How a high-minded countercultural experiment ended up on everyone's bucket list
I also have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for the community members who give so much of themselves to creating Black Rock City's art and infrastructure. And I give credit to founder Larry Harvey and other event leaders for creating such a wondrous vehicle for creative expression and community-building and keeping it running for nearly three decades.
But when an organization asserts a set of high-minded utopian values, it's only fair to judge it by those standards. And when it claims the economic value of the labors of tens of thousands of voluntary participants as its own company assets, questions of accountability and commodification naturally arise.
For example, Burning Man has always asserted the value of "Decommodification," which is one of its Ten Principles: "In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation."
Yet the LLC has closely guarded its control over the Burning Man name, logo, images, and associated brands, resisting efforts to place them in the public domain and even waging legal battles against longtime burners who try to use them, including a current conflict with Canadian burners over how much the company can control a culture there that it didn't actually create.
Licensing of the Burning Man brand and images has been a secret source of income for the company, which doesn't publicly disclose its revenues, only its expenditures. In recent years, those brands and commodities have been transferred to a new entity controlled by the original six LLC board members, ironically named Decommodification LLC.
Some of the other Burning Man principles can seem just a farcical, including Radical Inclusion ("No prerequisites exist for participation in our community," except the $380 ticket), Communal Effort (but "cooperation and collaboration" apparently don't apply to decisions about how the event is managed or how large it gets), and Civic Responsibility ("We value civil society," says the organization that eschews democratic debate about its direction and governance structure).
Meanwhile, Harvey and company have promised greater transparency and accountability at some future point, through The Burning Man Project, a nonprofit organization formed a few years ago ostensibly to take over running the event from BRC LLC (see "The future of Burning Man," 8/2/11) .
But it hasn't exactly rolled out that way. As I've reported (see "Burning questions," 6/4/13), the original six board members have maintained tight control over all aspects of the event, appointing new nonprofit board members mostly for their fundraising ability and willingness to toe the company line, rather than seeking representation from the various constituent burner communities.
Even then, with a board hand-picked for its loyalty (which apparently goes both ways, given how the LLC has supported hagiographic Burning Man film and book projects by two of its new nonprofit board members), Harvey still remains wary of "undue meddling" by the new board, as he put it to me.
On top of that sundae, add the cherry that is Harvey's public admission that all six board members have, as part of this transition, awarded themselves large financial settlements in amounts that will never be disclosed, and one might expect burners to revolt.
But they haven't. Most just don't care about these internal company dynamics (except for a few brave souls at the excellent Burners.me blog), no matter how questionable, as long as their beloved Burning Man still happens on schedule. And that's why I think Burning Man has truly jumped the shark, launching from the ramp of a high-minded experiment and splashing down into the tepid waters of mass-consumed hedonism.