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The Esoteric Economics Of Feeling The Burn

The Burn is upon us.

This weekend, the hippest, coolest, most connected and most creative will converge on Nevada’s Black Rock desert and set up camp on “the playa” for the annual Burning Man festival.

Once the great exodus is done – and the streets of Silicon Valley are suddenly emptied – the 70,000 or so burners who will make it out to the desert next week will celebrate the creative prowess of the human mind, the resilience of the human body and the extraordinary regenerative power of the human liver while they sample technicolor art installations, mutant vehicles, elaborate costuming, pervasive public nudity and a series of sights and sounds that more or less defy easy human description.

Apart from the art and the counter-cultural campout atmosphere on offer, Burning Man is also internationally regarded as an excellent place to do some networking with Silicon Valley’s most elite – and to take a lot of hallucinogenic drugs.

And those two activities are not so much an either/or at Burning Man, so much as they are often a both/and. That, according to Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, is pretty much how he ended up at Google in the first place.

“We all went to Burning Man together,” Schmidt told Stephen Colbert of the time way, way back, when Google was more an interesting concept than anything else, and the firm’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page really wanted to recruit Schmidt. After a week together on the playa, magic happened.

How? You’ll have to use your imagination.

“There’s a rule at Burning Man,” Schmidt said. “No pictures.”

Well, there was a rule, anyway – in the age of Instagram, there are and will be lots of pictures at Burning Man this week and next, because at least half of the fun is seeing and being seen.

Whether Burning Man represents a positive or something a bit more aligned with evil is very much a matter of perception.

The Two Burning Mans

For Burning boosters, the week-long, back-to-nature campout built around self-reliance, gifting, creativity and leaving no negative environmental trace is a utopian vision of what a post-capitalist, egalitarian society of cheerful sharers would be like.

For Burning bashers, the festival offers a glimpse of a post-apocalyptic monument to hedonism occurring in a mini-society that is what Sodom and Gomorrah would look like if one re-imagined it as a pop-up shop.

Part of that bifurcation can be written off to differing tastes among qualified judges – one person’s life-transforming spiritual experience can be another’s perfect description of hell.

But the sort of sharp differences of opinions that Burning Man manages to generate – spelled out in a slew of think pieces that fill the internet each summer during the last week of August – is actually about economics, and the extremely esoteric economies that pop up at the annual festival.

Depending on what part of the story and which group of Burners one looks at, they might either see a post-capitalist organization of people that makes up a sharing economy in the most literal possible sense, or a celebration of capitalism at its most comical and excessive.

A Gift Economy …

Among the event’s most famous features – enshrined in the 10 principles set forth by the founder, the late Larry Harvey – Burning Man is officially a commerce-free zone. There is no buying or selling, no stands, no marketing. There may be whiskey bars and sandwich shops at Burning Man, but everything is free – all products and services are offered by Burners as gifts. The only things that can be sold are coffee and ice.

And though the economy is occasionally described as a barter system, long-time Burners object that this is actually inaccurate.

Burners aren’t trading with each other. One does not offer up a grilled cheese sandwich in return for an umbrella to guard against the heat. There is no exchange – gifts are given as a sign of good will and community fellowship, not in hopes of receiving an object of commensurate value in return.

“The term ‘gift economy’ is a little misleading,” said 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.”

And that experience has a major effect on those who consider the Black Rock desert their spiritual home.

“Burning Man blows up the siloes of economic stratification,” longtime burner Tom Price told Quartz. “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.”

And while that is true, it does leave out the small fact that to participate in all of the “free” on offer at Burning Man, one has to pay to get there. And economic means do kind of matter there – because, as even Andie Grace acknowledged, participation is not exactly cheap.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Grace said. “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.”

… In An Extremely Expensive Environment

Burning is an expensive pleasure.

The average base price of a ticket is around $425, though there is some tiered pricing (with the top tier having a $1,200 price tag). And that’s just the cost of getting in the door. There is no running water or food for sale at Burning Man, meaning anything and everything a Burner needs for a week in the desert they must either pack for themselves or count on the kindness of strangers to provide.

The average price that a Burner can expect to assemble all of those goodies is roughly $1,500. And that, long-term Burners note, is still a rather small sum. Art, costume and car enthusiasts who attend often spend thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars each year preparing and transporting their creations to the playa.

And even that is still the cheap seats.

The highest-watt VIPs who attend Burning Man – think tech billionaires (as opposed to the millionaires who mix with the hoi polloi), celebrities, athletes and other VIPs who travel to Burning Man by helicopter, and camp in velvet roped-off specialized areas where, through a network of luxury RVs, they more or less build a luxury hotel in the desert.

Ice-cold sushi in the middle of the night? No problem.

Air conditioning? Standard feature.

Sharing with your fellow Burners?

Not so much.

VIP camps in recent years have been accused of failing to live up to the spirit of the Burn, by in most cases not opening their luxury accommodations as a gift to the rest of those in attendance. There are plenty of fun perks given away – fur coats, swag bags, time with a German dominatrix/therapist – you name it, the handlers for the VIP guests are thinking about it, down to the tablecloths.

“Last year, I really underestimated the amount of tablecloths I would need, because after a day, it was filthy,” one handler told The New York Post. “They eat like maniacs. Breakfast is dinner and dinner is breakfast.”

But if you want your dinner-breakfast, chilled Dom Perignon or time with Lia Blossom (the German therapist-dominatrix), your name better be on the list.

“Burning Man used to be about escaping capitalism,” an unnamed burner told The Post. “But since everyone in the valley got so rich, it is about embracing its most excessive parts and showing off.”

Who’s right? Hard to say – and perhaps a bit of both, given that Burning Man is both a week-long celebration of creativity, free-spiritedness and simplicity – which is made possible by a lot of rigorous logistical planning and vast sums of capital.

Contradiction may be in its nature.

But we imagine for the Burners suiting up and heading out to the nearest foam party right now in the desert, these concerns are secondary.

After all, there are men to burn – and possibly Googles to found.

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