Has the Burning Man Bubble Burst?

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Burning Man is like a combination of the Philly Mummers Parade, Woodstock, Mad Max, a rave, Andy Warhol’s Factory, and Shark Tank, except it lasts for a week. And it’s a city in the desert in Nevada. From the about page:

Burning Man is an annual event and a thriving year-round culture. The event takes place the week leading up to and including Labor Day, in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The Burning Man organization (Black Rock City LLC) creates the infrastructure of Black Rock City, wherein attendees (or “participants”) dedicate themselves to the spirit of community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. They depart one week later, leaving no trace. As simple as this may seem, trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind. In this section you will find the peripheral definitions of what the event is as a whole, but to truly understand this event, one must participate.

Whether our activities take place in Black Rock City or around the world, Burning Man’s Ten Principles provide a guiding social and cultural framework for our community.

Here’s a less prosaic description; read it, note the anaphora (“You…”/”You’re here…”) and ask yourself if there could be anything missing; I’ll circle back to that point. 

I should say right off that there is — or, since I haven’t participated, must be — great beauty in the event; see images from Refinery 29, the Guardian, the New York Times, and (of course) the Daily Mail. Here’s the image that got me started thinking about this piece:


But there’s another aspect that appeals to me even more than beauty, and that’s how “Burners” create (I won’t use the vile word “innovate”):

[Tom] Varden, a Los Angeles resident, is the lead artist on the Black Rock Observatory, a star-gazing facility that includes two spherical structures and a 20-inch custom-built telescope. The concept grew from Varden’s desire to give back to Burning Man and be a sounding board for its creative energy rather than a mere recipient.The Black Rock Observatory, designed by an artist and manned by scientists, attempts to bridge that divide. The Observatory, like Burning Man, is about getting people to look beyond their cellphone and computer screens and get inspired by interacting with each other in creative ways, Varden says.

“It’s the realization that you walk around in 4-4 time doing, doing, doing and you forget that — surrender or not —life is happening to you. It’s bigger than you. It’s amazing, it’s beautiful and it’s cacophonous,” he says. “There’s a huge, huge parallel between that and looking through a telescope.”

And even more appealing to me is the joy of self-organizing, which I regard as the hallmark of all the “square” events 2011 – 2012: Tahrir Square, the indignados, the Capitol occupations in Madison and elsewhere, Occupy proper, and Carré rouge student movement in Quebec. Chris Taylor, in a passionate defense of the Burning Man experience, writes:

Grover Norquist [whp attended this year] is, I hope, going to have something of an epiphany on the playa [that is, the desert, an ancient lake bed]. The anti-government crusader will see what people do in what he thinks is a post-government kind of environment — they band together and rush headlong towards a system of collective survival infrastructure, also known as government.

What’s more incredible than this highly effective volunteer government (such as the DMV, or Department of Mutant Vehicles, which registers and regulates every art car on the playa)? It’s the universally agreed-upon rules and mores, the culture that so quickly rushes in on top of the infrastructure year after year like fast-pouring concrete.

So what to make of it all? Of course, the About page’s claim that “To truly understand this event, one must participate” is silly; that’s like saying that to understand Napoleon’s march on Moscow, you have to have been a member of the Grand Armée. In fact, people with the advantages of time and distance from that event — historians, say — are probably better equipped to understand that event than participants, who necessarily had very partial and limited views. But we don’t have to argue about that; the About page gives us a perfectly valid method of “truly” understanding: The 10 Principles. So we can lay reports against the principles, and see how well they match. So here we go.

* * *

1) Radical Inclusion. Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

Burning Man’s organizers don’t say how much money they make in ticket sales. But it’s pretty easy to calculate—around $25 million—based on what they say publicly about the number of tickets sold (63,000) and their cost (anywhere from $190 to $650), plus $40 parking passes. The event also collects fees from commercial photographers and filmmakers, according to various reports. (Fortune)

Of course, $25 million is chump change, today; but if you’re charging for tickets, there are “prerequisites for participation” by definition.

I found an at-value ticket in mid-August, which was lucky, because the last-minute “OMG” tickets were already sold out. To claim my ticket, I met my seller at a luxury apartment building in downtown Las Vegas, where I was greeted by two 20-somethings who presented the golden ticket while playing guitar and wearing rabbit ears. Along with it, they handed me an official Burning Man Survival Guide outlining the festival’s 10 principles. (Quartz)

And it seems the “prerequisites” include a heavy duty social networking skills, as well, or, as we used to call them, connection. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but prerequisites they are.

2) Gifting. Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

Well, sure, except — and I know that the journalists covering the event beat this one to death, but still — when you get to Squillionaires Row:

I walked into a space that was cordoned off by air-conditioned luxury RVs. A woman with a clipboard stood at the entrance of the dining tent, checking off names for the chef-prepared meals, and stopped me before I could go any further. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Your name isn’t on the list.” (Quartz)

Well, I don’t think she was that sorry. And then there was the Dogecoin tent (in a camp (in the city (in the desert))), which a lot the journalists covering the event sought out:

“Once we learn to monetize everything, we take this gifting economy out to the world,” [Joshua Keim of 1WorldCurrency.net] said. “We can take the Illuminati’s cyber gold and silver, and distribute it evenly. Once we have this, we can live in abundance, rather than scarcity.”(re/code)

Now, I don’t want to say that the Dogecoin dudes are in any way representative of Burning Man, and especially not the squillionaire participants, except perhaps in this: Burning Man is a spectacle, in fact a society of the spectacle, and as DeBord remarks: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” And as we have seen and shall see, many of these social relations are thoroughly transactional (though not perhaps Tom Varden’s)[1]. So, the Dogecoin dudes, and many others, may present, and even experience, Burning Man as a gifting economy, but in fact it isn’t.

3) Decommodification.  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.

Let it be said: All of Burning Man is a show of wealth. Tickets are $380, sure, but many of the art cars — immensely decorated buses and trucks — cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not to mention the neon furs, the metallic leggings, the lights (there were side-of the-road hawkers at the gate who tried to sell me a rainbow stole for $80). (re/code)


Surely this is conspicuous consumption as Veblen defines it:

Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure [irony]. As wealth accumulates on his hands, his own unaided effort will not avail to sufficiently put his opulence in evidence by this method. The aid of friends and competitors is therefore brought in by resorting to the giving of valuable presents and expensive feasts and entertainments. Presents and feasts had probably another origin than that of naive ostentation, but they acquired their utility for this purpose very early, and they have retained that character to the present; so that their utility in this respect has now long been the substantial ground on which these usages rest. Costly entertainments, such as the potlatch or the ball, are peculiarly adapted to serve this end.

Indeed! And there is plenty of straight up commodification going on, too. In addition to the organizers’ tickets, camps charge dues:

Dues to join the camp were only around $150 plus two bottles of hard alcohol—quite reasonable by most standards—and the base volunteer requirement was taking on shifts pouring drinks for revelers to attract them to the camp’s 24/7 sound stage. (Quartz)

4) Radical Self-reliance.  Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

Though their population among the 68,000 attendees has swelled in recent years, tech workers were some of the first to embrace Burning Man and its disruptive designs. And now that the valley is cranking out instant 20-something millionaires, entrepreneurs don’t have to rough it in the desert, said Brian Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine who wrote the book “This Is Burning Man.”

“If you’ve got a lot of money, maybe you don’t want to have your tent knocked down by the wind,” said Doherty, 46, who lives in Los Angeles. “Maybe you want to have a nice place to hide away.” (San Jose Mercury News)

So, if money buys you out of the principle, how radical is the principle to begin with? And of course, Burning Man relies completely and utterly on the larger society that surrounds it, for everything including the basics:

Inside the camp, Burners — as festivalgoers call themselves — were worried as Porta Potty stalls started filling up and ice shipments stopped. (Daily Breeze)

Now, you could argue that the Burners took a big risk by going out into the desert where water — and Porta Potties! — could fail, but in the case of disaster, they would have been bailed out, just as surely as the banks were (although, I admit, with far more justification).

5) Radical Self-expression.  Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

A crowd watches as two fighters battle in the Thunderdome during the Burning Man 2014 “Caravansary” arts and music festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, August 27, 2014. People from all over the world have gathered at the sold out festival to spend a week in the remote desert cut off from much of the outside world to experience art, music and the unique community that develops. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

Again, it would be unfair to characterize all of Burning Man by this one — rather transactional — event, but nevertheless it’s hard for me to reconcile a cage match with offering gifts to others. Did Mohammed Ali offer gifts to Joe Frazier? (One could argue that Ali and Frazier offered a gift to the crowd, but to me, the Thrilla in Manila was a thoroughly transactional spectacle, and not a gift at all. After all, they sold tickets.)

