A Short Treatise on Decommodification at Burning Man
BLACK ROCK CITY, NEVADA—Burning Man is famous for three of its central tenets: radical self-reliance, radical inclusion, and decommodification…but it’s the third of this trifecta that really gets people going. How can you possibly live for a week without spending any money at all? Do you just barter goods to get what you need? We’re so used to swiping our cards for a pack of gum that it’s difficult to grasp the concept of decommodification—where the transfer of goods is dissociated from the transfer of funds for said goods.
It’s an altruistic concept, this decommodification business…everyone needs to buy in for it to work. And yet the way it does work is simple: you get away with not spending money for a week because you spend a ton of money in preparation for that week. You load up on the requisite supplies, for you, your campmates, and your fellow Burners, only to freely give and take during that single week of decommodification. Food, water, alcohol, gas, camping gear, bikes—you pay for it all before you go, so that you spend no money when you’re there.
Some spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on their Burn, while others, like members of my camp, spent only a few hundred. We didn’t exactly engage in the type of radical giving that others did—freely doling out ice cream, fried chicken, and cold drinks to anyone willing to sidle up to camp—we were the consumers of these things, the dispassionate observers of this gifting practice. It’s a concept that is difficult to describe, but easy to experience. People freely choose to spend gobs of hard-earned money, hoarded during the other fifty-one weeks of the year, to acquire enough goods that they can freely give them away during this one week of decommodification.
So yes, Burning Man itself is decommodified, but it’s not as if money isn’t part of the equation. A ticket to Burning Man costs $390, and a vehicle pass is $80. Transportation adds up, supplies are a few hundred bucks. Burning Man is an exercise in decommodification—all of the goods exchanged were originally purchased with cash. There’s only one thing you can purchase in Black Rock City: ice, for five dollars a bag. But no one really complains about that, since we can all go for an ice cold Soy Milk at naptime.
It’s naïve to think that a city of 70,000 people can pop up for seven days, with no money to fund it. Burning Man is a carefully curated experience, designed to facilitate a week without the transfer of funds. It might seem silly, but really, it’s a wonderful idea. You never carry your wallet. You know that you have everything you need, right here…all you have to do is be a good person, and the Playa will provide. While the founders of Venmo are likely in attendance, their widely popular banking app is nowhere to be found.
The greatest misnomer about decommodification is that nothing costs money. As economists are fond of saying, there is no such thing as a free lunch…and just because you end up not paying for lunch at Burning Man doesn’t mean that someone didn’t shell out hard-earned cash for your privilege. So while you may not pay for that lunch in currency, you will sure as hell learn to pay for it in gratitude.
Decommodification is only possible at a scale this large because of the intense organizational capabilities of 20th-century America. Burning Man is hardly free, but for a week you’ll learn that some things are more important than the exchange of cash—just be grateful for the opportunity to experience it.