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Photo by JULIE JAMMOT/AFP via Getty Images

Why do people hate Burning Man so much?

Heavy rainfall has left thousands of people stranded at the Nevada event but, as with Fyre Festival, sympathy is in short supply – James Greig explores why

Thousands of attendees at Burning Man have found themselves trapped in the Nevada desert, after an unusually heavy bout of rainfall on Friday night (September 1) forced officials to close the roads leading in and out of the festival, and turned the site into a muddy wasteland.

With no clear indication of when the roads will be opened, attendees have been advised to conserve food and water. There is a small, temporary airport on the site, but it too has been closed due to the weather conditions. Some people have made a successful bid for freedom by trekking to the main road and hitch-hiking (including DJ and producer Diplo and actor Chris Rock, who were picked up by a random fan). While some larger vehicles have been able to drive through the mud, many others have got stuck, making it harder for anyone else to leave. Amid all this chaos, one person is reported to have died, which obviously isn’t funny – but, as with Fyre Festival (and, to a lesser extent, the Titan submersible), the internet’s reaction has largely been one of mocking schadenfreude.

A rumour – started as a joke by True Anon podcast host Brace Belden – took hold that there had been an Ebola outbreak at the festival, that attendees were being quarantined by mysterious government agents in hazmat suits, and that Diplo was personally present at the source of infection. Despite this being intentionally ridiculous, many people seemed happy to believe it, or even disappointed to discover that it wasn’t true. People on social took to gleeful speculation about the festival descending into Lord of the Flies-style savagery and its attendees resorting to cannibalism.

Part of this is a response to the festival’s crowd, which now seems to be dominated by tech bros and millionaires. When lawyer Neal Katyal – who had previously defended companies such as Nestlé and Cargill on charges of child slavery – posted a picture of himself there, wearing a garish outfit and a gold chain, the consensus response was: of course, this is the kind of person who goes to Burning Man. But how did a festival that started out as a symbol of the counterculture – more readily associated with outsiders and radicals – come to inspire such hate, and to be seen as synonymous with capitalism’s most depraved excesses?

When Burning Man first started in the 1980s, it was a ramshackle affair centred around the summer solstice, consisting of little more than a group of friends gathering around a bonfire and burning a modest, 8ft-tall effigy, cobbled together from scraps of wood. As it blossomed into a popular event throughout the 90s, almost entirely through word-of-mouth, it still clung tightly to its mantras of “radical inclusion”, “radical self-expression” and “decommodification”. There were no brands involved, no commercial vendors and, unlike most festivals, no organised line-up of paid performers (which is still true today).

Over time however, Burning Man increasingly came to be associated with Silicon Valley, which makes sense: many early tech founders, including Bill Gates and Steve Jobs emerged from the free-wheeling spirit of the 1960s California counterculture, before being seduced by the neoliberal dark side. The connection between Big Tech and New Ageism has been around since the very beginnings of the internet, so it’s not a surprise that there’s a crossover between these two camps. But the stronger this association became, the more that Burning Man began to shed its anarchic spirit and egalitarian ethos until it began to resemble a corporate retreat. The billionaires and celebrities, including Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, brought with them new social divisions on the site, their luxury RVs creating de facto gated communities. According to Jacobin, one billionaire threw an invitation-only, $16,500-per-head party at the festival – which doesn’t sound much like “radical inclusion”.

Stanford professor Fred Turner – who has researched the links between the festival and Silicon Valley – said in an interview that “Burning Man is to the contemporary tech world what the Protestant church was to industrial manufacturers”. According to Turner, when tech employees build sophisticated camps and tech-centred artworks at the festival, “they describe the process as being something like product development: intense, high stakes, deadline-driven, and hard.” Sounds fun! This is not just creativity for creativity’s sake, however, but a way of building professional connections that can be utilised upon returning back to Silicon Valley. In other words, the demands of the workplace have seeped into an event that had originally characterised itself as opposed to such concerns.

As with Fyre Festival, then, there is the sense on the internet that a group of annoying rich people is finally getting their comeuppance. If the wealthy elites are ruining our lives, then it seems only fair that fate should ruin their holiday, and if some blameless hippies get caught in the crossfire, that’s apparently acceptable collateral damage. This response may be mean-spirited, but not difficult to understand. After a few days of relatively mild inconvenience, the Silicon Valley elites will no longer be trapped in the mud, no longer fighting over dwindling resources – thanks in part to their efforts, the rest of us won’t be quite as lucky.

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