6) Communal Effort.  Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

But what kind of “community” are we talking about, anyhow? And what are its “methods of communication”?

My epiphany over the word “camp” was that only a few weeks ago I was listening to someone else talk about the various camps at Bohemian Grove, a rather different gathering of people in Monte Rio, Calif., along the Russian River and, like Burning Man, a relatively easy drive from San Francisco. “The Grove,” you see, also has camps, some that are bare-bones and others that are quite elaborate, with white table linens and servants. ([They] report that the rich and powerful at Burning Man have “Sherpas,” a slightly more palatable expression than servant.) One of the popular things that Grovesmen—and they are men—and their guests do is visit each other’s camps….

I mentioned the comparison to the “Burner” and was immediately met with disagreement. Burning Man is open to all; Bohemian Grove is open only to men—typically white, affluent, Republican men, and certainly by invitation only. All true.

But the comparisons are too many to ignore. The central event of Burning Man is, obviously, burning the wooden man in effigy, a spectacular finale to the event. In Burning Man lore the burning of the man is an act of “radical self-expression,” with apparent roots to pagan rituals. Or maybe the hippies in the desert simply were imitating the WASPs [hey, hey!] in the redwoods, who for years have conducted the “Cremation of the Care,” a Bohemian Grove tradition of burning a coffin effigy to signify a “cathartic release of life’s worries.”  (Fortune)

For more on the Bohemian Grove, see “Bohemian Grove: Where the rich and powerful go to misbehave” (WaPo). 

7) Civic Responsibility.  We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

In fact, as Chris Taylor points out, Burning Man has an actual government, and hence law enforcement officers:

Five hundred rangers managed by organizer Black Rock City LLC, as well as 95 federal and local law enforcement officers, are patrolling the art-focused party billed as a “temporary community based on radical self expression and self-reliance” (San Francisco Chronicle)

True, 600 officers for 60,000 participants is not a heavy police presence; my concerns go to the lessons that Burning Man’s “Enforcers” draw from their experience:

The BLM [which has a presence at Burning Man] showed remarkable restraint in the Clive Bundy situation — did anyone notice that? Like, a laudable, incredible amount of restraint? Compared to recent events in Ferguson, say? — and hardly anybody notices when Law Enforcement finishes strong. Hardly anybody notices when everything goes well, for the most part — but in the role of Enforcers ourselves, we noticed. It’s amazing how happy a civilization can be when nobody’s being threatened or subjugated or made to have low self-esteem. The default world is bleeding and in pain right now with horrifically lopsided race- and authority-relations … but at Burning Man, the slate is new and blank, each and every year. In all the enforcing departments, we have no reason not to lift each other up here and let each other do our jobs.

Well, I can think of three other reasons the Bundy Ranch episode was different from Ferguson, besides BLM’s involvement with Burning Man. 1) The Bundy Ranchers were ideologically right wing; 2) they were white; and 3) they were owners. And there’s a lot of that going down at Burning Man, too. So, while I respect the work the Enforcers do, the conclusion seems a little triumphal to me. I doubt very much it would apply in the context of Obama’s 17-city paramilitary crackdown on Occupy. And Does the Bohemian Grove really scale?

8) Leaving No Trace.   Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

“Physical” looks to me like a loophole you could drive an art car through. Let’s visit one of those squillionaire’s tents again:

I walked across the Burning Man playa to visit billionaire Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman’s camp  [in his camp of] giant blow-up spider houses. Fancy new toys, certainly, Pittman noted. But maybe something more! Maybe a solution to flimsy refugee-camp tents. Maybe homes for when we all inevitably live on Mars. The designer of the structure, Michael Beneville, joined the conversation. Beneville said they were just talking to NASA.

“Any species that doesn’t invent space-faring is doomed to annihilation,” Beneville said. Next year, their plan is to build 200 Dhomes and rent them for between $5 and $10,000 for the week (about what an RV costs).

Well, getting off-planet after testing your spider tents on the playa seems like a pretty big trace too me, and physical, too. And speaking of the the red planet, here’s a(nother brilliant, big data) image of California’s drought over the last year, which you are free to compare with the beautiful blue boat in the desert that I opened with:


Maybe a species that needs to get off planet shouldn’t!

9) Participation.  Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal 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.

Well, some are paid to work, but not everybody is invited to play:

We got to the escarpment, a daunting wall of RVs. The entry was covered by gauzy drapes. As they billowed in the wind, we could see inside: A crystal chandelier, glass refrigerators full of champagne, a dining-room table to seat maybe 16, and half a dozen very beautiful women in lingerie, serving cocktails. One of them saw the group.

She stormed outside, furious. The invaders responded defensively, saying they had just wanted to see. Some wanted to debate. She wanted everyone to keep walking. The group milled outside, debating whether to try again, or give up and go to a normal camp for a drink.

One of the turnkey residents, red-haired and slightly overweight, came out in a white shirt and cargo shorts. The party planner quickly ran back inside, brought him a red-silk Chinese robe, and helped him put it on. He thought someone’s headlamp was a camera, and started to scream at them. The event planner saw me taking notes and a picture of the scene, and came at me. “I don’t like you,” she said loudly, grabbing my shoulder. Someone next to me told her that she didn’t need to be a bitch. The man in the silk robe started jumping up and down, ready to throw a punch. (re/code)

“Deeply personal participation.”

10) Immediacy. Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

[Burning Man founder Larry Harvey”] “They’ve tried to institutionalize the kind of behavior that brought their business into being — a certain amount of risk-taking, a frontier mentality, a willingness to try things to see if they work, regardless of whether they fit institutional norms. Well, that’s the kind of can-do attitude that Burning Man is famous for.” … Black Rock City is a fantastic opportunity to go nuts with untested gadgets in the most extreme environment imaginable and with the participation of unusually thoughtful beta users. … Engineer Michael Favor, who worked with Google on the [Maps pilot] project in 2006, explained that “the power of Google is that they don’t do all the work. People posting content do. The same is true here at Burning Man. Citizens create the vast majority of things.” (Vox)

Well, the function of Bohemias — punk rock; Haight-Ashbury; parts of Brooklyn — at least in a capitalist society, is to provide a venue for cool hunters, and Burning Man is a gusher of cool, then to be refined into product. Citizens, as Vox points out, do the work. Others collect. It’s the way of the world!

* * *

Oh, the anaphora: “You’re here to build wealth.” Not everybody, and that there’s anything wrong with that. But still. So I don’t think the Burning Man bubble has burst at all. Whether as a society of the spectacle, a nouveaux Bohemian Grove, or a gusher of cool, I’d expect its “culture” to be increasingly mainstreamed and globalized, exactly as “startup culture” has been. Heck, why not franchise the brand?


[1] When “we learn to monetize everything”, and everything is liquid, isn’t everything permissible? Slavery, for example? How does that jibe with gifting?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


    1. Ron

      I attended several back in the 90’s when it was a very small event maybe 500 to 1500 attended and it was located about 10 miles further out into the playa. It was an interesting and lively time and hopefully those that attend today and in the future enjoy the event and learn something about themselves and the great Nevada desert area of Black Rock.

      1. Mark P.

        Lambert wrote: ‘Maybe a species that needs to get off planet shouldn’t!’

        By exactly the same logic, a species that needed to have a Neolithic/Agricultural Revolution maybe shouldn’t have.

        By exactly the same logic, for that matter, only a species needing to undertake such expansive transformations would play with framing a system of ethics about the ‘shouldn’ts’ and ‘shoulds’ of it.

        We are we are.

    2. Yves Smith

      I received this via e-mail weeks ago when I made a skeptical comment re Burning Man, this from a well known attorney/writer:

      When I went, 2000-2005, the years 2000-03 were transformational for me, the other two just fun.

      I was a person of the day and the art, costumes, people, yes drugs & sex, but not the night trance parties. I was sleeping at 2 and 3 am. For me the real point was the absence of norm, the rejection of money, the spirit of self-reliance, cooperation and giving. Freedom from expectation, from role; libertarian paradise crossed with hippies.

      I’ll probably never go back–not sure what I’d find if I did, inter alia, but I’m forever grateful for having gone.

      Burning man experiences are hard to read because it is always just one story from the naked city and they’re usually fraught with baggage of one sort or another.

