Capitalism’s campgrounds

at 02:22 PM ET, 05/03/2012

Go to Burning Man, and you’ll find everything from a thunderdome battle between a couple in tiger-striped bodypaint to a man dressed as a gigantic blueberry muffin on wheels. But underneath it all, says the festival’s co-founder, Larry Harvey, is “old-fashioned capitalism.”
Burn, baby, burn. (Jim Urquhart - Reuters)

There’s not a corporate logo in sight at the countercultural arts festival, and nothing is for sale but ice and coffee. But at its core, Harvey believes that Burning Man hews closely to the true spirit of a free-enterprise democracy: Ingenuity is celebrated, autonomy is affirmed, and self-reliance is expected. “If you’re talking about old-fashioned, Main Street Republicanism, we could be the poster child,” says Harvey, who hastens to add that the festival is non-ideological — and doesn’t anticipate being in GOP campaign ads anytime soon.

For more than two decades, the festival has funded itself entirely through donations and ticket sales — which now go up to $300 a pop — and it’s almost never gone in the red. And on the dry, barren plains of the Nevada desert where Burning Man materializes for a week each summer, you’re judged by what you do — your art, costumes and participation in a community that expects everyone to contribute in some form and frowns upon those who’ve come simply to gawk or mooch off others.

That’s part of the message that Harvey and his colleagues have brought to Washington this week, in his meetings with congressional staffers and the Interior Department to discuss the future of Burning Man. In fact, the festival is already a known quantity on the Hill: Harvey and his colleagues have been coming to Washington for years to explain the festival to policymakers, in least part because Burning Man takes place on public land that’s managed by the Interior Department.

In fact, Burning Man’s current challenge stems come because it’s so immensely popular, growing beyond 50,000 participants since it started some 20 years ago. “We’re no longer so taxed in explaining that it’s not a hippie debauch,” Harvey tells me over sodas in downtown Washington. “The word has leaked out so well that everyone now wants to come.” In fact, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management that oversees the Black Rock Desert recently put the festival on probation for exceeding the land’s permitted crowd limits — a decision that organizers are now appealing.

Harvey now hopes to direct the enormous passion that Burning Man has stoked in its devotees over the years outside of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, in the U.S. and overseas — the primary focus of this week’s visit to Washington. Last year, Burning Man transitioned from a limited liability corporation into a 501(c)3 nonprofit, which organizers believed was a better way to support their activities — not just for the festival, but for outside projects and collaborations in what festival-goers often refer to as “the default world.”

These days, Harvey — now in his mid-60s, dressed in a gray cowboy hat, silver western shirt, and aviator sunglasses — is just as likely to reference Richard Florida as the beatniks he once met on Haight Street. Most recently, he’s been talking with Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, who shares his vision of revitalizing Las Vegas, one of the cities hardest hit by the recent housing bust. “Urban renewal? We’re qualified. We’ve built up and torn down cities for 20 years,” says Harvey. “Cities everywhere are calling for artists, and it’s a blank slate there, blocks and blocks. ... We want to extend the civil experiment — to see if business and art can coincide and not maim one another.”

Harvey points out that there’s been long-standing ties between Burning Man artists and to some of the private sector’s most successful executives. Its arts foundation, which distributes grants for festival projects, has received backing from everyone from real-estate magnate Christopher Bently to Mark Pincus, head of online gaming giant Zynga, as the Wall Street Journal points out. “There are a fair number of billionaires” who come to the festival every year, says Harvey, adding that some of the art is privately funded as well. In this way, Burning Man is a microcosm of San Francisco itself, stripping the bohemian artists and the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs of their usual tribal markers on the blank slate of the Nevada desert. At Burning Man, “when someone asks, ‘what do you do?’ — they meant, what did you just do” that day, he explains.

It’s one of the many apparent contradictions at the core of the festival: Paired with the philosophy of “radical self-reliance” — one that demands that participants cart out all their own food, water and shelter into a dust-filled desert for a week — is the festival’s communitarian ethos. Burning Man celebrates a gift economy that inspires random acts of generosity, and volunteer “rangers” traverse the festival to aid those in trouble. The climactic burning of the festival’s iconic “man”— along with a wooden temple filled with notes and memorials — is a ritual of togetherness and belonging for many participants. At the same time, one of the festival’s mottos is, ‘You have a right to hurt yourself.’ It’s the opposite of a nanny state,” Harvey says, recounting the time a participant unsuccessfully tried to sue the festival: He had walked out onto the coals after the “man”was set on fire and, predictably, burned himself.

In the same spirit, Harvey emphasizes that he didn’t come to Washington to seek out government assistance for the festival’s fledgling 501(c)3. “We’re not asking for aid, and we’re not asking for tax breaks,” he says. Instead, Harvey and his colleagues have come to explain their organization’s expanded mission as a nonprofit organization, emphasizing that the group has always received a respectful audience in the Beltway.

Part of Burning Man’s fruitful longevity is due to its founders’ willingness to wrangle with the headaches of bureaucracy and organizational hierarchy. “A lot of people think it just ‘happens,’ and we just supply the porta-potties. ... The irony is, we went to the desert to do something that was quite unworldly, and in order to survive and persist and realize our potential out there, we’ve had to get very worldly — it’s been a crash course,” Harvey explains.

“People say, what does Burning Man have to do with politics? In our history, it has everything to do politics. First, we had to create a civil society — that’s politics. Then we had to survive in the world, because we’re on federal land — that’s politics,” he adds. “In complying with the rules and engaging in politics, we learned a lot about how the world works.”

Harvey even offers a political analogy for the countercultural festival’s success — not in terms of content, but organization. “If we can create a world that’s defined by brilliance at the top and soulful association at the bottom, you command everything in between. After all, isn’t that what Republicans did? Think tanks and grass-roots base — I’d say that’s a successful story that’s worth emulating as an example,” he says. (Harvey, who doesn’t align himself with either party, offers a similar analogy on the Democratic side to FDR and the popular support for the New Deal.)

To mark this week’s visit to the Beltway, Harvey and his Burning Man colleagues threw a party at Tortilla Coast on Capitol Hill, inviting many congressional staffers to attend on Monday. The turnout was great, Harvey says. “And we got equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats.”

 
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