspectives brought to a culture I identify with and want to see succeed, but that I think would benefit from some healthy radical critique.

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Thanks for this thoughful, critical and fresh - at least to me - perspective on Black Rock City and how it supports Bay Area Capitalism.

Haven’t thought about this before but it could indeed be true that for many Bay Area founders and investors, attending Burning Man events is a way of building social networks and also of building trust even outside the event: ”He was involved in this art car project at BRC. He must be a good and trustworthy guy.” So for that crowd, the return on investment of attending Burning Man might very well be positive.

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Hej Hugi, very interesting to follow your thoughts. I think when you do trend research and observe emerging phenomena, they all are endangered to get corrupted, the more they grow into mainstream. Not every mainstream person has the same moral and engagement to keep up the standards of a small, idealistic close group of likeminded. I can observe the same dynamic in dance scenes, basically every scene.

Would be nice to have a talk some time soon! Us who create platforms, design with intention and facilitate community activities need to reflect on what others make out of it. I read about design by use where it is not the designer who determines what it is, but the user. It comes down to community. What community makes out of something created by idealists.

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I’ve gotten some feedback on this outside of this forum, and I would like to include my answer here.

Many seem to agree that participants of Burning Man might be getting financially richer because being at the event made them more successful, which in turn is because they gained social capital. In this article, I argue that they can gain social capital through investment of financial capital. Invest financial capital wisely – for example by commissioning artists or building a barrio for others to enjoy, and you will see a return on investment in social capital.

If this is true, we can apply what we know about how capital tends to become more concentrated over time when the rate of growth of the entire market is lower than the rate of return on investment. There are some indicators of this in the Burning Man census – it looks like the richest population group is growing the fastest, a lot faster than the middle income group for example. This seems to indicate that if Burning Man is making people more successful, that is more true for those who are already wealthy.

I certainly don’t imply that being rich, on a personal level, is wrong or bad. Not at all. I am however trying to understand what these patterns are about.

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What a brilliant thought-up, Hugi. Thoughtfully written and it went straight into a topic that has been on my mind as well - how is BM perhaps serving as a platform to (Bay Area) capitalism. I love what you wrote (so eloquently) and honestly feel that I don’t have much to add, as this is not my forte.

However, just some light observations. It really does seem that just about anything from exponential tech to wellness industry and love (Valentine’s, anyone) can become a playground for capitalism if such are the mindset and values that people bring to it.

What are all these platforms within which we live our lives but canvases upon which to paint different systems and experiment experiences? Our environment or world seems to be the direct result of our inner world.

I am reminded of a line (apparently) uttered by Aristotle where the philosopher said something along these lines: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is not education at all.” What this speak to in my mind is around the importance of cultivating a Good Character and holding things like virtuousness, dignity and uprightness in high reverence (old fashioned topics in our fast-food world, right, but these are at the centre of my personal and research interests) as a society and community - be this community at the Burning Man, Silicon Valley or be it Finland as a whole. It is up to us as individuals to take responsibility for our own mind and the little pixel that is us. So, perhaps the question is not so much, or never was, about “what does Burning Man do or contribute to this and that”, but about what do I bring to Burning Man, and to all the systems that I am a part of. Again, this topic feels a bit far from my expertise but I cherish the thought process your write-up stirred in my mind, Hugi. So, thank you for putting the effort.

To conclude, I was a startup entrepreneur in SV for a brief time and many of my friends went to Burning Man. It was the time when I - for a reason that probably had more to do with my own inner journey than Burning Man itself - was VERY critical about the event. Now, note that I hadn’t actually gone there myself and I was suspicious of it based on what I had heard and read (from a selected group of people). Well, I finally participated last year with our Stories Team and the whole experience turned out to be deeply positive, transformative and constructive to my growth toward being a decent human. Things are always different from the inside - same goes with our own process and experience as a human. The more we dare to descend into the depths of ‘us’ , the more clearly and honestly we begin to be able to reflect on ourselves. The more honest we are about ourselves and the more we cultivate compassion for others, the better we can handle all the million playgrounds and systems that life gives us to test out ‘life’ - including capitalism. Better thinking creates better action, as the Finnish philosopher Esa saarinen often says.

I hear every now and then someone critique Burning man and I often make a point to ask “Have you been there?” There seems to be a trend that the more passionate the critique, the more likely it is that the person has no direct experience of the event s/he is critiquing.

Grateful to everyone contributing to this fine conversation!