      A friend of mine went last year. It was amazing for him, which is saying something, because he’s been all over the world as a human rights lawyer and just traveler. But it didn’t really sound recognizable in some ways. When I went it peaked out at about 40k people; when he was there it was 75k plus. When I was there the trance/dance parties were loud, but you didn’t have to hear them/be near them. What he described sounded like massive piles of speakers I wouldn’t recognize, though he told me you could still be alone in the playa.

      So much of your experience is what you bring; it is a city, after all.

      Every year I had two high points, one solitary and one communal. The solitary high point was the day I’d cruising around the playa on a bike by myself, visiting the creative installations, tripping on acid, feeling like I’d transcended my body and the human experience generally and so grateful to be alive. The communal was the burn of the temple, on Sunday night. The temple is a gathering place throughout the week, an incredible work of art, different every year I went. People would come out weeks ahead to build it in place. Throughout the week people leave offerings, tangible and otherwise. A lot of emotion passes through the structure.

      On sunday night–after a lot of people leave–we burn the temple to the ground, in one big bonfire. Watching all that go–all that labor, love and feeling, the ephemera of it all–was so beautiful and cathartic for me.

      1. ohmyheck

        That pretty much sums up my son’s experience—almost identically.

        You get out of it what you bring to it. With 75,000 attendants, you can find just about anything you are looking for.

        To each, his own.

      2. jonboinAR

        It sounds to me like a fairly well appointed hedonistic orgy, a rave for the SV crowd, pretentiously justified.

  1. abynormal

    sad…but expected from a slow burn.
    “I used to live in a room full of mirrors; all I could see was me.
    I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors,
    now the whole world is here for me to see.
    Jimi Hendrix
    (we got a lota mirrors to break)

    1. wbgonne

      Great lyric. Here’s a question: could Jimi Hendrix even exist in American culture today? Another (related) question: where are our cultural leaders? Popular music has traditionally been a source of resistance, protest and change. Today? Cha-ching. American culture, like every other aspect of American life, has been monetized and commodified. If you hit it big you’re a “star” and you join the plutocrats. If not, you starve. The Comcast/Ticketmaster/Applestore takeover has squeezed the life out of our music. Is there an alternative?

      1. abynormal

        if he was alive today, i hope he’d be seriously p’d off at the time he wasted on that masterful star spangle moment.!
        it is written: how can we get near an alternative until we see the world. funny how the world is more educated on our antics than we are. the alternatives on display are ‘same as it ever was’. now im even more sad…time to go hunt that dang cricket that kept me up all night!

        “Master Kan: Avoid, rather than check. Check, rather than hurt. Hurt, rather than maim. Maim, rather than kill. For all life is precious, nor can any be replaced.”
        Kung Fu 1972

  2. watou

    I’ve been three times, and the event is, in its entirety, a study in hypocrisy. I was bullied by the thuggish “rangers,” there is petty theft everywhere, the official law enforcement is constantly roving to collect on-the-spot fines, and the constant techno music and club drugs will sap your will to live. So many jaw-grinding e-heads stumbling around, and then the frat boys show up near the end to ogle boobies and catcall. If anything, it’s a concentration of white, privileged people flashing their peacock feathers at one another, and not much else. Interesting anthropologically, in any case.

    1. DIno Reno

      Your assessment is spot on. What began as a counter-cultural event is now a main stream affair, nudity optional. In fact nudity is the only thing still tolerated outside the law. I chalk that up to the huge law enforcement presence–every local, state, and federal agency is more than adequately represented–who enjoy this distraction. The efficiency of this event in encouraging lawbreakers to congregate and pay large fines they can afford is not lost on the law enforcement hosts.
      I knew the event turned a corner when everyone I knew who hated the radical idea of this event and the bizarre set that it attracted suddenly became participants buying and renting bigger and bigger motor home to shut out the elements–other people and the environment.
      Yes, it is still a great spectacle and one worth experiencing, but it’s not pointing us in any direction for the future except endless amusement.

      1. KidPsych

        “Your assessment is spot on. What began as a counter-cultural event is now a main stream affair,”

        Of all the places in world, I think the US excels at this like no other – creating something original, innovative and liberating and perverting it into something completely monetized. Years ago when I was a budding screenwriter, a wise elder admonished me not to write (spec) scripts that reflected movies I saw in theaters – he noted that what executives most like to do is take someone with an original “voice” and transform that person into someone who fits neatly in the Hollywood machine. As someone admittedly on the outside of Burning Man, it seems to me that it has been perverted (from an interesting collection of free spirited partiers) into a place where wealthy white geeky males (who maybe didn’t do so well in college on the dating front) can now create an environment that separates them from those beneath them for the purpose of elevating their stature and procuring female company. You want sex and drugs, come join me in my air-conditioned paradise. I know I’m oversimplifying but it does appear that way to me in many respects.

        1. gd

          There is no way this would not be mainstreamed, as it’s a New Left enterprise: feel good, flower power, non-program, non-class nonsense. You don’t like the materialist and labor theory of value, then invent something better!

        2. lordkoos

          In the sixites, the marketing of alternative culture had not yet been perfected. I think it was around the time of Woodstock when the business people realized they had a potential goldmine waiting to be exploited. It now seems impossible for a small bohemian or artistic scene to develop for long before it is monetized almost before it really gets off the ground in a more organic way. So, it’s difficult for alternative cultures to gain a foothold since as soon as some movement or trend begins to get a little traction, it’s all over facebook and twitter. But even before the rise of social media it had gotten quite efficient — when Nirvana got popular, within a few weeks a kid in Topeka could buy a (made in Sri Lanka) flannel shirt just like Curt Cobain’s. One scene that did manage to develop for awhile on it’s own, before the media glare took over, was hip-hop, but it didn’t take too long before that became ultra-commercialized too.

          1. Phil Perspective

            One scene that did manage to develop for awhile on it’s own, before the media glare took over, was hip-hop, but it didn’t take too long before that became ultra-commercialized too.

            Are you on Twitter? If so, follow Chuck D. Yes, the lead singer of Public Enemy. He has a lot of opinions about that.

      1. watou

        I admit to being a slow learner, and having looked for emotional fulfilment in places where there was none to be found. And your mileage may vary, as may everyone’s.

  3. Marv

    My son is there with his friends right now. I don’t doubt it’s all spectacle. But, watou, what made you go back three times?

    1. watou

      The spectacle! If you think (as I did) that there may be something wonderful lying beneath the spectacle, you will keep sampling it, until you either find what you’re looking for, or realise that it’s just not there. I fell into the latter camp. If you want to be awash in a spectacle like no other for a week and have lots of money, then there is nothing better. If you expect to become enriched with something deeper and lasting, you may end up disappointed.

      1. direction

        I can understand this urge to go back. I had friends who went the second year and at that time it was only artists. I went in ’96 and felt it had jumped the shark already, but it was just starting to grow.

        I also was searching for the spirit and the heartfelt meaning. I met some really great thinkers and tinkers and artists and some felt spiritually connected because they’d helped build with this original community, but apart from them I couldn’t feel it. I was cynical about the escalating ticket price and population size, the garbage blowing across the desert (“Oh there’s this fence way out there to catch it” people would say, so I walked out to the fence-it was about 3 feet high. Are you kidding me??). Perhaps I’m just too rough. I’d purposely go sit down in people’s private camps to see if I’d be radically included and I often was.

        Spectacle was smaller in scale back then, but often the small more conceptual camps were more impressive anyways. Afterwards I wrote to the organizers suggesting they ask each entering car what their theme camp was to be, to increase participation because the artist population was decreasing in relation to the spectator population and this “naked middle aged guy standing next to RV” was not going to help the festival.

        I agree with Jeff below that many people leave inspired to contribute public art back to their own communities, but that being said I also see the burning man aesthetic draining the once thriving artistic communities in San Francisco. As the techies move in and displace the artists, the elderly, the blue collar, the minorities, often by bank assisted force, their burning man scholarships fund only burner style art. The libertarianism of this tech crowd means previous sources of funding for experimental dance and theater etc. have dried up and many of the performance spaces have been converted to expensive lofts. The young techies are destroying that city without even realizing it and heralding it as progress. I was looking out the window of a bar last time I visited, still listening to my friends but trying to figure out what it was about the new shops that made the city so different from the old shops. Suddenly it hit me: I had not seen a single black person since we’d gotten to the bar. We were in the Mission which is traditionally a latin neighborhood, but still, that was so creepy and would have been impossible in the past.

