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 grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. Now the volunteer coordinator for Burning Man's Media Team (itself a volunteer position), Caveat has been messing with Burners for the last five years, and has a hard time believing some of the stuff they've let him get away with. He is a publisher at Omnibucket.com, served as editor of Chicken John’s philosophical autobiography “The Book of the Is,” and archives his publications and personal blogs at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

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

  • 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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