You won’t often find commentary on the nonprofit sector here but we recently came across an article by Keith Spencer on Jacobin.com about the rising influence of the one percent, in particular the libertarian entrepreneur class, on the annual Burning Man event in Nevada. What does an article about Burning Man have to do with the nonprofit sector? More than you might think.
Spencer’s piece lays out a bit of the history of Burning Man and talks about its founding ethos and underlying philosophy. The event’s key value is participation; participation in the work of creating the event itself. Participation however needs to be authentic, which for Burners comes about through Radical Self-reliance and Radical Self-expression. Just to distinguish it from conventional understandings of the word “participation”, lets call it Radical Participation here. If Radical Participation is what infuses Burning Man, then gifting– the unconditional transfer of something of value, a poem, a massage, a cheese sandwich– is what brings it to life. Gifting represents in some sense the realization, the product, of Radical Participation. Spencer writes in the piece about the ways in which this ethos has been both embraced and subverted by the libertarian entrepreneur class whose attendance at the event he says has more than doubled in recent years.
We’ve never been to Burning Man, but Spencer’s critique of the event itself is not focal here. You have to read through to nearly the end of the piece to get to his larger point, what he calls the dark heart of Burning Man. For Spencer, Burning Man represents the ideal world as the libertarian entrepreneur class conceives of it; one in which “vague notions of participation replace real democracy, and the only form of taxation is self-imposed charity.” It “foreshadows a future social model that is particularly appealing to the wealthy: a libertarian oligarchy, where people of all classes and identities coexist, yet social welfare and the commons exist solely on a charitable basis.” Along with Spencer we take the alternate view that public amenities and social welfare are rights that ought to be guaranteed by membership in society rather than things to be conferred as gifts from a ruling oligarchy.
We believe that this conception of rights is correct on the face of it, but there is a deeper truth here as well. Even if these Masters of the Universe give unconditionally and without thought of an exchange for something of equal value, Spencer points out that what they give is in fact not something they truly own. Writing about the library system in his former home town of Pittsburgh which was largely the creation of Andrew Carnegie, he points out that the money which built the system “was not earned by Carnegie; [but rather something that] trickled up from his workers’ backs.” He goes on to state that “the real social cost of charitable giving is the forgotten labor that builds it and the destructive effects that flow from it.”
We think that statement “the real cost of charitable giving is the forgotten labor that builds it” sums up a lot. Yet when we hold a gala or recognition dinner, pen a hagiography, or name a building, where are those backs? Where is that sweated labor? It is forgotten. And we go on valorizing those in the entrepreneurial classes who are so adept at exploiting it and extracting it, many times from the very individuals our programs serve. We laud those who “give back” rather than denounce the taking that allows it.