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Thank you for this text @Hugi! I agree with you mostly, and will expand on your thoughts with some comments here. I’m sorry if I come off as a Keynesian centrist but allow me this momentary diversion.

What is capitalism?

Firstly, as you all of course know, capitalism is not an ideology, it is a system of redistribution. This can be used for good and for bad. To criticize capitalism in itself is like blaming the car in a drunk-driving accident. Capitalism is an immensely productive machine, prosperous if used correctly, deadly if misused - much like a car.

Secondly, as you all of course also know, we do not live under pure capitalism. Thankfully, our capitalism is legally, culturally and ideologically reigned in. Capitalism in its purest form thrives on the breaking of barriers, customs, and norms. Every tradition is another obstacle to further expansion. Seen in this light, capitalism is by its very definition counter-culture. This makes capitalism absolutely schizophrenic, as it immediately seeks to shatter what it established a second ago. Pure capitalism is a multi-dimensional iridescent clusterfuck of a car crash. If we let it loose it will kill the planet in a day, and enjoy every second on it. To be useful it must be reigned in, just like the explosions of a combustion engine.

Let’s continue with the car analogy: How do we avoid drunk-driving capitalism? Capitalism is dependent on the humans acting through it, and in turn, influences the humans acting through it - just as you get blinded by the speed and power of your new car. How do we avoid people getting high on their power while in a car? Well, we have laws, punishments, and most importantly a complex set of social and moral taboos revolving driving, which deters people, in most cases, from driving recklessly and dangerously. You do not speed in 90mph past a school, primarily because you don’t want to kill children, and secondarily because you don’t want to lose your license.

In the case of capitalism, we have similar checks and balances in place, a complex set of national and international laws and treaties, social and moral customs. There are laws revolving how you can treat your employees, what damage you are allowed to do on the environment, and so on. Even if it’s technically legal, in most countries, to sell eg a product that breaks down after a year, it is widely frowned upon and most likely, hopefully, will result in the end of your business. However, as per current events, ranging from climate breakdown to rampant inequality, these checks and balances are clearly not enough and need to be updated to fit our current era. It’s 2020, but we still live in capitalism under the checks and balances from the 70s. Like letting an old demented grandparent with poor eyesight drive your car.

What is Burning Man?

From my anecdotal experience, Burning Man is like The Shimmer, a collective acid trip, a place that shatters your conceptions, that proves that everything is made up, that all your dearly held beliefs of the workings of the world and yourself are just the result of the arbitrary cultural tendencies that happened to be in place when you were born. If capitalism thrives on the breaking of barriers, then Burning Man is its logical extension. An important, cultural, step towards total dissolutions of norms and traditions. This is not a bad thing. We need to shatter so many of our faulty conceptions of the world if we’re to be able to deal with the mess we’re in.

Burning Man is then a transitory state, which shatters your conceptions and allows you to build new ones. This shattering is of course not enough, you need to do the hard work and actually internalize and implement these changes. Just like therapy sessions are meaningless if you don’t actually change your habits, Burning Man is meaningless if you experience it as a one-week saturnalia and afterwards go back to your daily life with nothing changed. In this way, it would be absurd to blame Burning Man for not creating a better society, as well as talking about it as a model for a future society.

Who is ripe for actually changing their way of life after a week at Burning Man? Well, if my prejudices against rich people are correct, people who make more than $300,000 a year are generally less interested in actually changing anything about their life or society. They might say that they want to, because the current culture demands it, but they do not actually want it, as it would mean that they would not be making more than $300,000 a year. There are exceptions of course - you know who you are, but something deep in our Palaeolithic brains stops most us from willingly giving up power.

What should Burning Man be?

Luckily the conception-shattering capabilities of Burning Man culture are not confined to a remote and expensive desert in rural Nevada, but is a flourishing culture around much of the western world. New burns are popping up around Europe almost by the week, Sweden had more than 7 events last year. Hopefully, these events facilitate the shattering of conceptions of many people, who can see the benefits and implement them in their lives. And hopefully, these personal implementations in turn mass into new cultural norms who reigns in capitalism to be better suited at tackling current issues.

I will not go into detail on this, as I could go on for ages, but here is one example of a new conception that can be gained from Burn events, which I believe could eventually turn into cultural norms to reign in capitalism: Communal life is good, and it’s fun to do things together. It is messy and people are fucking annoying much of the time, but ultimately it makes you happier than the sleek and shiny individualized way of life of much of contemporary western society. This is a good capitalism-reigning-in practice, as pure capitalism thrives on individualization and transactionalization. Growing veggies or building a new garage together with your friends is fun! According to experts - me - it can actually be as much fun as a trip to Thailand, and it will leave you with stronger relationships, skills and a warm feeling of accomplishment that no international flight ever can.

