(David McNew/Newsmakers)

September 7, 2023   6 mins

Marie Antoinette probably never said “Let them eat cake”. But she did provoke popular fury by building a model peasant village at Versailles, where she would retire to escape the pressures and opulence of court life, and even sometimes dress up as a milkmaid for picnics or parties.

If the 21st century has an aristocracy on a par with that of Versailles, it is surely the Silicon Valley tech elite. And their equivalent of Marie Antoinette’s toy farm is Burning Man: a utopian week-long summer festival in the Nevada Desert, whose culture captures a distinctive West Coast liberal ideal — and which is, in the modern context, every bit as artificial and tone-deaf as le hameau de la Reine.

Last week, torrential rain transformed Burning Man from Mad-Max-meets-Magic-Roundabout party week to a dystopian-looking mud-pan filled with three-eyed “dinosaur shrimp”. The downpour, and resulting delay in campers being permitted to leave, spawned a host of increasingly baroque rumours, including an online effort (complete with fake CDC notices) to persuade the world of an ebola outbreak.

Photos from summer festivals are a staple of the silly-season news cycle. But I doubt many images from Reading Festival make the LA Times. Burning Man, meanwhile, is an object of fascination well beyond the Land of the Free, thanks to the paradoxical quality of the American empire.

This nation has done more than any other, from Woodrow Wilson on, to enshrine the notion of “national self-determination” in international law and parlance, while also evacuating other nations and cultures of their culturally distinct lifeways and replacing them with American ones. Having terraformed many nominally non-American nations with American practices and ideals, inevitably the elites from whom this terraforming emanates have also become influential well beyond America’s nominal boundaries.

In the 20th century, this phenomenon was largely confined to Hollywood and the music industry. More recently, though, the cultural centre of gravity has drifted toward Silicon Valley’s tech elite: a group heavily represented at Burning Man. And the schadenfreude that’s accompanied this year’s Burning Man rumour-mongering speaks to a growing ambivalence both about this elite, about the culture machine they command, and about the American promise it mythologises and enacts: the fantasy of perfect individual freedom, on a blank cultural slate, underwritten by universal material abundance.

It’s two decades since my own Burning Man experience, but it was eye-opening both for what it made possible, and what it took to get there. The festival itself is very bonkers and very liberal: the two governing rules that I can recall are “no commerce” and “no spectators”. That is, if something exchanges hands it must be as a gift, or a barter trade; meanwhile, in social terms, pretty much the only rule is that it is not done to laugh and point at what people are doing, however weird that is. Join in, or move on.

There is a lot of installation art, a lot of sex, a lot of drugs and music and fancy dress. I don’t remember much of what I did in Black Rock City, but I do remember the cumulative atmosphere created by these constraints: a bewitching, enchanted sense of openness, serendipity, and infinite possibility. In this sense, it’s a perfect expression of the American progressive ideal: a world of abundance where everyone can do what they do in an atmosphere of welcome, affirmation and (if you desire it) mutual support, but in which everyone is always free to exit any scenario, at any time.

And like that progressive dream, sustaining Black Rock City requires considerable material effort under the bonnet: an effort that, by and large, doesn’t conform to the same high-minded morals. Sometimes described as an experiment in “radical self-sufficiency”, Burning Man is perhaps more accurately an experiment in creating a radical post-scarcity society by having done all your shopping ahead of time.

The “playa” where the event takes place has no shelter, no water, and no greenery. Nothing is left there between festivals, meaning all infrastructure a temporary, hauled in and assembled for the purpose. Depending on your actual bank balance, this means after the $575 ticket price you must buy or rent everything you need for an encampment, band together with friends, or at minimum raise the funds needed for membership in one of the annual larger pre-existing themed camps. You must pre-load with food, water and shelter. Plus you’ll have more fun if you also take trinkets and treats for barter, fun costumes to wear, drugs, and perhaps a bicycle to get around. All this is then hauled out onto the ring-fenced blank slate of a dry Nevada lake-bed, so festival-goers can enjoy a magical, week-long experience of life without buying or selling.

