Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

Market Free

July 13th, 2007 · 7 Comments

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.

Tags: Markets



7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 AC // Jul 13, 2007 at 10:18 am

    Doherty’s right to drill home that idea, because so many Burner types ~don’t~ seem to understand the extent of their dependence on commerce, and ~should~. But your point is also well taken. The upshot is: we should be able to feel cozy about commercial-free zones only ~after~ we’ve thoroughly internalized Doherty’s point.

  • 2 Anonymous // Jul 13, 2007 at 10:57 pm

    Julian—My piece was making a pretty simple point, I admit, not a complicated and nuanced one; though it was a BIT more complicated and nuanced than some people reading and linking to the post seem to think, since I did acknowledge (tho only in a sentence) a point you seem to wish I had made more of. Still, in 1,800 words that have to introduce a strange world, establish a conflict in it, and try to make a polemical point, one has to be selective about how many aspects of the topic to explore, and with how much nuance.

    But the intention of the piece was about how what I see as the offical BM world’s (both from the Org and many attendees) unnuanced and hostile and confused language and thought about the role of commerce and markets had set them up for the anger they are no receiving for their attempt to subtly readjust and reimagine the role of corporate products in an “official” capacity within that world.

    In what may be a simple or a subtle point, my writing on BM is enmeshed in a long history both of discourse and enmeshment in a community that is of great emotional importance to me, and who in my (detailed and knowledgeable, if I may say so) perception need to pay some more attention to the simple point I was making, because they have gone a little too far with the nuanced and subtle one that I made quickly and you make at greater length.

  • 3 shecky // Jul 14, 2007 at 2:23 am

    Anyone who’s been to BM and insists it’s about eschewing commercialism in every aspect of life is kind of an idiot. The idea seems more to avoid commercial aspects at the event, which is what makes BM different from, say, a craft fair or flea market. Not that engaging in those activities is bad, but the motivations are different. BM is the place you go to show the world the things you like to do when you’re not earning a living.

  • 4 Patri Friedman // Jul 15, 2007 at 3:37 pm

    I loved this post – it’s nice to see a nuanced view, rather than simplistic accusations of hypocrisy.

  • 5 Brian Doherty // Jul 16, 2007 at 2:52 am

    I agree, which is why I made no such “simplistic accusation” in my piece, tho everyone seems to be enjoying reacting to it as as such. Which is their right and pleasure.
    For what it’s worth, were I a member of Burning Man’s board of deciders, I’d recommend a fuller and more precise removal of the event from markets and commerce, by eliminating coffee and ice sales and NOT doing this year’s pavilion, because I DO find, AS I SAID IN THE PIECE AND AS JULIAN QUOTES, that it’s valuable to have “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” and that if you are serious about it, you could be more serious than BM had traditionally been.
    I do think that the BMorg and BM community’s dominant language and thought about the role of markets and commerce is somewhat naive and strangely hostile enough that BM pretty much built in the certainty of a fair amount of audience hostility to its recent move. That’s what my piece is about.
    And in terms of “what is a more important idea for the world of BM to understand,” I do think that more nuanced thought about the values and importance of markets is as or more vital than thinking about everything awful and corrupting about them.

  • 6 Barry // Jul 17, 2007 at 7:52 am

    I’d add a further reason – sponsors of an event will alter that event. Large corporations represent concentrated money. They have the ability to pump large sums of money into an event. This has a warping potential on the event.

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Jul 17, 2007 at 11:23 am

    Let me clarify here that I didn’t mean to suggest anything in this post was something Brian didn’t understand himself–he obviously does. I was just saying I thought a shift in emphasis might have made the point more palatable to Burner types.

Leave a Comment