Thanks to some truly unfortunate economic events and the internet, we're more aware of the limits of capitalism than ever before. And interest abounds in alternatives to our current economic system as people dream of a better way to economic happiness.
In countries like the UK, FTSE 100 bosses earn 120 times more than the average employee, while the average wage for British workers, when adjusted for inflation, fell by more than 5 per cent between 2007 and 2015.
People, who are notably Not Stupid, are paying attention to all this, and it’s not a huge surprise the stridently socialist economic agenda of politicians like Jeremy Corbyn are being seen as bracing alternatives.
Meanwhile, alternative economies are being discussed seriously by the Finest Minds Of Our Time in Silicon Valley.
It’s no coincidence that vocal murmurings are emerging from San Francisco, advocating that California breaks itself into pieces. One of them, coincidentally, grants Silicon Valley independence from the rest of the newly-formed states. Decide for yourself what the meaning of “alternative” is in this concept.
So while the UK wrestles over - amongst other things - whether to embrace or reject an alternative post-Brexit economy, MONTAG takes a look at whether there are true alternatives to our economic model - and if Capitalism is That Guy who always ruins the party. (Spoiler: pretty much).
Intentional communities take a sidestep away from capitalism. They also appear to work. In the US, Intentional Communities (a name chosen to distance itself from “Commune”, which is a little too close to “Communism” for a lot of people’s liking) are well-established and there are many of them - about a thousand scattered all over the country.
Twin Oaks Community seem to be onto something - the point of their Intentional Society is to “have fun”: a concept we can all get on board with. And all it takes is for members to make tofu or hammocks for 40 hours a week, share the land, tools and facilities that are used to create them, and then turn over all your earnings to the community. See? Totally not communism.
Snark aside, it seems to work. The community’s “Planners” determine the larger will of the community to decide where money gets spent, and everyone is happy with it. Members have free access to everything, including food, lodging, an outdoor sauna, a woodworking workshop, and free yoga classes.
Downsides? Dating is hard, especially after a few breakups - “sometimes the pool is exhausted,” one frustrated Lothario laments in this VICE documentary.
Intentional Communities are not really opting out of Capitalism: the money they earn comes from the outside world. But the way the community pools and uses it is a kind of Capitalism Filter: separating the good from the bad.
Except... the whims of Capitalism looms large over the nice people of Twin Oaks: if (or when) Whole Foods, one of their main purchasers of tofu, decides to pay less, Twin Oaks will have to roll with it, just like any other supplier.
It’s hard to not root for the plucky Twin Oaks Community - and they seem to be an example of how an alternative economy system can just about survive in the Late-Stage Capitalist frenzy.
But what happens when an altruistic, visionary and thoughtful Intentional Community gets huge, charges $500 a ticket and becomes the coolest holiday destination in the world?
The poster-child for alternative economies, Burning Man festival, has come a long way from its roots of a desert campsite filled with like-minded post-hippies, a party filled with big dollops of kindness and sharing, and a big old bonfire at the end of it all.
Today, it's reasonably similar, except that now about 70,000 attendees descend on Black Rock Desert in Nevada every year to party, and the concept of an alternative economy has mutated into a hot ’n’ hedonistic, ‘Gram-worthy lifestyle-vacation for the Silicon Valley set.
Burning Man’s Johnny-Come-Latelys are often eye-wateringly wealthy. Last year, model Suki Waterhouse posted some luxe photos of herself in one of Burning Man’s more luxurious tent towns: here she is being hand-fed oysters prepared by a top chef.
Wait - aren't these people the enemy? Can you be an alternative economy when the people taking part are from the extremities of the other economy?
Burning Man operates on some radical principles around community and participation. The first three principles are:
• “Radical Inclusion” - anyone can be part of Burning Man;
• “Gifting” instead of payment - and the act of giving does not require anything in return;
• “Decommodification” - which means no “commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising”.
Goodbye cash and #brands, hello social paradise.
But when a radical dream gets big, things change fast. Today, Burning Man has an airport for the ultra-rich which welcomes up to 800 flights a day.
