Commerce and Community, 2013

Distilling Philosophy from a Cup of Coffee

By Larry Harvey

Sometimes the exception to a rule can deepen understanding of a principle. For example, some critics of Burning Man insist that by allowing coffee sales in our city’s Center Camp Café we violate a tenet of our non-commercial ideology. They say that this is evidence of deep naiveté or demonstrates hypocrisy. My reply is that we’ve never espoused a non-commercial ideology. To be against commerce is to oppose the very existence of civilized life. Even hunter-gatherers engage in trade in order to survive.

When most people say that any thing or act is too commercial or has been commercialized, very few of them mean to say that the practice of commerce is necessarily bad. Instead, they are expressing the feeling that something essential — something that should never be bought and sold — has been commodified. This is why we have always been careful to use the words commodify and decommodify.

Our annual event in the desert is meant to provide an example of what can happen in a community when social interactions cease to be mediated by a marketplace. Until quite recently, all societies have provided many different kinds of rites and rituals – set apart from daily life – that rehearse and reaffirm certain core spiritual experiences that are held to possess an unconditional value.

For example, in the culture created by Burning Man, the value of a gift, when rightly given and received, is unconditional. Nothing of equivalent value can be expected in return; this interaction shouldn’t be commodified. Likewise, love – the love of a parent for a child – should never be commodified. This, too, is an unconditional value, hedged round by a kind of sanctity, and can never be measured in dollars and cents.

Everyone, I think, intuitively knows these things, but we live in a consumer society in which nearly every kind of value is relentlessly commodified. In conducting the experiment in temporary community that is Burning Man, we have tried to create a special arena in which the realm of commerce ceases to intrude and interfere with vital forms of human contact: contact with one’s inner resources, contact with one’s fellows, contact with the larger civic world around us, and, finally contact with the world of nature that we cannot buy and can’t control.

But this, of course, leads back to the original question about coffee. Why mar this ideal picture by inserting commerce in the very heart of Black Rock City? It also brings us to a much more fundamental question. As Burning Man’s culture begins to move out into the world at large, how can it sustain itself? Is it enough to simply attend regional gatherings that exist apart from that world, as does Black Rock City, or is it possible to radically reinsert the core values of our culture into what is called the default world? What is the relationship between commerce and community?

Fortunately, someone has already thought long and hard about a crucial aspect of this question, and before I tackle our practical rationale for selling coffee, I’d like to share with you the insights of Zay Thompson, the Burning Man Project’s regional contact in Kansas. What he says was originally published on our Regional Contact list and shared with fellow organizers. This text has been edited and shortened, but it contains some very important ideas. His thoughts concern the hopes and fears we must confront as our community faces the future. The reader should consider what he says quite carefully, and be forewarned: this really is philosophy and well worth reading twice.

“On my community’s Yahoo group, we’ve been talking about the intersection of commerce and community. What is the nature of the relationship between the two? As one person pointed out, it is natural to view people as a resource, as a means to an end, when operating in a system of commerce. I think it’s okay to take this view as long as you can step out of the commercial context and realize that there are other dimensions to people, other values, and other ways of interacting. Commerce is okay if we simultaneously view the world in the context of other values that affect our attitude towards commerce.


Let me use a personal example to illustrate my point. When my family plays our annual Thanksgiving soccer game I view the family members on the opposing team as opponents to be defeated. In that context, my classification of them is natural and appropriate. That view is the true nature of our temporary relationship in the context of the game. They are people with the capacity to physically compete with me. Yet, I should always be ready to view my family members in other contexts. If my Dad stumbles and falls, I don’t run over him in my rush to score on his team. My love for him and the value of human life causes me to suspend the game, help him up, and check to see if he’s alright. Likewise, I don’t continue to view my family as mere competition after the game is over. Thus far, I think we’re on the same page with community conditioning competition and vice versa.


