What does it mean to have “Decommodification” as a principle?

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]



For those who want the Abridged version:

To commidify oneself (or to be commidified) is to be easily measurable, rankable, and knowable.  Burners, who come out of a capitalist counter-cultural context, tend to think of that in economic terms – and that’s certainly true.  The term “commodity” means something that is bought and sold.  But the process of commodification – of turning something into a product suitable for purchase – also has everything to do with social class, with big data, with the quantified self, and with the kind of psychology that seeks to make us all simpler and shallower rather than deeper and more complex.

When we commodify we seek to make others, and ourselves, more like things, and less like human beings.   “Decommodification,” then, is to reverse this process.  To make the world and the people in it more unique, more priceless, more human.

We are not objects, you and I.  We are not apps, we are not code, we are not commodities.  Nothing that we are can truly be bought or sold, and we are more important than things. The principle of Decomodification is a reminder of that, and a challenge to bring that insight into our lives.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com


About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is not a Burning Man spokesman, and his opinions are his own. A Necklace Factory Award winner, Caveat is a member of the Bureau of Needless Bureaucracy, an honorary member of BMIR's staff, and served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013. He has been coronated Prince of the Dark Unicorn, and is the author of the short story collection A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City, which has nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) Burningman (dog) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

79 thoughts on “What does it mean to have “Decommodification” as a principle?

  • Is it okay to bring a truck loaded with generators, and then rent those generators to various camps, with cash exchanged on the playa?

    Because stuff like this happens all the time.

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  • There are those who decry that the BMORG itself is getting pretty blatant at commodifying the event. This inherently means they are commodifying those who come and make the event what it is with their own blood, sweat tears and money.
    Any commentary on this line of thought?

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  • @wondering

    It’s not commodifying the event if BMorg does it. It’s like American Exceptionalism. That’s fine, since there’s no other even like BM, the organizers can do whatever they want, and the citizens should do what they’re told. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone always has the option to stay home if they don’t like the way BMorg does things.

    But then there is this glaring thing known as ‘the spectacle’. It can’t be missed because it’s everywhere out there. And aside from Center Camp and street signs and putting portapotties in place, and the stickman in the middle, the spectacle that is Burning Man is entirely created by the ticket holders. It is the spectacle alone that is the primary marketing element of the event. This is why BMorg has moved to declare ownership of all pictures taken at the event. What is yours, they own.

    The spectacle is one giant commodification marketing scheme, and you people do it for FREE. Worse, you pay money to make it and you give it to them to commodify. This is a type of business model that has a known term, but I have to look it up exactly. Basically, you’re all a bunch of suckers. But there’s another word for it.

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  • In this space of creative enterprise, it is ultimately up to the artists to decide how high a bar he or she will set for themselves. We are all artists on some level. Of course the bar should be set on the highest rung, on a rung above the highest rungs. Then by pushing ourselves relentlessly, until finally our efforts virtually redefine the very endeavor we call )'( and then start anew. Think of this gathering as a filteress/sieve that does not take away from each other, but joins together. Somewhere, somehow, someway, downstream, transfatmutation is taking place and pistons are being fired on multiple levels for all. Everyone get’s a spark! As we enter/crossover the ‘zone’. We know it. We feel it. We sense it. (early entry or not) – I feel it’s not about weather we are spending/exchanging money or not. Money is exchanged in Center Camp, bad example. (ice needed – can’t we get coffee for free or no coffee) Either way our/your/’now’/world is unaffected. Everyone spends money. Tons n’ tons. Before, during, after. Tell me though that you haven’t felt like you could have asked anyone for almost anything at almost anytime between 2/10 and not been accommodated shortly. This is the filteressieve working effortlessly/continuously within us. Not a filter of weeding out though, but a filter of refining/bringing together and allowing all things to happen in a magnified ‘now’. Just is, nothing else. And is. is what is. We need this to happen God damit! Mostly it should happen as we ‘filter’ into/throughout/out-of/beyond the BRC.

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  • How nice it would be to come here and read comments that suggested anyone actually listened to Caveat’s presentation, which was an excellent analysis, and which pointed out that DECOMODIFICATION IS NOT ABOUT MONEY! It comes down to this, you can treat your life as a job, or you can treat your life as an art project. The first has rules and accomplishments, and expectations, and requires us to surrender our humanity. The later requires us to live fully in the moment and react creatively to the stimuli we interact with. Most of us have to do the former in the majority of our lives, so Burning Man provides the space for us to do the later. It does that successfully. Unless you get in your own way by obsessing over how much money someone else might be making. If Burning man provides you the space you need to be fully you, then go. If it doesn’t, then don’t. And if Larry Harvey makes a billion dollars from the thing, God bless him, maybe he’ll by and island for all of us to play on. If you are volunteering on a project and resenting that you aren’t being paid…stop doing it. We don’t volunteer to make money, we volunteer to give something to the community. If that doesn’t float your boat, do something else.

