Sacred Cows and the Gift Economy

It’s a funny thing about humans: we have this tendency to glorify things that are traditional, sometimes to the point of absurdity.

Cows in India are a great example. Once upon a time, the Indians revered cows because they provided so much: milk, beef, leather, butter, urine for tanning, burnable dung for fires. They revered them so much that a cow became the appropriate gift to give a Brahman; not long after that, the killing of a cow in India became a crime equal to the killing of a Brahman.

Today, the very phrase “sacred cow” is a euphemism for “anything considered immune from question or criticism, especially unreasonably so.”

Burning Man has an ever-increasing accretion of traditions. Some of them are old enough now that their origins are a mystery to newcomers, who tend to perhaps take them more seriously than the dusty old-timers who started them. There has even been some serious talk out there in the default world about Burning Man being a nascent new religious movement. . . which is utter crap, of course, but it’s easy to see how someone might think so.

This tendency to attach an ever-increasing sense of sacredness to things just because they happen to be traditional is superbly illustrated by the recent flap over noise and the playing of “Free Bird” during Temple burn, which has been covered here in great depth. . . but that example is possibly a bit too obvious, given that merely calling a building a ‘temple’ will invariably draw some measure of sacred feeling to it almost immediately.

What about a less obvious example? We hear a lot of lofty talk about “the evolution of the cashless society” in connection with Burning Man’s gift economy, which is often spoken of these days in terms of something elevated. Certainly, many of us are rather militant in protecting it, and regard it as something not to be violated under any circumstances. How did it really start?

I give you now my own (fictionalized) take on how the gift economy actually came to be:

Thing A: “Dude, we should all come here every year and do this as an annual thing.”
Thing B: “Good idea!”

Thing A: “Great to see you again! Wow, there are a lot of people here this year.”
Thing B: “Yes, word gets around.”
Thing C: “Hot dogs! Getcher hot dogs here! Cold drinks! Only a dollar!”

Thing A: “Wow, there are REALLY a lot of people here this year!”
Thing B: “Yeah, I heard that some people are driving in from as far away as Santa Cruz!”
Thing C: “Hot dogs! Getcher hot dogs here! Cold drinks! Only twelve bucks!”
Thing D: “Chocolate-covered pretzels!”
Thing E: “I got t-shirts here! T-shirts for sale!”
Thing F: “Magic ass balm! Cheapest magic ass balm on the beach! Get it while it’s hot!”
Thing A: “This is getting annoying.”
Thing B: “I agree. I come out here to relax and enjoy the event, not to be descended upon by an army of hawkers and shit salesmen. Anyway, it’s inconvenient to carry cash around and count change when you’re this drunk. I think I lost fifty bucks earlier.”
Thing A: “Yeah, and I was going to take all my clothes off and let you check out my titties, but I need pockets so I can carry my cash.”
Thing B: “Goddamnit, that tears it! We should ban vendors!”
Thing A: “I’m down. Let’s make a rule that you can’t come here to sell stuff to people. Next year, you bring the hot dogs and I’ll bring the magic ass balm, and we’ll share.”
Thing B: “Deal.”

Thing A: “Holy shit, look at all the people.”
Thing B: “Yep. But no vendors.”
Thing A: “Care for some ass balm?”
Thing B: “Thanks! Have a hot dog! Oh, and nice titties, by the way.”
Thing A: “Why thank you, sir.”
Thing C: “WOW THIS IS AMAZING! Do you realize what you people have done?!?”
Thing A: “Um. . . we went camping and brought everything we thought we might need with us, plus some stuff to share with other people so they’d share their good stuff with us in return?”
Thing C: “NO! You have modified the barter system to create a cashless society! I have an elaborate theory about this, which I will now expound upon.”
Thing B: “You’re making a big deal out of it. It’s not a big deal.”
Thing C: “This changes everything! I might even write a book about it. . . it’s a revolution in economics!”
Thing A: “You do realize that I have titties out over here, yeah?”

Thing A: “Amazing how this event has grown.”
Thing B: “I’ll say.”
Thing C: “Wow, hi guys! It’s so groovy that people here recognize how evil money is! Normally I live under a bridge and eat out of dumpsters so I won’t ever have to touch that damned Satan-paper!”
Thing A: “OOooooookay. Um, want a hot dog?”
Thing B: “I’m actually a stockbroker.”
Thing C: “You are all my brothers and sisters and I feel our quantum interconnectedness opening up my chakras! We exist in a sacred realm of purity and love because we don’t use evil, wicked money!”
Thing A: “You’re kidding, right?”
Thing B: “Guffaw!”


23 comments on “Sacred Cows and the Gift Economy

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  21. I really appreciate Burning Man, as evident in my writing on it, including my MA thesis, which was converted into a book. But at the same time it is open to critique as applicable so that we might test its ideas. In relation to the gift economy I wrote the following in my book:

    “Other than this exception Burning Man functions on the basis of non-commodification in a gift giving economy (L. Gilmore 2005, 93) where the gifts function as expressions of thanks and friendship not as part of a bartering system. There is an irony here in that while both groups share strong concerns over consumerism, they also both share a common dependency upon it. Indeed, without major independent funding neither group could exist without dependency upon the consumerist systems they decry. As temporary cultural events with no ongoing system of financial support (other than ticket sales at Burning Man which facilitates the week-long festival) that a more permanent counterculture might possess, they are both dependent upon this same consumerist system for their material sustenance.”