Leave the Gerlach Regional to be the playground of the Bay Area elites, and let us grow our own conception-shattering events that cater to people actually willing to change the world.

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Thank you for your beautifully written and thought provoking post, Hugi.

There are many things I’d like to adress. I hold the conviction that an equal distribution of social capital is not at all in the best interest of the whole (of any social group). A network with equal connection and weight distribution is not intelligent. That being said, for the sake of the preservation and flourishing of that which is unique in participatory culture (PC), we should look carefully at what distinguishes the incentive structures internal to PC from those external to it, and especially, as is done here, at the points of transfer.

PC can live because of the inherent meaningfulness of participation. To the degree that this is true, participation is both the means and the end, and PC is autopoietic. PC looses its autonomy and becomes either digested or instrumentalised by capitalism when the work which sustains it no longer is intrinsically motivated, because when such is the case, finding ways to bypass the work to get to the external end becomes desirable, and the system degenerates by accelerated defection. Posing becomes a winning strategy.

Video link: 17 min talk on the emergence and decay of Scenius (collective genius)

In order to have a BM which isn’t exploited by those to whom financial capital is the end, and accruing social capital at BM is the means, the pathway toward gaining social capital must be serving the sustenance and flourishing of the community at large. As far as “riding a cool vehicle” is the way to generate social capital at BM, the social incentive pathway is identical within the BM bubble and outside, and the case is lost. If the pathway to social capital is through community supporting participatory work, perhaps we should be happy that that social capital can be converted into financial power outside the bubble.

So part of the problem you’re describing is that the burns can exacerbate inequality because of the financial to social to financial capital loop. Perhaps we should ask why financial capital can be converted to social capital in a meaningful way in PC in the first place. Is it because we are confusing contribution with participation – i.e. does buying, having and displaying cool toys serve reputation better than actively participating in co-creative labour? If so, how can we rebalance our appreciation of material vs skill-based contributions? A collective capacity to discern between these activities would serve an immunological function.

Financial capital can be converted to social capital with high transfer rates when participatory contribution can be confused with financial/material contribution.

And when material contributions take proportionally larger role than participatory contributions, we are vulnerable to the illusion that the community is prospering due to the great influx of flashy shiny stuff, when in fact it is being bottle-fed by capitalism and is consequentially loosing the capacity to produce on its own energy.

Why do you think this is the case? I partially see it as a scale and senescence phenomenon. Perhaps the village vs city scale favour different strategies for reputation spread? In a city, the magnificent visibility of a large scale structure does more to reputation than LNT-work, whereas in a village gossip, small talk play a proportionally larger role, and picking up MOOP might be the way to go (to name one example). I’d definitely say that the financial to social capital transfer rate appears very low in Borderland.

Unequal distribution of social capital isn’t undesirable. Social capital isn’t even a rivalrous good, on the contrary, it is anti-rivalrous, which is why I like systems that favour it over material capital. Going to Burns to get more social capital isn’t bad either. But doing it while bypassing participation erodes the essence that keeps the whole thing together.

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I like this view a lot, although I agree with many of the objections against describing capitalism as a force of nature. It isn’t at all clear wether some of the fundaments of capitalism are also fundaments of human nature. And then there are of course all the cultural machinery which actively inhibits the emergence of cultural “obstacles”. Ranging from the right to individual ownership all the way up to contracts at the scale of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Recognising that
i) culture and ideology can be catalytic and protective with respect to capitalism
and
ii) such structures can easily embed themselves into burn culture
is highly relevant in the context of burns as breeding grounds for conceptions like the one quoted below.

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How fascinating discussions already and thank you for a great opening Hugi.

I am just back from Beirut where literally all capitalist institutions are collapsing. A heavy national debt with utopian banking scheme, elite corruption etc the usual suspects and revolution on the side. As a result, once a rich nation is going down with unexpected speed, with a human suffering no-one saw coming. Not surely going to be the last one in late stage capitalism country-level series.

Once I get a bit of clarity to my head, look forward to contributing this from the institutional approach i.e. speculating what could be after the era of late-stage capitalism and how counter cultures, such a Burning Man, might or might not have an influential role in that blend.