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  • Pooh Bear states, “Decommodification is not about money!” I would like to add a thought to this by quoting Zay Thompson. In an essay featured elsewhere in this blog series [Commerce and Community: Distilling Philosophy From a Cup of Coffee], he says, “Business provides the Burning Man Project with the means to amass goods, hire services and pay its workers. The Project annually sells this effort and these resources to ticket purchasers as a commodity. But people buy this framework in which they can create immediate experiences for themselves! The framework does not create immediate experience, although it helps support it. After the purchase occurs, the framework is transformed by us into a communal value, namely a city. Even if everyone bought a ticket and just came out to the desert without participating, the event framework would still be there, but it wouldn’t be a city. We create the communal value through our participation. The same goes for the practice of gifting. To get down to it, material things don’t have the meaning ‘commodity’ or the meaning of ‘gift’ until humans instill these meanings in them”.

    Some assert that Burning Man is one great consumer fest because participants purchase the goods and services they use at the event in the marketplace: they view this as commodification. But this assumes that the experiential value of these goods is somehow stamped into them at the factory. And this is precisely what advertisers would like you to believe – that through an act of purchase you are somehow acquiring a state of being. But only a deep-dyed consumer would make this assumption; it robs one of all agency. The same is true of money. To simply complain about how much money someone puts to use at the event is to ignore the role of intention. In the case of Turnkey Camps, for example, the issue isn’t wealth, but rather what one chooses to do with that wealth. The Project has developed a practical plan for communicating this to well-funded camps, and we will reveal our strategy later this year. We have a good track record in this regard, having helped establish Leave No Trace as a value that our citizens have now internalized. In the meantime, I suggest that everyone remember that our event has always been about being and doing, not having and getting.

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  • So it’s not about money? Or is it not about money when it comes to the organization. We have camp bitcoin posting for campers. We have this lovely presentation about the hazards of being unable to take care of your basic physical needs and how one is the forced to face the horror of the burning man brand. You guys have an entity, you have registered marks with the USPTO and individuals on payroll to enforce them. You now sell sanctioned souvenirs and allow other businesses to use the name as long as proper reverence and royalties are paid. Stop blowing smoke up our asses. Come to terms with the fact that you have created a corporate machine that has a business model sustainable beyond wild imagination because of the roots that once existed. I defy anyone else to attempt to produce such an event with fair paid labor.

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  • Are you asserting that the entire framework would still be in place if individuals only purchased tickets and didn’t participate? As I understand it much of the infrastructure of the event is volunteer based and many of these volunteers pay full price or reduced price for the event. This goes up to your mental health professionals, medical professionals, rangers, gate staff, greeters etc…as you claim the event would still be provided but as I understand it these volunteers are integral in two ways. Firstly you need the medical and mental health for your permits and insurance (it is also my understanding that the ranger function *may* reduce the cost of your policy but this is unconfirmed.) Secondly the volunteer based model (even if the individual is working on a fully comped ticket) is so wildly cost effective that it allows you to turn a higher profit and save operational expenses. Yes some basics would be there but not everything the festival provides.

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  • respect the dust, it does not care about your Sodom or your Gomorrah….

    this means YOU.

    New York brought us Krug, Los Angeles brings us Ceasefire…

    fuck you both.

    The Hat Knows. Love the Playa, not the game.

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  • @Tanya
    Here’s my question in response to your questions…respectfully…why do you care? Despite your hypotheticals, the framework IS in place. It is in place with the consent of the participating community. Burners aren’t stupid. They don’t see their participation as a job, but as a gift. They don’t see volunteer opportunities as slavery; they see them as opportunities to give, to build, to discover something about themselves in a context outside that they live on a daily basis. Really, we’re fine. You don’t need to protect us from some evil overlord who is taking advantage of us. We are actually smart people. We know what this is about and it’s what we want. It’s what we chose to do. We are perfectly free to do something else, but this is where we are home. If this is bothering you so much, by all means give it a pass. Start your own event that fits your own values. Or come home, volunteer, meet awesome people, and get some hugs. You are free to take it or leave it, as are we all.

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  • Don’t speak to me as though I don’t participate, don’t question my statements as though I think you are stupid. My questions are validly points are clear. I’m not protecting anyone I’m simply asking questions and refuting statements made that appear to be made in error or in falsehood.

    Don’t tell me the sky is red when it’s clearly blue. Don’t talk to me of business operations and framework while asserting it would all be there when it wouldn’t be. Perhaps you could address the fact that higher priced tickets are sold first for gifts for those with more disposable income than those who have to wait to see if they qualify for a low income ticket.

    Don’t preach the doctorine of do as I say and not as I do. I’ve been involved in business long enough to know a corporate pitch when I’m getting one.

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  • @Tanya

    Hi Tanya:

    Before addressing the substance of your remarks, I want to clarify your accusation that what I’ve created is “propaganda.”

    To be clear: I am a volunteer, and have never been on Burning Man’s payroll. Burning Man was not consulted on this piece before I wrote it, and were not privy to its contents before it was finished. They have not edited a word.

    The views expressed here are my own, and it is my story and my sense of (as the title says) what it actually means to have “decommodification” as a principle. I have offered this perspective in good faith – I hope you’re willing to take it in the same way.

    I should also note that it is very strange propaganda indeed that says – as I do here – “We’re figuring this out. I don’t have a clear answer. I’m hoping you know something we don’t.”

    The point was not to proclaim truth from the mountain top, but to admit that we’re going into uncharted territories here and don’t have all the answers. To discuss.