    2. Barry

      In 2001 I saw the Temple of Tears being built and I went over to admire it. The sculptor, David Best saw that a crowd had gathered so he came over to tell us what he was trying to express. He told us about a young friend who had died in a motorcycle accident and about a suicide. He envisioned the suicide as a lost soul and the soul of the innocent finding the lost soul and helping it to move on. I was moved to tears.

      These temples have since become a tradition at Burning Man. All through the week, people write notes to lost loved ones on the temple, or tuck photos or small remembrances into it. On the last night of Burning Man, people gather quietly and the temple is burned.

      There’s more too it than spectacle. More to it than hipster navel-gazing. Even if you don’t find what David Best intended moving, look at what he and his crew created, and the amount of time and effort and creativity that went into it. They didn’t go there to gawk and party. They went there and created art.

  4. Ned Ludd

    “([They] report that the rich and powerful at Burning Man have ‘Sherpas,’ a slightly more palatable expression than servant.)”

    Using “Sherpa” – an ethnicity – as a generic term for “servant” is incredibly racist.

      1. hunkerdown

        Glad to see the subtle difference between “gift” as in culture and “gifting” as in Hallmark wasn’t lost on others.

        1. Doris

          Yes, or just “gift” as in noun and “gifting” as in invented verb. Off topic, but akin to “juice’ as in noun and “juicing” as previously nonexistent verb.

        1. montanamaven

          Reading David Graeber’s “Debt” and his essay on gifting, my take was that gifting was not direct exchange. The example he gave: You gave your neighbor an extra piglet or cow and then maybe a year later you hope your son can marry his daughter. It works within a community but not when strangers are passing through your lands.

          1. Anarcissie

            In a gift economy, the gift establishes a social relationship between the giver and the receiver. It may also require some sort of reciprocation, not as exchange, but as a confirmation of the relationship. In a pure market transaction, once the transaction is complete, there is not necessarily any residual relationship. I don’t know how this works out at Burning Man; if there are 75,000 attending, it may be pretty difficult to establish ongoing social relations.

    1. diptherio

      Yup. It’s something I’m always going on about as well. When those porters died on Everest earlier this year, an email from a Nepali Sherpa friend had this to say:

      people still have the misnomer ‘sherpa’ for a Nepali assisting in the mountains, each person has a name but people have also been referred as sherpa 1 n sherpa 2

      How much you want to bet that at least one of the playa 1%ers actually refers to his/her employees as “sherpa 1, sherpa 2” etc.?

  5. Brindle

    Wonder how long before there is a Burger King or Taco Bell commercial showing a couple of young dudes at a Burning Man type event craving for their favorite burger/taco wandering through bizarreness and finding their franchise disguised as a spaceship/yacht.

    1. LWA (Liberal With Attitude)

      Don Draper is probably working on that very script right now. Well, one of the cool young people in his office is.

        1. Anarcissie

          Some time ago, back in Usenet days, I guess around the time of Seattle, I wondered publicly how long it would be before anarchy, street demonstrations, and ‘violence’ went on the market. I was told it had already happened, and that (for instance) you could buy ‘pre-broken’ store windows.

          Well, Uncle Karl told us about the cash nexus a long, long time ago.

  6. ambrit

    Those Burning Man people have a sly sense of humour Lambert. Putting on their own upper class Festivel of the Outre on Labor Day Weekend. (Do the Sherpas get Monday off?)

  7. Michael Fiorillo

    Is it possible for the “Ten Principles” of Burning Man to be more insufferably vapid and hypocritical, especially when laid against its transparently bogus claims of “radical inclusivity” and “self-sufficiency?”

    So typical of the unmindful sense of privilege of the lumpen bourgeoisie – youthful, white sub-demographic – which will return from this resource-importing circle jerk/test market, to continue colonizing a handful of bubble-driven cities and resort Valhallas, while the rest of the country turns into Detroit or West Virginia…

    1. wbgonne

      I’ve heard very good things about McMurtry but I am unfamiliar with his work. What do you recommend?

      1. tomk

        My favorite is St. Mary of the Wood, probably because it was the first one I heard. Childish Things might be the weakest. Live in 03 is an excellent live album.

    2. lordkoos

      As a pro guitarist myself, I take issue with the idea that McMurtry can play anywhere near as well as Hendrix. If he could he would be much better knwon.

      1. tomk

        Who knows?, their styles of course are very different, and McMurtry’s playing doesn’t call attention to itself, but I find it every bit as skillful and eloquent as Hendrix’s, if not as mind blowing.

        In the long term, I think McMurtry may end up better known than Hendrix. His songs say so much about where this country is right now, and about the everyday lives of people.

  8. TarheelDem

    How can the bubble burst on a venture that monetizes jumping the shark? Oh, let me see. It must have something to do with that “monetizes” term. And the bigger fool dynamic embodied in the term “jumping the shark”.

    So far they have not run out of bigger fools with ever increasing amounts of money. When it turns into Davos in the Desert they might reach their limit.

    It has now reached the phase of commercialized envy; it must end soon or the phase of commercialized nostalgia can never begin. The “I remember when….” stratification of oldies is already beginning.

  9. afisher

    Techies are supposed to be the next generation of Libertarians – according to the recent event by Koch in Silicon Valley – aka The Reboot. (pando) and hyped by Nick Gillespie. If that is true, then this confab is out of touch and out of tune with the mover / shaker older folks – Thiel et al. http://www.opednews.com/articles/The-7-Strangest-Libertaria-by-Richard–RJ-Esko-Ideas_Libertarian_Libertarianism_Political-140829-863.html#comment509172

    One of the embedded links is to Thiel – where one has to wonder if they are missing the point entirely as Thiel, who apparently has never grown past his adolescent Randian love, is pushing his newest Galt Gulch ( as Chilean dream is bankrupt) as Seasteading. While that sounds like a novel idea, reading the PLAN – self sufficient but only 25 miles off a democratically governed country makes one wonder – HUH? http://www.seasteading.org/about/

    Or maybe just a cosmic disconnect.

  10. MtnLife

    F Burning Man. If you are really serious about going all free-expression, communal living, etc: Go to the Rainbow Gathering. If you want the peaceful, primitive-building experience show up for Seed Camp. If you want the Burning Man style craziness, come for the 4th of July week. No money needed, no money used. Donations are more than welcome. A number of large companies actually donate food. Rainbows actually stay and clean up/restore the site. The Forest Service spreads massive propaganda beforehand to scare the populace but after every Gathering the townspeople and rangers have nothing but nice things to say. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.

    Next year’s possibilities are Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, or South Dakota. I hope it is out East. I haven’t been Home in a while. Lovin’ You, Family.

    1. ohmyheck

      I went to the Rainbow Gathering this year, as it was just up the road. Unfortunately, I missed the main events. I have always wanted to go, and I couldn’t miss the opportunity.

      My mid-fifties EX-husband and his girlfriend go to Burning Man. ‘Nuf said.

      1. Jill

        May I ask a question? You seem to imply that being an older person precludes one from being an real instead of faux creative person. Am I reading you correctly? If so, why do you believe this?

    2. wbgonne

      Thanks for the tip. I’ll watch for it and I also hope it’s in the east. Maine is nice. So is Western Mass.

    3. nobody

      I’ve been meaning to make it to a Rainbow gathering one of those years. There is this, though:

      The Rainbow family professes to take a fundamentally different approach to peacekeeping. Rainbow peacekeepers are ‘Shanti Sena.’ The Sanskrit phrase glosses as ‘peace center.’ In the Rainbow Family EVERYONE is supposedly a Shanti Sena. A person who sees a problem does not call the Shanti Sena but BECOMES the Shanti Sena. In theory, ALL Rainbows should intercede as needed, thus eliminating the need for a security force. Rainbow Family publications frequently stress the precept ‘WE ARE ALL PEACEMAKERS who share the responsibility of keeping this gathering safe and harmonious.’ The Mini Manual for New Gatherers, a collectively authored Rainbow Family publication, explains ‘Shanti-Sena’ means ‘Peace Center.’ There are no ‘Rainbow Police.’ We are secure because we watch out for each other. We are ALL Shanti-Sena.

      The ideal, however, is not always the reality. Like George Orwell’s fictitious pigs who proclaimed after their counterrevolution: ‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others’, all Rainbows are Shanti Sena, but some are more Shanti Sena than others. A loosely organized Shanti Sena organization, not sanctioned by the Rainbow Family Council, does exist at North American Gatherings. They make decisions in their own covert councils. While any Rainbow can proclaim themselves Shanti Sena, only a select few may attend these councils. As a result, Rainbows currently carry two definitions of Shanti Sena: there is, first the Shanti Sena that is within everybody, and, second, the elite Shanti Sena, who, for the sake of clarity, I will refer to as the Shanti Sena ‘organization.’

