Discover more from New Means
You Can't Be a Cool Capitalist
Burning Man, wealth, and counter-culture under capitalism
Burning Man being so badly flooded that thousands were trapped in that remote desert location, unable to get out, sounds like nightmare. The uncertainty about when you might be able to leave, some people likely wondering about food supplies, and the entire soupy field looking nasty and treacherous is all a horrific scenario. But there are also the people. Suddenly news was coming out right and left about some of the most unpleasant people on Earth being stuck in the mud. Elon Musk’s brother, Grover Norquist, and the lawyer who successfully defend Nestle in a child slavery case before the Supreme Court were all there. Maybe they’re still there. Either way I can’t help but wonder what the hell these people were doing at a rave fest in the desert.
The festival started nearly 40 years ago, in 1986, with just 20 guests. People supposedly started the event as a celebration of community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. Seeing Burning Man become a way for rich people to think they’re cool, as they get high for days in the desert and listen to music in outfits they never wear in their normal lives, and more broadly as they engage in this strange and particular form of escapism is deeply depressing to me. Or more precisely what’s depressing is that anyone outside of this odd little week-long bubble thinks their behavior is cool or enviable. Learning a bit about the origins of the event as a tiny little gathering also makes you wonder how Burning Man got to this point of 60,000 people who don’t embody anything akin to real counter-culture and are in fact mostly rich and powerful people looking for hedonistic fun and the illusion of being cool.
If you find my writing helpful, please consider becoming a paid subscriber. It allows me to produce more writing!
I have a memory of thinking, maybe a decade or more ago, about why people were calling hipsters alternative. For those old enough to remember, there were several years where a plaid shirt and some slightly less standard glasses were enough for someone to call themselves, or more often be labeled, a hipster. The term persists, although as far as I can tell it refers even more loosely to gentrifiers or people with an artsy sense of style. And part of the reason the term is so vague and unclear now is that it never really meant much. It always just referred to people vaguely outside the main stream in some way. But it never threatened the status quo in any way. It was never political, radical, or even too far away from the mainstream. Rather it was mainly a set of mild aesthetic choices used as a safe way to say you were a little alt, a little different, but contained no set of values and crucially no real opposition to societal norms.
This might seem trivial at first. Hipster-ism and the people who rave in the desert for a week at Burning Man might not seem worth our time or analysis. But, I would argue that they very much are. In particular, if we acknowledge that culture plays some role in shaping society, we should be concerned about how much supposed counter-culture really does nothing to combat the status quo. Even more devious is how many of the wealthy and powerful are posing as counter-cultural to claim coolness, while they actively make society worse and enrich themselves. Capitalism has shown a remarkable and disturbing ability to commodify almost anything, from graffiti to protest movements to supposedly alternative cultures, but the blatant-ness of what we’re seeing at Burning Man feels like an extreme example.
The question in my mind is, what can we do about it? How do we create a culture that meaningfully opposes capitalism and oppression of all kinds, that can’t easily be co-opted? Of course part of the answer is clearly foregrounding resistance to oppression and a genuine rejection of material wealth as our metric of success or worth. Part of what is revolting to me about a certain strata of people who claim to be alternative is that their measurement of value and coolness remains rooted in shiny objects and photos from exotic destinations. One reason I wanted to talk about the idea of coolness, and why I hope this is just the beginning, is that so many of these people are clearly chasing an idea of being cool that they couldn’t achieve in high school, and have paired it with gross capitalist excess. There is no realization, apparently, for the Burning Man crowd, and others like them, that it’s much more gratifying and liberating and ultimately brings a whole lot more happiness to get free of that limited conception of what it means to be cool that we were surrounded by as kids and that surrounds us in movies and magazines and social media today. There is such freedom in rejecting or transcending that small idea and the pressures that accompany it.
Again I don’t know how to get from here to there. I don’t know exactly how to get away from this place where coolness is so tied up with wealth for so many people, and where counter-culture is so often virtually meaningless. But I think it starts largely with what we’re already beginning to see. Young people are overwhelmingly clear that billionaires are severely uncool and have no place in a functioning society. Young people realize overwhelmingly that cops are harmful and that its sure as hell not cool to be one. More and more people see unions and the labor movement as radical and cool. Real counter-culture must be tied up with resisting capitalism, because if you’re not against capitalism you’re on the inside looking out, you’re not counter to the norm or the status quo in any meaningful way. The days of the Elon Musks and the Donald Trumps claiming to be outsiders, and being believed, must come to an end. It was a lie from the beginning, it’s a lie now, and more and more people are seeing through this weak façade.
We need a sweeping counter-culture that is clearly and unequivocally to the left. We need to reject the idea that you can continue to be invested in every significant aspect of the status quo but choose slightly unusual aesthetics and be considered meaningfully transgressive. We need to build a left that is material, in that it supports unions and builds power and create its own institutions, but we also need to create real alternative culture that unlearns dominant values and where people can grow and change. All of us have been taught certain oppressive and regressive ideas by virtue of growing up in a hyper-capitalist and individualist environment. Unlearning those ideas, which are often deeply held, takes community. And in learning real alternatives, learning solidarity and kindness and radicality and collectivism and mutuality, we will build culture together. The current world demands a higher bar than wasteful raves of wealthy tech bros in the desert as our standard for counter-culture. Let’s build something meaningful and beautiful and powerful, together.
If you find my writing valuable, please consider becoming a paid subscriber to make more of it possible. And thank you for reading! - Josh
P.S. I hope to write more about coolness and culture in the future. This piece was not cut short, exactly, but it’s just a beginning. And, as I was about to revise and add more today, the news to the RICO indictment against those protesting Cop City in Atlanta dropped. I’m linking a piece on this news here, and you can check the social media pages of the groups leading the resistance for ways to fight this crucial battle. I’ll hopefully have more on this struggle for you within 24 hours as well.