The luxury music-art festival known as Fyre Festival self-destructed last weekend, with the world watching. Victim of its own ambition and lack of planning, the disaster has titillated and delighted the world, which has interpreted it as a sort of comeuppance for the one percent.
Fyre Festival has been described as many things: as surprise, as disaster, as “Lord of the Flies dystopia meets social media hysteria” (as Vanity Fair put it).
However, there ought to have been nothing surprising or unusual about Fyre Festival (besides the fact that it seemed poised to make Blink-182 cool again). Fyre Festival was a most predictable culmination of contemporary capitalism: a suavely presented pitch that promised everything and provided nothing.
Indeed, it’s the perfect expression of contemporary capitalism. The organizers felt they would strike out on their own, do something new, with merely a load of cash and a vision. They substituted the contemporary values of swaggering confidence, social capital, wealthy friends and big talk for the traditional values of experience, ability, and wisdom. For a brief instant before its self-destruction, Fyre Festival generated social media buzz and followers, attracted by the novelty of something that might turn out to be the promise of the next big thing (sort of like a live-action Google Buzz). What’s more, with merely a few big names and some sleek advertising, they convinced hundreds to follow them.
It’s worthwhile exploring the stupidity of those who attended because it says something important about those with money and status in today’s world. Attendees clearly did little research, or if they did, they didn’t care that the event had no history, that the organizers had no experience, or that there didn’t seem to be any infrastructure to back up the superficial claims of the advertisers. They bought on, confident that money and confidence could make the improbable happen. The difficult material reality of building a luxury festival site from scratch? Insignificant next to the immaterial combination of vision and credit.
The attendees trusted in the combination of vision, big names and big money to produce a worthwhile experience that matched their expectations. They are the epitome of today’s policy-makers: easily sold by a glitzy vision backed by capital, even when there’s no wisdom or experience behind the vision, and even when that vision seems to directly contradict the wisdom of experience. More eager to be seen doing something new than to be trusted to hold the tried and true course, Fyre Festival capitalists leap onto bandwagons just in case it (and they) turned out to be the Next Big Thing.
But by doing so, they draw capital away from the things in society that are real and substantive and meaningful. How many schools could have been funded by the money wasted in a Fyre Festival that didn’t even happen? In its own way, Fyre Festival is an argument for higher taxes. Amid crumbling schools and hospitals that are afraid to ask for a cent more in public funding, Fyre Festival capitalists are so desperate for things to spend their loose change on that they shower it on half-baked ideas without any serious thought about the follow-through.
Fyre Festival underscores what happens when society centralizes the unrestrained right of the rich and wealthy to accumulate their wealth and be as foolish as they want with it. Fyre Festival capitalists operate in sound bites and social media ads, not evidence-based decision-making. Fyre Festival capitalists are Ronald Reagan, iconoclastically declaring that “Government is the problem!” They are Margaret “there-is-no-such-thing-as-society” Thatcher. They are Donald Trump, defiantly proclaiming “We will build a wall!”
“Let’s just do it and be legends, man!”
Fyre Festival is more than just a beachfront wasteland in the Bahamas. It’s the wasteland of contemporary capitalism, strewn with the abandoned commitments and broken promises of bankers and the wealthy. It’s privatized public services, Charter schools, subprime mortgages, income-contingent student loans and public / private partnerships: all of them the glitzy produce of money and big names, all of them promising the world (better / bigger / more enjoyable than ever before!) and all of them failing to meet the expectations and needs of those who buy into them.
Fyre Festival is not an exceptional case. It is the natural byproduct of a society that fails to temper show with substance; vision with materialism.
Fyre Festival organizers thought they could snap their fingers and build a village from scratch. Instead, they created a disaster. Elite policymakers throughout America make the same arrogant blunders every day, and their mistakes can be seen in a drive through most inner cities.
Fyre Festival capitalism exposes not just the stark divide between rich and poor (in a society where luxury music festivals can actually be a viable idea), it also exposes the starkly different impacts of inequality on these two groups. Who are the victims of Fyre Festival capitalism? The truly wealthy—the one percent—who attended the festival were able to jet away, or seek refuge in their own always ready nearby cabanas and laugh off the experience. The somewhat-less-wealthy were rescued by the struggling public services of a developing Caribbean nation, who rushed in when they learned of the disaster to try and help mitigate some of the harm.
When Fyre Festival capitalism descends on inner-city suburbs, or rural counties, it produces the same outcomes. The wealthy laugh and shrug off their failed experiment, the upper-middle-class are rescued by the establishment at some minor inconvenience to themselves, but the poor are left to clean up the mess. Whether that mess is the half-constructed wasteland of the Fyre Festival site, left to be cleaned up by the Bahaman government, or the ruined schools of the urban inner-city, Fyre Festival capitalism leaves its most vicious footprint on the backs of the poor, while it is the wealthy who scream and demand media’s acknowledgement of their suffering.
Fyre Festival capitalism produces the million-dollar consultant who bemoans a slight tax hike and speaks to the media about his lack of freedom and his suffering; while the spectator on the street remains homeless because tax brackets are inadequate to fund public housing. Yet it is the oppressed million-dollar white consultant who will command the media’s attention, not the homeless black man dying on the street.
Fyre Festival caught the world’s attention, mostly thanks to the gleeful mirth of a population that earnestly desires to see the suffering of the rich and powerful. It should be taken as a warning by the rich and powerful whenever the desire for justice is replaced by the desire for vengeance— and the public that watched the Fyre Festival fiasco was a vengeful public, delighted by the spectacle of powerful and rich people suffering. As a public, we were a narrow step away from that other public that watched and cheered as the rich and powerful were marched to the French guillotine in 1793, and many times since then. In the social media storm that weekend, we saw the glint of the guillotine and felt its deadly breath on our cheeks. And we loved it.
If Billy McFarland, Ja Rule and their class are upset, it’s because Fyre Festival exposed the stupidity and cupidity of their class in a way that left them feeling unexpectedly exposed. It revealed a stark naked truth that they—and even we—had all thought well layered in comfortable and concealing clothes. Someone had the audacity to tell the emperor he had nothing on. And they did it on social media, with the whole world watching, no less.
Fyre Festival caught the world’s attention, but it should have surprised no one. It’s the natural fulfillment of contemporary capitalism: an inevitable disaster spurred on by sleek showmanship, swaggering confidence, carefree capital, and the epic words “Let’s just do it and be legends, man.”
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