      The Shanti Sena organization is legitimized by the majority of Rainbows, who willingly take orders from them. To outsiders unfamiliar with Rainbow sensitivities, the Shanti Sena organization looks like a police force, albeit a relatively genial one. A journalist in Pennsylvania, for instance, observed: ‘Even the most serious side of the Rainbow face had smiles. They are the members of the Shanti Sena—the police force of the Rainbows. Its members are on duty 24 hours a day to keep order within the gathering and deal with whatever problems Rainbow Family members might have in their contacts with local residents.’

      Like any other ‘police force,’ the Shanti Sena organization seems preoccupied with ‘keeping order’ and weeding out ‘infiltrators’ and other strange agents. The same journalist adds, ‘Caliph [of the Shanti Sena] said the Shanti Sena has for fifteen years proven its ability to keep order among its own. There are problems, he admitted, when curious outsiders ‘infiltrate[,]’ but who, when unmasked, are turned over to authorities, for whatever their misdeeds might be.’ Of course, according to Rainbow philosophy, there are no ‘outsiders.’ Curious neighbors are viewed as Rainbows or potential Rainbows, thus the concept of ‘infiltrators’ goes against Rainbow beliefs.

      There is a distinctly nasty side to the Shanti Sena organization. One Family member from Washington State, looking back at the 1994 Gathering, writes: ‘Last year’s [G]athering gave me the impression that the [G]atherings are controlled by big rough men . . . who make the decisions for everyone else, and get the rubber stamp of consensus by orchestrating the councils. . . . Many people do seem to be on a power trip which is patriarchal and even violent in nature’. Theoretically the author could have blocked any consensus ‘orchestrated’ by the ‘rough’ clique. Such a block, however, would require familiarity with the Council process and the healthy does of chutzpah. Observations such as the one above, which are common, indicate tendencies among Family members that are both antidemocratic and subversive to a nonviolent society.


      1. MtnLife

        That statement contains both truth and inaccuracies. I’ll do my best to separate the two. Yes, a lot of the same people act as Shanti Sena focalizers. The same way a lot of the same people run the same kitchens, a lot of the same people focalize for CALM, and so on. No, they are not some sort of hippie mafia. It is just a case of regular Family members focalizing around their strengths. Are a bunch of them big, rough looking dudes? Yeah. Are they on some unchecked power trip? No. One of the main jobs of Shanti Sena is to act as a mediator between LEOs and the Family. This is an area that takes a great deal of tact and restraint as many of the Family has a great deal of distrust for the law. There are criminal elements that use the Gathering to hide as you would expect anywhere you throw up a society outside of the norm and offer free food. There is also the element that looks to prey on those with good natures. While everyone is welcome, that lasts only as long as you act respectably towards the rest of the Family. If you attempt to assault, rape, steal, etc (anything serious) Shanti Sena is yelled and EVERYONE comes running from those large, rough looking men right down to the slightest wisp of a woman. The offender is then duct taped to a tree (fed and hydrated, no jail out there) until Council that evening where their fate is decided by a vote of whomever shows up. Your vote is equal whether it is your first Gathering or your 30th. This isn’t to say some people’s opinions don’t hold more sway. You’d listen to Albert Einstein before Rush Limbaugh, right? The process by which this takes place is no mystery despite what the author says. There is a Council information table set up near Main Circle which has all this info. They often have a little booklet on what to expect (like nudity) and behavior guidelines (just because she’s naked doesn’t mean she wants you to touch). Might it take a little chutzpah to stand up? Maybe, but no more (and likely less) than it would if you just joined a local charity/service group and stood up to criticize their methods.
        Last point, the infiltrators. While I mentioned some of the predatory members of society that attend the largest group to watch out for is the government. AWACS constantly fly overhead, the 6-UP (ranger LEOs, non-LEO rangers are 7-UP) move around constantly (with an echoing vocal warning from everyone before they reach you), and you do not know who you are talking to at any time unless you actually recognize them (I’ve spotted a well-known CEO and a well-known hip hop artist). The amount of informants the govt sends in is ridiculous, heavily on the DEA’s part (US marshalls looking for fugitives too). I’ve gotten a non-admission admission from some of the elders about them spying for the government, all coached in a “hypothetical” situation about how a person in that position could choose which information to pass on versus someone outside who didn’t care about the Family, followed with a *wink-wink-nudge-nudge*. So as long as you aren’t openly and loudly revolutionary, a fugitive, or carrying trafficking levels of drugs it’s not really that big of a deal.
        Did I cover what you were questioning?

        1. nobody

          Wow, thanks so much. FWIW, Vice had a piece called “The Dark Side of the Rainbow Gathering” a couple of months ago. In the comments, Mike Niman — the author of the ethnography from which I quoted — said this:

          Vice had no intention to practice journalism here. They had their clickbait ready to roll, damn anything Rob Savoye or myself tried to explain to them. When I spoke with their reporter I made it very clear that the [Forest Service] has a vested interest in trying to spin the Gathering in a way to justify their squandering of taxpayer dollars and their police-state style human rights violations, and that this script is dutifully followed by legwork-free “journalism” that’s overly dependent on official sources rather than real on the ground reporting. I directed the author to lots of data (in my 2011 book, which she claimed to have in front of her) that documented how Rainbow Gatherings are generally a lot safer than Babylon, save for police violence and harassment. I explained to her how crack and meth are macro problems affecting the greater society, and hence, will show up at a Gathering, but what makes the Gathering unique is the healing that goes on, and the creative ways Rainbows confront such problems. The article doesn’t reflect any of this reality, going as far as to throw an apparent heart attack death into the mix inferring some shroud of dark mystery. Vice, apparently, is nothing more than a NY Post for Hipsters, using an old-school yellow journalism template in a digital universe. Too bad. It had potential to be something better.

          [ June 26 at 8:14am]


          Elsewhere in the epilogue to the 2nd ed, he says this:

          In 1972, when the Rainbow Family held its first Gathering in Colorado, only a few countries in the world allowed such autonomous celebrations of freedom. In the 1980s, when I began field work among Rainbows, many countries that now regularly host Gatherings were under the control of authoritarian regimes… In this world of oppressive regimes, the freedoms of the American Rainbow Family enjoyed inspired would-be Rainbows around the world.”

          Fast forward to 2010. Rainbow Gatherings occur across the former Soviet bloc and in Latin America, Europe, Asia, Oceania, and Africa. These Gatherings seldom have problems with government authorities. Back in the United States, by contrast, federal government law-enforcement officials now systematically harass and persecute Rainbow Gathering attendees wherever they gather.” (p. 239)

          ‎This epilogue has been painful to research and write. The ongoing patterns of systematic harassment of Rainbow Gatherings by U.S. government agencies, the Forest Service in particular, sets the U.S. Gatherings apart from their counterparts around the world, where relations with governments are increasingly cordial. Since 1997, that harassment has steadily grown and become institutionalized with the creation of the National Incident Management Team, putting new pressures on the Family, endangering participants, and threatening the very survival of the Gatherings. As an ethnographer, it is my job to report on how the family has adapted to this challenge and what its prognosis is in light of this increasing threat. Ultimately, this epilogue is more about the United States than about the Rainbow Family. The changes described here are mostly changes in America and the American zeitgeist.

          1. nobody

            Here is the comment to which he was responding [June 26 at 1:46am]. This is SO familiar to me from Occupy; there were lots of these travelers there and what is said rings (mostly) very true.

            The real problem here — and there is a problem — has two parts: One is that America has become a more dangerous and violent society than it was even half a decade ago. And the other is that there is very large population of what I would call “A New American Underclass” — no offense intended — of mostly young people who are way off the radar. These folks have been abused by their families, refused help by the authorities and neglected in ways that are impossible to imagine by the mainstream. I am not excusing violent behavior at all. Not one bit. But these young people are ‘train-hopping’ to get around, living in hobo-type camps at the margins of American society in a way (and numbers) that this has never happened before in this country’s history. Today we tend to romanticize the “hobo’s” of the Great Depression, but in the 1930’s these hobos were considered very dangerous. And to be sure, some of them were. but mostly there were just traveling the rails because there wasn’t any other home for them. Today we have a not dissimilar population. And many of these young displaced persons find a ‘home’ at the Rainbow because the Gathering is free, and everything there is free, so they can find a place where they can get some medical care, some healthy food, and a few meagre other benefits like love and kindness from others that is absent from their lives. And there is an element among this New American Underclass that has been raised on violence, on abuse, on stealing to be able to eat, and so on. Most of these people are kind and gentle souls seeking a little respite from the grueling life of living homeless and coming from the most abused circumstances. But the violent ones? The truth is that prey on the more peaceful of these modern hobos – and there are terrifying stories never yet told even once in our media of abuses and attacks and terrible things at some of these ‘hobo’s’ camps – where the small fraction of the violent prey on the larger population of peaceful ‘Trainhoppers.’ This is the story that Vice should be telling, not the fact that a few of these violent folks come to the Rainbow and cause trouble.