    And the following footnotes accompany this text:

    Curiously, in her discussion on Burning Man and its gift-economy in connection with non-commodification, Gilmore goes on to state that “this distinguishes it from other so-called ‘counter-culture’ events” and then mentions Rainbow Gatherings. But if Burning Man shares a similar alternative economic system with groups like the Rainbow Family, and the Rainbow Gatherings involve an even more stringent form of non-commodification, it is not clear how Burning Man is more clearly distinguished in this practice than other counter-culture events such as the Rainbow Family. Perhaps Gilmore wishes to point out that both Burning Man and the Rainbow Family are distinguished as countercultures by this feature.
    Berger, Berger, and Kellner refer to this phenomenon in connection with the 1960s youth culture and counterculture which they refer to as living “on the subsidies of ‘straight’ society” (1974, 222). They continue with reference to this relationship with mainstream society as “parasitical,” but go on to state that this is not intended pejoratively. Rather, “[i]t simply describes their economic and social relationship of dependency” (Ibid., 223).

    What type of response would you offer in light of the parallel with other countercultural attempts in the past, and the critique that it appears to be dependent upon the very consumerist society it decries for its survival? Thanks for your thoughts, and please accept this comment and inquiry in the positive spirit in which it is offered.

    • Hi John,

      Judging from the excerpt you’ve provided, I have to say that I think you’ve made several rather large and glaring errors in your MA thesis. No offense, but you’re lucky I’m not on your Master’s Thesis Committee, ’cause I’d send you home, still a lowly Bachelor, to do your research more thoroughly. This is not MA-level work, sir.

      First, you assert that the Burner culture has “strong concerns over consumerism.”

      Second, you imply that Burner culture only exists at Burning Man when you reference what “a more permanent counterculture might possess.”

      Third, you draw a direct connection between Burning Man’s gift economy — which as a strict thing exists only on the Playa — with the economy of the default world, and assume that the one feeds in a parasitically dependent way on the other, in the manner of Freegans digging through dumpsters for food thrown out by a wasteful ‘straight’ society.

      Much is made of the idea of Black-Rock-as-a-city, and a great deal of it is perfectly valid, but the metropolitan analogy fails immediately at several points, and you shine a light on one of those when you mistake our culture for something that only exists for one week out of fifty-two. The event known as “Burning Man” is ultimately just a party, and not the culture itself. The culture exists all year long and all across the globe, not just in Black Rock while we’re having our party. . . but the gift economy? As a strict thing, that’s only at Black Rock City. It’s much more a part of the event than it is an integral part of the culture. As I tried to point out in the article, the gift economy is really more of a pragmatic thing than it is a negative reaction to consumerism in general, no matter how lyrical some people wax over it.

      Burner culture is not nearly as homogeneous as the other countercultures you cite, like the Rainbow Family. Burners come from all walks of life, from across (and beyond!) the political spectrum, from every socioeconomic stratum, and from many cultures, subcultures, and countercultures. We’re not a single people in lockstep, and while we do share a unique culture, we also have a very broad variety of philosophical underpinnings to that culture that can and often do separate us when they are laid bare. Blithely assigning “strong concerns over consumerism” to us en masse ignores all that. Sure, some of us do have such concerns. Others don’t. It’s hardly a requirement, or even a key point to what makes a person a Burner. You think the gift economy at the Event is evidence of “strong concerns over consumerism?” You are Thing C of Year Four. Please read my article again; there are very plain and utilitarian reasons for the ban on vending at Burning Man, and they simply aren’t all that lofty in their origins. Hell, some of us are stockbrokers.

      Off-Playa, the year-’round Burner culture has no particular obsession with avoiding commerce, and it is wholly inaccurate to describe us as falling within the bounds of Berger, Berger, and Kellner’s description of parasitic countercultures. You cannot assume that because someone is a Burner, he or she might be prone to eating other peoples’ garbage or otherwise living off of subsidies from ‘straight’ culture. Certainly there are a minority of Burners who live that way; I would venture to guess that most of them are also members of the Rainbow Family. A great many Burners are quite prosperous, however, and work hard to earn money to buy the things they need and want. . . and where do you think all that free stuff that gets given away on the Playa comes from, anyway? Dumpsters? For the most part, Burners BUY the things that we have on the Playa, and they bring those things to Black Rock at great expense so they can give them away to other Burners. Yes, there’s a certain percentage of mooches who contribute little or nothing in the way of material goods or physical labor on the Playa, but the culture derides them as “sparkle ponies,” and they are the exception and not the rule. Unlike the Rainbow Family, Burner culture is productive, not parasitic, and would easily persist and even thrive in the absence of the subsidies that ‘straight’ society makes available to the Diggers and scavengers and recyclers and repurposers among us.

      When you describe Burning Man as a “temporary cultural event with no ongoing system of financial support” (aside from ticket sales), you ignore both the permanent worldwide culture of Burners, and the fact that the event is not a centralized one in which the organizers provide everything. Our culture is intensely focused on the DIY ethic, and it is the participants themselves who provide the financial support that runs the gift economy, not the organizers and their ticket money. . . and certainly not ‘straight’ society’s dumpster castoffs.

      I’m sorry, I really don’t mean to be insulting about it, but I honestly can’t see how you managed to get far enough to petition for an MA without learning how to do real research first. You’re just so very wrong about so many things that are so easily understood by anyone who has had a good look around from within the culture. . . it sounds like your only real knowledge of your thesis’ subject has come to you second-hand, or possibly from within a direct experience that was too severely limited in scope to give you a proper perspective, like in the old story about the group of blind men trying to describe an elephant. Your attempt to draw Burner culture as something that both decries and is dependent on mainstream culture is a massive failure.

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