Atlas Shrugged, Meet Lord of the Flies – Part I, The Phoenix

This is going to be a long post. Prepare yourself with a re-up of whatever you fancy, and settle in for the ride.

Will Chase helped out in the discussion about Plug-n-Play camping at the Burning Man blog, with a 3-point clarification intended to get us all on the same page.

Unfortunately, we’re not on the same page, and we don’t think either BMOrg’s position or the Burner Community’s position on this issue has been sufficiently clarified yet.

We think they should keep it like the BLM says in the permit. Allow commercial camps if there are willing buyers and sellers. Charge a 3% surcharge, make sure they have all the paperwork to comply with Federal, state, and county laws. Couldn’t be clearer, or simpler for everyone to implement.

Right now our poll question “should BMOrg allow Plug-n-Play camping?” is split almost down the middle, with the “NO” position in the minority. (Burners.Me votes YES). Meanwhile 83% of us think that Playa Provisions is a legitimate and acceptable contribution to the Burner community, although this type of thing could be ruled out as “Adventure” according to BMOrg’s classifications, if it was actually delivered to or sold on the Playa. It seems like this would benefit the community – a 3% surcharge for the BLM permit tax is a small price to pay, if a happy BLM increases the population cap. Why would they be happy? Because the $1.2 million they get per year from the event, could go up to many millions more. More budget means more toys and pay rises. Could Burners afford to pay the tax? Well, it’s not like there were riots in the street when Mayor Newsom imposed an up to 6% surcharge at City restaurants to fund health insurance for low-income workers.

On one question, “Which Burning Man would be better?” there has been a unanimous result so far – while people love the idea of an All Rich People, or Mixture of Both event…nobody has voted for “All Poor People”.

As Roger Waters once said, “how can I complete the Wall?” How does the rock star, keep the whole mass of the crowd out? Everyone wants to go back stage, but not everyone can. To make Burning Man work, you need the greater Burner economy to work too. You need Burners to be getting richer and more prosperous, and at the same time you need to limit the overall number of poor people – both of which serve to make the event more exclusive.

In a way, the future of Burning Man is at stake over this
. Will the party continue to get better and better, as a rich person’s playground? Or will it descend into class warfare and cult-like fundamentalism?

BMOrg is facing a changing of the guard. Black Rock City LLC’s Board of Directors, made up of partiers from the Olden Days, is relinquishing control to a non-profit made up of socially responsible but uncompensated Burners.  As far as we know, this is an unprecedented move for a party – let’s remember it’s just a dance party, not a political party. What is going to happen, when we mix up this shift in power to the younger Millenials and Gen Y-ers, with the Great Depression flavor of the Default world zeitgeist? Does it lead us inexorably down the path towards a large crowd of zombied-out disenfranchised youths in a time of unemployment and social unrest? Or a wave of washed up old hippies? Could we be facing an “Atlas Shrugged” situation at Burning Man?

The highly mobile international jetset elite could take their business somewhere they feel more welcome…leaving the Lord of the Flies leadership to rule over the tattered remnants of a Mad Max world, where the poor gift amongst themselves whatever rubble they can scavenge from the ancestors in the ashes of the formerly glorious institution of Burning Man, soon to be reborn like a Phoenix as a non-profit.

This is perhaps a controversial viewpoint to present, in egalitarian San Francisco. Here, the rich like to keep it low key and pretend they don’t really exist; while beggars like to make sure you know they exist, and collect thousands off the kindness of strangers but blow it on drug problems which the government likes  to pretend isn’t a medical issue.

San Francisco lives in a weird little bubble. Homeless people become invisible, while 20-year olds drive Ferraris, and people make millions out of jobs they got fired from because they got handed some stock options. But around the rest of the country, 46 million people live below the poverty line and only 64% of Americans have a job.

How bad is it, really? If you don’t travel out of the nicer parts of the Bay Area much, it’s easy to forget how hard others are struggling – and it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Here’s UK paper The Guardian:

“Poverty in America is remarkably widespread,” concludes the study, At Risk: America’s Poor During and After the Great Recession. “The number of people living in poverty is increasing and is expected to increase further, despite the recovery.”

The white paper, drafted by the university’s school of public and environmental affairs, which is among the best ranked schools of its kind in the US, says that six years ago, 36.5 million Americans fell below the poverty line. By 2010, the number of people living in poverty rose to 46.2 million and continued to grow over the past year.

“The Great Recession has left behind the largest number of long-term unemployed people since records were first kept in 1948. More than 4 million Americans report that they have been unemployed for more than 12 months,” said the report.

John Graham, dean of the school and one of the authors of the report, said that the numbers of “new poor” will continue to rise.

“One of the big surprises is that poverty in the United States is likely to continue to increase even as the economic recovery unfolds,” said Graham. “The unique feature of the great recession is not just the high rate of unemployment, but the long duration of unemployment that millions of Americans have experienced. [For] a lot of these long-term unemployed, the job that they had won’t exist when they go back in to the labour market.”

Graham said that many of those who once held well-paid jobs will be forced to settle for lower paying work, trapping some in a permanent cycle of poverty.

“As a consequence they will be poor or near poor for a substantial period of time,” he said.

The latest census data shows that nearly one in two of the US’s 300 million citizens are now officially classified as having a low income or living in poverty. One in five families earns less than $15,000 (£9,600) a year.

The thing about a Great Depression is it’s pretty fucking depressing. Whereas Burning Man is a happy, joyous thing, a release from all that. We think this difficult issue needs to be discussed – ignoring it won’t make it go away, and just ruling out Plug and Play camping is restricting many of the things that camps could do to fund themselves. Camps should be encouraged to raise funds any way they can, especially in today’s economy. A better funded camp is a better camp for everyone .

Specifically for the Burner community, the situation is:

  • the community is growing, while the outside economy is shrinking
  • the number actually going to Burning Man is only being alllowed to grow very slowly by the BMOrg
  • the community is being deliberately “weeded” by BMOrg’s new ticket system, so that fresh seeds may be planted
  • the fresh Burner seeds need to grow in stature in their careers and be cultivated ideologically, before they can be harvested for much financially
  • Burner dollars are being chewed up by higher prices for tickets, transportation, fuel, and other inflation. This means…
  • …a decreasing amount of “Total Burner dollars”, being chased by…
  • …an increasing number of Theme Camps, Art Cars, and Art Projects.

At the same time, changes to the ticketing system have created a skyrocketing secondary market for tickets – right now, 115 for sale at $1095+. A decision to allow in at least 40% who have never been to the event before, ensures an influx of newcomers to the tune of 25,000 per year. It also ensures that the population is kept young, and the older ones might get gently encouraged to go spread their Burner seed elsewhere, as tickets get harder to obtain and more expensive. But what will this do to the demographics of the Burning Man crowd? We will explore this in the next part.

Part II – Who is John Galt, and Who Is Kenny Powers?

12 comments on “Atlas Shrugged, Meet Lord of the Flies – Part I, The Phoenix

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