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A bewitching festival in the Nevada desert

“Burners” at the 2000 festival. David McNew/Newsmakers/Getty

Marie Antoinette built a model peasant village at Versailles, where she would retire to escape court life and sometimes dress up as a milkmaid. If the 21st century has an equivalent, says Mary Harrington in UnHerd, it is Burning Man, a festival in the Nevada desert. Last week, torrential rain transformed the event into a “dystopian-looking mud-pan”, which campers were temporarily barred from leaving. But it usually goes off without a hitch – I attended many years ago and had a ball. No commerce is allowed; everything must be bartered. “There is a lot of installation art, a lot of sex, a lot of drugs and music and fancy dress.” The cumulative effect is “a bewitching, enchanted sense of openness, serendipity, and infinite possibility” – a perfect expression of the American liberal ideal.

Like that progressive dream, Burning Man “requires considerable material effort under the bonnet”. Nothing is left in the desert between festivals – on top of the $575 ticket, you must buy or rent everything you need and bring it with you. Enjoying this “gift economy” therefore requires you to have done rather well out of “the regular cut-throat capitalist one”. Just like Marie Antoinette sauntering down to her farm, Google multimillionaires “helicopter into Nevada for a week of self-expression”, before retreating to their air-conditioned condos. No wonder the public reaction to the Burning Man mudbath “held a vindictive edge”.