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Thank you @hugi for an excellent article.

Capitalism eats newness. It feeds on innovation. As opposed to what became before it, capitalism has hit genius ability to improve itself, to constantly adopt and grow. It does that by using an experimental evolutionary process, which identifies meaningful difference and exploit it by scaling. Be it Elvis, a Che Guevara T-shirt, a Brooklyn condo or Paris Hilton at Burning Man. It can be described by the innovation diffusion curve, through the theory of cultural appropriation, or by Sander van der Leeuw’s Archeology of Innovation (cities as systems addicted to innovation).

Burning Man might be the most fertile ground for capitalism on this planet!

How capitalism feeds on Burning Man can be seen even without bringing in the exchange of financial and social capita that you mention. Today, “self-expression” has been commodified and new participants are increasingly looking at the social media simulation of Burning Man self-expression to understand how to fit in. Through the machinery of Instagram and Etsy, the “radical self-expression look™” can be bought and sold. Capitalism is having a feast on the newness production of the participatory culture - on the internet and at Burning Man.

And yes, Black Rock City is a market place where social capital can be converted into cash. In many ways it has become a scaled up version of the Bohemian Grove, neatly packaged in an illusion of radical inclusion. A place where people in power may connect in a setting that makes them open and safe to be vulnerable. A place that breeds trust for new deals.

Not just looking at income brackets, this is now visible even in the What When Where guide. I’ve attended thinly vailed crypto startup investor pitches masquerading as “seminar on the future of finance” on prime esplanade placement. If you know the way around the city, and know the right people, you can find the tables where multi million dollar investment deals are struck. There are many in the global fundraising circuit who wouldn’t dream of cutting Burning Man of their year calendar of essential networking events. Cool right?

I don’t think we have to go as far as pin it to “capitalism”. To me, this is the way memetic evolution happens. Counter-culture is defined by its relationship with mainstream culture. Meaningful newness exists only through its difference from something that already exists. If it was not it would be irrelevant nonsense. At the same time, in that very connection with established culture lies the destiny of every counter-culture to be gentrified. As it tries to make impact on the world, it is diluted and consumed.

Burning Man is now at the stage where it is is no longer just a separate, escapist haven for the freaks and weirdos. By connecting to the real world it is having a small, while still real impact on dominant culture. At the same time it is being consumed by it. While I think it is essential that Burning Man continues to work diligently to uphold its principles, I don’t maintain the illusion that it will. Burning Man as we know it will die and should die, and it’s ashes ceremonially paraded by the hegemony.

So, based on this assumption, what questions should we be asking ourselves? To me, there are two lines of questioning that are the most productive:

  1. How may we maximize the impact that the counter-culture has on the dominant culture, while it is being consumed?

  2. How may we ensure that some sparks escape, to form the new counter-culture?

To start thinking about the first question, I agree it is important to understand which of our values (or 10 principles) that resonate with the dominant culture (and hence will take life of its own) and which ones we need to focus on so create sustained impact. I absolutely agree that Radical Self-Expression can be seen as perfectly in line with American individualism, and it is an excellent producer of newness to be exploited by capitalism. We can also see how Radical Self-Reliance can be used as an excuse to dismantling of social services and welfare. The fact that these fit so well with a certain Randian narrative makes it even more important for us to stress: these principles are only useful representations of the community in their relationships with the other principles.

Participation

“We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”]

Donating money is not a “real action that opens the heart”. It is not Participation. Donating money is Gifting, and “The value of a gift is unconditional.”. Donating money should be viewed as something as basic as bringing your own cup. If you are lucky enough to be endowed with financial power in the outside world, you may donate as a way of working on your own personal attachments related to money. What you get back is the joy of letting go. You don’t get a gold star. Unfortunately, what often see the opposite. There is a tendency to value financial contributions above creative participation. There even is the official BMP Artumnal, an event dedicated to showing appreciation to those donating $5 000, but no event of similar dignity giving credit to those who donate 500 hours.

Or take the phenomena of on playa wage labor among participants. That is: community members using external financial capital to pay other community members to provide services on playa (such as food, setup or even LNT). I find it completely bizarre that this is not stamped out and outright prohibited. It outright pisses on Radical Self-Reliance, Gifting, Decommodification and Participation principles only to serve the principle of “Convenience”. Will Burning Man Project fix this and prioritize these principles over the army of large theme camps and art projects are dependent on, for example, paying chefs to have their food made. Of course they won’t. Black Rock City have been addicted to convenience for way too long for this to be reversed. The fact might be that it could not have created the iconic art that made it penetrate mainstream consciousness unless this was the case?

