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