    Which is to say that your points about labor questions and the money it takes to run That Thing In The Desert are entirely valid – but that no one … and I mean absolutely no one in this world … has any idea how to run an event and entity like this in perfect accordance with the 10 Principles. If we already knew how to do that, we wouldn’t really need Burning Man at all. But in fact we don’t know: there is no prior model to follow, no pre-set path. Indeed, many people thought “Burning Man” as an ongoing event and entity could never work at all – that even as far as we’ve gone (I should say “They’ve gone” – I’m trying to be inclusive here, but in fact I wasn’t there and did none of the work) was impossible.

    So by all means, bring up issues of how we’re falling short. They’re fair. But I don’t think Burning Man is falling short because anyone’s acting in bad faith … because they know how to snap their fingers and change the dominant culture to allow for what we want, and just aren’t doing it. To the extent we fall short, it’s because we’re figuring out how the hell to do this day by day, week by week, year by year.

    And people come, and they volunteer their time (like me), and they participate even after paying their fee, because they get something out of it. And sometimes they keep coming back, and sometimes they take what they got and bring it back to their home communities and stay there, and that’s all fine. Criticism is fine, argument is fine, disagreement is fine.

    But trying every year to get closer to the mark, even if you haven’t gotten there yet, is not the same thing as a corporate pitch. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Burning Man as an organization is far from perfect, but the difference between what it is (and what it’s trying to be) and an ordinary corporation or non-profit is real and significant.

    A “corporate pitch” is a commodity. This is a personal story and vision about our common endeavor, freely offered. They’re simply not the same. That difference is one of the things about Burning Man that I love.

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  • @Tanya

    I am sorry if I misunderstood your statements. I took them to mean you thought Burning Man was taking advantage of volunteers for financial gain. If that was not your point, I am sorry. I did not try to imply you were calling Burners stupid. I was making the point that Burners aren’t being taken advantage of because they are making informed choices and to make that point I had to establish Burners have the capacity to understand the conditions under which BM operates. I agree with Caveat that Burning Man is a constantly changing culture and we are always trying to ge better at it. Of-course if we ever get it perfect, we should probably stop doing it.

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  • Volunteer or paid staff it doesn’t matter as the outlet for your video is on a platform distributed by the organization behind the event. Should I operate under the assumption that a company with lawyers, business people one other corporate oversight would allow any sort of publication on their platform that somehow didn’t fall in line with their ethos, business model or game plan.

    The video itself takes decommodificiation from a tangible notion of money/currency/barter economy and makes it less tangible and more nebulous. It removes the commerce notion and somehow makes it about individual identity.

    Beyond that to the statements on running the event in a less commodified manner as rumor has circulated for years a 501(c)3 is in place. Let me be clear I am not one who thinks that those who produce or work full time for this event should not be salaried. Hard work and time restrictions indicate that to run an event of this magnitude properly paid staff is required. However should the event be rolled into the 501(c)3 the transparency that one would hope should be tied to an event that pushes for Decommodification would be in place. Those on high would still be paid but they would have true accountability. You can publish all the financial documents you want for an LLC which Black Rock City (the corporate entity behind the event) is. Perhaps my point is more easily and directly stated as such if we can start wearing away at certain virtues created by the corporate entity for the corporate entities benefit why not just delete it all together? The regionals network is held to a far stricter standard and as I understood it the 10 principles were created for the network and not at the inception of the main event itself. It seems to no longer serve a purpose and actually stands as a great issue of contention.

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  • You want to stand on informed choices by festival participants? How about simple honesty with regards to the corporate entity behind the event. Why make the statement about stopping once perfected? Why would one want to stop creating a perfect thing? I ask simply that the double speak and fluff be taken elsewhere because even though I am not accusing burners of being stupid the condescending tone of this post (personal experience or not) and the run around comments leave me wondering if many of you think I can count to twenty with my shoes on.

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  • @Pooh Bear
    >I took them to mean you thought Burning Man was taking advantage of volunteers for financial gain.

    A corporation motivating people to perform free labor that directly results in enormous profits to the corporation, is what it is: exploitation. All business is exploitation, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Larry Harvey has said that Burning Man is a business. Ears should start bleeding when the statement is made, more or less, that Burning Man exploits its free labor force. The people providing this free labor are more than happy to be exploited because they get some intangible benefit from it – the joy of gifting, feeling connected to community, etc.

    There is also something insidious about this model of doing business. These free laborers are almost all eventually chewed up and spit out of the system. The grinding effect is accelerated when an individual laborer acts as an individual, which they all eventually attempt at some point in their devotion to the corporation.

    It doesn’t matter how many years you’ve devoted. It doesn’t matter how many friends you have within the community. Once you step out of line, you are kicked through the door without a second thought. And all these friends that you thought you had for life – once you fall out with Burning Man ORG, don’t expect them to follow you because they wont, until they eventually get kicked out also.

    And here is ALWAYS new blood to take your place. In fact, whatever volunteer position you have within the community, it is being eyed right now by someone on a lower rung of the ladder. Say the wrong thing to the wrong person, and I guarantee they will report you to a high-up and try to take your place.

    So, when you do finally get served the cold shoulder, the benefit is that you will see your participation in a new and much clearer light. And you will also have a lot more free time to make new friends, and to reflect on the number of years of your life you wasted in service to a corporation that doesn’t care (and is incapable of caring), and so-called friends who don’t want to jeopardize the placement within the community by associating with you any more.

