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Burning Man Journal
All the News That's Fit to Burn — Summer 2002

An Economy of Gifts
— an interview with Larry Harvey

Darryl Van Rhey: You have described Burning Man as a gift economy, but isn't this an oxymoron? Gifts are things we give away, but doesn't being economical mean that we retain what is valuable? Isn't there always a balance sheet? In any economy, don't we always get something for what we give?

Larry Harvey: In some way, I suppose we do. I do think you are absolutely right to say that gifts are things we give away without an expectation of return. If we do expect something back in exchange, even if it's counting on an expression of gratitude, we ruin the gift. I think we've all experienced this: gifts that come with a hidden cost. Isn't it galling when someone gives you something and then continually reminds you of it?

DVR: You mean like parents who tell kids about the sacrifices they have made?

LH: Precisely. They want credit for selflessness. You begin to wish they'd just present you with a bill. It's as if the gift buys them a claim on your soul. It's not fair dealing. I'll go even further than this. A true gift never really belongs to the person who gives it. Think about a perfect gift you've given. When you thought of giving it to someone didn't you first feel that's her or that's him? Didn't it feel as if it was already part of the person you were giving it to, that it was just passing through you? Likewise, think about your own gifts, your talents. Any creative person knows that they don't really own their gifts. We say that these kinds of gifts are God-given, inherent in what we are. We really didn't do anything to deserve them. There isn't any deal involved. The true value of gifts is unconditional. They just flow out of us.

DVR: Okay. I suppose that gifts are their own reward. But doesn't that get back to what I said? If gifts don't involve deals, how can they be part of an economy?

LH: They can be part of an economy because they transmit value. Gift-giving networks just work very differently from market systems.

DVR: Can you describe this difference?

LH: In the market economy we're used to, any exchange always represents some sort of equivalence of value. For instance, let's say I sell you my hat.

DVR: Is it for sale?

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LH: No, but let's assume it is. You get the hat, I get the money, and then, at some point, I'll invest that money or spend it on something else. This is how capitalism works. Value travels through the abstract medium of money. You'll consume the hat, maybe wear it ‘til it's all worn out, then throw it away.

DVR: Or I could resell it.

LH: Yes, you could. That is the nature of a market. It's rather impersonal. In any case, I am free to spend or invest the money you've given me, and that money speeds onward to produce other goods and services. This is a wonderfully efficient system with some very convenient outcomes. It is as if our expenditures give us command over the riches of the world. The rubber of Brazil, the copper of the Ukraine, the labor of China: all of these things can be summoned up, then used to make goods that are delivered to your doorstep as if borne on a magic carpet. All that is required of you in this process is a sum of money. I don't think there's a better way to produce and distribute goods and services on a large scale.

DVR: So Burning Man isn't against capitalism or commerce?

LH: Heavens, no. Without commerce there would be no civilization. We'd all be eating grubs and boiling water with heated stones. Buying a ticket to our event is an act of commerce! There's never been a better way of transmitting material value. But then, you see, this process is also the source of a problem.

DVR: What do you mean?

LH: Well, when you buy my hat and I take your money, what is left to connect us? Our business is over. Each of us got what we wanted. The market is very good at transmitting value in the form of material wealth or capital. And it's good for serving individual desire. But it's not a good conductor of what's called social capital.

DVR: What is social capital?

LH: Social capital represents the sum of personal connection that holds society together. Value passes from thing to thing, from hand to hand in the marketplace. But value in a gift economy passes from heart to heart, from soul to soul. Gift-giving networks are excellent conductors of social capital. Gifts, quite literally, are bearers of being.

DVR: Well that's certainly a lofty sentiment. But just how practical is this gift economy you're hinting at?

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LH: It's very practical. Let's start at the beginning. At Burning Man we encourage radical self-expression. We tell people to regard themselves as a gift, to commune with their own reality, that essential inner portion of experience that makes them feel real. Then we ask them to project this vision out onto the world in the form a gift that can be shared with other people. Since we never dictate the content of self-expression, this ethos has led participants to bestow an incredible array of gifts on Black Rock City — bizarre, delightful, but often very practical gifts, as well. It nourishes an abundance of art, of course, and people make millions of spontaneous contributions to our city's social life. But we also organize a public service sector: the Black Rock Rangers, for instance, or the people at Media Mecca, the Artery, Playa Info, the Lamplighters, even our ice concession and coffee house — all these folks who work for institutions at our civic center. Almost all of them are volunteers. They're giving gifts.

DVR: Is this what you mean by gift-giving networks?

LH: Partially, yes. But I think the best illustration of what I mean is a less formal type of gift that's called a theme camp. People naturally form groups at Burning Man, if only for the sake of their survival. One person brings food, another shelter: they make communal arrangements. But many citizens have not stopped there. Beginning several years ago, participants began turning their camps into interactive environments. These are collaborative acts of radical self-expression. As with everything at Burning Man, we never dictate content. They tell us what they'll do. We do, however, tell them that if they want to be featured on our city map they must conform to two simple guidelines.