            Mike Brodie has documented this phenomenon:


              1. direction

                Great article on systeme debruillarde.

                I can echo “nobody”‘s comment on Occupy from an EarthFirst! perspective. It quickly became clear to me than anytime you have an activist enclave that is providing free food and safe camping that you become host to a large portion of these disgruntled people living outside the edge of society, many of whom are also dealing with physical and mental disabilities. Lots of them make great activists precisely because the system has failed them. But brain injuries or psychological/emotional impairment can also make their participation in a consensus structure troublesome. Some problems will happen again and again so tools for dealing with logorrhea or antagonistic behavior need to be part of everyone’s consensus toolkit. I feel like I also witnessed early onset schizophrenia and problems that were much bigger than my ability to assist.

                Also, because their numbers swell, these folks often become the face of the movement to the press–the loitering punks or endless drum circles, etc.–rather than the folks who are busy getting stuff done. Just something to keep in mind if you find yourself involved in direct action.

  11. Ed

    I’m the sort of person that, by the time I hear of something like this, its already jumped the shark. However, Burning Man always struck me as a big party in the desert. Its very American to throw or go to a big party in the desert and claim there is supposed to be something morally uplifting about it.

    But I was also skeptical that in these times you could even through a big party in the desert and not have law enforcement and big commercial interests eventually scrub the life out of it or shut it down outright.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      I deliberately avoided the “jump the shark” trope. Burning Man seemed more interesting and complicated than that. Clearly, it’s not all about squillionaires behaving badly, or even wealthy engineers or tech people.

      I do think that the way the Burning Man participants project themselves to themselves is more than a little skewed, however. And I’m not saying “Look at those hypocrites! [snicker]” I’m trying to put the whole experience in the context of larger systems, including financial systems, especially Silicon Valley, and it would take more than an evening to do that, alas.

      Adding, there’s a lot to be said for beauty; I wouldn’t be helping plants propagate by being a gardener otherwise. However, aesthetics clearly aren’t part of, let’s call it, Burning Man’s immune system against rich dudes who want to escape a burning planet by strapping themselves into a rocket ship to Mars whose hold is filled with inflatable spider houses and Perrier. I mean, does anybody seriously think these guys would build any kind of life raft and then let the second and third class passengers into it?

  12. pwndecaf

    Selling Burning Man (TM) franchises here. Advisory fee required. Call 555-555-BMAN ($5/minute connection fee).

  13. Veri

    Walked into a Denny’s in Las Vegas one night and bumped into one of the organizers for Burning Man. This was back in 2004. After talking for awhile, he gave me a personal invitation to Burning Man. He invited me out there and told me to go there before it is ruined. By “ruined”, he meant exactly this. The rich were invading yet another space that the lower class made. They need their “cool” points.

    You see it in film festivals, music festivals, and other cultural events.

    Then, 6th Street in Austin, Texas – hangout of locals and other non-conforming individuals. Locals began getting angry, especially after Sheryl Crow built her place. What made 6th Street interesting was being priced out – the people. San Francisco is going the same way – those with money need to look hip.

    The Double Down Saloon in Las Vegas with Ass Juice and Puke Insurance. Made Maxim’s Top 10 Bars in the world back in 2007. Suddenly, all this rich and spoiled types were showing up. The bouncer was getting pissed with their spoiled and rude behavior. More “cool” points just to tell their friends that they went to The Double Down…

    And Burning Man. 6th Street. Sundance. Etc.

    1. ohmyheck

      Nice to know that one of the original organizers saw the future reality.
      I went to Sundance back in the mid-80’s, when it was just a tiny festival in the town I lived in. Our own private film festival! It was all very laid-back.
      Fast forward- town not so small anymore. Taken over by The Rich. Festival is not so tiny, either….

      1. GuyFawkesLives

        In Washington State, we have a live-music venue called “The Gorge.” This music venue was a natural amphitheater in the gorge of a river canyon where good music would be played. You were allowed to bring coolers, have dinner, open wine, listen to music with an incredible back-drop of a gorgeous natural vista.

        Fast forward to the LAST time I went (and I mean last): the organizers had increased the capacity of the venue so that the musicians looked like ant specks from the last row (used to be every place was the best seat in the house). There was fast food shacks that were selling food for those people who didn’t plan accordingly. I had to throw out food that wasn’t “sealed.” I could not bring in the wine bottle and had to throw that out as well. Needless to say, the experience was horrendous and I have never returned.

        Why do we ruin everything?

        1. MtnLife

          We ruin everything because as soon as we find a way to positively enjoy ourselves someone sees a way to make money off of that. The ruination becomes “an unintended consequence of rational profit maximizing behavior” (I feel I’m going to be using that statement a lot now). Things get started by “the cool kids”, general acceptance grows, and then all of the sudden the wealthy want to be cool too – buying their way in and then attempting to monopolize control. I often use the rave scene as an example. I was in during the first wave that expanded outwards from NYC and LA when it was still pretty underground but not totally renegade anymore. The scene was comprised of mostly very eclectic people who didn’t really fit in anywhere else and saw it as an escape from the verbal abuse of the jock/frat boy party scene. Today most parties are sponsored by tech companies (like MS and Google) and are populated heavily by those same jock/frat boys who denigrated us before. They aren’t there for the ideals of Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect but instead seems to have followed the drugs and sexy women (while interpreting Love a little differently). Snowboarding went through the same thing. Burton started off with an independent and rebellious attitude and are now the corporate stiffs of the industry through their efforts to grow their wallet the sport.

  14. Jill

    The principles are contradictory. Radical self reliance is in conflict with reality and community building. No one is radically self reliant. A person who is not cared for as a baby and young child will not survive to have the illusion that he is self made.

    Putting a large encampment with enormous amounts of vehicles and giant art projects is not leaving the desert pristine. It may look “pristine” afterwards to people who don’t look very hard but it is not pristine to the wildlife during the experience.

    A community that keeps out the riff raff and has servants to do their work is not about sharing both work and play in common.

    I think it is great that people with money use it for a creative purpose. But Burning man cannot achieve some of its better goals simply because it excludes so many people from its “community”. We desperately need a place of interaction between rich and poor. That is something our society rarely creates. Occupy did this in some places. It is that very creation that will best allow real creativity to flourish.

    All the TEDs, the Hollyhocks etc. would benefit from a radical infusion of actual outsiders to the elite income class. Yet these events will not be transformative because they deny class divisions, participate in creating more of them, and thus exactly mirror what is wrong with our society.

    1. GuyFawkesLives

      It really is hard for me to fathom “finding yourself” in a place where spending excess/burning excess/taking drugs to excess is the norm.

      I “found myself” hiking within the mountains of Wyoming with only a water bottle and a peanut butter/jelly sandwich. And then, of course, had to re-enter the world of spending excess/burning excess/taking drugs to excess when I hiked back to civilization.

      1. abynormal

        nothin but us crickets ;-))

        “The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”
        Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

      2. Propertius

        I would tend to agree with you, but Mr. Blake begs to differ:
        ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’

  15. Jill

    I wanted to add one example of what I’m talking about. A long time ago I wrote the TED people that they really needed to include people from other classes besides wealthy people. They agreed to this but the solution they came up with revolved around having connections to the wealthy.

    The lower order person had to be sponsored by one of the higher orders participants. Why is that? No one is checking out the “quality” before they are allowed in. It’s only the poor who have to have a sponsor. ARGGGGG! I just couldn’t get them to understand why wealthy sponsoring was not going to get them anywhere far.

          1. Upton Sinclair

            You mean the one about the difficulty of getting a man to understand something when his salary on his not understanding it?

  16. Banger

    It is hard to create fundamentally anarchic community in a fundamentally capitalist society but, still, there is a nostalgia for at least the illusion of freedom and I think Burning Man supplies that and I don’t see any problem with it–it’s still a sort of Club Med for vacationers with bad weather.

