11 February 2012

Waiting for the dust to settle

A pirate ship sails through an obfuscating dust storm
Burning Man, August 2008
Over the last four months on the steps of the Central Bank an interesting experiment has been taking place, one that has drawn many academics, sociologists and political theorists to the makeshift shanty town of shacks, yurts and tents known as #OccupyDameStreet to observe and record what happens when a disparate group of strangers attempt to create an autonomous, non-hierarchical community with only the vaguest of shared goals or ideals. At times it seems the anthropologists have outnumbered the photographers, crouching Attenborough-like behind the Occupiers, observing their eating rituals and attempting to understand their faltering attempts at communication.

Five thousand miles away in the salt flats of Nevada another sociological field day is unfolding in a far more established counter-culture movement, providing a deep insight into what happens when the invisible hand of the free market is let loose upon an autonomous, self-organised and moneyless society, and it is not a pretty sight at all, at all.

Burning Man is an amazing festival that occurs every year in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. An exercise in radical self-sufficiency all participants must bring everything they need to survive from a weekend to a week (including food and water) in an environment that ranges from 35C+ during the day to below freezing at night. Nothing is available for purchase on site, where goods or services are exchanged it is done so purely on a system of gifting, ie given away for free as a gift, the person receiving the goods or service may offer another item or service in return, but the original gift is offered with no expectation of exchange. Unlike other festivals there are no scheduled events or attractions offered by the organisers, save the construction and burning of a giant wooden sculpture, "The Man", the centrepoint of each festival. All other attractions or events are created and provided by the participants themselves, many of whom spend months each year building the so-called "theme camps", that often look like something from a post-apocalyptic film. The organisers provide the space for people to create things, and the spirit of participation is what makes the whole thing work.

Due to the challenge of being radically self-sufficient in an extremely hostile environment, and the reputation it has for attracting those on the furthest edges of the West Coast counter-culture, Burning Man has never been something that appealed to a wide audience, however in recent years its profile has been raised by coverage in the mainstream media, leading to an increase in attendees. Last year's event sold out online for the first time, in previous years tickets were generally available at the event itself, and this led the organisers to try something radically different in 2012 to meet demand, an online lottery.

Large festivals like Glastonbury normally sell their tickets online on a first come, first served basis. This leads to a huge rush the moment tickets are released, and has lead to buyer frustration as they try in vain to log on to the site as it experiences huge volumes of traffic. Burning Man rejected this system and decided to try the London Olympics approach, to allow for people to apply for tickets over an extended period of time, and then randomly allocate tickets amongst all applicants once the closing date for applications was reached.

This is where things started to go wrong.

A mutant vehicle struggles to find its way in the desert. Also a metaphor.
Burning Man, August 2008
By introducing the element of chance into ticket purchasing, they had transformed a ticket from a mere commodity into a very scarce resource, and when capitalists see scarce resources they immediately see an opportunity for enrichment at the expense of others. Demand for tickets far exceeded anything seen in the festival's history, 40% of those applying for tickets said that they had never been to Burning Man before, an unheard of number of newbies, and almost immediately after the lottery results were announced the ticket scalpers went public, with tickets being offered for resale at many times their original $390 face value. The upshot of this is that those veteran Burners, the volunteers who spend many months every year creating the Theme Camps, mutant vehicles and all the other elements that actually make Burning Man happen, only managed to secure about 25-30% of the tickets they need to have enough people to construct and maintain their Theme Camps on site, and so many camps have been forced to pull out of this year's Burn.

No Theme Camps means that there will be nothing to do in Burning Man except stare at mile upon mile of salt flat, and without the veteran Burners there will be no one to help all the newbies lost in the dust storms, or instill in them what the Burn is all about. It's like travelling thousands of miles to the World Cup when you've never seen a football match, and when you get there you find that there's no stadium, no pitch, no teams, no balls, and no-one even to show you how to organise your own five-aside kick-about (a bit like the Delhi Commonwealth Games by all accounts).

We went to Burning Man in 2008 at the end of an amazing journey that started in Ethiopia and ended up in San Francisco via Mexico and Central America, and although the Burn wasn't the transformative experience for me that it seems to be for a lot of suburban American kids, it still was amazing to see such a radical alternative kicking and screaming at the heart of American ultra-Capitalism. The thought that the free-market that the Burners sought to reject for one week a year could be the very thing that destroys it is both ironic and sadly predictable.

At the moment they don't seem to have a firm plan in place on how to remedy the situation. No extra tickets can be allocated as they have reached the capacity set by the Federal Bureau of Land Management (who manage the Desert on behalf of the US Citizenry), and they won't recall the tickets already sold. Glastonbury faced a similar crisis with angry, violent and ticketless New Age Travelers back in the early nineties, and its solution was to erect the Mother of All Separation Barriers around the site and embrace commercialism with gusto, it would be a shame to see Burning Man reduced to just another broken ideal poisoned by capitalism.

Capitalism - it really does destroy everything it touches.

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