Sep 2, 2015 ยท 5 minutes

Labor Day approaches, and so it is time once again for those left behind to assay whether Burning Man has finally lost its way, jumped shark, or been reduced to a caricature of its anarchic origins by the introduction of hordes of tech-workers into its faux-fur folds.

Actually, let’s leave that to the New York publications.

Instead let’s consider that other private bacchanal in the San Francisco hinterlands: Bohemian Grove.

The Bohemian Club’s annual fling in the woods was, at crucial points in 20th Century American History, the site of contacts and contracts with global repercussions. Now it may have may have fallen out of step with the times.

While growing number of heraldic tech billionaires  -- Elon Musk, Larry Page and untold others -- make the annual pilgrimage to Nevada to build and inhabit Burning Man; in the dim light of the Bohemian wood this year, only one techie was on the program: AOL founder Steve Case.

If you believe that tech leaders are amongst the new Masters of the Universe, it’s interesting to wonder if their choice of Burning Man over Bohemia renders the latter irrelevant.

It’s possible the two parties are just too different to meaningfully compare -- as different as the corporate types who are drawn to them, as SpaceX is from Lockheed Martin, or Larry Page is from Robert Oppenheimer.

Consider the similarities nonetheless.

Like Burning Man, Bohemian Grove originated in San Francisco, features ritual effigy burning, funny camp names (game: Burning Man Camp or Bohemian Grove Lodge: Isle of Aves, Uplifters, Lost Angels, Cave Man), billionaires, art, a loose code of conduct prohibiting actual business being done, expensive access and strict admittance policies. And men in skirts.

Also like Burning Man, it grew out of a destination campout for San Francisco artists and bon vivants, a way for them to get out of Dodge in summer and get weird in the wilderness. After securing some capital from new, non-artist aficionado’s, the Club was able to purchase a few thousand acres of forest which in time became the preferred summer retreat for several generations of men behind America’s biggest business concerns (tech is said to be a boys’ club, but the Bohemian Club formally is one).

In the redwoods, the Important Business of camaraderie among honchos got done, while the culture calcified around the initial forms poured by 19th century satirists and yellow journalists and actors and performers who dreamed the party up in the first place.

One of those was Ambrose Bierce, who at the time of the club’s founding was making a large part of his living derogating the rich and powerful in the San Francisco newspapers, especially the railroad barons and their networks of influence. Who knows how he might have felt to know Bohemian Grove would become the birthplace of so many public-private partnerships, from the Manhattan Project to the oil infrastructure of the Middle East, to wars and highways and factories and plants across the globe– plenty of the shady sorts of deals Bierce once traveled to Congress in Washington to thwart, with his pen, and succeeded.

Presumedly he would have liked Spy Magazine’s November 1989 infiltration piece “Masters of the Universe Go To Camp,” which starts off with Henry Kissinger on a payphone telling a woman he calls “Sunshine” about all his day’s activities:

“We had jazz concert,” Kissinger said, “We had rope trick. This morning we went bird watching.”  

Burning Man too has a foundational man of letters, in the anarchist essayist Hakim Bey. The early Burning Man organizers overwhelmingly cite his ideas of Immediatism and Temporary Autonomous Zones in the early parts of the Burning Man website timeline, as source material for the original conceptions of the party.

In 1992 Bey wrote:

The rat-bastard Capitalist scum who are telling you to “reach out and touch someone” with a telephone or “be there!” (where? alone in front of a goddam television??) – these lovecrafty suckers are trying to turn you into a scrunched-up blood-drained pathetic crippled little cog in the death-machine of the human soul..

Fight them – by meeting with friends, not to consume or produce, but to enjoy friendship – & you will have triumphed (at least for a moment) over the most pernicious conspiracy in EuroAmerican society today – the conspiracy to turn you into a living corpse galvanized by prosthesis & the terror of scarcity – to turn you into a spook haunting your own brain. This is not a petty matter! This is a question of failure or triumph!

While Burning Man culture has long cherished invention, it was also built atop an anarchic critique of technological capitalism. That sort of thing really tickles the technological capitalists.  

It’s the proselytizing nature of the Burning Man that is maybe the most important difference with Bohemian Grove. Burning Man is the New Testament to Bohemian Grove’s Old (though they wouldn’t have historically appreciated being associated with anything Jewish).

Defining his project of Immediatism, Bey wrote of a “tragic success” that could be applied to Burning Man:

Unless we keep it an absolute secret – which is probably impossible & in any case would constitute a somewhat poisonous selfishness – other people will hear of it … & among these other people, some will be agents (conscious or unconscious, it doesn’t matter) of too-Late Capitalism.

There are tens of thousands of people at Burning Man who are not tech billionaires or hatching plans to become them, so it still have a longer way to go along the progression from San Francisco art party to annual ritualized industry networking among the world-conquerors. It’s not too close to going full Bohemian Grove.

But the process may be accelerating: Nellie Bowles, reporting from Black Rock City for New York Magazine on Monday, revealed that Burning Man’s corporate board has been seeking investment partners to go in on a 4,000 acre swatch of privately-owned Nevada desert near the celebration, and is speaking with tech execs in the process.

Development of this scale would require a lot of money, and last year, the organization began giving tours of Fly Ranch to potential investors. People around the playa whispered that well-known Burners like Elon Musk, Sergey Brin, and hotelier Chip Conley were among those shown the property (though none have confirmed that they actually were). 

“None have confirmed they actually were.”

And so it begins.