    Anyway, what interests me is the vision of Burning Man and the fact they haven’t been able to create that vision. In fact, anarchic projects have to be, by definition, spontaneous not planned. Woodstock is the classic example and those that participated in it felt very liberated more than those who I’ve talked to who have gone to Burning Man. We are meant to function in a world that is more humane as per the guidelines of Burning Man but unless we change our values on the elemental level, i.e., that materialism and selfishness are not virtues but vices, we cannot do anything but create temporary theme parks that give us an illusion of liberation. At present Burning Man is no more in the service of human liberation than any other theme park and to expect it to be anything more is absurd. It is yet another temple to conspicuous consumption and status seeking.

    1. Detroit Dan

      I think the artwork at Burning Man surpasses other theme parks. It’s truly awesome just looking at photos. Some are reminiscent of great classic paintings (Venus de Milo), only 100 times bigger. Wonders of the Modern World

  17. LWA (Liberal With Attitude)

    What the Burners and other anarchic folk are attempting is very ancient- they want to achieve transcendence, a righteous order, where human potential is realized here on earth. They want to create a society where both freedom and community are maximized, not optimized in tension.
    They of course, need to be slapped, very hard.
    No, I’m not being curmudgeonly. As a religious person, I grasp that desire, and share in it. What I have witnessed is how that burning desire for righteousness can so easily cloak the very worst form of evil, because it tends to be un-self aware.
    Think of all the religious scandals, of how the words of inclusion, gifting, creating, etc all become empty tropes.
    Its not conscious hypocrisy on the part of the executives- its the willing blindness of the faithful laypeople that allows it to happen, where we blind ourselves to our own moral frailty and propensity for power and greed.

    What, they think that having a party in the desert – or a weekend religious retreat- magically erases human complexity? Does anyone think that engaging in a ritual and dogma somehow innoculates us against our worst natures? Make no mistake, the 10 Principles are dogma, just as are the carefully planned theatrics are ritual.
    So just as the churches need to be called to account for their failures to live up to their creed, Burning Man should be criticially examined for its preposterous claims.

  18. Detroit Dan

    I’ve never been to Burning Man, but I’m impressed with the artwork, engineering, technology, creativity, and organization. It’s a fantastic festival for young and/or creative folks.

    I’m a bit older and content to look at Burning Man photos on the web…

  19. Tim

    As Murray Bookchin wrote: “mere forms of merriment or theater that I can no longer take seriously as political work. Some of these actions are useful gymnastics or training on cooperation, but they exhibit no concern for or interest in power.”

  20. Doris

    One of Ann Rice’s books, I don’t remember which, features a scene in ancient times where there is a giant man shaped effigy made of straw. Its nooks and crannies are stuffed with unfortunate people, and then it is burned. I am always reminded of this chapter when the Burning Man festival comes around.

    1. Propertius

      She stole it from the writers of The Wicker Man (1973), who of course stole it from Caesar’s Gallic Wars.

  21. skippy

    Burning man?

    Must be an offshoot of a Reggie concert, from back in the day – 80s, at the Starlight open air concert paddock in Beverly Hills.

    skippy… Ethnic diversity[?] Binary… one mob on stage and the other watched… Strange could formations persisted over night upon the hill top… and not a cop in sight…

  22. Jeff

    Buying into an article about Burning Man from someone that hasn’t attended seems analogous to following the GOP’s plan for women’s reproductive rights. Yes the event has changed, way more law enforcement is present (getting paid to be there), and yes it has been watered down by weekend warriors and folks attracted by spectacle. The celebrity demographic has always been there and the event has always selected for people with means. Unless you live in Reno or the Bay Area, it’s not easy to get to. Maybe it has “jumped the shark.” But that’s not reflected in record interest and ticket sales. What’s astonishing is that the event has managed to navigate the legal and political minefield it’s faced from the beginning. The art projects are astonishing and many pieces improve public spaces in communities around the USA and abroad. It’s an art festival with regional events all over the globe, including Africa. It continues to have an impact on individuals that attend, many who go back to their communities and get involved.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Hmm. I’m not sure I agree with the idea that one must be physically present at an event to write about it usefully.* Edward Gibbon, for various reasons, could not have been present for the fall of the Roman Empire. But he managed to struggle on.

      * To take your argument to its logical extension, the many who can’t afford to go should be silent about it.

      1. Jeff

        LS, your article was stimulating and appreciated. But trying to deconstruct Burning Man from a computer chair doesn’t hold much weight. If I want to learn about LSD, I’ll take LSD… Not refer to someone analyzing Hoffmans book about it. Thx Ned.

      2. Propertius

        And, of course, everyone here who has never been to the Ukraine or Gaza should be silent about them.

        1. Ned Ludd

          Articles on Ukraine are stimulating and appreciated. But trying to deconstruct Ukraine from a computer chair doesn’t hold much weight. If Jeff wants to learn about Ukrainian neo-Nazis, he will go and join the Azov Battalion, instead of reading analysis about it on some web site.

      3. jrs

        To be in an experience is different than not, and never the twain shall meet. So yes there is a lot to be said for lived experience. Whether it’s always the best vantage point, the best vantage point is probably on the fence.

    2. Ned Ludd


      I don’t think you are qualified to criticize the GOP’s platform unless you have actually sat on their platform committee.

    3. jonbunny

      The popular Burner notion that criticism of the event can only come from ignorance, is false. I’ve been 9 years in a row, and stopped going in 2007. The criticisms here are spot on.

      It’s like some kind of program is triggered in the mind of many Burners when they hear/read criticism – they all say the same thing. That mindset is creepy and cultish.

      1. watou

        +1000. Criticism within the burner world is strictly verboten: the threat of being stripped of social status keeps anyone who might criticise either silent, or they have the sense to quietly remove themselves. So the dynamic is to self-select only the true believers, the ones who thrive on a quiet social tyranny that they can impose on others. Kind of reminds me of major political parties and many other social institutions.

      2. Barry

        I’ve been 9 times and stopped going in 2007 as well! But I don’t find the criticisms here spot on.

        The things people here are describing do happen at Burning Man, but this doesn’t make their generalizations correct. It’s like saying that the essential thing to know about Paris is that guys urinate on the buildings and it runs across the sidewalks. I know this is true because I saw the urine myself when I was there 10 years ago!

        In fact, now that I think about it, all of the critics of Burning Man sound the same, like they all get their indoctrination from the same magazines. As soon as they see ‘Burning Man’ they spout the same criticism. Would it be fair for me to call it creepy and cultish?

        1. direction

          I spoke from personal experience, knowing quite a few of the early artists and having met some of the organizers so I doubt I sounded like a magazine. If you feel the critiques here sound creepy, I am curious what you think a more accurate and up to date critique would sound like. Care to elaborate?

          1. Barry

            I don’t think the critiques here sound creepy; I think they miss the mark. I was testing the preceding characterization of defenders of Burning Man by inverting it.

            There are things I liked about Burning Man and things I don’t like. At this point, the things I don’t like are sufficient in number and scale that I doubt I’ll go again.

            I just don’t believe that the fact that I don’t want to go again amounts to a generalizable critique.

            Surely you agree that the whole thing is too big and too complicated and too many different things to be defined and dismissed in a single sentence like “Burning Man is just a bunch of privileged white navel-gazers having a drug-addled orgy”?

  23. Ray Duray

    Once upon a time the wilderness ethic was “leave no mark behind”. Burning Man seems to have turned that wise idea on its head and created an orgy of waste in which the idea is conspicuous consumption just shy of firestorms of destruction and “leave no civilization behind” in the Black Rock playa.

    Archeologists are going to be miffed.

  24. optimader

    Dont mean to harsh on people that are enthusiastic about BM, surely there are heroically worse ways to spend your resources if you dig it…. buuuuut.. someone needs to esssplayn why one would want to engage in a synthetic Corporate Happening that suggests enjoying any of a number of currently illegal behaviors/substances WHILE at the same time being grossly exposed to any number of uniformed and undercover Federal, State and Local LEAs like HLS, Federal Bureau of Land Management Rangers; the Pershing County Sheriff’s Office; Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, Nevada State Department of Investigations, Nevada State Health Division, the Nevada Highway Patrol who are there to operate Dept Tag and Release programs for fun, profit and permanent records?

    The point of it seems to be that one can spend a week in a hot dusty desert environment w/ 50,000 sunburned naked people w/ BO (that I) really don’t want to know who are stirring up clouds of PM2.5 silica dust, ogling at and aimlessly milling about in amateurish mechanical contrivances, (yeah looks like a dead sport fisherman stuck on an old airport tug, now that’s clever.. coughcough.. WOW, sure is hot in this damn thing, maybe I’ll go stand in the sun instead!).

