Yes, Burning Man Is Pretty Libertarian in Many Respects

Which is a shame for those who can't tolerate any space not managed by compulsion


Keith A. Spencer at Jacobin notices something he thinks is very alarming and he wants his proggy audience to be very alarmed about as well: The Burning Man festival has an easily-detectable libertarian subtext, and that's why rich people go there!

Burning Man, that curious art festival/experimental temporary community that rises and disappears every year before Labor Day in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, has become a true American phenomenon, its every business decision, culture warpolitical imbroglio, and insect infestation making national news.

As someone attending since 1995 and writing about it since 1999, it's been an interesting ride to watch. The event, though, even though it has adopted "10 Principles" to define its meaning, has always been, to its credit, wide-ranging in the set of beliefs and attitudes it can swallow up or be seen to embody.

What's great about it is the experience, never the ideology that does or does not underlie it. At root, it is a great experience almost to the degree that it is not a political experience.

Some of Spencer's observations, with comments. Although one of ethos/rules of the event is that no vending (except for ice and coffee at event-run venues) is allowed:

capitalists also unironically love Burning Man, and to anyone who has followed the recent history of Burning Man, the idea that it is at all anticapitalist seems absurd: last year, a venture capitalist billionaire threw a $16,500-per-head party at the festival, his camp a hyper-exclusive affair replete with wristbands and models flown in to keep the guests company.

Burning Man is earning a reputation as a "networking event" among Silicon Valley techies, and tech magazines now send reporters to cover it. CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Alphabet are foaming fans, along with conservative anti-tax icon Grover Norquist and many writers of the libertarian (and Koch-fundedReason magazine. Tesla CEO Elon Musk even went so far as to claim that Burning Man "is Silicon Valley."

Spencer hat tips to the experiential surreality of the actual experience, of its very effective and rich recreation of modern urban life as a near-Situationist orgy of play and behavioral revolt. You can get away with appearances and behaviors that would get you shunned, mocked, or avoided in normal life and have them treated as play here.

That sort of social liberty is rich and real, even if cops descend like flies on the event and try to enforce silly laws against nonviolent behavior. (Though one can still, as always, get away with such behavior more often than not.)

Spencer then goes on to raise eyebrows over the fact that the event's ethos of participation and "no spectating" allows people with more money to, well, have more money to spend on supplying spectacle and gifts to the other citizens at Burning Man. Yes, rich people go there to have fun. Why? Because it's a lot of fucking fun. Yes, an airport operates there now. Why? People want to fly there, and it's a long hard drive down an often cramped two-lane road for nearly 100 miles out of Reno.

Much of the rest of it is a tired re-hashing of stories of rich people running camps in which they hire people to serve them, questionable given the event's supposed ethos and rules but something that should, absent New York Times stories getting them riled up, have no effect on the non-envious' ability to enjoy whatever experience they want to have at Burning Man. Just ignore the walls of RVs. If the thought that someone is eating a better meal and sleeping in a nicer accomodation than you out there ruins your experience, that might be your problem.

The emergent class divides of Burning Man attendees is borne out by data: the Burning Man census (yes, they have a census, just like a real nation-state) showed that from 2010 to 2014, the number of attendees who make more than $300,000 a year doubled from 1.4% to 2.7%. This number is especially significant given the outsize presence 1 percenters command at Burning Man.

Hm, that sounds bad, huh? I guess. Why, again? Spencer will tell ya:

In a just, democratic society, everyone has equal voice. At Burning Man everyone is invited to participate, but the people who have the most money decide what kind of society Burning Man will be — they commission artists of their choice and build to their own whims. They also determine how generous they are feeling, and whether to withhold money.

Spencer then goes on to connect Burning Man with Mark Zuckerberg giving $100 million to Newark's schools, which was bad because it overwhelmed democratic control of the schools, which had done so well for Newark's kids, apparently.

Oh, yes: Burning Man full of white men. Some of them rich. And it's a world where people make their own decisions about how to use their resources for their own or others' pleasure, not one where some democratic decisionmaking process forces people to do with their resources what a majority say they want (in a system where anyone familiar in any way with actual working democracy knows, the linkage between a vote and a policy result that directly reflects exactly what the voter wanted is practically nonexistent).

That is what Spencer calls "the dark heart of Burning Man"—that insufficient decisions about people's resources are being made by others and enforced by violence.

Progs should have been suspicious about this whole Burning Man thing from the beginning, Spencer points out, since one of the event's core stated principles is "radical self-expression," defined in part as arising "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."

Dark indeed!

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

It doesn't seem like Burning Man can ever be salvaged, or taken back from the rich power-brokers who've come to adore it and now populate its board of directors. It became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core; and, without any semblance of democracy, it could easily be controlled by those with influence, power, and wealth.

Or Burning Man can continue to be what it started as and has remained: a self-created civic space for people to come together with other people in an atmosphere of expected creativity, refreshing non-judgementalism, revelry, and comedy and do for the most part whatever they want without a commissar telling them how they must participate.

There is a reasonable story about a diminution in the spirit of Burning Man to be told, but it has to do with the event becoming more like a modern democracy, in the sense of the imposition of rules and cops and cop-like entities to enforce some collective vision-from-above of safety for the masses and environmental consciousness.

That said: Yes, there is still something very anarchistic about Burning Man. (Notwithstanding that, like everywhere else in the territory of the United States, cops choose to flood into it, mostly to harass people over innocent behavior.) It's a functioning city where attendance is voluntary and the only things like public services—mostly road grading and porta-johns—are paid for out of the voluntary ticket price.

Actual free markets in the form of vending are prohibited, which of course makes it a purely fantasy mini-anarchy, one that can only survive for its limited time over the incredibly leisure-wealth thrown off by capitalist society. You must bring everything with you that you need to survive.

It's no coincidence that the first (and still the best!) history of the event was written in 2004 by a libertarian, me. (It's called This is Burning Man, available as a 10th anniversary ebook with an updated 5,000-word afterword.) (Before the book, I wrote at length about the event's troubled relations with government in a February 2000 Reason cover story.)

I've noted before here the animating spirit of Spencer's overly long essay: the regrettable progressive tendency to get really pissed off about any interesting or useful part of reality not managed via centralized force, from self-publishing to bitcoin to Kickstarter to the "maker" movement. It sucks, but at least it helps show what the progressive impulse is really all about: not making a better world, but making what they believe would be a better managed one—managed by people like them, for their goals.

Jacobin itself is fond of the "a wonderful area of human life isn't sufficiently controlled by 'democracy'" article; see me taking on David Golumbia in 2013 on the terrible problem of how overly libertarian the Internet itself is.