Participation that opens the heart, unconditional gifting, communal effort, and to “resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience” (Decommodification). Yes! These are cultural norms that could reign in capitalism. What if we, as Jakob suggests can change the dominant culture in the United States to promote the idea that…

All these ambitions goals will, of course, fail. At least to any extent that will make participants of this forum satisfied. Should we keep trying to bring these things up? Fuck yeah! Should we allow our culture to be caricatured and packaged as a spectator only exhibition for the Smithsonian Museum, (not in any way ironically) named “No spectators”?

Of course we should! The only way we make real impact is through being consumed by the machine!

But Hugi might be right in that our Home isn’t there. As we help Burning Man die gracefully, we need to use its flames to to preserve the spark that will become the next counter culture. Despite being looked at as “the same movement” from the outside, they are and should be defined by their differences. It is through difference that we create life. What comes after can never be guided by nostalgia: ideas that Burning Man used to be better. The new comes from rejection of the of the past (especially our own pasts). It means conflict, it means fragmentization, it means polarization. These processes of establishing difference are essential for laying the groundwork of the next transformation. We need to maintain a deep love for the rebel, the rascal and the trickster is core to striking new sparks. We need to look at our children, not as moldable heirs of our empire, but as starry-eyed revolutionaries destined to overthrow us.

Sure, I can say that The Borderland is one such child, challenging the status quo of the Gerlach Regional Burn. It pushes new ideas that were outright rejected as naive fairytales by the incumbents of Burning Man incumbent. It lives the principles of Burning Man harder and better than the original burn. And… at 4000 people and 10 years of age, The Borderland is also starting its process of gentrification, and is getting ripe for disruption by yet another countercultural movement. The future of Burning Man is not Burning Man, and it is not Borderland. It comes from those who, while honoring their past and their elders, spell out a respectful “fuck yer burn” and move on.

And we don’t have to be a part of this future. It’s up to each one of us to decide where we want to work on the innovation diffusion / gentrification curve. Some like it edgy, others like to be a jolly part of the gentrification process. I personally like jumping between the two like a self-contradictory schizophrenic.

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Thanks a very thoughtful and well presented thesis. Thought being the basis of resistance. Resistance creating the reality It resists. Change is presence, acceptance and surrender. This is the oneness that creates and manifests inspiration. One love A :pray::orange_heart:

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Thanks Hugi for this thought-provoking piece. The intersecting of the internet and BM really deserves a thorough study, beyond the shallow and celebratory accounts we’ve seen before. Perhaps you’re the man for the job.

I think this is a good foundation for a more thoroughgoing critique which would benefit from: 1) a more in-depth study of Black Rock City and the Burning Man Project, 2) focus on particular examples of capitalist culprits within BRC, and; 3) more detail on the solutions offered by The Borderland, in which you have much experience, and which would presumably give attention to the Dreams platform.

I was happy your approach offers more substance than the quite superficial approach than the article in Jacobin you like so much. Typical to the remote viewing common to critiques of BRC (where most commentators have never stepped foot on the playa), the author of that article is an armchair theorist of the Lazy Boy Recliner variety. The approach vastly oversimplifies its subject matter and conveniently overlooks that which might disturb the narrative of a socialist opportunity lost to insipid libertarianism. So where to start with what is being conveniently ignored here? Well, since Burners Without Borders, for example, appears to be anomalous to any standard socialist agenda, one of the most important cultural developments to have spun out of the burnerverse is wholly ignored. And then there is the messy reality provided by ten interfacing principles.

The problem seems magnified when the remote viewing is performed by public intellectuals. Jeremy Gilbert, for example, weighed in on the fate of Burning Man in his 2013 book Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism . For Gilbert, Burning Man (among other “transformational festivals”) has been coopted by “hegemonic neoliberalism,” which he states

“is perfectly happy for individuals to undergo personal transformations, so long as they do not aggregate or catalyse any significant social transformations” (195). It is a popular and long held favourite vista for old revolutionaries and new leftists alike reclining at the office in their executive lumbar support four mode desk chairs for whom carnival may reverse but does not displace the status quo. “The danger of self-defined ‘carnivalesque’ spaces, of cultural ‘temporary autonomous zones’, is that they become spaces of enclosure within which any challenge to hegemonic social norms is safely contained, posing no threat to wider power relations” (ibid: 195).