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  • Just like my great red haired step grampa used to say, “Concentrate, stay focused on what YOU are doing. And above all, remember that no one owes you a dam thing’. – Keep this in mind at all times and it will cut down on the insistent bitching and worrying your mind creates on weather others are being exploited or being treated fairly enough to your created standards. By the way, volunteering has the word volunteer right in the word look it up.

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  • @ Caveat . . . Compliments on the video, job well done diverging from written text. I always deeply enjoy your postings. Even if the occasional one leaves me in one giant state of WTF?
    @ Larry Harvey . . . Hello Larry! Is that really THE Larry Harvey posting? Welcome to the thread!
    @Pooh Bear . . . “And if Larry Harvey makes a billion dollars from the thing, God bless him, maybe he’ll by and island for all of us to play on.” . . . . . Really?
    @Kirk . . . sounds like you are speaking from personal experience?
    @ BMORG . . . kudos to you for allowing this discussion on your webpage.

    This has been an intensely interesting and enlightening thread, thanks to you all for posting.

    I do want to toss in a tangential but relevant story. I have ambiguous views on the move to “non-profit”. Just being so called non-profit does not automatically infer noble goodness and efficiency. I have been visiting a wonderful hot springs near where I live for nearly 20 years. It owes its existence to a visionary man who dedicated his life to it. Rather than profit from selling it, he had it transformed into a non-profit land trust. Very noble motive. It went from his benevolent dictatorship/ownership to a public corporate governance/management. This has in a few short years resulted in mismanagement, the hiring of new and well paid people for newly created positions, and an organizational structure that to my eye appears to be people digging their hooks into the money pipeline. This has resulted in a fast and steep price increase, so much so as to demotivate me from patronizing the place anymore. I do miss it.
    I am quite ignorant of overall organization of the BMORG, but some of the events I have seen hint that this same thing might be happening with the BMORG. The influence of the Money Beast and its cousin Greed, are clearly influences on the evolution of Burner culture that need to considered with careful mindfulness of both the organizers and participants.

    Now excuse me while I go back to Jan. 2 and study Mr. Magister’s “Burning Man is not a Meritocracy”

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  • No one owes me anything and thusly I have not actually asked for anything. I am simply questioning what is being distributed as any rightful consumer can and should. A product is being sold, that product is Burning Man (regardless if you consider it one or not.) The ideas and notions behind the sale of this product don’t seem to fall in line with the actual practice and implementation of this product.

    I am just a consumer (former perhaps, that is to be determined) and as a consumer I can ask what I feel is pertinent to my purchase of good or services.

    Let’s look closely at what is known by me as a consumer. The financials have not yet been released on financials.burningman.com for 2012 and 2013 so I am looking only at 2011. What I see are expenses only and not profits. As such the P&L can not be determined as I have no data to base the expenditures off of. I do see over 7m has been issued in payroll alone which appears to be the single highest expense of the event for 2011, as a comparison lets look at the number 591,000 which is the honoraria provided to artists for 2011. Without the actual earnings from the entity one can not tell what the percentage of salary is against the overall gross. Additionally one can not tell if all income is from the event itself or if there is licensing and other royalties, stipends etc. It is my assumption that Krug and Ceasefire were in violation of IP laws because they did not PAY for the right to use imagery and logos/other IP, where as SPARK the movie did and thusly was sanctioned as acceptable.

    It’s a business and yes the word volunteer explicitly states in the title what is expected but as Kirk pointed out there is a machine behind not only the event itself but the community at large.

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  • To further my point having operations under a 501(c)3 does not guarantee an ideal operations but it does guarantee transparency as mandated by the nature of the corporate structure itself.

    Operations as an LLC guarantee no such transparency nor accurate reporting to the public, an LLC owes us the consumers no such report and if one was to carefully look at the report with a financial eye they would see what simply is a spreadsheet. Audited financials from professional standpoint look much different.

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  • @Tanya @Kirk

    Kirk, yes I don’t care if Larry Harvey or any of the other founders make loads of cash from Burning Man. So long as they provide the space within which I can treat myself as an art project rather than a cog in a machine. The “success” of Burning Man could not be predicted. It seems clear profit was not the motive for its creation. Creation was the motive. I do not know if the BMORG is making millions in profit or is losing money on the venture and I don’t care. To me that’s like begrudging your favorite local band that makes it big on the charts. Because they created the band for the love of music do we call them sell outs if they are successful? My agreement with Burning Man is I buy my ticket and for that they provide the structure within which I can explore unused and rarely accessed parts of myself. If they break that agreement I will no longer purchase a ticket and I will find or create a space where I can get my needs met.
    Burning Man is often called a “counterculture” festival, but in point of fact it is a countercultures festival. There is a spiritual counterculture, which I think is where I fall. There is an anarchist counterculture. There is a sexual counterculture, etc, and there is a great overlap between them. If I had to guess we are somewhat talking past each other because we are from different tribes within the whole community. I have faith in the BMORG because I am greatly benefiting from their work, where others are distrustful, because corporate corruption plays a larger role in their thinking. You want to see the entire profit and loss statement from the BMORG because you think that would help you decide the level of corruption that has seeped into the system, whereas it wouldn’t change my opinion of the event if I saw the org was making a 50% profit on its income. My experience of Burning Man is unrelated to how much money the BMORG is making. And I do worry that concern about corporate corruption is turning to cynicism where every large organization is being painted with the same brush.
    I should say I see corporate corruption as probably the biggest problem we have today. That is why I do not mind the pay and play camps which the corporate big-wig Burners take advantage of. I can only see a benefit to the world by getting these folks into the cauldron of Burning Man.
    My comment about “if we reach perfection we should probably stop doing it” was in regards to the idea that when something stops growing, or stops changing, it is dead. Look at the life force in this thread! ; People caring about something deeply important to them. Trying to protect it and perfect it according to what they see would benefit the community. I don’t want to sound condescending here, but I not only respect those who disagree with my point of view, I cherish them. I am one little guy with one limited perspective and I am trying my best to help perfect Burning Man in my own tiny way, but my tiny contribution would mean nothing on its own without the contribution of all the other folks who care, especially those who disagree with me. If we both see the world exactly the same way, one of us is unnecessary.

