Decommodification

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The Pictogram representing Decommodification (Thanks to James Wickham

Decommodification is one of the original 10 Principles of Burning Man. The Ten Principles were originally written by Larry Harvey in 2004 as a guide to the organisation of Burning Man, and later adopted as a model of thinking and behaviour for participants to follow at the event, and in their lives generally.

Definition

"In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience."

This principle seeks to strengthen two other principles - 'Gifting' and 'Participation'. It is also clearly a negatory principle, stating what will not happen, and the things that will be done to prevent those things (protection and resistance). As with some other principles (cf Gifting) there is an ambiguity in the text. Where it says "...unmediated by commercial sponsorship, transactions, or advertising." does it mean:

  1. 1 ..commercial sponsorhip / commercial transactions / commercial advertising... Or
  2. 2 ..commercial sponsorhip / transactions / advertising.

The significance is in that 1.1 would allow for (a) non-commercial sponsorhip, (b) non-commercial transactions, and (c) non-commercial advertising (including political advertising), whereas 1.2 would allow for non-commercial sponsorship, but neither allow for transactions of any kind nor allow for advertising of any kind (including public interest or political advertising.

As a Burning 'Principle' and its relation to other Burning Principles

It is important to understand that all principles apply equally and concurrently. The principles were designed to all work, and to all work together. No principle can be used to justify an act of commission or omission that violates any other principle. Principles do not 'conflict' with each other or 'contradict' each other because no principle is intended to be considered or applied in isolation from all the remaining principles. No principle takes away from any other principle, there is an additive effect.

Neither the Principles or the Burning Man community have ever provided any sure guidance about what how to find the balance between different principles, or in their application and conflict with 'norms of society. A useful (but not universally useful) tool in such circumstances is to apply the party-goers 'general ethical guidance', "Don't be the dick." In the language of the Principles this would be known as an injunction against 'Radical Self Entitlement'.

Interactions between this principle and real world circumstances in the context of Burns

This is - generally - the principle most likely to be violated by the Burn itself. The Burn that advertises itself, that sells tickets, than engages with contractors and has budgets of up to millions of dollars is scarcely able to claim that it is entirely untouched by commerce. Theme Camps raise funds not just by selling their service to people who join the camp (which might be called a 'fair' exchange), but also by marketing and selling their 'brand' - in cases where you pay a premium for an object that has the Camps image or identity emblazoned on it.

However, Burner 'Caveat' makes the observation that decommodification is something that might be regarded as a relative, rather than absolute goal. Decommodification as a 'negatory principle' describes how we might gain by moving away from something, putting some distance between it and us, and gaining some perspective on it and insight into it. Caveat suggests that commodification will (most likely) always exist, but let's make it something we use for convenience, rather than something that defines us. We might then summarise the goals of decommodification as follows:

  • Become aware of the pervasive influence of commodification on ourselves, on our thinking, on our interactions with others, and on the operation of our society
  • Balance that influence with an appreciation of other valuable things in life - happiness, harmony, creativity, friendship. etc.
  • Create and utilise our own means of growing, building and repairing the necessities of life in tune with our own - realistic - definition of what a 'good life' is.

Burning Man itself used to have a 'recommended businesses' listing and some Burns still have 'classifieds' pages in facebook which are used by and targeted at Burners. There is a case to be made that a further goal of Decommodification could include bringing commodification 'under control' rather than eliminating it. The goal here would be to expose and oppose the toxic aspects of much of existing commodification, and to instead actively promote 'virtuous commodification'. Essentially promoting ethical networks and businesses that offer good products at fair prices, that treat their employees and their customers and their supply chain providers and retailers fairly, and take a virtuous role in society generally. A good example of this is the 'Fair Trade' standard in the global agricultural business, and in Stuart Brand's 'Whole Earth Catalog' from the 1970's. However, the trend towards ethical or virtuous business practices is already falling prey to toxic practices, such as greenwashing (falsifying environmental benefits of a product or service). Some argue that this is why no form of commodification can be trusted, others hold that the role of education and awareness always has to be part of the approach.

Activating Decommodification

A Blaze Principle is not intended as a description of 'what is', but rather a guide to taking active steps - and not just within the Burn community. Examples of 'activating decommodification' include:

  • 'Radical Gifting'
  • 'Nudity'.
  • 'Promoting other peoples 'brands', other Camps, other Burns' When you promote your 'competitor', your competitor becomes your partner.
  • 'Removing or covering commercial logos on vehicles, trucks and structures'

This principle in wider historic and philosophical contexts

The Ten Principles of Burning Man are in class known as 'Moral Systems' All attempts at creating a universal 'Moral System' have failed, and they have at times incorporated elements that we would reject, and have been championed and fought over at the expense of lives and nations.

Danny Usery makes the point that although sets of moral principles ideally should not contain inherent contradictions, in practice they often do. He suggests that in resolving those conflicts - which is necessary in order to follow those moral principles in 'real life', a person should apply a set of theory rules (or ethical principles) which will guide you in your application of those moral principles. He acknowledges the existence of multiple examples of ethical principles (such as Utilitarian or Kantian) and further acknowledges that the a person attempting to choose amongst these various ethical principles might seek further guidance, using some criteria to do so, and some ethical principles to understand which criteria to use, and so on ad infinitum.

The Burning Man Principles and Community provide no specific guidance on what 'ethical principles' should guide a Burners (or a Burn Organizer's) view towards and application of the Ten Principles. The 'purist' might hold that Burns should not charge money, and in fact should not be organized by anyone - but in fact organized by everyone. This viewpoint finds its nearest expression in the Rainbow Gathering movement. Others would hold that the Burn is an opportunity to showcase 'ideals', but the showcase has to exist in the 'real world' and comply with the economic and legal constraints of the real world as it stands now while we work to bring the 'real world' into line with our 'showcased world'. Some will hold that 'the pure is the enemy of the good', and others will say that 'If you want to do anything, do it now, without compromise or concession, because you have only one life. Gao Xingjian

Decommodification is a powerful idea that has gained significance and attention as the modern world has embraced consumerism and globalism. The Wikipedia entry is a good starting point to further information.

Expressions and Artwork

On and off-playa installations have been created to express this principle. Perth graphic designer James Wickham created a set of pictographs in 2015 to illustrate the Ten Principles, and these have been widely praised and adopted.

See Also

Caveat's brilliant exposition on decommodification

References