In other words: all this gift-economy joy is enabled by participation in the regular cut-throat capitalist one. And enjoying it at all is predicated on having enough surplus resource in your life that you can afford to blow at least a few grand on contributing to a colossal, ephemeral simulacrum of no longer needing money at all. And if you can afford to set aside the chunk of change required to resource yourself for a week-long extreme-climate self-catering fancy dress party, chances are you aren’t living hand-to-mouth. It is, in other words, very much a Marie Antoinette toy farm.

I unironically loved my Burn. The festival’s paradoxical blend of brutal desert conditions and stranger generosity, hedonism and survivalism, communitarian friendliness and radical individualism, felt (and still feels) like distilled essence of a liberal cultural ideal present in some form wherever the American cultural empire extends its influence. But I also remember finding the experience dizzying, not least because I went straight to Black Rock City from a whistle-stop tour of a great many parts of the United States for whom similar conditions obtain — just without the option to go home afterwards.

I had decided, that summer, that interrailing round Europe was too tame, and so I was going to do the American equivalent instead: a Greyhound bus tour. Greyhound is probably the closest America gets to genuinely affordable trans-continental public transport: a network of buses between major cities, not just on the coast but also spanning the “flyover states”, as coastal Americans disdainfully describe their country’s interior, including innumerable stops in the middle of nowhere. If you buy a time-limited ticket, you can get on and off as much as you like during that time. I stopped in a lot of one-horse towns and on the lengthy, cramped bus journeys themselves sat next to a lot of the type of Americans you’re never likely to find at Burning Man: drifters, recovering addicts and a hefty sprinkling of the genuinely crazy.

Whenever I recount this experience to coastal Americans, they look shocked that I survived at all. But my main recollection of the company I kept on those interminable and often noisome bus rides was friendliness, eccentricity, bizarre clothing, and generosity alike with their life stories and sometimes limited resources. Not a million miles, in other words, from the temporary citizens of Black Rock City. Meanwhile, outside the buses, the dustiness and jerry-rigged quality of architecture in many of the one-horse towns where Greyhound buses lay over bore more than a passing resemblance to that festival’s temporary infrastructure.

The main difference between the two was that for denizens of Black Rock City, there’s an outside to the experience of hardship and scarcity. The Google multimillionaires who helicopter into Nevada for a week of self-expression and gift economy against the (usually) arid backdrop of a dusty lakebed enact a crystallised essence the American civilisation’s founding myth of abundance manifested ex nihilo and brought into being through resourcefulness and creativity. But in truth they’re play-acting at the ideal, having pre-resourced that resourcefulness and creativity via a much more cut-throat reality of material competition in which there are, unlike in Black Rock City, winners and losers.

And unlike their fellow-countrymen in the “flyover states” — the losers, in fact, in the real economy that enables the Burning Man fantasy one — most of Black Rock City’s citizens have the option at any time to pull the ripcord, and exit desert survivalism and gift economies for an air-conditioned condo in some of the world’s most expensive postcodes. Unlike those who inhabit that scarcity all the time, they can enjoy the generosity and camaraderie that comes with scarce resources, safe in the knowledge that they have largely foreclosed the risk of genuine material suffering or interpersonal violence that so often accompanies real scarcity.

My own Burn, and the flyover-state tour that preceded it, happened before widespread fentanyl abuse blighted the American interior. The period since my visit has also seen the Great Crash, and widening income inequality. It’s a safe bet that in the intervening period the contrast has only grown starker, between those in the Land of the Free who can afford to play at trying to flourish in a world of scarcity, and those for whom that’s just everyday life.

No wonder, then, that public reaction to the prospect of Black Rock City experiencing even a temporary blip of real as opposed to opt-in material hardship held a vindictive edge. Had photos percolated out of Versailles of Marie Antoinette stuck in manure, forced to milk actual cows even for a few days, perhaps her subjects might have enjoyed a similar frisson.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.