Burning Man signifies society’s shift away from traditional capitalism

A new kind of community.
A new kind of community.
Image: Reuters/Jim Urquhart
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How much does it cost to escape capitalism?

Much ink has been spilled and server space spent on the increasingly commercial influence of Burning Man. From the tech glitterati who shell out tens of thousands of dollars for turn-key luxury camps with air conditioning to celebrities like P Diddy and Katy Perry who get flown in for their annual cameos, there’s no doubt Burning Man has come a long way from the few friends who met on a San Francisco beach in 1986 to burn a nine-foot effigy.

For the past 30 years, artists, spiritual seekers, and, as of late, billionaires shell out hundreds of dollars on transportation, food, and 1960s faux-fur coats to join on the decommodified gift economy. According to their annual census, the median cost each citizen spends to join the moneyless metropolis known as “Black Rock City” is $1,500, not including a $425 ticket price. The rest goes toward elaborate costumes, enough sustenance to last a week, shelter to survive in the harsh climate, and gifts to give to fellow participants. Rather than a barter economy, where you might trade a mojito for a back rub, Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving that do not contemplate a return or exchange for something of equal value. It’s a case of mi casa su casa, writ large

For a festival with a noncommercial soul, $1,500 sure seems like an awful lot of forgone kombucha to camp in the barren Nevada desert. But for the 70,000 humans who help create the temporary city each August, the Burn is worth every penny.

As Quartz reported last year, overworked America’s obsession with Burning Man may be a cry for help; many of the yuppies who spend one of their two weeks of vacation at Burning Man are seeking the spirituality and hedonism missing from their desk jobs. But aside from self-discovery and personal growth, Burning Man’s rise in popularity may be indicative of a larger value shift away from traditional capitalism.

As the demand to attend Burning Man swells, so too have post-capitalistic ideals percolating outside of Black Rock City. According to a 2016 Harvard study, the majority of young people aged 18 to 29 years old no longer support traditional capitalism. Thanks in part to Bernie Sanders, alternatives to America’s capitalist roots have become part of the political zeitgeist, and groups like the Democratic Socialists of America have more than tripled in membership in the past year alone.

For the 40% of Burning Man attendees who will be first-timers this year, Black Rock City may inspire an idea of what a post-capitalist society could look like. “The term ‘gift economy’ is a little misleading,” says Andie Grace, Burning Man’s longtime director of communications. “The term ‘economy’ often implies some aspect of exchange. But there’s no accounting, no expectation of receiving anything in return. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a commerce-free experience—burners buy plenty of goods to bring into Black Rock City. It’s just a commerce-free zone.”

Burning Man is full of social services that are “universal,” which makes the playa a level playing field. The hundreds of workshops, art pieces, and curated experiences throughout the week are free to anyone who chooses to participate, and your experience is bound not by the money in your wallet but what you can contribute to the group. And it’s not just about what you can receive: Anyone can volunteer to work at the international post office or become a “lamplighter” to illuminate the oil street lamps each evening, which keeps the giving cycle turning.

Despite Burning Man’s mainstream rise, the ethos of self-reliance and self-expression have been well-maintained over the years. “Burning Man blows up the siloes of economic stratification,” says longtime burner Tom Price. “It’s a society where despite your economic means, you can participate in everything the city offers, and you can’t just buy your way out of the problem in front of you.”

Despite the lack of a tangible currency or a hospitable environment, Black Rock City’s DIY infrastructure functions—thrives, even. The local newspaper goes out every morning. The public radio station broadcasts through the airwaves. The Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV) registers each of the fire-shooting art cars that provide public transportation.

One might assume Burning Man could only exist in vacuum. After all, in order for Black Rock City to function for a week, thousands of volunteers offer their time, energy, and money all year round. How could this cultural anomaly possibly translate to the real world?

But Black Rock City is not meant to last forever—and that’s the point. Impermanence is central to the experience as dusty men in skirts. However, Burning Man’s short-term influence extends back to the mentality of its citizens when they return home to the “default world.” Numerous social enterprises like Black Rock Solar, which provides low-cost solar power to the county surrounding Black Rock City, and Burners Without Borders, a disaster-relief organization that was founded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Rather than a swell of rich adults in search of a desert rave, Burning Man’s increase in popularity points toward a larger societal shift in values. As more and more people hope to participate every year, it has ironically become the exact free-market force that has made capitalism so much harder to escape. As a result, the Burn is a well-positioned antidote for many of our first-world ailments—at least for those that can afford it.