This brings me to the issue of the relationship between community and commerce. We are all concerned about not selling out the culture of Burning Man. I believe that selling-out implies a certain relationship between End Value systems that is like the potential for conflict between competitive play and love of family. For instance, it would be inappropriate if my father used our family ties and relationship to persuade me to pass him the ball in the soccer game so he can score against my team. I would be betraying the values of the game for my family value. If my father used my family values to achieve game value, he would be betraying family values for game values.


This muddling of values becomes inappropriate and futile because value ceases to be authentic outside of its context. When one value becomes merely a means to the other, both value systems are corrupted. Family love is not created by agreements to help each other win soccer games. Likewise, winning in soccer games does not entail making so many personal relationships that everyone passes you the ball. Value in a soccer game is achieved by physical and mental skills in competition. If I help my dad score because he’s my dad, he doesn’t win as defined by the rules of soccer. In other words, both value systems are corrupted when one is allowed to subsume or exploit the other.


So, how about when we use business models to run our [regional] events? Isn’t business the means to community in this relationship? Couldn’t this relationship be considered corrupt? I don’t think so. I disagree with the idea that when people buy a ticket to Burning Man they buy immediate experience, or community, or even art. Business provides the Burning Man Project with the means to amass goods, hire services and pay its workers. The Project uses this business model to create a social and logistical framework (land surveying, infrastructure construction, information dissemination, porta potties, permits and fees, a sensible city design — an entire year’s worth of planning by its staff). The Project annually sells this effort and these resources to ticket purchasers as a commodity.


But… people buy this framework in which they can create immediate experiences for themselves! The framework does not create immediate experience, although it helps support it. After the purchase occurs, the framework is transformed by usinto a communal value, namely a city. Even if everyone bought a ticket and just came out to the desert without participating, the event framework would still be there, but it wouldn’t be a city. We create the communal value through our participation. The same goes for the practice of gifting. To get down to it, material things don’t have the meaning ‘commodity’ or the meaning ‘gift’ until humans instill these meanings in them. A thing’s meaning changes depending on the context in which we choose to place it.


So what is the proper relationship between commerce and community? I think that real value of both commerce and community can be simultaneously created from the same event. I think this creation can happen without one value system being used merely as a means to sustain the other. This ideal is possible because commerce and community have peripheral effects that can be translated into value for each other. Think of all the stuff we end up buying to bring out to Black Rock City! All that stuff is purchased for use at the event and then transformed by our relationship to one another.


To return to the soccer game example, playing soccer is fun and strengthens our family ties. But we only have fun if we play by the rules and authentically compete. A peripheral effect of the game’s value system is used to support family value. Likewise, if I want to play soccer, I have to find enough people willing to form teams and compete without killing each other. Our family love and size assures me that I can achieve this. If we start hating each other, then folks will stomp off and the teams will fall apart, meaning the end of the game. In other word, a peripheral effect of our family value system is used to support game value.


And this is not a corrupt or artificial relationship! Producing a competitive soccer game is not the goal of family. Producing family love is not the goal of soccer. Yet, each value system benefits indirectly and peripherally from the other. Neither value system’s end goals are sacrificed, and thus both benefit from each other without corruption. My view is that the relationship must create value in terms of both commerce and community. If there is a communal investment, it must be for communal value. If there is a commercial investment, it must be for commercial value. If there is an investment of both, it must be for value in terms of both.


So, I think one of the major goals in bringing our culture to the default world should be to show society how to simultaneously value commerce and community and not corrupt the two. Let community and commerce do their thing freely and naturally within their own contexts. When they exist in an organic rather than a corrupt or artificial relationship, they’ll naturally benefit each other.”

Using Zay’s analysis allows me to address the coffee question, but I must begin with a little history. Our original motive for creating a café was to attract people to the civic plaza at the center of our city. Although I am aware that some old-timers say that they avoid this public space, I am equally struck by how many first-time participants seem to flock to it. They often write glowing accounts of their experience there, and this seems only natural. Many years ago, when I first arrived San Francisco, my girlfriend and I haunted such public places. It made us feel that we belonged to our new home and eased our entrance into a world full of strangers.