Such “safety valve” theories of the carnivalesque are alluring. But they are also reductionist. They tend to oversimplify complex phenomena or mis-charactise the entire enterprise in accord with one of its troubling traits. Gilbert’s takes another step even more troubling. As simply “alternative” (lifestyle) and not properly “oppositional,” Burning Man had failed to live up to its new left potential. But it isn’t burners who are at fault – the fault lies with a socialist Left that hasn’t effectively appropriated Burning Man to its own ends: According to Gilbert, if Burning Man and other “transformational festivals” “lack effective connections with wider political movements then the fault lies as much with those movements.”

Cleary Gilbert (among other public scholars who have expressed their views on Burning Man) has a limited understanding of the nature of that which he claims expertise. He even argues that Burning Man has failed because it lacks an organizing body that is committed to self-interrogation. He’s on very shaky ground, as we see today the BMP through projects such as Cultural Course Correcting, responsive to the problem of “pay to play” camps which have effectively facilitated burners outsourcing principles to “burnerpreneurs”.

Hugi is in a much better position to locate and interrogate how Burning Man is being coopted by capitalism – and notably how specific individuals may be accumulating wealth through their gifting and other practices that improve their social capital. It is an interesting theory – that deserves testing. Who are these people? Hugi states.

“If this is true, we can apply what we know about how capital tends to become more concentrated over time when the rate of growth of the entire market is lower than the rate of return on investment. There are some indicators of this in the Burning Man census – it looks like the richest population group is growing the fastest, a lot faster than the middle income group for example. This seems to indicate that if Burning Man is making people more successful, that is more true for those who are already wealthy.”

This assumes that the same people of wealth are being measured over time. We don’t know that. The numbers could possibly include the many big time “bucket listers” attending one time only, i.e. in numbers that are possibly proportionate with the higher price ticketing tier (used to be presale / now FOMO). Further, even if they are the same people measured, it seems a bit BM-centric to argue that lavish expenditures (gifting) on-playa are determining this pattern. You’d want more evidence. I’m not knocking the critical effort here – I just think more research is necessary, with a focus on specific case studies that illustrate the contentions.

I think there exists much scope today for studies that ask pertinent questions about the nature of power and status within the burnerverse and conduct research with an open mind. I found Sebastian’s response to be quite appealing. “Unequal distribution of social capital isn’t undesirable,” he says. “Going to Burns to get more social capital isn’t bad either. But doing it while bypassing participation erodes the essence that keeps the whole thing together.” I think this is boiling it down to the nub of the matter. Sebastian also wrote:

“If the pathway to social capital is through community supporting participatory work, perhaps we should be happy that that social capital can be converted into financial power outside the bubble.”

I would like to hear more about that. I think such could be the foundations for a very useful research project.

Ultimately I take issue with attempts to apply straight edged templates – e.g. of decline, cooptation, recuperation, incumbency, neoliberalisation, etc, – on a reality that was and remains messy. Such efforts will typically oversimplify and mischaracterize a phenomenon that, for example, has ten principles that exist in creative tension. Radical Self-expression, as Hugi notes is worth interrogating, though its an easy target. As is Radical Self-reliance, which I not Gustav discusses in his thread. If you’ll excuse me for taking the liberty of cut n pasting a passage from a blog entry - http://edgecentral.blogspot.com/2016/05/meet-your-maker-maker-culture-culture.html I wrote on Radical Self-reliance

“….the principle that evokes rugged individualism, a maverick self-sufficiency requisite for settling a remote desert frontier—an experimental zone where the resourceful, the independent and the enterprising have achieved notoriety, status and power. A paean to the authority of the individual unfettered by state intervention, moral guardianship and soul destroying bureaucracy, in Radical Self-reliance we find an expression of the Romantic realization that the “truth” lies within, a sensibility integral to the American Transcendentalists, namely nonconformists like Ralph Waldo Emerson whose influential 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” exhorted readers to have faith in their selves, to trust their inner genius, that medium of divine inspiration to which all are purported to have access. Fueling an inner gold rush charged to mine human potential and influencing the self-help movement and “mindfulness” industry in which the corporate world has vested since the 1980s to inspire innovation, drive competition and maximise profit, self-reliance is a virtue recognizably radical in the myth of neoliberalism.”

All that said, fixation with singular principles tends towards reductionist posturing that ignores the messier reality. Neatly stated critiques — e.g. of Burning Man falling from its roots as a counterculture, or a TAZ, or even a socialist utopia — conveniently sidestep the complex contours and ramifications of the phenomenon.