DVR: What sort of guidelines?

LH: Very simple ones that never interfere with creativity. We ask that any theme camp have an open and a public aspect: that it welcome in the stranger. We also ask that it create some sort of interactive scenario, generate role-playing or provide an activity, something people can do together.

DVR: Are you saying that a theme camp is a gift that creates social capital?

LH: Enormous amounts. All this interaction knits society together. Burning Man has grown because we've never closed our circle. We're radically inclusive. This is why we ask theme camps to orient themselves outward and invite people in. A theme camp is a public gift that is available to everyone. But this is only the beginning. We've also found that when people join together in this way — not just to share among themselves, but to create a greater gift — it generates a kind of social convection current. Think of the gift at the center as a kind of chimney. The taller the chimney, the hotter and more passionate the fire, the more resources it will attract, as if it were drawing in oxygen. This happens quite spontaneously. When people fully collaborate, someone always knows someone else –- some person who is part of an extended network of acquaintance who possesses some vital resource. No one else may know them. They're not part of the original communal circle. But, because they're willing to contribute in a heartfelt way, to give to a gift, they're welcomed in. This process has the power to create widely ramifying networks that connect people who might otherwise appear to have little in common.

DVR: Except for the sale of coffee and ice, buying and selling isn't allowed in Black Rock City. But I notice there's tendency to barter. How do you feel about that?

LH: I'm very glad you asked me that question. Barter is a market transaction. It's somewhat more connective than using money. You have to haggle, of course, and you're more likely to meet the producer of a good. But it's essentially commerce, and I think it mars our event. People are accustomed to living amid a marketplace, and, in many cases, I think barter may be the closest approximation they can make to gift giving. It's commerce sneaking in through our back door. In some instances, I think it's sort of ugly and disturbing.

DVR: Ugly? Disturbing?

LH: Against a background of gift giving. Take the example of barter bars. These have become fairly commonplace. The premise is you barter something for a drink, and this could be a form of interaction. Maybe you could barter for a song, a poem, the sharing of a secret. This sounds like a mere playing at commerce, a parody of the market system. But I have heard too many stories about commodification. People actually demanding goods. “Wadda ya got?” they'll say, then paw through someone's cache of goods in search of something rare and valuable. They must think we're Mardi Gras. I've even heard of bartenders demanding that people humiliate themselves in exchange for a drink! That sounds like Studio 54. It isn't playful, and it's not a gift. A gift comes from the heart, and, more than anything, it's not about exchange.

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I remember the first so-called barter bar, the prototype created years ago that all these other bars pretend to imitate, and it wasn't about barter at all. This was the Tiki Bar founded by Stuart Mangrum. He and his friends built a bar, equipped it with blenders, stocked it with juice and soda, and supplied everyone with complimentary Tiki mugs. I think I still have one. The patrons would bring liquor, leaving some behind for others to share. It was not about exchange. It was communal. It was about giving. It felt good.

People need to understand what gifts really mean in our community. They need to shift their focus away from objects as commodities. Some of the gifts people bring to the desert — dime store trinkets or other goods that they buy in quantity — aren't always the most appropriate items. Too many get left behind as trash. That's because people don't really care about them. A gift is a considered thing that is imbued with spirit. It should somehow speak of intimate intention even as it conveys a respect for the person you are giving it to. I won't presume to dictate what a particular gift should be, but perhaps it would be more appropriate in some instances to simply do someone a kindness or contribute to the life of our city, instead of passing out so many tangible souvenirs.

DVR: I can see this bothers you. Are you prepared to ban barter?

LH: Not really. We've banned commerce in the form of monetary transactions because we want to furnish people with a large-scale model of the kind of society that gift giving can create. But I don't think we want to be any more controlling. There will be no barter police. I would hope, however, that when people see others engaging in barter — especially their friends — that they would talk to them about it. Gift giving is not an ideology or a dogma, really. It's an ethos, a lived reality. Maybe they could give that person a real gift and then not ask for thanks or anything in return. I think we should address the best in human nature. I believe people will learn.

DVR: What part does the Burning Man itself play in gift giving?

LH: The Burning Man has always been a gift. I recall when we first burned it near the tide line at the beach. People were spontaneously drawn to it. They formed a semi-circle, and most of those people were strangers. I was holding my young son in my arms, and I remember their faces reflecting the firelight. It's funny, isn't it, how the kindness and enthusiasm of strangers can feel like a gift? It's because it's unconditional. Last year, while I was studying the plans of our city, I realized for the first time that we've recreated that original semi-circle. Our city reaches toward the Man, as if it would capture him, but can never quite possess this gift at its center. The value of a gift is in its passage. That is why we burn him.

Darryl Van Rhey is a freelance writer residing in Bolinas, California.
Larry Harvey is the founder and director of Burning Man.