Is the Oregon Country Fair Radical?

 

By Joseph Orosco

A few weeks ago, Anarres Project co-founder Tony Vogt and I were interviewed by a reporter for a local alternative newsweekly.  Toward the end of our conversation, she asked us if there was something about Oregon, or Corvallis in particular, that is hospitable to a project such as Anarres–one that seeks to provide a forum for many different conversations about how to envision a different future free of domination, exploitation, war, and empire.  We had to admit that this was a very good question.

Oregon seems to be a place that inspires utopian aspirations.  Since the founding of the Aurora Colony in 1856, there have been over 300 utopian communities planned here, perhaps the highest number of any state in the nation.  As James Kopp explains in his study of utopianism in Oregon, Eden Within Eden, many of these communities came here not by accident, but precisely because Oregon seemed to be a place that possessed qualities many took to be associated with Eden.

We told the reporter we thought there is definitely a culture of imaginative envisioning in this state that makes the work of the Anarres Project right at home. We used the idea of annual festivals such as the Oregon Country Fair and Faerieworlds as examples.  These are more than just music gatherings, or places to engage in cosplay, but spaces that try to create, even just briefly, alternative and cooperative living experiments not easily found in other kinds of fairs.  These festivals surely are extensions, or remenants, of older counter culture from the 1960s, and they do tend to focus on play and pleasure as central to the experience of being there.

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Someone might wonder whether countercultural gatherings like these have any political dimension or connection to social justice at all.  There is certainly opportunity for groups and individuals to network and to participate in political discussion/education at OCF’s Community Village.  In 2014, for instance, members of the Weather Underground, Bill Ayres and Bernadine Dorn, attended and talked about their experiences to many different generations of activists.

A more poignant criticism might argue that counter cultural gatherings are all well and good, but they are not politically effective because they are not movement building.  They allow people of like mind to come together for a little while, but they don’t organize, that is, they don’t reach out to people beyond the choir of attendees.  At best, they allow activists to express their alternative lifestyles, but they don’t help to share those experiences of fun, solidarity, and cooperation with other communities (or at worst, they start to become “gated community” festivals that are beyond the reach of most people, as some have long said of Burning Man).

This is part of Andrew Cornell’s criticism of punk counter culture and his call for the need to focus on organizing.  Joel Olson also talked in this vein when he criticized anarchist autonomous zone and infoshops as inadequate to the task of building a real movement for radical social change .  For Cornell, and especially for Olson, too many people have come to focus their activist energy on creating and maintaining the counter cultural spaces in hopes that they might inspire others to imagine and build their own alternative experiments.  But such spaces don’t just pop up organically, Cornell and Olson maintain; they require cultivation, discussion, bridge bulding, planning, and work.  In other words, they require organizing for social movement–some form of gathering groups and individuals together around certain ideas and making them enthusiastic about devoting their time and resources toward these alternatives over a long haul.  As Olson put it:

 

“The strategy of building autonomous zones or engaging in direct action with small affinity groups that are divorced from social movements assumes that radicals can start the revolution. But revolutionaries don’t make revolutions. Millions of ordinary and oppressed people do. Anarchist theory and practice today provides little sense of how these people are going to be part of the process, other than to create their own “free spaces” or to spontaneously join the festivals of upheaval. Ironically, then, the infoshops and insurrection approaches lead many anarchists to take an elitist approach to politics, one in which anarchists “show the way” for the people to follow, never realizing that throughout history, revolutionaries (including anarchists) have always been trying to catch up to the people, not the other way around.”

 

Of course, maybe this is criticism is not giving counter culture enough credit.  Herbert Marcuse argued that part of radical work in the affluent society had to be about keeping alternative forms of expressing happiness and pleasure alive in the face of an increasingly repressive world.  He did not mean “repressive” in some Puritanical way, as in the manner of shaming people for the enjoyment of certain pleasures.  He meant repression in the way in which our society, in fact, loudly touts pleasure as a goal for life, but carefully controls, manipulates, and limits the ways it can be experienced.  These paths to enjoyment usually also satisfy the profit motive that underlies the power of economic elites.  For Marcuse, we tend to suffer from a repressed imagination of what human happiness might be beyond prepackaged consumer goods.  What we need, then, is to help along those heretical spaces and keep alive their ideals of a life of play, freedom from misery, and cooperation that are not found in the rat race of dominant society with its emphasis on success, debt, and obedience.

Maybe we need the Oregon Country Fair, Faerieworlds, and maybe even Burning Man, precisely because they are not, or at least, try not to be, like the rest of our existence.

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(Source:  Photo via Faerieworlds.com)

2 Comments

  1. Joseph Orosco

    This comment was sent to me and the author wanted to stay anonymous:

    “Burningman – Privileged, mostly caucasian community that operates on a “gift economy” in order to rebel against currency… except it costs hundreds of dollars to buy the ticket.

    Oregon Country Fair – Privileged elite class of bureaucratic elders that coordinate “volunteers” under the concept that they are working for their entry to the event. However, free entry into the gates does not include camping. Elite class stays inside the fairgrounds, while volunteers and other patrons pay individual landowners to camp on their property. Individual land owners lack the cooperation to operate as one entity and instead operate as individual LLCs that oversell their capacity and deny entry to patrons who have purchased non-refundable tickets with additional charges from corporate ticket outlets. Popular campgrounds charge a “toll” for patrons of other campgrounds to enter theirs. This has been my personal experience.

    I don’t know that I would ever use either one of those as an example of a “utopian” society. Country Fair exploits it’s volunteers and I would venture to say it’s far more focused on consumerism than “play and pleasure” as the central experience of being there.

    It’s also kind of ironic to me that the sort of privileged people who can afford to go to Burningman and offer something to their peers feel like they are making some meaningful contribution to society by participating in a gift economy for a few days instead of donating that time and money to some philanthropic endeavor.”

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  2. laurie childers

    Having participated in both the Oregon Country Fair (since 1981) and Burning Man (since 2013), I can say that both provide the opportunity for an alternative experience – alternative to the package deal of everyday society. What one gets out of either experience is in relation to how much one gives to it. Volunteers are not exploited, not systemically anyway, because one’s labor is a labor of love, freely given, although I am aware there occur little fifedoms (crews) in which power is not always used wisely, and feelings get hurt, and “it’s not fair.” One can’t escape from all human negativity in either place, but in my experience respect and kindness go a long way and the monetary economy is not what makes the world go ’round in these short-term utopian experiments. The key is that they are short-term: they get rebuilt each year, hopefully better, hopefully responding to changes of the times and incorporating new ideas and applying more creativity. Both aim to get us unstuck in the limitations we grew up with. All participants can contribute to the collective joy and creativity; even day visitors to the OCF come in costumes that delight the eye, make us laugh, provoke us to wonder. Long-term volunteers deepen relationships with each other over time and the yearly renewal feeds and sustains our creativity for the rest of the year, spilling over beyond the borders of those temporary communities. The OCF donates year-round to cultural and educational and other community needs. BM is inspiring to artists and liberating for most. I say, let people have the vacations they want without imposing your limitations upon them. It would be better to compare Black Rock City to a vacation in Hawai’i than to a donation to a needy cause. What we learn from participating is what matters. It is always easy to criticize but I challenge the previous commenter to create something better: better than society and better than either the OCF or BM.

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