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  • “Water that’s poured inside will sink the boat
    While water underneath keeps it afloat.
    Driving wealth from his heart to keep it pure
    King Solomon preferred the title ‘Poor’:
    That sealed jar in the stormy sea out there
    Floats on the waves because it’s full of air,
    When you’ve the air of dervishood inside
    You’ll float above the world and there abide…”

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  • And yet your festival funds art projects like Burn Wall Street which proudly display the anti-consumer rhetoric.

    Do as I say not as I do.

    Tow the line PoohBear, I prefer to continue questioning motives, means and true intentions.

    My last comment was moderated and not posted, lets see if this one makes the cut.

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  • I want to see the P&L statement because the event is selling itself in a way that is not verifiable. I want to know, I want to have more than blind faith. I’m an agnostic I don’t know if there is a higher power and there for I won’t waste my time on it. However I can know what the true intentions behind the corporate entity are if I see a true balance sheet, a P&L or any other sort of audited financial statements. I can deduct from my own forensic background and financial work experience that Black Rock City LLC nets about 2.2 million annually based on normal operational business structure. This is of course without calculating things like pricey lawsuits and secret settlements into the final numbers. I can also deduct from corporate filings that there are approx 30 employees of the org itself with supplemental staff added as necessary. All this however is moot when one looks at the “mission statement” which is on the site, it’s full of feel good rhetoric which isn’t necessarily reflected in operations. Also a mission statements as such lends itself to appearing as a 501(c)3 as all such entities are required to have a mission statement. Lastly I find it interesting that the general cost of the event has risen as the attendance has risen. At what point do we just start volunteering for WalMart?

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  • Hi Tanya

    Okay, you wrote “I want to see the P&L statement because the event is selling itself in a way that is not verifiable.” What is the way you think the event is possibly dishonestly selling itself? Specifically what would you see on a balance sheet as evidence of dishonesty or hypocrisy? Are you suggesting that an organization that has Decomodification as a principle cannot also make a profit? As I said above, I’m coming from a different point of view and I’d like to understand yours.

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  • Hi Tanya:

    I’m not sure what the point of discussing this with you is, because you refuse to even consider that I might actually mean what I say.

    I tell a personal story about my experience on the playa and how it’s shaped my understanding of what “decommodification” is as a principle, and you tell me it’s propaganda.

    I and others here say that we’re volunteering because we believe in the organization, and you accuse us of being exploited. We say we know exactly what we’re getting into – we’re “volunteers” – and you accuse us of being duped. I say that I respect your right to ask questions, and even that they’re valid questions, and you accuse us of trying to censor you.

    At that point, why should I bother to engage? I’m happy to have a dialogue, I’m willing to encourage people with different points of view to express them. Hell, I just produced a video saying that I hope Burners have figured things out about decommodification that Burning Man hasn’t.

    But if you don’t believe my position can ever be valid simply because it’s being made on this blog; if you don’t believe that I and other Burning Man volunteers have the ability to decide for ourselves if our time and labor are well spent … and if you can’t see that this discussion is happening at all because Burning Man actually values open communication and the exchange of ideas …

    … well what am I supposed to say to that, except: “Enjoy talking to yourself.”

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  • @G

    Many thanks! It’s my first foray into a video essay.

    “WTF?” seems like a pretty good reaction to a lot of what I do in life, but I stand by the “meritocracy” piece! History will vindicate me.

    If only that weren’t what they all say.

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  • P&L would reflect income sources from all activities with a slightly more comprehensive breakdown in numbers. Never have I ever stated that people who do this for a living should so it for free. I’m simply suggesting that maybe just possibly there are revenue streams outside of ticket sales. Maybe just perhaps there are expenditures that cover things that might seem a bit out of line.

    Maybe just maybe I’m suggesting that the anti-capitalism rhetoric is simply that all talk.

    Pooh Bear I’m totally willing to discuss this.

    Caveat Magister it should be your only wish that I’m talking to myself. Those who believe in a bigger and better community are dropping out quickly as they grow tired of being run through like tissues. I’m so glad you dehydrated while good people still attended because unlike your propaganda video explains I’ve seen an influx of plenty of people who wouldn’t share water.