I also remember one memorable trip to Oaxaca in Mexico, and how we loved visiting public gathering places, called zocallos. Lounging in the shade of the Portales that frequently surround such squares, we would consume our coffees as we watched the world and all its business saunter by. Consuming food or beverages with others can be bonding, and we managed to make friends. This really wasn’t about consumption; it was a mode of communion. It helped us to fit into the exotic world surrounding us. Eventually, I came to feel that every great city should provide these kinds of spaces where communal and civic life blend.

Such, then, is the nature of the Center Camp Café. As I often tell people, over the years we’ve tried to create alternative attractants — something other than a cup of coffee – that might lure folks into this enormous public plaza in the heart of our city. We experimented with large-scale stages, for example, only to discover they induced passivity. People simply stared at the provided entertainment; they failed to interact. The longer that they loitered as an audience, the greater the number of beer bottles they’d drop to the ground. This is why we settled on our current formula. We furnish only coffee and a few other beverages. A cup of coffee’s a sufficient prop, a convenient foil, a means to gain a sense of social poise, and really doesn’t interfere that much with self-reliance in the desert. I suppose, to put this in Zay’s language, the “end value” in this scheme of things is a communal one.

And yet, even this explanation inevitably provokes a second question: Why not simply give this coffee away? Why not make it a gift? The answer is that we originally did exactly that – but, as our city’s population grew, this soon became impractical. In Zay’s terms, we were now confronting a different value system. Constructing a giant coffee house that is larger than the Roman Coliseum, trucking the entire apparatus of that coffee house, complete with espresso machines, to a remote desert, and serving thousands of cups of coffee during eight days and nights is very costly.

Indeed, the “end value” from this particular point of view means that we must balance costs against expenditures. Our café is not exactly Starbucks – we actually want people to linger, loiter and interact, not just consume a product and depart. And yet, we also need to run the Center Camp Café as an effective enterprise. To do otherwise, to give out coffee to our many friends because of personal relationships, for example, would corrupt the process that produces the café. It would be bad business, and our efforts to create a social environment would fail.

Another alternative, of course, would be to raise ticket prices in order to subsidize coffee distribution. Then no one would be troubled by the sight of money changing hands. Undoubtedly, this would help to sustain the illusion that Black Rock City is a moneyless utopia. It would satisfy those critics who advance a kind of puritanical dogma that despises commerce. Yet, I’m glad we’ve never resorted to this. It’s true, when looking at a line of people waiting to buy coffee, it can appear that the only end value involved is the flash of cash which takes place at the counter – especially in Black Rock City, where other forms of vending have been banned. And yet, to follow these consumers as they seat themselves and talk to others or walk about and interact with art, is to enter into what Zay might call a “peripheral” zone where the consumption of coffee has begun to generate identity and culture. In fact, I really don’t mind this provocative contrast, especially if it prompts us to begin to think about much greater issues.

Every year, thousands of people return from the desert and ask themselves how they might take what they have learned from Burning Man and integrate it into daily life. Increasingly, they are surrounded by communities of other Burners — people, like themselves, who are accustomed to cooperating and collaborating with one another, not merely competing. These are folks who know that there are certain values that depend on one’s immediate experience – essential spiritual values – that should never be commodified. However, the most important questions to consider are not those that are most frequently asked: will the Burning Man ethos be absorbed and commodified, exploited by the so-called mainstream; will the identity that we’ve achieved together be perverted into just another branding device? The answer to these questions is a simple and emphatic no! The Project and our regional contacts diligently work to prevent this. You’ll not soon see Burning Man Gear™ featured at a store near you.

Instead, I think the question we must contemplate is whether our community can learn to apply its unique culture to the world while using worldly tools. How can we do this without muddling our value systems and corrupting both? The choice of how we might achieve this is entirely ours to make. We ought to welcome (and very carefully scrutinize) such experiments. And, by the way, should you visit Black Rock City’s Center Camp Café, please feel free to enjoy a cup of coffee. It might be instilled with more than just caffeine.