Norquist, tech titans, and whether Burning Man is positively affecting society

As went the Animal Farm, so goes Burning Man.
Ralph Steadman

Is Burning Man really making Bay Area technology titans, right-wing ideologues, and other uber-capitalists more community-minded? Do they really come back from the desert feeling more goodwill toward their fellow humans and then push egalitarian innovations to help the masses?

That’s one of the biggest reasons that burner apologists cite in defending the festival from any criticisms, responding to the raft of recent articles critical of how Burning Man is developing, including my own, with their own pieces extolling how the festival is making the world a better place. The rhetoric gets downright creepy and cult-like at times, summarily dismissing all dissent.  

Frankly, I’ve long hoped that the stated ethos of Burning Man really would seep out into the world and influence our greed-based economic and political systems. There were even moments over the last 10 years when I really believed it might be happening. But I think that potential has been lost as the party and spectacle that is Burning Man overwhelmed the stated communitarian ethos that underlies it.

Right-wing firebrand Grover Norquist attended Burning Man this year and had a lovely time, as he explained in a UK Guardian opinion piece yesterday and a New York magazine article. Those who hosted him in Black Rock City LLC-run First Camp and showed him around even told us that Norquist “gets it” and how that will help Burning Man going forward.

But there’s a deceptiveness and a hollowness to this rhetoric, by both Norquist and the burner true believers. After all, Norquist flew onto the playa and stayed in accomodations that others set up for him and cleaned up after he left, cooking his meals for him while he was there.

Yet Norquist still has the audacity to write, “The story of Burning Man is one of radical self-reliance....The demand for self-reliance at Burning Man toughens everyone up. There are few fools, and no malingerers. People give of themselves – small gifts like lip balm or tiny flashlights. I brought Cuban cigars.”

Burning Man’s stated principle of Radical Self-Reliance is the one Norquist focused in on because it reinforced his libertarian worldview and belief that selfish actions somehow provide for the common good, and he’s now using Burning Man to promote that notion, to the glee of its leaders.

“A community that comes together with a minimum of ‘rules’ demands self-reliance – that everyone clean up after themselves and help thy neighbor. Some day, I want to live 52 weeks a year in a state or city that acts like this. I want to attend a national political convention that advocates the wisdom of Burning Man,” he writes.

Will Norquist also promote “Civic Responsibility” and “Communal Effort,” also stated burner principles, to his wealthy patrons? After all, the city he enjoyed wasn’t free. Maybe he didn’t pay $380 for his ticket, but most attendees do, much like paying taxes is the price of living in civil society, despite Norquist’s fierce opposition to taxes and government.

But there are other dangerous dynamics at play on the playa that would probably make Grover’s small heart grow three sizes larger, particularly the exploitation of labor by a handful of powerful elites. After all, Black Rock City LLC and its six board members claim the full economic value of all the volunteer labor that builds the city each year, from the art to the big theme camps to the people working gate in the middle of the night, hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteer labor.

At its core, libertarianism denies the very notion of exploitation, or that our freedom is limited by the dwindling economic opportunities that are available to us and the power some have to game markets. It promotes a deregulated world in which those with economic and political power can do pretty much whatever they want — something most progressives see as a race to the bottom that exploits both human and natural resources.

It’s no surprise that Norquist is a big fan of the so-called “sharing economy,” in which companies such as Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft help commodify and monetize people’s homes and vehicles, essentially creating low-wage jobs with no benefits while being heedless of their impacts on local housing markets or established employers like hotel or taxi companies.

Tech titans have been coming to Burning Man since the beginning, and I haven’t seen any evidence in San Francisco that they’ve internalized or promoted the principles of civic responsibility, communal effort, or decommodification. Burning Man may seem like a libertarian paradise to a casual observer, but clean-up crews will be there for the rest of the month to make the “leave no trace” ideal a reality, many big theme camps will be holding fundraisers all fall to pay off their debt from this year, and it’ll be up to cops and courts to decide what justice demands for the woman tragically killed by an art car this year.

Like most libertarians, Grover wants all the benefits of government — public roads, unspoiled federal lands, police protection of person and property, and other services that make Burning Man possible — he just doesn’t think the wealthy should pay their fair share for it. 

I had dinner last night with Rev. Billy Talen, the inspiring anti-corporate activist at the center of the NYC-based Church of Stop Shopping and close friend of the festival’s organizers, and he’s also bothered by the trends he’s seeing at Burning Man, and openly wondering when the volunteers (like a surly one he encountered at the gate this year while Norquist was being feted inside First Camp) are going to catch on to the game.

That’s what a lot of people are wondering these days, how long Burning Man will still remain a vibrant and interesting place as more and more people pay to come watch and appreciate the hard work of a dwindling percentage of burners willing to put their time, sweat, and energy into making Black Rock City what it is each year.

And if there really is a larger societal value to the wealthy CEOs who come to party in exclusive camps and private art cars, then I think we’re all still waiting to see what that looks like. And waiting. In the meantime, Burning Man seems to be going the way of Animal Farm, where “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” that Orwellian distillation of a list of once-egalitarian principles.