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  • Hi Tanya,

    I have never heard anti-corporate rhetoric coming out of the BMORG. I have heard anti-consumerism rhetoric, which is different. There are definitely Burners who are anti-corporation. Yes the org helped fund Burn Wall Street, but I consider that a lack of censorship rather than endorsement. There were quit a few Burners who thought that piece was too political and didn’t care for it. There are lots of Libertarian Burners who would completely disagree with the sentiment of that piece. Last year we had Temple of Like, which could have been considered anti-corporate, but again, that comes from participants not the org. If anything those pieces show the orgs stand off approach when it comes to content, not an endorsement of an anti-corporate stance. I think the org or the event is fighting a different battle than the anti-corporate battle you seem to see in their rhetoric. Anti-consumerism is about the individual. It says don’t treat yourself and others as product. It is about transforming the self, not changing large organizations. I always say, if you want to save the world, get your own shit together. If the words of Ram Das, “don’t do good, become good and do”. I think the idea of Burning Man is you change the world by changing individuals, and not by maning the baracades. So my mission is to become fully myself, fully free, fully human, and try to change the world by example. Burning Man provides a context for that personal change and that is all I expect from it. Keeping 60k eople alive is a desert for a week is not easy. It requires an organization. We have an LLC. I believe the C stands for corporation, so I don’t know where people get the idea Burning Man is anti-corporation. Hell, have the executives at Google have been burning far longer than I have. We are in a lot of trouble because of foolish corporate leadership, it would be helpful to have some enlightened corporate leadership and perhaps Burning Man can facilitate with so. So after that big rant I still have to ask, name something you could possibly find in a P & L that would indicate the org is dishonest or hypocritical. Something that would counter a position they have taken publically. They have never said they don’t have revenue streams other than tickets. Those are my two cents. BTW, I don’t work for the org, I don’t know anyone who works for the org. I have been critical in the past about how some things were done and have never been censored.

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  • @Caveat:

    Nice work on the video. I liked the questioning tone, and the attempt to bring a more philosophical perspective on the principle of de-commodification. After all, that’s what the Philosophical Centre is all about. There should be more videos which blend philosophical discourse and experiential narrative. Embodied philosophy indeed.

    I applaud the attempt to broaden the issue of de-commodification beyond money. I do think it’s all about the intentions behind the use of money, as Larry says. When money is seen as a property to be acquired with no other end than acquisition, then it is at its most corrosive. But used purposefully to help create a value that has nothing to do with acquisition, then it can even become a spiritual instrument. Then it can be like blood in the system, which constantly circulates, and brings life.

    Perhaps one way to bridge the conversation on this thread is to see Tanya’s request for more financial transparency as a way to get better insight into the intentions of the organisation, insight that the event itself doesn’t furnish her. Meanwhile, comments from Pooh Bear indicate that he feels he has enough evidence already to feel comfortable with the organisation’s intentions. He doesn’t need to see the financial statements. We all look for different forms of evidence, but really, we are concerned about the same thing, which is the organisation’s intent.

    I am in the same camp as Pooh Bear, in the sense that I don’t think anything I would find in the financial statements (short of outright fraud) would diminish the tremendous gift which the I feel the event is. But in the interest of adding another dimension to this discussion, I do wonder what the risk of greater financial transparency would be.

    I’m really quite agnostic on this issue. I’ve always been a big believer in transparency. But I also know that too much transparency can sometimes harm even the most well-intentioned people and organisations, as there are those who would use that information for malevolent purposes. I don’t know the answers to this, and I don’t think anyone does. We’re all still trying to figure it out. But perhaps we can begin by hypothetically exploring the question, “What if the Burning Man organisation were to really put more cards on the table, and push the boundaries of financial transparency? What are the downsides? What are the upsides?”

    Of course, I must admit that I pose this question without really knowing the history of what the organisation has revealed in the past, or what its stated justifications have been. It is not an issue I have been overly concerned about. For all I know, they might already have gone beyond what any reasonable civic entity should be required to do.

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  • When people assign deep meaning to Burning Man, they open up endless areas to disagree on. The problem with the philosophy of the 10 principles is philosophy itself. The problem with the spiritual nature of Burning Man is spirituality. It’s all so nebulous and subjective. What anything means is different from each individual’s perspective. Disagreements are guaranteed.

    After attending 10 years in a row, but the 5th year I knew all this talk about meaning was a total bullshit distraction, designed to spark continued and endless debate that goes no where.

    People are so hung up on ‘meaning’ that they stop looking at the event objectively. The ‘spirituality types’ at Burning Man are some of the most annoying people on the planet, worse than than hipsters and sparkle ponies combined.

    It’s just a party in the desert. Get over yourselves.

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  • I seem to disagree with the nebulous philosophy on philosophy. Although, not being a spiritual, sparkle-pony or a hipster type burner obviously gives one great insight into his/her ‘meaning’ of Burning Man. Enlighten me though. What type of burner do you consider yourself? And taking 5 whole years to come to such a ne’er-do-well conclusion is kind of meaningless. I’m sure you’ll beg to differ though.

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  • I don’t understand what the phrase “ner do well” means in this context, but I’ve been spiritual questing for about 45 years. I’ve been through seminary, traveled the world, studied every form of primitive and modern religious and spiritual practice I could find. I’m a believer in what William James called primal religion, a natural spirituality without dogma or doctrin, similar to mysticism. And in Burning Man Ive found the most potent potential for growth in any place I’ve been, simply because it smashes me out of my normal context and forces me to confront parts of myself I don’t normally access and because I believe there is nothing more spiritually transforming than creativity. It’s fine if you think of the event as just a big party. If so, chances are that is all it will be to you. Personally I’m 52, been there, done that, have the tee shirt. It’s going to take more than a party to drag me to the desert, there has to be the potential for transformation. One of the great things about Burning Man is it tends to give you what you need no matter what that is. Perhaps that’s because we assign the meaning we want to it. Even so, if it weren’t there, we couldn’t do that.