I’m thankful to Hugi for igniting this interesting conversation.

Graham

Hmm. There’s something that’s difficult for me to grasp about how you reconcile “values that resonate with the dominant culture” and maximising the impact on the dominant culture (DC). The more I think about it, the less I see those as “the easy values” that will sort themselves out by the virtue of their own momentum, and more as nucleation points onto which fragments of DC can find memetic refuge in an otherwise chaotic and hostile environment, and then crystallise and self-reassemble. Where that happens I see two different scenarios:

i) the DC memeplex achieves cancerous runaway sovereignty through a self-reinforcing spiral. E.g. Self-expression invites instagram narcissism invites more instagram narcissism at the detriment of core PC values like participation, immediacy, etc.

ii) the DC memeplex is successfully tamed/assimilated by balancing it in dynamic tension with other PC values (including but not limited to the other principles). E.g. instead of Self-reliance turning into isolating individualism, it is complemented and counteracted by Communal Effort and actually protects Gifting and Decommodification from degeneration by free riders.

But the above regard only points where PC and DC values overlap. The potential energy
literally lies in the delta. The energy gradient is what attracts people to PC in the first place. There is a need, unsatisfied by DC, and burn culture is a system that is not only more suited to meet that need, but was created for that very purpose to begin with. The delta is the origin of its attraction and capacity for further social innovation. Observing this I think is key to answering both of your questions, @guff. I endorse your perspective that burner events and counter cultures make their impact as they’re being eaten by DC. And it is important to remember that although the large-scale structure of, say, BM degrades, its nodes – the humans (and the experiences we carry and pass on) – do not as rapidly.

I also disagree with the safety-valve metaphor. One of the main reasons is because it seems like the personal transformations people go through seem not only to persist, but also increase that person’s capacity to create spaces which facilitate similar transformations in others. That type of networked chain reaction dynamic is the only hope, which I think everyone here agrees with. To bring it back to Gustav’s first Q, it is all about finding the right inflection points and nudging them over the edge. Two strategies:

i) Acupuncture style: you hit just the right spot in the right person, and the effects ripple across the system. The power of nodal influences. Canonically - personal transformations induced by trauma healing or peak experiences.

ii) Global up-regulation of key factors. This is usually what is done in complex systems. You can’t predict exactly where the next terrorist strike will be so you up-regulate the general alertness of the population. Here, we don’t know the blueprint for social change, so instead we have a training ground that increases each individual’s capacity for innovation. Trust is another good example that radically increases collective capacities for collaboration.

Relevant to both strategies is what i take to be a core enabler for PC’s capacity for enticing social change. Unlike many other social movements, PC does not try to impose an agenda or prohibition on an unwilling recipient who is assumed not to know what’s best for themself, but instead it gives participants what they themselves know they want. It provides a space for expressing behaviour that is already valued, but not practised and developed due to external constraints.

To weave together the whole thing and tackle the second question.

Since PC thrives because it is more grounded and in tune with humans, the key to it’s recurring regeneration is to make sure it remains grounded and in tune. The danger of any movements is that they risk become too attached to their own values – they fall in love with their own creation, so to speak – and they, just like capitalism or bureaucracy or christianity or [insert any self-organising collective intelligence in human history], loose touch with the problems they were purposed to solve and become self-justifying. For the sparks that escape to reliably hit tinder, we need a culture who listens and listens deeply.

Here it can be useful to distinguish personal and historical innovation. Personal innovation is when I come up with something that is novel for me, but that has actually been "done a million times before”. Historical innovation is universally new. Historical innovation is rare, although the sum of a population’s capacity for personal innovation predicts historical innovation.

It’s interesting that both of you grab hold of this point. And if we are to believe in that market creates what the market needs – perhaps it is inevitable that a market so heavily dependent on novelty, creates a place that produces novelty at a breakneck pace.

This is also something that I think is at the core of what I’m asking: Is the current “formula” for how to do burns a formula for what makes a radical counter-culture in 1991? What are the current assumptions and shortcomings of our societies that we want to question and reimagine? How do we best do that?

I don’t think true at all. Take two people: Both work on their Burning Man contributions for 200 hours.

One of them is a middle income person with little money to spend. She builds an art car from scraps in her garage with a few of her friends. They have a budget of a few thousand dollars. It takes them 200 hours.

