Burning Man chronicler Brian Doherty responds to the news that the iconic counterculture festival, which has traditionally made a point of officially eschewing commerce, will be allowing a few corporations to exhibit (unbranded) “green” technologies this year. Predictably, even this quite mild step has elicited carping about “money changers in the temple.” And Brian offers the sort of rejoinder I myself have probably made a dozen times in other contexts:
But Burning Man is rife with the products of corporations, and always has been. And has always had to be. The prepared food items and bottled water we live on out there; the portajohns our wastes go in after eating that food and drinking that water; the tents we sleep in, the pipe and metal domes we lounge under, the clothes we wear, either exotic or normal—all sold to us not for fellow-feeling but by monied interests, usually corporate, who just want our cash. For Burning Man to be truly free of the products of corporate commerce, it would be a zone we could survive in for at most a few hours, and grimly at that.
What’s so infuriating about market capitalism to those who want to hate it? We inevitably swim in it, and any attack on it threatens to involve us in a performative contradiction. We create, we trade, we buy, we sell—it is essential in the nature of any culture that wants to survive beyond the grimmest self-sufficiency.
Every component of this response is true enough, but I now find myself wondering whether it isn’t nevertheless misplaced.
No doubt there are plenty of Burners who are genuinely “anti-capitalist” as a matter of genuine theoretical conviction. But probably there are as many or more who, though they might express their feelings in that language, really only want, as Brian puts it:
an opportunity to create temporary zones without [commerce], for the entertainment value and for the (very real) additional (temporary) richness of social reality it creates.
Certainly very few Burners would last a week in the Nevada desert without many of the products of commerce, but it just doesn’t follow that the desire for a temporary commercial-free zone is therefore somehow hypocritical or steeped in “performative contradiction.” It is perfectly coherent to be a thoroughgoing free-marketeer, to appreciate how deftly the price system harnessed the self-love of thousands of individuals, from lumberjacks and miners to carpenters and plumbers, in order to produce your local church—and yet still prefer that Starbucks refrain from opening up shop in the narthex. Having bought prophylactics at the corner deli in the evening does not forbid you from taking umbrage if your lover leaves a fifty on the nightstand the following morning. The most ardent capitalist will want a few spaces where she can feel confident that her neighbor’s friendliness is not the opening gambit in a pitch to sell her a T-shirt, even if she was happy to buy the one she’s wearing. We are entitled to happily engage the butcher, the brewer, and the baker on the basis of our respective self-loves while hoping for a little benevolence from our brothers, our bowling buddies, and our Burners.
These sentiments are as natural and ubiquitous as a more generalized disdain for markets is stupid and misguided. So why bother trying to equate the two? Why reinforce the notion that embracing a “market society” means embracing “markets in everything”? Ninety percent of this piece is dead on target, but someone who cherishes relatively commercial-free spaces like Burning Man could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that he’s being asked to reject that feeling as benighted or confused. Which would be unfortunate, since it would have been as easy to stress not the contradiction but the complementarity between the free-market and market-free arenas—a message I’d expect the skeptical Burner to more readily accept.