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  • From Today’s Guardian…

    Just Replace the Words “San Francisco” with the words “Burning Man”

    It isn’t as if San Francisco hasn’t seen a tech boom before. Silicon Valley’s dotcom boom of 1998 to 2001 also led to significant displacement in San Francisco. But this latest one is focused on the city and visibly changing it faster. Many long-time San Francisco residents worry not only about being forced out of the city they love, but also that their city is being changed for the worse. Critics say that San Francisco’s communities of alternative culture, ethnic or otherwise – the soil of its creative mojo and legendary social movements – are being turned into playgrounds for rich people. If San Francisco’s soul is its social and economic diversity and status as a refuge for those outside the mainstream, then it is being lost.

    Street life: Anthony Krumeich in his mobile home on the back of a truck. Photograph: Barry J Holmes for the Observer
    Emerging in its place is the mostly white, male-dominated, monied monoculture of the tech industry and there appears no end in sight.

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  • here ya go…

    “It isn’t as if Burning Man hasn’t seen a tech boom before. Burning Man’s dotcom boom of 1998 to 2001 also led to significant displacement in Black Rock. But this latest one is focused on the city and visibly changing it faster. Many long-time Burning Man residents worry not only about being forced out of the city they love, but also that their city is being changed for the worse. Critics say that Burning Man’s communities of alternative culture, ethnic or otherwise – the soil of its creative mojo and legendary social movements – are being turned into playgrounds for rich people. If Burning Man’s soul is its social and economic diversity and status as a refuge for those outside the mainstream, then it is being lost.

    Emerging in its place is the mostly white, male-dominated, monied monoculture of the tech industry and there appears no end in sight.”

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  • I just thought I’d post here for the same reason y’all are posting in this thread – because you think Larry is going to read your post. Maybe we’ll get a few points towards shacking up at First Camp some year soon.

    Hey Larry, you’re totally awesome. Everything you say is like magic. I totally agree.


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  • Actually Steve you can have your own first camp. All you need to do is come up with an original creative idea, nurture it, work on it, deal with all the struggles and disappointments that come, convince others to join you, and then keep working on it for 25 years. That’s all you need to do.

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  • Caveat, great video and thought provoking ideas. I would like to get my hands on the script because I keep getting distracted by the images and by my own self and I have tried to watch it a couple of times.

    Re the BMORG and their practices: it’s a valid example to bring up in this philosophical debate, but only an example. Unfortunately, very few things I have read so far in the comments add any light to the question(s) asked in the video — I think maybe one of the questions asked is “How would we protect yourself and your experience on the playa and more importantly off the playa — in the context of commodification? Is this one of the questions or am I making things up?

    So, if I take the burningman experience as an example, and BMORG’s practices as one of my data points, I can perhaps have some concrete dialogue and analysis. I am not a scientist but I don’t like to just talk round and around.

    I know of some of the different practices (by the ORG and others) that are questionable in this context. But the question is how are these practices impact my experience and your experience on the playa? Do we have any data or even anecdotal examples of how a hired camp for example took away from your experience? It might have taken away from their own experience, but we have to ask them to be the judge of that. Or, how does selling coffee at center camp impact your BM experience? Can someone please give an example of how BMORG’s practices that might have crossed the line or perhaps other camps’ practices have taken away from your experience on the playa? That’s the type of data we need to be able to talk about this in a more constructive way. We have real experiences people. Let’s talk specifics instead of the hypothetical.

    Is there one thing that someone (in or out of BMORG) has done in the context of commodification that has ruined it for you, even in a small way?

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  • @isee
    >Is there one thing that someone (in or out of BMORG) has done in the context of commodification that has ruined it for you, even in a small way?

    Yes. Everyone who turned Burning Man into a commodity itself, making it repetitive and predictable, fostering ritual. Those who co-opted the counter-cultural aesthetic of the happy anarchist, and turned it into a profitable business where less than interesting people get to experience what it’s like to be kinda-cool for a week, all for the price of admission.

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  • @Steve

    Larry Harvey was the first to burn the man. Members of the Cacophony Society ran with the idea. Larry has always given them credit. When various members decided it was time to end it, Larry and the other founders formed the org and kept it going. I don’t know if some of those who wanted it to end felt betrayed or not. I know some thought it was a bad idea, but to my knowledge no one who wanted to be a part was excluded.

    One thing Larry has said repeatedly is, Burning Man is not a club for the cool kids. Maybe that’s your concern. The world doesn’t need a bunch of people who think they are cooler, or more creative-than-thou to gather in the desert for a mutual admiration wank. We need ordinary people to come to Burning Man and discover the interesting creative person they really are and to take that discovery back home. When you discover the power creativity can play in your life, money means a lot less. There’s your decomodification for you. If you can’t find interesting people at Burning man, maybe they just think you’re boring and don’t want to hang with the negative guy who thinks he’s so cool and keeps kevetching about how much cooler it was in the old days.