    I guess I would have pulled the trigger on this ~10years ago if IMO there weren’t oh so many other more clever alternatives in this big ‘ol world of ours.

    Hat tip to the BlackRock LLC tho, clearly they’ve successfully branded a special event that strikes a balance of perceived cool with an adequately low entrance barrier, sense of adventure and titillation that seem to be scaling up nicely for them.
    (Note to BlackRock LLC, think about paying Grover Norquist not to come if you want to maintain a perception of cool)

      1. optimader

        Not at all Barry.
        No deep philosophical issues, it does me no harm, therefore I’m perfectly content for people to engage it and it’s continued commercial success.
        Just pointing out it’s lack of relevance and what I consider unfavorable elements of recreational risk/reward for me.

  25. J

    You forgot one thing when figuring out their profits which is that for Burning Man In 2011 (the last year I could find the full fee information for) the fee was 3% of the AGI with 25% of the estimated AGI due beforehand. In addition, they had to pay for all of the administration costs for the permit (which presumably also included the BLM staff on site), with 100% of the estimate for that due in advance.

    The latter fee, or at least the advance for it, was $10,000. Obviously they probably spent a lot more on it if it went over the estimate, although they might have gotten a refund or credit if the enforcement cost was below that.

    Source: http://www.blm.gov/nv/st/en/fo/wfo/blm_information/nepa0/recreation/burning_man.print.html

  26. jrs

    I imagine people go BECAUSE IT’S FUN. Because it’s play, desperately needed play and fun, the oasis in the dessert right? This culture is a dessert for some! Because it makes them feel good, happy, playful, alive.

    Blah blah blah existing in a capitalist culture blah blah. I mean yes and you’d have to be insane to defend this particular incarnation of the economic system (with no respect for the planet or people). But maybe it’s also the case that at least a decent chunk of humanity does not seem wired to be hippies. I mean the convenience of the modern world I’ll keep, but on much more central questions: I am wired to value cooperation over competition, to get profound joy out of thinking I am contributing to a better world, to experience some of my greatest happiness working cooperatively toward that. So sure I’d be a primitive tribesperson, I’d be a hippy, I’d be an anarchist. And it would work! But competition valued over cooperation (we’re all a little competitive, it’s just a question of which is dominant) is not only in our culture but seems very basic to many personalities (that exist in a culture fine – but revolution tomorrow and you wouldn’t abolish it tomorrow).

    1. jrs

      And of course this culture almost exclusively favors the competitive type. Why people who aren’t seek their oasis. Maybe if they just had room to be, if it was possible for anything else to not even dominate but coexist within this system. But the system is a monoculture.

  27. Desertmer

    Sorry. It must be said. This whole Burning Man orgy was from day one a hipster style exercise in navel gazing. Trying to make a alcohol and drug fueled blowout into something transcendent. It’s a party. A childish party. Apparently now kept going by a bunch of rapidly aging oldsters trying to remain on the field with the ‘cool kids’. Truly pathetic. It says a lot about the empty shell America and Americans have become.

    1. Barry

      I once saw a YouTube video with a title something like “Look at this moron making a fool of himself”. The video was of a kid dancing at some sort of rave or street party. He wasn’t a great dancer. The comments were full of typical YouTube commenter viciousness.

      But there was one comment that has stuck with me: “Yeah, but that kid making a fool of himself is having a better time than you are.”

  28. indio007

    Burning Man is like Bohemian Grove?
    I don’t think so.
    Bohemian Grove attends are white men. They are not republicans.
    Princes, Kings, power brokers, and various high ranking elected officials attend.
    Also rogue chemists (WTF is Alexander Shulgin doing at Bohemian Grove)?

    Bohemian Grove does not burn an effigy of a coffin. They burn an effigy of an INFANT.

  29. Barry

    I think it is important to distinguish between contradictions and hypocrisy. A community of 65,000 with a 28-year history is necessarily a mass of contradictions. The people who wrote the 10 Principles wrote them sincerely, and a great many people sincerely try to practice them an Burning Man. Some of them bring those practices off the playa and try to let them, at least to a degree, inform their decisions in the default world. But of course, some go to Burning Man and could not care less about the 10 Principles. How hard should the organizers work to enforce the principles? What would our relationship to the principles be if they were imposed on us by force?

    Force is an important part of this, of course. Burning Man was, at one time, an attempt at a Temporary Autonomous Zone. A TAZ works to the extent that the Authorities aren’t paying attention. Burning Man has long since reached a point where the Authorities are very much paying attention; and Burning Man has had to adapt. Many early burners don’t like these adaptations and drop out. Many other adapt and continue to participate.

    Size is also an important factor. When it was a few hundred people going to the wide-open desert, they didn’t need rules, roads, a fence, etc. In order to scale, organizations need structure, just as you need bones and skin. In order to have a structure, Burning Man needs a budget. In order to interface with the Authorities, it needs people to negotiate permits, boundaries, responsibilities, etc.

    Of course they could have decided long ago that the experiment should end because of the effect of growth, history, the Authorities (and of course the new filthy rich/dirty hippy dialectic). There are lots of events/organizations that have come and gone for those very reasons. Why shouldn’t this one have a go at continuing to grow and trying to maintain their 10 principles while maintaining relations (negotiations/compromises) with the default world?

    When I see Burning Man changing over the years, I see the natural and logical progression of civilization in action. The rules, the structure, the compromises between conflicting needs that some here call hypocrisy: all of this emerges by necessity.

    People have choices about how to relate to thing like the 10 Principles. One way is to assume it is corporate PR-speak and proclaim that you have seen right through it. Another is to proclaim it be hypocrisy because hedonism. But you can also try evaluating it as an honest attempt to make something beautiful and worthwhile out of an event and assess how well they’re doing. And finally, you could try applying the 10 Principles – just for a week – at a place where other people are also doing the same and see if it makes the event any more or less beautiful and worthwhile for you. Try stepping outside of the default world for a while and see what thing are like with commercial transactions in abeyance for a few days.

    For the record, I feel done with Burning Man. The per-capita RV count is too high for me. But the fact that it no longer offers what I want doesn’t lead me to say it is a failure, or that it should change back to the way I liked it in 1999, or that it should be shut down. I can find other things to enrich my life.

    To those of you wrote in to proclaim that Burning Man sound like just a bunch of LABELish LABELs LABELLING, I assure you that there is more to it than that.

  30. JDM

    Just drove through Nevada. You can still see sections of the Pony Express trails. You really think you can have tens of thousands of people concentrated out there and not leave traces?

    The nature of much of the west, especially dry areas, makes it sensitive to damage. We had someone drive a car across a field on property in California – out and back, one time only – and you could clearly see the tracks 5 years later.

    1. Barry

      Do you think you can drive thru Nevada and leave no trace?

      They try to instill the leave no trace ethos in participants in order to minimize the impact of being there. The more people avoid littering, shame other for littering, and pick up litter; the less there is to be picked up by the large volunteer crew that picks up trash for a month or more after the event is over (and there are people who clean up the area beforehand too. The other people who use the playa for recreation don’t have so much of the leave no trace ethos).

      There is an entirely pragmatic reason for the leave no trace rule which has nothing to do with environmentalism: if they don’t leave the playa clean enough to pass a BLM inspection, they won’t get issued another permit.

      When they first went up there, the playa must have seemed like the perfect place to burn things and blow things up and make loud noises. The playa is a perfectly flat surface where virtually nothing lives. The gov’t has since decided it is environmentally sensitive, so Burning Man can’t leave even burn marks. They have to change locations from time to time to help the playa smooth back out after vehicles leave grooves in its surface. Who cares about grooves on an empty desert? People trying to set land speed records in their rocket cars and land sailers.

      Of course they leave a trace, but can you think of a better place to have a huge event with minimal environmental impact? Coachella?

  31. John Danley

    Lots of affluent white people cavorting in a remote location with elaborate costumes while taking drugs next to enormous bonfires. Sounds like a cross between a Klan rally and a rave party for professionals with hippie envy.

  32. Cat

    All those points you mention are certainly what BM is NOT about if you look at the culture, the way it is organized, who attends (white privileged people mostly), and it is a certain form of costumed capitalism en masse in one place, ruining a perfectly nice desert environment. Adults have discernment at a certain age and yet we are told we are ignorant because we have never been and don’t understand what we are missing. I call bullshit.

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