In 2018, Burning Man is a fascinating example of an alternative economy colliding with hot, heavy, capitalist cash. There are still plenty of old-school Burners who truly live the Radical credo, of course, and it's technically possible that Paris Hilton adopted a new-found interest in decommodification as she helicoptered into the desert, but it is also possible that the presence of alternative-economy-tourists detract from the old-school vision.
While visitors to the festival might not be allowed to carry bricks of foldin’ money, the outside world has created a super-deluxe cashflow around them. Dressing to impress is an inherent part of the Burning Man experience and is an extension of your own persona.
But for the moneyed newcomers who are too busy to buy the requisite clothing (or, maybe, too busy working to have a unique persona) there are stylists who - quite rightly - take full advantage of them. It costs only $10,000 for clients to be dressed to look like a Burner “should” - albeit with that unmistakable sheen that only a bulging wallet can bring.
Burning Man itself is non-profit, but turns over a ton of money. In 2014, Burning Man earned about $30.6 million from ticket sales and an additional $200,000 from selling those two living-in-the-desert essentials: ice and coffee.
However you look at it, Burning Man’s principles are being challenged, and it’s hard to tell if that squeaking you can hear are the pips being squeezed, or the indignation of old-school Burners, aghast at the commodification of it all.
Yummy Homemade Popsicles
Where colossal commerce collides with collective community, squabbles abound. There are accusations that the wealthy camp-builders are happy to enjoy the partying bit, but less happy to uphold the gifting, decommodifying, ultra-equality part.
Fascinatingly, it was Burning Man Project board member Jim Tananbaum, and his camp, Caravancicle, who found himself at the centre of one of Burning Man’s most famous economic pickles.
Much of the squabbling over Caravanicle feels both petty and fundamental at the same time: was making entrance to the camp a wristband-only affair merely to ensure that guests are “gifted” food and drink, or is it an overt act of exclusion? Is doing something - like building the camp - in exchange for a wristband just bartering - AKA forbidden commerciality?
Jim was hurt by accusations that his camp had abandoned the principles that made Burning Man what it was, and responded online: “On Friday night, [we] used up all of our booze to gift a huge party for anyone who visited our camp. We regularly gifted very yummy homemade popsicles and herbal tea but were not able to set up the gift stand in front of the camp as originally envisioned”
His pain is palpable: “Referring to Caravancicle campers or members of any other camp as “the rich people” is creating a class system within Burning Man, which I don’t believe is beneficial to the community.”
Some Burners were less convinced. One commenter said that [sic], “the very first night I had a bartender willing to share a very delicious cocktail, so impressed I brought people from my camp the next night and was turned away (on tuesday) stating booze now for “guests” only. Everyone I know had similar experiences from that point on.”
Is Burning Man's newly swollen size and scope the point where "gifting" breaks? It’s not hard to imagine how normal schmucks, slurping on desert-warm tins of beer in a dusty campsite are attracted to the fancy boutique camp with “free” cocktails, Souk-themed yoga spaces, and supermodels milling around taking selfies.
And think about poor old Jim for a moment: if you’d sunk an unfathomable amount of cash into making your swanky week-long party for you and your rich buddies a reality, wouldn't you start telling cheeky freeloaders to go and scavange yummy popsicles off someone else?
Big is dutiful
So is Burning Man experiencing what happens to most people or things that get too big and too fashionable for their own good? Are we condemned to have any nice, well-meaning alternative society ravaged by the dirty dollar?
As always, the answer is “Yes, with an ‘if’”; or “no, with a ‘but.’”
It’s hard not to conclude that alternative economics are also based on another economic theory: one of scale. Twin Oaks seems to work because it’s not big enough to rattle the cage of Big Economics, instead nimble enough to scuttle round the edges, and nibble bits off it. But Burning Man is now so big that those famed founding principles seem to be scraping against an economic ceiling.
And the future? Well, Twin Oaks is still staffed by happy people selling tofu, and Burning Man has just bought a near-4000-acre piece of land next to Black Rock desert, where they may or may not be building a year-round Burning Man Intentional Community.
But unlike our cheery buddies in Twin Oaks, they will have hundreds of millions of dollars in cash flow, celebrity guests, and a scattering of Silicon Valley's richest supporters. One assumes that the Ten Principles will move into the new home with them.