    And as Isee pointed out, the org provides a place where transformation is possible. That’s all they’ve promised.

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  • Everyone complains about the party people. People who come to BM just for the sake of the party. I know some of these people. I have camped with them before. And they have tried (maybe unintentionally) to ruin my experience. Who knows, maybe it’s my own stuff. But nevertheless, they are not the type of people who make the BM experience, a transformational one.

    @Steve, is this what you are referring to? How specifically, turning BM into a profitable business by the ORG, has caused this? Is it because they are selling tickets? Is it because of the price? Is it because they serve coffee and ice and provide porta potties? All of the above?

    I can see how making it easier and more accessible, could have such a consequence, but again, there are so many other advantages of making it accessible. Is there no hope for the un-cool kids?

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  • Black Rock is a city, and therefore has its share of douch-bags, creeps, negative Nellies, hangers on, and folks who just come for the party. Like all transformative experiences, Burning Man will effect some of these people and others will completely miss the point, but at least at Burning Man they had the chance to change. The thing is, we are never going to give some entrance exam to decide if you are likely to benefit from a Burning Man education, it is the potential for change that matters.

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  • People who didn’t respect the principles. i.e. LNT, self reliance, … Who just came out there to party. But that’s not the issue here. I am asking if there is one or more BMORG policies that has promoted this party scene? And the only reason I bring up the “party scene” is that it’s the only thing that I can think of that can be attributed to commodification which is perhaps impacting BM in a negative way. I know the event is all inclusive which is essential, but I am only trying to focus on potential commodifaction related issues that could negatively impact the event and the culture.

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  • All of this discussion and not one mention of Larry (is this the real one?) Harvey’s post above saying this . . . .
    “In the case of Turnkey Camps, for example, the issue isn’t wealth, but rather what one chooses to do with that wealth. The Project has developed a practical plan for communicating this to well-funded camps, and we will reveal our strategy later this year.”

    Can’t wait to hear what that might be.

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  • I was thinking about setting up and teaching day long classes on “decommodification”. The cost would be $58.25 a day. Although, getting your ticket and heading out to BRC will surely teach you far more on “decommodification” than I ever could. Plus it has perks beyond your wildest imagination, that my class will not. Even better still, no chalkboards. Just eight days of recess.

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  • THANKS! I’d been trying to wrap my head around this principle for a while. Now I understand that it might be more positively name “rehumanization”, just because I like to use words that focus on what I want vs. using a negation of a thing I don’t want to focus on…so when I hear “(de)comodification” I will henceforce understand “rehumanization”.

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  • @ Pooh Bear: That’s funny! :D I wasn’t really going for the win…just a fan of positivity in general. When I was in massage school and the instructor kept using the term “vicious cycle” I balked and said “Yikes how about “Fairy Circle?” just cuz I don’t like negative language bandied about me…that was really a bad replacement phase…stupid and funny in the moment…maybe…not an accurate replacement. Later, I came up with “predictable pattern” to replace “vicious cycle” which is a close enough gist to be the same meaning, effective, and 80% less vicious!

    So, no, I don’t want/desire burners to change their lexicon to suit my wimsy…but just expressing MY new understanding of a complex concept with my preferred word.

    Unless you weren’t being sarcastic and you will really change the words…that’d be great too! ;-p

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  • All in agreement up til the words “radical self expression” were spoken. Liberated self expression simply in the terms of self expression would be more the result of de-commodification. Freedom to be oneself. “Radical” self expression implies categorization, conformity and ultimately re-commodification such that one can not be oneself with out being radical or of other such brandings. Isn’t the goal of free innate expression to be oneself without having to be anything else? Simply being would be wonderful if possible in a common formity.

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  • As a non profit I think it is only fair that bm now purchases property for anyone who chooses to do so move onto rent free in order to begin the true decommidification process.

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  • @Jeff Smith

    i love love love the term/concept/idea of “rehumanization”!!!

    random thoughts/questions (tied into one :):

    how are the ten principles (and the idea of “burning man”) not like what churches/religions offer?

    if they are not different (or, at least, not as distinct as burning man vs corporate entity), maybe we fund it via voluntary donations rather than (expensive) tickets…

    also, maybe the concept of a “ludic revolution” comes into play (but, possibly, needs some refinement…)…

    just thinking “out loud” (well, i guess i am just letting thoughts outta my brain and pushing them into the world… etc…)… sorry if i digress… (and for my anal-retentive editing in prior post – don’t know how to delete that)…

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  • I just saw your video narration on commodification and it got me thinking. It doesn’t surprise me that you met a marketing genius there. The minute you put a name and structure around anything you have become the thing you are against. Counter culture is as old as modern time. Burning man is no longer counter culture- it reminds me of church, you have to participate and follow rules to belong albeit the “rules” are that there really are no rules. De commodification is something that you can live out every day, even in the midst of a commodified society. Look at cultures such as the Mennonites, they try to truly live each day as de commodified. Most people could not do this because it means a total denial of self and a consideration of others as higher than yourself. Again this is not a new concept and is in fact a very religious one.

    If you are looking for a more authentic experience of this concept in festival form you would look at something like the Rainbow Gathering. But Burning Man in my opinion is more of a display of fun and art, not a good representation of de commodification.

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