Silicon Valley’s libertarian capitalism and Burning Man

I’m a fan of Fred Turner’s work – especially his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture that charts the shift from hippy-like communalism to libertarian cyberculture by Stewart Brand and a few other Californian countercultural torch-bearers associated with the Whole Earth enterprise.

In the book Turner outlines the ways in which the rhetorics of a kind of collectivised, networked utopian society became a rationale for a non-hierarchical way of living using internet technologies and a basis for offering strategic business advice about how these new technologies would ‘disrupt’ the status quo of contemporary life (and thus are a business opportunity). The book is, of course, more nuanced than that and it is well-worth a read!

In a separate journal article, around the same time, Turner charts out how a similar logic underlies the Burning Man festival and how this resonates with the core beliefs of those at the top of Google. Peer production and re-finding the social value of your labour using the kinds of communal working models that came out of the counter/cyber- culture nexus emerges as a key value at Burning Man, as people make and share and gain notoriety & kudos accordingly. But the article sort of paints too-rosy a picture of the benevolence and horizontalism of Burning Man.

For, we can also see how the ethos of peer production and forms of free labour has been something that Google has exploited from day one (they don’t make ‘content’, they index it and sell adverts alongside it back to us, who make it). And as the Valley millionaires increasingly use Burning Man as the highlight of their social calendar, and do not sully their own hands in ‘contributing’ to the festival but employ others to do so, we can see how that exploitation spreads…

In a recent article in Jacobin Keith Spencer compellingly articulates how this exploitation of forms of communalism is the basis for the creation of a wealthy elite constructing themselves as the benevolent harbingers of a different kind of society.

Burning Man 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.

Its worth reading all of the above, but definitely read Spencer’s piece in Jacobin.

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