The other is a CEO who spends 100 of those hours working with her wealthy friends on drawing up plans for a huge art car with a massive sound system. They then spend tens of thousands of dollars to build a functioning prototype and record a slick kickstarter video, which then gets them tens of thousands more to work with, and she spends the other 100 hours project managing the production.

Who do you think gets the most oooh’s and aaah’s when they bring their art to playa? And as we know, oooh’s and aaah’s are to social capital what caaachiiiing’s are to financial capital.

However, it’s not the case here that financial contributions are being confused with participation. The art brought to the playa for those 200 hours of participation by the wealthy person is just more likely to be better at grabbing attention and generating social capital for its patron than the lovingly made little art car is.

Yes, but it can also be true that because of the inherent meaningfulness of participation, PC becomes the most efficient market in the world for transferring financial capital to social capital if you invest wisely.

Yes, I agree with this. I’m not arguing for a completely even distribution of social capital, just as I am not arguing for a DDR-style economy. But if we are entering an economy where social capital is becoming more important, we should take care not to reproduce the acceleration of inequality that capitalism created in the 20th century.

We should see if we can ping Sander into this discussion! I’ve pinged him over on Edgeryders.

Indeed, I even saw a whole little village where most of the activities going on seemed to be some version of this. Really interesting.

This is also very important. As opposed to most cities in the world, Black Rock City can die and disappear forever without the existential suffering that permanent cities face when their expiration date passes. One day, it can become nothing but legend, and I think that is how it will have most of its future impact. I wrote about this a couple of years ago, comparing BRC with the Vatican.

This is a very valid perspective, and I like the image it evokes, in all its morbidity.

Thanks for a great post @guff!

Well, I wouldn’t say that I like it that much, but I haven’t found many other widely available pieces of critique that investigate the issue. I agree that it is quite shallow, and I do note that the author has not “gotten” the culture, even though I think some of his critique hits the mark. You are more familiar with the academic body of work around Burning Man, so I will gladly be shown to better sources.

I completely agree with this. The left, after all, has faced a worldwide lack of narrative and direction for the last 20 years since the lackluster experiment of “third-way” politics. Some friends of mine have been trying to address this through the Alter Ego initiative, trying to bridge the gap between transformational experiences and politics.

Of course, I also stated quite clearly that this is a hypothesis and not a claim. But for claims to be made, hypotheses must be generated. I think that should be one of the aims of our conferences and seminars – generating interesting hypotheses for researchers to test in the field and with the data available.

Bring the complex contours and ramifications! We are ready. It is what this is all for, after all. And who better than yourself. I will also dig into your longer paper posted elsewhere.

Thank you Graham for your informed and thoughtful analysis, as always. Lots to think about.

Hello all, non-burner here, interested in learning more about the culture. Congrats on a deep and rich discussion.

This is an interesting statement, I had never thought about it. I guess its validity depends on what definition you subscribe to: if you think of “capital” as a property of the social/economic system (Putnam, who evokes density of NGOs and associations in a society), then rivalry is just irrelevant, and the more capital the better, like Sebastian says. If you think of it as an endowment of individuals (Bourdieu, who evokes old boys networks), then the endowment appears to be positional. This is because social capital is the ability to mobilize people around your goals. Since the people can do only a certain amount of mobilizing, if your influence on them grows, it follows that mine must decline. In this sense, large inequalities in its distribution are bad. This is all the more true because lock-in effects can kick in: the more social capital one person has, the more she can use it to get even more of it, just as with financial capital.

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Thanks @alberto, this was a very useful and clarifying point. I see how my statement isn’t generalisable. However there are two conditions that show that also the following isn’t generalisable:

Condition i): Our goals are aligned. If this is the case, social capital at the very least pools, but most likely reciprocally reinforces. This holds true regardless of whether we consider the agent to be an individual or organisation. I’d also claim that if the agents are within sufficient proximity, they don’t even have to be directly linked to each other for them to passively profit from the other’s social capital. Partially overlapping networks are sufficient.

Condition ii): Being in a domain of abundance as opposed to scarcity. That is, the pool of people from which I can recruit is virtually inexhaustible. Here, rivalry isn’t of course impossible, it is just sub-optimal. If there is too much fruit for any of us to pick, competition isn’t competitive.

My take on burns is that they provide an environment where the mentioned conditions are approximated. Personal transformation (ego dissolutions, trauma healing etc.) all the way up to network properties (high collision rates, network density etc.) feed into the emergence of these conditions.